Saturday, April 19, 2008

Expelled critics: so bored they can't see straight

I saw "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," the controversial new documentary film by Ben Stein on the Intelligent Design debate, at one of the private screenings that was part of the grass roots marketing for the film, and I was disappointed. That's right. Here I made a trip all the way to Louisville, Kentucky from my home in Danville (almost 2 hours away), I go get a big bag of popcorn and a drink, climb the steps in the stadium seating at the Tinseltown Theater for the private screening and, as it turns out, not a single, solitary Darwinist tried to sneak past the big, scary looking octogenarian security guards to try to get in.

So instead, I had to turn my attention to the movie itself, which was excellent. It was effective in its presentation of its views, it was in turns funny, ominous, clever, illuminating, and entertaining. Now I know why the Darwinists are having such a fit--and spending so much time and effort throwing it: this is a powerful expose of academic intolerance. If this one gets wide exposure, they get a well deserved black eye. Whether it does get wide exposure is uncertain at this writing, but I wonder about their strategy, since the more public indignation they manufacture, the more attention they give the movie.

What are they thinking?

People who have doubts about Darwinism (and their numbers are not inconsiderable in this country) have an obvious motivation to see the movie. But this is a movie the Darwinists aren't supposed to like, much less go see. But if I were a Darwinist, what with all the hoopla, I'm going to lay down my 5 bits just to see what all the fuss is about. I'm guessing that their strategy is to convince people that the movie is not very good, which they have spilled a lot of ink trying to do.

There are several things the critics are saying to accomplish this apparent objective, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of the movie at all.

The movie, say the Darwinist critics, wasn't honest with the Darwinists who were interviewed for the film. In other words, they lied. They didn't tell them what the film was about. The producers, of course, dispute this, and point out that they not only told them what the film was about, but gave them the questions in advance and answered whatever questions they had about the film. But they didn't reveal to them the title, say the critics. No, and they probably didn't tell them who the clapper loader and lighting gaffer were either. So what?

What difference does that make to what people like Dawkins would have said? Would they have been less honest about what they believed? If so, then wouldn't not telling them what the movie was about at all have been a greater contribution to the truth about which the critics say they are so concerned? Would Dawkins, et al. not have been willing to state their case at all if they knew more about the film than they apparently wanted to know? Well that would have been big of them.

But the main point is that that has nothing to do with the quality of the movie. Even if it were true, it has nothing to do with whether, when you leave the theater, you thought the hour and a half was well spent.

The film, some say, is intellectually garbled. Read: it it didn't come to a conclusion they agree with. Are there really people going to this movie to witness a visual academic treatise? They only wish. Look, the movie is self-consciously (and self-confessedly) channeling Michael Moore--with the appropriate ideological adjustments. This is infotainment folks, get used to it.

There's the charge that the film doesn't give a definition of Intelligent Design. This could be a problem for dull minds that can't put two and two together to make four. But I have asked myself the question, if I did not know what Intelligent Design was before I saw this film, would I know afterward? I certainly would. What I would not think, after seeing this film, is that Intelligent Design is creationism, which is what the reviewers making this charge wanted to see, and are now upset because they didn't.

In fact, this is the best thing about this movie: it completely dispels the notion that Intelligent Design is just warmed over creationism. Let's face it, it's just hard to the square the image of, say, David Berlinski, the polymath Princeton PhD from, postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in mathematics and molecular biology, analytic philosophy, and philosophy of mathematics, and former professor at Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York, and the Universite de Paris with the stereotype of the creation scientist--particularly when Berlinski, a secular Jew, is shown being interviewed casually slouched back in a chair in his exquisitely decorated Paris townhouse.

Then there is the assertion that no definition of evolution is offered. But evolution is discussed again and again, in detail, with shades of meaning parsed and commented on. Again, the lack of a definition isn't the problem for the critics: rather, it's the lack of a positive portray of Darwinism as they see it is.

The movie, say others, caricatures Darwinism. Well let's face it: any 90 minute movie covering any topic is going to caricature anything it deals with. Caricature is when you take the significant aspects of something and exaggerate them for dramatic effect. And the alternative is? Besides, if the Darwinist critics of this film don't like caricature, they ought to check out their portrayals of ID sometime. They can start with the charge that ID is the same thing as creationism.

