Framing Science

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Two weeks ago, as Expelled premiered in more than a 1,000 theaters across the country, I went with several friends and graduate students for an early Friday evening screening at the Regal Cinema located in the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, DC. The medium sized theater was about 80% full. In attendance was what appeared to be the typical urban professional crowd for the surrounding arts and entertainment district, an audience on a Sunday that is more likely to read the New York Times at a coffee house than to attend church.

As I watched the film, I noticed how effectively Expelled features several techniques common to political advertising. First, Stein relies heavily on the use of metaphor. For example, he bookends the film with historic footage of the Berlin Wall and a repetitive emphasis on freedom as a central American value. The sinister message is that “Darwinism” has led to atheism, fascism, and communism. As a corollary, if Americans can join Stein in tearing down the wall of censorship in science it would open the way to religious freedom and cultural renewal.

Like many political ads, Expelled also strategically employs emotion while playing on low levels of knowledge among movie-going audiences. For example, early in the film, Stein misleadingly defines celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens as the representatives of “establishment science.” The implication is that in order to leave room for God in society, intelligent design needs to be taken seriously.

Yet in playing on audience emotion, what Expelled conveniently avoids are interviews with any of the many religious scientists in the United States. In fact, several of these religious scientists are far more representative of the American scientific establishment than the blogger Myers, the journalist Hitchens, the philosopher Dennett, or the British author Dawkins.

Consider that Stein could have interviewed Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, who recently declared: “For me, as a scientist who is also a religious believer, research activities that look like science can also be thought of as opportunities to worship.” Alternatively, Stein could have turned to Francisco Ayala, past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, formerly a Catholic priest, and author of Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion.

Yet absent this context, the audience is led to believe that all scientists are angry atheists, and that in contrast, Stein is a likable and comedic champion.

In the screening I attended, somewhat predictably, there were chuckles and positive laughter in reaction to Stein while there was audibly negative emotion directed at the comments of the interviewed scientists. As the film credits rolled at the end, there was even a strong round of approving applause!

There is no way to tell how nationally representative this opening night audience might have been. At various other locations across the country, several bloggers and colleagues have reported that they were the only person in the theater for a Sunday matinee or a weekday evening show. One thing, however, is for sure: By documentary box office standards, Expelled has made its mark.

As the figures below show (source), with $5.3 million earned, Stein’s propaganda film already ranks as the seventh top grossing public affairs documentary of all time and is likely to end its run at # 6.

1. Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119 million)
2. Sicko ($24.5 million)
3. Inconvenient Truth ($24.1 million)
4. Bowling for Columbine ($21.5 million)
5. Super Size Me ($11.5 million)
6. Roger & Me ($6.7 million)
7. Expelled ($5.3 million)

Some bloggers have speculated that in light of Expelled’s marketing budget, the documentary will still fail to make a profit. Yet it is unlikely that profit was the driving motive for the film’s financial backers.

Stein’s film was bankrolled by Walt Ruloff, a Christian evangelical millionaire. And Expelled’s appearance in more than a 1000 theaters, a record for a documentary debut, depended heavily on the sponsorship of the Regal Cinemas chain, which is owned by the Christian conservative Phil Anschutz.

Instead of dollars, what ultimately likely matters to these right-wing philanthropists is the impact on the policy debate. Expelled’s influence stretches well beyond the theater and any direct impact on audiences. As I review in this recent report to the Ford Foundation, these impacts can be tracked across several different dimensions.

For example, although many film critics have savaged the documentary, Stein’s arguments have received either uncritical or positive coverage by way of soft news features, op-eds, and columns at daily newspapers, in reviews at Christian or conservative Web sites, in appearances on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, and by way of strong endorsements on conservative talk radio and cable news programs such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes. Advertisements for Expelled have also run on CNN, Comedy Central, and talk radio stations.

Perhaps most troubling have been the advanced screenings for policymakers, interest groups, and other influentials. For example, Expelled’s producers have previewed the film for both the Missouri and the Florida state legislatures, connecting the film’s message to a proposed “Academic Freedom Act” in each state that would encourage teachers to discuss the alleged flaws in evolutionary science. As Stein framed the matter at the screening in Florida: “This bill is not about teaching intelligent design. It’s about free speech.”

With each of these dozens of screenings there has likely been a strong intensification of commitment and emotion among the conservative activist base in attendance along with advocacy training, the raising of money, and the distribution of other resources such as videos and literature. In particular, Expelled provides these activists with an increased repertoire of arguments, talking points, and examples to use with neighbors and friends.

