Filmmaker Randy Olson visited campus Nov. 10 and 11 to screen his documentaries “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.” Following each movie, he took questions from the more than 150 audience members who showed up over two nights.
Questions ranged from technical topics such as how the films were made to more personal ones about religious beliefs. Several audience members, however, wanted to know more about Olson’s thoughts on topics related to communication, as both of his movies speak to the issue.
One questioner wondered how Olson inserts humor into his films without going too far. Among other humorous elements, his 2006 film “Flock of Dodos,” which shows the various sides of the evolution-intelligent design debate, includes silly cartoon dodo birds between segments. Olson said that the fact that he included any humor in the movie angered many scientists who think there’s no place for comedy in science.
“Science is a very sterile profession that most people just can’t connect with,” he said, explaining that by adding humanizing elements of humor and emotion “you reach a broader audience.”
Asked whether schools should teach doctoral students how to communicate with the public, Olson said yes and added that researchers are slowly realizing that need. He said there is a problem with scientists “stockpiling” information among themselves and not sharing it with wider audiences. He also pointed to Gregor Mendel, whose work on pea plants in the 1860s created the groundwork for the field of genetics. But the importance of Mendel’s discoveries weren’t known until the early 20th Century.
“We’ve seen this throughout history,” he said. “There is a price to be paid for not communicating effectively.”
Following the showing of “Sizzle,” one audience member wanted to know how Olson felt about reports that there are factual errors in Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” “Sizzle” tackles the same topic as Gore’s film but aims for a wider audience with a much different, comedic, approach. Olson explained that he believes the people complaining about the errors are trying to “take on a monolith and tackle it with this single piece of trivia.”
“It is agreed upon that there are errors in the movie,” he said. “(Critics) are trying to say ‘Let’s see if we can discredit the entire movie based on a couple of things.’”
Olson added that Gore’s film “changed the course of history and people are more aware of (global warming) as a result” but said that by adding those elements of entertainment, as “Sizzle” does, more viewers are apt to hear the message.
Olson, who has a Harvard doctorate in coral reef ecology and spent 15 years as a scientist before turning to filmmaking in 1994, said he hopes his movies can help scientists learn to make their work more accessible to general audiences. He has a book due out on the topic in March 2009 called “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.”
The UD screenings were sponsored by the College of Marine and Earth Studies, University Studies Program, University Honors Program, Students for the Environment (S4E), and Beta Beta Beta (National Biological Honor Society).
For more about Olson’s films, visit www.flockofdodos.com and www.sizzlethemovie.com.
For more about CMES, visit www.ocean.udel.edu.