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:
Did the film indeed falsely claim that Sternberg was fired (or even disciplined) over the publication of a pro-ID article?
Unless I missed it, the technical answer is no, but in some ways, that’s worse than a yes. The extra lengths taken to make that faulty implication (nearly every reviewer, the majority of whom were highly critical of the film, nevertheless seemed to take Sternberg’s non-existent “firing” at face value) make it seem all the more knowing and deliberate.
Consider the point in the film directly after the main Sternberg sequence where Stein asks skeptic Michael Shermer a “what if” question in which someone is fired for publishing an article supporting ID. He doesn’t mention Sternberg specifically. It’s pretty clear to moviegoers, and Shermer (who immediately seems to pick up what case Stein is talking about), that Stein is referencing Sternberg. But he never has literally to say that Sternberg was fired (and again, he wasn’t): never has to speak the lie directly.
Another clever example is the start of the main Sternberg sequence, when Sternberg shows Stein where his office “used to be.” Now, any normal human being, given the film’s intro about firings that leads almost directly into this statement, is going to assume that he’s talking about being kicked out of the Smithsonian: losing his office over the controversy.
The reality? Sternberg’s office “used to be” in a different location because it was merely moved, not removed. He was not even the only person whose office was moved, and the process was all set in motion prior to the publication of his article as part of larger renovations and reorganizations at Smithsonian buildings.
Of such simple stuff are malicious myths made.
How about the case of Caroline Crocker? As badly misrepresented?
On one point here, the filmmakers were a little bit better than we gave them credit for. For instance, Expelled Exposed says:
Expelled makes it sound as if Crocker was immediately removed (expelled, even) from the George Mason University classroom.
It’s true that many pro-ID places have claimed that she was fired, with the implication that it was on the spot and thus obviously a result of her ID teachings. And also it’s true that Stein and Crocker both say things that, quoted on their own, would imply that effect in the film. But the film can’t quite be said to make this particular misrepresentation: EE is wrong about what it ultimately “makes it sound” like. Crocker says pretty clearly that she was disciplined, and then let go at the end of the semester, not that she was fired immediately and outright. That’s all pretty much correct.
It’s the reasons why her contract was not renewed, why she was disciplined, and the alleged blacklisting, that are all legitimately under question by critics. And of course, the carefully avoided topic of exactly what she taught and whether it was legitimately objectionable to teach as biology or not.
Which leads us to…
Does the film make a substantive case for ID being legitimate science?
Most critics have already noted: no, it doesn’t, at least not directly.
And this is telling. The film never really explains what science is or how it works, or how you would judge real science from psuedo-science. Stein explains his ideal of science at the outset of the film as people basically exploring any idea they want. What he neglects to mention, at least at this point, is that the other core parts of this liberal scientific method are a) endless criticism and peer review b) that ideas are judged on the evidence, not just treated as all equally worthwhile and valid. Later on in the film, ID proponents assert that want and deserve to be judged on the evidence. And they do deserve that. The problem, of course, is that they have been so judged, and found seriously wanting by most scientists, and they don’t seem to agree or care about that judgment no matter what anyone argues. So, what then?
Well, there are all sorts of ideas out there that are in the same boat as ID. Homeopaths, for instance, are still out there giving people remedies for malaria instead of regular medications. And yet, homeopathic medicines are generally regarded by academic medicine as worthless placebos at best. So, what then? Are doctors supposed to still fund such treatments at the same levels as malaria vaccines? Hire the proper quota of homeopathic doctors at hospitals?
The closest the film comes to explaining how ID could be scientific is a shadowed man saying that he uses an ID perspective to get his research done.” Again, with no specifics, it’s impossible to evaluate how legitimate this claim really is. We do know of a common misrepresentation on this score: conflating the use of engineering perspectives and tools to more quickly understand how a complex system functions with the idea that the system was itself designed. Could our shadowy commentator be referencing that misrepresentation? We don’t know. But he could be, or he could be otherwise confounding the situation in a way we don’t know, which makes such an unchallengeable claim worthless.
