Posts Tagged ‘intelligent design’

Just a quick link today, shared earlier by my brother: Intelligent Design Is Still A Lie. GLaDOS meets Ben Stein and some dodgy auto-tuning. Watch. Chuckle. Go to bed. (That’s my schedule, anyway. You may adapt it as you see fit.)

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[Author’s note: I got pretty extravagantly creative with this. If you just want a run-down of the blog posts submitted, or a little more context as to what I’m linking to, try the busy person’s edition. Oh, and if you like you can Digg this here, though I’m having trouble getting a proper button up.]

The chicken’s squawks were soon silenced, dying in its throat under my tight fingers. Its fresh blood dripped satisfyingly into a clay bowl, to which I added the powdered skull of a kestrel. A carefully handled vial of cobra’s venom was next, adding the final ingredient to the mix. I stirred a slow figure-eight pattern, as the essences of these three creatures merged: vicious, predatory masters of the air and the land, tempered by the grounded, toothless fowl, to mediate between the two forces of nature, allowing them to exist in concert.

The rest of the arrangement was all in place. Fourteen candles surrounded me where I sat, in the centre of a pentagram outlined in salt, interwoven with other runes of great mystic import, etched with black ink on the floor. Now all that was left was to add the animal essence, to encompass the whole in a boundary that encapsulated all three spirits in one being. Careful to keep a steady hand, I took my brush, dipped it into the thick red mixture, and painted the Circle.

It had taken weeks of preparation. One does not merely paint the circle of Ss’ke-pTik and presume to summon the great god himself with no preamble. Obviously the lesser obeisances had first been made, the protocols observed over the course of many weeks, to establish my worthiness to request an audience with one so mighty. This moment was the culmination of much hard work, and if I was accepted as an acolyte, I would be granted power beyond anything known to mortal man.

I cannot record here the incantations I uttered inside the circle that day, but that knowledge itself was not easily obtained. My breath trembled as I gasped the last guttural syllable, and my heart raced as I awaited a response.

I could sense him instantly. The great lord’s presence was undeniable.

“Oh majestic and glorious Ss’ke-pTik,” I began babbling, seeking to suppress the exultant joy that welled up in me, “I am humbled and gratified by this gift of your visitation. You do me much honour this day, and I have many offerings to bring forth in your glorious name… But I have a request to make of you, O noble one, and though I be not worthy, I beg that it may be granted.”

After only a moment, his voice resonated from behind me – to turn and gaze upon his corporeal form would have been the utmost sacrilege – and made my bones tremble with its might.

“What is this request, mortal?” the great lord Ss’ke-pTik asked me.

“Master,” I stammered, trying to remember the exact wording of my prepared speech, “It was exactly one year ago to this day that I first dedicated myself to your wondrous being, and publicly declared my devotion to you. I have worked diligently in that year, seeking to preach your wisdom across the land, and striving toward that day when all mankind might follow your path. I ask now that you generously bless me with the greatest honour of all, and the duty and responsibility with which it comes. I beseech you, grant me knowledge of the truth in all its guises, the ability to see through all dissemblance and cut past any cloak of lies, the ultimate understanding of all things material, and the power of absolute skeptical insight into all matters within my comprehension.”

My voice barely quavered as I spoke my request, but my nerves were only just holding out, and I didn’t breath for the achingly long seconds his majesty took in considering my words.

“You ask for all that it is in my power to give, mortal,” were his next words. “I may be persuaded to endow such a gift, but it must be earned. Prove to me what you have learned so far. Then I will decide whether your request shall be granted.”

I had to bite my tongue to maintain a dignified posture. I had not wholly believed I would even get this far, but now I had only to pass this test of wisdom and judgment, and the power of Ss’ke-pTik would be mine to command.

