Well, I figured it’s about time I had a go at this whole social commentary malarkey, and tried throwing my own quirky and hilarious take on some much-discussed current affairs. Or something. Anyway, to that end, I finally watched a trailer for Expelled, Ben Stein’s new Intelligent Design propaganda film. It was seven and a half painful minutes, and now I get to share them with you.
My first thought was to wonder whether I’ve misunderstood the hype, and if this is actually a horror film. There’s some spooky music playing. We see a dim hallway, with a badly lit janitor sullenly cleaning the floor. Then a classroom, with rows of empty seats, and the sinister mantra “Do not question authority” being chalked onto the blackboard, over and over, by some short stubby bald guy. Then the voiceover starts and totally undermines the whole eerie atmosphere they’d been building up. Even Ben Stein’s voice is lame these days.
Ben Stein, we soon learn, has Big Questions. One of these Big Questions is, “Are we, the Universe, and everything in it, merely the result of pure, dumb fate and chance?” Which is a pretty badly phrased question, but just wait. There’ll be plenty of time for the science to get misrepresented and misrepresenteder soon enough.
Steiny is of the opinion that “everything was created by a loving God. Rocks, trees, animals, people…” I can’t tell whether he’s being deliberately patronising, or he’s explaining things this way because he doesn’t expect his audience to understand the concept of “everything” unless he really spells it out, or whether that’s just how he talks. Absent from his list are malaria, HIV, parasitic worms that eat through people’s eyeballs, and city-levelling earthquakes and tidal waves, which presumably also fall under the umbrella of “everything”. Just sayin’.
Obviously there is some disagreement on this matter, however. Fortunately, The Steininator is here to boil all thought on the subject down into two simple categories, helpfully biased so that you’ll know which one is right. Isn’t it nice when other people do all your thinking for you?
The two sides of the debate, then, are the “loving God” side, who believe that people all contain the “spark of the divine”, and the others, the “Darwinists”, who apparently claim that humans are “nothing more than mud animated by lightning”. Here you get a two-for-one bargain on logical fallacies, since this is a false dichotomy containing a straw man. It’s simply not true that there are two exclusive and all-encompassing positions on this subject, of which you must choose one; and the secular and naturalistic position that Steinamo thinks he’s arguing against is entirely fictitious.
“Mud animated by lightning” is nowhere a part of evolutionary theory, and isn’t even a useful or coherent way of simplifying or summarising the position. (The phrase “cosmic mistake” is used later, and is similarly inappropriate.) There follows a brief “overview” of the theory of evolution by natural selection, which takes an uninformed layperson’s ideas on what the theory is, and then dumbs it down even further.
Steinz Varieties generously has “no problem if people want to believe that sort of thing”. It seems that the misrepresented scientific idea, the one supported by a body of work with over a century of scientific experimentation and research clarifying and expanding on it, is the position being characterised as the kooky idea someone cooked up out of nowhere someday, which has gained ground among ideologues with a self-promoting agenda. “But… but… you’re the religious nut, dammit!” I splutter, apoplectically. “You don’t get to grandiosely tolerate us!”
This dangerously liberal approach of his, that scientists should be permitted to hold all the wacky, evidence-based beliefs they want, is justifed by the reminder that this is a free society, and more specifically that “this isn’t Nazi Germany”. Now, I have no experience with documentary film-making, and perhaps if Louis Theroux read this he’d bitch-slap me for my ignorance, but do we really need a clip of Hitler there to remind us what Nazi Germany was, and why it was bad? Maybe he is just highlighting the important differences between that horrific regime and the world of free love and peace on Earth in which we live today, but there’d be no need for the imagery if he wasn’t expecting us to associate it with something.
We are then introduced to some guy, who
FrankenStein describes as a “mild-mannered research scientist”. Are we expected to take a liking to him because he sounds inoffensive, harmless, and an all-round jolly good chap? Or to wonder whether he has a crime-fighting alter-ego with super powers? Anyway, this guy’s story is that he edited a scientific journal, published a paper by some other guy (watch the trailer yourself if you want detail and nuance), and suddenly found himself “under attack”. The mood he felt from the rest of the scientific community, he says, went from being “chilly to… outright hostile.” So… it was chilly beforehand? Did they already not like you? Maybe because you’ve been a crappy scientist for years? Objection, speculative ad hominem. Okay, maybe I’m being harsh.
