Expel the Lies (or, "Win Ben Stein's Career!") : Selections from recent reviews of the movie Expelled, starring Ben Stein

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opens with Ben Stein addressing a packed audience of adoring students at Pepperdine University. The biology professors at Pepperdine assure me that their mostly Christian students fully accept the theory of evolution. So who were these people embracing Stein's screed against science? Extras. According to Lee Kats, associate provost for research and chair of natural science at Pepperdine, 'the production company paid for the use of the facility just as all other companies do that film on our campus' but that 'the company was nervous that they would not have enough people in the audience so they brought in extras. Members of the audience had to sign in and a staff member reports that no more than two to three Pepperdine students were in attendance. Mr. Stein's lecture on that topic was not an event sponsored by the university.'

Expelled trots out some of the people whom it claims have been persecuted. First among them is Robert Sternberg, former editor of the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, who published an article on ID by Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute. Sternberg tells Stein that he subsequently lost his editorship, his old position at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and his original office.

What most viewers of Expelled may not realize—because the film doesn't even hint at it—is that Sternberg's case is not quite what it sounds. Biologists criticized Sternberg's choice to publish the paper not only because it supported ID but also because Sternberg approved it by himself rather than sending it out for independent expert review. He didn't lose his editorship; he published the paper in what was already scheduled to be his last issue as editor. He didn't lose his job at the Smithsonian; his appointment there as an unpaid research associate had a limited term, and when it was over he was given a new one. His office move was scheduled before the paper ever appeared. [For more details see Ben Stein Launches a Science-free Attack on Darwin by Michael Shermer.]

Stein's case for conspiracy centers on a journal article written by Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow at the intelligent design think tank Discovery Institute and professor at the theologically conservative Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University. Meyer's article, 'The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,' was published in the June 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, the voice of the Biological Society with a circulation of less than 300 people. In other words, from the get-go this was much ado about nothing.

Nevertheless, some members of the organization voiced their displeasure, so the society's governing council released a statement explaining, 'Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The council, which includes officers, elected councilors and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.' So how did it get published? In the words of journal's managing editor at the time, Richard Sternberg, 'it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors, I chose myself.' And what qualified Sternberg to choose himself? Perhaps it was his position as a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, which promotes intelligent design, along with being on the editorial board of the Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group, a creationism journal committed to the literal interpretation of Genesis. Or perhaps it was the fact that he is a signatory of the Discovery Institute's '100 Scientists who Doubt Darwinism' statement.

Meyer's article is the first intelligent design paper ever published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it deals less with systematics (or taxonomy, Sternberg's specialty) than it does paleontology, for which many members of the society would have been better qualified than he to peer-review the paper. (In fact, at least three members were experts on the Cambrian invertebrates discussed in Meyer's paper).

Meyer claims that the 'Cambrian explosion' of complex hard-bodied life forms over 500 million years ago could not have come about through Darwinian gradualism. The fact that geologists call it an 'explosion' leads creationists to glom onto the word as a synonym for 'sudden creation.' After four billion years of an empty Earth, God reached down from the heavens and willed trilobites into existence ex nihilo. In reality, according to paleontologist Donald Prothero, in his 2007 magisterial book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press): 'The major groups of invertebrate fossils do not all appear suddenly at the base of the Cambrian but are spaced out over strata spanning 80 million years—hardly an instantaneous 'explosion'! Some groups appear tens of millions of years earlier than others. And preceding the Cambrian explosion was a long slow buildup to the first appearance of typical Cambrian shelled invertebrates.' If an intelligent designer did create the Cambrian life forms, it took 80 million years of gradual evolution to do it.

Stein, however, is uninterested in paleontology, or any other science for that matter. His focus is on what happened to Sternberg, who is portrayed in the film as a martyr to the cause of free speech. 'As a result of publishing the Meyer article,' Stein intones in his inimitably droll voice, 'Dr. Sternberg found himself the object of a massive campaign that smeared his reputation and came close to destroying his career.' According to Sternberg, 'after the publication of the Meyer article the climate changed from being chilly to being outright hostile. Shunned, yes, and discredited.' As a result, Sternberg filed a claim against the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for being 'targeted for retaliation and harassment' for his religious beliefs. 'I was viewed as an intellectual terrorist,' he tells Stein. In August 2005 his claim was rejected. According to Jonathan Coddington, his supervisor at the NMNH, Sternberg was not discriminated against, was never dismissed, and in fact was not even a paid employee, but just an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term!

