Intelligent Design Propaganda Is Coming to a Theater Near You
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As I sat through opening night of Ben Stein's movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed , the words H.L. Mencken wrote at the conclusion of the Scopes Monkey Trial kept running through my mind:
" ... even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge."
After a several months long road show, in which producers held private sneak previews for largely sympathetic evangelical audiences, the film, released by Premise Media, opened nationwide Friday. The movie's essential point is that academics who believe in intelligent design -- the concept that life's complexity demands a divine guiding hand -- are being persecuted and that an oppressive and orthodox scientific establishment is quashing dissent in an all-out attack on free speech. Best known for his dead-pan delivery in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Stein co-writes, narrates and stars in the film.
I saw the movie at a theater in Harrisburg, Pa., the town in which the 2005 trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover took place and federal Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design was repackaged creationism, a religious notion masquerading as science.
As a journalist who sat through every day of the trial, I can tell you that this movie is a slick misleading piece of shrill propaganda. It misrepresents science, religion and intelligent design. It exploits both the concept of democracy and the victims of the Holocaust.
Stein and the film's producers work overtime to link the scientific community's refusal to accept intelligent design as an attack on free speech. They use heavy-handed imagery to draw comparisons -- the Berlin Wall being a recurring theme. Before a staged audience, Stein paraphrases Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech as clips are shown of black people being attacked during the Civil-Rights Movement. He refers to scientists only as "Darwinists" or the "elite establishment."
But in trying to present his case that intelligent design has not been given the fair hearing that it deserves, Stein commits a serious blunder and contradicts his own message.
The first half of the movie is devoted to explaining how intelligent design is not religion. Bruce Chapman of the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute is interviewed and adamantly explains that, despite what all the mainstream science organizations and academies say, intelligent design is most definitely science. He argues it's not religion because the designer is never named, so they are not necessarily talking about God. The only explanation of intelligent design ever presented in the movie is that it's the "study of patterns in nature that are best explained as a product of intelligence."
But then, using Johnny Cash's version of "Personal Jesus" as a segue, the filmmakers seem to completely forget their earlier message. The rest of the movie is devoted to proving that atheistic scientists hate God and are trying to suppress intelligent design because, well, it's all about belief in God.
Evolutionary biologist and famed atheist Richard Dawkins is the linchpin to this argument. And honestly, in this context, Dawkins makes a rather effective tool. He comes across as more than a bit arrogant in his dismissal of all faiths. He agrees there is a war between religion and science. Dawkins said he was misled about the purpose of the interview, but even so, I have to think he should have known better.
Still, Dawkins does not speak for all scientists and there are many who embrace evolutionary theory and still believe in God.
Most of the people who see this movie will undoubtedly be Christian evangelicals who have closed their minds to anything but a literal interpretation of the bible. (Premise Media's media campaign has targeted conservative churchgoers.) But there will also be a few perhaps who know little about science, but who nonetheless come with an open mind. They will walk away from the theater with some sadly erroneous ideas.
Despite what the movies leads one to believe, there is no such thing as intelligent-design research. Money spent on ID goes to bankroll glossy marketing campaigns, such as Expelled, and to lobby lawmakers, as with the "academic freedom" bills being pushed now in state legislatures across the country.
Filmmakers use Darwin's relative ignorance of the inner-workings of the cell to criticize all of evolutionary theory -- as if the ideas that Darwin put forth make up our only understanding of evolution and science has existed in a vacuum since 1859.
The movie gives no credit to the cellular biologists and geneticists who have built upon Darwin's initial theory. No acknowledgement is made of the Modern Synthesis, the second revolution in evolutionary thought when Darwin's theory of evolution was fused with Mendel's theory of genetics. Nor does it mention the amazing strides scientists are making virtually every day in decoding one genome after another.
Rather, filmmakers cut quickly from one intelligent design proponent to another, as each one excitedly describes what he knows of the amazing complexity of the cell. A viewer would reach the conclusion that those espousing intelligent design are the ones who have discovered it.
In another one particularly irritating scene, Stein repeatedly questions Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science, about how evolutionary theory explains the first spark of life. It doesn't. And I find it hard to believe Stein doesn't know this, despite his wide-eyed shocked routine. Abiogenesis is the study of how life might have arisen from non-life. Evolutionary theory merely explains the processes by which life has progressed from its beginnings. As Darwin wrote in his final words of The Origin of Species , "From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
Stein expresses incredulity that science has not yet reached a consensus on how life started. He urges Ruse to speculate. When Ruse tries to explain one theory of self-replicating crystals, Stein mocks him -- "Crystals?!? -- And cuts away to a black-and-white shot of a man hovering over a crystal ball. In my theater, movie-goers laughed appreciatively, even as I cringed. I found the amusement in one's ignorance to be distasteful.
During the Kitzmiller trial, when intelligent design was subjected to the rigors of jurisprudence, its assertions dissolved, revealing the concept as nothing but an airy confection, ultimately no more substantial or satisfying than cotton candy. Intelligent design is nothing but an argument of ignorance -- if it looks designed, it is designed.
As Kitzmiller plaintiffs' lead attorney Eric Rothschild said in his closing arguments, "the entire Intelligent Design movement (is) doing nothing to advance scientific or medical knowledge and are telling future generations of scientists, don't bother."
Despite all the pandering to the misinformed, the most offensive aspect of the movie is in its attempt to link evolutionary theory to the Holocaust.
Sitting in front of the Dachau concentration camp, Stein interviews a writer, who argues that while Hitler may have been evil, he was misguided and misled, a victim of the scientific establishment. He says, "Hitler thought he was improving humanity by driving evolution forward." Stein reacts to this by burying his head in his hands. It's truly amazing how low Stein, a Jew, sinks here. The Holocaust most assuredly deprived the scientific community of countless great minds and there is no telling the scientific accomplishments that might have been made. Perhaps one of the victims might even have discovered how life began. But Stein exploits their deaths and dishonors their memory in order to portray science as a bogeyman.
At the end of the movie, those in the theater stood up and clapped. It appeared to me to be a defensive kind of clapping, as if they had embraced the point that we should defend our right to ignorance. After it was over, I asked a girl wearing a sweatshirt from the local Christian college for her thoughts. She told me that the movie presented a strong argument that both sides -- evolutionary theory and intelligent design -- should be taught equally.
Mencken's remarks that we have the right to hold controversial and even stupid beliefs is not without merit. It's a beautiful idea, and a wonderfully American notion -- this innate sense of democratic principles that we all have a say in how things should be.
Expelled takes this idea and perverts it, arguing that truth and evidence is irrelevant. All sides should be treated as equal.
But as Mencken said, free speech does not give one the right to demand that these ideas be treated as sacred.
Lauri Lebo is the author of Devil in Dover: An Insider's Account of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, which chronicles the 2005 First Amendment battle of Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which a federal judge ruled that intelligent design was merely repackaged creationism.