Latest Ben Stein interview for Expelled!: A Cohort of Creationist Canards

January 18, 2008

Ben Stein has been doing various softball promotional interviews for his new creationism film, Expelled!: the latest at CNSNews, a conservative outlet for the right-wing Media Research Center.

The interview is filled with a host of laughable claims. Among other things, Stein says that:

1) evolution doesn’t try to test itself (all the biology journals must be blank pages then!)
2) that its somehow a bad thing for evolution that there is no good definition of species (when this difficulty is exactly what we would expect from an evolutionary family tree)
3) scientists have never observed natural species being originated (wrong both naturally and artificially, no matter how you ultimately choose to define species)
5) neo-darwinism says that things only happen by “random chance” (so wrong that it makes one wonder if Stein has ever cracked a biology textbook)
5) there are no plausible ideas as to how life could have begun aside from a “New Age hypothesis” (Stein can of course hold opinions about plausibility here, where the evidence is inconclusive, but at the very least there are many different hypotheses, and none of them involving any sort of new age magic, but instead all trying to figure out what is plausible with early organic chemistry)

All of these are, of course, classic creationist arguments and myths that have been debunked so many times over that it boggles the mind. Scientists have been answering these same stupid claims over and over for decades, patiently (though increasingly testily) explaining the evidence anew each time (and taking considerable time away from actually doing science)… and Stein actually has the gall to claim that science is too scared to acknowledge or address them?

Then there’s this, from the interviewer summing up what they “learned” from the film:

Stein contends that rigid Darwinists are silencing their critics in academia, which the film explores, and discusses how ID ideas are helping in cancer research and similar work.

No examples of this ID-inspired cancer insights are given, and that is, of course, because there aren’t any (and can’t really be any, since because a creator can do anything, any particular guess as to what it did is just that: a guess, luckily right or luckily wrong, but not a direct implication of the theory itself). The interviewer even mentions ID-star Jonathan Wells’ claim that cells have “tiny turbines” in them that can break down: a claim that barely makes any intelligible sense, much less provides any new insight into cellular functions (which mainstream cell biologist was it, again, that has ever argued that cellular structures could never fail and break down?).

For someone that claims to be into free speech, someone who says he wants to have a debate, Stein seems awfully unwilling to actually confront his critics directly. He’s so far only done softball interviews with politically friendly outlets. His blog posts on the Expelled website have lapsed since October, and he yet to really respond to any substantive criticism of his claims, either on the blog or elsewhere. The blog commenting was, as I expected long ago, basically just a tool for nutpicking: i.e. attracting lots of anonymous critics and then highlighting only the most vicious and claiming that this represents more persecution, or a general lack of rigor in the arguments of critics. That’s not debate: that’s a Public Relations tactic.

And if Stein was so eager to have an open debate, why did he and his production company operate under cover of a phony movie project about a different subject? As I’ve said before, the deception involved is less outrageous for concealing the film’s motive (and thus getting people like Dawkins to agree to be a part of it) than it is for the way it neatly avoided allowing any critics a chance to respond to the actual claims that the movie planned to make (claims of persecution, that Intelligent Design is good science, that saying that cells have “tiny turbines” instead of just things similar to turbines can cure cancer, etc.), instead trolling for scare quotes about atheism.

Stein has continually avoided the central question here: the question of whether Intelligent Design claims really count as workable scientific proposals, and thus whether the scientific cold-shoulder they’ve gotten is actually deserved or not, on the evidential merits. In fact, he even as much admits (contrary to the interviewer’s take on the film) that Intelligent Design doesn’t offer any specific guidance on any practical line of inquiry, which basically gives the whole game away.

He doesn’t even really bother to deny that its essentially creationism that he’s pushing as an alternative. I’m still interested to hear what Intelligent Design advocates (many of whom have praised the film) have to say about that specifically, considering all the work many of them have done to put distance between themselves and nonsense like “no new species.”

