Tonia and I saw Ben Stein's new movie Expelled last night. I can't remember the last time we went to a movie! But I wanted to be informed about the movie (quickly), rather than relying on second-hand info. And I took extensive notes during the film so I could do a better job with this blog entry. (Yes, I'm a dork!)
We both enjoyed it-- although "enjoy" might not be quite the right word. We would certainly recommend it if you have an interest in Evolution or ID. (Tonia was not particularly interested in the film, going in-- but thought it was well worth our time.) Beyond the debates over science and worldviews, the film's larger themes are freedom in general and academic freedom in particular.
I've only seen one of Michael Moore's films: Sicko. (See: my pseudo-review.) At the least, I would think one would have to put Moore and Stein in the same category-- documentaries that are well-constructed, provocative in terms of substance but quite measured in terms of style, funny in some places and poignant in others, addressing bigger issues, and "enjoyable".
Of course, many people disagree with the details in Moore's films (e.g., Sicko)-- and such disagreements with Stein seem inevitable. (I may report on some of those down the road.) That said, as with Moore's work, don't take the easy way out and let relatively small quibbles distract you from the larger points.
The film's opening credits are accompanied by one of his film methods: interspersing dialogue and live action with old film clips of Germany from World War II and the Berlin Wall. The producers use the same method to insert some humor, bringing in funny clips (e.g., someone is talking about two parties disagreeing and they show a silent film clip of two people repeatedly slapping each other).
From the beginning, it is also clear that the predominant theme is freedom-- and in particular, the threat to academic freedom posed by establishment scientists who adhere strictly to Darwinism. Stein, as narrator, notes that science is about inquiry and the freedom to answer questions-- and asserts in the beginning that Science is being abridged. (One sees the same sort of thing in the debate on global warming.)
From there, the movie catalogs scientists and journalists who have been persecuted or at least ridiculed by the establishment: Richard von Sternberg, Robert Marks II, Guillermo Gonzalez, and so on. Beyond this group, Stein also engages most of the other prominent voices on each side of this debate. (The most prominent absentees I can think of: Michael Behe, Francis Collins, and Kenneth Miller.)
Some highlights (I hope I have the details correct):
-On the Sternberg controversy (about publishing Stephen Meyer's piece in his peer-reviewed journal), Sternberg said that it was odd but noteworthy that Meyer was challenged on a religious (Christian), political (Republican), and sociological (?) basis, but not the scientific aspects of his article.
-The back-and-forth with Michael Shermer was interesting. Shermer is famous for his skepticism-- on everything from theism to aliens. (He's also a libertarian.) Stein asks Shermer why people are being harassed for being skeptical about Darwinism's explanatory power and Shermer is skeptical that this could happen. (Off-camera, Stein concludes by wondering why Shermer's skepticism does not extend to Darwinism.)
-Stein quotes Darwinists on ID who say it is equivalent to creationism (false), connect it to the Religious Right and school prayer (probably true, but among laypeople), connect it to theocracy (huh?), and one who says it is "so boring".
-Stein has a great line as he discovers the Discovery Institute (small) offices: for all the ruckus they've caused, he was expecting something like the Pentagon.
-Paul Nelson makes a great point about science: questions that are not properly answered don't go away. And then Nelson makes a point repeated a few times in the film: privately (or in Nelson's terms, after "three or four beers"), scientists admit the difficulties of Darwinism-- but the public face is uniform and unflinching.
-William Dembski argues that Evolution is "perfectly acceptable", but asks if it's "adequate".
He asserts that it has "valid insights" but doesn't necessarily explain the whole picture.
-David Berlinski is probably the most memorable character on the ID side of the debate. And he makes a great point from his flat in Paris: Before we can say that Darwinism is "correct", we must ask whether it is "clear". He goes on to describe Darwinism as a mess with little precision.
I think this is at the heart of the debate. People have profoundly different meanings for the term evolution (from change within species to a supposedly comprehensive "explanation" for the development of life). And as an aside, very few people have any idea who can enunciate what ID is (including the scientists who oppose "it").
-Stein has some fun with the Darwinian hand-waving about the origins of life: "whatever it was..." and two of the theories. Michael Ruse gets very excited about life beginning "on the backs of crystals". And Stein cites Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick's "pan-spermia" theory where life was seeded here by aliens. Of course, the latter solves nothing [what are the origins of the aliens?]-- and ironically points to ID as a means of testing Crick's hypothesis!
-One ID'er says that, in terms of complexity, the cell is "nothing we've seen in the material world". And another ID'er asks where that information came from-- and notes that natural selection tends to reduce, not enhance, information.
-It was interesting to hear the internal pseudo-debate among Darwinists about whether to be hard-core (e.g., Richard Dawkins and what he sold as his admirably truthful candor) and soft-core (e.g., Eugenie Scott and those who soft-pedal differences between religion and science-- and look for common ground with theists).
-From there, Stein goes into the connections between worldview and science. He provides anecdotal evidence that they are co-determined (or mingled in their determination). Will Provine argues that evolution proves there is no God-- and from there, there can be no morality, free will, or meaning in life. Berlinski argues that Darwinism was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the rise of Naziism. Others point to the obvious connection of Darwinism to eugenics-- and thus, to angles on abortion and euthanasia.
-In a nice follow-up to Provine's beliefs about free will, Stein twice asks his interviewees whether Hitler was insane (lacking free will). The German tour guide at Hadamar says "no, he had his purposes". And Dr. Weikart (author of From Hitler to Darwin: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany) says no, he had wrong ideas and extended their bad logic into radical solutions.
-I'm not sure Stein intends this, but the use of the Berlin Wall as a metaphor reminded me of the use of trade protectionism and government regulation as a political wall to protect the status quo from competition. No one likes competition for what they sell-- and Darwinism is presumably no different in this regard. Moreover, those who want to protect the status quo always have good reasons why the limits to competition are in society's best interests. Having seen tons of this in political economy, it makes it easier for me to believe it could be in play here.
-Stein has some fun with Dawkins toward the end. He pesters Dawkins about his atheism. (I'm not sure why he did that or included that.) Dawkins also admits they "we don't know" how such-and-such happened and it "could be that..." blah-blah-blah. And then amazingly, Dawkins speculates (like Crick) about life being seeded from elsewhere in the universe-- AND that one might be able to scientifically detect a signature of a designer, what ID wants to do!
If you're interested in the topic, Expelled is a must-see. (Even if you're not interested, you'd probably still enjoy it.) And if you disagree with Stein, hopefully, you'll look past particulars to focus on Science and Freedom.
I give the film two (opposable) thumbs up!