Posted by: cjobrien | 16 February 2008

A Lassen County Primer on Ben Stein’s Expelled: Explain That “Academic Freedom” Thing Again…

Undoubtedly, theatres in Lassen County will be showing the move, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. My prediction is that the Lassen County Times will publish glowing reviews of the movie, one or more local clergy (probably Pastor “Earthquake” Ashmore) will take the opportunity to claim that science is really showing intelligent design to be the equal of evolutionary theory, and a number of people in the local community will write letters to point out biases of the scientific community. So, in anticipation of the upcoming deluge of false information to be expressed in the movie and then parroted in the local paper and via other local mouthpieces, I begin a series of primers on Expelled. These are offered so that the enlightened of Lassen County (however few there may be) will be able to challenge the Expelled cheerleaders they encounter in the workplace, behind the pulpit, or in the classroom.

Let us begin…

Expelled will make the claim that it is evolutionary scientists who wish to prohibit academic free speech and prohibit discussion of alternative ideas. Ben Stein and other figures behind the movie will claim that Intelligent Design is only about good science and good science should have its day in the free market place of ideas.  But it turns out that it is actually the Expelled crowd that doesn’t want their own ideas queried too closely – and certainly not in public. Via Pharyngula today, we find that Ben Stein and others behind Expelled have spared no effort to control who gets to ask the questions at their press conferences.

Dan Whipple from the Colorado Confidential attended a telephone press conference with Ben Stein and the producers of Expelled in late January – even after Dan was invited to see a screening of the movie last year and well, was not too impressed (we’ll discuss his review in a later post). He did take the offer up for the press conference. The byline on his column states it all:

Ben Stein and the producers of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed held a press conference. But hardly any questions were allowed.

Apparently discussion and questioning were tightly controlled by the so-called supporters of academic freedom. As Whipple points out, the raison d’être of the intelligent design movement is to ensure ideas are widely heard, discussed and given an opportunity to stand or fall on their own. Expelled producer Walt Ruloff puts it unambiguously:

What we’re really asking for is freedom of speech, and allowing science, and students, people in applied or theoretical research to have the freedom to go where they need to go and ask the questions.

Apparently, however, that doesn’t include asking questions about Intelligent Design itself. According to Whipple:

Freedom of expression is unseemly at an Expelled press conference. There was no give-and-take, no open marketplace of ideas, in fact, scarcely any questions at all. Ruloff and Stein batted one softball after another out of the park from those posed by Paul Lauer, a representative of the film’s public relations firm. Questions from non-employees had to be submitted by email. Lauer (or somebody at his firm) screened them.

Well, that’s apparently not quite true. Actually quite a few questions were allowed by Stein and other Expelled officials. Of course you had to have the right pro-intelligent design credentials in order to get an answer:

The questions that made it through the screening were from: Listen Up TV, a Christian program; the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention; Focus on the Family; and the Colorado Catholic Herald. Four outside questions in 50 minutes of press conference, only two of which can be described as “press.”

So much for “academic freedom”.  Not only will Expelled try to convince you that it is scientists who are attempting to prohibit discussion of intelligent design, they will further try to convince the audience that they interviewed “many, many scientists” who would not talk on camera. From this they draw the conclusion that most scientists are in favor of intelligent design but simply refuse to discuss it for fear of losing their jobs. This is nothing more than blatant propaganda to anyone who has actually dealt with true scientists – and Whipple completely understands this:

I’ve been interviewing scientists nearly every day for twenty years. Don’t get me started. I have a lot of complaints about them. But refusing to defend their research isn’t one.  Most of the time, you can’t get ’em to shut up. They are so eager to promote their latest hypothesis that I still don’t know whether it’s safe to drink coffee or not. The concept of “hundreds and hundreds of scientists” afraid to talk about their favorite idea is so unlike real life that I have to question – how to put this politely? – Ruloff’s support for this assertion. But then I haven’t talked to every scientist in the world. Maybe I just missed these hundreds and hundreds.

In my experience, scientists are forthright, diligent and feverishly eager to promote their ideas. There is no greater scientific laurel to be gained than to overturn the reigning paradigm. I get periodic emails from a wonderful man, a respected nuclear chemist, who has a groundbreaking idea about the makeup of the sun. He thinks it’s a ball of iron. The world’s leading solar physicist described these ideas to me as “crackpot science.” Does this make my nuclear chemist shy of publicity? Does it make him quake in the shadows and hide from the cameras? Is he so terrified of the solar physics establishment that he can’t eat his morning cereal? No. He sends out another blanket email with dense formulae, along with a polite note. But the sun remains un-ironed.

Evidence that evolutionary theory was wrong would rock the world of biology, permanently assuring the immortality of the discoverer, putting him or her in the pantheon of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Darwin and Einstein.

But do intelligent design advocates have anything substantial in support of their ideas in which they can marshal even the most minimal confidence? Of course not. As Whipple notes:

The key word here, though, is “evidence.” Even Aquinas knew that arguments aren’t proof. Simply finding Darwinism inconvenient is not sufficient grounds for rejection. So what is it that’s keeping these quivering aspens from appearing on camera? Fear of funding? No. Lack of evidence. You’d be scared too, going into a battle of wits unarmed.

Intelligent Design proponents have no data on which to hang their hats, so they have to resort to that age-old method for convincing an otherwise unknowing audience of their point of view: propaganda.

Expelled is slickly packaged propaganda movie…nothing more.



  1. […] County Primer on Ben Stein’s Expelled #2: I’m sorry, but…What’s this movie about?  In our first primer on the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, featuring actor Ben Stein, we saw that the film’s producers, while claiming bias in the […]

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