“O great and powerful lord of all knowledge,” I began, somehow managing to remain composed. “I have studied the ancient mystical arts, and become well versed in many of the arcane truths, to which the world remains wilfully ignorant. I offer, for your magnanimous consideration, that experts in chiropractic therapies have been discovering the ways in which a range of medical conditions can be treated by spinal manipulation, in accordance with the notions of-”

The god cut me off with a mocking laugh. “You fail to impress me, mortal! The bogosity of such claims was further confirmed recently, when Edzard Ernst published two systematic reviews into the efficacy of chiropractic. Waste not my time with this pseudo-scientific nonsense.”

I felt jolted by this harsh rebuke, but assured myself that I had much more to offer, and that I’d never really been convinced by those spine-benders anyway. “You are, of course, infinitely wise, my lord,” I grovelled, “but I am sure you will find much to please you in what I have learned. For instance, I lately heard of an ingenious device by which harmful toxins can be removed from the human body through the feet, providing an important cleansing experience!”

The chuckle of Ss’ke-pTik was less cruel this time, but equally careless and unimpressed. “Toxins, you say?” he laughed. “Are these the same toxins which are so easily produced by a simple electrolytic redox reaction, whether anybody’s feet are in the footbath or not?”

It was a question requiring no answer, so I struggled on with my next offering, still convinced that some of the knowledge I had amassed in my recent months of exploration would please my lord.

“No matter, O great one,” I said, “as the field of medicine is replete with discoveries waiting for the world to acknowledge them. A useful contact has provided me with much insight into the efficacy of the ‘flu vaccine, and the usefulness of breast cancer screening, among many others…” I trailed off hopefully.

“Yes,” said the god Ss’ke-pTik, and my fading flicker of optimism surged up into a roaring flame once more. “I will hear this news with interest, mortal.”

I took a breath, my confidence soaring as I readied myself to launch into one of my well prepared speeches.

“Just so long,” the great one interrupted moments before I could utter my first syllable, “as your contact isn’t that Doug Bremner guy. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and a lot of his crankery’s already been debunked.

My hopeless befuddlement must have been obvious, but my lord did me the kindness of not laughing openly at my inadequacy this time. I scrambled to change the subject.

“Indeed, your mightiness… but I believe far more interesting is the phenomenon of inedia. Many people have reportedly reached such levels of discipline and enlightenment that many kinds of earthly sustenance are no longer necessary. Surely the ability to survive without food, for weeks or months at a time, is a truly miraculous accomplishment, and a worthy discovery.”

In the silence that followed, there was no doubting that the great lord was still present. It was a deliberate silence, and his displeasure was palpable in the air. I trembled, and could scarcely quiet the pounding of my own heartbeat in my ears to hear his response.

“You test my patience now, mortal,” he almost growled. “Do not wander idly into such matters with your ‘reportedly‘. People have died from a commitment to this idea, and it remains unproven. If you have anything further, bear in mind when you suggest it that I do not appreciate reckless endangerment of people’s lives.”

I mentally flipped through my remaining offerings, to eliminate anything that might offend, and decided to gloss over what I had learned about prevailing attitudes to various issues surrounding childbirth. If anything in my attitude could be construed as betraying a cavalier approach to the safety of children and mothers, I did not wish to imagine the wrath it may incur.

“Of course, my lord,” I grovelled. “But even a less drastic approach, for the treatment of less severe conditions, may hold much knowledge and wonder. There are those who draw upon ancient natural wisdom, to bring valuable wellness and succour to-”

“Really?” the god interrupted me again, with less anger but rising impatience. “You’re going to try and sell me on the likes of Yoder’s Good Health Recipe, or something else equally worthless and interchangeable as the most basic snake oil that every huckster on the planet has been hawking for over a century? Really?”

My god was being sarcastic at me. Of course it was his own wise prerogative to chastise me so, but nevertheless I felt my teeth start to grate. I deemed it best also to pass over the subject of TRUNATURE’s premium quality herbal supplements without comment, lest my lord say something ironic and shatter my fragile soul. I was running short on means by which to prove myself worthy.