What we are left with, instead of any reason to believe that mainstream scientists got it wrong on ID, are mere accusations of dogma. At one point, Stein sarcastically asks Steven Meyer ‘how dare you question someone [Darwin] who’s buried in genius row’ (or something to that effect). Stein is rather obsessed with the idea of Darwin’s supposed inviability: the film even calls it a “gospel.” But this focus is rather unfortunate, because it apparently blinds Stein to the unintentional silliness of his implication.
Not only is questioning Darwin’s account of things not a taboo, but the history of evolutionary biology has been all about correcting and challenging mistakes and misunderstandings Darwin and other early biologists had about nature: most egregiously about the nature of heredity (Darwin thought it involved traits smoothly blending, rather than anything like the discrete, almost digital Mendelian system we know today). Heck, forget dead-old Darwin: plenty of scientists have challenged more modern understandings of biology… and instead of losing their careers, they now sport Nobel prizes.
Not one of those mavericks, that I’m aware of, made a documentary bemoaning the lack of acceptance of their ideas. Instead, they came up with the evidential goods that are, in science, pretty darn impossible to ignore. And contrary to Stein’s assertion, such thing generally aren’t ignored. It’s just that promising and delivering the goods are two different things…
The film is about absolute freedom of speech and academic exploration though, so why does it even matter what the details or merits of any specific idea that’s being repressed are?
As I’ve said, it matters because science unavoidably has standards: schools have only limited amount of time to teach subjects, and universities have only a limited about of positions and projects they can fund. The logic of “teach everything and let laypeople sort it out” was the main slogan of the original, 1st wave of biblical creationism. But it made no sense then, and it makes no sense now.
Worse, no one seriously believes it in any case: it’s generally a principle applied only to evolution. Creationists never lobby to have New Age numerology taught in math class, or the finer points of Hatian voodoo medicine taught in health class. For that matter, many of the very same people trying to pass “academic freedom” bills that single out evolution for protected criticism oppose sex-ed teachers even mentioning contraception methods. That’s about as absurd as political posturing can get.
And the thing is, as far as I can tell, the film even basically agrees with me on all of this. Stein directly implies that we wouldn’t want flat earth, or holocaust denial, taught in schools: these things are obviously illegitimate. So, apparently, there IS level of academic merit by which educators can exercise judgment, or allocate funding… even according to Expelled’s producers.
But that’s exactly what makes the film’s absence of any substantive defense of ID inexcusable. Does ID really meet those standards or not? You just can’t avoid this question and have any meaningful debate over whether ID has been unfairly mistreated, slighted, or oppressed.
To illustrate why, note that you could literally replace nearly every pro-ID person in this film with a Holocaust denier, and have them saying almost exactly the same things about how mainstream history departments expelled them, or how the establishment is ideologically biased by their “Jewish” worldview. All the rhetoric, all the points, all the stories, could play out exactly the same as they do in the film. But if the Holocaust denial version of this movie, with all the same claims and rhetoric, wouldn’t convince Stein or anyone else, why should the exact same presentation of the ID issue be sufficient for anyone either?
Again, this is not to confuse or compare ID supporters with Holocaust deniers (though as I already noted, the Polish politician the film cites about how Poland is intellectually freer than America IS some manner of denier/minimizer) but rather to make a point about how unavoidable the discussion of academic merit is.
The real question here is: how would you make a film for which such a glib substitution would be implausible and unworkable?
Answer: By actually delving into the specifics of the claims. If you did so, then you could show that Holocaust denial involves misrepresentation and obfuscation, while ID, on the other hand, actually has some serious evidence going for it. Problem solved.
The film’s entire case is built around asserting that there is unfair, biased treatment of Intelligent Design ideas in academia. But how can anyone know what is or isn’t fair when the film avoids setting any standards for good science and then showing that ID measures up? As far as I can remember, the film never even addresses the issue of testability, which is utterly, unavoidably central to the debate of what is and isn’t good science. Some of early pro-evolution scientists briefly make indirect reference to it, but there is no follow-up, not even to defend ID in this realm.
The film doesn’t support ID/doesn’t say that ID is correct. Even reviewers who didn’t like it claim that it isn’t a defense of ID.
