More Science Talk
A new movie, Expelled, claims that intelligent design is good science that is being censored by adherents to evolution, which is nothing but Darwinian dogma. Scientific American's editor-in-chief, John Rennie, and podcast host Steve Mirsky discuss the movie. And Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, talks about being interviewed for the film as well as her organization's efforts to provide correct information about the claims in Expelled. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. More of SciAm's coverage of Expelled. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.expelledthemovie.com; www.expelledexposed.com; www.natcenscied.org
A Conversation with Expelled's Associate Producer Mark Mathis
On March 28, 2008, some of the editors of Scientific American watched a screening of Expelled at our offices and had a discussion with the associate editor of the film, Mark Mathis. This is the entire recording of the discussion, uncut. The first voice you hear is John Rennie, the editor in chief of Scientific American.
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting April 9th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, its movie talk. We'll discuss the new film Expelled, in which Ben Stein tries to make a case that academics are being persecuted for subscribing to what he contends is the valid scientific theory of intelligent design, which can be the idea that some aspects of life are irreducibly complex and could not have evolved without some help from an intelligent force or that the entire universe show[s]
science [signs] of intelligence in its make up. The film also castigates evolution, which describes how organisms descend with modification from common ancestors—a more modern definition for evolution is the change in the gene pool of a population from generation to generation by such processes as mutation, natural selection and genetic drift. Scientific American['s] editor in chief, John Rennie, and I saw the film Expelled and we'll share our thoughts; and then we'll hear from Eugenie Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education, who is actually in the movie. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, John Rennie and me, we talked in his office at Scientific American.
Steve: John! Expelled—so what are your thoughts?
Rennie: Steve it is not a good film. Let's start there. I think what's unfortunate about Expelled is that it is a deeply dishonest film, in that it tries to argue a certain point, which it [is] certainly entitled to do, but I think that it impresses that point by so selectively airing the evidence that anybody who is relying on the film for an understanding of the issues in the film would be sorely misled.
Steve: One of the things that I wrote in my notes as we were watching it was we don't even get sort of a hand-waving definition of either intelligent design or evolution until something like a half-an-hour into the film.
Rennie: Right. You know, I think, it goes right to the methodology of the film that they almost don't want to get bogged down in the specifics, certainly not the specifics of the science. Fundamentally, what Expelled wants to do is it wants to present the notion that there is this clash of world views, most specifically, a clash between, sort of, Darwinian biology and intelligent design, but more broadly one between big monolithic science, which is materialist and atheist, and then religion, which is presented as being open to all sorts of possibilities. As long as that conflict can be drawn as one that's really just about world views, basically about ideologies and opinions, then when you say that one of those seems to be oppressing the other, it sounds inherently unfair; but if you ever start to actually engage with the merit of the ideas, then it all falls apart. Because as even children know, in science two ideas are not equally worthy of being presented if one of them is wrong.
Steve: Right. (laughs) And almost no scientific ideas are actually presented in this film.
Steve: There's the conflict that's discussed, but we don't actually see any arguments on either side, and one of the things that doesn't get discussed enough is [that] there is a debate about evolution. It happens everyday; it has been happening for a 150 years within the scientific community.
Rennie: Right. That is one of the canards that the creationists and intelligent design community like to spread about this; that somehow adherence to Darwinism is somehow dogmatic. I mean, its actually sort of funny that this film constantly refers to it as Darwinism because, as you well know, that the fact is that modern biology has moved way past Darwin's original ideas; back to the '30s, you've had the formation of the neo-Darwinian concept, in which you started to take Darwin's ideas and you were able to blend those with more modern ideas of genetics.
Steve: Well, because Darwin didn't know any genetics.
Steve: He was working with whole organisms, which brings up a point about the film actually. They go off on this tangent about Darwin's ideas about cells in the film. Cells appear in the Origin of Species as a word, in the description of the little hexagons in beehives.
