Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Darwin Day film harpoons scientists as well as anti-scientists

Last night, in celebration of Charles Darwin’s 198th birthday, “Darwin Day” events were held in a couple dozen cities around the county. A screening of the documentary film “Flock of Dodos” brought out an audience of 425 to the Loft Cinema in Tucson. The movie is subtitled, “The evolution-intelligent design circus” and tells principally the story of the fight over teaching science in Kansas public schools and to a lesser extent the similar battle in Dover, PA. The conclusion is that not only are the ID proponents dodos for their flimsy political argument dressed up as pretend science, but that we scientists are also dodos for being incomprehensible, arrogant, and incapable of making a simple case for teaching real science. The movie is funny but devastating to those on both sides of the political controversy.

It was exciting for me to watch it because I was there in Kansas for all of the events portrayed and know the participants well. In fact, two weeks after moving to Kansas in 1999 to become State Geologist, based at the University of Kansas, I was testifying to the Kansas State Board of Education, urging them not to adopt the creationist curriculum standards that subsequently brought such ridicule to the state. During the following five years, I was involved with Kansas Citizens for Science, a group formed in response to the creationist efforts to impose a politically driven religious philosophy in science classrooms, and was a outspoken participant in organizing the scientific boycott of the kangaroo-court trial of evolution staged by the ID’ers on behalf of the School Board in 2005.

Not coincidentally, the recently elected pro-science Board is scheduled to replace the ID drafted science standards later today and replace them with the well regarded real science standards that were derailed when the ID-controlled Board took control in 2005.

Following last night’s screening of the movie, I joined two University of Arizona professors of evolutionary biology on the stage for a panel discussion about what we had just seen. Peter Reinthal is Director of the UA Natural History Museum and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Joanna Masel, a former Rhodes Scholar, is in the same department and specializes in theoretical or mathematical biologist. The fields she works in tend to involve complex systems whose properties are not immediately obvious from their component parts. This was particularly apropos, as the ID movement is largely based on the premise that some things in nature appear to be so complex that it is impossible to explain them by natural processes. Therefore they can only be explained by the Intelligent Designer (who in most cases, turns out to the personal God of the ID organizers).

The work of Joanna and her colleagues demonstrates that the so-called “irreducible complexities” postulated by ID really can be explained by science and don’t need to rely on supernatural forces. The Intelligent Designer, who is invoked mostly to explain the unknowns in science, keeps shrinking away, as a “god of the gaps,” as science explains more and more of the natural world around us.

Joanna and Peter did a remarkable job explaining these complex concepts and kept the audience engaged until 10:30 pm when the Loft staff shooed everyone out. The audience members asked penetrating questions and demonstrated a passionate concern about the issues. This may be one of the reasons that ID creationism thus far has not been able to get a toehold in Arizona.

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