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

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.


His review covers some of the basic deceptions and misrepresentations in the film such as the Sternberg “martyrdom” and an allegedly staged lecture Stein is shown giving at Pepperdine. Shermer also notes the far wider ideological representation (believers, non-believers, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives: people or nearly every philosophy and faith) and tolerance amongst people who have no problem with evolution compared to the ideologically cramped camp of critics, who are almost all openly motivated by religious grudges and conservative political agendas.

Shermer is actually part of a much wider response from the editors of Scientific American, and the most devastating, by far, is John Rennie’s response to the films’ Nazi natterings.

The most deplorable dishonesty of Expelled, however, is that it says evolution was one influence on the Holocaust without acknowledging any of the other major ones for context. Rankings of races and ethnic groups into a hierarchy long preceded Darwin and the theory of evolution, and were usually tied to the Christian philosophical notion of a “great chain of being.” The economic ruin of the Weimar Republic left many Germans itching to find someone to blame for their misfortune, and the Jews and other ethnic groups were convenient scapegoats. The roots of European anti-Semitism go back to the end of the Roman Empire. Organized attacks and local exterminations of the Jews were perpetrated during the Crusades and the Black Plague. The Russian empire committed many attacks on the Jews in the 19th and early 20th century, giving rise to the word “pogrom.” Profound anti-Semitism even pollutes the works of the father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, who reviled them in On the Jews and Their Lies and wrote, “We are at fault in not slaying them.” I don’t think Protestantism is accountable for the Holocaust, either, but whose ideas were most Lutheran Germans of the 1930s more familiar with: Darwin’s or Luther’s?

You know, along these lines, I’m sort of interested why no one has brought up the Armenian genocide. The argument of Stein and Expelled’s producers seems to be that while, yes, people weren’t quite nice to Jews or other oppressed groups it took the emergence of “Darwinism” to actually get to the point of mass genocide. They cite various, though mostly mangled and distorted, Darwinian influences on the Nazis (while arguably ignoring far more prominent influences, such as Christian Antisemitism), and try to imply that this was the critical element.

One of the counter-arguments to this view that would be obvious to any actual historian, however, is that technology and the engine of the modern state played a huge role in making mass killings a reality. And a good example of this is the Armenian genocide, which took the lives of an estimated 1-1.5 million people. This mass genocide, often forgotten, happened prior to the rise of Nazi Germany (in fact, Hitler and his people even studied for ideas), and without any noticeable “Darwinian” intellectual influences. And what do we find? Attempts as mass extermination that were often hampered by lack of any technology up to the job of doing away with masses of people (even bullets against civilians are remarkably inefficient). As the genocide advanced, technologies and methods improved: from mass deportations to planned starvation marches to gunfire massacres and then culminating in the creation of concentration camps, some of which that saw mass burnings, drownings, and poisonings.

All in all, the Armenian example seems to illustrate that racial hatreds and fears are perfectly capable of explaining the motivations for mass genocides, and the development of modern political power and the perfection of technologies made such things more technologically feasible than they had ever been before.

Back to the review: Rennie also notes that the conspicuous absence of any sort of serious evidential case for Intelligent Design or against evolution is quite deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, and underscores my praise for their crafty, though deplorably dishonest, PR strategy

Like the decision to call evolution Darwinism, the omission of science from Expelled was a deliberate choice. In fact, it was crucial to the film’s strategy. Because they know Americans revere freedom of speech and fairness, the producers cast the conflict between evolution and ID as purely a struggle between worldviews—a difference of opinions, a battle of ideologies—in which one side is censoring the other. They know that the public will instinctively want to defend the underdog, especially when that opinion aligns with the religious beliefs many of them already share.

It is a terrific strategy, but with one caveat: that airy skirmish of opinions must never, ever touch the ground of solid evidence. Because if it does, if viewers are ever allowed to notice that evolution is supported by mountains of tangible, peer-reviewed evidence gathered by generations of scientists, whereas ID has little more than a smattering of vanity-press pamphlets from a handful of cranks… the bubble pops.

