His film, "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus," is the latest on the debate over intelligent design and evolution. Interviewing Harvard scientists, intelligent design advocates and even his 82-year-old mother (a voice of reason who thinks evolution should be taught in science classes and intelligent design taught in philosophy classes), Olson lets both sides speak, and pokes holes in the arguments of both.
But the on-screen debate pales in comparison to the one that has so far taken place in the handful of audiences for the movie. More than 50 universities have asked for screenings, but so far, "Dodos" has had only five public viewings.
In Stony Brook, N.Y., a 500-seat auditorium was swamped for a Feb. 10 screening, and guards had to lock the doors and turn away an overflow crowd. In Kansas, where the first screening of Olson's film took place, the documentary was greeted with laughter and applause, but the following panel discussion between evolutionists and intelligent design proponents degenerated into chaos.
"It was very sad and ugly when it broke down to a shouting match and turned into a whole big uproar. You could see people in the audience turning their heads away saying 'Oh God, here we go again,'" Olson said in an interview with CNET News.com.
The filmmaker was born and raised in Kansas, where the State Board of Education last year decided to support the teaching of intelligent design in schools. Intelligent design holds that life is too complex to have developed through random mutations, as proponents of evolution believe.
Olson, an evolutionary ecologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has watched the controversy between religion and science brew for several years. Having left science teaching for filming, he decided to go back to Kansas and do a documentary that makes sense of the debate.
The film's title might suggest that it's an attack on intelligent design, but it is actually quite the opposite. With a large dose of humor, Olson explores the shortcomings of both sides.
"Flock of Dodos" audiences laugh at the expense of Olson's own evolutionist friends. While the evolutionists are playing poker and calling intelligent design proponents "yahoos" and "idiots," he turns the evolutionists into animated dodos, the extinct, flightless birds that were known for their lack of grace. He also shows examples of extraordinarily unintelligent design, like the fact that rabbits have to eat their own feces to absorb enough nutrients from food.
"The ID movement suffers from being based on the advocates' own intuition. It tells them that all things are designed, but they don't have a scientific way to demonstrate it," Olson said. Still, he said intelligent design advocates are far better communicators than evolutionists.
"Natural selection teaches us that when an environment changes, the species that don't change with it run the risk of extinction. The media environment in the United States has changed drastically," Olson said. Intelligent design advocates understand the rules of new media, but evolutionary scientists are "a huge flock of dodos when it comes to communications," he said.
And evolutionists agree with him. Pro-evolutionist Kansas writer Pat Hayes wrote after seeing the movie: "If scientists and supporters of reason do not begin to engage the public and learn to more effectively communicate their message, Olson makes a strong case that (the dodos) could be us."
Even though Olson himself is clearly pro-evolution, he said his heart is still in Kansas, which kept him from taking shots at intelligent design supporters. "I respect people of character who are willing to stand up and speak their mind for what they believe in, on either side of the fence," he said. "This is a fairly embarrassing film for scientists; the guys at the poker table are very arrogant and obnoxious."
Olson hopes his film will be a wake-up call for scientists to start communicating with the public in an engaging and understandable way. He's also sending out copies to film festivals, and hopes a distributor will pick it up for national distribution.
There's no question who he thinks is winning this long-running debate at the moment. "The intelligent design movement is having its way," he said, "and no one in the science world is there to stand up to it."