“But… my ever-knowledgable lord,” I stammered, finding it hard to think clearly in the face of such casual dismissal of what I had thought were worthy ideas, “is there nothing which I can offer you? Is not a single element of these arcana with an ounce of merit? Surely there must be something out there beyond the knowledge of mere man?”

“More than you could ever comprehend,” he intoned. “But if it is beyond your knowledge, then why claim to know of it? That which can be known should be enough to inspire passion in anyone with a true curiosity about the world.”

“And what about you?” I pushed, with mounting frustration. “Where do you fit in, a deity who seems to believe in nothing? Are you proof that such a paradox as an atheistic god really can exist? Do you truly not have faith even in yourself?”

“Every man is an atheist to every god but his own,” said Ss’ke-pTik, entirely unruffled by any objection I could raise. “Though you would also do well to retain a spirit of agnosticism wherever you lack certainty. The two are not mutually exclusive, you know. And don’t talk to me about faith. Whatever convictions you hold to should not be blindly chosen, nor based on sickeningly insipid apocryphal stories that mischaracterise the opposing view while smugly making their own point seem unquestionable.”

I was at a loss. I had worked so hard to be granted an audience with the god I worshipped, and now that he was here I could not get through to him. I was rejected at every turn. He would not accept a single thing I had to offer, and I had nothing left with which to try to win him over. I had nothing more with which to plead for my god’s benevolence, and he knew it.

“Today is not to be the day of your ultimate enlightenment,” he said, not harshly, not kindly, but with no presumption beyond the statement of fact. “My knowledge will not be shared with you. You are not ready to be burdened with such a weight, because you would not know what to do with it. You have not yet learned how to think well enough, and without this understanding, knowledge would be of no value to you. Indeed, in such unqualified hands, it would be terrible and destructive.

“But there are those who would aid you in your search. There are places where other questioners may gather, share their ideas, and push together to achieve that knowledge you seek. Of course, the occasional unquestioning loon also gets invited along, but don’t let that put you off.”

There was a sudden rush of air, and I felt my connection to my god slipping away from me. His voice faded into nothing, as I felt him leaving me.

“Knowledge can yet be yours,” he said, “but it is not so easily won. To seek it for yourself is the very thing that gives it meaning, and the search needs no validation from some supposed god. The act of learning is its own reward. Plus it might save you from getting suckered out of your life savings. Always keep learning…”

And I was alone.

Defiance flared in me, fuelled by the anguish at being abandoned to this solitude.

“I don’t need you anyway!” I shrieked into the emptiness. “Technology is fast replacing out-dated religions such as yours! I can achieve true immortality, when the singularity arrives!” This, I assured myself, was unlikely to be refuted, and would surely never turn out to be merely an excellent money-making scheme for those selling the idea.

But I was still alone. With no candle in the dark, for they had all blown out, when the only god I had ever believed in vanished. How could I hope to go on? Was there really nothing worth believing in?

I thought about what my erstwhile master had said. That I should keep going anyway, keep learning, keep investigating, even with no god to help me. No god, no random outside agent, no celestial interior designer… None of it seemed real.

I thought about what I’d learned so far, the rumours and gossip of amazing discoveries that I’d tracked down, and realised quite how superficial it had all been. I’d never really questioned or sought to understand. It hadn’t occurred to me to be interested in whether indisputable evidence might exist against these ideas, or how I might respond to learning of such incontestable proof. It seemed ludicrous, the more I thought about it, that I’d ever expected to impress one such as the great lord Ss’ke-pTik with such ill-considered banalities.

And even if he had chosen to grant me the knowledge I sought, would that have been any more meaningful? Or would it be as shallow as my previous findings, to simply accept a series of facts from this new source of authority? If I didn’t ask my own questions, pursue my own interests, uncover truths and expose deception on my own terms, as best I could… would I really have learnt anything?

