Aliens Travel Many Lightyears to Earth Just To Annoy Local Couple

April 29, 2008

The phenomenon was thought truly bizarre: Pikesville, Maryland has been experiencing “deafening” booms and flashes of light every so often. They even caught it on videotape. And no, it didn’t seem to be lightning, at least not in any conventional sense. Police were baffled. Meteorologists ere baffled. So baffled that residents were even willing to appeal to aliens (though only tongue in cheek) and the supernatural.

But it turns out that the actual solution was a little more conventional and closer to home:

When they searched Mackler’s home, they found pyrotechnics, guns and drugs.

Police said that Mackler had problems with some of his neighbors, so he would wake up at 2 a.m. to set off the pyrotechnics.

As this case illustrates, “pyrotechnics, guns and drugs” is a actually pretty good default hypothesis for any weird, inexplicable event.


Finally: My Own Expelled Review Extravaganza

April 27, 2008

So, I went to see Premise Media’s Expelled. I paid my way (though matinée), sat alone in an empty theater, and took notes. And now it’s finally time to parse things for your pleasure.

Just as a framing device, I’ll pose some questions as a way to setup and organize my thoughts about various aspects of the film.

I should also clarify at the outset that I’m going to be treating figures who speak unopposed throughout the movie, people like Steven Meyer, David Berlinski, and so on, as if they speak for the film. I think, given how the film played out, this is perfectly fair. They are in some ways more the voice of the film than Stein, who basically is there to nod along and agree with them, or prompt them with leading questions. Indeed, aside from the bookend footage of Stein traveling to meet them or speaking at Pepperdine, I could just as easily imagine the film’s credits listing Berlinski, Meyer, Sternberg, and others as the opinionated hosts interviewing Ben Stein and trying to convince him of their position.

Anyhow, off we go:

Read the rest of this entry »


Report on Expelled Soon, Mark Mathis Shocks and Goons

April 24, 2008

Been quite a busy couple of days for me, but I hope to have a final report on Expelled soon. The only thing I can say at this point is that it all almost seems redundant. We’ve been over this stuff, so, so many times. Seeing the film simply was and is not a way of engaging in the larger debate in any substantive fashion.

But in the meantime, don’t miss this astoundingly telling tidbit from Real Detroit Weekly. With no jumplink right to the article, you’ll have to scroll down to the bottom of the page, but it’s well worth it. Unless the reporter is badly misrepresenting things, Mathis comes off as unbelievably ignorant about the very subjects his film is supposed to be an informed critic about, reciting boilerplate creationist canards and then crumbling away from those bold claims by insisting that it doesn’t matter.

As I’ve noted many, many times, the movie’s entire premise relies on pretty much avoiding the question of whether ID really is sound, testable science. As RDW notes “But it’s not a question of censorship—it’s a question of classification.”

And if largely dodging that absolutely unavoidable issue in the film wasn’t bad enough, RDW portrays Mathis as not really even understanding the basic idea to begin with: evolution is falsifiable? Speciation is observable? All, astonishingly, news to Mathis. Like Stein, Mathis seems to have pumped himself up with the standard quiver of creationist claims, but is utterly baffled to find that they doesn’t hold up to even a few seconds of critical analysis.


More Wisdom That Kevin D. At Dean’s World Learned From Expelled

April 22, 2008

Dean’s world blogger Kevin D, fresh from his weekend viewing of Expelled, has been busy putting what he learned from the film to good use. First there was his screed about the importance of free debate, after which, without any apparent sense of irony or self-parody, he immediately disabled commenting and response.

In his latest post, he tosses in a generous helping of the endlessly tiresome “see, I told you you’d all disagree with me, and the fact that you did just goes to show I’m right!” followed by one of the central fallacies of the film: that we could have any sort of sensible debate over whether ID is mistreated in academia… without ever seriously exploring the actual scientific merits of ID itself.

No no, says Kevin: if anyone tries to debate that issue, game over. Apparently, in order to critique the same arguments ID proponents have been making for decades, we now must all first pay 10$ to an evangelical film outfit for the privilege of listening to them repeat these very same accusations on screen. Then we may sensibly comment on the controversy and claims again, or respond to the claims made by the producers and reviewers such as Kevin.

But the best part of his latest is when he deploys one of the kookiest arguments I’ve encountered in a long time: basically, ‘how dare you try to respond to my assertions about the film’s claims without having seen the film: don’t you know how potentially unreliable I am?

And no, I’m not making that last one up:

You’ve not seen the documentary but feel compelled to tell us all how it’s wrong. Or, in Mr. Kirwin’s case, how Ben Stein is wrong about connecting Nazism to Darwinsim but not taking into consideration that perhaps I misunderstood Mr. Stein. Instead he chides Ben Stein anyway rather than doing the responsible thing, seeing the film for himself, and then writing his opinion. So, Scott Kirwin doesn’t correct something stated in the documentary he heard for himself, but goes off half-cocked based upon the very definition of hearsay. If this is the way Scott treats people he claims to like I’d hate to see how he treats people he doesn’t like. (emphasis added)

Kevin’s not always the clearest of writers (a sin I’m all too familiar with myself), but if I’m following his logic correctly, I’m pretty sure that he’s implying that it’s irresponsible to listen to what he [Kevin] has to say.

Point taken, I guess?


Expelled’s First Weekend: Was Ben Stein Hot or Not?

April 21, 2008

So Expelled has had its first big opening weekend: huge success? Crushing disappointment? I really have no way to tell, though it certainly doesn’t seem to have done what the producers were promising.

