Maybe you heard the news that PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins went to a screening of the documentary Expelled! in Minneapolis, except that, because he was recognized, PZ Myers was barred from the screening (despite having signed up ahead of time like the other attendees). Here’s the New York Times story, and Greg Laden has collected roughly a bajillion links to blog posts in the aftermath of the incident. The big debate seems to be whether Myers ought to have brought attention to the fact that he was barred from the screening, or whether he should have just gotten a haircut at the mall to pass the time until it was over.
There is a school of thought that says when it comes to movies, any publicity is good publicity. I’m not sure that’s really the case, especially given today’s exorbitant movie ticket prices. How many people actually paid to see Gigli after all the bad reviews? But let’s say that the coverage of the Minneapolis incident means that more tickets are sold when Expelled! is actually released and selling tickets (rather than doing private screenings).
The producer and screenwriter make some more money? Well, like the rest of us, they probably have families to feed and gambling debts to pay.
Ben Stein’s acting career is revived? Ha! Tell me another.
The money end of things strikes me as the least interesting here. The real question is what effect media attention to the Minneapolis incident will have on the filmmakers’ ability to sell their message — that academia is filled with dogmatic meanies who won’t give Intelligent Design or its proponents a fair break — to the American public.
Arguably, there is a segment of the public who already buys this message. They did so before Expelled! was even shot, and they would do so even if Expelled! never came to their local cineplex or church basement. To the extent that these folks have formed an opinion with which they’re comfortable (regardless, in some cases, of additional data that might argue against that opinion), they are not “in play”. Whether PZ kept the Minneapolis incident on the down low or purchased full-page ads in every newspaper in the nation, these hearts and minds were already committed to the other side.
As well, there’s a segment of the public that defaults to suspicion of the Intelligent Design advocates — that would be wary of intellectual dishonesty and dirty tricks even if none were immediately evident in a particular case. These folks aren’t really “in play” either, and they’d likely only pay to see Expelled! for the fun of mocking it ruthlessly. Whether PZ piped up about the Minneapolis incident or not, these people would not be won over to the filmmakers’ way of seeing things.
What’s left are the “undecideds” — the folks who have no firm preexisting opinions about Intelligent Design or academia.
If the argumentative strategy of Expelled! is to win over some undecideds by demonstrating that Intelligent Design has been banished from academia unfairly — because the academics with the power to exclude it are afraid of an open debate — then publicizing the Minneapolis incident in which PZ Myers was barred from the screening because those promoting the film were afraid of an open debate undercuts that argumentative strategy pretty well. Known hypocrites have a hard time selling charges of hypocrisy.
If, instead, the strategy of Expelled! were to argue for the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the academy on its own merits, the Minneapolis incident probably wouldn’t do much to counter that strategy. But that’s not the strategy the filmmakers employed here.
[T]he producers of a movie whose primary argument was based on academic freedom and open debate denied PZ entry and closed that debate.…
[S]cientific credibility is also based on the idea that we don’t lie. We tell it straight, and we aren’t hypocrites. On this ground, I have considerable sympathy with Dawkins and Myers. The producers of Expelled are hypocrites and liars, and Dawkins and Myers are right to point that out as loudly as they see fit.
Of the hearts and minds still in play, Team Science has an advantage with the ones that care about intellectual honesty. This means that pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of Team Expelled! is a winning strategy.
As far as the hearts and minds that are still in play that feel no special attachment to intellectual honesty? I’m not sure they were ever ours to win.