I find it very difficult to understand how someone could come away with the impression that this film isn’t supporting ID as having real scientific merit, evolution as being deeply troubled scientifically, and so on. It features no less than William Dembski suggesting that ID is to evolution as Einstein was to Newton. Johnathan Wells claiming that the evidence for evolution is essentially bogus. Berlinski saying that all the evidence is pointing one way (i.e. towards ID). And the film’s implication throughout is that this avenue of thinking is dangerous to mainstream science precisely because ID has so much going for it: things mainstream science is too scared to confront. All of these are, in fact, what ID claims: the very same points that ID proponents make all the time.
Indeed, there may be some disconnect here when different people talk about whether or not the film endorses or defends the ID position. For many longtime critics of the ID movement, the core of what this movement is, what we think of when we think of ID specifically, is the specific rhetoric of the movement about how materialist bias and dogma are why the idea of a designer can’t make any scientific headway. When a film employs much of this rhetoric virtually verbatim, it seems like case closed on the issue of whether it thinks ID is correct. It’s making all the basic accusations that ID does. Those accusations are presented as being a sort of truth-telling to power, not as one side of the debate.
Defenders of the film might well imagine that there is more to the ID side: that the rhetoric is just the set up, all of it bent towards the goal of allowing ID proponents to then make their actual scientific case. But this assumption is, in my opinion, simply mistaken. That is the meat of it. They are already basically hearing what ID is, straight up.
Sure, the film doesn’t delve into the technical details of some of the specific claims that have been made, explaining or naming things like Irreducible Complexity or Specified Complexity outright. But the film does basically repeat those arguments in cruder forms: cells are really really complex (no way that could have happened by functional steps!), where does information come from, natural selection cannot create it since it only reduces information, etc. All of these are standard ID canards, repeated as if they were true observations that the evolutionists were hushing up in order to keep you away from intelligent design, which is some larger body of argument that comes later. But those very canards ARE, themselves, Intelligent Design: those are the arguments.
There’s also the matter of how the film frames the issue: evolution vs design, period (a common fallacy, but we’re considering the film’s own internal logic here). If evolution is so insufficient and misguided, then what, according to their presentation, should win out as being correct?
And finally, perhaps most tellingly, there are also more specific cases in which the film makes arguments that are, flat out, well known creationist claims, boldly repeated.
Consider the sequence about the origin of life in which a cartoon man in a casino has to win 250 slot machines in a row, supposedly illustrating the unlikelihood of any natural process generating a replicating organism. This is an unmistakable and classic creationist argument. What the filmmakers are referencing with the 250 number are studies like this one, in which a modern bacteria was stripped down to a core set of 265-300 base pairs. Even if this number were actually relevant to the potential size of early life, however (and its not), the film’s portrayal of successive, completely random trials of 250 completely independent variables all looking for one single sequence is ridiculously inaccurate representation of the problem. Just to list a handful of the problems with this model:
- we don’t know how many different arrangements of proteins, or what parts of them, would work as replicators. The example the film uses assumes that there is one and only one. There may have been, historically, one and only one that went on to lead to us, but that’s very different from there only having been one possible option that would have worked.
- in any case, countless protein sequences are functionally identical, meaning that many many different working variations of even just the “one” sequence would be possible.
- we don’t even know if protein sequences were really what came first in life: one of the core debates in abiogenesis concerns whether or not some form of metabolism may have emerged prior to heredity. This may be looking in the wrong place entirely
- most importantly, the model basically neglects virtually every principle of chemistry and particular situational mechanisms that would be relevant to correctly modeling the situation. The casino example is like trying to represent the motion of particles in a liquid without taking even basic physics into account, and pretending that no particle or water molecule has any effect on the position or velocity of any other
What scientists are actually interested in when they consider the origins of life are not random slot machines, but rather what the particular situations and mechanisms might be that would promote the formation of life as we know it in the particular way we know it, given early earth conditions as we know them. I’ve already covered how badly the film botches it’s telling of the Miller/Urey experiments (again, the film’s line on these is identical to Jonathan Well’s Icons and other creationist re-tellings). Stein also scoffs at philosopher Michael Ruse’s discussion of clay crystals… but he never actually the looks at the specific mechanisms in this situation that are considered to play a part.
One ID booster declares that something has to have nudged the cosmic lottery towards the “right answer.” But here Ruse is, trying to explain one possible mechanism for such nudging to occur, and Stein, at least onscreen, doesn’t want to hear the details (and the details are always what really matter un science). He certainly doesn’t recognize it as completely contradicting his blotto lotto story.
