See Ben Stein's Movie

Historically, if a front in the culture wars didn't originate on a college campus, its battles eventually reached the ivory tower one way or another.

March 24, 2008

Historically, if a front in the culture wars didn't originate on a college campus, its battles eventually reached the ivory tower one way or another.

A central component of those disputes has always been the origin of life. Intelligent design -- the idea that the "irreducible complexity" of living things can't be explained without some notion of a creator -- continues to fuel struggles on the local level to control K-12 school boards. Now proponents of the controversial idea -- dismissed as pseudoscience by a wide consensus of scientists -- have graduated to college, and they wield a powerful new weapon: Ben Stein.

The author, actor and lawyer, a former speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford, perfected his monotone delivery in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" when he memorably induced a state of catatonia by lecturing his students about voodoo economics. ("Anyone? ... Anyone?") He used the deadpan style to similar effect in the quiz show "Win Ben Stein's Money," which pitted contestants against the host for a portion of his own paycheck. Now the conservative commentator is more interested in waking America up, with a documentary that seeks to challenge the "progressive orthodoxy of government-issued science in its winter of discontent."

The movie, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," is already generating press in advance of its April 18 release. With a widely recognizable host, an explosive topic and a self-consciously conspiratorial tone, the slickly produced documentary at least has the ingredients for success on a Michael Moore scale. While popular conceptions of academe as a haven for aloof, godless eggheads isn't uncommon, some scholars are especially worried that the movie could make an end run around science and take a misleading message to the public. The producers retort that intelligent design, prohibited in the classroom, has rightly reappeared in the cineplex.

Or, like Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," the film could reinforce the existing beliefs of both those attracted and repelled by it. "I’d be surprised if it had much of an effect, just from what I’ve heard about it. Without having seen it, it doesn’t sound like it’s really that serious. So it may have some popular effect, but there it’s probably going to be people who are already converted to that point of view," said Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University who studies biopolitical theory.

Stein presents the issue as having two sides. One is taught in biology class; the other is banned. "Basically, we’ve got one possibility out of two possibilities that’s taught, and it's Darwinism and it’s taught to the exclusion of any other idea," said Mark Mathis, a TV news reporter turned speaker who is credited in the film as an associate producer.

Last week, bloggers pounced on a different kind of exclusion at a screening of the movie in the Mall of America. "I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled!" wrote University of Minnesota Morris biologist P.Z. Myers on Pharyngula, his popular blog devoted to debunking attacks on evolution. "It was kind of weird -- I was standing in line, hadn't even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested."

The post's punchline: The producers didn't bar Myers' companion, Richard Dawkins, one of the more prominent critics of religious belief. Like subjects of the Borat movie, both biologists were interviewed for the documentary under the auspices of a neutral film called "Crossroads." (The producers said it was an honest title change, but the present Web site address was registered two months before the interviews took place.)

Mathis later confirmed in an e-mail that he had barred Myers from the screening. "Yes, I turned Mr. Myers away. He was not an invited guest of Premise Media. This was a private screening of an unfinished film. I could have let him in, just as I invited Michael Shermer to a screening in Nashville. Shermer is in the film as well. But, in light of Myers' untruthful blogging about 'Expelled' I decided it was better to have him wait until April 18 and pay to see the film. Others, notable others, were permitted to see the film. At a private screening it's my call.

"Unlike the Darwinist establishment, we expell no one."

"Expelled" begins, according to a preview on the documentary's Web site, with a montage sequence that introduces Stein's quest to investigate scientists who have lost tenure bids or their jobs for supporting intelligent design or questioning evolution's ability to fully explain the origins of human life. As a lone professor repeatedly scrawls "Do Not Question Darwinism" on a classroom blackboard, Stein pits the victims of evolutionary dogma against Dawkins and other atheists. As Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd on screen, Stein suggests that suppressing intelligent design contradicts America's ideals of free expression. Flashes of Nazi death camps accompany the assertion of evolution's "dangerous" implications.

The message is clear: Our universities -- plus the media, the courts and the educational establishment that support them -- are suppressing vital questions about humanity's origins, all to prop up an explanation that begins with, as Stein characterizes it, “mud animated by lightning.”

Stein ends the introduction with a monologue:

"Feel free to watch this film if you must, and I hope you do. But you’ve got to know that doing so could land you in a heap of trouble. Some of you are going to lose your friends for watching this film. Some of you may even lose your jobs. In fact, if you’re a scientist with any hope of a future, I suggest you leave right now.... Anyone else with a stake in this debate should probably leave right now as well. But if you do leave, will anyone be left to fight this battle?

"Anyone? ... Anyone?"

Debating Darwin

Without question, a number of scientists who question evolution have faced hostile colleagues, lost tenure or worse, although the specific circumstances surrounding each case have left them open to interpretation. For example, Iowa State University claimed the views of Guillermo Gonzalez were not a significant factor in denying him tenure -- he did not receive any major research grants, for example, and some say he did not live up to his initial promise as a postdoctoral student -- while groups supporting the professor cite disclosed e-mails among faculty criticizing his outspoken support of intelligent design. The documentary covers that case as well as the Smithsonian Institution's alleged actions against biologist Richard von Sternberg.

"It’s hard to judge some of these cases that involve tenure because there's always the problem of people wanting to keep the tenure deliberations confidential, so it’s always hard to judge the evidence of whether there was some unfair bias or not," Arnhart said.

One case the documentary doesn't cover is that of Richard Colling, a professor at Olivet Nazarene University whose book about reconciling belief in God and evolution led the Christian institution to bar him from teaching general biology.

Supporters of teaching intelligent design frame the issue as one of academic freedom, and "Expelled" is no exception. "These scientists, number one, should have the freedom to examine the evidence in ways that they feel is appropriate, and number two, most importantly, if a scientist disagrees with the establishment view, that scientist shouldn’t be excommunicated, and that’s what’s going on today," Mathis said.

But common conceptions of academic freedom only protect material relevant to a discipline. Nearly unanimously, scientists say that intelligent design isn't a theory at all. Unlike the theory of relativity or of gravity, intelligent design cannot produce testable hypotheses or be refined over successive experimentation. (The National Center for Science Education has created a Web site to debunk the documentary's arguments.)

Proponents of intelligent design use "almost entirely a strategy of negative argumentation; that is, they criticize ... what they think are major gaps in the evidence or the reasoning then demand that the proponents of evolutionary theory defend themselves against this criticism," Arnhart said. "But they don’t have much of a positive theory of their own, so they really depend upon getting into this rhetorical battle where they put their opponents on the defensive.... That’s why some then on the evolutionary theory side say, well, this isn’t science if you don’t have an alternative theory."

Still, Arnhart and others have argued that scientists shouldn't be as reluctant to discuss the issue in their classrooms, if only to bring it out into the open and expose the arguments to scrutiny.

"I cannot imagine teaching high school evolution sections by muzzling the students from mentioning creationism in many stripes, all based upon religion," said William B. Provine, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor in evolutionary biology at Cornell University, in an e-mail. "Thus I recommend to students to raise the issues they consider important in their science classes. The teacher does not teach ID. They do and other students do respond to student comments. If you wish to have a revolution in the teaching of evolution in high schools, this is the way to do it legally, and improve the quality of the class."

Professors have no such restrictions on what they can teach, and a similar approach could presumably be applied in college classes.

"I’ve had the experience of teaching students where we’ve talked about evolutionary theory and these kinds of debates ... and I ask them, What happens in your biology classes when this comes up? And their answer is, We keep our mouths shut," Arnhart recounted. "That is, they are told we will not permit you to discuss this. This is not a permissible debate in this science class."


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