The article that caused all the trouble is said to have asserted that “there are signs of design in nature.” Now, I think that sounds vague and tentative enough to stop it from being all that controversial. “Signs” are not necessarily conclusive, and this could nearly be just another way of interpreting the claim that the theory of evolution is not complete, that there are some elements of observed biology which cannot wholly be explained to everyone’s satisfaction by our current understanding. This is certainly true, and does not mean that anyone’s suggesting that the entire field, and one of the absolutely fundamental necessities of modern biology, should be completely uprooted and discarded. There are just some things which, if they did come about through natural processes, we don’t yet know precisely how they did it.
However, a breath later, as if that last point was merely being rephrased or clarified, we hear, “The digital code in our DNA could not have come about by accident” (emphasis mine). Now, that is one Juggernaut of a claim, and a far cry from the “signs of design” suggested a moment ago. You’d have to know a whole lot about what can come about “by accident”, and how it does so, before you can say with such confidence that anything could not have done so. You know who probably does know a whole lot about the levels of life and complexity that can arise by accident? I’m guessing evolutionary biologists. People who’ve done experiments, and research, and spent years trying to find about more about it. Ben Stein-O-Mite… maybe not so much.
All our beleaguered Clark Kent wannabe (the research scientist guy, not Ben “Lisa Edel” Stein) is asking for is the freedom to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Yeah, because the evidence is really what’s on your side, in this stand you’re taking against one of the most solidly established and empirically supported areas of study in contemporary science.
His only crime – this poor fellow, who could never hurt a fly, and who wanted so badly to be a published scientific journalist – was daring to question the supposed “mud animated by lightning” theory. What I’m guessing this means, in more specific terms, is that this paper was deeply scientifically uninformed, disregarded mountains upon mountains of evidence gathered over decades of investigation, deserved to be ripped to shreds by the peer review process, and should never have even made it into print for all its factual and theoretical holes and misconceptions. I say I’m guessing, and I could certainly be wrong, but we’re really not given a lot of detail as to what it actually said, which might give us some idea how suitable or otherwise its publication in this particular journal might have been. (You may notice that I’m too lazy to put any time or effort into actually finding out, from any other sources, what the article in question was about. I offer no apology for this.)
To emphasise the unfairness, we are told how publishing this paper “would not have been an issue, if we were living in the time of Galileo, or Einstein”. First of all, again with the unnecessary imagery, this time disembodied heads coming right at me. Secondly… Dude. If someone is publishing articles in a scientific journal, based on a scientific understanding over a century out of date, they should be laughed out of the gene pool, let alone out of academic journalism.
But “this is the era of Darwin”. Accompanied by an image of a cheetah chasing down and mauling a gazelle. Because, you know, animals never did that in Galileo’s or Einstein’s time. (Yes, I realise the metaphor he’s trying to invoke here, but come on.)
There are other poor souls suffering similar horrors, and being “denied publication in scientific journals”. I truly don’t know how they cope. My minimal experience from the sidelines of the scientific world leads me to understand that, even if you do know what you’re talking about, and you actually have some evidence on your side which can’t easily be (and hasn’t already been) demonstrated to be useless in support of your ideology, getting yourself published in a scientific journal of any repute is still pretty damn tough.
And this stigma is inflicted upon these cursed, hopeless individuals, “all for questioning Darwin”. Again, this is bollocks. Scientists have questioned Darwin plenty. The guy died in 1882, do you think biologists have had nothing to do since then but twiddle their thumbs, glue some human jaw-bones to chimpanzee skulls and burn the occasional Lamarckian? They’ve moved on since his day. More than most creationists seem to have done.
Benny to the S bemoans the vastness and the overwhelming power of the Establishment which he is up against. “The media’s in on it, courts, the educational system…” Well, the more people who are against you, the more indignant you can be about your underdog status. Quite why all these far-reaching organisations would be so universally keen to exclude certain ideas is never explained, but there’s clearly a national secular conspiracy at work here, with unknown but definitely sinister motives. Yep, it’s way more likely to be the non-religious groups who are campaigning avidly and crying repression in an attempt to promote their personal ideas and ideological agenda. (I hope you’re not getting too dizzy from the rate at which I’m spinning back and forth between sincerity and sarcasm. I think it’s at least usually clear which I’m shooting for.)
