I realize that this is “old news,” but a conversation with my lovely and patient wife last night reminded me that I had written a review of Ben Stein’s “documentary” Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I wrote it shortly after seeing the movie, because many people with whom I am acquainted were asking about my opinion of it. I thought that even though the movie is more than a year old, you might want to know what I thought of it. If you haven’t seen the movie, perhaps my review will get you to rent it and watch it.
I laughed during the movie a lot more than I thought I would. My first belly-laugh came when a litany of insults related to people who believe in intelligent design were being read, and they were interspersed with black-and-white footage of three men shoving a fourth guy around. When the insult “Republican” was followed by the poor man being hit in the face, I laughed out loud. I thought the way Stein used old movies (and new ones designed to look old) to accentuate and add humor to his commentary was nothing short of brilliant.
I was also struck by the overall message of the film. Having read many reviews, I thought the film would spend a lot of time making the case that intelligent design belongs in the classroom. It did not. Instead, it was actually a film that desperately tried to point out what freedom is and how we are in the process of losing it in the United States. While the censorship of intelligent design was the specific example of how we are losing our freedom, the overall message was much broader than intelligent design. This became abundantly clear to me towards the end, where Ben Stein’s commentary on the lack of academic freedom in the United States was interspersed with the great Ronald Reagan speech that contains the famous quote, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” To my disappointment, however, while many great lines from the speech were used, that seminal quote was not among them.
Not to put him on too high a pedestal, but in the movie, Ben Stein acted as a modern-day John Adams. While watching the film, I could not help but remember Adams’s warning: “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.” By visiting opulent universities and then the tiny offices of the Discovery Institute, Stein masterfully showed (without uttering a word) that the jaws of power are, indeed, trying to devour the freedom of scientists who choose to think differently. He actually made a lot of points throughout the movie without saying a word. For example, after visiting Baylor University, where one intelligent design advocate was persecuted, the camera simply pans back to the facade of a Baylor building where the first part of Colossians 1:16 (For by Him all things were created) is engraved. No words were needed to show how far Baylor University has fallen!
Of course, as a scientist, I would have liked more science in the film. The animation sequence of the cell used in the film is solid science and quite familiar to biology educators. A similar one appears in “The Inner Life of a Cell”>. In fact, as I understand it, the creators of “The Inner Life of a Cell” actually tried to stop the movie by stating that the animation sequence shown in Stein’s movie is so similar to theirs that it constitutes copyright infringement. Stein, of course, says that this is just another attempt to stifle debate by trying to stop the movie from being shown. Premise Media (who made the animation used in Stein’s film) is countersuing the makers of “The Inner Life of a Cell,” which is rather unusual in copyright litigation. Obviously, the legal battles did not stop the film from being shown.
Legal troubles aside, the animation sequence clearly showed that the inner workings of the cell go far beyond what Darwin (or even biologists two decades ago) could have imagined. I would have loved to hear a bit more commentary about what was actually happening in the animation, because it is truly incredible. A couple of times, for example, you see large spheres on the backs of what appear to be stick men walking a tightrope. The spheres are vesicles that contain chemicals the cell either needs itself or needs to secrete for other cells. The “stick men” are motor proteins known as “kinesins.” They “walk” along tiny tubes (called microtubles) that the cell makes as a part of its own internal skeleton (called the “cytoskeleton”). This is one way chemicals are transported in the cell! The cell is like a miniature factory, with “employees” (the kinesins) carrying the products of the factory (the vesicle contents) to their proper destinations along roads (microtubles) that the factory builds itself! I would have loved more oratory on such wonders. Of course, I expect others would have become bored with such details. After all, your eyes probably glazed over just reading about it.
I truly loved the interview sequences with David Berlinski. While I strongly disagree with his philosophy (he calls himself an agnostic who’s only guiding principle is “…to have a good time all the time”), he is clearly the intellectual of the movie. While I am sure part of this was the result of scene editing, the supposed “intellectual elites” in the movie (Dawkins, Provine, etc.) come off as ranting lunatics, while Berlinski comes off as an erudite philosopher, masterfully shooting holes in the current biological paradigm. His comment that the inner workings of the cell are like NOTHING we have ever seen or imagined is 100% correct. The cell is not just a “smaller” version of the world we see around us. It operates on a level of complexity that simply has no analog in the world we see with our naked eyes.