Expelled!: The Intelligent Design Flick so Bad They Have to Pay You to See It

January 16, 2008

Reader onein6billion notes that the Intelligent Design flick Expelled! is continuing to ramp up their marketing campaign, this time with an offer to pay “Christian” schools at least 5 dollars or more per ticket if they bus students to theaters.

In speaking with Christian Schools, we’ve found that hosting a school-wide “mandatory” field trip is the best way to maximize your school’s earning potential. Send a field trip home with your middle school and high school students, have each child pay for their own ticket, then collect the stubs at the door once you get to the movie theater. With this model, you also will be able to benefit from the ticket stubs purchased by parents who choose to come as well.

The marketing gurus behind Expelled! seem to be trying to replay their success in promoting Passion of the Christ, but this particular tactic seems cheap and hokey in comparison. Their motive is pretty hard to miss (emphasis added):

Q: Do we have to go to the movie on a particular day to be a part of the fundraising program?

A: Not at all. HOWEVER, it is important for a movie to have a stellar showing at the box office on opening weekend. Therefore, we will only be able to accept stubs submitted within two (2) weeks of the movie releasing in your area.

Important why? For financial reasons, obviously (what movie wouldn’t want the good press of a big opening weekend?), but also, I suspect, because the films’ commercial success (or at least apparent success, even if they have to pay to fill the seats) is a critical talking point for their larger campaign. If the movie duds out, so will the chance to fire up anti-evolutionary activism all around the country.

But what’s really notable here is the way in which the promotional page makes no mystery of which choir this movie is preaching to. The Expelled!’s boilerplate ID rhetoric claims that it’s all about science overlooking evidence for theism, period. But the film’s producers seem to have entirely forgotten about the existence of other theistic or even creationist schools (let alone public schools) when it came time to market the picture. Jewish parochial schools aren’t mentioned in this campaign, nor are Muslim schools, despite both equally believing that the “world was designed by a creator.” It’s an especially bizarre oversight given that their star is Jewish (albeit one that all but worships Christianity as a cultural and political force).

Like much of the rest of this production, this omission seems downright clumsy. Most of the Intelligent Design proponents the movie profiles have worked hard (whether sincerely or no) to try and show that their arguments are valid and scientific, rather than simply a mask for their religious beliefs. Seemingly missing the point of all of that, Expelled! instead wears its religious motives as an unapologetic badge of pride. Expelled! likewise seems to parrot ID’s usual ecumenical rhetoric (“world was designed by a creator”) without understanding that then immediately singling out Christians alone sort of spoils the effect.

Update: Over at the Austringer, a commenter puts two and two together and notices that “mandatory” field trips coupled with “kids must pay for their own tickets” is not exactly a way to win over parents, particularly when those parents find out that the school was getting kickbacks for the shakedown.

Huckabee Admits: Constitution Not Founded On God’s Standards

January 16, 2008

Everyone’s making a big fuss out of Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s recent theocratic gaffe:

“I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution,” Huckabee told a Michigan audience on Monday. “But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that’s what we need to do — to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.”

Ed Brayton at Dispatches, however, notes the real story here: that Huckabee’s statement and its evangelical applause are a tacit admission that the Constitution isn’t a “Christian” document to begin with. If it were, why would it need changing to bring it in line?

In an age when many Christian Nation activists have been implausibly arguing that the country was founded on Christianity all along (and thus they should win all SoCaS court cases by default, or something), many people seem to have forgotten that Christian activists of nearly every other era took the opposite position: that the Constitution was Godless and needed to be fixed. If the Roy Moores of yesteryear had had their way, the preamble to the Constitution would now go something like this (per the language of a proposed amendment in 1864):

We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government…

Huckabee, thankfully, doesn’t seem to have any desire to go anywhere near that far (just banning gay couples from civil equality and making embryos legal people). I still can’t say I’m too impressed, but at least now he’s being a lot more honest and realistic than he was when he was claiming that the country was founded on the Ten Commandments.

Lou Dobbs, Angry White Man, is Angry at How Angry Everyone Is

January 16, 2008

Is there anything more ridiculous than a windy political pundit complaining about “partisan nonsense” and “predictable platitudes” out of politicians?

