Expelled – Revised Edition

November 4, 2008

It may not have come through well in my review, but Expelled is so chock full of lies that correcting them all would be a truly herculean feat.

Or so I thought. A few dedicated enthusiasts have decided to create ‘lie-correcting’ subtitles that you can superimpose over Stein’s misinformation-spewing mug. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I imagine it makes the movie a lot more bearable.

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.

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!

The Academic Freedom Petition

September 30, 2008

When I was studying biology in secondary school, I used to enjoy the extra elements my teacher brought into the classroom far more than anything in the textbook. None of it ever came up in an exam, but I wasn’t in it just to pass the Leaving Cert; I just wanted to know as much as I could about biology. Unfortunately, not even my very dedicated teacher had time to get into the scientific debates going on at the time, for several reason. The most obvious is that those debates require a level of education far higher than what any secondary school student will have, but there’s also the issue of those exams I mentioned – like it or not, he had to cover a certain amount of material in a limited amount of time.

I bring this up because of the latest move by Creationists (under the guise of Intelligent Design proponents, of course) to get their psuedoscience into American classrooms. Meet the Academic Freedom Petition. What is it? ‘Teach the Controversy’, basically, but dressed up in the garb of ‘freedom’ and (surprise, surprise) further from religious funamentalism than any previous push to get ID into schools. From the website:

Across America, the freedom of scientists, teachers, and students to question Darwin is coming under increasing attack by self-appointed defenders of the theory of evolution who are waging a malicious campaign to demonize and blacklist anyone who disagrees with them.

This seems pretty innocent at first glance – after all, everyone should have the right to question whatever they like. Of course, it’s not that simple, and I’ll explain why.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is very obviously a Creationist initiative. The Petition website contains links to IntelligentDesign.org (which itself seems to be a product of the Centre for Science and Culture, the science branch of the infamous Discovery Institute) and, of all things, the Expelled website. If you think advocating Stein’s ‘documentary’ should be enough to destroy any credibility this movement may have had, you’d be wrong. The people behind this latest ploy do have a point, but (as always) they’re twisting it out of shape to further their own agenda.

It is true that most high school teachers either can’t or won’t discuss Creationism in their classroom, for a variety of reasons. As Airtightnoodle has pointed out, the laws preventing Creationism from being taught are something of a double-edged sword, in that they also prevent teachers from refuting it. Even where this isn’t explicit school policy, a teacher can put his or her job in danger by discussing what everyone knows is a religious topic. In high school, Creationism is a no-go area. I wish this wasn’t the case, if only to silence claims that biology teachers are incapable of replying to Creationist myths (again, Airtightnoodle goes a long towards debunking that one, but at the moment those are the rules that teachers must play by.

The Petition goes further than that, however, by implying that everyone involved in education or science is being prevented from questioning evolution. This goes hand-in-hand with the implication that the arguments presented in the likes of Expelled are actually valid and worthy of being taught to students. This is obviously not the case (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever heard Stein trying to talk about science), and the Petition falls apart when you realise that they’re backing the same refuted arguments that ‘evolutionists’ have been fielding for decades.

If there actually was significant scientific debate over the validity of evolutionary theory, and if Creationists actually did have something meaningful to say on the subject, then I might be more sympathetic to projects like this. As it stands, ‘academic freedom’ is a dressed up phrase for ‘psuedoscience, delivered to students by teachers’. Letting biology teachers point out imaginary weaknesses in evolution would be like letting history teachers point out weaknesses in the idea that the Holocaust was a real event, or that the moon landings were genuine. Rather than strengthening academic freedom, it would make a farce of academic integrity, at a stroke lowering the standards for what should and should not be allowed into a classroom dramatically. Creationism is laughed out of third-level institutes because it’s wrong, and it’s banned from high schools because it’s blatantly religious.

It’s also interesting that evolution is the only theory being targeted here – if this is a genuine push for better education, why does it only focus on what has historically been the whipping boy of the Creationist movement?

As always, the Discovery Institute and its ilk are attempting to smuggle their myths in through the back door. Having utterly failed to make any headway in the scientific community (this is what they mean when they whine about being ‘censored’ or unfairly ignored), they’re bypassing the whole bothersome process and going straight for legislation – again. Which leads to the disturbing question of how many times they have to throw their crap at the wall before some of it sticks.

Ars Technica Reviews ‘Exploring Evolution’

September 25, 2008

Ars Technica, the well-known technology site, has reviewed the latest ‘supplementary’ textbook from the equally well-known psuedoscience peddlers the Discovery Institute. I hadn’t heard about the book before now, but it looks as if it follows the general trend of Creationism tactics, in that it does not explicitly mention Creationism (in either it’s crazier form or as ID) and tries to present itself as purely scientific rather than religious. Predictably, Ars Technica reports that this ploy is pretty transparent to anyone familiar with Creationist literature.

One paragraph in the review sums up Creationism pretty well:


This is pretty typical of all the scientific material in the book. Even when it has its facts right, they’re embedded in interpretations that none of the actual scientists cited are likely to recognize. The mere presence of actual science does nothing to outweigh the general morass of errors, distortions, and faulty logic that comprise the bulk of the book. The book as a whole acts like a funhouse mirror, distorting and removing the context from the bits of science that do appear.


Well said.