Expelled, a slick-looking documentary which looks to put a shiny new gloss on the Intelligent Design movement is due out this coming February. Though it went public a little while ago, the news that the Intelligent Design movement is going the Michael Moore route is starting to trickle through the science and skeptical community.
This is, of course, part of its intended marketing strategy: taglines such as “whatever happened to freedom of speech?” are so ingeniously irritating that most advocates of science will find it hard to resist as a target, adding to the buzz. A movie blog featuring its cranky star Stein is already up as well: we’ll see how open and accepting of “free speech” it is. No comments had passed through moderation as of writing, but I have a feeling that the main function of the comment function will be as a showcase of the nastiest responses and arguments, all of which will be portrayed as more evidence of “the man” trying to keep the film down.
The other, perhaps more interesting, part of selling this film will be the work of Motive, a PR and marketing firm made famous by its highly successful campaign to promote Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ via direct outreach to churches and faith-networks. Since, according to Belief.net’s summary of some early clips and showings the film is going to go straight for the “evolution = athiesm = Nazi concentration camp” school of nuanced scholarly criticism, the film seems rather openly aimed at recruiting your average churchgoing believer into what it portrays as a stark, ideological fight. Outreach and educational efforts by scientists seem positively paltry as competition.
Considering the audience and marketing, the focus of the film is savvy: almost entirely on the meta-issue of the alleged intellectual suppression of ideas, complete with folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as the boogeymen getting ready to man the gulags. Especially with the 2008 elections close by, fanning anger and resentment over alleged oppression serves the political message a lot better than obscure debates over protein formation and embryology. Scientists are stuck having to explain complicated biology and empiricism to defend and explain themselves: meanwhile ID needs only snark and a running litany of supposed slights. Intelligent Design may still be missing a theory to defend, but who needs one when you have martyrs?
Some brief digging on where the movie came from didn’t turn up much. The movie is being produced by a company called Premise Media, which as far as I can tell, was founded in 2005 and for whom this film is their one and only credited film project, though their bio also cites the production and international distribution of DVDs and books. Co-founder A. Logan Craft is a Minister & TV Producer on the board of the Canadian Center for Cultural Renewal (not to be confused with the Discovery Institutes’s Center for Renewal of Science and Culture/Center for Science and Culture), a fairly subdued and scholarly religious think-tank that seems to advocate for “Cooperation of Church and State.” Also based out of Canada is Craft’s partner (and most likely the chief financial muscle behind the project) Walt Ruloff, described as a former software developer who found himself rich and idle in the early 1990s at the age of 32 after he sold his software to Microsoft.
The production is also rather defensively described as not being a product of the Discovery Institute. Maybe so, it’s still highly likely that the film is going to become a major vehicle in an across-the-board relaunch of the Intelligent Design movement, trying to reach popular audiences in a new way and ingrain their claims into popular culture.
I also think it’s very important, in the face of this, to not take the naive view that they will be preaching to the converted. Especially by working through local communities, school groups, and churches, the filmmakers will be appealing to ordinary citizens in places that they trust and care deeply about. For all the worry about the huge numbers of Americans who reject evolutionary science, the reality is that most of these people are still pretty ambivalent in practice, and willing to give scientists and science a shot. There is a battleground here, and plenty to lose.
Update: Marine biologist Randy Olson, maker of the pro-evolution documentary “Flock of Dodos” weighs in on PZ’s blog warning folks not to take this flick lightly. I’m inclined to agree. This thing is not likely to be a blockbuster in the theaters, but it most certainly stands a chance of having a powerful cultural and political impact, especially considering who it’s going to be pitched to. If you want, think of its target audience as “school board voters.”
Update2: The Discovery Institute today announces that it’s known about the movie for two years, but was too depressed to get its hopes up. Apparently, though, it has now decided that the film is the sort of fair and balanced take on the subject of evolution=Hitler that they’ve always hoped for.
Update3: Another PZ poster notes that the film’s associate production company, Rampant Films, apparently interviewed none other than PZ Myers without telling him the thrust of the film or who was producing it (which, though that sucks, seems sadly common in the documentary industry). You can officially add Myers to the list of boogeymen, I suppose, confirming the claims in the movie’s press release.
Myers is now celebrating his star turn on the big screen, but wondering why they didn’t just ask him about the interview upfront instead of misrepresenting themselves.