Expelled – The Review

October 26, 2008

Three hours ago I finished watching Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the infamous anti-evolutionary documentary by the equally infamous Ben Stein. It markets itself as a hard-hitting expose on the censorship of Intelligent Design Creationism in the academic community, but in reality is just another cog in the anti-evolutionary propaganda machine. It fails on almost every level.

First, the good: there’s some nice music at the start and camerawork is occasionally decent. That’s the good over. The bad is going to take a while.

Let’s get the central flaw of the movie out of the way first: nobody talks about the evidence. A few of the interviewees briefly mention the micro/macroevolution and information fallacies in a very superficial way, but for the most part the evidence for or against evolution is irrelevant. It’s assumed from the outset that the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) point of view is worthy of serious attention simply because it exists. The movie is very obviously pandering to an audience already convinced that evolution is wrong and equally convinced that IDC is right.

This bias is evident in every aspect of the movie. Pro-evolution scientists (PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins among them) are allowed only short sound bites for the majority of the running time, while pro-IDC scientists and ‘the expelled’ (people who supposedly lost their jobs in academia or journalism for daring to mention IDC) are interviewed at length. Dawkins gets a sizeable section to himself near the end, but it’s mainly used to make it seem as if he’s seriously suggesting that panspermia happened. In fact, the only pro-evolution scientist to get a decent amount of face time throughout the movie is a guy who comes across as slightly unhinged and doesn’t believe in human free will.

Whoever edited Expelled thought it would be a good idea to splice clips from old movies into virtually every scene (this is about as obnoxious as it sounds, and it goes on constantly), and here again there’s some pretty clear bias. When one pro-evolution scientist suggests that early life could have grown on crystals, we’re treated to a brief scene of a mugging fortune teller waving his hands over a crystal ball. This, along with Stein’s sneering ‘He’s being serious’, is apparently enough to debunk the idea entirely.

The creative editing doesn’t stop there, of course. Several interviews with pro-evolution scientists are blatantly truncated, so that one man’s annoyed assertion that he’s explained abiogenesis several times already is made to seem like a senseless outburst. Dawkins, Meyers and most other pro-evolutionists or atheists are given virtually no introduction and are interviewed on a dark background with (I kid you not) eery, occasionally threatening music playing in the background. This becomes truly unbearable by the three-quarters mark, when Stein stands in front of a statue of Darwin and honestly looks as if he’s about to weep.

Of course, his faux-tears might be justified by the fact that he’s Jewish. By way of a long (long) section on eugenics and Social Darwinism, Stein firmly establishes that the theory of evolution is directly responsible for the Holocaust. Or not; it’s the usual tripe, and doesn’t really bear repeating here.

Godwin’s Law is invoked in more ways than this, however. There’s a running metaphor throughout the movie which compares scientific thought in American to post-WWII Germany; the ‘censorship’ of IDC is apparently a lot like the Berlin wall…somehow. This point gets belaboured in predictably hyperbolic fashion: giving serious consideration to IDC is apparently a matter of freedom, that all-purpose buzzword. Here again is the assumption that IDC is ignored and attacked by the scientific community based on fear or ideology rather than the fact that it’s crap science, and we’re assured that breaking down this ‘wall of censorship’ is a matter of the utmost urgency.

But what of the much-touted ‘expelled’? Don’t their stories prove that there’s systematic supression going on? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s not exactly unheard of to fire people for supporting psuedo-science; I’d say it’s a pretty good policy for most academic establishments to have. The second thing to keep in mind is that there are more than a few holes in what we see in the movie. I’m not going to go into it all here, because others have already done that at length, but suffice to say that the ‘prejudice’ claim doesn’t fly.

Worse than all of the above is the fact that the movie contradicts itself. Early on we’re told that IDC does not make any claims about who the ‘designer’ is, yet the entire second half of the movie is focused on the conflict between religion (implicitly Christianity) and modern science, with the word ‘God’ suddenly thrown around casually. I’m not sure who Stein is trying to fool here, but he’s not doing much for the IDC movement’s pretences at secularity. Atheists are predictably treated like Satan incarnate; Dawkins and Meyers are both upfront about how studying evolution pushed them to become atheists, and it’s taken for granted that this is a bad thing. Things become almost farcical when the pro-IDC interviewees begin to complain that they’ve been locked out in the courts, shutting down communication before it starts. Stein even says something along the lines of ‘Shouldn’t it be about the evidence rather than lawsuits?’ Anyone familiar with the IDC movement’s activities over the last twenty years will realise what’s wrong with this, and Stein conveniently fails to point out that those lawsuits were necessary to stop IDC (which is, at the very least, untested science) smuggling its way into high schools via the back door. Worse, the movie implies that the trial was actually about whether evolution is suported by the evidence or not, when this wasn’t actually the case at all.

