Sternberg Was Not Expelled By Big Science: More on Ben Stein’s Movie Misrepresentations

April 18, 2008

In honor of Expelled’s release, it’s really worth taking another long hard look at one of its key cases: the supposed destruction that rained down upon Dr. Richard Sternberg for publishing an article supporting Intelligent Design in a systematics journal. Since the crux of the film’s case (and the claims that even movie reviewers which hated the film bought into, is the idea that academics are wrongly persecuted merely for being open-minded) is that we’re living in another dogmatic Inquisition where merely questioning the scientific orthodoxy is career suicide, you’d think a little more attention would be given to seeing whether these claims really hold up to scrutiny.

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches on the Culture Wars has written a phenomenal article covering the controversy over at eSkeptic. The content covers much of what Expelled Exposed’s section on Sternberg does, but in much more detail.

The Discovery Institute makes a tepid response to the later, and you know what? It’s a good one for what it needs to do: which is simply to sound plausible at first. You read through it, and it sounds like it has some really strong points, and as long as you stop there, maybe you’ll think you’ve done your part, heard from both sides, and maybe split the difference.

Unfortunately, Ed Brayton is still around and kicking, and lays bare just how deceptive this additional defense of Sternberg’s ephemeral martyrdom is as well.


HJ Live Interviews Expelled’s Mark Mathis

April 15, 2008

Greg Wright and HollywoodJesus have been covering the film Expelled! over at SteinWatch for quite some time now. Wright has been fairly skeptical of both sides of this debate, and while I’ve spent some time disagreeing with his positions on the film, he’s nailed down enough excess, overstatement, and error from people in both camps to qualify as a must-read perspective.

For instance, Wright today has an interview with Expelled’s associate producer, Mark Mathis that manages to get significantly more detail on the film’s production than we’ve seen previously, including mention of other film titles that were under consideration along with “Expelled” earlier in the project’s production. Mathis also repeats his usual implication about the film not receiving substantive criticism:

Throughout the last weeks, maybe even months, what we have seen are allegations, charges that are made, that are not substantive, that don’t cut to the heart of the film’s arguments, that are really nothing more than insignificant distractions.

I agree that in the grand scope of things, debates over the behavior of the production are pretty insignificant (though I’m not sure that those aren’t issues still worth looking at on their own terms). But when it comes to whether critics have addressed substantive issues, I would say that it’s either Mathis that’s simply too distracted to notice that they have done so (indeed, in many cases have been doing so long before the movie was even conceived), or that he himself wants to distract others from noticing said substantial criticism.

If you missed it, Wright also interviewed PZ Myers a little ways back about his perspective on the film, his featured interview in it, and the infamous Mall of America screening that Myers was ejected from.


Expelled Exposed Goes Live With Response to Anti-Evolutionary Film

April 15, 2008

Expelled! is a movie promoting all the standard creationist canards, and Expelled Exposed is the answer to that movie. I don’t have time to review the site in detail until later today, but it looks nice, clean, and fairly comprehensive.

Link, read, and laugh at the idea that “debate” is silenced on these issues.


Expelled! Forgets to Mention: Holocaust Was Intelligently Designed & Anti-Semitic Creationists

April 13, 2008

Two things worth covering regarding the imminent Expelled!. First off, John Pieret over at Thoughts in a Haystack notes yet another reason why the film’s driveby smear of evolution as an ideology that bears genocidal fruit doesn’t add up. As Pieret points out, one of the primary complaints from creationists, especially in the film, is that evolution explains nature without reference to any teleology or external purposing or direction. This oft cited lack of purpose supposedly leads people to moral depravity (though, in reality, this critique merely confuses scientific description with moral proscription).

But this complaint is flatly incompatible with the insistence that evolution Holocaust, eugenics, and so on are all the logical end of accepting the evolutionary description of the natural world. For eugenics and Aryan racism alike are nothing if not deeply teleological. Hitler was not interested in human fitness as determined by the natural course of human technology and culture: he sought to impose his own very specific will on it. Eugenics, the same. The Holocaust was, in fact, the directed design of an “intelligent” agent: a depraved and malicious one.