Who was it that chose to turn some minor sniping amongst candidates into headline news, again?  Who is it that only covers “partisan nonsense” and immediately tunes out whenever candidates try to talk about issues in any detail?  There’s a reason why politicians speak mostly in on-message soundbytes: those are the only things that anyone ever gets to hear.  There’s a reason why they are rarely very specific about policy plans: no one really wants to listen to them in the first place, and it’s only ever the downsides and criticisms that will make the news, if anything.

There’s a good argument to be made that the press is just as helpless in all of this as the politicians whose behavior they drive.  But at the very least, people who make a steady living off of trying to create drama and 24/7 outrage should probably have the sense and decency not complain about anyone else creating drama and harping on outrage, let alone “avoiding the real issues.”

And while we’re at is, how arrogant do you have to be to basically end every thought with “if candidates don’t do exactly as I think they should, then they aren’t addressing the real problem.”  It’s one thing to push for the sort of protectionist isolationism that Dobbs favors.  But have some sense of the scope of the debate: not everyone agrees that barring trade and “sealing the borders” is an acceptable or workable solution to everything, and the fact that people don’t agree isn’t the same thing as not understanding or caring about the problem.

Jonah Goldberg: Is Writing this Drivel Really What You Aspire To?

January 13, 2008

It’s hard to write, especially everyday, without it turning into just the mindless typing of trivial thoughts and prejudices. I have a pretty good excuse, of course: I don’t get paid for it.

So what’s Jonah Goldberg’s excuse for his latest Townhall column?

If Sadly No were doing one of their “shorter” summaries of it, it would go like this: “Guess what, fellow conservatives? It turns out that the opposing party’s candidates are lame, the people who vote for them are lame, and Mike Huckabee, the one guy I really don’t want to win our primary, is sort of lame too.”

Does that sound like something worth reading? Was it really something that Goldberg thought worth bothering to write?

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Scientists Remove Stem Cells from Embryos without Killing Them

January 11, 2008

I’ve still got an long essay on stem cells in the wings, but couldn’t help highlighting this story: researchers have perfected a method by which stem cells can be removed from developing embryos without inevitably preventing them from developing further.  Pragmatically, this is a hopeful step towards allowing important research to proceed without pissing off large portions of the country.  In terms of science, though, I’d say it’s another pretty dramatic demonstration of how wrong many of the “embryos are morally important people from conception” are about the reality of human reproduction, which is endlessly more complex and ambiguous than this position can account for.

This particular story continues to drive home the point that we’re looking here at a biologic process for building human beings, not the human beings themselves.   That construction process can be stalled or hindered or stopped, but the fact that the cells involved are genetically homo sapien, and that they are playing out instructions on how to build a person, just aren’t compelling reasons to view the process and a rather meager amount of the necessary raw materials as being the end result themselves, any more than a set of blueprints and a hammer are a house.

As the story notes, there is also the question of whether the removed cells would themselves be capable of growing into new people: a point I’ve raised several times in the case of the supposedly more politically-correct adult stem cells.  Reproduction is a particular cellular process, not a spark of magic.  The magic is the final set of functions this process achieves: the feeling, caring, hoping that beings with brains can experience.  A cell alone, nor even a group of them organized into an embryonic template, simply isn’t the same sort of being.

Creationist Insurgency in Florida: School Boards Want More Non-Science in Science Class

January 10, 2008

What seemed like one or two isolated schoolboards in Florida flirting with the creationism seems to have blossomed: according to Florida Citizen’s for Science reading of press reports, no less than twelve school boards have issued resolutions supporting the idea that “alternatives” to evolution need to be taught in science class, all with suspiciously similar language. As with most of these challenges, the boards don’t quite seem to get the clever coyness of appeals to intelligent design as science, clumsily mixing openly traditional creationist ideas and claims with the PR methods that ID has pro-typed and field tested. It’s not going to end well for them, I’m afraid.