The most underhanded example of deception in Expelled, though, is also the most subtle. Too often, pro-evolution reviews forget that the movie’s target audience is not going to know much about evolutionary theory or about IDC. They are not going to have any idea what’s going on during the 3D animation of the inner workings of a cell, nor are they going to realise why the inevitable ‘factory’ analogy is so fallacious. Fence-sitters are likely to forget the scarcity of real scientific discussion being presented here and focus solely on Stein’s ham-handed attempts at demonising first evolution and then all of science.

The movies second great failing (or should I say its second group of failures) is how unbelievably boring it is. I’ll be hard pressed to remember much of what happened during its short running time a week from now, and my brain seems to be trying to flush every memory of Stein into oblivion as quickly as possible. I’ve seen this thing described as some sort of devastating blow to scientific ‘dogma’, but it’s hard to imagine even the most ardent supporter of Creationism honestly recommending a movie this bad. Even Wells, one of the best known IDC proponents in the world, looks faintly embarrassed when Stein insists on bringing up abiogenesis.

Don’t bother watching Expelled. If you really want to see what kind of dreck being churned out by the IDC machine, buy Icons of Evolution or, if you really want to do some slumming, Godless. Otherwise just look up some interviews with Richard Dawkins or PZ Meyers on YouTube and simulate what this movie would be like with all of the crap taken out.

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AndromedasWake Welcomes You To The Universe

October 20, 2008

I’m a big fan of Youtube videos. Specifically, there’s been a relatively recent surge in channels dedicated almost entirely to combatting creationism and promoting science. One of the newest members of this endeavour is AndromedasWake, an astronomy student who sky-rocketed to popularity with only a handful of videos from his excellent seres, CrAP (Creationist Astronomy Propoganda) Debunked.

AW has announced a new series, titled Welcome to The Universe, that aims to be a professional-quality Youtube documentary series, containing music composed by AW himself, about cosmology and the scientists and discoveries that have shaped it. Today he released a trailer and asked people to spread it around as much as possible, so here it is:

Check out his other videos as well, and be on the lookout for some of the other excellent stuff on Youtube. Maybe I’ll do a post about it later.

Addition from forknowledge: I’ll second PF’s recommendation; AndreomasWake makes some excellent videos, and this new documentary looks like it could be fantastic. Best of all, it will be free, without copyright and available to anyone. The best way to combat Creationist stupidity is to have educated people like AW put out this kind of material in a format that us ‘ordinary’ people can understand. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend!


Why I Love JSTOR

October 8, 2008

Being a member of a college means that I get complete access to JSTOR, a massive online library of digital essays and journals. It’s like a microcosm of the internet, but entirely devoid of lolcats and YouTube commentors. (Whether or not its sensible to discuss ‘the internet without lolcats’ at this point is a question best left to the philosophers.)

As well as being a powerful tool for serious academic business, it’s fun to enter random phrases to see what turns up. ‘Creationism’ turns up a surprising number of anthropology papers, as well as worried essays in science periodicals going back as far as the mid seventies. (A note to Samuel P. Martin and Maxine Singer: your plan didn’t work.) I can also confirm that, contrary to what a lot of people on the internet seem to think, quite a few academics and scientists actually do use the phrase ‘Darwinism’, although not in the same context as most Creationists use it.

In the interest of academic…something, I’m looking for some completely bonkers topics to search for. Post your ideas in the comments section and I’ll let you know what comes up!


Who’s To Blame For Creationism?

September 11, 2008

A question worth posing on a blog like this is whether or not anti-Creationists are themselves partly (or even wholly) responsible for the alarming spread of Creationism. Several notable biologists, Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould among them, have refused on principle to debate Creationists – not because they fear losing (I’ll get to that in a minute), but because someone like Dawkins engaging a Creationists in debate would give the whole rancid movement exactly the kind of credibility its proponents crave.

It cannot be said enough that Creationism is not a scientific endeavour. Creationists do not generally ‘do science’, or if they do their research has nothing to do with Creationism. This is why they attempt to get into schools via the back door and why Expelled exists. (Although divine punishment should not be ruled out as the ultimate cause of the latter.) With that in mind, it seems that Gould had the right idea. But what about the majority of people who aren’t famous scientists and writers – is it a bad idea for us to set the record straight whenver we can?

First of all, keep in mind that the people I’m likely to debate are not the people that Richard Dawkins is likely to debate. The ‘luminaries’ of Creationism have no interest in talking to me, and Creationist websites are not going to rally around the fact that Ben Stein debated with some guy they’ve never heard of. Claiming that my actions lend credibility to Creationism would be egotistical in the extreme.