In fact, ID critics seem to find it singularly profound to judge this movie on criteria that have little to do with the purpose of the movie. The movie doesn't prove ID; the movie doesn't give an accurate and detailed scientific description of this or that; the movie doesn't give a balanced treatment of the issue; yada, yada, yada. Of course, these are not things the movie even purports to do, much less attempt. This is not a movie about Intelligent Design or evolution. This is a movie about the debate over Intelligent Design and evolution. Any criticisms that don't take account of this are simply nonsensical and irrelevant.

If you slog through the comments from critics and keep your eye peeled, you can find an occasional criticism that, right or wrong, actually belongs in a movie review. The film, say some, is "boring". C'mon. Unless you fall within the category of totally ignorant of the issue of evolution and uncaring (in which case you didn't buy a ticket to go see the movie in the first place), you're going to be mad--either at the Darwinists' ideological cartel, or at the producers for making the movie. You're either going to be cheering Ben Stein on or gnawing on knuckles in frustration. But bored? No way.

In fact, one wonders how such a boring film can elicit such hostility. Peter McWilliams once defined boredom as "hostility without enthusiasm." But these people are not only hostile, they are enthusiastic in their hostility. If they're bored, they sure are worked up about it.

The negative reviews of Expelled are primarily written by people who disagree with the film's central contention, just as the positive reviews are largely from people who agree with it. When it comes to a film like this, there is little room for objectivity. Darwinists aren't going to give this film a positive review any more than a conservative would give a positive review to a Michael Moore film. If you agree with it you like it, if you don't you don't. It's pretty simple.

I actually went to the movie not expecting much. Call me gullible, but I actually believed some of the rhetoric coming from the critics. I was thinking, okay, here these people were nice enough to invite me to the sneak preview and I'm going to walk out feeling obligated to write up something nice about it when I may think it was just a shameless piece of propaganda. Maybe I just won't say anything. Yeah. That's what I'll do.

I needn't have worried.

The thing that I was expecting to be particularly turned off by was the communist and Nazi allusions I had heard were in the film. The film, said one reviewer, "wanders off to blame the theory of evolution for Communism, the Berlin Wall, Fascism, the Holocaust, atheism and Planned Parenthood." Well, to say that this constitutes "wandering off" is, I suppose, the right of the critic concerned about the integrity of a film, but I doubt that is the motive behind the criticism. The point of the film is whatever the filmmaker wants the point of the film to be, and if part of the point is to analyze the ideological origins and implications of the idea of Darwinism, then it's not "wandering off."

In fact, the Nazi and communist imagery was perfectly appropriate to the filmmakers' point. They were talking about ideological totalitarianism. So why isn't imagery that shows totalitarianism in its political form not relevant to it? While I think the more relevant comparison is McCarthyism here, I'll also readily admit that that analogy is not nearly as dramatic, and probably less useful for a filmmaker.

Is the imagery overdone? Perhaps. But those critical of this aspect of the film have to answer the charges included in the film that, in fact, National Socialism and communism relied on a Darwinian view to help ground their political ideologies. Are they denying that they did? All I've heard is squealing that the charge was made. Was Charles Darwin a Nazi or a communist? Of course not. And, being the gentleman that he was, he would undoubtedly have been appalled at the use to which his theory was put.

But he was not just a gentleman: he was a Victorian gentleman. And the whole Victorian project was to try to maintain the traditional moral system without the religious system that engendered and undergirded it. In that respect (and a few others) Darwinism was a product of its time. But the Victorian project was accounted a failure: this moral system could not be maintained without the religious foundation, as Friedrich Nietzsche had predicted. Darwin himself accepted it, good Victorian that he was, but his theory only served to undermine it.

The film doesn't give us a complete account of all this, partly because it can't. But it does call attention to the historical connections, and to connections with the eugenics movement as well. The question is whether these connections are a coincidence or not? Is there something about Darwinism that lends itself to this? When morality is undermined, are we supposed be surprised when it is violated?

