Given the recent hype surrounding the documentary Expelled, we decided that it would make useful fodder for blog-posting. Thus, we are writing a joint post discussing the movie.
First I will give a brief synopsis. The movie tells the stories of a number of scientists who are proponents of intelligent design (ID). These scientists claim to have been discriminated against and ostracized for their views on ID. In the film, Ben Stein interviews scientists on both sides of the issue, and paints a picture of an atheistic scientific establishment suppressing freedom of thought, attempting to protect itself from attack by silencing critics, and warring against religion. The film provides criticisms of both evolution and the scientific establishment – ultimately suggesting links between evolution and genocide.
As a scientist and a Christian, I find myself daily straddling the supposed divide between science and religion. I feel that the debate on this subject has become increasingly shrill, with each side trying to out-yell the other. In many cases, it is vocal minorities at the fringes of the science and religion camps that get the most press. The film has interesting and important points to make, but because of the aggressive approach used I fear it may become yet another escalation in the shouting match. The debate has many players: scientists who are aggressive naturalists, fundamentalist young earth creationists, agnostic scientists who believe aliens created life on earth, Christian scientists who accept most of the modern scientific framework but think that design is evident in nature, agnostic scientists who presume that ID is yet another propaganda campaign of the fundamentalists, Christians who reject ID as valid science, and the list goes on. All of this variety adds to the confusion. One of the key problems in the entire debate is that for many years young-earth creationists have twisted and misused science, presenting flawed scientific arguments that are attractive, seemingly reasonable, and readily accepted by many Christian audiences who are not equipped with the science background to refute them. As a result of this campaign, scientists have grown increasingly suspicious of anything which smacks of creationism. When ID arrived on the scene, mainstream science was unwilling to listen. As a result, very few scientists have really thought critically about intelligent design. They just assume that it is a tool used by fundamentalist Christians to try to promote a theocracy. However, I will not put all of the onus here on the Christian community. There are equally belligerent scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, who embrace a “religious” atheistic faith and claim that their position is a direct result of science and rationality. In my view, Dawkins has as much faith in atheism as any young-earth creationist does in 6-day creation. Thus we find ourselves in the shouting match. It is this shouting match which provides the environment for the sort of discrimination alleged in the film.
ID has various forms, but it is essentially a theory that “irreducibly complex” biological systems exist or may exist. An “irreducibly complex” system is one that has such a complex and interdependent framework that it could not have been created through random means. For a detailed expose on this concept see Michael Behe’s book, or material on the Discovery Institute’s website. While many of the proponents of ID may have non-scientific motives, I think that ID isn’t inherently unscientific. In fact, one of the earliest proponents of the ID concept in it’s contemporary form was Fred Hoyle, who was an agnostic Nobel laureate astronomer who believed that life originated somewhere other than earth. A couple of years ago I had the privilege of eating dinner with Owen Gingerich, author of God’s Universe before he gave a talk at UCSC. God’s Universe is a short and enjoyable book on the relationship between science and religion. Gingerich is both a respectable scientist and a respectable Christian. His book nobly tries to transcend much of the nastiness of the previous debate. However, I think he goes a bit too far. He argues that ID is not scientific, claiming that science deals only with efficient causes and not final causes (more detail on Aristotle’s causes here). While eating dinner with him, I asked a question about science and final causes. Namely, it seems that many historical sciences (specifically archaeology and anthropology) deal with questions such as, “Was this object designed by someone?” and “What was the purpose of this artifact?” Gingerich’s demarcation of science would leave these questions outside the line. His response to my question was, “Hmm…I’ve never thought of that before. I would have to think about it.” While an acceptable answer for dinner conversation, I don’t feel that I have yet heard an answer to this question that is philosophically satisfying from anyone in the debate. Asking whether something is designed seems to me to be an inherently scientific question. Arguably, however, this question becomes much more difficult to answer when you move to the realm of design of biological organisms. What does a designed organism look like? Perhaps the ID advocates have thus far done an insufficient job of exploring this question. However, while difficult, I don’t see any reason why this question should be labeled as unscientific. My impression is that the scientific community labels it unscientific because of who it is coming from.
After a long digression on ID, I will now return to the movie. In general I felt that much of it was overdone. Especially regarding the imagery. It felt like the conservative equivalent of a Michael Moore conspiracy film. However, it did instill a certain amount of fear and inspiration, and I think in many ways it was correct to depict a primae facie rejection of ID within the scientific community, a general lack of free discussion on the topic, and a stigmatizing of anyone who touches the subject . In my experience with the scientific community ID is most commonly mentioned as the butt of a joke. Perhaps my chief criticism of the film is its general aggressive nature, not only in the film itself but also the aggressive methods used by the producers to get their footage. In the name of intellectual honesty and freedom they knowingly deceived a number of prominent evolutionists into thinking that they were interviewing for a pro-evolution film. This troubles me.
I will mention that the viewer who wishes to be well-informed will also take a good look at the counterarguments offered by http://www.expelledexposed.com/. I hope that the movie will lead to much needed rational discourse on the subject. I fear it will lead to a knee-jerk backlash by the scientific community. In closing, while writing this post I find myself asking the question, “Did I just jeopardize my scientific career?”