Does the film support the teaching of ID in classrooms? Sources like Answers in Genesis claim it doesn’t.
Hollywood live editor Greg Wright also disagrees with this claim, thusly:
Curiously, both Shermer and Lukianoff seem very concerned that movie is advocating the teaching of I.D.; but it isn’t. The folks behind it, at some dark level, may be; but the film itself doesn’t.
I’ll have to disagree with him in turn.
While the film never features Stein stating clearly “intelligent design should be taught in classrooms” to say that it doesn’t support ID being taught makes little sense to me. A film whose core message is bemoaning the injustice of ID being unfairly kept out of the classroom (including Caroline Crocker’s case, which is supposedly about precisely that: teaching ID claims as biology) cannot seriously escape the charge that it wants… ID taught in classrooms. The film additionally scoffs at court cases (such as Dover) whose primary issue was… whether ID could be taught in public school science classes. And the film concludes with Berlinski, Stein, and Gerald Schroeder at the Berlin wall, asking that it (the supposed science orthodoxy) be broken down. At the end of this meeting of the minds, Schroeder adds: “be nice if it was in the science classroom as well.” So what am I missing? How are these mere dark motives swirling around in the background behind the film?
The film’s official materials, which mention students and teachers, even include “leader’s guides” that are essentially long recitations of creationist claims (science-blogger Troy Britain dissects these in two parts). The filmmakers also openly and actively support and even co-promote so called “academic freedom” bills (most of which single out only evolution for special “critical analysis” over and above what all science classes already do, and then carefully refuse to define what a “scientific” criticism is: whether such criticisms must themselves be plausible or even honest). This is just not a covert part of the film’s mission, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s a particularly concealed ambition in the film footage itself.
What are the attitudes towards Christians who are critics of Intelligent Design and who think that evolution is sound?
The film mentions them briefly only to attack their sincerity and dismiss them. It doesn’t cite any specific examples of religious evolutionists or note how their existence might weigh against the idea that people with religious beliefs about origins and meaning are chased out of science when the express them (the worst people like Ken Miller and Francis Collins have gotten is criticized on the specific arguments they made about religion, and then they criticize the critics back, and so on). Instead, presented as a rebuttal to Eugenie Scott’s mention of such evolutionary supporters, a commentator describes “liberal” Christians as essentially being so knee-jerk against anything conservative that they support evolution against ID… out of spite, or something. I believe Stein even later calls Scott’s claim about evolution/religion compatibility a “myth.”
So much for the Pope and his tiny band of knee-jerk followers!
Oh, and by the way: Ken Miller’s new book, the long-awaited follow up to “Finding Darwin’s God,” is due out this June. In “Finding Darwin’s God,” Miller basically tore down scientific creationism and Intelligent Design as legitimate science, but then, as a religious scientist, went on to defend the more interesting idea that both ideas ultimately impoverish and cheapen faith and theology as well. Atheist scientists were not fans, and while I didn’t buy Miller’s particular theology any more than they did (and frankly, I think they missed the point: he wasn’t trying to convince non-believers of these specific theological ideas as science, just show that all manner of lively theology can survive and adapt without having to compromise science), I thoroughly enjoyed the spirit of exploration and innovation. “Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul” sounds like it will delve much more directly into the heart of the Intelligent Design movement’s latest claims, especially Behe’s assertions about cellular structures. A must read!
What about the link between evolution and Hitler?
Frankly, the film does a lot more than simply call Darwin out for playing directly into Nazi and eugenic ideologies.
Now, a lot has been made of the upfront citations of darwinian influences in these movements, and how these are woefully incomplete and highly selective as history. The film certainly makes caveats about how not all mainstream biologists are Nazis (oh. Gracious thanks!). But it hints that those who are not of a dark bent (an attitude which it tries to pin on William Provine, and fairly effectively) aren’t being logical, not following through with the inevitable implications of their ideas. Like those insincere Christians that support evolution, non-genocidal evolutionists are apparently kept at bay by their better natures (which, as any good apologist will tell you, are merely on loan from Christianity). The idea that eugenics or racial genocide are based on illegitimate and bizarre distortions of evolutionary biology or confusion about how descriptive science relates to normative values… that’s a no-show in the film. And the film ultimately even undercuts its spoken caveats with things like Stein accusingly staring Darwin down and quote mining Descent of Man (again, something that’s right out of young-earth creationism 101) directly subsequent to a visit to Dachau.
