Expelled: The Movie
Conservative blogger Ed Morrissey, from Captain's Quarters, reviewed a preview of Expelled, Ben Stein's latest brainchild and surprisingly didn't make a bad job of it. But there remain in his essay a number of simplifications, which I want to point out here. I need also to clarify that I haven't seen the movie.
Before discussing my feelings about the film, which is still in post-production and will not go into release until April, I should explain my approach to the ID/evolution debate. I believe evolution is demonstrably proven in enough examples to say that its effect on variation in species cannot be denied. The example I used tonight in discussing this with another viewer (certainly not the only example) is antibiotic effects on bacteria. Antibiotics that kill 99% of bacteria eventually promote the survival and the expansion of the 1% that resist them, created superbacteria that require another set of antibiotics to cure, and so on.
That said, evolution does not interfere with my faith in God. God certainly could have created the universe with a design that included life. The rational laws of nature would include evolution, as well as the myriad of other rational and mathematically provable mechanisms that undergird nature. In fact, the impulse of man to discover the rational laws of nature began with the belief in a rational God, as scientists understood nature's rationality to reveal an intelligent Creator.
I'd go deeper than that, but Dinesh D'Souza covers it nicely enough already in his book What's So Great About Christianity, and it's getting late enough as it is. Suffice it to say that evolution doesn't present a threat to my worldview.
So, we have at least one conservative blogger who doesn't have a problem with evolutionary biology. Good man...
Rationally, we have to admit that some use ID as an excuse to teach the more literal form of Creationism that has been used to argue against evolution entirely, especially against teaching evolution in primary-school classrooms. That admission does not appear in Expelled, which is a glaring omission. It tends to take out of context the frustration some scientists have about ID, and its place in polarizing the debate over its use. Properly framed, ID accepts all of the science without accepting its transformation into its own belief system.
Very magnanimous indeed, this admission of a glaring hole and the correct pointing to a lack of context provided by Stein. To ignore the genuine and justified frustration scientists feel when confronted with this pot pourri of religion, Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design, should not be left out of any debate on Stein's chosen subject matter.
But soon after Ed starts to go wrong:
What do I mean by that? In this, the film does an excellent job of demonstrating atheism as a belief system. Atheism as represented by Richard Dawkings and others in this film gets exposed as exactly the kind of belief system they claim to despise. They can't prove God exists -- and they can't prove God doesn't exist. They make the common fallacy of arguing that absence of evidence amounts to evidence of absence.
The old chestnut: atheism as a belief system. Absence of belief doesn't make belief (although certain brands of atheism could, on the face of things, easily be mistaken for some kind of faith). Ed, already in a hole, decided to keep digging by emphasising the word 'exactly'. As Dawkins himself pointed out (in a discussion with the philosopher A.C. Grayling, if I recall well), there is no such thing as 'positivist atheism': no one can prove or disprove the existence of G-d and in that sense we're all agnostics. Dawkins doesn't "make the common fallacy of arguing that absence of evidence amounts to evidence of absence", as Ed claims, instead he too accepts that he can't know and that at the end of the day the individual does need to go beyond the evidence to decide on theism or atheism. But in the absence of any positive evidence for the existence of a theistic G-d, believing in His existence requires a far greater leap of faith. Theism and atheism therefore do not mirror each other, at least not philosophically speaking.
But in a way, this is all secondary to the real issue of the film: academic intolerance. The debate over ID vs Darwinism sets the table for a truly disturbing look at academia. Science should be about the free debate and research of ideas and hypotheses for duplicable results and provable theorems. However, as the examples Stein and the film provide amply show, the Darwinist academic establishment will brook no dissent from the orthodoxy -- and scientists have to be shown with hidden faces to speak to the issue for the film.
Here Ed merely parrots the undoubtedly exaggerated message of the movie but clearly the thesis of suppression of dissent is a fallacy: ID proponents are vocal and can be heard loudly and clearly. T'inkerwebs are full of opinion on it, as well as commentary, columns, now a movie and more besides that, but it's short on actual empirical research to back up any claims.
Amusingly, Stein asks people how the first cell came to be. None of the scientists could give him a straight answer. Dawkins himself admits he doesn't know and that no one else does, either -- but postulates that aliens could have brought life to this planet, and then postulates that another alien civilization could have brought life to that planet, and so on. He then concedes that one entity could have been the original source ... but insists that entity could not possibly have been God. For this he gives absolutely no evidence at all, relegating it as a belief system somewhat akin to Scientology.
