For all I know, Ben Stein may be Apollo's gift to the professions of acting and gameshow hosting, and to some of the other odd activities that have come his way from time to time in a long career that's more varied than the Galapagos finches.
Until very recently, Stein wasn't even on my radar, any more than I'm on his, but he's now involved as the starring talent in a project to popularise the idea of Intelligent Design, or ID. For anyone born just this morning, Intelligent Design is the claim that life, in its diversity, cannot be the outcome of biological evolution by natural selection (and other mechanisms that are taken seriously by legitimate working biologists). To publicise his case, Stein has become a leading perpetrator of Expelled, a documentary-style movie in defence of ID (calling Expelled "a documentary" may give the wrong impression of what's involved).
From all accounts, the movie alleges that the ... ahem ... bold conjecture of Intelligent Design has been kept out of academia by what is apparently spun as some kind of anti-Christian conspiracy. Individuals who have advocated ID are portrayed as victims of prejudice and injustice. Their academic freedom has been suppressed, or so we're meant to believe.
Whatever the precise content of Expelled, Intelligent Design itself is not, by any stretch of the imagination, genuine science. At best, it's the tattered remnant of what may have been genuine science back in the 19th century. You could dignify it, I suppose, by calling it a philosophical conjecture based on (supposed) inadequacies in evolutionary theory.
More than that, though, ID is a moderately sophisticated attempt to repackage Creationism and get it taught in schools.
However you define it, ID involves no actual program of scientific investigation, no testable hypotheses, nothing that could possibly lead to an integrated body of theory. The method is to raise as much doubt as possible about the credentials of evolutionary theory, usually by intellectually spurious means; the motivation is clearly religious. Proponents of Intelligent Design want to undermine genuine biological science in order to boost the credibility of that old time religion: they want to defend theistic explanations of the origin and diversity of life, and the presence of human beings on Earth.
I hope it goes without saying that evolutionary theory is not a "theory" in the colloquial sense of "hypothesis" or "conjecture". Rather, it's a well-corroborated system of theoretical knowledge - so well-corroborated, in fact, that its basic picture of the development of life over hundreds of millions of years is as indubitable as the heliocentric picture of the Solar System. The entirety of modern biological science is thoroughly permeated by evolutionary theory and would collapse without it.
Expelled opens to the public in the US on 18 April 2008, and I suppose it will be screening here in Australia some time not too long after that. We'll then be able to see the exact message. Meanwhile, we already know that it's an emotive propaganda piece in support of Intelligent Design.
One annoying aspect is that the moviemakers interviewed a high-profile biologist, PZ Myers, under false pretenses ... giving him no idea that he was being set up or how the footage would be used. They also interviewed an even higher-profile biologist, Richard Dawkins, under similar false pretenses. Myers has a formidable presence on the internet, but of course Dawkins' fame goes far, far beyond that: he has made major contributions to evolutionary theory - such as his development of the "extended phenotype" concept - as well as being the most notorious atheist in the English-speaking world. He's a best-selling author and something of a multi-media star. Dawkins' name immediately evokes certain ideas: memes; the selfish gene; the God delusion.
Well, you might say, so Myers and Dawkins were set up ... so what? Isn't this sort of tactic used by moviemakers all the time in order to get people to drop their guard? It may be shifty, but the outcome can be funny or revealing - or both. Where, you might ask, would "Borat" (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his collaborators be if they had to be honest with their various satirical targets? They waltz around with their cameras, giving out misinformation about what kind of thing they're really filming, and misleading the hapless folks on camera about how their footage will be used - usually to make the victims appear mean or foolish.
Very well. I won't get into whether that's a fair comparison.
But the whole sorry Expelled saga took an extra plot twist this week, with the ID-ists (or IDiots as they are sometimes known) shooting themselves in the feet with every available barrel - think of them carrying one of those Vietnam-era mini-guns used to great effect by Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in Terminator 2. With all barrels firmly pointed at the ground. Sorry, I mean at their vulnerable toes.
Expelled has been pre-screened on various occasions in the US, including a showing a day or two ago in Minneapolis. PZ Myers and his family went along this time, together with a few other folks, including an overseas academic. No tickets were required, but Myers had arranged for enough seats for his godless crew. Over on his excellent Pharyngula blog, he tells the story of what happened next.
As he tells it, a policeman, or perhaps a security guard, pulled Myers out of the line with the explanation that he was not allowed in the theatre. The cop/guard said that one of the movie's producers had given specific instructions that Myers must not enter. He also told Myers that he (i.e., Myers) would be arrested if he attempted to get into the screening.
On his blog, Myers continues: "I went back to my family and talked with them for a while, and then the officer came back with a theater manager, and I was told that not only wasn't I allowed in, but I had to leave the premises immediately. Like right that instant."
Wisely, Myers complied - rather than making some kind of disturbance or trying to act like a martyr.
Once expelled from the screening of Expelled, he immediately blogged about it. There is of course a degree of irony, even hypocrisy, about the Expelled folks' expelling Myers from a screening of Expelled. It's all the nastier when you think that this is a movie in which he actually appears, and with which he cooperated. The greater irony, however, is that his family and guest were allowed in ... the overseas academic being, of course, none other than Richard Dawkins! Dawkins is in the US on a promotional lecture tour, and was attending a conference of atheists in Minneapolis.
Dawkins and Myers discuss the incident over here, with Dawkins offering his (low) opinion of the movie. Meanwhile, Myers' daughter, Skatje, reviews Expelled here.
Enjoy all this, folks, but take it seriously at the same time. It's clear enough that there are people in the US (and elsewhere) who will never give up their bitter rearguard resistance to the main findings of modern biological science. These folks are intensely motivated, well-resourced, and supported by a huge proportion of the American public.
Those of who us who are committed to the cause of reason can have a laugh about this, but we mustn't just sit on the sidelines laughing. The ongoing struggle against evolutionary science has had its political successes, and it comes complete with a superficially attractive message: that both sides of the "controversy" should be taught. Forget for a moment that there is no scientific controversy, any more than there is scientific controversy about the heliocentric structure of the Solar System, the claim that certain micro-organisms cause disease, or the basic ideas of any other field of contemporary science.
Of course, there are genuine controversies at the cutting edge of evolutionary biology, as in all scientific disciplines, but they have nothing to do with the non-scientific conjecture of Intelligent Design.
This is not a struggle that any legitimate scientist, or any other rational person, ever asked for, but we are now involved in it whether we wanted to be or not. It may not always be clear what you and I can do as individuals when confronted by something like Expelled and the publicity machine that will now drive it. All the same, I do ask my readers reflect on it, and that you take a step or two to defend genuine science in whatever way you can.