Evolution for IDiots Creator Responds

7 04 2007

The blogosphere has been abuzz about the intersection between science and public communication over the past two days, my own little contribution being a discussion of the video “Evolution for IDiots” (also reviewed by Larry Moran, Bora, and PZ). Now the creator of the video has responded, and their reply to my critique is reproduced here in its entirety;

I think u r missing the point.

evolution vs creationism isnt a scientific battle, its a PR battle.

The creationist target people with no scientific education. If you say, well im not gonna dumb this down such than an idiot can understand it, you dont have to be a great strategist to realise you will never reach the target audience.

Damn straight I knew exactly what i was doing when i made this vid. I could have included the code, the genetic drift fitness and all sorts of other shit, but the target audiance wouldnt have understood a word.

Get with the programme! this is not a scientific debate among academic peers, you are not trying to win the hearts and minds of scientists, you are trying to win the hearts and minds of idiots with no scientific understanding.

let me follow on by saying that there really arnt that many photos from 1 million years ago.

Creationist make a big song and dance about ‘the only evidence that we came from primates is imaginary drawings’.

Taking these two factors into account I did the best I could.

This is not a scientific paper, its 2 mins of vid.
I could have made it explicit, but then it would not have reached the target audience.

Its like bein critical of those vids where one animal morphs into another cos evolution works over multiple generations, no one creature changing.

First, I am really trying hard to suppress the urge to comment on the grammer/spelling of these comments. Ralph Wiggum’s famous quotation “Me fail english? That’s unpossible” keeps coming to mind, and when people use AIM/text messaging shorthand, I don’t feel like much care was put into the argument. That aside, despite watching the video again and reconsidering it, I still can’t say that I think it’s a good resource by itself to educate people about evolution.

I realize that in my initial argument, I pointed out a lot of things missing from the video that, if they were included, might lead to the loss of attention for some viewers or resulting in the video being a little inaccessible to some. This reflects a common disconnect (which is putting it mildly) between those doing the science and those looking to communicate it. As Dr. Eric Gyllenhaal from Chicago’s Field Museum explains to author Stephen Asma in the book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads;

“…I have to say I’m not really impressed with having the scientists in on weekly meetings, because an inevitable part of any exhibit is that you have to trim the content down to what people will actually look at in the time that they have available to go through the entire museum. But this trimming is a very painful process for the scientists, and they tend to obstruct the process; and I say this even though I myself have a Ph.D. in geology. There are limits to what you can accomplish within a museum exhibit if you’re thinking about what you can accomplish with a normal visitor. The scientists wants to have way too much information included; it’s overkill.”

Eric started laughing and impersonating the curators. “‘You can’t leave that out, you can’t leave this out,’ or ‘This is too important an idea, you’ll be confusing people by leaving it out’-that kind of thing is endless. The scientists who consulted with us on ‘Life over Time’ for example, browbeat us with their buzzword, content. ‘You’re leaving out the content,’ they would shriek. And, of course, the content tends to be what people fill textbooks with, and textbooks these days are a thousand pages long. We like to pretend that students read these information-overload textbooks and get something out of it, but, you know, it doesn’t really happen that way. Even in college! But even though many of these curator-scientists have taught college, they haven’t caught on to this fact.”

It’s true that it can become difficult to edit down something as complex as evolutionary processes to something entirely visual and easy-to-digest, and I’m as guilty as the next person for sometimes having a hard time editing down what I think is most important to convey to the casual audience. Does this mean, however, that we should fold on science altogether and focus on positive-PR for evolution, looking to drum up belief than real understanding? I don’t think so at all. We live in a very visual, often overstimulated culture, and in designing museums, zoos, public lectures, popular articles/books, we need to be aware of these socieital norms. Be that as it may, if we end up creating some kind of scientific mythology that is inherently wrong, what good have we done?

The problem with science education is that at some point it is no longer feasible to try and get people to understand ides that require plenty of background. Conveying “the basics” is important, but at some people the individual is going to have to make the effort to educate themselves on the topic, and hopefully public institutions can inspire as much as they educate. The use of animal presentations at schools and “hands-on” exhibits are a great way to do this, but again, just because we can make science fun doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it accurate. Jonathan Wells’ horrible text Icons of Evolution comes to mind. Even though Wells is indeed wrong about scientists accepting Haeckel’s embryos or the use of the March of Progress or Horse Evolution, there are still plenty of people who identify these visual representations with what evolution is suppossed to be. While science has abandoned them, some still linger in the public mind, giving creationism a foothold. I discussed a similar issue involving the myth of saber-toothed cats becoming extinct because their canines were too long, an issue known to be erroneous by 1950 (if not earlier) but persisting in popular documentaries as scientific reality into the late 1980’s at least. Indeed, while many would-be popularizers of science (like the creator of this video) suggest that we need to follow the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”) rule, this can be disasterous and result in more misunderstanding of science than acceptance.

The creator of the video also chastizes me for pointing out that humans did not evolve from chimpanzees, saying that they merely “did the best they could.” While I appreciate their effort and intention to educate, how many of the uninformed public are going to realize the inaccuracy of the last part of the video? Disregarding actual scientific evidence in an attempt to make people believe in an idea (rather than understand it) is no better than what the creationists are doing, and I don’t think the “fight fire with fire” approach is going to end up properly serving science or the public in the end. In fact, I can deal without mention of genetic drift and a few other points of the video, but I have to be honest; it appears to put forth a vitalistic approach when viewed. The populations of 12 aren’t evolving in response to anything, they’re just evolving because that’s what they inherently do, with no further explanation of how ecology plays into the matter. Yes, the four groups are shown as being in four different environments, but this seems more like a footnote than an explanation of populations being adapted to their particular local ecology. Of course, I’m speaking as someone who has a fair (though not outstanding) familiarity with evolution on the history of evolutionary thought; what do members of “the public” that we’re all so worried about think about it or get from the video? Briefly scanning the comments, it seems more people simply say “nice” “loved it” “cute”, but what they really understood as a result, I don’t know.