So, that’s one justification for the existence of this blog. The other is that Dawkins and his peers are likely to be debating those who are, to varying degrees, the source of much of Creationism. I’ve said it before, but somebody at the top, somebody who publishes books on Creationism or runs a website like, say, Answers in Genesis, must be lying. There is a simple reason for this: these people are not just wrong, but so wrong, on so many counts, that the effort required to build a website like AiG or make a movie like Expelled would almost certainly bring them into contact with sources who could alleviate their ignorance. Unless these people are completely incompetent when it comes to basic research, they must be lying.

If this is true, there is almost no hope of changing their minds. Someone who is willing to lie for their cause cares only about convincing others that they’re right – whether they really are or not is irrelevant. This is not so of the Creationists who buy into their deceit. While it may be impossible to change the leaders of Creationism, it’s my hope that we can reach some of those who are in the middle of lining up to join their ranks. Why this is a worthy endeavour will be a subject for a future post.

Until then, I’d like any Creationists in the ‘audience’ to ponder a few questions:

1) If you’ve ever debated someone who defends evolution, you’ve mostly likely found that some of what your Creationists sources told you is completely wrong. (It may even be that all of it is wrong, especially if you’ve been duped by the abhorrant tactic of quote mining.) Ask yourself, how did your source get it so completely wrong, and why didn’t they check their facts more carefully?

2) Some (obnoxious) Creationists like to think of Creationism as the triumphant overthrowing of ‘Darwinism’, a new wave of fresh thought sweeping through Universities and driving out scientific dogma. This is very obviously not the case; for decades after the Scopes trial the majority of high school textbooks in the USA either made no mention of evolution or disparaged it, in much the same way that modern Creationists want to ‘teach the controversy’. Creationism’s glory days are in the past – it has already come and gone. However, throughout this lengthy period of temporary victory, Creationists did not sway the scientific community. Its success in high schools was completely divorced from any sort of success at University level or higher.

Ask yourself, why was this the case? If Creationism’s criticism of evolutio is based on solid evidence (or the lack thereof), why has it never in its modern form swayed the vast majority of actual scientists? Furthermore, what makes you think the evidence for evolution is any more lacking now than it was then?


Evolution and Religion

September 4, 2008

One of the biggest political and social (rather than scientific) questions surrounding evolution is what effect it has on religious belief, and what effect it should have. I’ll state my position on the matter outright: if you’re a Biblical literalist who believes that every word of the Bible is true, six-day creation and all, evolution certainly conflicts with your worldview. However, if you’re a Biblical literalist who believes that every word of the Bible is true, six-day creation and all, it shouldn’t matter. You’re already so much at odds with the facts that evolution is the least of your problems where science is concerned.

More reasonable Christians have a tougher time of it. On paper, a Christian for whom the Bible is not a history textbook written by an omnipotent being should have no reason to reject evolution on religious grounds; after all, the Bible doesn’t mention the vast majority of what we know about the Universe. (And let’s face it, the idea of the Big Bang is appropriately awe-inspiring to be the work of a god.) Yet I can understand why evolution might not gel with someone whose beliefs dictate that humanity is special, created by God in his own image. If nothing else, evolution certainly contradicts that idea.

However, I don’t think that should be a barrier to accepting the theory either. Evolution is not alone in stating that humans are ‘mere’ apes, markedly different from the others mainly because of our great intelligence. Basic biology points to the exact same conclusion; whether you believe that we are similar to the rest of our taxonomical family because of common ancestry or because God made us that way, it’s undeniable that we are similar. We share many of the same genetic material and even a rough anatomical comparison makes it cleat that nobody is closer to us than the (other) great apes. 

Humans have been placed in the same category as orangutangs, gorillas and chimpanzees since before evolution became a dominant theory in biology, and what’s more, that classification was accepted by scientists at a time when Creationism was the norm. Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, had this to say to one of his criticisers:

 

It does not please (you) that I’ve placed Man among the Anthropomorpha, but man learns to know himself. Let’s not quibble over words. It will be the same to me whatever name we apply. But I seek from you and from the whole world a generic difference between man and simian that [follows] from the principles of Natural History. I absolutely know of none. If only someone might tell me a single one! If I would have called man a simian or vice versa, I would have brought together all the theologians against me. Perhaps I ought to have by virtue of the law of the discipline.

 

Keep in mind that Linnaeus died in 1778, decades before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Although evolution in some form had been proposed before and during his lifetime, nobody could accuse him of pandering to evolutionary theory, since it barely existed at the time. Needless to say, genetic comparison and all of the tools of modern science merely confirm what Linnaeus first realised. (His beliefs about the ‘races of humanity’, however, haven’t aged quite so well.)

