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ID documentary premiers in Kansas

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The dodos have come to Kansas
Filmmaker’s documentary a sold-out premiere in his hometown

The Kansas City Star
Posted on Tue, Jan. 31, 2006

Randy Olson is no dodo. But he knows one when he films one.

And he also knows that using a stupid bird to tout his movie about the combatants in the evolution-intelligent design shout-fest would raise a ruckus.

“It’s working perfectly,” Olson, the self-described “polite Michael Moore,” said of his dodo-driven publicity campaign. “Really driving people crazy.”

Olson’s feature-length documentary “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,” will have its world premiere Thursday at the Glenwood Arts Theatre in Overland Park. It’s already sold out. He expects a lively reception.

Why a premiere here? This is Olson’s hometown (“My heart is still in Kansas … my head went to Harvard”). And much of the movie was shot here.

Those who have tickets for the screening will see an 84-minute film that traces the history of the debate between evolutionists and those who argue that life is too complex to be explained by science alone. The film gives both sides their say; eventually Olson concludes that while evolution is right, intelligent design is winning.

Olson believes in evolution. In nearly 30 years as a scientist, including a stint doing research on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, he’s seen nothing to make him doubt the basic soundness of the theory.

“This will be the first documentary on the intelligent design issue that looks at the whole picture,” he said. “I think intelligent designers could look at the way this film portrays their own happy message and not be too discouraged.”

What a relief for John Calvert, the retired Johnson County lawyer who runs the Intelligent Design Network and is a major figure in the documentary. Calvert, who has not seen the film but will be there Thursday, says he’s accustomed to being bashed by evolutionists and would be thrilled if “Flock of Dodos” allows ID supporters to clearly state their case.

“If Randy’s team participates in a fair contest and wins — well great,” Calvert said. “I guess I can retire then.”

The one-time screening will be followed by a panel discussion involving supporters of both evolution and intelligent design. The film’s renown is such that The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Nature magazine have told Olson they’ll cover the event.

Next Olson will take his film to similar screenings at Harvard (where he did his graduate work in marine biology), Yale and other universities.

“This thing has been a real journey of exploration for the last eight months,” the 50-year-old Olson said. “I had no idea that we were getting into such a huge can of worms.”

Olson attended Shawnee Mission East and did his undergraduate work at the University of Kansas. He watched with concern and amusement, he said, as the Kansas Board of Education rancorously debated and finally adopted state high schools science standards that called evolution into question. As a scientist now fully committed to filmmaking, he found the flap ripe for cinematic treatment.

Last summer he interviewed Kansans on both sides of the issue: Calvert; state board of education member Sue Gamble of Shawnee, who voted against the new standard, and her colleague from Clay Center, Kathy Martin, who voted for it; Steve Case of KU’s Center for Science Education; Jack Cashill, local political pundit and intelligent design supporter.

Meanwhile, Olson held a poker-playing reunion of his scientist buddies from his grad student days and filmed the proceedings, during which some participants sneered at the intelligent design movement. He interviewed Michael J. Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who is regarded as one of the fathers of the intelligent design movement.

Olson not only directs the film, but he’s also the central character. He keeps up a running commentary on the soundtrack, telling what he thinks of the intelligent design proponents he’s interviewing. (He likes them despite their embracing of what Olson regards as bad science.)

And frequently he enlivens the proceedings with the zany, pointless antics of a flock of animated dodo birds, who rush about madly but accomplish nothing.

The documentary’s title was a deliberate provocation to get attention.

“It suggests the film is a mean attack on intelligent design,” Olson said. “But then people go to the Web site” — www.flockofdodos.com — “and find it isn’t quite what they expect.”

In fact, Olson expects to take some heat from fellow scientists upset that he takes even a critical look at intelligent design.

“One of starting points for this project came last May when an old scientist friend heard that I was doing this film and gave me a two-hour ear bashing,” Olson recalled. “He told me who I had to interview and furthermore, that if I gave these ID people a forum for their ideas, I’d never be forgiven.

“Basically that’s been the strategy of evolutionists — boycott school board meetings, defeat intelligent design by not even commenting on it.”

But it isn’t working, Olson said.

“Talk to people in the intelligent design movement, and you’ll find that the setback in Dover (Pa.)” — a federal judge ruled against including intelligent design in the curriculum of public schools — “hasn’t bothered them that much. Their attitude is that if they can keep winning hearts and minds, eventually the institutions will come around.”