I stood up, lifted by just a hint of interest and curiosity, which I felt might one day grow into a sense of purpose. I considered just how much I do not know, and what a position of strength this puts me in. I thought about what to do next.

I had questions.

So many questions.

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The full edition of the 119th Skeptics’ Circle should be located mere pixels up-screen from these very words you are now reading. You should really go and read that, instead of this. But because I’ve sorta kinda maybe gone a little overboard in terms of creative embellishment, I thought it’d be handy to just briefly summarise the posts I’ve linked to up there, and more succinctly round up this edition’s participants.

This itself is actually pretty lengthy, though, so it’s going under a cut.


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Instead of the traditional April Fool’s confession to a sudden religious epiphany, conversion to an unlikely faith, and abandonment of my previous heathen ways including this whole heretical blog, I’ve actually got some stuff to comment on.

Anyone remember Anthony Flew? He was the most famous atheist on the planet – at least, so we were often told after he decided he believed in God. Given how long he’s apparently been writing books and philosophising and such, it looks like he may actually have been kind of a big deal, despite never making it onto my own radar. I don’t think there’s any real news being brought up in this article – his book describing his change of heart was a couple of years ago now – but what’s surprising is the inanity of the arguments that Flew apparently now finds persuasive, and the kinds of basic, fundamental errors in understanding that abound in his rejection of materialism.

For instance, he has a problem with Richard Dawkins, who published The Selfish Gene in 1976. His complaint is that genes can’t be selfish – they’re only unthinking, non-conscious, microscopic strands of genetic material, after all – which, as a dismissal of Dawkins’ work in biology, is about as coherent as walking out of a production of Hamlet, thirty seconds into the first scene, muttering “Francisco? Barnardo? Who are these people? They weren’t in the title! This play makes no sense!”

I can only imagine he’s never actually read the book itself, and is judging its thesis entirely on the title. And he’s not even doing that well. Terms like “gay gene” have been thrown around fairly commonly lately, and it’s generally understood that it doesn’t refer to a DNA strand which [insert whatever gay stereotype you find most personally offensive and distasteful here], any more than the idea of a “selfish gene” refers to a string of organic molecules gleefully rubbing its hands together and cackling with delight at the thought of all the nucleotides it’s hording for itself. Even if you don’t want the hassle of reading a book before you critique it, how much of a leap does it really take to guess that “selfish gene” might refer to a gene for selfishness (in the same way that we have genes for red hair, green eyes, and so forth), and that the whole thing might not be so obviously and ludicrously wrong as you’d prefer to think? (In fact, that’s still not how Dawkins means the phrase, but it’s not a terrible starting point. Want to actually understand what he’s getting at? Read the book.)

It’s worth noting that his primary arguments against atheism actually seem to be arguments against evolution, as it’s the intelligent design thing that seems to have swayed him most. But this raises the question, what the hell did you think evolution was about for the forty years or so you were an atheist? Especially when you look at quite how simplistic are the lines of unreasoning that have finally changed his mind.

He refers to a statistical analysis by Gerry Schroeder, of the mathematical improbability of getting a perfectly spelt sonnet from a monkey bashing randomly at a keyboard. Even the odds against happening upon a single line, such as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” are well beyond trillions to one against, so obviously the collection of precisely oriented random events required to produce life are even more remote, and it’s utterly implausible that living beings could have arisen except by the design of an intelligent creator.

Dude. You accepted for decades that the universe could be adequately explained without invoking any divine agency, and this is what finally convinces you otherwise? You’d never thought it through this far before? You’d blindly accepted evolutionary theory all this time without ever noticing that life is pretty complex, and looks unlikely to have just happened randomly? What the hell were you thinking all that time?

I’m too bored of this guy to reiterate just what’s wrong with the probability argument, but I’m guessing he hasn’t read Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker either. The Weasel Applet has a much more appropriate model of how evolution actually works (by selecting for randomly occurring small changes, and accumulating numerous, only moderately improbable events over time), and my own page on evolution might help explain some ideas, at least to a better extent than Anthony Flew understands them.