The reaction to "Expelled" has not only been hostile, but sometimes ugly (not that that should come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the rhetoric of those opposed to Intelligent Design). The review that ran in my local paper was by Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel, who urged readers not to see the film because Ben Stein might profit from it: "Ben Stein wins your money if you go to his expose on bias against Intelligent Design." One wonders whether that is an equally good reason not to read Moore's reviews.

Then there is FOX News' Robert Friedman: "After seeing a new non-fiction film starring Comedy Central's Ben Stein, you may not only be able to win his money, but also his career ... But that career may be over come April 18." If Friedman were a university department chair and Stein was a professor, he could ensure that, now couldn't he?

Whatever Darwinism's ramifications for morality, it certainly doesn't do much for politeness.

28 comments:

NP said...

It's a fair and well-written review, but I think you've missed out on one of the major reasons why so-called "Darwinists" dislike Expelled. Many of the alleged cases of persecution for belief in ID simply have more to it than the film lets on. The cases of Sternberg, Gonzalez, and Crocker are not new to many of the internauts who have been following the Intelligent Design controversy closely over the last few years. They know what the fuss is about, and they also know that the Discovery Institute goes out of its way to make martyrs out of people who aren't even fired from their jobs to begin with. There's a lot of hypocrisy coming from the Intelligent Design camp as well. For instance, William Dembski's own blog is notorious for banning dissidents from posting comments.

Very little is mentioned of the Dover trial as well. Intelligent Design, after working so hard to try and sneak into the public schools through school boards, finally had its chance to establish itself as a legitimate scientific theory. Yet, William Dembski and Stephen Meyer refused to testify for whatever reason - while scientists established their case for why evolution is amply supported by evidence from paleontology, molecular biology, etc. Yet Dembski and Meyer are now crying foul in a propaganda film.

And there's a very good reason why Expelled doesn't actually engage in the actual scientific evidence for ID (not that there is likely to be any, given it's fundamental nature). It's not because of a lack of time - the film could have easily left out the over-the-top Reductio Ad Hitlerum and usage of a tragedy to score points - it's simply because there is no evidence for ID. It's hardly fair to call evolutionary biologists dogmatic, when you don't give them any good reason to believe that your alternative theory has any scientific merit.

Anonymous said...

MC: "When it comes to a film like this, there is little room for objectivity. ... If you agree with it you like it, if you don't you don't."

I guess Mr Cothran agrees with it then. I wonder if he even looked at the website http://www.expelledexposed.com/ and how he feels his reaction to the movie fits in with Kristof's Thursday NYT column http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/17/
opinion/17kristof.html about reinforcing opinions.

I haven't seen the movie and don't intend to so I can't fairly comment on that. But this article was nowhere near as entertaining as the earlier one about P Z Myers and short pants. That was a wonderful instance of Denyse O'Leary meets James Carville.

jah

ne said...

Just a simple question:

Does the movie ever mention the fact that Stalin rejected evolution because he thought it led to capitalism?

If not, why do you think that is?

(Why are you pre-screening comments, by the way? What happened to freedom of speech?)

Art said...

Martin,

I haven't seen movie or screenings. I'm wondering - did Stein spend as much time with Expelled educators such as Nancy Murphy or Richard Colling as he did people like Crocker? How about real scientists who fought, and beat, the scientific establishment? People like McClintock, Peter Mitchell, Stan Pruisner. These are all very compelling stories, much more than some whiny wrangling over trumped-up insults.

Or are we looking at more mixed messages here?

Speaking of mixed messages, you state "In fact, this is the best thing about this movie: it completely dispels the notion that Intelligent Design is just warmed over creationism." Um, this movie actually makes exactly the opposite suggestion, when it calls Crocker's, um, crock Intelligent Design. I recommend that you look into the reasons she was "Expelled" (if in fact she actually was).

While on the subject of Crocker, you might comment on the disagreement between the views of the makers of Expelled, who clearly think that things like merit and competence take a back seat to theology and ideology when it comes to the granting of jobs, tenure, and the like, and your own views on the matter of merit, tenure, and teacher employment in public schools.