But all of this is arguably less important than where the film goes next: basically asserting that these horrible things are going to happen all over again, or maybe are already happening, because of how pernicious the influence of the “Darwinian” worldview is. Berlinski quotes a German saying that means “this is how it always starts.” And what, exactly is starting again? Stein asks Jeffrey Schawrtz “What’s going to happen if this doesn’t change?” “I think we’re watching it happen.” Again, this comes straight out of the film’s musing on the horrors of the Holocaust.
I just don’t see how there’s much room for quibbling over what the film is getting at here either.
Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins believes in aliens and supports Intelligent Design just as long as it fits his atheist dogma?
Uh, no. If anything, Dawkins comes off better on this point than the way many people described him in their reviews. All the basic structure of his quite reasonable response is right there in the film, just stripped of the context necessary for a layperson to know what Dawkins is getting at.
He really was, as he later explained, making a point about testability, and he really was using alien designers as an example of how design doesn’t really answer the question of complexity, it just shifts it backwards a step (with the added irony, again lost on normal viewers, that “aliens” is the half-hearted standby of the ID movement itself, not something of Dawkins’ own invention).
In the face of this, declaring that Dawkins “admitted intelligent design is possible but just doesn’t want to hear about God” makes no sense. The position of Dawkins and virtually every other scientist engaged in this debate, including many religious ones, has always been that a (coy and supernatural) designer God is philosophically possible (as just about anything at all is if you toss out natural law), but not scientifically viable or supportable with scientific evidence. The movie claims no misrepresentation or fancy editing in this clip. And that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t misleading. It clearly succeeded in misleading lots of people: again, including many of the reviewers that hated the film.
The film also lays the aliens line on an idea called panspermia. This is, of course a little misleading too because panspermia is about the possibility of life alien to the earth, but not necessarily intentional, intelligent life. In fact, not even it’s not even necessarily about life at all, just key chemical contributions (key organic substances including amino acids have, in fact, been found in space debris). And while Francis Crick in particular did indeed muse over the specific idea of directed panspermia, directed panspermia is by no means the sort of established, respected principle that Stein implies. You’d be hard pressed to find any more references to it in biology journals than you would of Intelligent Design.
In any case, the key difference between ID and directed panspermia is that, even as out there as the idea is seen as, Crick proposed it precisely so that he could subject the idea to evidential examination concerning the plausibility of specific, testable natural mechanisms for how life might be spread. ID theorists do not, and perhaps cannot, do the same, because by and large, that’s anathema to their entire project.
As long as ID is based on, as one Expelled interview puts it, the “minimal” definition of “design with a purpose”… there is ultimately nothing to test. Especially if you are willing to do away with restrictions like known natural laws, literally anything and everything possible or even imaginable could have been designed, and for any possible purpose. That’s including even any possible world designed such that it looks exactly as if evolution did everything.
What about Dawkins’ appearance in the film in general?
I had mixed feelings: and not all of them towards the filmmakers. Dawkins is of course presented as the sort of head Darwinist in evolutionary biology. But while Dawkins is perhaps the most well-known evolution popularizer, and certainly is worth mention in a discussion of the development of evolutionary ideas, he’s very far from “head boy” of mainstream biology proper. For one thing, he’s a zoologist: just one single specialized field out of very many. And his actual scientific output is today dwarfed by countless other working biologists, countless numbers of whom have just as much, if not more, to put on their resume as he does. Presenting him as if he “speaks for evolution,” or even that his opinions about science and religion are representative of scientists as a whole, is just nonsense.
How much Dawkins himself plays into this faulty portrayal, I’m not sure. I certainly think he’d agree with my assessment above in full, but his language and pronouncements may carelessly give a contrary impression. It’s a debatable point.
One thing he said did give me certain pause, however. Whether there is more specific context to this quote, I don’t know, but Dawkins at one point insists that he’s being “a hell of a lot more frank” by revealing his atheist activism than other scientists might be. As a general statement, this struck me as being just as bad as the film’s earlier assertion that liberal Christians are insincere. How many people would really agree with Dawkins that they are not being frank, as opposed to simply flat out not agreeing with Dawkin’s positions on science and religion?
There may be some people that are insincere about what they think and believe. But demonstrating that this is a general case cannot be done by citing a few unnamed anecdotes about “getting a few beers” into biologists, as the film does with it’s claims about how biologists think evolutionary biology is a mess. Particularly not when there is the strong possibility that the tipsy tidbits are being misinterpreted and misquoted in any case. How are we to judge if we aren’t told exactly who said what?
Does journalist Pamela Winnick have a case?
As with the ridiculous Dr. Egnor, it’s there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Pamela Winnick got more than merely criticized or targeted by random overzealous internetians for her support of Intelligent Design. The film essentially provides nothing other than her suspiciously vague claims.
But Winnick’s situation proved more interesting than most of the “Expelled,” because while listening to it, I could at least envision a plausible case of how misunderstandings on both sides could play into the differing perceptions of whether criticism was over the top or deserved.
I honestly don’t know if Winnick’s actual situation is even close to this hypothetical, but consider: a journalist, relatively innocent gets assigned cover a particular controversy. She reads up on the subject for her stories, but like many reporters, she doesn’t have anywhere near the context or depth of understanding that most people involved in the debate have.
And thus, during her research, she absorbs some key talking points of the Intelligent Design movement without realizing that they are controversial (many objectionable ID claims are presented as if they were matters of fact agreed upon by everyone). Critics of ID then see those claims in her article. They may not have gotten there by any intentional means to support one side over another, but to the critics, they stand out like big red flags. This isn’t simply unfounded paranoia either: its been quite common that Discovery institute press releases end up in the mouths of conservative politicians, and getting your talking points in the ledes of journalists is basically priority #1 for PR outfits.
So the critics, considering her to be extremely suspect of bias, go after her. And in response, she gets royally pissed off at the critics. The whole thing snowballs into a grudge match, and we end up with someone who is now an unquestionable supporter of ID feeling like she was falsely attacked back when she wasn’t one. The critics see this as an ideologue outed. She sees it as playing into the standard Intelligent Design narrative of wrongful persecution even for innocent sins and fair mentions of the “other side.”
Again: is this really what happened in Winnick’s case? Who knows. In some ways, I doubt it. But it’s certainly something to watch out for and think about in the future. There are plenty of innocent bystanders out there.
What about the comparisons to Michael Moore? If the films both use his tactics, how come he gets better reviews than Stein?
There are distinctively Moorish touches in the film. But however you feel about Moore’s honesty as a polemicist, I think it’s fair to say that his distinctive documentary tactics were, at least at one point, cinematically effective. And while Expelled does employ some of those devices (though far less, in fact), their usage is decidedly amateur.
Again, not to defend Moore’s mugging-for-effect tactics, but Expelled’s producers seem to have tossed them in without having any idea what makes them work on screen, even if the ideas weren’t already sort of tired to begin with. For instance, at the end of the film, Stein purports to want to “get some answers” from the supposed leaders of the anti-ID cabal, and then runs some footage of a security guard somewhere in the Smithsonian telling them to get lost. But when Moore pulled similar antics in his films, he at least pretended to have a specific challenge for specific person in a building, only to butt heads with confused receptionists, and often culminating in actual refusals from on high to meet with Moore. Ridiculous, but it at least did a decent job of creating the intended perception of “the Man” being scared to face the truth.
But in Expelled’s case, it’s not even clear where Stein’s crew was trying to get into at the Smithsonian or why they were getting thrown out. For all anyone knows they were wandering around the Natural History museum trying to find a way into the back offices, through entrances normally off limits to regular museum goers (and not really how you’d get into that part of the building in any case if you have business there). I’ve actually gotten the same treatment just from wandering around in there and going into the wrong place by accident.
Likewise, Stein’s wandering around Seattle asking random people if they knew where the Discovery Institute was just doesn’t make much sense, even as theater. Why would a random biker know the location of an organization he has nothing to do with, even if it was the all-powerful edifice that Stein is pretending that biologist say it is?
How about the copyright/legal issues. The Life of the Cell video? The Yoko Ono song?