Expelled is all about how science should not reject people with ID “theories.” The filmmakers must therefore stop you from ever asking, Why?—because even children understand that in science, two ideas are not equally good if one of them is wrong. Some of the ideas fluffing up ID are demonstrably wrong; the rest are often described as “not even wrong” because they are so untestable or irreconcilable with the rest of science.

So, that’s that then.

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

  1. Skeptic says:

    Ironically this article actually suggests that ideas should be suppressed. Ben Stein “badly misunderstands these principles” (being debate and free speech) and also evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, where as intelligent design does not. Yet that is the point of the documentary. The suppression of Creation Science prevents has the express goal of keeping it off of a level playing field. By deterring scientists and others from pursuing anything which may point to a hand outside of natural selection, the scientific community and persons such as Rennie, have the expressed goal of keeping it off the field of public debate. One must wonder why the fear? If Darwinistic Science is so strong why not encourage it’s skeptics to come forward and be rebutted? By denying tenure and firing such skeptics one must question if the pillars of Darwinistic science are as strong as it’s advocates suggest, or if they are simply protecting a straw man from legitimate criticism. Alas the ramifications of these questions extend so far beyond science that it is certain that no one will be willing to suspend their world view in search of the greater truth.

  2. Lone Wolf says:

    Not all arguments are equal, some arguments have no validity, ID is one of them. Its not suppression, ID is not science, it has not gone through the proses of science, it can’t make testable predictions and you need testable prediction to test a hypothesis and with out testing a hypothesis can never go beyond a hypothesis.
    They have come forward and have been rebutted but instead of altering or dropping the hypothesis like a scientists would they claim there being discriminated against. Its basic pseudoscience tactics, the evidence doesn’t support your claim so they skip the science and go to the media and internet and claim that the “evil scientists” are bigoted and refuse to even consider there claims. And that is what Expelled does, the evidence does not fit there claims so they attack the scientists and science and the theory of evolution, they claim there right and there ideas are being suppressed when in reality there ideas are bull shit.

  3. Chad says:

    Skeptic, you say a lot of things, but none of them actually hold up to any scrutiny. First off, the playing field in biology is never level. For instance, there is a mountain of evidence for evolution going back well over a century and no evidence for creationism (ID, of course, included). That goes directly to what you stated later: “One must wonder why the fear? If Darwinistic Science is so strong why not encourage it’s skeptics to come forward and be rebutted?” There is no fear from biologists because ID HAS NO DATA. We’ve encouraged the IDiots to show us data and theory and they continue to show us nothing. All creationists have are words, which is why that is all they use.

  4. Bad says:

    Skeptic: Yet that is the point of the documentary.

    Is it? Then where in the documentary does it explain what the evidence, not belief or imagination via analogy, for ID is? “Wow that looks really complex” isn’t an argument. Rennie’s point is precisely this: they dodge this issue because they know that if anyone considered the issue of merit and evidence, the entire circus would fall apart.

    Rennie hasn’t argued that these ideas should be suppressed. He’s argued that the ideas don’t have merit… and that, worse the makers of this film apparently know this, which is why they (who don’t seem to have any problems debating) avoid substantive discussion of the evidence like the plague.

    The suppression of Creation Science prevents has the express goal of keeping it off of a level playing field.

    Like Stein, you are confusing “not paid for by someone else” with “suppressed.” Hardly the same things. That’s exactly what I mean by “badly misunderstands.” The fact that places like academia, which have standards for what is good science and what isn’t, won’t pay to support claims that don’t meet those standards is not a violation of anyone’s free speech. It’s not discriminating against religion: they don’t allow astrology in astronomy departments either. It’s called “merit.” And the ID movement, and creationism in general, has failed miserably to demonstrate that it has any when it comes to science.

    By deterring scientists and others from pursuing anything which may point to a hand outside of natural selection, the scientific community and persons such as Rennie, have the expressed goal of keeping it off the field of public debate.

