No Intelligence Involved in Expelled

I’ve finally watched Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, an authored documentary on the Intelligent Design (ID)movement. My review of it will deal with the twisted structure of its argumentation and not with the ID ideas themselves because there are experts on the subject who successfully refute the few legitimate ID arguments.

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The main argument of Expelled is that the ID proponents are unjustly expelled from the academia to hide the big crisis in evolutionary biology (huh?), and the film starts with the metaphor (which it continues to make large use of) of the Berlin wall and oppressive regimes for the ban of ID from science. I was determined to put my years of reading of evolutionary biology aside and to try my best to watch it as objectively as I could as a person outside the particular scientific academia, and it went quite well for a thirty minutes as examples of “expelled” people were presented. “OK”, I thought, “maybe there really are cases of unjust firings” though Stein wasn’t offering any detail on what those people exactly wrote to call the wrath of the academia upon themselves.

Then a familiar problem, familiar from every discussion of evolutionary theory versus religion, surfaced: without even a glance to what evolutionary theory is, Stein focused our attention on our (I’d like to add “current” and “relative”) ignorance on how life began, presenting it as the fatal weakness of the theory. Here are two facts:

  1. Evolutionary theory is not about how life began, it is about how it evolved once it (replication, variation and selection) has started.
  2. There are respectable scientific theories dealing with the origin of life, compatible with the evolutionary theories. We just don’t know which (or either) one is true yet.

So if you have a problem with our current state of knowledge about the origin of life, it’s not evolutionary theory you are opposing, it’s the scientific method in general. By the way, it is ironic that Stein tries to humiliate those theories by asking “Crystals? Aliens? I thought we were talking about science!” since the directed panspermia theory he calls “aliens” actually points to a physicalistic kind of intelligent design; the kind that most ID proponents are obliged to acknowledge in order to be politically correct by saying “We’re not all about God! Any kind of ID is OK!” The idea that the earliest forms of life on this planet were designed by some other sophisticated life form (which is itself evolved) from another planet is a defendable scientific position even if it’s not very strong against Occam’s Razor and apparently not very interesting for the ID people.

Modern science (on the left) stands no chance against the sophisticated ID people.

Modern science (on the left) stands no chance against the sophisticated ID guys.

After the false alarm of crisis I wasn’t surprised to see the next familiar move: evolutionary theory isn’t a good theory because it brings moral corruption! First, we are left to agree with the self-evident fact that life can only get its meaning from religion and wonder why all those atheist people are still alive. Then we are ready to meet the masters of science: Nazis and eugenics. I’m not going to argue about the degree to which Hitler was motivated by his misunderstood and misguided version of the evolutionary theory, because it has NOTHING to do with the scientific questions and theories in question! Likewise, the possibility that learning about the evolutionary theory might take away the precious meaning of our lives – whatever that is – has nothing to do with its being true or false!

Very well, but since it’s certainly true that the eugenics movement was influenced by the theory (mixed with other ideas), isn’t it hypocrite of us to ignore it while blaming religion for all the wars and terrorism it caused? No, because religion is largely a system of ethics telling people what to do, hence responsible for their actions, whereas scientific theories are just descriptions of what is out there. This is one of the most important differences between religion and science in my view, and one that is often forgotten. Evolutionary theory is just a description of how life on Earth has been evolving, and is not responsible for the actions of some deluded people who misinterpret it as a to-do list.

Now let’s ask some questions: why does someone spend ten whole minutes to go into the details of how Jewish people were killed in a documentary about Intelligent Design? Could that be because he is too ignorant, like eugenics proponents, to know the difference between science and ethics? Or is it because he is smart enough to manipulate people’s feelings to make his case on scientific questions? I’d go for the latter since that someone is also very keen to flatter the nationalist pride, using his every chance to mention the great “American dream” of freedom to defend the freedom to toy with the definition of a scientific theory. Either way, Hitler is a wise choice to strengthen the oppressive regime metaphor with all the imagery from Nuremberg Rallies; somebody had to do this after Richard Dawkins’s comments in Root of All Evil? on Ted Haggard’s ceremonies. (Not to mention the other wise choice of make-up and lighting which turned Dawkins into Dracula in his interview by Stein. I found it particularly cheap that all we see are Nazi soldiers, crappy scenes from old black-and-white science-fiction films, old books on Darwin’s bookshelves and a marble statue of him whenever Stein talks about the evolutionary theories while the ID guys get to talk over colorful 3D models of DNA in their cool, nicely illuminated labs. His short parody of the film shows that Dawkins isn’t also happy with the way his words are cut.)

Richard Dawkins before and after he got bitten

Richard Dawkins before and after he got bitten

Expelled would have been taken more seriously by me (and maybe by the “oppressive science lobby”) had it played the “it’s not about God, we argue for any kind of ID” card all along and explored the expelling cases in more detail. But we know that the possibility of the intelligent designer being something other than God (“Aliens?”) isn’t scientific enough for Stein. Instead, he goes off track by declaring the issue of origin of life as the crisis of the evolutionary theory, by playing irrelevant emotion/ethics cards and by invoking religion as complementary to science. Seeing all those dirty tricks, one starts to wonder whether the superficial presentation of the so-called expellings was a wise choice too. Those people can check out this website by the National Center for Science Education for some insight into the cases.

Expelled is not so much a distress call for ID as an amateur attack on modern science. It is too much authored even for an authored documentary, and is a bad one even for a subject like Intelligent Design.

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