Aside to ne - the blogosphere is rife with spam these days, and Martin may be doing nothing more than being proactive in keeping his tiny corner of the blogosphere tidy.

Anonymous said...

-"Look, the movie is self-consciously (and self-confessedly) channeling Michael Moore--with the appropriate ideological adjustments. This is infotainment folks, get used to it."

Does this mean the movie does not have to be intellectually honest? I thought infotainment was a prejoritive term...

-"Let's face it, it's just hard to the square the image of, say, David Berlinski, the polymath Princeton PhD from, postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in mathematics and molecular biology, analytic philosophy, and philosophy of mathematics, and former professor at Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York, and the Universite de Paris with the stereotype of the creation scientist--particularly when Berlinski, a secular Jew, is shown being interviewed casually slouched back in a chair in his exquisitely decorated Paris townhouse."

This is an appeal to authority. Because one has a degree does not make one's position credible. Especially when one's field of expertise is not biology, and when one demonstrates ones ignorance of biology--as when Berlinski said wales evolved from cattle.

Plus Berlinski claims he does not believe in intelligent design, he just thinks that evolution doesn't meet the standards for a mathematical proof.

-"The movie doesn't prove ID; the movie doesn't give an accurate and detailed scientific description of this or that; the movie doesn't give a balanced treatment of the issue; yada, yada, yada. Of course, these are not things the movie even purports to do, much less attempt. This is not a movie about Intelligent Design or evolution. This is a movie about the debate over Intelligent Design and evolution. Any criticisms that don't take account of this are simply nonsensical and irrelevant."

This is what ID people have resorted to: shifting the focus from the truth-value of ID to an appeal to academic freedom. The argument could be made with anything from astrology to new chronology theorists. The fact of the matter is some things shouldn't be taught because they are false.

Every single one of your arguments could be used for ANY conspiracy theory, you could practically do a global word change and make your article a defense of loose change, the documentary which accuses the US government of being behind the attacks.

Do you think 9/11 conspiracy theories should be taught in the classroom? Is it "ideological totalitarianism" to exclude it? Should we "teach the controversy"? After all, the 9/11 conspiracy theorists have their experts in acadamia who for the most part are talking about things out of their field. But it's hard to believe they're nutty right? They have degrees, they've written books, they are respected in their field.

I'm expecting your next article to be a defense of "Loose Change", and you to be demanding that 9/11 conspiracy theories are taught in the classroom.

And while we're after ideological totalitarianism, lets include astrology, palm reading, scientology, conspiracy theorists of all shapes and sizes, neo-Nazis, UFO sightings, chupacabras, and so on.

Why don't you join me in calling for David Icke to be tenured at a university, you know, the guy who things that world leaders are really lizard creatures disguised as humans? Or you could admit that whether ID is credible is totally relevant to the debate.

Martin Cothran said...

NP,

I'm not sure exactly what your argument is on Dembski being hypocritical in not allowing dissident comments on his blog. Maybe he could extrapolate a little on that. Blogs are set up for people to expound their views on whatever they would like, and who they allow to comment on them ranges widely. A blogger doesn't have any obligation to allow comments at all.

I allow comments on my blog, but some people take advantage of that privilege and use it to anonymously level personal insults and other charges for which their anonymity protects them from taking responsibility. It seems to me I remember that Dembski once did allow free comment on his blog but changed the policy. I imagine the problem on Dembski's blog was several times worse than it is on mine, in which case I don't blame him.

Martin Cothran said...

NE,

I am prescreening comments mostly because every month or so some spammer targets an old post and starts sending junk there. But, as I have said before, I am not above rejecting a post for any reason, including:

1. Rudeness
2. Personal insults
3. I don't feel good that day
4. My dog just died
5. Any other reason I happen to settle on at the moment at which I decide to reject it

I haven't rejected a post for any of these reasons yet, but it would give me a warm, fuzzy feeling if I actually did do it.

In addition, I'm sure you are a fine person, but as fine as you are, you have absolutely no freedom of speech on my blog. You are completely at my mercy. A right comes either from some sort of universal moral law (in order to know which you would have to have some kind of divine revelation), or some positive, written law like the U. S. Constitution.

