Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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Expelled

with 5 comments

Saw Ben Stein’s new documentary, Expelled, last night. I knew nothing about Ben Stein’s politics and very little about the movie going in – a friend who’s a science kid and an ex-professor who studies the way science is framed in the media were going and invited me along, and I had actually thought – having clearly not skimmed the blurb about the film very well – that it was going to be about the way religion was interfering with scientific inquiry in the United States.

It was, in fact, the exact opposite. The basic premise, put in the kindest terms possible, was that there is a sort of witch-hunt going on in academia and scientific circles against people who would dare to consider seriously the possibility of intelligent design in any form. And I have to say, for the first half of the film, I was really with Stein on this. He interviewed a lot of serious academic types who mostly claimed not to be ideologically driven but rather just put off by the questions left unanswered by Darwinism and interested in studying intelligent design as another possible explanation. They weren’t saying the intelligent designer had to be “god,” in a Judeo-Christian or any other sense. Many of them felt they had been disadvantaged professionally, though – turned down for tenure positions or what have you – by even considering this possibility, and Stein’s point seemed to be –- in the beginning – that this was a shame, and scientific inquiry needed to be more divorced from politics, no matter whether those politics be on the left or the right, in the United States. What I took away from the first 45 minutes of the film as Stein’s central thesis, if you will, was that religion and politics have way to much influence on the discourse concerning science and ideas in general in this country, and he’d like to change that.

The next 45 minutes were a different story entirely. The whole thing had a very Michael-Moore-esque quality to it, and throughout the first part of the film there were a lot of old movie clips and other things referencing totalitarianism and such, which I mostly understood to be tongue-in-cheek. I was giving Stein way too much credit. The tide really began to turn with a clip about how believing in Darwinism totally negated the existence of human free will. I’m still unclear on how this makes sense in any way because Stein didn’t bother to explain this assertion at all, he just showed clips of this raving-mad-scientist type with a maniacal grin and laugh saying it over and over again.

After this, Stein takes a trip to a former asylum in Germany where 15,000 mentally ill and handicapped individuals were killed by nazis during the Holocaust and talks with the lady who works there about how these killings were motivated by Darwinism. This is the part that really made me angry – after sort of coaxing this lady into making these connections, he stood there in one of the killing chambers and gave some little speech about how haunting it all was and how sad it made him – but all the while he’s just using these deaths and this place for his own cinematic propaganda purposes. It was just so disingenuous. I mean, I don’t doubt that Stein feels sad about the Holocaust, okay, but the whole way he set up the scene … you just have to see it, it was really sickening.

From there he continues on this Darwinists-are-nazis bent for a while, managing to stress that Planned Parenthood, pro-choicers and right-to-die supporters are all Darwinist in origin and then – just in case you haven’t gotten beaten over the head with the point yet – follows this with a scene where he asks some historian “Was Hitler was Darwinist?” Yes. “Was Hitler evil?” Yes.

Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, there’s a really weird scene where he and some scientists meet all clandestine mafia style in front of the Berlin wall and compare the introduction of intelligent design into scientific and educational circles in the United States to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the freeing of East Berlin – talk about an insulting and inflated analogy, right? (As Ronald Bailey points out, “the filmmakers portray opposition to teaching ID in universities and public schools as a threat to freedom on a par with Communist and Nazi repression. But ID proponents in the academy are not being dragged off to concentration camps by goose-stepping Darwinist thugs—the worst thing they suffer is the loss of their jobs. That’s not fun, but it’s not the gas chamber either.”)

And Stein doesn’t end there! Seriously, this thing is worse than Lord of the Rings for how many times you think it’s going to end but it doesn’t … So Stein sets up a confrontation with Richard Dawkins that he compares to a “first step to tearing down the wall,” and proceeds to (unsuccessfully) try to “trick” Dawkins into contradicting himself. The exchange (paraphrased, of course) starts something like this:

Stein: So you’re a science guy. Can you quantify your assertion that there is no god? I mean, how sure are you?

Dawkins: I really don’t feel comfortable putting a number on it.

Stein: Ninety-nine percent?

Dawkins: Yes, I guess 99 percent.

Stein: Why not 97?

Dawkins: I suppose it could be 97. I’m not really –

Stein: Well, if it could be 99 or 97,

Dawkins: You said that. I don’t think it can be —

Stein: — then why not 46 percent? 50 percent?

Dawkins: I’m sure it’s more than 50 percent improbable.

Stein: Well how do you know?

Dawkins: I don’t know, I said that, I —

And so on. There’s also a painful sequence where he insists on asking Dawkins if he believes on every different kind of god

“You don’t believe in a Judeo-Christian god … ”

“I don’t believe in any god.”

“But what about the Hindu gods?”

“Now why would I — ”

“What about the Muslim god?”

“No, I just said …”

It’s excruciating, and really unclear what Stein is trying to prove by his line of questioning or by including this scene in the film, other than just trying to be a punk (and make all good people who have beared with this film up to this point lose their goddamn minds). Anyway, the film ends with Stein kind of patting himself on the back for being a crusader on this topic while The Killer’s “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” plays and the camera pans across an empty classroom, with Stein’s voice asking, “Will anybody join me? Anybody?”