-Matt, the elder brother
Interestingly enough, I had not even heard of Expelled until last week when John mentioned something about it on our blog. After watching the trailer, I was definitely interested in seeing it, as it was so utterly provocative. It is much harder for me to comment on the actual climate within the scientific community, because, well, I study Greek and Latin, but hopefully I have some of my own useful commentary to contribute.
My first reaction to Expelled was that it was entertaining. I laughed at least once every few minutes, usually because of the black-and-white films that they would so comically insert into the documentary sections, which acted as a kind of silent, moral narrator. When you consider this on a serious level, though, I’m not sure that these interjections (particularly in such frequency) are entirely appropriate for a documentary. They trivialize the debate, reducing the opponent’s ideas to a joke, which is just a subtle straw-man. When you go to the movie theaters, you are usually going to see a drama, an action movie, a love story, etc., and you are fully aware that what you are seeing is not true. When you go to the movies to see a documentary, though, you have a general assumption that everything being told you is i) true and ii) objective. While Ben Stein doesn’t necessarily cross over this first boundary by making up ridiculous lies about the evolutionist side, he definitely does not present both sides in the same light. I was slightly disturbed by the fact that they framed the interviews of evolutionists to seem wicked or dumb, sometimes even using very dark, spooky lighting. Honestly, after seeing all of that footage of Richard Dawkins, I think I would scream and run if I actually saw him in real life. The ID proponents were the clear martyrs, being directly compared to the Jews in the Holocaust. I mean, seriously, how much more dramatic of an analogy could Mr. Stein really have chosen? If he is accusing the other side of all-out war on ID scientists, it is unfair that he has failed to unveil his own underhanded war-strategies. At one point, the scientist who met Ben in Paris said that he thought there should be a much greater attitude of scientific self-criticism. Unfortunately, Ben Stein’s movie has weighed in fully on one side; it is, in a way, one hand clapping. These propaganda devices were clearly effective in the audience we were in, because Allison and I heard frequent comments from people applauding this attack on evolution. At the end, everyone clapped, which was troubling to us both, because Expelled will probably polarize American society (hopefully a better-informed scientific community will be more immune to this).
I also had mixed feelings about the connection drawn between Darwinism and eugenics, as if all evolutionists are in favor of euthanasia, mass sterilization and social-breeding. Again, the connection to the Holocaust (which is in many ways a legitimate one) nonetheless suggests that if we allow our scientific community to be ruled by evolutionists, then we are going to end up committing some atrocity, such as the Holocaust. So fängt es immer ein (That’s how it always starts). This is obviously stark übertrieben (grossly exaggerated, to balance one German expression with another). I do appreciate the connection drawn between science and world-view, however. Frequently these associations are kept low-profile, but one cannot ignore that embracing a Darwinian anthropogeny leads down a slippery moral slope. If we are here only by accident, how can anything be right or wrong? Absolute morality, in its very essence, implies some telos (final cause). Where Expelled goes too far, though, is that they imply that all evolutionists, if not already, are quickly changing into spineless, heartless, amoralists who don’t care about anything or anyone, as if the average evolutionist would have no moral qualms with murdering his own mother, granted that it led to a higher state of evolution (isn’t that a kind of morality, anyway?) This straw-man is absurd. Although evolutionists no longer have a firm moral ground upon which to build a system of ethics (a point I’m very glad was made in the film), they do not reject all sense of right and wrong. Moral relativism and a de-privileging of human live are certainly a danger that can easily lead to supporting abortion, cloning, and possibly social breeding, although this last one is probably going too far.
There were two moments in the documentary that I particularly enjoyed. The first was during the interview with one of the ID scientists in Seattle, who said that there are two possible routes to take when examining where human life came from: one with design, and one without it. Scientifically, there is no reason to reject one out-of-pocket, but that is effectively what the scientific community has done. I felt like this was a very level-headed analysis of the academic climate. Another quote I appreciated was from a British scientist who said that it is not science that comes before the world-view, but the world-view that lays the foundation for how scientific data is interpreted. Scientists must recognize this and provide their own world-views as a disclaimer to their scientific research. It is impossible, and equally irrational, for a scientist with a firm belief in God to somehow exclude this bias from his scientific research; in the same one, a devout atheist cannot, and should not, do science without framing her research in terms of her larger understanding of the universe. It seems that religion and science are not only inseparable, they are in fact married in a way; for if God exists, then science is a clear path to understanding his nature through how he created the universe (in fact, science must have been designed for this reason); if God does not exist, then the religion of atheism (or lack of religion) carries the day, and science is a cold, impersonal description of the world around us.
On a closing note, I resonate with Matt’s desire for the scientific community to debate these things through good research and open-minded discussion. I fear that Expelled will only throw oil on the fire. There is no doubt a Berlin Wall is running right through the scientific community, but it is not clear yet whether Ben Stein has helped to tear it down or build it up higher.
By the way, we have presented our own preliminary thoughts about this documentary, but we would greatly appreciate feedback and questions from you, as there is no doubt more to be discussed here.
-James, the younger brother