If you would like to argue why you think you have this right on my blog and would like to cite one of these sources on the subject, you are welcome to do so, and if I am not in some sort of distempered state of mind, I might not reject it.

If I have time, I might even answer it.

I might add that I have set my blog to moderate comments before for the same reason as stated above. I do notice that every time I do it, all of a sudden people become more polite. It is interesting to note the difference between how people act when there is no moral authority overseeing their actions (the sort of world believed in by people like Richard Dawkins), and one in which their actions are being overseen (the sort of world posited by Christians).

I wonder what Christopher Hitchins would say about this.

ne said...

Thanks for the reply. I'd like to address this point:

"you have absolutely no freedom of speech on my blog"

Exactly!

Spot on!

And this is the basic flaw of Expelled.

Ben Stein argues that his religion must be preached in science and science classes. He claims that not allowing unscientific ideas to be promoted as science is a violation of free speech.

But since you are so clear about what Free Speech actually is, perhaps you, in the end, agree with me that not allowing unscientific ideas to be presented as science is not in fact a violation of Free Speech?

By the way, there are lots of scientists who question neo-darwinism and who do actual science, and their ideas are actually taken into account by the rest of the scientific community. The reason why the ID movement has failed to get any kind of traction is that they are trying to circumvent the scientific process and force their religion on others.

Now they made a movie about how dreadful it is that they don't get to force themselves on others.

Martin Cothran said...

ne,

Ben Stein argues that his religion must be preached in science and science classes.

Could you provide a reference for this?

Martin Cothran said...

ne,

I'm trying to understand your argument. Are you saying that because freedom of expression is not observed on blogs, it should therefore not be observed in colleges and universities?

Anonymous said...

Are you saying the right to expression means that a professor cannot be fired for what he teaches?

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

Ever heard of "tenure"?

Art said...

I'll ask again:

Martin, would you care to comment on the disagreement between the views of the makers of Expelled, who clearly think that things like merit and competence take a back seat to theology and ideology when it comes to the granting of jobs, tenure, and the like (this is the message Expelled sends when it offers up Crocker and Sternberg as sacrifices), and your own views on the matter of merit, tenure, and teacher employment in public schools.

Anonymous said...

Martin,

Quite obviously, this wouldn't apply once a professor is tenured. You evaded the question.

The premise that free speech means one cannot be fired for teaching something incorrect or controversial is not very well thought out (to put it charitably).

So again: do you think that the freedom of expression guarantees that professors may keep their jobs regardless of what they teach?

Martin Cothran said...

Art,

You'll have to further expound on your view of the relevance of Crocker and Sternberg to your point, but the obvious point of Expelled seems to me to be that a person's theology or ideology shouldn't be a material consideration in institutions that spend so much time preaching about academic freedom.

I'm not sure what your question is on merit, tenure, and teacher employment in public schools. I think tenure is a necessary evil that should be awarded on the basis of merit in a particular discipline and that it should be awarded fairly, a principle which seems to have been violated in the case of Francis Beckwith by Baylor University (a situation that ended up being resolved), and by ISU in the case of Guillermo Gonzalez.

I don't necessarily agree with the rules set down for tenure decisions, particularly the almost exclusive emphasis on publication as opposed to teaching ability, but once the rules have been laid down, I think they should be applied fairly.

Anonymous said...

You do realize Gonzalez' academic publication dropped dramatically once he was employed with Iowa State University? Which is what is primarily relevant in tenure decisions. Additionally, while he was there, he was a failure with the grad students. By the criteria for tenure, the denial was absolutely appropriate

Anonymous said...

http://pigeonchess.wordpress.com/2008/04/22/expelleds-intelligent-design-theory-this-is-your-daddys-creationism-part-i/

Interesting that the "Expelled Leadership Guide," put out by the producers of "Expelled," repeats all the familiar arguments used by "Creation Science." Yet we keep hearing ID is something different. How does the mechanism for ID differ from the mechanism for creationism?

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

So if a creationist uses, say, a reductio ad absurdum or an a fortiori argument, then anyone who uses those kind of arguments is therefore a creationist?