Rennie: (laughs) I mean, I think but that all goes right to the point of this. If you watch this movie, and you didn't know anything about biology or the surrounding issues, you could understandably walk out of it really outraged. How could science be this way? Why is science being so unfair to these people who just are trying to investigate their ideas? Why is science so terribly, terribly opposed to religion? That's one of the other things that's really grating about this, that the film says, over and over and over again that science is just dogmatically opposed to the idea of science and of course it shows ...
Steve: Shows through the idea of intelligent design.
Rennie: The idea of intelligent design and religion, sorry! And it does show film clips of prominent scientists, like Richard Dawkins, for example, who happen
ed[s] to be atheist, and it quotes them sometimes talking about their atheism and how that atheism happens to accord with the evolutionary science that they understand. But the film never gets into any of the distinctions here. First of all, more or less, it seems to say that if you are a scientist, if you are a Darwinian scientist, then of course you must be an atheist, so you would never know that there are hundreds of millions of people out there at the very least who manage to believe both in whatever their religious beliefs may be and to accept evolution as a fact.
Steve: Right. They didn't bother to interview somebody like Ken Miller, who is famously religious.
Steve: And is also a highly esteemed evolutionary biologist and writer about evolutionary biology.
Rennie: Or for that matter, any number of theologians who are obviously devoted in their various faiths and also accept that evolution actually happened and that the mechanisms of natural selection and the further extensions of that, that modern biology has developed, all are there. You get the idea from the film that there is this conflict between religious explanations for phenomena and [science and] that science doesn't want
them [religious explanations], but you never understand why that would be. It's just basically posited in the film that science hates religion and therefore it is forbidden, and anybody who tries to transgress and introduce anything that might be an intelligent design idea that would hinder the possibility of God, that they are thrown out of the scientific community; but this isn't true and there are perfectly sound logical reasons for why it is science doesn't try to bring in supernatural or divine explanations—because as soon as you bring them in, it completely erodes your ability to understand any of the ideas in science.
Steve: You stop looking. It's a science stopper. You say, well that's this little area that's unknown we've now explained by the hand of God, and we don't need to do any research in that area anymore; and this is true in every science, not just evolutionary biology.
Rennie: No, it's funny. You know, Isaac Newton, back when he was developing [the] theory of gravity, I mean, he wrote in looking at the motions of the planets. He was generally describing, and he said that he felt that gravity, the laws of gravity, probably explained the motions of the planets. Still he thought that there were very tiny things in the tales in how the planets were moving that he thought couldn't be explained by gravity, and he suspected those were actually the actions of God acting on the system itself. Well, of course these days we now have a better understanding of that whole system and we know in fact it is all gravity, but had we taken Newton's perfectly theological claim about that and we just had been satisfied with that notion, then we wouldn't have done any of that science.
Steve: Right, wouldn't have bothered to look. The most egregious thing about the film ...
Steve: I mean, even if you cut these guys all the slack in the world, and say that they were sincere in their efforts and there was no mendacity involved, then the movie is just sort of incompetent in its presentation of the issue and of whatever science it tries to get into which is, you know, very little, but that's it. The most egregious thing is this really heavy-handed connection between Darwin and the Holocaust.
Rennie: Right. This is the thing where I think they are in some respect being most dishonest and where the argument they are pursuing is really most abominable. You know, it's not that it's fundamentally intellectually inappropriate to try to make some kind of connection between ideas derived from what Darwin wrote and the ideas that the Nazis used in developing their sort of genocidal plans. I mean, everybody acknowledges that some of that was there. The problem is that the film never really makes it clear that those were perversions of the ideas of evolution. The Nazis' justification for the Holocaust,
and [in] so far as they were based on science, came from the idea of eugenics, but eugenics is actually more closely related to the ideas of animal breeding than it is to anything that you really find just in Darwin himself; [it] doesn't have anything to do with natural selection. In a sense, it doesn't even make sense; it's the opposite of natural selection. If there actually were people who were in some respect genuinely inferior on evolutionary terms, there would be no reason for someone to exterminate them, nature would take care of that itself in the long run, but of course; the whole idea is appalling and wrong headed.
