Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (review)
Lies, Damned Lies, and “Intelligent Design”
Nazis! It’s all about Nazis. In a parallel universe even crazier than our own, Ben Stein is making a documentary about how the Nazis utilized the controversial theory of gravity to make bombs that fall from the sky to the earth, and so the theory of gravity must be wrong. But we are here, and here, Ben Stein is telling us with a straight face that because the Nazis thought it would be a good idea to breed people like people breed animals, the theory of evolution must be wrong.
It’s apeshit crazy nuttiness right from the opening moments of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, as imagery of Nazi atrocities and the terrors of life behind the Berlin War are smugly deployed in a demented attempt to editorialize away basic scientific fact. And in a saner universe than the one in which we live, you could scoff at Stein and dismiss him and not give this propagandistic nonsense another thought. But we don’t live in that universe: we live here, where the religious insecurity of a scientifically illiterate populace is being twisted by people who certainly know better. We cannot dismiss this movie, because anyone who cares about public discourse in America and anyone who cares about the ongoing war on scientific literacy in this country needs to see it in order to arm herself against the idiocy. You need to see this movie because these people are not going away, not without a fight from people who understand where they’re coming from.
It would be hilarious how unintentionally apt the subtitle of this “documentary” is were the film not such a horrifying exposé of how insidious the “intelligent design” proponents are. Ben Stein — former Nixon speechwriter turned, improbably, ironic symbol of anti-hip — is not a stupid man, but he pretends to be in this would-be “takedown” of the scientific theory of evolution that is dishonest and contradictory even when approached on its own terms. Stein’s thesis — he wrote the movie with Kevin Miller and Walt Ruloff, and it is directed with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer by Nathan Frankowski — is that Big Science, academia, the media, and the courts have been bullying the poor, brave mavericks who dare to question the theory of evolution by suggesting that only an “intelligent designer” could have guided said evolution. Bad enough that Stein deliberately pretends to misunderstand what science is (which he must do because he knows his target audience of religious fundamentalists does) — “here, a miracle happened” is emphatically not science, not that Stein bothers to present that not-at-all radical concept. But he also constantly refers to evolutionary science as “Darwinism” and evolutionary scientists and those who accept evolution as “Darwinists”… which is akin to referring to quantum physicists as “Newtonians” or “Copernicans.” And he does this even though one of his own ID proponents notes here that biological science has moved on from Darwin much as physical science has moved on from Newton. Since Stein is unable to adequately critique evolutionary science, he resorts to a kind of namecalling that is purposely designed to mislead his audience… and yet he must hold that audience in contempt if he believes they won’t notice his own deceit.
All pretense that the “competing” “theory” of “intelligent design” Stein champions here is not about Judeo-Christian Creationism is put well to rest, too. The (supposed) scientists interviewed here who support notions of intelligent design make no mention of who an “intelligent designer” might be — and indeed, any honest explanation of ID that pretends to bear any relationship at all to science, which is what Stein wants us to accept ID as, must allow that ID does not attempt to define the designer. And yet Stein wastes no time in bringing into focus a particular and narrow idea of who that designer must be. For instance, he dismisses the concept of “panspermia,” which posits that perhaps life in its most basic, fundamental form first arrived on planet Earth from space, perhaps on an asteroid or comet, as meaning “aliens did it,” which he snarls in a tone of voice that suggests nothing could be more ridiculous. (That isn’t what panspermia suggests, of course. Not that the orgin of life itself is dealt with by the theory of evolution, anyway. Oh, the layers of obfuscation and deception are many!) Still, wouldn’t “aliens did it” be “intelligent design”?
Nope: wrong designer for Stein and his audience. If ID isn’t about “God” as many people today use the term, then why does Stein have such a hard-on for scientist Richard Dawkins, the honor and professionalism of whom Stein feels to believe he has impeached when he gets Dawkins to admit that he’s a steadfast atheist (as if it were a great secret). At long last, Expelled isn’t about “intelligent design,” about an alternative scientific theory of anything, or even about academic freedom: it’s about Stein believing he has proven that because acceptance of evolution leads to atheism (which isn’t always true, though other scientists, such as PZ Myers, do say here that that was their experience), and also, we’re told with an apparent straight face, to such horrors as birth control, evolution cannot be allowed to be true. Even if it is.
It’s all so shockingly, baldly disingenuous and phony an “argument” that it may well make you want to throw things at the screen, as I nearly did. But it’s why you must see Expelled. Not for the unintentionally ironic spectacle of the film’s faux-retro-hip-snark of using clips from Planet of the Apes — “a planet where apes evolved from men?”! — to comment on what it perceives as the stifling of intellectual freedom. Or even to see a dumbfounded Dawkins speaking to Stein as if Stein were a child, which is hilarious. But because until those who would stand up for honesty and integrity — of any kind, never mind the “merely” scientific — as willing to accept that their opponents pretend to no such scruples, they will always be hitting us in our blind spots. Our eyes must be opened to their trickery.
rated PG for thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics