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?).

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.

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.

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?

Even More Journalists Review Stein’s Expelled! Movie …And Pan it

April 4, 2008

This latest pan comes from Felix Salmon at Condé Nast Portfolio (a relatively new business magazine). He notes yet another “martyr” story that turns out to fall apart rather quickly when you look past what the movie tells you:

My favorite bit, unsurprisingly, was when the film quoted Pamela Winnick thusly:

If you give any credence at all to Intelligent Design, you are just finished as a journalist.

Not at the New York Times you’re not, clearly.

Winnick is presented in the film for all the world as a diligent journalist – a Jewish journalist, no less – who just happened to mention Intelligent Design, en passant, in one of her columns, and ended up getting fired.

Omitted from the film: any indication that Winnick is the author of “A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade Against Religion,” published in 2005 by Thomas Nelson. Or that in her journalism for the newspaper from which she was fired she talked of Darwin’s influence on eugenics and Hitler, and “the serious people –scientists included — who continue to challenge his theories.”

That’s actually even understating it a bit: Winnick is something of a polemicist who took a fellowship grant from a conservative think-tank to write about “why there seems to be little tolerance for teaching creationism in America.” Her repetition of creationist talking points throughout her writing is not exactly subtle (she calls evolution a “secular religion”), and she’s apparently an avid quote miner. As with Carolyn Crocker, the “just one tiny little mention” implication is simply ridiculous when you start to look into the facts.

After reading a lot of these sorts of reviews, it really seems the film is unlikely to break out of core demographic of evangelical Christians. It doesn’t seem to make any serious case against evolutionary theory: or even for Intelligent Design. It just assumes that its audience will buy accusations of witchhunts, gasp at atheists, and tearfully condemn “Darwinism” for making the Holocaust a reality, and just generally all nod in understanding, knowing intrinsically that evolution is ridiculous without having to have it demonstrated to them.

Mainstream journalists and movie-critics have almost universally cringed at the craven manipulation, particularly its exploitation of the Holocaust, and pretty much all of the glowing reviews have come from either right-wing talk show hosts or the very sorts of evangelical religious publications and organizations that have been on board and promoting the film from the start.

Which is not to say that even all conservative Christians are or will be convinced by it either.  It’s one thing to initially win over an audience that’s receptive to your overall message and accusations right from the start.  It’s quite another thing when viewers start digging deeper, beyond the big screen.

Creationism is Back Out of the Closet In Expelled! Movie

April 2, 2008

Motive Marketing, the outfit that was so successful at convincing churches around the country to buy up Passion of the Christ paraphernalia like crazy, is going into full gear to promote Ben Stein’s Expelled! movie.

While their breathless emails warn of dastardly “eblasts to their [Darwinists’] people encouraging them to highjack our efforts to promote EXPELLED,” most of our side of things is just sort of watching in amusement at the sheer clumsiness of trying to promote intelligent design as a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution… while gesturing wildly at the Bible at nearly every turn.

Here’s what I mean, from one of their “please spread the word and badger lots of people into coming to this movie” emails:

STUDENT EVANGELISM: Thus far science doesn’t specifically identify the CREATOR. Once your students take their friends to see EXPELLED, the question will be “so if ID is true, then WHO is this Intelligent Designer?”. Our friends at EVANGELISM EXPLOSION are offering training to equip your students in sharing their faith.

(Am I the only one who finds evangelism “explosion” a little bit creepy, and/or gross?)

And in case you just so happen to be a pastor at a church looking to preach a sermon on the totally scientific issue of intelligent design: do they have just the powerpoint slides for you! (Yes, seriously)

You have to feel a little sorry for Intelligent Design fans who have spent so much time trying to insist that their movement is all about suppressed science, rather than trying to please Jesus.

But not that sorry.

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.