Expelled was released three years ago to great fanfare (at least in the evangelical subculture). Here was a film hosted by a famous comedian (okay, not really; it was actually Ben Stein) which claimed to take on the evolution bullies in the name of God, intellectual freedom, and intelligent design. I did this belated review a year later in three parts. The reason? I had to wait until I could take it out for free from the library. No offense to Ben Stein. That’s how I am with most films. I reproduce the review here as an analysis of a revealing cultural artifact which demonstrates some enduring problems with evangelical attitudes toward science, evolution, intelligent design, discrimination, intellectual freedom, and that penchant for thinking everyone is out to get them.
(One more thing. What’s with Stein’s bizarre school boy outfit? Is he trying to replace Angus Young?)
Admittedly if this is to be counted as a film review then it is inexcusably late since Expelled was released over a year ago. However, economic necessity has required the deferment of this review until now. (In other words, I was too cheap to buy a ticket in the theatre or rent Expelled at the video store, and was thus forced to wait until it came to my public library.) Now having seen the film I find myself forced to join the legions of critics in denouncing it as very bad indeed. (As for evidence of those legions of critics, Expelled scored an extraordinarily low 10% aggregate score from critics on rottentomatoes.com.)
Before I get completely negative, I should say that I agree with Expelled‘s major thesis that ID is discriminated against in academia. But I also must say that this is hardly news. (Though it is rather painful to watch some Darwinists interviewed on screen implausibly denying that there is any persecution.) In point of fact, the public university is a very conservative institution, driven by the search for public tax dollars and donor support, and as such radical new ideas are regularly discriminated against. (Consider the extraordinary tenure denial of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University as one obvious example.)
So yes, ID is often unfairly excluded from the university, but I am not sure that that fact is sufficient to sustain a documentary. I’d be more interested in a documentary exploring ways to make universities independent from the political, economic and religious power brokers that ensure such ideological conservatism to begin with. (I am convinced that the primary reasons for discrimination are economic rather than ideological and so the main way to respond is not by changing ideology so much as guaranteeing independent sources of funding for novel research.)
Now for the more direct criticism.
There are many reasons one might find fault with Expelled. For instance, while Ben Stein follows the Michael Moore style of ideologically-driven, sensational documentary filmmaking, in contrast to Moore he presents himself – rather disingenuously I would think – as a disinterested enquirer. (This is most embarrassing when Stein supposedly is wandering around Seattle trying to find the Discovery Institute. And then when he finally drops in “unannounced” he is flummoxed at how modest and unassuming it all is.)
I was also very unhappy with the facile way that the documentary links neo-Darwinism to Nazism. I mean if you want a more substantial catalyst for the holocaust, why don’t you consider the Christian church’s history of anti-Semitism? (For an example, see my blog post “The Intolerable Martin Luther.”)
But my biggest objection to Expelled comes in the way that it misrepresents ID theory. That is, I am most frustrated by Expelled not because I dissent from ID, but rather because I support it. And Expelled‘s presentation of ID is so subtly distorted that I am left wondering if Richard Dawkins really is the executive producer.
If intelligent design were a person, he would surely be a millionaire after suing all the people guilty of making libelous claims against him. So it is that ID is one of the most maligned and misunderstood ideas in academia. And ironically enough, the film Expelled, which presents itself as a defender of ID and academic freedom, is in my view part of the problem.
I’ll get on to that problem in the next post. At this point I will set up the problem by noting how Expelled does provide some insights into ID. The only problem is that the film then squanders those insights.
First important point: ID is often erroneously associated with a whole battery of religious and political commitments. As one scientist interviewed off camera laments: “If I write ‘intelligent design’ they hear ‘creationism’, they hear ‘religious right’, they hear ‘theocracy.'” This scientist is right. It is crucial to recognize that the term “ID” conjures up what is for many a distasteful array of images. This places ID at a huge disadvantage out of the gate: rather like trying to get elected in Utah under the banner of the Green party.
