Civil Liberties

Flunk This Movie!

Ben Stein's new anti-science movie Expelled is all worldview and no evidence.


"This is not a religious argument," asserts Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman in conservative Hollywood gadfly Ben Stein's new anti-science propaganda film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie opens this Friday in 1,100 theaters, the largest theatrical release ever for a documentary, according to Expelled's producers.

The movie's basic point? To quote a transcript from a Rush Limbaugh show posted to the movie's offical website: "Darwinism has taken root, taken hold at every major intellectual institution around the world in Western Society, from Great Britain to the United States, you name it. Darwinism, of course, does not permit for the existence of a supreme being, a higher power, or a God."

Yet despite its topic, the film is entirely free of scientific content—no scientific evidence against biological evolution and none for "intelligent design" (ID) theory is given. Which makes sense because biological evolution is amply supported by evidence from the fossil record, molecular biology, and morphology. For example, the younger the rocks in which fossils are found, the more closely they resemble species alive today, and the older the rocks, the less resemblance there is. In addition, molecular biology confirms that the more distantly related the fossil record suggests species lineages are, the more their genes differ. 

Instead of evaluating this evidence, Stein spends most of the movie asking various proponents of evolutionary theory, including Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Michael Ruse, and Daniel Dennett, for their religious views. Neither the producers nor Stein understand that offering critiques of a theory with which they disagree is not the same as proving their own theory.

Stein and the film's producers maintain that belief in evolutionary biology makes societies more likely to succumb to totalitarianism. The flick is replete with grim black-and-white shots of Soviet armies, Nazi thugs, Stalin, Hitler, and concentration camps. The filmmakers portray opposition to teaching ID in universities and public schools as a threat to freedom on a par with Communist and Nazi repression. But ID proponents in the academy are not being dragged off to concentration camps by goose-stepping Darwinist thugs—the worst thing they suffer is the loss of their jobs. That's not fun, but it's not the gas chamber either.

This silly, duplicitous film features one associate after another of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based "think tank" that has been at the forefront of campaign to smuggle intelligent design into science classrooms and public discourse. This campaign was outlined in the Discovery Institute's infamous "Wedge Strategy" document in 1998. That document begins with the sentence, "The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built." The Wedge document goes on to complain: "Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science."

The Wedge document makes it crystal clear what comes first for intelligent designers, and it isn't evidence. Under activities to popularize intelligent design, the Wedge document mentions "documentaries and other media productions." Expelled is just part of that propaganda strategy.

The film is being bankrolled by Walt Ruloff, a Christian evangelical software millionaire. A resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, Ruloff hooked up with another Expelled producer, Logan Craft, when Craft was studying with evangelical theologian J.I. Packer at Regent College in Vancouver. Ruloff claims that he was shocked when one of the leading genomic researchers in the U.S. told him that as much 30 percent of research in his field is never published because it points toward intelligent design theory. Just how this much research is hidden from view goes unexplained.

The film begins with moody shots of Ben Stein backstage before he addresses an unidentified audience on the alleged suppression of scientific research in the name of Darwinian orthodoxy. Stein stalks onstage and declares that freedom is the essence of America. So far, so good. Then he muses, What if our freedom was taken away? In fact, Stein asserts that this is already happening. We are losing our freedom in one of the most important sectors of our society—science.

As evidence of this loss of freedom, Stein trots out a small parade of intelligent design martyrs. Let's look at a few cases. In 2004, Richard Sternberg, who was editor of the scientific journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, published an article by Stephen Meyer arguing that the "Cambrian explosion" 570 to 530 million years ago in which most of the body types of animals developed was evidence for intelligent design. Meyer was then a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University where all "trustees, officers, members of the faculty or of the staff, must believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; that man was directly created by God."

Sternberg was serving on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group, a group of young-earth creationists. Baraminology is the study of biblical animal "kinds." Sternberg argued that he was a friendly outsider advising them against their young-earth views. Meyer is now the head of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and Sternberg is a signatory of the Discovery Institute's A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.

Many of Sternberg's colleagues reacted with dismay and the journal retracted Meyer's article. In the film, Sternberg says he lost his office at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, was pressured to resign, and had his religious and political beliefs questioned. Yet, he still has office space in the Museum and has been reappointed for three more years. To be sure, probably some of his colleagues are unhappy with him and don't want to hang out with him anymore. This is far cry from the concentration camps, or what Stalin did to proponents of evolutionary biology in the name of Lysenkoism.

In another case of alleged persecution, George Mason University (GMU) did not renew a teaching contract with Caroline Crocker, an adjunct biology lecturer who believes in ID. She says that she only wanted to teach students to question scientific orthodoxies. "I was only trying to teach what the university stands for—academic freedom," she says in the Stein's film. Since GMU let her go, she says that she can no longer find work. In the film, Crocker insists, "I did not teach creationism." Interestingly, Crocker apparently delivered the same offending lecture at a local community college later. It didn't turn out to be a "balanced" presentation of evidence for and against biological evolution. Why not? "There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution," Crocker said.