Scientists, on the other hand, have a lousy grasp of human interaction, Olson said.

“I made a video several years ago called ‘Talking Science’ about why scientists are so bad at giving talks. A very prominent physicist said to me that he went into science because he doesn’t like dealing with people. He was really annoyed when he found he was expected to stand up and talk about his research.”

Many scientists, Olson said, have removed themselves from mainstream culture.

“They’re rotten at communication because they’re so detached. Many of them don’t even have TV sets. You can sense the intellectual arrogance around the poker table in the movie.”

Olson fears that this elitism could backfire if the public becomes dismissive of science.

“It’s like the scene in the movie where one of my scientist pals is ranting about Galileo, who was forced by the church to recant his belief that Earth circles the sun. I think at rock bottom the movie is a case study in the political attack on science.”

And that’s the real problem with intelligent design, said Tom Givnish, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin and one of Olson’s film subjects. Givnish said science is under siege from political and religious quarters.

“We have an administration that is routinely distorting science and rewriting reports from scientific panels on global warming, population, a whole range of issues,” Givnish said in a phone conversation. “It’s an effort to turn science into propaganda.”

Givnish said every scientist knows that you must “toe the political line” or risk losing panel appointments or government funding.

“Many of us who work in evolutionary biology are counseled by the people at the National Science Foundation not to mention the word ‘evolution’ in our abstracts,” he said.

Olson believes science needs to go on the offensive.

“It doesn’t do any good to throw insults and accusations around. In the film I’ve tried to present a rational, understandable explanation for why some people embrace intelligent design,” he said.

“They’re not dodos. They have deep beliefs and lots of them are well educated.”

He said evolutionists need to present their case so people can understand it.

Olson would like to see a nationwide series of screenings of his film followed by debates.

“Because this isn’t a one-sided film it could be a great catalyst for discussion. Michael Moore’s films are great, but I’ve never seen a debate afterward.”

tinabrewer wrote: "Can such a question hope to be settled in the realm of science which has unfortunately devolved into the playground of mere materialism?" There's an old saying, "Don't give up just before the miracle happens." ID is a sea change; its a big idea. Big ideas are unstoppable for a reason. For example, the Copernicun universe was a big idea. It took decades. Time marches on. Art is a mirror; the movie is a mirror. Behind the ridicule blindingly, hysterical horrible fear: fear flapping and flopping and flailing away. Down deep they know they've climbed way, way out on a dead limb of Darwin's tree. The hear it cracking. They've invested their lives in a worldview in which they are the greatest of the great, elite of elite, the kings of all, the glorious spear of man's purposless ascent from the primordal ooze: gods of all knowledge; smarter, wiser, more manly.....(even the women!). ---craaaack--- huh? what was that? It's the sound of the natural prunning of the branch. They could have chosen to follow the truth where it leads, the evidence where it leads, but instead the chose the best seats at the universities and the worship of men just like themselves. ----craaaack---- "I am the Captain of a mighty armada! Bear Left I command you!" "I am the watchman in a lighthouse on solid rock. I suggest you bear right." ----craaaaack----- Red Reader
Reading a story like this makes me think that there is little hope for the ID movement. Even if after years of struggle, it becomes possible to speak of a body of 'ID science', it will still be one camp against the other. The materialist vs. the non-materialist. It seems so clear that the committment to naturalism is an act of the human spirit, not the calculation of the intellect. People do not say "Well, there must be no creator, because look at all this evidence that life evolved as a result of random mutations sculpted by the forces of natural selection" Rather, they lack the inner perceptive capacity with which to sense anything which lies beyond matter, and from this inner void, seek a viable material creation story. Conversely, those who believe in things beyond mere matter have always sensed the activity of a creative force behind the wonders of the natural world, and hence, for them, ID is really nothing so new. Behe himself admits that in terms of how deeply we can look at nature for design, the cell and its component parts are it. We are already there. If the complexity of the molecular machines is not enough to defeat the gradualism inherent in Darwinian evolution, is it likely that future discoveries of even further complexity suddenly will? I think the whole battleground of the materialist vs. the non-materialist is really not in the realm of science at all, but is really a spiritual question. Can such a question hope to be settled in the realm of science which has unfortunately devolved into the playground of mere materialism? tinabrewer

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