Posted by: cjobrien | 17 February 2008

Lassen 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 scientific community and calling for academic freedom to present their viewpoint, have strictly controlled the ability of people to question the movie in public. The only questions allowed so far are those that are first screened for (apparently) their pro-ID take on the issue. I noted that columnist for the Colorado Confidential, Dan Whipple, was invited to a press conference with Ben Stein and the producers of Expelled, but was not allowed to ask any questions. That should immediately give thinking folks of Lassen County pause as to what kind of movie this really is – hint: the Discovery Channel doesn’t need to be worried about competition – drug and tobacco companies might learn some techniques, however.

In the last primer I also mentioned Dan Whipple’s previous review of Expelled. Let’s take a look…

One of the most frustrating issues in confronting intelligent design is that it is never presented the same way twice. ID is a moving target, the definition of which always has a way of avoiding a direct criticism by shifting its positions before the final blow. ID is like a constantly mutating virus, able to adapt to whatever new context it finds itself without actually having to commit to a set of principles or core ideas that can be tested.

Dan Whipple discovered this about five minutes into Expelled:

But you’ll stay awake through the one-hour-and-forty-five-minute film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” – if you can manage it — without ever hearing this or any other definition of intelligent design. This seems a curious omission in a movie seeking to poke holes in evolutionary theory and by doing so establish some scientific credentials for ID.

So, the movie doesn’t define intelligent design. Nor, by the way, does it define evolution, according to Whipple. In fact, in an effort to rectify the situation, Whipple offers his own “ten cent” definitions of both intelligent design and evolution. Both are no more than a paragraph and yet, in those few sentences in his column, Dan Whipple has “…already told you more about both intelligent design and evolutionary theory than you’ll get from “Expelled.””

So, what is the film about? Basically it’s about misrepresenting evolution and creating false claims that scientists are not allowed to discuss the idea for fear of losing their jobs. That’s generally my take on the film. Whipple comes to that same conclusion but through a very intellectually painful process. Whipple’s take on the overall flow of the movie could not be summarized more perfectly:

But the film is so intellectually garbled it’s hard to summarize. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is Summa Theologica compared to “Expelled.”

Whipple explains that the movie begins with a defense of academic freedom, suggesting in no uncertain terms that the evil “Darwinists” are depriving researchers in ID of academic positions:

“Expelled” trots out several martyrs to the Darwinist inquisition. The poster boy is Richard Sternberg, whom the movie says was ousted from his position at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and from his editorship of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington when he published in that publication a peer-reviewed article of scientific evidence that supports intelligent design.

 Sternberg’s case and those of the other academic red herrings the Discovery Institute has displayed before the public are well known to us in the blogosphere, and not one of them has any merit of being an example of discrimination. The Sternberg saga has been well researched and the real story is not the one presented by the pro-ID community. We’ll revisit each of these cases in future primers on the movie to further make the point, but Whipple came quickly to this conclusion in his review:

The allegations made in “Expelled” are wrong. Sternberg never worked for the Smithsonian, so the Smithsonian couldn’t threaten his job there. He was a visiting scholar with research privileges, assigned an office. He still has both the office and the research privileges. He wasn’t deprived of his editorship. His term as editor had expired so he was stepping down anyway in favor of another editor when the controversial ID article was published.

In short, contrary to the assertions in “Expelled,” Sternberg suffered no harm whatever from the dustup. Which is not to say that he wasn’t criticized. He was. Harshly, rudely and sometimes childishly by fellow scientists. But rough and tumble argument is part of the world of science, whether you’re studying intelligent design, string theory or evolutionary biology.

There are three or four other cases explored in “Expelled,” all of which are presented in black-and-white terms as anti-ID intellectual repression by a Darwinist cabal. Closer examination of the specifics of each reveals pretty ordinary academic backbiting. There isn’t space enough on the internet to go into them here. I’ll leave it as an independent exercise for the morbidly curious.

Since it will be important for the Lassen County community to understand the level of deceit presented in the movie, I will be all too happy in coming weeks to lay prostrate on the altar of the “morbidly curious” and give you the details of each case.

In the meantime, Whipple finds it difficult to continue with reviewing specifics of the movie for the simple reason that there is so much to correct factually and so little in the way of cohesive argument. The intellectual dishonesty portrayed in the movie is evident to anyone with even a remote understanding of evolutionary biology:

There are so many topics picked up, misrepresented and abandoned unresolved by “Expelled” that it is impossible to deal with them all. But they are typical of the intellectual dishonesty of the creationist-Intelligent Design cabal that wants to have this bankrupt hypothesis taught in the public schools.

And later…

But this is a matter of interpretation. Other presentations of “Expelled” display intellectual dishonesty. For instance, most evolutionary biologists do not deal with the origins of life. Evolution acts on organisms that already exist. The question of how life came about is not something that Darwinian evolution deals with. “Expelled” acknowledges this, then proceeds to ignore this acknowledgement and fault evolutionary theory for misinterpreting the origins of life. Sigh.

And the finale…

“Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” may be the first volley in the next battle by creationists to give their movement intellectual weight. But its cartoon version of evolutionary theory, Its remarkable lack of evidence for its case, its unbalanced and hysterical portrayal of the “martyrs,” its dismal and depressing musical score, and its lack of genuine humor will persuade only the already persuaded.

That’s the bottom line of the movie: it was not made to offer evidence that might persuade a reasonable person to wonder if they might be on to something. It was made as a propaganda movie to keep the ignorant within the fold.



  1. I’m dying to know, did Expelled include the oft-made accusation that the meany Darwinists lost poor martyr Sternberg’s keys?

  2. It won’t matter, you know. Creationists, IDists will believe every little thing in this movie. And Ben Stein will become a hero to them. And the world will continue on without them edging a little further ahead and leaving them a little further behind……….

  3. Oldfart – you are quite correct, however, I really believe there is a population out there of folks who just don’t know enough about evolution or creationism and are wondering which way to turn. I would suggest this is a substantial portion of the folks out there – my classes are mostly filled, not with creationists and not with evolutionists, but with students who have never heard much of either argument. When they hear that evolution is not what the media portrays and not what they’ve heard about in church they understand and realize it is the best scientific explanation for what we see in the natural world. This is what makes Denise O’Leary so afraid of reasonable dialogue between scientists and the religious – see my previous post. Anyway, we need to keep this group of people in mind when we write…

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