The rest of the martyrdom stories in Expelled have similar, albeit less menacing explanations, detailed at www.expelledexposed.com, where physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott and her tireless crew at the National Center for Science Education have tracked down the specifics of each case. Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, for example, did not get tenure at Iowa State University in Ames and is portrayed in the film as sacrificed on the alter of tenure denial because of his authorship of a pro–intelligent design book entitled The Privileged Planet (Regnery Publishing, 2004). As Scott told me, 'Tenure is based on the evaluation of academic performance at one's current institution for the previous seven years.' Although Gonzales was apparently a productive scientist before he moved to Iowa State, Scott says that 'while there, his publication record tanked, he brought in only a couple of grants—one of which was from the [John] Templeton Foundation to write The Privileged Planet—didn't have very many graduate students, and those he had never completed their degrees. Lots of people don't get tenure, for the same legitimate reasons that Gonzalez didn't get tenure.'

Tenure in any department is serious business, because it means, essentially, employment for life. Tenure decisions for astronomers are based on the number and quality of scientific papers published, the prestige of the journal in which they are published, the number of grants funded (universities are ranked, in part, by the grant-productivity of their faculties), the number of graduate students who completed their program, the amount of telescope time allocated as well as the trends in each of these categories, indicating whether or not the candidate shows potential for continued productivity. In point of fact, according to Gregory Geoffroy, president of Iowa State, 'Over the past 10 years, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in the physics and astronomy department were not granted tenure.' Gonzales was one of them, and for good reasons, despite Stein's claim of his 'stellar academic record.'

The most deplorable dishonesty of Expelled, however, is that it says evolution was one influence on the Holocaust without acknowledging any of the other major ones for context. Rankings of races and ethnic groups into a hierarchy long preceded Darwin and the theory of evolution, and were usually tied to the Christian philosophical notion of a 'great chain of being.' The economic ruin of the Weimar Republic left many Germans itching to find someone to blame for their misfortune, and the Jews and other ethnic groups were convenient scapegoats. The roots of European anti-Semitism go back to the end of the Roman Empire. Organized attacks and local exterminations of the Jews were perpetrated during the Crusades and the Black Plague. The Russian empire committed many attacks on the Jews in the 19th and early 20th century, giving rise to the word 'pogrom.' Profound anti-Semitism even pollutes the works of the father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, who reviled them in On the Jews and Their Lies and wrote, 'We are at fault in not slaying them.' I don't think Protestantism is accountable for the Holocaust, either, but the focus on 'the Jews' as scapegoats, and the added idea that their 'bad non-Aryan blood' had to be eliminated by killing them, were not Darwin's ideas.

The weakness of the logic of Expelled is beside the point, however. No one who is familiar with the evidence for evolution is likely to leave the theater shaken. Some people with looser understandings of the science or the legal issues might buy into its arguments about 'fairness' and protecting religion against science. Expelled is nonetheless mostly a film for ID creationism's religious base. That audience has seen one setback after the next in recent years, with science rejecting ID as useless and the courts rebuffing it as for a constitutional violation in public education. For them, Expelled is a rallying point to revive their morale.


Vinny said...

Wow! It is so bad that even Fox News panned it. Hopefully, no one will have to spend too much time responding to this drivel.

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

It's disturbing, really, and extremely frustrating.

No, I'm by no means talking about the alleged "discrimination" Stein and Mathis describe the ID advocates as receiving.

I'm talking about the blatant, unwavering ferocity with which the ID and creationist camps promote ignorance.

I attended what was billed as a "Scientific Approach to the Possibility of Intelligent Design" at my community college in Washington state a year or two ago, on the off-chance that there was indeed something scientific about it. The lecturer, a Dr. Chiddick from George Fox University (a Christian college in Oregon from which my sister is an alumnus), gave what can only be described as a sermon to an audience which can only be described as a congregation.

