Ben Stein ist nicht Einstein
Oy veh. I have been to see Expelled. Verily, I say unto you: intelligence was not allowed. This movie may be effective with certain audiences, but it relies heavily on the ignorance of its viewers. As the Expelled Exposed website amply documents, the movie's cavalcade of martyrs is actually a parade of pretenders. As a work of cinematic art, Expelled is a pretense impasto.
The movie gets off to a quick start in its framing of the alleged controversy, showing black-and-white clips of the erection of the Berlin Wall. This is Expelled's particular leitmotif, the intercutting of portentous commentary by Ben Stein with historical clips of communists, Nazis, and (of all things!) school training videos (“Now, children, do we know when to be quiet?”). The much-sinned-against martyrs tell their poignant tales of woe and repression, Ben Stein exudes astonishment and empathy, and then Joe Stalin, Nikita Khruschev, or Adolf Hitler take their little turn on the catwalk. It happens over and over again.
But let's be fair. If it wasn't mind-numbingly repetitive, how would we know it's a propaganda video?
Almost the first words out of Ben Stein's mouth are a falsehood. His opening scene occurs in a lecture hall at Pepperdine University. He greets his attentive audience, calling them “students.” As Michael Shermer informs us, hardly any of them are. They're extras, hired by the production company to fill the hall and react appropriately on cue. The script must have said that Stein's address was brilliantly successful, because the “students” applaud like loons at its conclusion.
Each supposed martyr at the hands of Darwin's Gestapo is introduced with a document flashed on the screen. Certain words are highlighted in yellow as they occur in Stein's voice-over, while others are selectively blacked out. What are these documents and why are they censored? In keeping with the general tenor of the movie, I suspect they are just props, cooked up by Expelled's producers to make it appear that they are exposing the secretive machinations of the Darwinian elite. It's just cardboard stage scenery. Actually, less than cardboard.
You have to listen attentively to catch some of the more interesting details in the testimony of those who claim to have been victimized by the Darwinian establishment. One peculiar inadvertent admission came from Robert Marks, a Baylor University professor whose ID-friendly website was suspended from the school's servers. The university was concerned that hosting the site would imply to others that the views expressed by Professor Marks were endorsed by the institution. Marks called his site the “Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory,” although there was actually no lab and no publishable work was produced. In talking with Stein about his ordeal, Marks said that it was important to promote oneself in the quest to obtain research grants, which was one of the reasons he did things like “put up labs.” I'm not a research scientist, but I'm fairly certain that putting up a website with a laboratory title is not the same thing as doing any actual science. If it is, then this is a remarkably efficient way of creating labs ex nihilo.
The voices in favor of evolution are carefully selected by the producers of Expelled. When Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education is permitted to point out that most Catholics and mainstream Protestants have no problem accepting evolution, we quickly discover it's only so that Stein can curl his lip and intone, “Oh, really?” He then trots out a string of nonbelievers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and P.Z. Myers to imply that evolution is really just another word for atheism. Declining to be as deferential toward religion as Eugenie Scott, Dawkins explains that learning science was his route to freedom from superstition. Stein is horrified, of course, that Dawkins dismisses religion so callously. (Time for more atheistic monsters of history to be paraded across the screen in black and white.)
From the celebratory comments on blogs and other sites friendly to intelligent design creationism, one might think that Stein baits Dawkins into self-revelatory comments that leave him looking a fool. To the contrary, Dawkins acquits himself rather well. He tends to speak in complete, well-modulated sentences that are difficult to edit into sound-bites more appropriate for a baby-munching antichrist. Stein tries to recoil in consternation at frank admissions of nonbelief, but Stein is not a very persuasive actor. (He runs the gamut, as Dorothy Parker once said of Hepburn, from A to B.) Dawkins seems quite bemused when Stein insists on quizzing him concerning his disbelief in the gods of other religions (not just the God of the Bible), as if a declaration of atheism requires an individual abjuration of each and every deity. (Let us give thanks that Stein did not know the nine billion names of god.)
Stein finds a boon companion in David Berlinski, whom he tracks down in Paris. Berlinski lounges languidly in a low-slung chair in his apartment while Stein bandies words with him. From most camera angles we see Berlinski peering over one of his knees as he pontificates. He's too cool to sit up straight. Sometimes you can glimpse what is probably his Princeton diploma (Ph.D. in philosophy) hanging on the wall over his head. Berlinski explains to Stein that Dawkins is philosophically incompetent, lacking the basic knowledge necessary to address even the most elementary of the questions he raises in The God Delusion. (Contrariwise, it's all right for philosopher Berlinski to offer sententious pronouncements on biology.) When Stein damns Dawkins with faint praise by saying that Berlinski has to admit Dawkins is quite smart, Berlinski grudgingly agrees: “Oh, yes. But he is a bit of a reptile.”
Coming from Berlinski, this charge struck me as particularly amusing. If the lounging lizard had deigned to dart his tongue from between his lips a few times, the image would have been complete.
With suitable hand-wringing, Berlinski notes that it's difficult to connect Darwin with Hitler because of the decades separating them (and, he admits, in a chuckle-inducing comment, “one was English and the other was German”). Nevertheless, he'll give it a try. He opines that Darwinism was not a sufficient condition to give rise to the Nazis; it was, however, a necessary condition. No Darwin, no Hitler. If you read Mein Kampf, claims Berlinski—especially, he adds superciliously, if you can read it in the original German—you'll discover that it's pure Darwinism. More black-and-white video. Then, in case he hasn't rubbed our noses in it enough, Stein tours a site of Nazi atrocities and bemoans man's inhumanity to man. I don't doubt Stein's visceral horror at the treatment of his people, but I have great contempt for his manipulative exploitation of it.
A lot of screen time was also given to William Dembski, who waxed indignant at the blindness of those who would deny a fair hearing to intelligent design. For some reason, however, he failed to seize the opportunity to describe his body of work in establishing the theoretical underpinnings of ID. Perhaps it was modesty. Perhaps he did describe his role as “the Isaac Newton of information theory,” but the producers wisely left it on the cutting-room floor during editing. I suspect it's more likely that Dembski has learned to shy away from opening himself to further questions on when he would finally deliver the long-promised rigorous formalization of his explanatory filter for the detection of design. Since the book he published last year failed to do it, this particular task remains to be accomplished.
Any day now.
Near the end of the movie, Stein tells his Pepperdine audience that “There are people out there who want to keep science in a little box, where it can't possibly touch a higher power, cannot possibly touch God.” Perhaps Stein has it backward. It is God that is in a little box, and the box gets smaller all the time. His god-of-the-gaps used to be required to push the planets about in their orbits, to make the rain fall, and the sun shine, but that was all once upon a time. Science has deprived this god of most of his once-vital functions. Science cannot possibly touch God? Sorry, Ben. There's been a lot of touching going on. God has the bruises and the gap-toothed smile to show for it, too.
I attended an afternoon showing of Expelled at a local multiplex. At first I was the only person in the theater, but people trickled in and there were eventually two or three dozen of us in the house. If the producers of Expelled were hoping for a boffo opening day box office, we certainly did not do our part. Besides, the ticket stub in my pocket was for Kevin Spacey's 21, the movie that was playing in the adjacent theater.