Editor's note: This story is part of a series "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed--Scientific American's Take."
In the new science-bashing movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein and the rest of the filmmakers sincerely and seriously argue that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution paved the way for the Holocaust. By "seriously," I mean that Ben Stein acts grief-stricken and the director juxtaposes quotes from evolutionary biologists with archival newsreel clips from Hitler's Reich. Prepare for an intellectual night at the cinema.
No one could have been more surprised than I when the producers called, unbidden, offering Scientific American's editors a private screening. Given that our magazine's positions on evolution and intelligent design (ID) creationism reflect those of the scientific mainstream (that is, evolution: good science; ID: not science), you have to wonder why they would bother. It's not as though anything in Expelled would have been likely to change our views. And they can't have been looking for a critique of the science in the movie, because there isn't much to speak of.
Rather, it seems a safe bet that the producers hope a whipping from us would be useful for publicity: further proof that any mention of ID outrages the close-minded establishment. (Picture Ben Stein as Jack Nicholson, shouting, "You can't handle the truth!") Knowing this, we could simply ignore the movie—which might also suit their purposes, come to think of it.
Unfortunately, Expelled is a movie not quite harmless enough to be ignored. Shrugging off most of the film's attacks—all recycled from previous pro-ID works—would be easy, but its heavy-handed linkage of modern biology to the Holocaust demands a response for the sake of simple human decency.
Expelled wears its ambitions to be a creationist Fahrenheit 911 openly, in that it apes many of Michael Moore's comic tricks: emphasizing the narrator's hapless everyman qualities by showing him meandering his way to interviews; riposting interviewees' words with ironic old footage and so on. Director Nathan Frankowski is reasonably adept at the techniques, although he is not half the filmmaker Michael Moore is (and yes, I do mean in both senses of the phrase).
The film begins with the triumphant entry of financial columnist, media figure and former Nixon White House speechwriter Ben Stein to a filled college lecture hall. (If this review were styled after the movie, I'd be intercutting clips of Nixon flashing a victory sign with Stein's scenes from Ferris Bueller's Day Off and his eyedrop commercials, but you get the idea.) Stein explains that he is speaking out because he has "lately noticed a dire trend" that threatens the state of our nation: the ascendance of godless, materialist, evolutionary science and an unwillingness among academics to consider more theistic alternatives. A montage of short clips then shows Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other scientists scorning religion or ID without context. "Freedom is the essence of America!" Stein insists, and he frets that scientists who like their empiricism with a dash of deus ex machina are oppressed. He and Expelled charge that scientists, in their rejection of religious explanations, have become as intolerant as Nazis. Or maybe Stalinists—the film clips were ambiguous on that point.
(The newsreel footage from the old Soviet days kept confusing me. Stein does know that the Stalinists rejected the theory of evolution as a biological rendition of capitalism, doesn't he? And that they replaced it with their own ideologically driven, disastrous theory of Lysenkoism? Does Stein think that moviegoers won't know this?)
I should note that Stein and Expelled rarely refer to "scientists" as I did—they call them Darwinists. Similarly, this review may have already used the word "evolution" about as often as the whole of Expelled does; in the movie, it is always Darwinism. The term is a curious throwback, because in modern biology almost no one relies solely on Darwin's original ideas—most researchers would call themselves neo-Darwinian if they bothered to make the historical connection at all because evolutionary science now encompasses concepts as diverse as symbiosis, kin selection and developmental genetics. Yet the choice of terminology isn't random: Ben Stein wants you to stop thinking of evolution as an actual science supported by verifiable facts and logical arguments and to start thinking of it as a dogmatic, atheistic ideology akin to Marxism.
Expelled then trots out some of the people whom it claims have been persecuted by the Darwinist establishment. First among them is Richard 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. Looking a bit smug in his self-martyrdom, Sternberg also reports that a colleague compared him with an "intellectual terrorist."
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.]
And so on. These confounding facts are documented in the appendix to the unofficial Congressional report from Rep. Mark Souder's office that the film cites in support of its story. At the very least, the Sternberg affair is considerably more complicated and questionable than Expelled lets on. The movie's one-sided version is either the result of shoddy investigation or deliberate propagandizing—neither of which reflects well on the other information in the film.
So it is with the rest of Expelled's parade of victims. Caroline Crocker, a biology teacher, was allegedly dismissed from her position at George Mason University after merely mentioning ID; the film somehow never reports exactly what she said or why anyone objected to it. Reporter Pamela Winnick was supposedly pilloried and fired after she wrote objectively about evolution and ID; we don't know exactly what she wrote but later we do hear her asserting with disgust that "Darwinism devalues human life." The film forgot to mention that Winnick is the author of the book A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion—a title that suggests her objectivity on the subject might be a bit tarnished.
The movie's unreliable reporting is even more obvious during the scene in which Stein interviews Bruce Chapman, the president of the Discovery Institute, the institutional heart of ID advocacy. Stein asks whether the Discovery Institute has supported the teaching of ID in science classes so avidly because it is trying to sneak religion back into public schools. Chapman says no and the film blithely takes him at his word. No mention is made of the notorious "Wedge" document, a leaked Discovery Institute manifesto that outlined a strategy of opposing evolution and turning the public against scientific materialism as the first step toward making society more politically conservative and theistic. Maybe Ben Stein didn't think it was relevant, but wouldn't an honest film have trusted its audience to judge for itself?
*Note: Richard Sternberg was originally identified as Robert Sternberg.