Thursday, April 24, 2008

My take on Expelled. Now with Extra Praeteritio!

I saw Expelled. It was atrocious. For those who haven't been paying attention, this movie is a documentary starring Ben Stein in which he claims that intelligent design has been discriminated against in academia and that evolution is responsible for most of the horrors of the 20th century.

I'm not going to spend time addressing the most serious factual problems in the movie. So I'm not going to talk about how they lied and omitted relevant data about what actually happened with Richard Sternberg. Nor am I going to address the truth about Guillermo Gonzalez's tenure denial. Nor am I going to address any of the myriad other claimed examples of persecution in the movie which suffer from serious holes.

I'm also not going to talk about the allegations of plagiarism and copyright violations.

I'm also not going to spend too much time talking about the heavy-handedness of the movie other than to say that there are only so many comparisons Stein can make to the Berlin wall and so many images of Nazis before one's boredom overcomes how offended one is.

Finally, I'm not going to talk about Stein's attempt at semantic juggling to claim that ID isn't creationism since it doesn't explicitly endorse a literal interpretation of Genesis.

I am going to instead focus on three details that summarize how completely and irredeemably awful this movie was.

First, Ben Stein at one point says that the world population is eight billion. When we saw this we all talked about maybe we had missed when it had gone beyond seven and it now rounded up. Nope. All sources say that it is now about 6.6 billion. Stein cannot even claim this was due to a rounding error. When you cannot even get that basic facts correct I'm at a loss to understand why Stein expects anyone to take this movie seriously. And is this evidence that Win Ben Stein's Money was just a fraud?

Second, some of the people interviewed as ID proponents expressed skepticism that speciation occurs. That's particularly interesting because at this point the evidence for speciation is so overwhelming that even the major Young Earth Creationists acknowledge that speciation happens.

Third, there was a section where Stein was interviewing people about abiogenesis and scientists were to a large extent acknowledging that we do not know much about how life started. Now, I'm not going to address the issue that how life started isn't actually all that relevant to whether evolution is correct or not. However, there were two ideas discussed where Stein's response was interesting. The first idea, directed panspermia, one might be right to criticize (certainly I think Imre Lakatos would criticize it as not being a fruitful research program). Of course, Stein's criticism consisted solely of showing clip scenes from old science fiction movies. Hardly an example of an intellectually sophisticated criticism.

The second idea discussed was when one chemist who mentioned the possibility that a possible precursor of life might have been self-reproducing chemicals in a crystalline matrix (I may have the details slightly wrong. It was only mentioned briefly). Now here's the fun part: the movie switches to a black-and-white clip (they like to do this a lot) of a stereotypical fortune-teller looking at a crystal ball. Stein voices over "Aliens? Crystals? I thought this was science!" (this may be a slight paraphrase).

Now, I'm genuinely puzzled as to what he thinks is not scientific about crystals. The best explanation I can come up with is that he associates them with New Age nonsense and does not understand that crystals are in fact chemically and geologically interesting objects. The level of anti-intellectualism in Stein's statement is appalling. And frankly, I'm a bit shocked that apparently no one who saw early versions bothered trying to tell Stein that there wasn't anything unscientific about studying crystals.

This entry is getting long but I must end it with an important disclaimer:
I don't think that criticizing this movie or Ben Stein is a valid ad hominem attack of the type discussed in my previous entry. Someone with the same resources could easily make a more convincing movie. Furthermore, Stein is not in general a major originator or proponent of ID and many of his ideas (such as that ID is all about God) are in direct contradiction to what some of the major ID proponents have said (the fact they are likely lying is somewhat besides the point). Overall, this is a terrible movie and Ben Stein at best comes across as a stupid ignoramus and a failed demagogue. But it doesn't really say much about Intelligent Design.


Anonymous said...


Perhaps the 8 billion is future-proofing?

But anyway, I haven't seen the film (can't have from over here). But I presume the life-from-crystals theory is the one which originated with A.G. Cairns-Smith. Dawkins uses it in The Blind Watchmaker.

In general I think it falls into the "Interesting hypothesis, but..." category; can't be ruled out but seems unlikely in comparison to others. In particular, the origin of life in RNA seems much more likely.


Dunc (saw it in your Facebook update).

Elissa said...

I would also recommend that you not bring up the fact that Ben Stein can't find a given coordinate in the Cartesian space of Seattle.

KLP said...

I'm glad I read this, Josh. In the words of Henry Rollins, Ben Stein "is dead to me." After watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off, I kind of liked the guy. Dark forces must have gotten to him, not unlike Jeffrey Jones. Perhaps these dark forces also pursue the remaining cast...

Alan said...

Good article. Thanks. I think that Ben Stein's comment about the crystals is one example of an attempt to draw the argument away from a scientific playing-field. Instead of proving evolution wrong on scientific grounds (which they have not been successful), they are doing away with the entire scientific method, and attempting to prove their case on emotional/religious/gut instinct grounds (which they have been much more successful at). A proper defense of evolution might start with a defense of the scientific method.

Joshua said...

Dunc - I think you are correct about the crystals. Unfortunately, the segment was only a few seconds so it wasn't clear what precisely they were talking about. Unfortunately, I don't know that much about abiogenesis research.

Re: 8 billion people. Since this is a documentary rather than a work of fiction future-proofing seems unnecessary especially since the world pop isn't like to be that large until the late 2020s. Furthermore, the logical future-proofing would have been to say 7 billion which is correct with rounding now and will be correct with rounding until close to 2020.

Elissa- ok. I won't.

Klp- I think comparing Stein to a convicted pedophile seems extreme. Just because Stein sinks to such levels doesn't mean we should.

KLP said...

You're right, Josh. To clarify, I wasn't comparing them. Too easy.

ERV said...

LOL @ the crystal section

I didnt think about that... LOOOL!

Joshua said...

Hi Abbie, since you're here could you maybe take a look at "Ur Doing it Wrong!" a few entries above this one.

Ian and I aren't sure about what the proper LOL is.