I’m no legal expert, but I think XVIVO has a pretty weak case here. The animation basically used some of the core sequences and shapes originally demo’d for the first time in the XVIVO video, and given the vast number of different protein structures that could have been chosen, the fact that the producers just happened to select some of the very same ones used by the video they apparently illegitimately used as an early stand-in can hardly be a coincidence. But it’s still appeared to me, at least, to be its own, separately rendered animation. That they picked this video to homage, so popular amongst youtube creationists (who originally stripped it of its credits and narration) and which Dembski got busted using, could certainly be yet another spiteful jab in the eye of their critics. But they’re on the right side of the law as far as I can tell.
As for Yoko, I’m even more hazy on the legality here. They only used a short clip of the song, and it was basically to impugn the sentiment of that one line (imagine no religion) by contrasting it with the anti-religious communist nightmare. They could probably argue that it was commentary on the song itself, and thus a legitimate criticism. How exactly Yoko Ono’s legal team fits into a grand conspiracy of biologist academics, I’m not so sure, but I don’t see her having too much of a case here.
As for The Killers, who apparently approved the use of their song for the movie, it seems like the band was in the same position as the interviewed scientists: the film that got made was not the more even-handed film that they thought was being pitched to them.
Well, there’s plenty that could still be said, but what’s it all mean in the end?
Seeing the film clarified a few smaller issues about production and exact wording, but it didn’t change much at all about the basic arguments that critics like myself expected, heard about, saw snippets of, and now finally have seen on celluloid. These are all arguments that the Intelligent Design movement has made over the last decade, and repeating them in a film doesn’t make them any more compelling than they were to begin with.
The producers have made little secret of their hopes for the film: a call to action. It’s a little silly that the film portrays Stein as putting all the pieces together and then concluding by demanding a movement. The movement was already together and active long before Premise Media, the production company, was even founded. But, whatever. So they want more conflict, and they want religious people to think there are only two sides: freedom (which, as the film reminds you, all those soldiers died for: you don’t want to dishonor their memories by being skeptical of ID as science, do you?) and the gulag. Still: whatever.
For my part, I’m much more worried about general lack of interest in science amongst the public than I am about the pernicious arguments and accusations of this film. I don’t doubt that Expelled will end up inspiring another round of culturally embedded junk ideas, much like the “just a theory” nonsense that we still hear people parroting over and over today (Expelled, by the way, finds time to toss this “just a theory” phrase into the film for good measure, cleverly embedded in the soundtrack). But honestly, if the film somehow gets people all pumped up about science when they weren’t before, even with a head full of misconceptions, that’s better than apathy. 9 times out of 10, if these people really do get into the science, confront the evidence, and realize that they’ve basically been hoodwinked, it’ll all work out in the end.
After all isn’t that pretty much the very thing that Expelled tries to boogeyman its more evangelical viewers with, isn’t it? Michael Shermer, Dawkins, PZ Myers, Provine: all believers, now skeptics and atheists after their brush with science. Indeed, even before Darwin, there were the first geologists, creationists all, who saw their belief in a young earth crumble away against the evidence they were uncovering. Some lost the faith of their fathers. Some found new faith. But the constant was change: some for the better, some for the worse, but all inevitable. And Expelled is peddling fear of precisely that sort of change, even as it pledges itself the sole champion of open-mindedness.
What to make of it, in the end? Expelled would have you believe that evolutionary biology is made up of endless, inflexible dogma. Most biologists look at their field and find this unbelievably absurd: what they see is a shifting morass of debate, grudges, competition, and startling new discoveries shaking things up every other week.
Myself, science is a passion not because it delivers comforting affirmations of what I believe. On the contrary: it’s because day after day it discovers that the world is weirder than I could have imagined. In fact, it’s just about the only thing that does that for me. I can imagine all the details and pleasures of living all sorts of different lives I’ll never live: I can imagine just about anything, any possibility I can think of: gods, no gods, ten gods included. But I never could have imagined or thought up crazy things like how liver flukes navigate their way through a host. It’s surprise and wonder that draw me in, not staid pronouncements day after day. That’s not the science I know at all.
Let Expelled drive hordes of angry, mixed up moviegoers into the welcoming arms of biology textbooks. Let them learn what science is really like. We’re ready.