Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Expelled, the Review

That's two and a half of five Calvins, in my ranking system.

I watched the movie last night. Here are my thoughts and opinions. As usual, I'll probably manage to piss off both sides of the aisle.

Ben Stein

Ben Stein was the best thing about Expelled. I found his dry, laconic, self-effacing style to be quite appealing. In his interview with Dawkins, he was the very antithesis of "in your face," yet his non-confrontational style was probably the reason that Dawkins selected a rope, measured out its length, tied the knot, and proceeded to hang himself with his own words. I have to believe that criticism directed toward Ben Stein is criticism directed toward his message, not his style. His performance, if you will, was masterful.

The Atheists

The atheists in the movie were, of course, not shown in a favorable light, to say the least. I'll postpone, for the moment, the question of whether they were treated fairly and honestly. For now I'll take their interviews at face value.

Dawkins has some moments where his wit, charm, and intelligence come through—but he looks very bad in the final interview with Stein, clearly the film's apex. There he states that there might conceivably be evidence for design hidden deep in the complex biochemistry of the cell. But then he immediately argues, with no supporting scientific evidence, that even if that were the case, the designer must have been an advanced creature who was the result of evolution. Thus he admits that design might be a scientific question, but then dogmatically asserts that the implication of such a stupendous discovery must be confined within boundaries of his choosing. It was both a concession and a display of atheist fundamentalism combined in one fell swoop. Those familiar with Dawkins's theological reasoning will recognize this as his primary case against a creator God—it's nothing more substantive than the third grader's argument of "If God made everything, who made God?" in a cheap tuxedo.

PZ Myers "live" is soft spoken, but the effect of his calm uber-rational ice-water-in-the-veins demeanor is more chilling that his militant on-line persona. When he says "we won’t take away their religion" (or something close to that) there is an unspoken, intended or not, but we could, and we might change our minds. The feedback loop he describes, of more science leading to less religion leading to more science, will cause people to extrapolate to a society that is all science all the time, and the images so conjured will likely be more frightening than appealing.

Cornell biologist William Provine is probably, from the atheist perspective, the most damaging. You can almost imagine that the atheists would suspect he is a sock puppet. He repeated his usual claims—that evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly, namely: 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent. And indeed, one person I spoke to who watched the movie admitted that he thought, at first, that Provine was a theist explaining the evil effects of atheistic evolution, not a proponent bragging about the inevitable consequences of his viewpoint.

However, the (assumed atheist) who came off the worst, the one who looked like an incompetent bumbling liar, was Iowa State's John Hauptman. He first tells us how much he liked the "expelled" Guillermo Gonzalez, only to be confronted with the email he sent to Hector Avalos lumping Gonzalez with "idiots" and "religious nutcases." He then, utterly transparently, tried to weasel out of his predicament, claiming that he didn't really mean Gonzalez but those generic punching bags, the Young Earth Creationists. It was painful to watch. He actually made me wish for the straightforward honesty of PZ, who would, I suspect, have the intestinal fortitude to say yes, he thought those things about Gonzalez.

The Expelled

Michael Egnor stood out as a extremely weak example of being "expelled." He wrote that evolution is irrelevant to the field of medicine. To a limited extent he is correct—I doubt my family practitioner, when diagnosing my strained ligament, needs to consult evolutionary theory. Clearly, however, a great deal of the medical field does use evolutionary theory. But what was Egnor's persecution? He was ridiculed. That may be unpleasant, but it is not persecution.

Robert Marks was, for me, the most disappointing. He is the distinguished Baylor professor who got a small grant (in addition to his large, traditional research grants) to do some ID research. This resulted in a website on a Baylor server, and the hiring of Dembski, persona non grata at Baylor, as his postdoc. His persecution was that Baylor forced him to move the website to a private server. This has been hyped from the ID community as "Baylor shut down Marks's lab!" with intended (and utterly false) associated imagery of equipment being confiscated, papers shredded, and doors padlocked. I held out hope that Marks was somehow embarrassed and perhaps felt a little used by ID Inc., but no, he embraced his martyrdom completely, arguing that he had never seen such gross violations of academic freedom in his thirty years of academia. Well, cold fusion is more science than ID, it actually makes testable predictions. And if I want to do cold fusion research, the university cannot stop me. But they aren't required, by academic freedom, to provide me with a web server to discuss my research.