Steve: And let's not forget that some groups of humans have been subjugating and killing other groups of humans for a long, long time before there was any Darwinism to pin it on.
Rennie: Exactly! And if you looked at this film's presentation of the intellectual roots of the Holocaust, you would see that they only seem to go back to Darwin and the theory of evolution. You would have no idea that they went back to any deeper notions of old anti-Semitism that's pervaded European society, going back to the Roman Empire. You would have no idea that people had been engaged in trying to rank people of different races into some sort of hierarchy of worth based unfortunately on some sorts of misunderstandings of Christian tenets going back for centuries. And you certainly wouldn't have known that, you know, you could find really ugly strains of anti-Semitism even in the writings of someone like Martin Luther that would have been very familiar to a lot of Germans at the time, not to mention the other economic issues. As far as Expelled is concerned, none of that exists and although, yes, the film does say that they give themselves, the sort of, the pretense of not blaming Darwin, you get a couple of people including Ben Stein saying "of course no one is saying Darwin cast the Holocaust," but of course they then make every possible connection they can; and I think it's interesting that if you took out those little excuses that said, "of course no one says Darwin cast the Holocaust," that is exactly what someone would understand from the film.
Steve: The visit of Ben Stein to the crematorium and to the death camp, kind of, just obviates all their disclaimers about the connection between Darwin and the Holocaust; as you say, you know, we were not saying that this is a sufficient condition, just that it is a necessary condition, well, you know, how about discussing the sufficient condition?
Rennie: Right. Which
the sufficient condition is being the Nazis.
Steve: Right. Well, let's compliment the filmmakers; Mark Mathis one of the producers was kind enough to bring the film to our offices and so we got a chance to watch it, and after we watched it, we had, at times rather ...
Steve: Yes! We had a rather animated conversation and that conversation, unedited, which is an hour and 11 minutes, for anybody who is really glutton for punishment, is also available on our Web site. And, well, I hope that people will partake of that as well and get a chance to listen to us talk to the producer, Mark Mathis, immediately after having watched the film.
Steve: Eugenie Scott is the director of the National Center for Science Education, which fights efforts to dilute the teaching of evolution and to introduce into the classroom unscientific doctrines like creationism and intelligent design. She was a guest on the first episode of this podcast over two years ago. I called her at her office in Oakland.
Steve: Hi Dr. Scott; great to talk to you.
Scott: Hey Steve! Nice to talk to you too. It's great to be back here again.
Steve: You were actually interviewed for Expelled.
Scott: I was.
Steve: What was your experience as an interviewee?
Scott: Well, I was just totally bamboozled. I got a call from Mark Mathis in April, a very—well, actually technically speaking [it] was an e-mail—but I got a contact which was very much in the ordinary. I get lots of calls from documentary makers who want to do something about creation and evolution and make a film.
Steve: This was April 2007?
Scott: Correct. And most of them don't pan out, but I'm always very helpful because it is to my advantage for people to get their story right. So, Mark called and he had kind of a vague idea about this movie that he was going to make called Crossroads. He identified himself as being from a film company called Rampant Films and Crossroads was sort of a generic science and religion, evolution and creationism looking at the controversy in American society. And fine, all those are there in the dozens. And so as we talked it was clear that he didn't really have a terribly clear idea of what the parameters of the controversy
was [were]. He really was asking me about poll data, and I got down a little bit to work on that; so I sent him a bunch of information, we had a number of contacts, e-mail and phone, and I sent him a lot of stuff to try to help him understand the issue so that he would do a better job of course, and he came out to my office to interview me later on in the month. He had previously sent me a list of questions which also were, is not an unusual kind of thing to do; in fact, it's very professional. It's good when the interviewer sends you a list of questions, so you can think up what your answers would be and, you know, communicate them more clearly; and so it's actually good for both the interviewee as well as the filmmaker to do that. There was only one question on his list that gave me pause and when he wrote me back saying, you know, "Are all the questions okay? I said "Well, you know, this one question I'm not going to answer," and the question was "Do you think any of the partisans on the either side the creation or the evolution side, are being dishonest?" And I wrote back to him saying, "I don't know. I can tell you that the creationist science is bad and it's wrong, but I can't tell you whether they are being dishonest because that requires me to look into somebody's heart, and I can't do that, so I'm not going to make those kind of ad hominem comments about the opposition." Fine that was great. So, he didn't ask me that question. We had a pretty normal interview and all was well. It was only later on that summer that we learned that Rampant Films was really a front for Premise Media, a Canadian filmmaking company and that, in fact, the film was not called Crossroads at all, it was to be called Expelled, and it was an antiscience and a pro-intelligent design movie rather than being, kind of, a generic creationism and evolution movie, so I mean, was just flabbergasted. My relationship with Mark Mathis had been very friendly, very cooperative.
