As a college sophomore at Cornell University, I witnessed a debate between William Provine, a Cornell professor of evolutionary biology, and Philip Johnson, a U.C. Berkeley professor of law. They were there to debate the merits of the theory of evolution and the theory of intelligent design, and the two men clearly disagreed vehemently with one another. In attendance were committed evangelical Christian students (who agreed strongly with Johnson) and committed atheist students (who agreed strongly with Provine). And there were many students, like myself, who were not really sure what they thought about these issues and had simply come to listen. A wide-eyed collegian, not raised in an intellectual environment and having never heard such ideas expressed so persuasively before, I was struck by how civil the men were to each other and to the students gathered. They stayed there for three hours, debating and answering questions. Even after the formal lecture ended, each man continued in informal discussions with interested students. I came away thinking that discussion about controversial topics surrounding science can happen. I felt enlivened and eventually embraced a career in social science myself.
Fast forward to nearly 15 years later. I was sitting on the opposite side of the room now, as a faculty member, watching a prescreening of Flock of Dodos, a film that investigates the differences between scientists and religious people who are on opposite sides of the debates about teaching intelligent design in secondary school classrooms. The premise of the film is that while most scientists find the intelligent design movement unequivocally wrong, it appears that those who support intelligent design have a greater spirit of dialogue than the scientists who act instead like a “flock of dodos.” (The dodo was a bird native to the island of Mauritius that evolutionary theorists think became extinct because it was not able to fly and hence could not escape from European explorers and the animals they brought with them.) Filmmaker Randy Olson, a trained biologist, implicitly argues throughout the film that scientists too will