By far, however, the BEST interview sequence of the movie was the last one with Richard Dawkins. Once again, I am sure part of this is the result of editing, but this supposed “intellectual” was simply eviscerated by the unassuming, humble Ben Stein. When Stein tries to pin Dawkins down on the “number” he would assign to the probability that God doesn’t exist, I once again laughed out loud. Given all of Dawkins’s bluster about how sure he is when it comes to the fact that evolution occurred and God is just a figment of deranged imaginations, Stein ends up getting him to admit that there might even be a 49% chance that God exists.
That’s not the end of the intellectual skewering, however. Stein gets the “great” Dawkins to admit that life might even be the result of intelligent design. He actually gets Dawkins to say on camera that aliens might, indeed, have created life, but those aliens “must have” been the result of materialistic evolution themselves! There is no other point in the movie where the arbitrariness of Dawkins’s views (and those of other like-minded people) is made so clear. They bluster on about evidence, but in the end, it comes down to nothing but faith. Dawkins is willing to put faith in aliens before faith in God. That sequence alone was worth the price of admission!
Having said all that, I do think the movie has flaws. As I mentioned, I think it is “light” on science, but that was probably intentional to make it appeal to a broader audience. Also, too much science could make the move more about intelligent design and less about the loss of freedom in the United States. The science that is in the movie is solid; it is just rare.
Another flaw is that Stein narrates the movie as if it is an intellectual journey. The move is supposedly his process of investigation – a record of an unbiased individual searching for the truth. While I have no doubt that Stein learns many things throughout the course of filming, and while I am even willing to believe that the level of censorship he learned about was surprising to him, the movie is certainly not a chronicle of his investigations. From the way the scenes are filmed and the questions he asks, it is clear that Stein had his mind made up before he started work on his film. He may have, indeed, been an unbiased investigator of this topic at some point in his life, but before the film started, he had already reached a final conclusion. While I have no problem with someone making a documentary with a conclusion already in mind, I do think it is a bit dishonest to portray yourself in that film as still being in the process of investigation.
The largest flaw in the movie is Stein’s attempt to say that evolution leads to all sorts of terrible things, from losing faith in God to the holocaust. He seems to be saying that the IDEA of evolution is somehow inherently evil. I strongly – no vehemently – disagree. While some ideas might, indeed, be evil, most ideas (including evolution) are morally neutral. It is what people do with those ideas that can be evil (or good). While people did, indeed, use evolution to justify horrendous things like Eugenics, killing the disabled, and even trying to kill an entire race, you cannot condemn evolution as a result. After all, a couple of popes used Christianity to justify the crusades. The on-and-off battles in Northern Ireland are the result of people using Christianity to justify evil acts. The burning of witches in early U.S. history was the result of people using Christianity to justify murder. If evolution is a terrible idea because Hitler and the leaders of the Eugenics movement used it to justify their unspeakable evil, Christianity is condemned by the same logic.
At the same time, I must add that even this flaw has its bright moments. For example, Berlinski points out that evolution is not a SUFFICIENT cause of the holocaust. There was clearly more to it than that. However, he points out that it might have been a NECESSARY component for the holocaust to have occurred. While this does not, in my mind, condemn the idea, it does point out how important it is to allow ideas to be challenged. Also, the fact that Stein first visits a place where disabled people (not necessarily Jews) were killed by Nazis is excellent. This is a part of Hitler’s legacy with which most people are not familiar, and it is an excellent complement to the discussion of the holocaust. Also, the fact that the museum official who led Stein around says it would not be her “place” to tell the perpetrators of such horrors that they were wrong speaks volumes for the moral relativism that is entrenched in our culture today.
So….after this ridiculously long-winded review, what can I say? I can say that Stein’s movie is definitely worth a watch. While it has flaws, it still gives you a very good overview of the oppression that exists in the academic world today. Its message is also much broader than intelligent design. Even those who disagree with intelligent design should get at least a bit uncomfortable with the heavy-handed tactics used by those in power. And finally, can anyone argue with a movie whose last two words are an homage to the American classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Anyone? Anyone?