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Physical Chemistry

'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed'

Ben Stein's antiscience 'documentary' equates evolution with Nazism

by Melody Voith
April 28, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 17

Credit: Premise Media
Credit: Premise Media

Ben Stein—law professor, actor, game show host, and now a documentary filmmaker—thinks he has uncovered a plot by the scientific establishment to drum good scientists out of academia merely for expressing their personal beliefs. Has big science decided that science and religion are mutually exclusive? An examination of the battle lines and players in such a drama would make a fascinating movie. "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" is not that movie.

Instead, it's a cleverly edited but convoluted and misleading diatribe that tries to lend legitimacy to intelligent design (ID). The film features six people, including a teacher and a journalist, who claim that the mere mention of ID has ruined their careers. Institutions—including the Smithsonian—are accused of orchestrating firings, blacklistings, and lab shutdowns. But then "Expelled" abruptly changes direction to tour every hackneyed argument against evolution.

Stein takes us to the high-rise offices of the Discovery Institute, a self-described "public policy think tank" that is best known for advocating ID as a valid scientific theory. The organization's spokesman complains that the media incorrectly defines ID, but he does not take the opportunity to explain it himself.

In fact, the movie provides a vast buffet of definitions of ID and thus accidently illustrates why scientists are loath to take up the ID versus evolution debate. There is no one theory of ID to discredit or disprove—the film illustrates in damning detail that ID is a fluid disavowal of nonsupernatural explanations of the diversity of life.

According to the film, some ID supporters believe in "microevolution" but not "macroevolution." Mutation and natural selection observed in a lab proves only that microevolution occurs, they say.

Other interviewees in the film discount evolution entirely, saying that Darwin's work was basically bad science and bad theory from the beginning. At one university, Stein collects another definition of ID, not as a theory but as a practice of scientific inquiry that "studies patterns in nature to detect intelligent creation."

Lastly, many ID proponents accept large swaths of the theory of evolution, but they say it is not the only theory that explains life on Earth today. Their reasoning is that everything we see today minus differences likely arising from genetic mutation and proven effects of natural selection equal proof of an intelligent designer.

Stein finds a few notable scientists willing to engage the evolution debate, but they either seem puzzled by his questions or appear to assume that Stein believes as they do. Stein interviews Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion"; science blogger P. Z. Myers; and Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education, among others.

In contrast to his other subjects, who want to believe that ID is capable of "upsetting the apple cart" or "throwing bombs" at Darwinism, the pro-evolution subjects brush off ID as ignorant fantasy. All the pro-evolution forces are shown to be atheists or likely atheists; Stein anoints avowed atheist Dawkins as their spokesman.

Scott points out that many scientists do believe in both God and evolution. No scientist in this category appears in the film, nor does Stein find any atheists who back ID, despite talking points that claim ID is not a religious philosophy. If so many scientists are atheists and ID is a legitimate scientific pursuit, where are the atheist ID researchers?

The film then takes a nauseating detour. If the theory of evolution is true, Stein asserts, then it proves that God does not exist. His leap of logic continues: No God and no life after death means that free will does not exist, and thus humans have no reason to be ethical. Filming from the site of a Nazi death camp, he wants viewers to believe that Darwin led to eugenics and to the Holocaust. That Hitler was a fan of Darwin's theory is not news. That the science of evolution caused "social Darwinism" is an old and repeatedly discredited idea.

What about the scientists Stein talks to who claim to have been harassed and ruined? Stein offers no corroborating evidence that any of them suffered the negative effects that they claim. Publications such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Nature have investigated the stories and found them to be bogus.

Stein uses patriotic language and imagery to say that the scientific enterprise is a free marketplace of ideas and that all ideas should be treated equally. But underpinning the scientific method is the knowledge that all ideas are not equal, and in fact, the vast majority of ideas are demonstrably wrong. When ideas that are proven wrong do not go away, science does not advance.

"Expelled" might have been a worthwhile film. It could have examined whether trends or dogma in science squash legitimate lines of inquiry. Instead it is just a messy, illogical, insulting, and poorly researched work of antievolution propaganda.



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