The event was sponsored by the college's resident Christian group (though I forget its name -- probably "Students for Christ"), and the local churches had submitted fliers to their congregations, such that the auditorium was packed, though very few in attendance were actually college students.

What struck me most by the lecture was the blatant anti-scientific rhetoric displayed at one point, when in successive slides Dr. Chiddick first showed "evidence" of a young earth, and then immediately showed a verse from Psalms.

Of course, the largely church-going audience 'Amenned' the slide, but I was struck by the unparalleled ignorance such an intentional non sequitur (and outright lie) promoted.

In the Q&A session following the lecture, I asked a question similar to the following:

Assuming an Intelligent Designer exists, then from what scientific evidence to we presume to deduce its doctrines, attributes, and desires?

Unfortunately, the good doctor was ill-prepared to answer any truly engaging question, and I daresay he didn't understand it (he asked me to repeat it, then asked that I bring the question to him after the session was completely over).

I suppose I could've been clearer and simpler, at the risk of condescension:

When in successive slides you went from questionable evidence to undeniable theology, why did you choose the bible? More to the point, if we assume there to be an Intelligent Designer, then what is his favorite color?

I kick myself for not being assertive enough to do this -- it would have been unlikely to sway anyone in attendance, but it may have planted the seed of freethinking.

Anyway, it is the clear and unabashed encouragement of ignorance in the realm of science that feeds the ID and creationist camps, and this is its most objectionable feature, in my book.

The dumb masses are quick to admit that they don't understand even simple mathematics (e.g. trigonometry), but they don't discount it as lies or anti-religious propaganda out of hand. They only do this with the sciences which they feel directly assaults their mythology.

[I cannot help but wonder what they might think if they understood -- even a little bit -- the meaning and implications of Euler's Identity, as an example.]

By fueling their ignorance and hatred of knowledge, the ruling religious elite are effectively handing them pitchforks and calling them peasants.

But, I suppose, if it weighs the same as a duck, then it's made of wood, and therefore...


Evan said...

It still remains a bit mysterious to me why, of all the sciences that disprove the Bible, biology is the one that gets singled out for opprobrium.

Geology full disproves the Bible as a source of accurate history. Physics does this as well. Linguistics and psychology also disprove the Bible.

Yet it remains to biology to bear the brunt of the heat from the anti-science advocates such as Mr. Stein. Yet -- the number of actual biologists who don't support the theory of descent with modification by means of natural selection is electron-microscopic.

There is far more agreement on this theory in biology than there is on string theory in physics.

My only guess is that people are annoyed by having no place of privilege in the universe and it is biology that most directly attacks this fixed, false belief.

Harry McCall said...

Ed, Great work and great research also.

What needs to happen now is to add an “Errata” to the Bible and have it say that “One day with the Lord is as 80 million years”.

I’m not sure who is telling the biggest lies: John Hagee, with his charts and graphs on Bible Prophecy drawn from the books of Daniel and Revelation or the Intelligent Design people. Either way, this pseudo-science can only live in the minds of the believers where even hardcore facts must bow the knee to the mythical Christ!

Anthony said...

I consider myself a hardcore atheist, and I can't wait to see the movie. I need to get my blood boiling.

The funniest thing is that I already know I will have heard it all before. There is so little that Christians can throw at us. We have heard it all. Love the extras there Ben.

Trou said...

"The lecturer, a Dr. Chiddick from George Fox University".

My daughter is interested in going to George Fox to study biology. I checked their faculty directory and could not find a Dr. Chiddick. Could you be more specific as to his full name or dept. in which he teaches so I can see if he is still there or has been "Expelled" for speaking against the hallowed dogma of Evilution.
Your help would be appreciated.

Hamilcar said...

From what I've heard, the stated goal of the film is to expose a conspiracy of irrational "Darwinists" in academia who stamp out any mention Intelligent Design.

The actual goal of the film is to advance an alternative hypothesis of history that makes a direct connection between Darwin and Hitler's holocaust.

Dinesh D'Souza and others of his ilk have been pushing this notion. They've also been pushing an alternative view of American history, a view which makes the US government into an explicitly Christian political body: spending money printing bibles, founding churches, etc. They aren't just publishing books and making movies of this junk, they're actually trying to pass congressional resolutions to honor these distortions.