And over at Stranger Fruit, John Lynch finds something even stranger: while over in Europe bemoaning the Darwin’s “necessary but not sufficient” contribution to the Holocaust, Ben Stein hobnobs with a certain Maciej Giertych, who Lynch notes is a “professor of dendrology, right-wing member of the (Catholic) League of Polish Families, member of the European Parliament, candidate for the presidency of Poland, signatory of the DI’s “Dissent from Darwinism” statement…” You might remember him from the clip in which he sagely declares that evolutionary processes are incapable of generating “new information.” But as it turns out, Giertych is also something of an old-fashioned anti-semite:

Jews are not pioneers. They do not go conquering the wild world or overpowering the hazards of nature. They settle among other civilizations, preferably among the rich. They tend to migrate from poorer to richer lands.They do so always as a group, immediately forming their own separate community.

In other words, here’s Stein, all choked up about the extermination of Jews, nodding along with a guy celebrating the same stereotypes, rhetoric, and hatreds that spiraled out of control in post WWI Germany. Here’s more about Giertych and the philosophies he champions in Poland: including the idea that Jews and Catholics cannot live together in the same civilization.

Strange bedfellows indeed.


Ben Stein Contradicts “Crossroads” Explaination for Anti-Evolutionary Film Expelled!

April 12, 2008

The producers of Expelled! have long claimed that the premise for their film, the very “Expelled” theme and concept evolved organically: their horror at academic science and their crusade against it was something they discovered in the course of making the film. This story is critical to defending themselves against accusations that they deliberately mislead nearly all of their pro-evolution interviewees: remember, they came to these scientists under a completely different production company name that had no links back to the real production company or the evangelical main producers, were calling the film Crossroads, and described it as an even-handed exploration of the “intersection between science and faith.”

Well Wes Elsberry has come across some interesting interviews with Ben Stein that stand in rather stark contrast to the “Expelled evolved out of the interviews” account of things.

Here’s the key quote:

WORLD: How did you get involved with Expelled?

STEIN: I was approached a couple of years ago by the producers, and they described to me the central issue of Expelled, which was about Darwinism and why it has such a lock on the academic establishment when the theory has so many holes. And why freedom of speech has been lost at so many colleges to the point where you can’t question even the slightest bit of Darwinism or your colleagues will spurn you, you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be publicly humiliated. As they sent me books and talked to me about these things I became more enthusiastic about participating.

Plus I was never a big fan of Darwinism because it played such a large part in the Nazis’ Final Solution to their so-called “Jewish problem” and was so clearly instrumental in their rationalizing of the Holocaust. So I was primed to want to do a project on how Darwinism relates to fascism and to outline the flaws in Darwinism generally.

Compare this to the sneering excuses the producers were publishing back in September:

The release references “Crossroads,” as a “tentative” title, if that’s OK? So just to set the record straight, the film was titled EXPELLED only after we began to see the disturbing pattern and shocking information that the footage reveals! So, thanks for the title guys, we couldn’t have done it without you! And we’re still considering using “Crossroads” for something else! Watch out.

And remember: here’s the blurb that was shown to the scientists about what Crossroads was:

Crossroads – The Intersection of Science and Religion

It’s been the central question of humanity throughout the ages: How in the world did we get here? In 1859, Charles Darwin provided the answer in his landmark book, “The Origin of Species.” In the century and a half since, biologists, geologists, physicists, astronomers, and philosophers have contributed a vast amount of research and data in support of Darwin’s idea. And yet, millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other people of faith believe in a literal interpretation that humans were crafted by the hand of God. This conflict between science and religion has unleashed passions in school board meetings, courtrooms and town halls across America and beyond.

Nothing in there about claims of persecution or lack of academic freedom. No references to Hitler or fascism. No accusation of huge holes in evolution. No mention of Intelligent Design. In fact, the wording of the blurb seems to imply (somewhat incorrectly) that Darwin provided the answer to our origins, and that there are vast amounts of research and data that support evolutionary theory.

Now imagine yourself as an employee for Premise/Rampart: say, associate producer Mark Mathis. Take as a given what Ben Stein says he was told the film was all about even years prior to existence of Rampart, the public face you will be using to line up interviews, instead of the real production company, Premise.

How on earth could you possibly innocently sit down and write out that Crossroads blurb given the pretty darn uncompromising and specific description of the movie that Stein describes, which happens to pretty much match Expelled! exactly and Crossroads, almost not at all?


Intelligent Design Film Expelled! to Face Legal Action for Copying Cell CGI Video?

April 9, 2008

I’m still not clear on the details: we’ve long known that the producers of Expelled! show some version of a video called “The Inner Life of a Cell” in their movie. You can view the version apparently used in the film at the end of this short clip (and I discuss some of the ways in which their usage of it is misleading here, regardless of the copyright issues). This video is no stranger to controversy or creationists: no less than ID’s crown prince, William Dembski, was accused of stealing it and stripping it of its narration and credits without permission for one of his lectures.