I mean, I find it difficult to understand how anyone can defend the brash ignorance of some of these statements. One claims that the school needs to take “an approach that does not unfairly exclude other theories as to the creation of the universe.” Yes, that’s right: apparently biologists are now in charge of creating the universe.

These people, who would clearly flunk a quiz with the single question “What does the theory of evolution purport to explain,” are in charge of the education of children??? That’s just embarrassing, even if you completely reject evolution as sound science. It’s literally no different than a board member complaining that children “don’t speak English enough good.”

In any case, PZ Myers smells some sort of organized, bankrolled effort behind it all. The evidence is still circumstantial, but it certainly seems plausible enough. However, the common reaction may all have simply been sparked off by Florida’s proposed new statewide science standards, which would make it difficult to maintain the status quo of many schools in simply not seriously covering evolution in science class.

We’ll see if the coincidences in timing and language continue to increase.

Hand Offends Man: He Cuts It Off. Literally.

January 9, 2008

They aren’t yet sure whether the man in this story is mentally ill, but damn, what he did took real guts and devotion to his beliefs.  And a circular saw.  And a microwave.

Just one more reason why “it doesn’t matter what you (faith) believe, as long as you believe something” really isn’t the greatest advice in the world.

The Thimerosal (that’s not) in Vaccines Does Not Cause Autism. Can We Stop the Deadly Scaremongering Now?

January 8, 2008

Yet another damning study came out today: damning to those people who have risked the lives of millions of children with phony, unfounded scares about vaccines.

Jenny McCarthy’s babbling mommy-mentalism aside, the case for thimerosal or any other preservative causing autism was never strong to begin with.  But the tide of definitive evidence has come in over and over again, and it all soundly puts the link, both for causation and even correlation, well beyond the realm of the ridiculous.  Read the study.  Recognize that a chemical that isn’t even in vaccines in the first place cannot “cause” anything in the first place.

So now that that’s all taken care of, can we go back to stopping the spread of deadly diseases now?  Ok?

Lima Ohio Police Steal 400,000 dollars, then Go Execute a Mother of Six

January 7, 2008

Actual Lima website graphic!Luther Ricks Sr., age 63, was attacked in his home: his son stabbed, his family threatened with death. Mr. Ricks managed to break free, grab a gun, and save his son by shooting one of the burglars who had invaded his life and attacked his family.

Unfortunately, then the police got involved.

While they cleared him in the shooting, they found a small amount of marijuana in his home, which Ricks claimed he used for treating his ailments. Based on this, and with no further charges filed, let alone any case proven in a court of law, the police department treated itself to more than 400,000 dollars that Ricks had kept in his home safe (Ricks and his wife had never opened a bank account, worked at a steel foundry for 30 years, and lived modestly).
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Randi’s 1 Million Dollar Skeptical Challenge to End in 2 years: What Will Woo Do?

January 6, 2008

I didn’t believe it at first, but it’s true: James Randi’s famous 1 million dollar challenge now has a final deadline, after which it will be discontinued.

When I first heard about this, I was sad and a little disappointed. But on second thought, it’s really a pretty smart move. In theory, the challenge was a brilliant way to tell psychics and other woo-meisters to put up or shut up. But the reality has played out differently:

Our expectations at first were that we’d attract major personalities by this means, but they’ve avoided having to take the test by simply not applying; those who have actually applied are generally honestly self-deluded persons who have difficulty stating what they can do, which can be understood if they really don’t know what they’re experiencing; we at JREF have gone through involved procedures to help them recognize their problems. Usually, they have indicated that they don’t know what real scientific rules are, when it comes down to their actually being properly tested.

Early this year, Randi and the other folks at the JREF decided to face facts: things weren’t working as planned, and something had to be done. Mystics, astrologers, psychics, John Edward, Sylvia Browne, dowsers, and all the rest were basically just getting away with dismissive technicalities and giving implausible excuses and then dropping the subject. Originally, the plan was to change the rules to screen out mentally ill applicants and target celebrity woo-meisters more directly, something that was done last March.

