Thursday, April 24, 2008

Movie Review: Ben Stein's Expelled

Crossposted at DailyKos.

Okay, I can't resist: Can anyone save Ben Stein from looking like an idiot in his new pro-creationist documentary, Expelled? Anyone? Anyone?

Yes, the actor who became famous by portraying a rather stupid teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off is back on the big screen, but this time his stupidity isn't an act. "No Intelligence Allowed" is the ironic subtitle of the movie, which begins with stock footage of the Berlin Wall. Is the reluctance of scientists to embrace a crackpot theory the equivalent of an evil totalitarian regime? According to Stein, yes. That’s only the beginning of the absurdly inappropriate analogies to be found in Expelled.

Invoking Nazi analogies is pretty much the lowest form of intellectual argument, but Stein takes it to a new low by actually visiting Nazi death camps to hammer home his mindless point. It is true that misguided notions of Darwinism were turned into false theories of eugenics used in America as well as Nazi Germany. But it’s completely irrelevant to a question of science. The Nazis also liked hiking and camping. Does that mean hiking has secret Nazi connections? Obviously, scientific truth doesn't depend on the evil of anyone who agrees with it. Just because Stalin believed in gravity, it doesn't mean gravitational theory is linked to murderous purges. (The movie’s stock footage linking Darwin to the Soviet Union is particularly ironic because Stalinists rejected and suppressed Darwinian ideas.)

The movie begins with Ben Stein giving a lecture (to a staged group of extras), declaring "freedom is the essence of America," and invoking Martin Luther King Jr. This isn’t the first time the audience must start wondering, "what does this have to do with evolution?"

Then Stein treats us to a few cases where he alleges that scientists supporting Intelligent Design have been punished. That’s not surprising, since scientists who espouse unproven, unscientific theories aren’t normally regarded as good scientists. But as the website points out, none of Stein’s cases are very persuasive. For example, Richard Sternberg, who was an unpaid Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution, claims: "I was viewed as an intellectual terrorist." In reality, Sternberg was moved as part of a routine reorganization of 20 offices. When he objected to his new office, he was given a new location. There was no punishment. Some of his colleagues were, indeed, upset that as editor of a journal he evaded the normal review procedures to have a pro-creationism paper published, but he never suffered any penalty.

Stein wonders, "Why is the scientific establishment so afraid of free speech?" Oddly, he never asks the question about colleges of the religious right, where the teaching of evolution is routinely suppressed.

As I note in my new book Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies (coming soon in paperback), more than a century after the fact of evolution became fully accepted among scientists, there are professors at American colleges today who are fired for teaching evolution to their students in biology classes, universities where teaching scientific truth is banned by the institution. In December 2000, Wheaton College anthropologist Alex Bolyanatz was dismissed because he "failed to develop the necessary basic competence in the integration of Faith and Learning, particularly in the classroom setting." Bolyanatz received positive reviews and a unanimous recommendation from the Faculty Personnel Committee, but the administration could get rid of him in a fit of theological correctness. Bolyanatz apparently was guilty of violating Wheaton’s statement of faith, which requires a belief that "God directly created Adam and Eve." The provost sat in on some of his classes and ordered Bolyanatz to treat creationism with respect.

At Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, creationism is a mandatory class, and evolution is mentioned only to attack its doctrines. At Biola University, officials call it "unacceptable" for science professors to teach that one species can evolve into another. Palm Beach Atlantic University requires all faculty and staff to believe that "man was directly created by God." and teachings in the college "shall always be consistent with these principles." Patrick Henry College demands that its science professors "teach creationism from the understanding of Scripture that God's creative work...was completed in six twenty-four hour days....Evolution, 'theistic' or otherwise, will not be treated as an acceptable theory."

Stein is silent about the suppression of evolution at religious colleges, while trumpeting far less repressive examples as the equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

Stein intones that "Intelligent Design must threaten something at the very core of the scientific establishment." It does. It threatens scientific truth, and the belief that religious ideology should not trump scientific facts.

Stein objects to lawsuits against the teaching of creationism by claiming, I thought scientific topics were settled by the evidence, not by taking them to court and suing them." But it’s Stein who is pushing for legislation in various states to impose the teaching of creationism in the false name of free speech, rather than allowing the process of scientific evidence to decide the issue.

Like Michael Moore, this documentary even offers a cartoon in the middle of it, the "Casino of Life," claiming that it is staggeringly improbable" for 251 proteins to align in the correct order. These kind of Intelligent Design arguments misunderstand the fact that, given enough chances, it’s inevitably for highly improbable things to occur.

The movie also features some prominent atheists, causing Stein to proclaim that "Darwinism does lead to atheism." That’s not necessarily true: because evolution doesn’t explain the origin of life, there’s nothing about it incompatible with belief in God. (It is, of course, incompatible with a liberal reading of the Bible.) But it’s even more troubling that Stein objects to a scientific theory because he thinks it might cause people to question their religion. What kind of scientific argument is that?

Expelled is a gold mine for anyone seeking examples of flawed argumentation. Stein seems to think that evolutionary theory must be able to explain everything in the universe, or all of the facts supporting it are wrong. As Stein told Geraldo Rivera on April 20 on Fox News, "Darwinism has never been able to prove where gravity came from." Evolution has nothing to do with the origin of all life or the existence of God or gravity, for that matter.

Near the end of Expelled, Stein talks with Richard Dawkins, and then ridicules him for suggesting that if Intelligent Design is ever proven, it might be a sign of aliens creating life on Earth. While Dawkins has been attacked for saying this, he’s absolutely right. Intelligent Design has no substantial evidence to support it, but if the evidence ever did appear, it would indicate intelligent aliens as more likely than an intelligent god. Aliens implanting humanity on Earth is, scientifically speaking, more plausible than creationism.

The filmmakers have taken heat for lying to interview subjects who support evolution by telling them they were doing a balanced documentary of a different name. A worse deception, though, is on the screen. Part of Stein’s schtick in this movie is to pretend that he wasn’t a fervent believer in creationism at the start of it, and only the overwhelming evidence he found convinced him of the evils of Darwinism. Stein is trying to be Michael Moore, but the premise of this documentary is the only thing really funny during it. The audience, if it has any education, is laughing at Stein, not with him.

1 comment:

Tony Whitson said...

John, You write "A worse deception, though, is on the screen ..."

Far worse than the deception you are pointing to there, however, is this one:

The central claim of Expelled is that the scientific/academic establishment does not tolerate belief in God, or even anyone who hints at the possibility of God. Yet there are many prominent evolutionary biologists who are also outspoken believers -- perhaps most notably Ken Miller, coauthor of the textbook at issue in Dover, PA, who also authored Finding Darwin's God. Yet Expelled keeps its audience from knowing about such people, since it's main claim is that believers are not tolerated, but severely punished, even purged (the trailer actually says viewers could lose their jobs if it's discovered that they saw this movie).
reviews this deception and provides links to an interview in which the filmmaker says Ken Miller was not included because [as evidence against the film's primary claim] he “would have confused the film unnecessarily.”

In other words, the film is a lie, and the film-makers know it.

BTW, I think you mean "literal reading," not "liberal reading" of the Bible.