Whether the producers of Expelled! once used the original version or not and now have replaced it with a near copy, and whether that near copy is a truly new production or just a cheap reprocessing of the images, we still don’t really know (though we suspect…). But as a copyrighted production (making such videos, let alone doing the research to make them useful, ain’t cheap), the owners of the original video (Harvard and XVIVO) have always had some grounds to at least complain either way. There’s so far no evidence that the producers ever asked for permission, let alone paid to use the clip in their for-profit film.

And now it seems that Peter Irons, an attorney who has been a longtime foe of Intelligent Design efforts, has been busy drafting a complaint which seeks to excise the material from the film (which might prove to be a substantial burden for the producers at this point) based on these copyright claims.

This could get quite interesting. If this does turn into a legal battle, it would be another perfect excuse for the producers to lamely claim that “Darwinists” just don’t want people to see their “dangerous” film, or that they want the video itself hushed up (on the contrary: it’s a great vid… as long as it has its original narration and credits intact, as well as people understanding what it does and does not show). Regardless, it’s something to keep an eye on.

And in any case, messageboard-star Quidam, who had such a great single image review of Expelled! way back when, has the perfect photoshop response to this controversy too:

Update: Well, that didn’t take long. As I noted, Ben Stein has lept from one wacky conspiracy theory to another in his career as a right-wing ideologue, and conspiracy theorists seem to abound
amongst his fans as well. Here’s William Wallace, claiming, as I suggested the film’s fans might, that the legal injunction is some sort of attempt to silence the “truth.” And if that weren’t nutty enough, Mr. Wallace also suspects that the Harvard/XVIVO video was actually produced by “closest creationists,” who are only suing to protect their copyright claims because they’ve been cowed into submission by a tiny think tank on the West Coast with threats of a “Sternberging.” Which itself is bizarre. Exactly what does it mean to “Sternberg” someone? To criticize them for misconduct and unethical behavior… but not do anything to them at all?

Update Twain: I’ve altered the post title to “copying” since stealing is too definitive: as perhaps wasn’t clear in my discussion, the version in the film is almost certainly a reproduction of the original film: the question is whether they really did one from scratch, with original research (as Jonathan Wells seems to imply), or basically had a CGI studio simply whip up a near copy of it. One of the video’s original creators, David Blonsky, makes the case that only the latter makes sense: the Expelled! version isn’t just showing the same structure, but the very same shots and proteins out of thousands and thousands of possible ones to choose from, and hundreds of different ways to represent them. He also notes, yet again, that these videos are very misleading guides to “cells as artfully engineered factories” if you forget that they are leaving out what is a rather key element: the chaotic Brownian churnings that actually take place in a cell, rather than the depicted smooth mechanical that make it far easier for viewers to understand the overall progression.


Ben Stein’s Expelled! Can’t Face Critical Reviews from Scientific American And Michael Shermer

April 9, 2008

Let me just state at the outset that I’m really quite surprised at this point: as all these negative reviews roll in, defenders and promoters of this film seem amazingly scarce outside of their own protected websites and conclaves. They celebrate, instead, the few positive reviews, almost all coming from devoted creationists, and almost all simply parroting and celebrating the claims made in the film rather than analyzing them, as the critics do.

They talk a big game. Their rallying cry is supposedly for more debate and free speech (even if they badly misunderstand those principles). But I’ve seen next to nothing from either the producers nor their fans making any substantive response to these criticisms. Bragging about the existence of harsh criticism just isn’t the same thing as having a good response to it: it’s a means of quickly changing the subject. According to them, however, defenders of science are “scattering” in fear of their assault. And yet, here we are, front and center, taking all comers, with no sign that they have any serious responses to our arguments in turn.

That out of the way… Michael Shermer, one of the many hoodwinked interviewees from the film, has now written up his review of the picture.

Read the rest of this entry »


FoxNews Pans Intelligent Design Film Expelled!

April 9, 2008

Wesley R. Elsberry of the Austringer sends word that Fox News has reviewed Expelled!… and they were not impressed.

Directed by one Nathan Frankowski, “Expelled” is a sloppy, all-over-the-place, poorly made (and not just a little boring) “expose” of the scientific community. It’s not very exciting. But it does show that Stein, who’s carved out a career selling eye drops in commercials and amusing us on sitcoms, is either completely nuts or so avaricious that he’s abandoned all good sense to make a buck.