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(Spoiler alert: no.)

One of the criticisms most often levelled at the theory of evolution is that it’s “just a theory”. The clue’s in the name, after all. So if we’re not really all that sure about it, some people tell us, we ought to at least consider some alternative ideas. If it’s “just a theory”, then it’s apparently not yet a fact, and so to insist that no other explanations should even be considered is unfair to other worldviews, most notably Creationism (and/or Intelligent Design).

There’s a number of things wrong with this.

Let me clarify, though, that my problem isn’t with the labelling of evolution as a “theory”. It may be the case that scientists aren’t always the most effective people to do their own PR work, but their image problem isn’t so hopeless that such a common phrase as “the theory of evolution” isn’t even accurate. It is a theory.

My problems – two of them, I suppose – are about the word “just”.

First of all, saying that evolution is “just” a theory is kinda like saying the United States “only” won thirty-six gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, or that Sylvia Browne has given “hardly any” desperate parents utterly false information about the whereabouts of their missing children. However much you try and play it down, it’s still quite a lot.

A scientific idea about how stuff works doesn’t get to be a theory the moment someone stands up on a box on a street corner and starts shouting about it, or even the minute they get a paper about it published in a respected journal. A theory is a complete model, which describes a phenomenon, and which has stood up to testing against actual data. It’s a word that’s casually tossed around a lot out in the rest of the world, but in science, theories are tough sons of bitches that have gone through the mill. It’s not a term that denigrates anything; if anything, it’s quite a badge of honour. (I’ve written more about the scientific method before.)

My other problem with this statement is that it’s not even true. Evolution isn’t just a theory. Gould had a great line about this:

Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty.

This is to do with those pesky differences between how scientists use words, and how they’re more commonly understood. (What’s with scientists thinking they can just use words to mean what they want them to mean, anyway? Next they’ll be telling us a parsec isn’t really a measurement of time, or something.)

Colloquially, if you’ve no idea of the answer to something, you might take a guess. If you’re got a bit of an idea, and are trying to impress someone who’s easily impressed by slightly long words, you could have a hypothesis. Pretty much interchangeably with that, you may instead come up with a theory. If you’re more sure you know what’s going on, you might make an assertion, or an allegation. And something that’s not even up for discussion any more, because nobody has any doubt about what’s really true, is a fact.

But in a scientific context, these terms don’t line up in a hierarchy of increasing certainty like that, any more than an apple is more definitely a fruit than a strawberry, which itself is better than a pear. A theory is a good thing to have, a model for explaining stuff; it doesn’t mean you’ve still got a way to go before you’ve “proved” anything. Facts are useful, and can be gathered out in the real world as data is observed, but facts are things that need to be explained, and predicted, by some overall vision of what’s going on, and an understanding of what they mean. That’s what a theory is for.

One of Wikipedia’s pages on evolution has a lot more on this, and some quite gripping drama on the discussion page, too.

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I honestly don’t want this blog to get too predominantly political, and it’s clear that the wide reach of my ignorance on the subject will stop me from getting too carried away on that, but some of this is kinda pertinent at the moment.

Stuff about Sarah Palin is starting to turn up, for instance, like the claim she made in her acceptance speech that she “championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress”, with particular reference to a bridge that was hoped to be built in her state of Alaska. What she actually said at the time indicates that federal funding for the bridge was only turned down when they couldn’t get enough money to get the job done. It’s getting more and more impractical to misrepresent, gloss over, or re-imagine your past actions and statements without getting called on it these days.

Melissa Rogers has a comprehensive list of quotes from Joe Biden‘s past about religion’s role in public life and church-state issues. He’s a Catholic, but seems to have a good idea of what separation of Church and State actually means. He’s opposed the teaching of intelligent design in science classes, and based on everything that’s here it seems like he could be trusted not to let religion play an inappropriately prominent role in government. (Hat-tip to Ed Brayton.) A similar list for Sarah Palin is still being updated, but so far she’s doing little to endear herself to me, at any rate.