The phrase from the above quote that intrigues me the most is ‘man learns to know himself’. Such sentiment is at the very heart of both science and religion, and while I have far more respect for the former when it comes to actual ability to produce results, the two do not need to conflict. I believe that it makes more sense for religion to yield to science rather than the other way around (and I can’t see that the two can co-exist without one yielding to the other), but that does not mean that science and evolutionary theory cannot inform or even enhance religious belief. If there is a God, and if that God has revealed itself to us, its message will surely be in its own creation rather than in books of Scripture. 

We are animals. Anything even approaching mainstream biology confirms this, yet far from diminishing us somehow, science shows us that being called an ‘animal’ should not be an insult. The statement is neither pejorative or belittling to humanity. It is simply scientific fact. 

Humanity learns to know itself, and a religious movement which enshrines that principle and accepts science as the most powerful tool we have to push back the boundaries of our knowledge would be a wonderful thing, for humanity and for the world.


Expanding the Master List – More Reasons Why Creationism Fails

August 29, 2008

This is an addition to the Master List I posted a few days ago. Thanks to cubiksrube, who suggested both of these.

6) Going in by the back door.

High school science education isn’t perfect. A lot of what you learn at that level is either simplified or has most of the nitty-gritty detail omitted for the sake of brevity, or to make it more accessible to young teenagers. However, high school textbooks and carricula should contain information that’s scientifically accurate, and much of what I studied in secondary school was pretty basic stuff; theories and experiments that have been verified hundreds of times and are unlikely to change in the near future. Needless to say, high school is not the place to teach very controversial or untested ideas.

Which is exactly what Creationists would like to do. We’ll ignore for the moment the propagandistic fluff about evolution being unsupported by evidence or about there being substantial controversy in the scientific community over its existence, since that’s all the product of Creationist’s fevered collective imaginations. Taken side by side, Creationism and evolution are completely at odds with each other when it comes to evidence, verifiability and acceptance by the mainstream scientific community.

This apparently doesn’t matter in the slightest to Creationists who, after failing utterly to gain any headway in the scientific world (in much the same way that the moon hoax people won’t be hearing an apology from NASA any time soon), have attempted to enter high schools via the back door. You’ve heard of their tactics before, I’m sure: teach both sides, teach the ‘controversy’, the infamous wedge strategy, the hilarious ‘disclaimer’ stickers attached to biology textbooks, etc. Apparently unable to sway anyone who knows what they’re talking about, Creationists have instead targetted those who don’t: high school students, their parents, and members of school education boards. If they set their sights any lower, we can expect to see ‘Creation Science’ indoctrination sessions aimed at six year olds. (Note: link is a pdf.)

7) Inflexibility

Imagine for a moment that your entire worldview relies so heavily upon evolution being fact that you cannot even begin to imagine that it isn’t. Immediately, you throw out all contrary evidence, cease the business of actual science (lest you accidentally stumble upon some ugly truths), and turn to sources of information that have nothing to do with science and are indistinguishable from Scripture. Congratulations, you’re a Creationist! One with actual physical evidence on your side, but hey, you’re halfway there.

An important thing to remember about Creationism is that it isn’t science, regardless of how desperately the Discovery Institute wants you to believe otherwise. It’s religion through and through, and religious beliefs generally don’t make themselves vulnerable to evidence or even rational thought. If the Bible says that God created the Universe in six days, then that’s that (as Ken Ham might say), and no amount of evidence, regardless of how mountainous it might be, is going to change their minds. Again, this is not how science works. An idea needs to be testable, and it needs to be able ot change to fit the evidence. If it can’t change, it must be discarded.


Let’s Get Dogmatic

August 27, 2008

I recently came across this post, which covers a story run by (sigh) the Discovery Institute, through their hilarious website, ‘Evolution News & Views‘. Go on over there for a quick laugh before reading the rest of this.

Back? Good. The post I linked to is about one Mr. Zivkovic, who apparently thinks it’s fine to give students slightly misleading information so long as it leads them to accepting evolution. It’s not the entire point of the post, but it does take up a fairly sizeable paragraph, as you can see by reading the original. Personally, I think this is a very troubling idea. A lot of what I was taught in secondary school was either simplified or flat-out wrong – it had to be, because covering every topic in the amount of detail it requires is simply not possible when dealing with young teenagers in that kind of setting. However, this was so that we could be introduced to this information in a way that’s accessible, rather than as a form of (and I feel the term is apt here) indoctrination. Zivkovic is essentially saying that misleading students is all right so long as they come away believing in evolution, and I must strongly disagree.

However, I can see where he’s coming from. Creationism is a real threat, and something has to be done to prevent it from poisoning the minds of any more young people. But ask yourself, what is Creationism built upon? Falsehoods and lies. Go to any Creationist website or read any Creationist book and you’ll find nothing but wall-to-wall misinformation, engineered to hook people in; and to hell with the truth. Is the best way to fight Creationism really to copy the tactics of its most dishonest proponents?