Someone or something, be it the Founding Fathers or merely our lucky stars, deserves thanks for dissent and the freedom we have to express it. In particular Ben Stein should be thanked for making Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I say this as a very firm Evolutionist who is not at all impressed with the arguments coming from ID proponents. I say this because however much I have accepted Evolution, I am a thousand times more a libertarian who believes that no solid theory need worry about dissent, and no uncertain theory should be free of it.
As a piece of entertainment, Ben Stein’s documentary can be quickly summed up: it is engrossing, uses music effectively to underscore a mood, proceeds logically from point to point and from interview to interview, discovers new avenues and takes us in interesting and unexpected directions while never straying far from nor losing focus of the main point, provokes our passions, heightens our sustained interest with a suitable third act showdown and is generally well done. Its principle defect is that it leans on the audience a bit heavily at times when it makes its points, but it is never what I would call ham-handed. Though documentaries always seem to garner more approbation from critics, and one must therefore conclude that they are easier to make well, this should not detract from the fine work that Ben Stein has labored to produce, no matter the relative advantages which the format afforded him.
There are a number of very memorable and very effective moments dispersed throughout the project. The startled stuttering and nervous backtracking of an astronomer who, having in the taped interview professed conciliatory admiration for an embattled colleague who dared to say he saw design in the universe, is presented with his own email in which he calls the man an idiot, gives one the sense of satisfaction that a modicum of retribution can bring. The chill of subterranean gas chambers where genetic undesirables were put to death in Nazi Germany haunts one with a terrible solemnity. Perhaps best of all is when Ben Stein, directly following the visit to the gas chambers, goes to the Darwin Museum and contemplates the statue of Charles Darwin in a moment whose tranquil profundity and soft contemplation, though admittedly inferior and employed towards a very different end, is reminiscent of the sublime scene from Orson Welles’ F for Fake.
But to analyze the movie as nothing but an entertaining piece is to miss its most important aspects as social commentary and admonition. Through interviews Mr. Stein details how a number of scientists and journalists have been blacklisted by the Darwinian Establishment for crimes as minor as mentioning Intelligent Design in a class, or writing an article about the debate and remaining neutral. This sort of thing makes me nervous, seeing it coming from my own camp. I have long held that, without investigating the details of a debate, one can pick out who is right and who is wrong with a fair amount of confidence merely by seeing who is debating and who is hurling libel. I myself do not feel any real pressure from the Intelligent Design crowd because their arguments, such as I have read, are unconvincing. But when I see professors and scientists in the establishment, men and women who know far more about Evolution than I do, responding as if provoked by secret fears, it makes me wonder if I should be less confident in Evolution’s explanatory power. I have yet to see a solid line of reasoning leading to Intelligent Design, at least not after a counter argument revealed its blemishes, but such dogmatic and retributive behavior from Evolutionists is curious given that no one bothers to expend such energy on fighting Flat-Earthers. While it is true that no respectable university or publication would tolerate a Flat-Earther, it must be conceded that Evolution has not yet been filled in enough to extend all the way to life’s origins, and while this gap persists we should be less doctrinaire in our treatment of competing ideas.
A word of warning must go along with this, because together an editor and narrator wield a power that can distort truth rather than elucidate it, and it could very well turn out that the stories of the blacklisted ID proponents have a lot more to them than what was presented. Indeed, there were certain interviews whose brevity and clipped editing are suggestive of just such power at work. Penn and Teller, in their show Bullshit, are often at some pains to establish that they are not using the editor to give their arguments more weight than they deserve, and they go so far as, for example, to present an entire interview without any editing in order to show that nothing of importance has been omitted. Whatever time constraints Ben Stein was under, some of the interviews, as they are presented, strike one as small bits plucked from a greater context, a context which, if revealed, could well alter our perception.
Whether or not the blacklisting of the people in question is fairly represented in the film, it is certain that Evolution is not. Furthermore, assertions are made that Evolutionists, after their third or fourth beer, will admit in private that Evolution has some problems that could well be insurmountable, but this is most likely nonsense. It is one thing for an evolutionary biologist to kvetch about a conundrum that he has yet to figure out, it is quite another for him to admit that his theory is in real trouble. The difference between the two, however, is easily spanned by a third party portrayal with an agenda.
But just as it is wrong and unhelpful to misrepresent Evolution, so too is it wrong for Evolutionists to misrepresent ID and its proponents. All too often ID proponents are cast as Creationists in disguise, trying to slip religion into schools through the back door. While there is no doubt in my mind that this is often the case, even usually the case, to so broadly cast such an aspersion is to engage in just the sort of tactic that a confident debater should eschew, the libel hurling mentioned above that makes me so nervous. My eyes are sensitive enough to different shades of gray to be able to distinguish a religious zealot in disguise from a genuinely curious individual with no agenda other than to understand and who has yet to be sold on Evolution. I have yet to hear a potential observation that could falsify Intelligent Design, and lacking this potential, ID is, by definition, unscientific and therefore does not belong in a science class. But this does not mean it is not true, merely that it is not science. Just as a theory is accepted with more and more confidence in proportion as it withstands attempts to falsify it, other ideas become more attractive in proportion as a theory continues to fail to explain certain phenomena. While I am quite satisfied with how Evolution has advanced, I recognize that each individual must decide for himself where his limits are. I think it entirely too premature to turn from Evolution as the explanation for how simple elements come to form self replicating molecules which eventually lead to life, but if someone else is unimpressed with the idea I am not going to automatically accuse them of religious zealotry.
It would also be a mistake to accuse Mr. Stein of hysterics for his linkage of Darwinism and Nazism, a charge which, it is not hard to imagine, might be thrown at him. While he spends much time showing how Darwinian thought, perverted, guided the thinking of Nazis and eugenicists and similar vermin, he stops well short of claiming that Darwinian thought itself is responsible for such atrocities. Rather, it is the unthinking passion and unyielding dogmatism, which can corrupt any idea, that leads to such disasters. The close-minded intransigence which got a journalist fired for reviewing ID, or which denied tenure to a respected astronomer for mentioning that he saw design in the nature of the universe, is the embryonic form of a future atrocity. A doctor is lauded when he reacts with aggressive determination against the most incipient of cancers; let us not ridicule Ben Stein’s manner and purpose for doing the same thing.
Most of all, let us praise dissent and dissenters. As Thomas Jefferson said, whoever knew the Truth put to the worse in a free and open debate? Without people who are willing to engage orthodoxy and challenge its ideas, how are we to be sure what the Truth is? I do not recommend Intelligent Design as a likely explanation for Life’s beginning, but I do recommend Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed both for its entertainment value as well as its important lessons, which have little to do with science.