Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

i-f8c439c2d7f1f8a7510033549af5408c-ExpelledComic.jpg


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.

As Jake Young eloquently puts it:

[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.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    March 24, 2008

    Ah yes! Janet, as usual, you are the voice of reason.

    I was thinking that by the end of the day it would wind up like this:

    Shut up!
    YOU shut up!
    Make Me!
    I don’t make monkeys I sell ‘em.
    Oh Yeah?
    Yeah!
    Well, MY framing is better than yours!
    Is Not!
    Is Too!
    He started it!
    Did Not!
    Did Too!

    Well, that Ben Stein kid and his friends are pretty creepy.
    Yeah – EWWW!
    Hey you wanna get some ice cream?
    Yeah!
    Me Too!

  2. #2 chezjake
    March 24, 2008

    Well said, Janet! I admire your talent for dealing with this in a logical, unbiased way.

    I also wonder if the current kerfuffle over this here at Science blogs could be a case for study in the ethics of blogging. (Probably better done after emotions have cooled down a bit.)

  3. #4 Sam C
    March 24, 2008

    As you say, it’s about winning hearts and minds. Unfortunately for science, the hearts have to be won first, then minds will follow, because people are not rational. We make most of our decisions emotionally, even if we justify them intellectually. Our rationality is important, very important, but it is a thin veneer on our animal brains. Look at how some Science Bloggers got upset when the Pope said sensible things about caring for our world simply because it was the Pope (boo! hiss!) who said them — that was pure emotional judgement.

    Science does not have the fancy dress, shiny trinkets, songs, fabulous buildings etc. to wow the punters. Labs and lab coats have been hijacked by the soap powder salesmen.

    So science is looking rather hamstrung. Scientists might be saying “look at the evidence, be rational, think about it” but the audience are looking at the speakers and thinking “I don’t like the look of him”, “he sounds big-headed”, “she speaks funny”, “my favourite priest tells a better story”.

    So how to convince the hearts? I have no idea whether it does more harm than good to highlight creationists’ lying and duplicity, but I don’t have any better idea.

    I certainly think the “go for the jugular” approach is more likely to get results than reactive grumbling. If it annoys the closed minds, so be it, they’re not in play. If it annoys the framers, fine, they’re just whining in the background wanting credit but no blame.

  4. #5 Gerard Harbison
    March 24, 2008

    Well, that Ben Stein kid and his friends are pretty creepy.
    Yeah – EWWW!
    Hey you wanna get some ice cream?
    Yeah!
    Me Too!

    I hate implausibly happy endings grafted onto a plot that’s clearly moving in the other direction.

  5. #6 Amanda
    March 24, 2008

    Thank you. This was a real pleasure to read.

  6. #7 Janet D. Stemwedel
    March 24, 2008

    I hate implausibly happy endings grafted onto a plot that’s clearly moving in the other direction.

    I’m afraid you’ll have to take that up with the focus group.

  7. #8 Jackie Stone
    March 24, 2008

    Way to hit the nail on the head. It is refreshing to hear an eloquent, logical analysis of the situation.

    I don’t comment very often, but I just want you let you know that I’m an avid reader of your blog and you are a big role model of mine, as a female in the sciences.

  8. #9 Rev Matt
    March 24, 2008

    Nicely done. This should be the top link on the front page for the next few days to counter the hysteria going on elsewhere.

  9. #10 blf
    March 24, 2008

    Well put. Thanks!

    There’s a presumably important subgroup which hasn’t yet had a change to row its oar, with a single(?) exception: The professional movie critics. Whilst they are notorious for not agreeing with each other (which is fine), from the one(?) professional account which does exist, and also from the many amateur accounts, they will most likely pan the movie. It’s dull, boorrriiiinnnggg, ham-fisted, and the critic saw right through it.

    What does that mean? Maybe nothing, of course. What I don’t know is how many people–especially in the “undecided” group–pay attention to the reviews. I want to believe it’s enough that, presuming the reviews generally go the why I’m anticipating, the movie will flop, at least in the key “undecided” segment.

    And whether or not it so flops, the “undecideds” who do see it aren’t going to be automagically brainwashed. Perhaps the real test of the movie is how many “undecideds” it “converts” (either way)? If people come out saying it’s crap, or they have no opinion, or similar, the movie failed; if they come out saying IDiots are IDiots, the movie arguably succeeded (albeit not in the way the producers presumably intended); and if they come out saying science is evil then the movie succeeded (and you should consider moving to Europe or some other safe haven).

  10. #11 Corey
    March 24, 2008

    Plus, PZ is a blogger. Something REALLY funny happened to him and he blogged about it. Isn’t that part of the point in blogging, that you can tell people interesting things in your life?
    I mean, at least it made me laugh.
    And I’ll probably try to go to a screening, with a box of timbits.

  11. #12 Greg Laden
    March 24, 2008

    There is some evidence that the current kurfuffle (sp?) immediately precedes at least two cancellations of pre-release showings. I don’t know if they are connected, but they could be.

    I do think the larger issue here is not that Myers/Dawkins thought they would decrease ticket sales or attention to the movie by identifying a wrongdoing vs. Mooney/Nisbet thinking that this would increase attention/ticket sales. The Expelled! people have done a number of bad things and there are those of us who are going to point it out whenever it happens. Period. This is because it is important for people to know.

    If “good framing” is not telling people what they need to know, then good framing is not a good thing.

  12. #13 Harry Abernathy
    March 25, 2008

    Janet, thank you for taking time to think more deeply about this and to flush out the scenario a little better. For those undecided that don’t care about intellectual honesty, what can be done to try to get them to care?

    More people should be like yourself and try to reason out what could be driving the other side. Maybe the filmmakers felt that PZ and Dawkins would overwhelm the Q&A session after the film, and they knew they had to keep things at a respectable length because they only had the theater for a short amount of time. We’re all still waiting for the official response from the producers of the film. One of the writers has responded on his blog, but he distances himself from the producers and the PR folks.

  13. #14 Harry Abernathy
    March 25, 2008

    Janet, thank you for taking time to think more deeply about this and to flush out the scenario a little better. For those undecided that don’t care about intellectual honesty, what can be done to try to get them to care?

    More people should be like yourself and try to reason out what could be driving the other side. Maybe the filmmakers felt that PZ and Dawkins would overwhelm the Q&A session after the film, and they knew they had to keep things at a respectable length because they only had the theater for a short amount of time. We’re all still waiting for the official response from the producers of the film. One of the writers has responded on his blog, but he distances himself from the producers and the PR folks.

  14. #15 Matt
    April 3, 2008

    What’s amazing is that evolutionists are considered intellectual just because they believe an undocumented, untestable, not recreatable, theory. There were no eye witnesses. There is no documented proof that a gene pool started life. Evolution is as about as silly as believing that Star Wars is a true story. I think it takes more faith to believe in the Religion of Evolution, than anything else. Why not believe in other theories? It’s more believable that we were created in the same fashion as world in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Created.

    Science is not evil. It’s good. Sir Isaac Newton was a brilliant man. He wrote the theory of Gravity, a testable, recreatable, observable theory. And if you read about his life you will discover he was a Christian. So please know that just because there are really really really stupid Christians or religious people out there, you also have wonderfully brilliant ones like Sir Newton. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.