Amusingly (sigh). Here Ed shows a truly bewildering and rather puerile ignorance of how scientific processes work. It's the one thing creationists will always bring up: the theory [EB] can't explain everything (yet) ergo the rest must be incorrect. Funny how they never apply the same logic to other scientific paradigms, many of which (quantum physics, to name but one) are also incomplete and still in flux.
[snip] Less effective is the heavy references to the Nazis in the movie. Although emotionally affecting for some obvious reasons, the fact is that while the Nazis were mostly Darwinists (along with a lot of other things), the vast majority of Darwinists aren't Nazis. Certainly the eugenicists in Nazi Germany were mightily influenced by Darwinism, but America had its own eugenicists, which the film points out.
Thanks, Ed, but there's a lot more to the pernicious attempt at linking Darwin to Hitler than your rather half-hearted 'most Darwinists aren't Nazis' spiel.
This here article by Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy at FSU debunks the Hitler - Darwin connection in some detail and I'll only quote a short excerpt (I warmly recommend reading the whole article):
[...] whatever the initial approval, the Nazi ideologists quickly realized how completely antithetical the whole evolution idea was to their own ideology. Not only are we first cousins to the monkeys but, even worse, the Aryans are brothers and sisters with the Jews, the Slavs, the gypsies, and the rest of the world's riffraff and degenerates. The greatest German evolutionist of the 19th century was Ernst Haeckel — a man whose solution to the Jewish problem was to interbreed with them so they would no longer exist as a definite group. There was not much celebration of this man and his ideas in the upper levels of the Nazi hierarchy.
So, as always, be careful not to be seduced by the ideas and claims of the anti-evolutionists. They are not scientists and, to be perfectly honest, they are not very good historians either.
But there's much more too. For one, ideas about eugenics ('race hygiene') predate Darwin and WW II by centuries, if not thousands of years. Aristotle wrote about the superiority of the 'Greek race' and provided justifications for the enslavement of conquered people as 'inferiors'.
Most cultures and their nationalistic narratives contain an element of cultural supremacy, Nazi Germany wasn't unique in that respect.
Eugenics, through the pseudo-scientific work of Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, did receive a boost from Darwin's theory, by means of hasty and self-serving interpretations of the then embryonic science now known as evolutionary biology. Racist ideas at the time were absolutely rife in Britain and it must come as no surprise that these ideas quickly made inroads into the British intelligentsia. Notably H.G. Wells was a great fan of this renewed pseudo-science of eugenics.
Christians have in the past endorsed their own eugenistic ideas, because after all 'G-d is white' and people of colour were believed to be the offspring of G-d's white children and primates. This provided a Christian justification for slavery. More recently, Eugène Terre'Blanche's South African Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging was literally littered with Christians whose claim on the land was based on the idea that 'G-d is white' and the earth belongs to white people.
One cannot help but wonder whether Stein's repeated references to the Nazis are borne out of ignorance or out of sensationalism, but I suspect the latter...
I should point out that the film has not finished production, and that changes will be made between now and its release in April. The filmmakers just completed an interview with Christopher Hitchens and will include it in the final cut. I believe other changes may be made which could address some of the criticisms I've written here.
Overall, though, the film presents a powerful argument not for intelligent design as much as for the freedom of scientific inquiry. If scientists get punished for challenging orthodoxy, we will not expand our learning but ossify it in concrete. Expelled: The Movie is entertaining, maddening, funny, and provocative. Keep an eye out for it in theaters in two months.
While the idea that ruling orthodoxies should always be challengeable is very much part of the scientific method, it's foolish to believe that all challengers are equal. Would we find it acceptable to provide tenure for a physics professor who wants to challenge the widely accepted orthodoxy that the earth is round and spherical, from a Flat Earth Society perspective? How about a historian wanting to challenge the proved and accepted wisdom of the Holocaust?
It may seem a long shot to link Flat Earth nuts, Holocaust denying "professors" and proponents of Intelligent Design and yet the analogy can be made easily. All three start from rigid assumptions about the world ('the Earth is flat, not round', 'the Holocaust is a Jewish lie' and 'G-d the Creator exists and had a dab hand in the origin and evolution of life on Earth') and then set out to seek evidence to prove that hypothesis. That's unscientific and can only lead to bias and forcing the hand of evidence.
I haven't seen the movie and therefore cannot judge Stein's case for claiming some academics were ostracised or denied tenure for their ideas on Intelligent Design. But I'm willing to believe it: academic freedom doesn't mean all opinions are equal and should be pursued with equal rigour: the Earth isn't flat, the Holocaust did happen and G-d's existence and his DNA handiwork cannot be proved or disproved by means of science. To believe otherwise is naive and unscientific to boot.