Science Sunday: Intelligent Design Goes to the Movies

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Filmmakers try to insert “intelligent design” back into the scientific debate — without much success.According to Of Pandas and People, a textbook outlining the essentials of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolutionary biology:

“Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency with their distinctive features already intact: Fish with fins and scales; birds with feathers, beaks and wings; etc. Some scientists have arrived at this view since fossil forms first appeared in the record with their distinctive features intact and apparently fully functional rather than gradual development.”

But you’ll stay awake through the one-hour-and-forty-five-minute film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” – if you can manage it — without ever hearing this or any other definition of intelligent design. This seems a curious omission in a movie seeking to poke holes in evolutionary theory and by doing so establish some scientific credentials for ID.

“Expelled” stars Ben Stein. It was produced by Premise Media. The film will be released to general audiences in April. ColoradoConfidential was invited to a preliminary screening of “Expelled” – probably by mistake – that was held last week in a meeting room at the Archdiocese of Denver. They were kind enough to invite us, so I feel guilty about hating the thing so much.

Ben Stein is one of those people whom I recognize, but I’m not sure why. He seems to be mostly famous for being famous. His online bio says that he was a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. The bio adds, “He did NOT write the line, `I am not a crook.'” This is a shame because as far as I can tell that’s the only memorable thing Richard Nixon ever said. Stein played the boring teacher in the film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” His style is the definition of “deadpan.” Stein is apparently aiming for a religious right niche similar to the one held by Michael Moore on the left. Judging from this effort, he has a ways to go.

You won’t hear a coherent definition of evolution in the “Expelled,” either, even though it bashes this scientific theory incessantly. So we’ll offer this one as a public service:

Evolution is descent with modification. Random changes in the genetic makeup of an organism result in changes in the phenotype. The organism interacts with its environment. If the changes to the phenotype give it an advantage over others – the vast majority of genetic changes are deleterious — it leaves more offspring, who are also endowed with this advantageous genetic makeup for dealing with their environment. This latter is known as “natural selection.” This simple but powerful process leads to new species through separation of organisms in time and place.

The above is the ten cent course in evolution, but it’s more than you’ll get from “Expelled.” In fact I’ve even already told you more about both intelligent design and evolutionary theory than you’ll get from “Expelled.”

I can hear you saying, “Okay, so what is it about?” A fair question. But the film is so intellectually garbled it’s hard to summarize. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is Summa Theologica compared to “Expelled.”

Click the image to view the trailer.

The film starts off as a stirring defense of academic inquiry, charging that Darwinists are squashing debate by depriving researchers in intelligent design of positions in academia. I suppose I should mention that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is the founding intellectual giant behind evolutionary theory. Were he alive today, however, I can’t guarantee that he would ascribe to my ten cent version of evolutionary theory above. Genes, for instance, had not been discovered as agents of heredity when Darwin did his work.

“Expelled” trots out several martyrs to the Darwinist inquisition. The poster boy is Richard Sternberg, whom the movie says was ousted from his position at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and from his editorship of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington when he published in that publication a peer-reviewed article of scientific evidence that supports intelligent design. There is some dramatic if unfocused footage of Ben Stein being denied admission to the upper floors of the Smithsonian by a security guard when he tries to grill muckety-mucks at the museum about these injustices.

This repression of scientific thought, we can all agree, is horrible if true. But it isn’t true.

This is a dispute among academics. Faults on both sides, I’m sure. Perhaps because there is so little at stake in these fights, they are among the most vicious known to political man. A lot of cyber-ink was spilled over the Steinberg tussle long before Ben Stein got around to it. You can read Sternberg’s version of his persecution here and  a non-ID rebuttal here. It’s even made Wikipedia, which has got to be the high water mark for a bureaucratic pissing match.

The allegations made in “Expelled” are wrong. Sternberg never worked for the Smithsonian, so the Smithsonian couldn’t threaten his job there. He was a visiting scholar with research privileges, assigned an office. He still has both the office and the research privileges. He wasn’t deprived of his editorship. His term as editor had expired so he was stepping down anyway in favor of another editor when the controversial ID article was published.