Caroline Crocker was either an adjunct or a part time instructor—but definitely not tenure track, at George Mason. Her contract was not renewed, quite possibly because she brought up ID in her biology class. That, however, is not persecution. Adjuncts agree to teach what the department wants them to teach, and have little flexibility to adjust content. I would admire Crocker if she said "I knew they didn't approve of my teaching about ID, but I felt a duty to do so, and I accept the consequences." Civil disobedience when you accept the consequences is commendable. Civil disobedience when you label the easily anticipated response as persecution is not.

To me, Richard Sternberg has always been the most sympathetic of the "expelled." Even if you accept that he circumvented procedure in accepting an ID paper for publication, the response was quite unsavory. The correct response, anytime a paper that, in your opinion, slips through, is to write and publish a refutation of the paper. In Sternberg's case we have the National Center for Science Education feeding the Smithsonian with personal information about Sternberg's religious associations. That I view as repulsive—hence the sympathy I have for Sternberg.

Expelleds Faults

First a relatively minor nitpick: the frequent (and I mean frequent) breakaways to stock footage were neither funny nor useful. They were distracting.

A serious flaw in the movie is they never defined Intelligent Design. This was no doubt on purpose. They simply implied that it was a bona fide scientific theory. I don't think anyone who didn't know what ID was could figure it out from the movie—they could only deduce that it was good because it was opposed to evolution. Not defining ID, and just presenting is as a legitimate scientific theory, allowed them to avoid the difficulty of defending ID as science. That of course would have been impossible: a theory than cannot offer an experiment that can test its predictions is not a scientific theory. Rather than go there, ID was just this nebulous background noise that was somehow the oppressed opposite of evolution.

The movie also failed miserably in an area in which it was predestined to fail miserably: in making the case that ID is not about religion. I don't think a reasonable person could watch that movie, with all the God talk, and not conclude that ID, whatever it is, is inextricably associated with religion.

The biggest failure of the movie is exactly what I feared—it pits science versus faith. My own ministry on this blog, such as it is, is to demonstrate that science, like archeology or history, is not something faith should fear. Expelled undermines that message. It is not hard to imagine a Christian, not knowledgeable about science, leaving Expelled with an invigorated sense that science is our enemy. Worse, I think Expelled engaged in this ungloryfying mission with malice aforethought, because they could have easily blunted the effect by interviewing people like Ken Miller and Francis Collins.

Ethical Questions

Several ethical questions have arisen about Expelled. One is concerning the animation. I have nothing to say about that, other than the cell animation in Expelled was virtually worthless. With no overlayed explanation of the wonders of cell machinery and relating it to what we were watching, to the layman (that would be me, in this case) it was just weird cartoon blobs moving about. It was totally ineffective.

Another ethical question has been the use of extras to pack the lecture hall for scenes of Stein lecturing. As I expected, I found this to be a non-issue. It was quite clear that it was a hand-picked audience, and I would certainly allow the filmmakers the latitude to stage a framework for Stein's lecture. The movie didn't say or imply that this was an actual audience of random students. That complaint is much ado about nothing.

The serious issue concerns the interviews. The atheists interviewed were told that it was for a movie name Crossroads that was to deal with the faith/science intersection. Yet at the time of the interviews the domain name "" was already registered, but no such registration existed for "crossroads." Clearly if PZ Myers and others knew the actual name of the movie, they might have decided not to participate, or would have guarded their words. This deception, we are told, is standard practice in documentary film making. But deceiving atheists does not a victory make, even if it follows standard practice. This is a movie by the faith community, and our standards should be higher.


I enjoyed Ben Stein's performance. I didn't like either the message of Expelled or the likely consequence, which is increased distrust of science on the part of mainstream Christians. There was no effort to explain that Dawkins and company are not typical scientists, but a radical attention-seeking minority. There is no way for a layman to avoid reaching the conclusion that they are mainstream—and this false conclusion, encouraged by the makers of Expelled, is harmful to the faith.

Hector Avalos is a rather despicable creature who is a modern cliché—an atheist professor of religion. Regardless of the merits of Gonzalez's tenure denial, the scientifically illiterate Avalos engaged in the most cowardly possible form of "scholarship"—engineering a risk-nothing petition aimed, in spite of flimsy denials, at discrediting Gonzalez. Now if Avalos had a real pair, and said "we the undersigned will quit ISU and walk away from tenure if Gonzalez is promoted," well then I'd have to doff my cap to him. He didn't, the little fraud.

UPDATE: Fixed a few typos. And changed my ranking scale to be out of five Calvins instead of four, lest I sent the wrong message on Limited Atonement. Tip o' the hat to wrf3.

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