Gag. I guess my biggest issue with this film (if anybody is still with me at this point in my rant, I promise I’m concluding) is how much I think Stein did himself and his “crusade” a disservice by going over the top with the propaganda and disingenuousness. It’s my biggest quarrel with Michael Moore, too – while both makes some good points, in the end they just wind up attracting and winning over audiences who already agree with them and infuriating those who disagree somewhat but may be sympathetic by not letting the facts and the issues speak for themselves. Stein’s whole point at the beginning seemed that there needed to be more openness in the scientific and academic discourse in this country, that it shouldn’t be all tied up in politics and religion, and then he turns around and ties his ideas all up in politics and religion. There’s no nuanced approach ideas and issues anymore he starts out – and then proves his own point.

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Written by Elizabeth

April 19, 2008 at 10:55 pm

5 Responses

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  1. “It’s excruciating, and really unclear what Stein is trying to prove by his line of questioning or by including this scene in the film, other than just trying to be a punk.”

    You forgot the best part of the final line of questioning of Richard Dawkins.

    Steins first line of questioning sets up his next line of questioning. After Stein had Dawkins state categorically that no god of any type existed, no god from any world religion, no god perioed, Stein asked Dawkins how life on earth originated. Dawkins response surpised me. Dawkins admitted that the origin of life was a difficult question for a Darwinist, but he suggested that advanced life forms seeded and directed life on earth. He went on to assert that he believed that the signature of the beings that seeded life on earth would have left their “signature” somewhere within the living organisms themselves.

    This statement by Dawkins is incredible for two reasons. First, restating a form of directed panspermia merely removes the question one generation. It begs the question: “How did that life being?” One is either left with an infinite regress, or god, but we already know it couldn’t be god?!

    The second reason statement of expecting to be able to identify “signature” of some extra terrestrial beings within living organism is so incredible is this is exactly the claim of intelligient design (ID). The only difference between Dawkins hypothesis and (ID) is that Dawkins rules out “god” a priori while (ID) makes no claims as to what or who this intelligience might be.

    john

    April 20, 2008 at 1:21 am

  2. Both Dawkin’s ideas and Intelligent Design belong in philosophy class and out of science.

    Leave the scientists alone to do their work, which has *nothing* to do with the supernatural (either for or against), as it is outside the purview of science.

    dracil

    April 20, 2008 at 2:18 am

  3. I don’t Dawkins was saying that he believed advanced life forms seeded and directed life on earth, nor any of that signature business. He was just saying that’s one way in which he might possibly believe in intelligent design of some sort … I was actually reading something about this on Dawkins blog yesterday:

    Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred. It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could. … So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots (“oh NOOOOO, of course we aren’t talking about God, this is SCIENCE”) and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist. I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar — semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett). … I was most emphaticaly NOT saying that I believed the thought experiment. Quite the contrary. I do not believe it (and I don’t think Francis Crick believed it either). I was bending over backwards to make the best case I could for a form of intelligent design. And my clear implication was that the best case I could make was a very implausible case indeed. Well, you will have guessed how Mathis/Stein handled this. I won’t get the exact words right (we were forbidden to bring in recording devices on pain of a $250,000 fine, chillingly announced by some unnamed Gauleiter before the film began), but Stein said something like this. “What? Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN INTELLIGENT DESIGN.” “Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN ALIENS FROM OUTER SPACE.” I can’t remember whether this was the moment in the film where we were regaled with another Lord Privy Seal cut to an old science fiction movie with some kind of android figure – that may have been used in the service of trying to ridicule Francis Crick.”

    Liz

    April 20, 2008 at 2:14 pm

  4. Grrr. This film pisses me off, mostly because I am so sick of ID proponents using the fact that scientists are debating about HOW evolution happened as “evidence” that scientists are debating IF evolution happened. Not the same thing.

    erinelizabeth

    April 22, 2008 at 2:31 pm

  5. Did you see my post on this? Guess it’s not that amazing that I liked it. The Berlin wall thing was weird and Stein was extremely heavy-handed in his messaging. But if I decided to put a documentary together, I’d frame it around my own personal views.

    Liz–you should also note that Stein is an outspoken conservative Jew. He was a speechwriter for Nixon and Ford long before Visine and ComedyCentral.

    There is a clear connection between eugenics, Margaret Sanger and Hitler. Do some research on why Sanger created Planned Parenthood. It wasn’t to help kids get condoms. She seriously wanted to eradicate African-Americans. Research it a bit. Sanger was a pretty nasty woman.

    And there IS bias in academia. My dad’s been an adjunct professor in the hard sciences for most of my life. He has a few stories. Then I’ve personally encountered it. Have you ever been told, “I keep forgetting you’re liberal. You seem so normal!” Try having most of your coworkers treat you like a freak because you view politics through the lens of your faith or be signaled out in a meeting of 50 people because you vote Republican. That was almost a daily experience for me in DC. A lot of people just hate conservatives and aren’t afraid to show it. I dislike liberalism, but there are very few liberals whom I dislike and most of those are in Congress.