There is even the possibility that the screenings helped anti-evolution groups link up with new conservative coalition partners not previously involved on the issue. For example, Stein has shown Expelled at several meetings and venues here in Washington, DC, including a special screening for Congressional staffers.

When the film moves to DVD distribution, expect more of these types of Expelled screenings, house parties, and church gatherings across the country, all aimed at mobilizing a political movement in favor of anti-evolution bills. As Reason magazine’s Ronald Bailey reports, at a April 15 press conference at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Expelled’s financial backer Walt Ruloff said that as many as 26 states had been targeted this year with so-called “freedom bills.”

Comments

  1. #1 me
    April 28, 2008

    Some bloggers have speculated that in light of Expelled’s marketing budget, the documentary will still fail to make a profit.Yet it is unlikely that profit was the driving motive for the film’s financial backers.

    You realize the one reason why this is important. It will discourage people who do actually want to make a profit from following in their footsteps. If Ruloff wants to throw his money away, that’s his prerogative. Before you suggest that his message should be answered, perhaps you should consider why you spend so much time criticizing others responses rather then coming up with ideas yourself.

  2. #2 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 28, 2008

    Specific strategies are being discussed offline and I focused on some of these strategies in a presentation two weeks ago.

  3. #3 Mr_G
    April 28, 2008

    blogger Myers… British author Dawkins

    Sad.

  4. #4 Andrea Bottaro
    April 28, 2008

    Roger & Me is from 1989. Adjusted for inflation, it made over $11 millions in today’s money. Expelled, touted right before its opening to do as much or more on its first week-end alone, will be lucky to make maybe 7 millions or so altogether in theaters. Even leaving the pending lawsuits aside, they will be lucky to break even. They might make some money from DVD sales, when they get there.

    In your other post, you provide a quote where they cheerfully state that, by their own research, the movie had an audience that is 80% born-again, i.e. people they didn’t need to reach at all with their message, since they are already committed to it and have formed the back-bone of all their (failed, so far) political campaigns from Dover, to Kansas, Ohio and Texas. (And were, incidentally, one of the major reasons why those campaigns failed – see the DI’s desperate attempts to distance themselves from the big-mouthed fundamentalists in those places.)

    So, the movie was at best a disappointing wash financially, a complete failure critically, and essentially insignificant politically. And they call this a success.

    For an expert in framing, you seem to accept their frame rather easily.

  5. #5 caerbannog
    April 28, 2008

    One should also remember that Rev. Moon has “lost” on the order of a billion dollars subsidizing the Washington Times over the past couple of decades. But that doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination mean that the Washington Times is a failure.

  6. #6 Inoculated Mind
    April 29, 2008

    Matt, I think you are very perceptive in pointing out that “success” or “failure” for Expelled will depend entirely upon its influence on policy debates. Box office numbers, profits, the 10 people who were in the theater I attended during prime movie time on Saturday, none of this matters.

    Hey, we should make a movie.

  7. #7 Mindcore
    April 29, 2008

    Damn Matt,
    That was painful, and we cannot deny the data, but as atheists who see science education as an intrinsic part of atheism do we just put up and shut up?

    It just bumms me out.

    Keep up the good work though, no one makes me think more.

  8. #8 Jim Lippard
    April 29, 2008

    “Stein’s propaganda film already ranks as the seventh top grossing public affairs documentary of all time”

    Only in nominal dollar values, not inflation-adjusted. Adjusting for inflation makes a big difference–“Expelled” is #15 for documentaries in nominal dollars, but after adjusting for inflation, doesn’t make half as much as the bottom of the top 25 (the inflation-adjusted list at the-numbers.com stops at 25).

  9. #9 Ian
    April 30, 2008

    It’s interesting how you framed this:
    “In attendance was what appeared to be the typical urban professional crowd for the surrounding arts and entertainment district, an audience on a Sunday that is more likely to read the New York Times at a coffee house than to attend church.”

    Thereby suggesting that the threater wasn’t packed with believers, but skeptics. I wonder how you know that or why you chose to frame it that way? Given your comment about the round of applause at the end of the movie, was this really a crowd who reads the NYT instead of going to church?

    And look at this: “For example, [Stein] bookends the film with historic footage of the Berlin Wall”

    Did he? Did Stein bookend the film or did he just shill for the film-makers who were the ones who actually did the book-ending?

    And this: “In fact, several of these religious scientists are far more representative of the American scientific establishment…” (than people like Dawkins and Myers).