Second important point: ID is actually a very precise, relatively modest, and yet profound claim. It is summarized succinctly by Paul Nelson in another interview in the film: “Intelligent design is a minimal commitment scientifically to the possibility of detecting intelligent causation.” That’s it? Yep. The possibility of detecting design.
It is important that we grapple with the implications here. The age of the earth, the Noahic flood, even common descent … none of these other issues are at stake in ID. In other words, you could believe the earth is 4.6 billion years old, that there was no global flood and that human beings and chimps share a common ancestor, and you could also be an enthusiastic proponent of ID.
Note further that since the sole commitment in ID is to the detection of intelligent causation, you could be an atheist and an ID theorist; it matters not one whit to the theory whether that intelligence is divine.
The importance of this point cannot be overstated because once you realize that ID is a minimalistic claim which is unconnected to any explicitly religious doctrine, you can begin to see that ID might well belong in the science classroom (and even more importantly, in the science lab).
The frustrating thing is that, having provided a platform to make both of these important points, Expelled then undermines them, effectively taking away with the right hand what it has just given with the left. As a result it leaves the viewer with the impression that ID really is anti-Darwin, religious in nature, and committed to assuming that God is the designer. All of these perceptions, which I will demonstrate in my next post, only serve to misrepresent and marginalize ID.
In my last intelligent design post I complained that Expelled creates the (erroneous) perception that ID is anti-Darwin, religious, and committed to assuming God is the designer. Now on to provide some examples.
Let’s begin with the point when Ben Stein considers Francis Crick’s attempt to explain the apparent design of DNA. Though an atheist, Crick concedes that DNA may have been designed, but then he suggests that this design could have resulted from intelligent alien life (i.e. the theory of directed panspermia).
Instead of seriously engaging this proposal of an alien designer, Stein dismisses it with a condescending sneer: “I thought we were talking about science, not science fiction!” This may play for cheap laughs among some conservative Christian viewers, but the cost of this quip is high. How so? Because granting the possibility of an alien designer establishes that ID hypotheses are not necessarily theistic, and that is important to refute the dogged claim that ID is merely “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”.
Not only is ID not necessarily pro-theistic, neither is it necessarily anti-Darwin. Remember Paul Nelson’s definition of ID in the film: “a minimal commitment scientifically to the possibility of detecting intelligent causation”. It follows that there is no necessary conflict between ID and the Darwinian thesis that species originated through a process of random mutation and natural selection (so long as “random” is not defined tendentiously in an absolute metaphysical sense).
Sadly, just as Expelled marginalizes non-thesistic ID theories, so it ignores pro-Darwin Christian theology. Or if not quite ignoring it, it only pays attention to it long enough to dismiss it. Consider one interview where Eugenie Scott (of the NCSC) says to Ben Stein: “The most important group we work with is members of the faith community because the best kept secret in this controversy is that Catholics and mainstream Protestants are okay on evolution.”
Scott is entirely correct in noting this woefully under-reported fact. But instead of engaging the work of the many, many theologians who embrace evolution, Stein’s offers this condescending reply: “Are you sure about that Eugenie?” Next, he substantiates his implied skepticism by interviewing not a theologian but rather a theologically uninformed journalist who dismisses all pro-Darwin theologians as “liberals”. Unless that journalist tendentiously defines liberal theologian as “one who accepts evolution”, this is merely a cheap ad hominem (assuming that “liberal” is meant as an insult).
Not content with defining all pro-Darwin theologians as liberals, this journalist then makes the following completely outrageous claim: “Implicit in most evolutionary theory is that either there is no God or God cannot have anything, any role in it. So naturally, as many evolutionists will say, it’s the strongest engine for atheism.” Sure Richard Dawkins would agree with that. But why not interview some of the majority of Christian theologians who would not?
It is not that Expelled completely shuts out theologians who accept evolution. Indeed, Stein interviews a number of them including Alister McGrath, John Lennox and John Polkinghorne. The only problem is that he never broaches the topic of theistic evolution, or even tips off the viewer that these theologians hold these views.
After a horribly skewed survey of the issues Stein draws his predictable conclusion: “It appears Darwinism does lead to atheism….” To this I say: only if you want it to Mr. Stein.