    Just trying to remind y’all that there’s another side with equally valid points.

    Adrienne

    May 6, 2008 at 2:16 am


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Expelled

with 4 comments

Saw Ben Stein’s new documentary, Expelled, last night. I knew nothing about Ben Stein’s politics and very little about the movie going in – a friend who’s a science kid and an ex-professor who studies the way science is framed in the media were going and invited me along, and I had actually thought – having clearly not skimmed the blurb about the film very well – that it was going to be about the way religion was interfering with scientific inquiry in the United States.

It was, in fact, the exact opposite. The basic premise, put in the kindest terms possible, was that there is a sort of witch-hunt going on in academia and scientific circles against people who would dare to consider seriously the possibility of intelligent design in any form. And I have to say, for the first half of the film, I was really with Stein on this. He interviewed a lot of serious academic types who mostly claimed not to be ideologically driven but rather just put off by the questions left unanswered by Darwinism and interested in studying intelligent design as another possible explanation. They weren’t saying the intelligent designer had to be “god,” in a Judeo-Christian or any other sense. Many of them felt they had been disadvantaged professionally, though – turned down for tenure positions or what have you – by even considering this possibility, and Stein’s point seemed to be –- in the beginning – that this was a shame, and scientific inquiry needed to be more divorced from politics, no matter whether those politics be on the left or the right, in the United States. What I took away from the first 45 minutes of the film as Stein’s central thesis, if you will, was that religion and politics have way to much influence on the discourse concerning science and ideas in general in this country, and he’d like to change that.

The next 45 minutes were a different story entirely. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Elizabeth

April 19, 2008 at 10:55 pm

Posted in The Best Things

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. “It’s excruciating, and really unclear what Stein is trying to prove by his line of questioning or by including this scene in the film, other than just trying to be a punk.”

    You forgot the best part of the final line of questioning of Richard Dawkins.

    Steins first line of questioning sets up his next line of questioning. After Stein had Dawkins state categorically that no god of any type existed, no god from any world religion, no god perioed, Stein asked Dawkins how life on earth originated. Dawkins response surpised me. Dawkins admitted that the origin of life was a difficult question for a Darwinist, but he suggested that advanced life forms seeded and directed life on earth. He went on to assert that he believed that the signature of the beings that seeded life on earth would have left their “signature” somewhere within the living organisms themselves.

    This statement by Dawkins is incredible for two reasons. First, restating a form of directed panspermia merely removes the question one generation. It begs the question: “How did that life being?” One is either left with an infinite regress, or god, but we already know it couldn’t be god?!

    The second reason statement of expecting to be able to identify “signature” of some extra terrestrial beings within living organism is so incredible is this is exactly the claim of intelligient design (ID). The only difference between Dawkins hypothesis and (ID) is that Dawkins rules out “god” a priori while (ID) makes no claims as to what or who this intelligience might be.

    john

    April 20, 2008 at 1:21 am

  2. Both Dawkin’s ideas and Intelligent Design belong in philosophy class and out of science.

    Leave the scientists alone to do their work, which has *nothing* to do with the supernatural (either for or against), as it is outside the purview of science.

    dracil

    April 20, 2008 at 2:18 am

  3. Grrr. This film pisses me off, mostly because I am so sick of ID proponents using the fact that scientists are debating about HOW evolution happened as “evidence” that scientists are debating IF evolution happened. Not the same thing.

    erinelizabeth

    April 22, 2008 at 2:31 pm

  4. Did you see my post on this? Guess it’s not that amazing that I liked it. The Berlin wall thing was weird and Stein was extremely heavy-handed in his messaging. But if I decided to put a documentary together, I’d frame it around my own personal views.

    Liz–you should also note that Stein is an outspoken conservative Jew. He was a speechwriter for Nixon and Ford long before Visine and ComedyCentral.

    There is a clear connection between eugenics, Margaret Sanger and Hitler. Do some research on why Sanger created Planned Parenthood. It wasn’t to help kids get condoms. She seriously wanted to eradicate African-Americans. Research it a bit. Sanger was a pretty nasty woman.

    And there IS bias in academia. My dad’s been an adjunct professor in the hard sciences for most of my life. He has a few stories. Then I’ve personally encountered it. Have you ever been told, “I keep forgetting you’re liberal. You seem so normal!” Try having most of your coworkers treat you like a freak because you view politics through the lens of your faith or be signaled out in a meeting of 50 people because you vote Republican. That was almost a daily experience for me in DC. A lot of people just hate conservatives and aren’t afraid to show it. I dislike liberalism, but there are very few liberals whom I dislike and most of those are in Congress.

    Just trying to remind y’all that there’s another side with equally valid points.

    Adrienne

    May 6, 2008 at 2:16 am


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