Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Rhetorical Blunder in Ben Stein's EXPELLED

Ben Stein's movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed opened yesterday in theatres around the nation. This movie is the latest project of the Discovery Institute in promoting the political rhetoric of "intelligent design theory" as the alternative to Darwinian evolutionary science. The National Center for Science Education has set up a good website that corrects the many mistakes in the movie.

The folks at the Discovery Institute have made a big mistake in their production of this movie. The political rhetoric of the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy" depends upon hiding a fundamental contradiction. But this movie makes the contradiction so evident that any viewer can see it. On the one hand, the rhetorical strategy of the Discovery Institute is to say that "intelligent design" is not a creationist religious belief but pure science, and therefore teaching "intelligent design" in public high school biology classes does not violate the First Amendment's prohibition on establishing religion. On the other hand, the popular success of the Discovery Institute's rhetoric depends on appealing to Biblical creationists who assume that "intelligent designer" is just another name for God the Biblical Creator.

This contradiction--both affirming and denying that "intelligent design theory" is the same as Biblical creationism--became evident in the 2005 case in Dover, Pennsylvania. Leaders of the Dover Area Public School board wanted to teach Biblical creationism. They were warned that this would violate U.S. Supreme Court decisions declaring that teaching creationism as science violated the First Amendment separation of church and state. They then decided to teach "intelligent design theory" as a disguised form of Biblical creationism. The trial made clear their deception, and this also exposed the contradiction in the Discovery Institute's rhetoric.

Rather than covering up this contradiction, this movie makes it hard for any viewer to ignore the contradiction. When Bruce Chapman--President of the Discovery Institute--is interviewed by Stein, Chapman says that journalists distort the true position of intelligent design by saying that it's a creationist religious belief, because the "intelligent designer" is clearly God. Chapman vehemently denies this. But then for the rest of the movie, it's asserted that anyone who denies "intelligent design" is therefore an atheist who denies the existence of God!

Viewers of the movie who know nothing about the debate over intelligent design will easily see this contradiction. Those who do know something about the debate will notice another indication of the contradiction--the absence of Michael Behe. Stein interviews almost all of the major spokesmen for intelligent design. The one remarkable exception, however, is Behe--the LeHigh University biologist who until recently has been the star scientific witness for intelligent design theory.

As I indicated in a blog post last year, Behe's most recent book is is strong attack on biblical creationism. Behe concedes so much to Darwinian science--the limited power of natural selection working on random mutation, evolution by common descent, the evolution of human beings from primate ancestors shared with chimpanzees, rejection of Biblical creationism as "silly," and support for theistic evolution--that Behe actually subverts much of the moral and religious agenda of the Discovery Institute. Behe even questions the goodness and omnipotence of the intelligent designer in deliberately creating malaria! The remarkable absence of Behe from this movie indicates that Behe's positions are no longer helpful to the Discovery Institute's rhetoric.

There are many other weaknesses in the rhetoric of this movie, but they are weaknesses that I have already taken up in many previous posts on intelligent design reasoning. The last third of the movie is devoted to Richard Weikart's "Darwin to Hitler" argument that I have analyzed in various posts. As is usual, a quotation from Darwin's Descent of Man is used to suggest that Darwin promoted something like Nazi eugenics. But the quotation is taken out of context to hide the fact that Darwin rejected the eugenics of Francis Galton. I refer you to my various posts on the issue of Nazi eugenics.

The movie assumes that evolutionary science must be atheistic. To support this assumption, Stein is careful only to interview people like Richard Dawkins who are atheistic evolutionists. He is very careful not to interview theistic evolutionists like Ken Miller or Francis Collins, or even someone like Behe who argues that God might have worked through an evolutionary process. Stein also is careful not to quote from any of Darwin's references to God as Creator.