Steve: The movie tries to make the case that they began filming with an open mind and they wound up realizing that there was this incredible censorship of ID science going on by big science, but the timeline for that claim is bogus. If the timeline disproves the claim, I should say, because the Expelled Web domain was reserved well before what they say is their turning point in their understanding of the issue based on their reporting.
Scott: And similarly the domain name, www.expelledthemovie.com was acquired before I was interviewed.
Scott: And everybody else, too. So they were, you know, either Premise Media lied to Mark Mathis or Mark Mathis lied to me, you know about the marketing of this movie I take it.
Steve: Yeah, but tell the listeners, because they might not.
Scott: First, now they have four PR firms working on promoting this film for the next couple of weeks, but the initial marketer is Motive Entertainment, which is the same marketing company that promoted Passion of the Christ and Chronicles of Narnia;and the kind of pioneering approach that they instituted with Passion of the Christ was this viral marketing as they were doing with Expelled. They had quiet meetings, screenings around the country of this new movie in churches and before religiously oriented audiences of various kinds and they built up a great grassroots enthusiasm for this film. So that when Passion of the Christ actually screened in the movie theaters, they had a huge, huge initial weekend, which of course encouraged long bookings for the movie and it ended up being one of the highest grossing movies of all time, especially when you consider the international gate. So they're trying this same kind of viral marketing, building up a big enthusiasm for the movie in the conservative Christian community, hoping that when they go live as it were in movie theaters on April 18th, they will have a huge big box office draw, but you know, Mel Gibson and Ben Stein are pretty distinguishable. I don't think anybody is going to confuse Passion of the Christ with Expelled. They just don't have the products in this movie that they had with the Hollywood blockbuster with a very famous and charismatic actor.
Steve: Right. Even though he didn't appear in the film, but he directed it and he was really up fronting the film.
Scott: Right, right. Oh Yeah! And you think of Mel Gibson when you think of Passion of the Christ.
Steve: Right, Right. So tell us about the resource page that the National Center for Science Education has established for people to go to get information about the claims made in the film.
Scott: We are very concerned that people will be misled by the claims that are made in Expelled because they make a number of claims about individuals that supposedly have been discriminated against or lost their jobs or didn't get tenure or whatever because of their support for the intelligent design idea and these are all just grossly overstated; [we want people to know] that the actual stories of the five or six martyrs that are presented in Expelled are truly a much ado about nothing; and so we have a Web site that we built especially for Expelled that's called www.expelledexposed.com. Now, right now, www.expelledexposed.com has a number of reviews and articles and some resources on it, but we will go live, so to speak, on April 15th—the Tuesday before the premiere—with the full Web site that will have the complete stories of the alleged martyrs and references and resources and links for the real stories behind these people and how things are grossly overstated. We'll also have information on intelligent design and why the science communities does not consider it to be a legitimate science and also information on the social Darwinist and evolution claims, which are also grossly overstated and erroneous. So we are hoping to be a useful one-stop shopping as it were for people who really want to know the facts that refute the claims made in Expelled. So: www.expelledexposed.com.
