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Sunday 7 December 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed [DrDave]

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is the latest salvo from the increasingly re-energised intelligent design movement in the US. Fronted by economist/actor Ben Stein (who most will remember as the droning teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and less will remember as a speech writer for the Nixon administration) this slick documentary is a far cry from the production values usually seen in other pro-creationist media.

In fact, one of the few things Expelled has going for it is the quality of the production. It is in places well shot and even sometimes quite funny, but such moments are few and far between. The quality of production is especially evident in the skillful way the producers present their thesis - at least to the untrained eye. It is entirely likely that Expelled, and productions like it, will serve to bolster the opinions of ID sympathisers, and possibly even convert those who had no opinion and no real scientific training.

The main thrust of Expelled is that American ideals of free speech and right of inquiry are being quashed by the imposing edifice of "Big Science". In particular, those who dare to express a dissenting opinion on the question of evolution are being threatened, victimised and ultimately hounded from their positions.

For example, Expelled highlights the case of Richard Von Sternberg, a one time editor of the peer reviewed journal "Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington". Towards the end of his position at this publication, Sternberg oversaw the publication of a pro-ID article by Steven C. Meyer, a leading ID proponent. Of course, this was seen as a major step forward for the movement, since one of the main criticisms of it was the lack of peer reviewed articles. Expelled details how the scientific community then roundly turned on Sternberg and "expelled" him from his position, and effectively black-listed him from similar jobs.

Expelled presents this case, along with others, in a very convincing manner. Each case is shot through the prism of American idealology - free speech, the right to ask questions, the right to dissent from consensus opinion. Expelled paints each of the "expelled" as being victims of a conspiracy to limit these basic rights. It is, in all honesty, quite rousing and would rightly raise the heckles of anyone who values these freedoms.

Of course, it is all bullshit.

In reality, Sternberg had handed in his resignation six months earlier and was coming to the end of the agreed notice period for this unpaid position. Sternberg handled the peer review himself, which is not unusual but definitely not normal practice, and that the content of the paper was massively out of place in a journal that normally handled papers about the discovery of new crustaceans and other marine shell fish. Subsequent to the publication, the journal withdrew the paper, but Sternberg had his contract at the Smithsonian extended to 2006. Hardly the hounding that Expelled claims.

Unsurprisingly, there are other, less conspiratorial accounts of these instances of "victimisation", for those who care to find out what really happened.

Throughout this portion of the film, Stein wanders between the expelled expressing the right amount of faux outrage and concern, while shots of the victims are interspersed with craftily editied soundbites from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, PZ Meyers, Eugenie Scott and others, that are cleverly chosen to make real scientists appear alternately stupid, oppresive, pompous, condescending or plain sinister.

In fact, at one point, Expelled shows Dawkins having make-up applied prior to an interview. Stein on the other hand is shown entering the interview from a taxi, sitting down and getting straight to it. The intent is depressingly obvious: show Dawkins as vain, even effeminate, while Stein is down to earth, real, just like you. Does anyone really believe Stein didn't undergo the same make-up procedure? Clumsy and dishonest.

Throughout the middle of the film, the merits of intelligent design versus evolution are tackled. Well, not tackled so much as avoided. Numerous assertions are made: "Scientists are increasingly doubting the Darwinist paradigm", "Darwinism is a theory in trouble". "recent findings suggest design". But not one of these assertions are backed up with any kind of support. No attempt is made to show these problems that Darwinism is suffering, no attempt is made to present any of the evidence of design. It is shocking in its scientific vacuity.

But the worst of the film is yet to come. Beyond the factual mistakes, the false assertions, the dreadful logic and plain lying, you get to the final insult to your intelligence: the claim that Darwinism caused World War 2. Throughout its entire length, Expelled liberally sprinkles clips of oppresive regimes - clips of the Berlin Wall, clips of jackbooted nazis or parading soviets. But it is not till the final portion of the film that Stein pulls these hints together as he travels to former eugenics institutes and concentraion camps in Germany.

Stein's claim is that Darwinism is not only a flawed theory, but that it is directly responsible for the deaths of 6 million Jews in the death camps and gas chambers of Adolf Hitler. He seems to feel no hesitation in using his own Jewish heritage for dramatic effect as he sombrely wanders the shower blocks and living quarters of the doomed inmates, pausing only to confirm with his guide that it was definitely Darwin's theory of natural selection that was responsible for so many deaths...

To say that this claim is dispicable almost goes without saying. It is of course true that Hitler cited parts of Darwin's theory to justify the killings, but he also cited parts of Christianity, the occult and basic principles of animal husbandary when architecting his attrocities. In reality, Hitler was a charismatic lunatic and would have done what he did whether Darwin had existed or not, and to claim that anti-semitism is a product of Darwinism is shockingly short sighted and ignores the fact that such sentiments and ethnic cleansings pre-dated Darwin by about as long as the human race has existed. See the Old Testament for example.

But the weirdest implication of Stein's hypothesis concerns the reality of Darwinism. His implication seems to be that since Darwinism can lead to awful acts, then Darwinism must be wrong. He falls into the trap of thinking that reality is a moral democracy, where we get to decide which bits we like and which bits we don't. Even if you accept that Darwin's theory led directly to World War 2, and I don't for a single second, then it doesn't change the fact that animal life did evolve from simpler origins. Should we also not accept the theory of gravity because gravity is responsible for all deaths by falling?

Stein rounds off his claims with the following quote by Darwin:

"With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."

Taken at face value, and in the context it is presented, this quote seems to prove Stein's claims. Darwin does seem to be professing support for eugenics, ethnic cleansing, every nasty trait that Stein attributes to him. But, as with most aspects of this film, it is not quite that simple. Stein has taken a real quote by Darwin and selectively edited it to prove his point. The actual quote is as follows:

"With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil."

(Bold text denotes text ommited in Expelled) The true quote is quite different from the butchered version read by Stein and presents an optimistic and eloquent view of humanity's nature.

It is shocking, though not so surprising, the lengths that Expelled will go to prove a point. There can be no justification at all for removing these lines, and the intent must be seen only as malicious and downright dishonest.

Sadly, most of Expelled's audience will not see the full quote, nor will they hear the unedited versions of the interviews with Dawkins et al. They'll never hear the overwhelming evidence in favour of evolution, nor will they hear the truth behind the Sternberg story.

In Expelled, Stein presents an argument that seems rational and worthy - that we should oppose oppresion and strive to allow all valid viewpoints. But in reality, his argument is build under a scafold of fake controversy - a "not-troversy" if you like. There is no debate between intelligent design and evolution, not because ID viewpoints are being surpressed, but simply becuase ID has yet to produce any valid science. Unfortunately, with slick, well funded productions like this (and Kentucky's Creation Museum), most of Expelled's target audience will likely never see this either.


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