    And that folks, is what’s known as a lie. Off the field of public debate? Aren’t we debating it right now? Isn’t this movie like, in existence? What we’ve expressed is criticism and the idea that religion should not be presented as a substitute for science. The ID folks and creationists in general have very very deep pockets: far more money than any individual scientist has to promote their ideas. If they wanted to do research, they could. If they had a specific testable proposal that could actually shed some light on the controversy, they almost certainly would get funded. But they don’t. Because the enterprise is almost entirely a sham.

    One must wonder why the fear? If Darwinistic Science is so strong why not encourage it’s skeptics to come forward and be rebutted?

    Again, nonsense: they are “forward” and we have rebutted them. Over. And Over. And Over Again. But they don’t play by the same rules of honest debate or logic as everyone else. No one is “afraid” of the things this movie has to say. Creationists have been making the same arguments for nearly a century and a half now. They are not secrets. They aren’t new innovations. They are, instead, just bad arguments. And we’re not afraid to say so.

    Like all ID proponents, you’re more than willing to keep making bad or even content-free arguments (and you have mostly made the latter). But we’re not going to stop pointing out how grossly mistaken and confused these arguments are, sorry.

    By denying tenure and firing such skeptics one must question if the pillars of Darwinistic science are as strong as it’s advocates suggest, or if they are simply protecting a straw man from legitimate criticism.

    One guy, ONE that they’ve cited who didn’t get tenure. And not simply because he happened to support ID: for all sorts of reasons directly related to his poor performance in the relevant period. And who exactly got wrongly fired? Name them. Let’s see if the pretension holds up to reality.

    Interesting slip up there too: are you admitting that what ID people are attacking is a straw man of evolution, rather than the real thing?

    Alas the ramifications of these questions extend so far beyond science that it is certain that no one will be willing to suspend their world view in search of the greater truth.

    Again, you really are confused here. Science indeed DOES have boundaries, beyond which it cannot give answers. But that’s not something a creationist can change. They can’t extend science to cover supernatural magic, because science only works on things that can be examined, tested, reproduced, etc. Go outside of that and you haven’t broadened your mind, you’ve stopped doing science.

    And it’s pretty laughable to talk about cramped worldviews. Evolutionary biology has a far far greater number of proponents with diverse worldviews than creationism. We have religious believers and non, liberals, conservatives, representatives of just about nearly ever philosophy. All manage to have worldviews, and many of which extend far beyond science. Meanwhile, your ranks are basically limited to a small number of mostly conservative literalists and conspiracy-theory cranks.

    The difference between our vast and diverse collection of people and worldviews and your folks is that ours happen to really understand what science is and isn’t, what it can and can’t do. And they aren’t interested in trying to break it just because they don’t like the answers its given.

    I do, however, congratulate you on coming here and at least trying to make a case against me. Even if it does put to the lie the idea that we’re scared of your ideas or that you’re suppressed.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    All in all, the Armenian example seems to illustrate that racial hatreds and fears are perfectly capable of explaining the motivations for mass genocides, and the development of modern political power and the perfection of technologies made such things more technologically feasible than they had ever been before. No one seems to have

    Yes?

  6. Bad says:

    Good catch, thanks. My editing process is decidedly bizarre, I’m the first to admit. I commonly write out sentences, jumble them around, chop out words halfway in and change their tense, and so on. Haphazard, but it usually works…. usually. That was the start of a train of thought I decided was too far off topic to include.

  7. Michael Baun says:

    Scientific American is a joke. It has been ever since they asked the last Amateur Scientist columnist if he believed abortion was morally right – after finding out that he believe God created everything. The fact is that Scientific American engages in the culture war big time. Their editors support and engage in religious bigotry. I advise anyone subscribing to this magazine to dump it for reputable magazines such as “Physics Today”.

  8. Bad says:

    Michael Baun: It has been ever since they asked the last Amateur Scientist columnist if he believed abortion was morally right – after finding out that he believe God created everything.

    I’m not sure what this is referencing, or what you’re even saying was done.

    The fact is that Scientific American engages in the culture war big time.

    Well, considering that some people consider simply standing up for sound science to be taking sides in a culture war, I can see why some people might have that impression no matter what the real validity of that claim is.

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