The reviewer even gets the basic larger strategy of the film of trying to troll up a national controversy:

What the producers of this film would love, love, love is a controversy. That’s because it’s being marketed by the same people who brought us “The Passion of the Christ.” They’re hoping someone will latch onto an anti-Semitism theme here, since there’s a visit to a concentration camp and the raised idea — apparently typical of the intelligent design community — that somehow the theory of evolution is so evil that it caused the Holocaust. Alas, this is such a warped premise that no one’s biting.

Let’s be fair here though, and dispense with the apparent idea that there’s something politically special about FoxNews giving a poor review to a conservative movie. Fox’s entertainment reporters, and especially Roger Friedman, are generally all over the map when it comes to liking or hating political event movies. Friedman even gave a decently positive review to Fahrenheit 9/11 and panned The Passion of the Christ.

If that didn’t hurt Friedman’s credibility enough though, it gets worse: he hates Rush, Poison, and Journey.

All this is not to say that Expelled! has never gotten rave reviews: WorldNetDaily loves the thing. But the trend, of course, is that these reviews simply parrot the claims made in the film and celebrate its conclusions: the negative reviews, in contrast, tend to be from people who are in on the scam and point out specific misrepresentations and problems with the films’ claims.


Ben Stein Continues to Face the Hard Questions on Expelled!… from Calvinist Minister

April 6, 2008

I had meant to watch and comment on this Stein interview with Calvinist minister RC Sproul at some point, but never got around to it. Ed Darrell over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub has now beaten me to it.

As Ed points out, it is simply astonishing that Sproul can sit there demanding that universities pay for and the support of Intelligent Design utterly regardless of whether it has merit or not (which is what universities normally use to judge what to fund, and a subject Stein and Sproul do not even bother to address). Does Sproul or any of his Bible colleges do the same for mainstream biology? How many evolutionary biologists have been invited to teach Sproul’s parishioners?

The video is also a pretty good example of the shallowness of Stein’s understanding of the subjects he’s purporting to know are all flawed and implausible. He simply repeats the standard canards and questions that Intelligent Design proponents told him, oblivious to the fact that they often make no sense (i.e. “where did the information come from?“).  There doesn’t seem to be any evidence, in all his many interviews, that his is capable of expanding on these talking points, let alone really grappling with critics who are actually experts in the fields being attacked.

Sproul’s discussion of “chance” is a case in point of just how shallow and confused the discussion is here. Pretty much everything he says initially he phrases as if it were a rebuttal to evolutionary theory. And yet his discussion of how “chance” per se is basically a linguistic illusion is something I’ve heard countless biologists try to explain to unwilling creationists. When scientists talk about “chance” or “randomness,” they do so in a very strictly delineated sense: most often meaning that the occurrence of two variables or occurrences things are not discernibly correlated (i.e for coin flips, the outcome of the flips is averages 50/50 over more and more trials, and these outcomes are not correlated with relevant variables like who is calling heads and who is calling tails).

No scientist is claiming that “chance” is some sort of magical power as the two seem to imply. It is simply a notable feature of various processes we look at. For instance, scientists do not claim that mutations happen by “chance” in the sense that they have no ultimate deterministic cause or explanation. What they mean is that mutations happen without any observed correlation to what they might do or cause, and whether or not this would be helpful to the survival of the creature they occur within.

Ignorant of any of this, Stein and Sproul sagely agree that scientists are arrogant and appealing to “magic.” This coming from folks whose alternative IS, literally an openly, magic (performed by an inexplicable all-powerful magician).  And bizarrely, for all this pretension at having a superior scientific position, they seem to feel no obligation to explain the specific mechanism or functioning of their alternative.


Mike Huckabee Endorses Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Film Expelled!

April 5, 2008

Mike Huckabee (R-Of Nothing) may have given up his quixotic quest to beat mathematically impossible odds against John McCain, but darn it: the man still has something to say. So take it from a guy that thinks bees fly via magic: this Expelled! film is boss!

He’s a heck of a lot more candid about his opinions on evolutionary science than he was in his famous debate answer, making it even more clear that even the Republican party dodged a bullet on this one.

Question for economists: If hot air like this is in such high demand, how come it’s still free? Infinite supply, right?


The 4th Wave of Creationism: Guerrillas for God

April 5, 2008

As Ed Brayton at Dispatches notes, we now have at least six US state legislatures that are either considering or have already passed so called “academic freedom” bills: Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama. In various forms, they all claim to protect teachers from any repercussions for teaching what they term “scientific weaknesses with evolution.” The insincerity of this sudden concern for “academic freedom” is obvious, given that the bills do not protect teachers from teaching children about, say, birth control or 9/11 conspiracy theories. Only the usual stalking horse of conservative creationists is fair game for fifth-grade science teachers.

