Friday, December 05, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008): Netflixin 12/5/08

  • Why I rented it: I needed some intellectual stimulation. Don't laugh.

  • Verdict: 5/10 (technical); 1/10 (content). I originally wasn't going to write an entry on this movie, as the impressions I got after seeing it were less about the movie itself and more about the ideas it expressed. But it's been sticking in my mind the past few days.

    As a movie, it's ok. A fairly well put-together documentary. Cinematography, animated interludes, all of that. Ben Stein staring down Darwin's statue is probably the visual high point. Both for him and me.

  • But for those actually interested in a big meaty plate of reason, it's about as filling as a fluffy ball of cotton candy.

    Now is not the time for me to write an exhaustive dissertation on creationism, intelligent design, and evolution. This is a movie review on a blog. But I WILL hit some high points about what science is and isn't.

    I sort of expected this movie to be a primer on what intelligent design (ID) is. But after watching it, I feel no more informed about ID than I ever was. They never really talk about it. Instead, the film is dedicated to presenting the cases of a handful of scientists whose work, to varying degrees, was in some way sympathetic to intelligent design and were ostensibly "expelled" from their posts as a result. The stage is set like this: open-minded, innovative, persecuted little guys versus the monolithic, mean-spirited, snobbish institution of science (cue timpani roll). Through the wonders of editing and the flexibility of the visual medium, most of the real scientists come off like arrogant snakes slithering down dark hallways while the ID guys are just regular ol' honest-to-goodness folk like you and me.

    People with even basic capabilities in critical thought should be able to see this movie's punches coming a mile away. But it's a sure-fire way to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of thought of anybody else.

    Up until this point, the movie is simply half-baked. I'm having fun picking out the logical fallacies. But then, Stein shows us that Godwin's Law applies even to intellectually dishonest ID documentaries. The Holocaust, it seems, wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Darwin. Yes, Darwin, in publishing On the Origin of Species and putting forward the idea of natural selection (presented in part with a passage from The Descent of Man edited down so much that it loses its original meaning), gave Hitler all of his ideas about Aryan superiority. I love Roger Ebert's icily succinct reaction to this argument:

    (Stein) takes a field trip to visit one "result" of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. "As a Jew," he says, "I wanted to see for myself." We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. "It's difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place," he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.

    So I suppose the basic tenet of ID is this: nature is too complicated to have developed through evolution or some other independent process. Therefore, an Intelligent Designer (who is usually implied to be but isn't explicitly defined as God) must have played a part in it. Stein can make his movie, and since you can't disprove him, he's right. This is, of course, to use the term for a logical fallacy, an "argument from ignorance"...using a "God of the gaps" as a catch-all to explain anything that doesn't have a definitive scientific explanation. Fine for religion. Not fine for science.

    I have no problem with ID. If you believe it, that's ok with me. But for Pete's sake, people, IT IS NOT SCIENCE. It is religion. Please stop trying to pass it off as such. Science involves things that can be proven through systematic observation and experimentation. To this day, no article on ID has been published in any peer-reviewed scientific journal. Not one. Please stop contributing to our country's already woeful state of science education and literacy by muddying the waters with something that shouldn't even be there in the first place.

    As for Ben Stein's admonitions to "teach the controversy", there is about as much controversy about evolution in modern science as there is about astrology or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. What is so hard to understand about this? School = science. Sunday school = intelligent design. The end.

    The rest of Ebert's excellent essay on this movie can be found here.

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