About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Myers expelled from Expelled

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. On his "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.

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.


Brian said...

Hi Russell. Nice summation. This is quite simply a question of whether science is science, or not. I assume you hold the same view that I do and that science is the best grasp of reality (whatever that is) we have. When someone comes along and screams petulantly that they want their cute puppy to enter the competition, even though it's a chicken judging for Rhode Island Reds (I say, I say!) but refuse to demonstrate a theory, evidence or anything tangible that their rooster is a small dog. Well, why should the even claim to be expelled? They never even agreed to the rules of entry......

Steve Zara said...

Hi Russell. A useful summary of what happened and the issues. It should certainly be taken seriously, as no matter how badly the film is reviewed by "our side", people will go to see it because of the message, and lap it up. I hear that a reponse is being made, but I am not sure how effective that is going to be at this stage. I am working with others to prepare publicity and education materials regarding the (at the moment minor, but growing) creationist threat in the UK. Prevention is far better than cure.

normdoering said...

Here's a taste of what I posted on my blog:

I doubt if the film works at the level of rational argument. But it sounds like it might work as psychological manipulation. It will probably be effective, in a limited way, in increasing the divisiveness of the theist/atheist debate and push a certain group of theists deeper into a delusional interpretation of science, history and the nature of the current culture war. Atheists will be provoked into becoming more insulting and dismissive of all theists.

There's something very Rovian about this movie. It may work to the advantage of the Republican think tanks that want to prevent the political compromises some evangelicals might want to make with the Democratic side.

It wasn't too long ago that this debate seemed to take place at a higher level. When people argued about why irreducible complexity wasn't a valid biological concept and the arguments were academic. But after the Dover trial things started to get nasty.

Knowing now that they can't win either a legal or scientific battle the proponents of ID and creationism have shifted into a new strategy. I'm not exactly sure what they are trying to do with this Expelled movie (I haven't even seen it) but it wouldn't surprise me if increasing divisiveness and pushing the argument down to lower levels is exactly what they want. Their reasons are probably political and have little to do with either deepening an understanding of science or increasing academic freedom. This is, rather, a Swift-boating of science and academy.

Glendon Mellow said...

Well written and insightful Russell. You are right about the cautionary tone you take.

It's funny, but once the laughter about the whole incident wears off, we're left with a lousy set of circumstances.

Russell Blackford said...

Wow, I love it that Norman's blog (which I hadn't looked at for awhile) now comes with a content warning from Blogger.

Anonymous said...

Hey Russell,

I've just been thinking that maybe the push to get ID taught in schools could be used for an ideological agenda of my own. Here's the idea: We get the scientists to allow ID some time in high school classrooms on a couple of provisions 1) the time allocated to teaching evolution is increased and started earlier than it is done currently and 2) Along with ID there is a discussion of what is science and what isn't. Ideally the ID theorists make a counter demand that a thorough understanding of the roots of ID theory is taught which so the arguments of Paley and Aquinas are also given class time (and of course a discussion of these arguments includes a look at the criticisms - enter Hume, Kant etc.).

So everyone's happy - the ID theorists get class time and the reason scientists don't accept it is also taught. Sociologists of knowledge can be happy that false 'knowledge' is allowed a go alongside scientific knowledge (because after all who are we to say one's better than the other). Evolutionary biologists can be happy that the time spent teaching (which I think is currently inadaquate - I can't remember learning anything about evolution in biology classes) is increased.

The clever part is though that we finally get philosophy into schools without overburdening the curriculum because biology teachers will just have to teach less biology. This is an added bonus since it will make high school just that little bit less tedious. Unfortunately there might be one or two people who would argue that biology is actually an important subject to have some people study. What do you think? Is the importance of biology a major flaw in my plan? Should we find a different subject to replace? Or are more direct methods needed to get philosophy in schools? (a coup perhaps?)