    Are they? Are most biologist also believers? Are most biologists atheists? Or is it something in between? What data are you using when you frame your statement that way?

    Or is this just a dig at the fact that most biologists tend to be relatively quiet whilst Dawkins and Myers are not?

  10. #10 Paul W.
    May 7, 2008

    And this: “In fact, several of these religious scientists are far more representative of the American scientific establishment…” (than people like Dawkins and Myers).

    Are they? Are most biologist also believers? Are most biologists atheists?

    Most biologists are atheists. The overwhelming majority of top scientists are atheists in the general sense, at least judging by National Academy of Science members. (70+ disbelieving atheists, plus 20+ unbelieving nontheists. Almost none are orthodox monotheists of the sort most Americans are.)

    The part you summarized is interesting in its full form:

    In fact, several of these religious scientists are far more representative of the American scientific establishment than the blogger Myers, the journalist Hitchens, the philosopher Dennett, or the British author Dawkins.

    This makes it sound like it’s a fight between religious scientists and a few nonreligious non-scientists— a blogger, a journalist, a philosopher, and an author.

    Neatly omitted is the fact that Myers and Dawkins are evolutionary biologists, and that Dawkins is perhaps the most famous living evolutionary biologist. (Not the best, but certainly no slouch. Professor at Oxford, famous books, etc.) Also, Dennett is a highly respected philosopher of science.

    More importantly, the things these guys say may not be representative of a “consensus,” exactly, but their kinds of views are certainly far more common among top scientists than Collins’s or Ayala’s.

    If anybody’s a nonrepresentative flake, it would have to be Collins, or maybe Ayala. The idea that they’re “far more representative” of the “scientific establishment” than Dawkins and Dennett is ludicrous spin.

  11. #11 Paul W.
    May 7, 2008

    Some bloggers have speculated that in light of Expelled’s marketing budget, the documentary will still fail to make a profit. Yet it is unlikely that profit was the driving motive for the film’s financial backers.

    This is a good point as far as it goes—we shouldn’t be happy about this movie even if it’s a box office failure—but whether it makes money does matter.

    If it makes money, right-wing philanthropists will be very encouraged, and we’ll see more of this crapola than if it loses money.

    More of those guys are going to be willing to shell out $10M or more if they think they’ll get it back. They can do the Lord’s Work for free, or even make more money to do more of the Lord’s Work than they could before. (Why the almighty needs such welfare handouts is beyond me, but certainly fincances matter to the scope of these guys’ ambitions.)

    So it is relevant, and consoling, that Expelled’s revenues have dropped by half from the first to the second weekend, and again by half from the second to the third. The movie’s box office popularity seems to have a half-life of about a week.

    It’s also consoling that the movie was critically panned. (Rotten Tomatoes has 3 positive reviews and 30 bad ones, and a big fat zero positive reviews among the “top critics.”)

    However much this failure of a movie will have a zombie afterlife with DVD’s and house parties, it could have been much worse. Imagine how bad it could be if the movie wasn’t such a stinker of a critical bomb.

    I find it hard to imagine that the critical consensus that it’s (according to RT) “A cynical political stunt in the guise of a documentary” won’t put a bit of a damper on the house parties and whatnot. Extremists will still use it, no doubt, but at least some people will be a little too embarrassed by its reputation to show it, or to go see a showing.

    Some credit for that is probably due to folks like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, who revealed the dishonesty of the movie and the sleaziness of its producers. Presumably some of the critics saw that before they saw the movie—it was all over the intertubes—and were more aware what a stinking pile of poop they were reviewing.

    That raises a question of framing and audiences.

    You and Matt seemed to want PZ and Dawkins to shut up about Expelled around the time of its release.

    My impression is that given their audiences, they did exactly the right thing by exposing it as a cynical, dishonest load of poop.

    Not many wobbly-middlers read PZ’s blog, or Dawkins’s web site, but I’m guessing many critics did see their stuff directly or indirectly, and it had a desirable effect. They spoke mostly to a relatively elite audience, who in turn spoke to the masses and helped ensure the movie’s failure. (In conventional box office terms.)

    On the other hand, I don’t know how to estimate such effects, even roughly. How would we know if PZ and Dawkins did more good than harm in their efforts to reveal the sheer awfulness of Expelled?

  12. #12 Paul W.
    May 7, 2008

    Ooops… where I said “you and Matt” above I meant you (Matt) and Chris (Mooney). I was aware whose blog I was commenting on, but managed to transpose the names anyhow. Sorry.

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