In short, contrary to the assertions in “Expelled,” Sternberg suffered no harm whatever from the dustup. Which is not to say that he wasn’t criticized. He was. Harshly, rudely and sometimes childishly by fellow scientists. But rough and tumble argument is part of the world of science, whether you’re studying intelligent design, string theory or evolutionary biology.

There are three or four other cases explored in “Expelled,” all of which are presented in black-and-white terms as anti-ID intellectual repression by a Darwinist cabal. Closer examination of the specifics of each reveals pretty ordinary academic backbiting. There isn’t space enough on the internet to go into them here. I’ll leave it as an independent exercise for the morbidly curious.

After a half hour or so, “Expelled” wanders off to blame the theory of evolution for Communism, the Berlin Wall, Fascism, the Holocaust, atheism and Planned Parenthood. One of the few funny parts of the film, though, is Stein’s interview with British philosopher of science Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ best-selling book The God Delusion is a clarion call for atheism, making him a bete-noire of the religious right. Ben Stein, marshalling the intellectual resources of Ferris Bueller’s boring teacher, gets the better of him. Dawkins comes out of it looking pretty silly.

There are so many topics picked up, misrepresented and abandoned unresolved by “Expelled” that it is impossible to deal with them all. But they are typical of the intellectual dishonesty of the creationist-Intelligent Design cabal that wants to have this bankrupt hypothesis taught in the public schools.

For instance, the assumption by IDers is that if neo-Darwinian evolution can be shown to be largely incorrect, ID and creationism triumph. But this isn’t so. There are other hypotheses besides design or God or Darwin that could replace it, if they were supported by the evidence. The trouble is that only evolution is so supported. “Expelled” doesn’t try to build up a coherent alternative theory. It simply bashes evolution.

The confusion about the definition of ID is apparent throughout the movie. “Expelled” ridicules a hypothesis proposed some years ago called “panspermia.” This conjecture – for which, I hasten to add, there is zero direct evidence (just like ID) — is that life on earth was originated elsewhere in the galaxy and was planted here, either delivered by alien visitors or remotely somehow. “Expelled,” and the audience I saw it with, found this idea laugh-out-loud funny. But think about it. This is exactly ID’s hypothesis: Some superintelligence planted life on earth. IDers prefer that the “intelligence” be the God of Abraham, but there’s nothing in the hypothesis to rule out visitors from another galaxy.

The visually most compelling scenes in “Expelled” were graphic representations of DNA replication. This is truly a remarkable process. I’ve taken a couple of classes in genetics. It’s one of those things that is so cool right down to the details that it is hard not to stand back in awe of whoever thought it up, whether it was God or evolution. The ID take on it is: It’s so beautiful and complex, a designer must have been behind it. My take on it is: It’s so beautiful and complex, why would any designer bother with it? Something like 80 percent of the genetic material in a strand of DNA is not used for anything. It’s junk DNA. Surely an intelligent designer could have come up with something simpler.

But this is a matter of interpretation. Other presentations of “Expelled” display intellectual dishonesty. For instance, most evolutionary biologists do not deal with the origins of life. Evolution acts on organisms that already exist. The question of how life came about is not something that Darwinian evolution deals with. “Expelled” acknowledges this, then proceeds to ignore this acknowledgement and fault evolutionary theory for misinterpreting the origins of life. Sigh.

There are scientists who are trying to learn how life originated on earth. They have ideas, some silly sounding – you can hear about these in “Expelled” – and some profound. But nobody knows. Apparently for the creators of “Expelled,” saying that you don’t know something is unacceptable.

One likely reason that “Expelled” ignored the definition of ID from Of Pandas and People is that the book was thoroughly discredited in the 2005 trial of ID curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania. They probably want to distance themselves from this devastating defeat of creationism and ID in the courts.

“Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” may be the first volley in the next battle by creationists to give their movement intellectual weight. But its cartoon version of evolutionary theory, Its remarkable lack of evidence for its case, its unbalanced and hysterical portrayal of the “martyrs,” its dismal and depressing musical score, and its lack of genuine humor will persuade only the already persuaded.

NEW: Read Dan Whipple’s account of a telephone press conference with Ben Stein and the film’s producers at The Search for Truth, God and Braver Scientists in ‘Expelled’.

UPDATE: Read all of Colorado Confidential’s coverage on Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed here.

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