Steve: You know one of the problems that we've had at the magazine is trying to figure out what to do with this movie. We wondered whether it was better to just ignore it.
Scott: Well, we talked about this a lot and we've been working with the scientific societies and education societies that we work with, but we also work with the celebrities community and so we have a kind of a broader range of folks that we interact with than most science co-organizations because, you know, National Center for Science Education is this very odd hybrid of an activist organization, but still a scholarly organization at the same time so. And we really did have to think very carefully about how hard to push back. Right now, the major information or the major source of information that you can find about Expelled is going to be from the right wing press, from the religious right and from religious conservatives particularly. It really hasn't broken out into the mainstream media very much at all. You don't find Newsweek and Time and you know, MSNBC and the big media, mainstream media, paying much attention to this, if at all. But O'Reilly and the Fox News, I mean, they just think it's the cat's pajamas and they are going on and on and on about it. So in one sense, we don't care, but we know that it's going to be a big hit among religious conservatives; but is it going to have much of a dent in the understanding of evolution and the scientific enterprise among mainstream Americans? That's the concern that we have. By drawing attention to the movie, we make that more probable. What we decided was to do a kind of intermediate approach as it were. The scientific societies that we work with have agreed that this isn't their fight, so to speak. This isn't about science. There's hardly, you've seen the movie, there's hardly any science in it whatsoever.
Steve: That's true.
Scott: And so why should AAAS or the National Academy or any of the other big science organization give a hoot? On the other hand, an organization like NCSE does need to pay attention to this and actually we are a very appropriate organization, small as we are, to pay attention to this because we actually do know the stories behind the martyrs and we do know the approach of the intelligent design people and we are very familiar with their modus operandi just in general. So we are a good organization to provide that kind of information to the public.
Steve: And let me admit to the listeners that we at Scientific American are biased. We have a bias in favor of reality.
Scott: (laughs) I've always said that NCSE is highly biased toward good science.
Steve: Exactly! Eugenie Scott, thanks very much. I appreciate your time.
Scott: Always a pleasure talking to you Steve.
Now it is time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: New guidelines recommend that bystanders perform so-called hands-only CPR without the need for concurrent mouth to mouth.
Story number 2: A study finds that married women do an hour less house work a week than their single sisters because of a little help around the house from their husbands.
Story number 3: Human hearing appears to actually be superior to that of most other animals.
And story number 4: If plants exist on other planets, there is good reason to think they could be mostly red, blue, or even black.
Time is up.
Story number 4 is true. Researchers conjecture that any flora on other planets would have evolved to maximize the light they could absorb, which might be very different from the light we get here on Earth. So for example a planet around a red dwarf, which would get little visible light, might harbor black plants, which would absorb a higher percentage of light than any other color. For more check out the article, The Color of Plants on Other Worlds at http://www.SciAm.com and in the April issue of Scientific American magazine.
Story number 1 is true. The new CPR guidelines were published in the journal, Circulation, which noted that research found no real advantage to mouth-to-mouth CPR in cases outside of a hospital, and since people may be uneasy about trying mouth-to-mouth, but willing to try hands-only chest compressions, they should as even that technique may double a victim's survival odds. An easy way to remember how often to compress the chest: about the same as the beat of, no kidding, the Bee Gees hit, Staying Alive.
And story number 3 is true. Humans have terrific hearing. Other animals may be able to detect sounds too high or low pitched for us to hear, but our ability to discriminate between sounds as close as a quarter of a musical tone apart appears to be unmatched among mammals, with the possible exception of bats. The research appeared in the journal Nature.
All of which means that story number 2, about married women having less housework because their husband's help is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS, because what is true is that married women have seven more hours of housework a week than single women. Men who are married do an hour less housework a week than single men. The data are from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has been ongoing at the University of Michigan since 1968. The most surprising revelation was that single men apparently do at least an hour of housework a week.
Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com and check out www.SciAm.com for the latest science news and for additional info on Expelled, including reviews by John Rennie and our Skeptic columnist Michael Shermer, who also appears in the film. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.