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

Regarding Gonzalez, was the comment in colleague John Hauptman's e-mail worrying about a "witch hunt" a reference to the discussion of his publication record at ISU in the e-mail correspondence leading up to the decision?

Anonymous said...

It's irrelevant. Regardless of the psychological motivations, Gonzalez's record did not merit tenure. His academic publications dropped dramatically while at ISU (to practically non-existent), he was a failure with the grad students. You said he excelled in the criteria for tenure, and this is incorrect.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

So the actual motivations of those making a tenure decision are irrelevant to the tenure decision? Ooookay. Would you say the same if the motivation for not granting a person tenure was that the person were black or a woman or gay?

And in regard to Gonzalez's publication record while he was at ISU, are you talking about something other than 2004, when he only had two articles published--but produced an astronomy textbook published by Cambridge University Press?

Anonymous said...

Martin said:
"So if a creationist uses, say, a reductio ad absurdum or an a fortiori argument, then anyone who uses those kind of arguments is therefore a creationist?"

You did not read the link I provided or you decided to ignore it. The "Expelled Leadership Guide" even includes suggestions for sermons.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous asks me if I read the link he provided showing a similarity between arguments for Intelligent Design and creationism. I did read it, and the problem with his reasoning was implied in my question which he ignored. His argument, shared by the author of link he posted, is as follows:

All positions which are backed up by similar arguments are identical positions.

Intelligent Design and Creationism are backed up by similar arguments.

Therefore, Intelligent Design and Creationism are identical positions.


Okay. If that reasoning is valid when applied to Intelligent Design and creationism, then it ought to be valid when applied to any other pair of positions.

Now it just so happens that atheists use the same arguments as non-atheist Darwinists. Just read Richard Dawkins' God Delusion some time. Dawkins takes the argument that Darwinism provides a complete materialist explanation for the present state of nature as an argument for his atheistic position. But non-atheist Darwinists see the same set of fact, but disagree that it leads to atheism. But they are obviously not the same position, as both sides admit.

But the point is they use the same arguments. But according to anonymous's argument, they are identical positions, since they use the same argument:

All positions which are backed up by similar arguments are identical positions.

Atheistic Darwinism and non-Atheistic Darwinism are backed up by similar arguments.

Therefore, athiestic Darwinism and non-atheistic Darwinism are identical positions.


The argument form I just used (called a reductio ad absurdum) has been employed not only by me, but by people who completely disagree with me--like Ed Brayton and P. Z. Myers. Think about that: we are all using similar arguments.

Our positions are therefore identical!

Anonymous said...

"So the actual motivations of those making a tenure decision are irrelevant to the tenure decision? Ooookay. Would you say the same if the motivation for not granting a person tenure was that the person were black or a woman or gay?"

Apples and oranges. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are wrong in their own right in a way dislike based on political/scientific views, or even personal dislikes, are not. That is straightforward enough that it shouldn't be said.

And Gonzalez' (co-authorship of a) textbook did not constitute original research, which is the basis for tenure. The whole point of tenure is to try to estimate the promise of original contributions to a field, and Gonzalez' record did not indicate such a contribution.

Anonymous said...

You didn't address why the "Expelled Leadership Guide" has sermon suggestions.

You are misrepresenting how the link compares the "Expelled Leadership Guide" with creationism. Readers of this blog can look at the "Expelled Leadership Guide" for themselves and decide if it is the same thing as creationism. You are misrepresenting the premises of the argument.

Anonymous said...

Yep, it is mere coincidence that cdesign proponentsists use the same out of context quote from Darwin on the eye that old fashioned creationists do. Mere coincidence no relation at all. None at all I say!

Martin Cothran said...

Apples and oranges. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are wrong in their own right in a way dislike based on political/scientific views, or even personal dislikes, are not. That is straightforward enough that it shouldn't be said.

I see. So the motivations count when they are motivations you don't like, but don't when they are motivations that you find acceptable?

Gee. Can I do that too?

Martin Cothran said...

I guess the next time someone says that Darwinism is inherently atheistic because atheists believe Darwinism too, you guys will accept their reasoning at face value, right?