Assistant professor of astronomy
and ID proponent Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007. In 2004, Gonzalez was coauthor, with theologian and Discovery Institute fellow Jay Richards, of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. The publisher's press release claims that the authors "demonstrate that our planet is exquisitely fit not only to support life, but also gives us the best view of the universe, as if Earth—and the universe itself—were designed both for life and for scientific discovery." Gonzalez is arguing that the Earth is precisely positioned to enable researchers like him to make scientific measurements. But is this so? An Iowa State colleague, associate professor of religious studies Hector Avalos, disagrees and neatly skewers this conceit. To wit:

This rationale is analogous to a plumber arguing that if our planet had not been positioned precisely where it is, then he might not be able to do his work as a plumber. Lead pipes might melt if the Sun were much closer. And, if our planet were any farther from the Sun, it might be so frozen that plumbers might not exist at all. Therefore, plumbing must have been the reason that our planet was located where it is.

Did Gonzalez fail to get tenure because of his ID views? Although the university denies it, my guess is probably yes. Why? On the evidence of The Privileged Planet, Guillermo's colleagues could reasonably worry that his ID views weren't likely to lead to fruitful research results. Gonzalez was not thrown into a concentration camp for his views. He just didn't get tenure.

The most egregious part of the film is the attempt to link evolutionary biology with Communism and Nazism. The claim that Communism was motivated by Darwin is just plain silly. Official Soviet biological doctrine was Lysenkoism, which was opposed to the findings of the modern synthesis of genetics and evolutionary biology. In fact, evolutionary biologists and geneticists were denounced as "Trotskyite agents of international fascism" and actually thrown into the Gulag for their scientific sins.

As for Nazism, the film interviews mathematician and Discovery Institute fellow David Berlinski who says, "Darwinism is not a sufficient condition for a phenomenon like Nazism, but I think it was a necessary one." To visually illustrate the alleged totalitarian temptations of evolutionary biology, Stein wanders through the Nazi death camp at Dachau. Berlinski and other Discovery Institute denizens are basically claiming that scientific materialism undermines the notion that human beings occupy a special place in the universe. If humans aren't special, goes this line of thinking, then morals don't apply. This is a variation of the adage, "If god is dead, then everything is permitted."

Of course, this overlooks the fact that people down through the millennia have found all sorts of justifications for why they are permitted to murder each other, including plunder, tribal competition, and, yes, religion. Meanwhile, insights from evolutionary psychology are helping us to better understand how our in-group/out-group dynamics contribute to our disturbing capacity for racism, xenophobia, genocide, and warfare. Evolutionary psychology is also offering new ideas about how human morality developed, including our capacities for cooperation, love, and tolerance.

Near the end of the film, Stein asks Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and arguably the best-known living evolutionary biologist on the planet, if he could think of any circumstances under which intelligent design might have occurred. Incautiously, Dawkins brings up the idea that aliens might have seeded life on earth; so-called directed panspermia. This idea was suggested by biologists Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel back in the 1970s. In the film, Stein acts like this a great "gotcha" and is the silliest thing he's ever heard. Of course, the irony is that this is precisely what proponents of intelligent design are claiming—that a higher intelligence created life on earth. Only, they don't want that higher intelligence to be a race of purple space squids. (By the way, Dawkins says that he is not a proponent of directed panspermia.)

The film's close returns to Stein's speech in which he declares, "There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box where it can't possibly touch a higher power." Earlier in the film, Warwick University "science studies" sociologist Steve Fuller archly poses the question: Which comes first, worldview or evidence? Fuller aims his question at the proponents of evolutionary biology. However, as this dreary film itself makes it painfully clear, the question is far more relevant to the supporters of intelligent design theory.

If ID is all worldview and no evidence, here's something else to ponder. At an April 15 press conference for bloggers held at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., the movie's producers said that they plan to use the movie as part of a campaign to roll out legislation in states—so-called "freedom bills"—that would forbid anyone from "punishing" teachers and professors who question "Darwinism." Walt Ruloff noted that the science standards of about 26 states are currently in play and that Florida was likely to pass such a "freedom bill."

Asked if the movie's makers expected any friendly interest from scientific journals, Ruloff noted that Scientific American had savaged Expelled, adding, "I would expect that any other 'science rag' would do exactly the same thing."

"What's happening here is politics," lamented the film's star, Ben Stein, at Heritage. "Politics in the halls of science and that needs to be stopped."

I couldn't agree more.

Ronald Bailey
reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.