This is really just a more dramatic move in that direction: think of it not as the challenge giving up, but rather as giving paranormalists a hard deadline. Randi will now be able to go on Larry King and put it pretty pointedly: the test is ending and you’d better get in gear and step up to the challenge instead of endlessly putting it off with excuses. It’s now or never: will you step up to the challenge? Or will you continue to run away and make excuses?

Once the prize expires, it will also put a nice solid period on the whole affair. For ten years, a million dollars was held out to paranormalists of all stripes. A million dollars that they could have just won and then given to charity if they had pleased. Or spend on promoting this amazing new insight into reality that had so far eluded all scientists and other natural observers. All they had to do was show their abilities under controlled conditions, where cheating and other non-supernatural forces were controlled for. And no one could do it: no one could even come close.

Or can they? Two years is a long time to prepare. If you can move things with your mind, if you can predict the future, if you can even see an aura: now is the time to prove it. All you need to do is get a local media outlet or other qualifying skeptics group to check out and report on/preliminarily witness a demonstration of your power in action. The rules are simple, sensible, and open to public scrutiny. We’re waiting… but now we won’t be waiting forever…

William Craig and other Apologists Still Can’t Get it Right on Atheist Apostate Antony Flew

January 6, 2008

William Craig, famous Christian apologist, has long maintained that the various accusations about Antony Flew’s new atheist-to-theist conversion are all bogus. In response, Richard Carrier, who corresponded with Flew throughout Flew’s conversion days, has penned another powerhouse response to critics like Craig, and it’s even more devastating than his last.

Dispute over the basic facts still seems to be going on, even months later. For instance, Intelligent Design propentist (sic) Denyse O’Leary insists that, based on her intuitive editorial prowess, that she can see that Flew did in fact write the book. “I think that there is no question that Flew wrote the material that appears under his name. And if he didn’t, he would certainly have tried to.”

Unfortunately for O’Leary, far from there being “no question” that Flew wrote the book, that he didn’t write any of it is pretty much a settled fact. Even Craig admits as much. Flew himself admits as much. And as Carrier points out, the “with Roy Varguese” on the books’ cover is especially deceptive given that Varguese is explicitly credited for the book’s preface and an appendix. This would lead readers to think that the “with” refers to these contributions and that the rest of the writing is Flew’s own first person narration. It simply isn’t. It’s, at best, what an amateur evangelical philosopher thinks Flew should be saying, signed off on by a Flew who demonstrably can’t seem to remember the names or arguments of half of the people “he” credits in the book.

Carrier also points out several sections of the book which cannot help but be flat out dishonest, in that they involve Varguese talking about Varguese in Flew’s voice, even describing events and discussions with Flew that apparently only happened to Varguese! And that’s not even getting into the issue of the other ghost author, evangelist Bob Hostetler, who is never mentioned at all as a major contributor and copy-editor.

Ironically, even as people have leapt to the defense of the project, they have inadvertently admitted to more and more damning details over time. For instance, an article in the evangelical ezine Crosswalk claims makes all the same claims that Carrier has already refuted, but in passing it seems to acknowledge that many of the seemingly first-person stories and anecdotes are not Flews.

Again, the issue here is less about what Flew does or doesn’t believe, or did and didn’t write. It’s clear that he did agree to have the book published in his name, whomever actually wrote it. It’s quite clear that he did become a deist. The issue is with what this all means. The book sets Flew up as a compelling authority, but then conceals the fact that Flew himself was unable to actually make and defend the arguments credited to him. The fact that he couldn’t even dictate the book is a serious problem in an of itself when it comes to citing “his” reasoning as being important (as just about every defender denies doing… and then does). Whatever Flew may believe now, the book appears to have invented a false history of Flew’s original conversion. Worse, there’s ample evidence that Flew may not even remember his original conversion, much less the arguments or counter-arguments involved.

Given all this, the accusations of mean-spiritedness and bitterness in criticizing the book still seem a pretty lame. Time and time again important facts are first concealed, and then admitted to with a “but so what?” excuse. And yet, if these facts are unimportant, why wasn’t anyone upfront about them to begin with?


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