Like I said before, I think the creator of the video was of good intention (in as far as wanting to help the understanding of evolution) and I know that ramping up the “content” might mean losing some people; with a little more explanation of what was happening as far as ecology and adaptation, I might not have had the same gripes. Even so, I am a bit taken aback by the response of the author, who provided no real explanation on how the video was created or anything else that might illuminate what was behind the video. No, instead I got chastized because I believe that those who wish to communicate science have a responsibility, a duty, to be accurate no matter how simplified an idea they’re trying to convey.

One of the author’s comments speaks directly to what I feel is the heart of the problem;

Get with the programme! this is not a scientific debate among academic peers, you are not trying to win the hearts and minds of scientists, you are trying to win the hearts and minds of idiots with no scientific understanding.

While I may not be “with the programme” I do realize that the video was not meant for those who already understand/accept evolution, but does that mean that the feedback from those people should be disregarded? The comment about “idiots with no scientific understanding” also speaks to a common problem; characterizing anyone who doesn’t agree with evolution as a moron or backward. How are we ever going to successfully educate people about evolution if our primary assumption is “If you didn’t already agree with this, you’re an idiot,”? I’ve had plenty of teachers who took that approach, and I can tell you that a condescending attitude does more harm than good when trying to educate others.

The main thrust of my argument is this; in order to educate the public about science, we may need to work in visual mediums and attempt to convey the “big ideas” as well as inspire those with an interest to independantly gain further understanding. That being said, we should not simplify important scientific ideas like evolution to the point where the description is no longer accurate in order to get people to simply accept or believe in an idea in an attempt to have support without true understanding. Sacrificing accuracy for accessibilty often results in long-lasting scientific myths, and while scientists may have rejected such ideas long ago, concepts like The March of Progress tend to stick around in popular (and often non-scientific) works, leaving the door open to creationists. Could it be that the current problem with creationism is as much to do with the QUALITY of scientific communications as the QUANTITY of it? I think so. No one suggested that communicating scientific ideas to the public would be quick or easy, but if there is not a respect for accuracy in such efforts then how much good is really being accomplished?



6 responses

8 04 2007

well, ok, I was a little frosty with the first reply. Sorry bout that!

However, its an interesting irony that the vid has got almost exclusively good reviews (currently >95%) other than those who treated it as peer review literature. It has also essentially stumped the creationists, even with its creationist search tags there is virtually no critisim of the vid from this sector. This is uncommon 4 such vids. Only a handful of people have interpreted this as meaning men came from chimps, as firstly this is not explicitly stated in the vid. Most take it for what it was meant to be, a metaphor for showing the difference between us and our sister species really aint that great.

The academic community is very harsh, and to a large degree does regard anyone who ‘doesnt get it’ as idiots (although normally u dont go out of your way to say so). Science is all about working things out. If you cannot master simple things like laws of motion, evolution etc, you will never discover the microscopic ion hydration underlying the hofmeister series etc. In this sense, yes, absolutely the people who would reject/dont understand evolution are idiots (although I agree, saying so is probably counterproductive). But the vast majority of the population has ZERO scientific understanding, to try to address them as scientists is a mistake.

However, as I said before, the video is not explicitly inaccurate. It does not say that man evolved from chimps. Further, if you sift though the comments on the vid. the one thing u will never find a creationist say is ‘ah, but this IMPLIES we evolved from chimps, and we didnt, it was some form of ape like creature, therefore this is technically wrong and so undermines the overall credibility of the vid.’ If I had used a drawing of such an ancestor it would read ‘lol, that the best evidence u have we came from monkeys is the imaginary drawing of an evolutionary artist!’

Most academics who have seen this simply did not interpret it as you have as implying we evolved from chimps.
I sent a copy of this to Ken Miller, and was very proud when he simply replied ‘Very nice!’. Curt and not very detailed, but I think the underlying message is there that for 2min42s, this is a fairly reasonable and watchable description of evolution that SPECIFICALLY targets creationist arguments and other people with essentially no scientific understanding.

-Do not even start to haggle over use of grama, If u undertand the msg, it has surved its purpose.

14 06 2007
Innternational Webloggers Day 2007 « Laelaps

[…] J. Judson Wynne correct a mistake I made about albino millipedes, debate with the creator of the “Evolution for Idiots” YouTube video, and engage in conversation with many other scientists, students, and interested members of the […]

2 09 2008

thanks for spreading the word of evolution. hope these dumb christians will catch on soon.

29 09 2008
Mad Bluebird

It nevere ever fails they show any kind of apes on some nature program and they say HUMANS CLOSES LIVING NEXT OF KIN or something simular THEIR SO IGNORANT THEIR OUTRIGHT PATHETIC its like that rediculous HISTORY CHANNEL prgram EVOLVE its nothing but lies

3 02 2010
Mad Bluebird

Whats even more rediculous is they can say that all the birds on earth are the decedents of dinasours and in fact that NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC back in 1999 they came up with a model of their dino-bird which was later provena fake just like with PILTDOWN MAN

3 02 2010
Mad Bluebird


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