And, quite excitingly, Barack Obama has answered the “top 14 science questions facing America”, as selected by ScienceDebate2008 and the thousands of people who submitted questions. It’s a pretty thorough set of answers, I haven’t been through the whole lot carefully yet and certainly don’t have the political nous to analyse it convincingly, but it looks pretty good to me. There’s a fair bit of just general, positive-sounding talk, the sort of thing in which I don’t pretend I can really tell the pandering apart from the genuinely good intentions, before he’s had a chance to show how he’s going to act – John McCain’s stated his intention to provide answers as well, and I imagine he’ll also be coming out fairly strongly pro-science to this particular audience.

But there are some encouraging specifics. Obama has been part of the “Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Act of 2008”, which sounds like a good thing, and his support of stem cell research implies an appreciation of science over morality based on religious ideology. Which would be a nice change.

So, yeah. I’ll be watching out for comments on this from anyone more intelligent than me, but so far, Barack is still my man. (Another ScienceBlogs hat-tip for this one.)

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Your foremost one-stop shop for a skeptical and rigorous view of the mire of intellectually dishonest nonsense that is Ben Stein‘s movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is now open. Expelled Exposed is a site themed around examining the claims made in the movie, and looking at some of the facts outside of an anti-science propaganda context. Expect plenty of updates now that the film’s had a general release and people are starting to see it in its full ghastliness.

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Oh oh, okay, I’ve got one. An actual thing that happened recently that I’m going to comment on and blog about. It’s a short one, but I’m just getting going with these.

So there’s this biology professor in the US called PZ Myers, who runs the biggest science-themed blog on the internet. He was interviewed a while back for the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, but has since given the film a persistent sound thrashing in his blog, lambasting the filmmakers for misleading him (and several other scientists who were interviewed) about their intent, editing the interviews to take quotes out of context, and generally giving an entirely false impression of the status of the theory of evolution in modern science and the relative position of the pseudo-science of intelligent design. I’ve given my thoughts on the trailer to the film already, and Myers’ views on the whole fiasco are quickly apparent on giving his blog even a brief skim.

Now, I haven’t seen any more of the film than the trailer, and haven’t heard anything new lately that I’ve found especially worth commenting on, so normally you’d be much better advised to head over to his blog and get the news from him. As well as knowing a whole lot more about the issues involved, he went along yesterday to a private screening for which he’d reserved tickets. And of course, he’s in the film. Well, I assume he is – I guess it’s possible he ended up on the cutting room floor. Maybe his account of it will tell us whether he made the final edit – he’ll have blogged about seeing the whole film by now, right?

Well, not exactly. He went along to see it, but was thrown out by security at the request of one of the producers. They spotted him waiting in line and asked him to leave the building.

Now, there’s always the option of reacting with righteous indignation to something like this. Some of the more ridiculous stories about how he was trying to “sneak in” (apparently by reserving a seat under his own name and then lining up in a queue – ooh, such dastardly atheist cunning) have been addressed in a follow-up post. And even the people behind the propaganda piece themselves couldn’t fail to be smacked hard in the face with the frying-pan of irony inherent in evicting someone due to their known contrary opinion on a subject, from a screening of a film purporting to expose the unfairness with which the scientific community works to quash the expression of contrary opinion. It’s the kind of affront which could invoke fury, particularly when the guy being thrown out was in the sodding movie.

But in this case, even if grumpiness would normally be worthwhile, the punchline to it all makes it unavoidably hilarious. I won’t spoil it for you, so you’ll have to visit his blog to find out what made this event the kind of comic masterpiece that would be unbelievable if you scripted it, but let me just say one thing: I work in a mental hospital, and this is the craziest fucking thing I’ve heard all week.

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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.”


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?




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