It's a new strain of historical revisionism aimed at giving American Christian evangelicals a firmer foundation on which to stand when they argue about policy and precedent. In this case, a foundation of lies.

Trou said...

Anthony said...
"I consider myself a hardcore atheist, and I can't wait to see the movie."

Please consider buying a ticket to another movie that is showing in the theatre and then sneaking in to the Expelled movie. This way you can see the movie yet not support the liars who made the film. A win win scenario.

I read two days ago (on Pharangula) that the producers of Expelled have been sent a legal letter warning them to remove the unauthorized knockoff of "The Life of a Cell" computer animated video which it seems they have taken without permission and used in the film. They tried to change it a bit but the source of their plagiarism is apparent. This could mean a lawsuit if this portion of the film is not edited out. Either way, lawsuit or costly delay, I think it funny and in keeping with those who lie for Jesus that they have been caught stealing for Jesus also. No moral obstacle is too insurmountable for them in there quest to propagate the "truth".

jm said...

Re: Evolution's influence on the Holocaust.

People tent to believe what they want, but here are some peer reviewed journals along with some books regarding the Nazi's and eugenics,

Astor, Gerald. The Last Nazi: The Life and Times of Joseph Mengele. New York: Donald Fine Co., 1985.

Chase, Allan. The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Conklin, Edwin G. The Direction of Human Evolution. New York: Scribners, 1921.

Gasman, Daniel. The Scientific Origin of National Socialism. New York: American Elsevier, 1971.

Mosse, George L. Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural, and Social Life in the Third Reich. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

Proctor, Robert N. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Tenenbaum, Joseph. Race and Reich. New York: Twayne Pub., 1956.

The list goes on and on, above are just a few. To assert that Darwin's Theory did not influence the Nazis social state, and political philosophies is just ignorant.

Hamilcar said...


The list goes on and on, above are just a few. To assert that Darwin's Theory did not influence the Nazis social state, and political philosophies is just ignorant.

In the film, Ben Stein generously states that "Darwinism" was a "necessary but not sufficient condition" for the Nazi holocaust. He stating that, while there were other factors, the Nazi holocaust would not have happened if not for Darwin. In other words, because an English naturalist proposed that all living things evolved from a common ancestor, Hitler decided to murder millions of people.

That's like saying that, because Jesus influenced Reverend Jim Jones, hundreds of people died from poisoned coolaide.

That's like saying that, because James Madison wrote the Second Amendment, which influenced Timothy McVeigh, hundreds of people died in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Drawing such "connections" or "influences" might give you a clue as to what a psychopath was thinking, but it doesn't indict the influence.

The Nazis were a gang of nationalistic German fascists. They used any ideas they could twist to their own purposes, religious or secular, scientific or mystical, in order to justify their bigotry and maintain their power. Darwin bears NO blame whatsoever for their barbarous actions.

Nor is there anything in the theory of evolution itself that bears on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, or politics. It's descriptive science, not normative philosophy.

Shygetz said...

I would also like to note that both eugenics and virulent anti-Semitism predates Darwin by millenia. One would be more correct in blaming the London bombings on Newton--at least classical mechanics predates aviation and not vice versa.

David said...

hamilcar, couple of questions/comments:

"In other words, because an English naturalist proposed that all living things evolved from a common ancestor, Hitler decided to murder millions of people."

I don't have a degree in philosophy so those who do shall surely verify this, but wouldn't the correct way to state a necessary condition be:
"If an English naturalist had not proposed evolution, then Hitler would not have decided to murder millions of people." I know many would try to "modus tollens" that statement, but I don't know enough about it (logical proofs or history!) to establish that first condition is probably true. Any thoughts?

"They used any ideas they could twist to their own purposes, religious or secular, scientific or mystical, in order to justify their bigotry and maintain their power."

I think that can be applied to all belief systems, correct?

Patrick Roberts said...

just saw Expelled myself; Ben Stein's goal in making this flick (i gather) was not to win any popularity contests (this by itself helps to validate his message)... his goal was to promote free thought, especially more thinking about motivations that drive American academia and a lot of other behind-the-scenes worldview that we tend to take for granted.