Deadline Hollywood Daily suggests that the film has underperformed so far, and despite the huge influx of recent viewers I’ve had gloating about how the film really stuck it to those dastardly evolutionists, it doesn’t look like the film opened big enough to match the major marketing mojo spent on promoting it. Nor does the free publicity of the pro-science side’s harsh response to the film seem to have amounted for much.

Still, if i had to guess, the film is likely to be a slow burner in the theaters (i.e. stick around for a while, albeit on a smaller scale) and ultimately make huge backend bank on DVD sales.

Me, despite being a pretty unabashed critic, I’m happy whether it does well or not. While less widely celebrated propaganda is probably a good thing, I think by and large more attention given to a subject like evolution balances out the bad information that gets people excited. The film also drives a pretty nice nail into the coffin of the “the ID movement has no religious agenda” argument, and the claim that evolution, in contrast, is a similarly atheist enterprise is so weakly and selectively supported by the film that its not likely to hold up in the places it would matter.

I’ll hopefully get a chance to catch it sometime this week, and I won’t feel in the least bad about handing the producers some extra money. They can have all the cash they want to make as big of a fuss as they want.

Meanwhile, Randy Olson, producer of the “wake up scientists, creationists are better at mass communication than you” film Flock of Dodos, is bemoaning the lack of similar projects on the mainstream science side. I’m not sure I disagree with any of his points, quite, but I’m just not sure I see where he thinks such efforts would come from, how they would be organized, and so on.

It’s quite true that creationists have lots of money and media strategies and PR firms and so forth on their side, whereas most scientists and science advocates have little money for PR and even less interest in the debate. But I’m just not sure what it buys creationists over scientists other than a lot of confused, ranting fans. Broader public support could certainly create a lot of headaches for biologists and educators, but when it comes down to brass tacks a whole lot of perception still isn’t going to recreate scientific reality.

Update: The second weekend’s estimated results are in. It doesn’t look like most theaters will have much to specially justify keeping Expelled in past the standard two weeks, but honestly, this is pretty much the standard trajectory for most documentaries (few of which ever open this wide to begin with). While it came nowhere close to the official hype, this certainly seems like a modest, not tanking, take for a documentary on its own terms. For the producers, it really all comes down to how much they spent on promoting and marketing the film (apparently quite a lot: national ad buys on some of the top rated cable shows?).


Transplanted Lizards Evolve New Traits in Just 36 Years?

April 21, 2008

Science Daily reports on a new study in which a species of lizards, transplanted to a new island, evolved a number of new traits in just 36 years. As is often the case with Science Daily, I’m a little skeptical of the reporting. If the transplanted lizards experienced morphological changes, how could they be genetically “identical” to the source population? And no matter how rare these “cecal valve” structures are in lizards, the fact that they are known in other lizards should at least suggest the alternative hypothesis that they are an environmental reaction rather than a genetic change (though it could also be a very simple and common mutation that only takes hold in certain environments).

In any case, rapid evolutionary change in response to a new environment is actually nothing new. Many previous studies have transplanted species into a new environment, and then observed morphological changes (the unit of measure here is charmingly called a “Darwin“) happening that are orders of magnitude faster than the fastest changes observed in the fossil record.

Findings like these are part of why the incredulity of most creationists about the power of evolutionary change is hard to square with the known realities of biology. If anything, one of the big mysteries in evolution is not how large changes can possibly happen quickly (or happen at all), but rather just the opposite: why change seems to have happened so slowly in the past compared to the potential for speedy change that we observe in the present.


Lessons that Ben Stein Taught Kevin D.

April 21, 2008

Seems like the target audience for Expelled is already picking up on the basic tactic of the film. To paraphrase one evangelical blogger:

How dare people be close-minded and not allow debate!

(…comments disabled)


Anti-Evolutionary Doc Expelled to be Turned into 8 hour TV Miniseries? Anti-Abortion Sequel?

April 18, 2008

I somehow missed this bit of news, but apparently that’s what someone was told at a recent screening.

HT to Turn the Clock Forward.


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.


Eight Year Old Requests a Divorce. Seriously. And It Only Gets Worse

April 14, 2008

I’m not now and never have been a cultural relativist. When you measure the success of a society by the degree and wide availability of human happiness and liberty, as well as the avoidance of screwupedness, some cultural, political, and ethical structures fail to measure up.

And arranged marriages, particularly those that involve promising children (almost always girls) to adults… they just aren’t a good idea. In addition to the simple tragedy of coercing and constraining your children’s future and choices, there’s also just the deeply creepy aspect of it… something which recently found its most horrible expression in Yemen recently.

Simply put, some guy, allegedly with mental problems, forced his eight-year old daughter to “marry” a 30 year old man. Yemeni law apparently allows the arranged marriage of underage girls, but restricts sex “until she is ready or mature.” This restriction, unfortunately, didn’t stop her unrepentant “husband”:

Thamer is in jail now. “Yes I was intimate with her, but I have done nothing wrong, as she is my wife and I have the right and no one can stop me,” he said. “But if the judge or other people insist that I divorce her, I will do it, it’s ok.”

What a gracious concession!

While Yemeni prosecutors are trying to line up charges against the two men involved in this scheme, the local laws on arranged marriage clearly demand some further examination.

Shatha Ali Nasser confirmed that item number 15 in Yemeni civil law reads that “no girl or boy can get married before the age of 15.” However, this item was amended in 1998 so parents could make a contract of marriage between their children even if they are under the age of 15. But the husband cannot be intimate with her until she is ready or mature,” said Nasser.“This law is highly dangerous because it brings an end to a young girl’s happiness and future fruitful life. Nojoud did not get married, but she was raped by a 30-year old man.”

And there’s nothing much more to say than that.