Consider how different this movie would have been if Stein had interviewed someone like Francis Collins. Collins could have explained how reading C. S. Lewis helped to convert him to Christianity. He could also have explained how he as a geneticist accepts evolutionary science as supported by the evidence and rejects "intelligent design theory" as unfounded. He could have indicated how he sees evolution as compatible with his Christian beliefs and why he rejects Richard Dawkins' atheism as not based on science. Such an interview would have raised some deep questions about the relationship between science and religion--questions that would have been intellectually challenging to the viewers. But Stein chose not to do anything like this. Why? Because it would have subverted his intention in producing a crude piece of propaganda that insults the intelligence of his viewers?

The movie also assumes that evolutionary science denies morality and promotes moral nihilism. To support this assumption, Stein is careful to interview only people like Will Provine who interprets evolution in a nihilistic manner. But this means that Stein has to be very careful not to interview people like David Sloan Wilson who emphasize Darwin's theory of the "moral sense."

A big part of this movie argues that scientists who question Darwinian science or suggest the possibility of intelligent design are censored or otherwise punished and thus their intellectual freedom of thought is denied. The NCSE website surveys the evidence in these cases and indicates how the movie distorts the facts. The one case that might support the movie's argument is that of Guiellermo Gonzalez, an astronomer who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. From what little I know of this case, it does appear that Gonzalez has a pretty good record of academic research that might justify tenure, and so it's possible that his support for intelligent design might have provoked some unfair bias against him. The problem, however, is that the policy of confidentiality in academic tenure cases makes it hard to know for sure what motivated the people involved.

I agree on the importance of freedom of thought in these matters. I have argued on this blog and elsewhere that biology classes--both at the high school level and at the college and university level--should be open to discussion of "intelligent design theory" as a possible alternative to Darwinian science. As I have indicated, I don't find the arguments and evidence offered by the ID proponents persuasive. But I see nothing wrong in allowing students to debate this in their biology classes. I have promoted such open debate in my own university classes.

The problem, however, is that both sides of this debate are caught up in a frenzy of rhetorical posturing that makes it impossible to have a thoughtful exchange of competing ideas. I have seen this on those many occasions when I have debated these folks in public. This movie is an example of the rhetorical distortions that make me wonder whether I am being naive in thinking that students and scholars should be able to debate these vital questions in an open and honest manner.

A few of my blog posts relevant to these issues can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

My argument for "teaching the controversy" by teaching Darwin has received some coverage in Inside Higher Ed, which can be found here and here.

One of my first essays on "intelligent design theory" for in 2001 can be found here.

I also have a chapter on intelligent design in Darwinian Conservatism.

Last year, I debated intelligent design at the American Enterprise Institute with John West and George Gilder. The New York Times article on the debate can be found here. A podcast of this AEI debate can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Hopefully "Expelled" will enlighten the public that wants to be enlightened to the agenda of the evolutionists/atheists/agnostics to shut the Christians up by their taunts and mockings, curses and belittling but, when people know the Truth, they cannot be stopped. This movie is causing almost as much stir among the evolutionist community as The Quest for Right book which was just released. It has a ring of the truth also and the atheists/evolution gangs just hate it and have jumped on it like ravaging wolves out to kill, and few have even read it yet. Truth will prevail no matter how hard you try to gag it. This nation used to be a nation of free speech, but no longer. Everyone can talk but the Christians yet the Christians were the ones that founded this nation. This nation was meant to be Christian no matter what the godless society say or think.

Larry Arnhart said...

You don't seem to realize that your comment confirms the main point in my post about the contradiction in the rhetoric of "intelligent design." The proponents of "intelligent design" say this is not a religious idea at all. Michael Behe even says that reading the Bible as a science textbook is "silly." And yet you assume that intelligent design is just another name for Biblical creationism. Isn't this a problem?

Whitney said...

Good points. Ironically, those who fight for ID get exactly what they say they don't want by pushing teachers into a corner where they have to argue strongly for evolution -- that is, they stifle debate.

Travis Brackney said...


I agree that there is a widespread and unfortunate tendency to mock Christians based on their spiritual beliefs. However, when you imply that Christianity is synonymous with belief in poorly reasoned psuedo-science you're just digging yourself further into a hole. ID is a joke, and I'm sure you'd prefer your religion not be thought of as one.


