While at CPAC in February, I had an opportunity to attend an advance screening of the new documentary, Expelled: The Movie. Ben Stein focuses on a perceived lack of intellectual freedom afforded to those who either believe in or investigate Intelligent Design theories in the scientific community. I wrote the following review at the time; the producers may have made some changes since, but I don’t believe it would change the thrust of my review. I plan on seeing the theatrical release this weekend, and would recommend it to everyone as at least a way to discuss the values and limitations of scientific inquiry and intellectual openness in American Academia.
The bloggers at CPAC received an invitation to screen a new documentary on academic intolerance called Expelled: The Movie this evening. The documentary features Ben Stein on a quest to understand the near-hysteria caused by scientists who so much as broach the idea of intelligent design in papers or in research. It follows Stein as he interviews professors denied tenure, editors fired, and journalists shunned for touching the subject even at its most innocuous levels.
Before discussing my feelings about the film, which is still in post-production and will not go into release until April, I should explain my approach to the ID/evolution debate. I believe evolution is demonstrably proven in enough examples to say that its effect on variation in species cannot be denied. The example I used tonight in discussing this with another viewer (certainly not the only example) is antibiotic effects on bacteria. Antibiotics that kill 99% of bacteria eventually promote the survival and the expansion of the 1% that resist them, created superbacteria that require another set of antibiotics to cure, and so on.
That said, evolution does not interfere with my faith in God. God certainly could have created the universe with a design that included life. The rational laws of nature would include evolution, as well as the myriad of other rational and mathematically provable mechanisms that undergird nature. In fact, the impulse of man to discover the rational laws of nature began with the belief in a rational God, as scientists understood nature’s rationality to reveal an intelligent Creator.
I’d go deeper than that, but Dinesh D’Souza covers it nicely enough already in his book What’s So Great About Christianity, and it’s getting late enough as it is. Suffice it to say that evolution doesn’t present a threat to my worldview.
Rationally, we have to admit that some use ID as an excuse to teach the more literal form of Creationism that has been used to argue against evolution entirely, especially against teaching evolution in primary-school classrooms. That admission does not appear in Expelled, which is a glaring omission. It tends to take out of context the frustration some scientists have about ID, and its place in polarizing the debate over its use. Properly framed, ID accepts all of the science without accepting its transformation into its own belief system.
What do I mean by that? In this, the film does an excellent job of demonstrating atheism as a belief system. Atheism as represented by Richard Dawkings and others in this film gets exposed as exactly the kind of belief system they claim to despise. They can’t prove God exists — and they can’t prove God doesn’t exist. They make the common fallacy of arguing that absence of evidence amounts to evidence of absence.
But in a way, this is all secondary to the real issue of the film: academic intolerance. The debate over ID vs Darwinism sets the table for a truly disturbing look at academia. Science should be about the free debate and research of ideas and hypotheses for duplicable results and provable theorems. However, as the examples Stein and the film provide amply show, the Darwinist academic establishment will brook no dissent from the orthodoxy — and scientists have to be shown with hidden faces to speak to the issue for the film.
Amusingly, Stein asks people how the first cell came to be. None of the scientists could give him a straight answer. Dawkins himself admits he doesn’t know and that no one else does, either — but postulates that aliens could have brought life to this planet, and then postulates that another alien civilization could have brought life to that planet, and so on. He then concedes that one entity could have been the original source … but insists that entity could not possibly have been God. For this he gives absolutely no evidence at all, relegating it as a belief system somewhat akin to Scientology.
All of this is extremely effective, as are the many allusions made to the Berlin Wall during the film. The theme runs throughout, and it explicitly refers to the defensive academic establishment as having built a wall that tramples on freedom of thought and discourse. Less effective is the heavy references to the Nazis in the movie. Although emotionally affecting for some obvious reasons, the fact is that while the Nazis were mostly Darwinists (along with a lot of other things), the vast majority of Darwinists aren’t Nazis. Certainly the eugenicists in Nazi Germany were mightily influenced by Darwinism, but America had its own eugenicists, which the film points out.
I should point out that the film has not finished production, and that changes will be made between now and its release in April. The filmmakers just completed an interview with Christopher Hitchens and will include it in the final cut. I believe other changes may be made which could address some of the criticisms I’ve written here.
Overall, though, the film presents a powerful argument not for intelligent design as much as for the freedom of scientific inquiry. If scientists get punished for challenging orthodoxy, we will not expand our learning but ossify it in concrete. Expelled: The Movie is entertaining, maddening, funny, and provocative, and well worth your time.