With so many similar bills appearing in such a short time, all with such similar language and intent, it’s pretty clear that we’re seeing a new phase of in creationist efforts to attack evolution in public school science class. For those unfamiliar, the first three main phases have been Creationism proper, Scientific Creationism, and Intelligent Design, all as outlined in this Dispatches post. The phases have all overlapped to some extent (most obviously in the recycling of many of the same arguments), and advocates of prior phases all remain, though often strategically friendly to the newest effort. But this 4th phase doesn’t go under any sort of banner or title: and that, in fact, is the whole point.

Read the rest of this entry »


New Expelled! Clips Hit the Web: Scientists to Roll Eyes

April 2, 2008

I don’t have time to run through them all, but the producers have released a bunch of short clips in anticipation of the film’s release in two weeks. Evangelical groups are gearing up for war, and mailing each other like mad.

The first clip features Stein shooting the windy breeze with a laid back Berlinski and Behe, bizarrely claiming that Darwin thought cells were akin to a “mud hut,” climaxing in the CGI cell animation that many suspect is a hasty, copyright-dodging redo of the original Harvard video that creationists had been using without attribution (indeed, Demsbki, who got in trouble for using the clip without permission, stripped of its original narration and credits, is featured in this clip). No one in the clip bothers to explain, as in the original Harvard video, that the CGI concept is seriously streamlined version of what is actually an extremely messy, chaotic, and seriously difficult to truly envision environment. Or that it has been scientists working within the paradigm of evolution, not intelligent design folks, that discovered these cellular mechanisms, all without thinking that these structures break or even threaten an evolutionary understanding of biology.

Then there’s the clip mournfully bemoaning “Darwinism’s” hate on the intrinsic dignity of human beings. We’ve got Engor, Meyers, and a whole host of sour apples linking “Darwinism” to Hitler, abortion, and euthanasia, all set to minor key guitar noodlings.

I’m sort of left wondering: out of all of Hitler’s speeches, that was the best they could do in trying to link him to Darwin? “We must root out things that are bad?” Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism was ranting the same things before there was even such a thing as modern science. Heck, if you presented that statement stripped of its source, virtually every person would agree with it: it’s nearly meaningless.

Why not something more specific, like, maybe this from his seminal speech in Munich:

My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before in the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross.

Oh wait, that’s why. Because Stein his pals don’t take the implications of their own arguments seriously in the least.

I did learn something amazing from this clip though: we apparently live in a society where the “truth” doesn’t matter. And yes, this is a claim coming from promoters of creationism and intelligent design, who spend half of their time claiming that the truth is relative to your degree of belief in God, materialism, or what have you!

Anyway, I’m sure there will be plenty of comments from plenty of people about these clips all over the interwebz, so more to come.

Next Clip! The one on genetic mutation is… well, unbelievable. They have Polish creationist Maciej Giertych sagely telling Stein that a mutation that has “done something positive” has “never been observed.” About as flat-out of a lie as you can get.

And as with nearly all creationist attempts to discuss “information” in biology, its just deeply confused. Defining exactly what “information” is not a simple matter in biology, as the film seems to think. There are many conflicting definitions of information (under some, virtually every point mutation is by definition an increase in information, and “information generation” is a trivial matter, not some giant hurdle), and many levels of structure in an organism that we can look at and try to measure the information content of.

The film also fails to convey the key issue. Mutations by themselves really are just random noise: there is no objectively, universally “good” or “bad” mutation. They only ever become meaningful (for good or for ill) in context: only when they are put to the test in an actual creature, itself facing an actual, specific set of environmental demands. Natural selection is what essentially returns a ruling on whether a mutation is useful, meaningless, or harmful in that context. And when natural selection makes such a ruling, picking out some mutations non-randomly (relative to the environment), doing so is most certainly an increase in information in the very sort of important sense most people mean by “information” (which is not, by the way, the same sense that actual information theorists mean it). It is, in a very real sense, information about the demands of the environment, imprinted onto the gene pool of the species in question.

And good grief, can David Berlinski at least bother sit up when he’s making his goofy, widely debunked, computer analogy?

Update: Seed Scienceblogger Mark Chu-Carroll, who actually knows something about math, information theory, and computers, was bullied into subjecting himself to some of these clips, and gags on their vacuous dishonesty over at his blog.

Update 2: According to folks that have seen the near-final or final cut of the film, several of these clips aren’t actually in the final film.


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