I doubt the average person has ever heard of "Z particles, neutrinos, leptons, quarks, weak bosons, etc. " Quantum Mechanics may or may not be vulnerable to attack, but if it falls don't expect biology, geology and physics to come tumbling down with it. The credibility of biblical creationism has been undermined from hundreds of different angles for hundreds of years, long before the field of quantum mechanics even existed.

I'd suggest that Christians should learn to live with modern science rather than trying vainly to deny it.

John the Skeptic said...

While it is true that because tenure deliberations are confidential, it will never be possible to know exactly what factors went into the Iowa State decision, it seems likely that Gonzalez's deteriorating research output probably played a role.

Calie Stephens said...


It is most obvious,from you comments, that you have not yet seen the movie.

That can only be the only logical explanation. Or......maybe you are just real slow.

Calie Stephens
Dallas, TX

Anonymous said...

"The National Center for Science Education has set up a good website that corrects the many mistakes in the movie."

Should have known that this would be referred to, as this is one of the major institutions that is keeping intelligent design from being a valid argument.

Steven Carr said...

What must it have been like to be a Jewish child growing up in a Nazi Germany?

For some reason, the wise words of Paul Copan come to mind ””What then of the children? Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture.”’

Malcolm said...

Steven Carr said "What must it have been like to be a Jewish child growing up in a Nazi Germany?"

Pretty terrible I imagine. But even if Hitler and the Nazis had been influenced by Darwin rather than by Martin Luther's antisemitism that would have *absolutely nothing* to do with the validity of the scientific observations that support the theory of evolution as we understand it today.

Just because you don't like it doesn't mean it isn't true.

You're confusing "what is" with "what ought to be"

Anonymous said...

"Should have known that this would be referred to, as this is one of the major institutions that is keeping intelligent design from being a valid argument."

Funny, I would have thought that it was the glaring lack of science inherent in ID that kept it from being a valid argument.

Proponents of ID: please specify one falsifiable hypothesis deduced from ID "theory." Thank you.

Hitch said...

"The folks at the Discovery Institute have made a big mistake in their production of this movie"

This whole article is bogus since the DI did not in fact make this movie nor was it their project as claimed.

Maybe get your facts right before dousing the reader with spurious claims and rantings huh Larry?

Lydia Hazel said...

Unlike the producers of Expelled, I don't believe Darwin's account of natural history is false by inference to design. Instead I believe Darwin's account could prove false (or true) by inference from the results of genome mapping (See "Confirming the mutational basis of the origin of man", PDF file available from author,

In our taxonomy of species, groups derive from their relationship to hypothesized extinct ancestors. Taxonomists can’t observe this relationship directly, since these ancestors no longer exist. Instead they rely on alternating traits among existing species, referred to as the presence versus absence of evolutionary novelties, which supposedly originated from mutations of the same type we observe occurring naturally today. Therefore, because the reconstruction of evolution history relies on present contrasts resulting from the presence versus absence of naturally selected, or otherwise retained, mutations, it establishes obligatory constituents, and non-constituents, for all the world's genomes. Until the technology of genome mapping, we have been unable to isolate these constituents and test for their predicted distributions. Now we can. From there, we can infer the existence, or non-existence, of the extinct hypothesized common ancestors from which, by mutation, today's presently observed species supposedly diverged. I think our intelligence not only allows, but requires it.

Lydia Hazel

Jaakonpoika said...

Evolutionism was politically and religiously driven. (By religion, I mean the old worship of nature akin naturalism.) Evolutionism was a revolution, and revolutions are violent. It is anachronism to mehasize the idea of selection since evolutionism was sold by much harder claims, especially constant spontaneous generation of life from mud (moneras), inheritance of acquired characteristics, mutationism in leaps (hopeful monsters), linear model of human races - and especially recapitulation.

I mean, fertilizing human embryos for research purposes? Pipetting chimera embryos of humans and monkeys?!? Go, U Kingdom, go! Also the last round of eugenics started by cheapening the embryos.
Biochemist, drop-out (M.Sci. Master of Sciing)