Then there’s the suggestion that Darwinism (a term only those with an anti-evolution stance ever seem to use) might be “not only improbable… it might actually be dangerous.” This is followed, after a brief shot of what might just be some sort of Gulag or concentration camp (the subtle associative imagery continues), with a brief selection of half-second quotes from Dawkins, Dennett, and presumably some other similarly outspoken atheists or scientists with whom I’m less familiar. These, at first, fail to make any point at all. There’s so little context that I can’t even tell whether what they’re saying is supposed to come across as damning.
And then Richard Dawkins, in a shocking moment of candour and openness about his role in the Evil Atheist Conspiracy, tells us: “As a scientist, I am pretty hostile to a rival doctrine.” Something of a money shot, catching someone as prominent as Dawkins engaging in such blatant dogmatism.
But it’s a money shot of not more than eleven words. Dawkins has written many, many more words than that before, very clearly and elaborately expressing the precise opposite opinion, arguing strongly for the vital importance of science’s ability to adapt to new information, and that unconventional doctrines be heard and examined as dispassionately and fairly as possible. Has he suddenly changed his position? Has he been cleverly caught out, and had his true feelings revealed, by those cunning and tricksy documentary-makers? Or was he perhaps not really claiming that his present belief system is unshakable and must be defended at all costs? Were there maybe more than eleven words in the paragraph he was speaking, of which we saw only a snippet, that would alter our interpretation of his intent, if we could hear the rest of it? The very definition of a straw man argument involves deciding what you want your opponents to say and then attacking them for it, whether or not it represents what they actually believe.
Sweet Child O’ Stein’s next point is that scientific research is apparently the one area of society where we don’t tolerate free speech. This is hardly less wacked-out than anything that’s gone before. Nobody wants to deny people the legal right to express whatever unorthodox ideas about biology they want (except possibly some equally barmy zealots who in no way represent the scientific community). But if you want to be a science teacher, it’s not an unreasonable demand that you teach some science, which creationism fails to be. If you want to be published in a scientific journal, it’s probably necessary to submit a scientific article. Are you seeing the pattern here? It’s not censorship or intolerance of free speech if some magazine or university refuses to expend their resources in pandering to an uninformed and irrelevant demographic. I can send in as many as I like of my fascinating and brilliantly written articles on the latest hot crochet designs to hit the streets, but What Car? magazine are entirely within their rights to repeatedly ignore me in favour of whatever they consider more suitable to their readership.
Back to Saint Valenstein. “People who are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism.” Oh, wow, do you ever not understand how science works.
And in the closing moments it just gets ridiculous how much they overplay the importance of what they’re doing. He’s “trying to warn others before it’s too late”. Ben Stein’s on a mission from God. Ben Stein aims to misbehave. The fate of the planet is in Ben Stein’s hands. Only Ben Stein can save us now. Help me, Ben Stein; you’re my only hope. Ben Stein, Texas Ranger. Fear can hold you prisoner; Ben Stein can set you free. Ben Stein: fuck, yeah.
Even watching this movie could get you in trouble. You might lose your friends and your job, just from watching this film. Apparently the only way they can sell this film to anyone is by stirring up paranoia, and playing into the part of people’s minds that knows that rebelling against authority is cool and wants to be Neo in The Matrix. And that’s got to be some heavy duty paranoia right there. If you buy a cinema ticket to see this movie, the government will track your credit card, hunt you down, and see that you never get published in a scientific journal again. So make sure you pay in cash. And watch out for those black helicopters.
“If you’re a scientist with a future, I suggest you leave right now.”
Dude. YOU ARE BEN STEIN. YOU ARE NOT THAT POWERFUL. YOU DO NOT HAVE AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE THAT THE MEN IN BLACK ARE TRYING TO STOP YOU SHARING WITH THE WORLD.
And now it’s nearly over. We’re back in the school hallway from the opening scene, and then the empty classroom. The janitor we saw what feels like months ago cleaning the floor comes along, sees the writing on the blackboard, and shakes his head sadly. But wait… what’s this? He’s taking something out, and… it’s a blackboard eraser! He’s cleaning the board! He’s wiping away all that damnable Darwinian propaganda! Oh, happy day! Thankyou, mister janitor man, for saving us from this menace! (Yeah, I’m kinda bored by now.)
The final shot is of the rows of empty chairs in the lecture hall, with Austein Powers’s not-very-ominous voiceover: “Will anyone be left to fight this battle? Anyone? Anyone?” … I honestly can’t tell if it’s meant to be a self-parody, or if he’s taking himself seriously. Anyone else want to hazard a guess?