Gene Expression

Expelled was OK…

…as a piece of propaganda. I noticed that the local “art house” theater was screening Expelled, so I decided to check it out. There weren’t many people there. It started off very heavy-handed, a montage of archetypical scenes from the Communist and Nazi regimes, but the production values & execution of the first half of the documentary wasn’t half bad. I assume the producers were pitching this to a sympathetic autidence, so the intent was glamorize and present the argument effectively, not convert anyone to the message. The interviews with the eminences of the Intelligent Design movement were presented in very tight “sound bite” formats, in appealing settings with natural light. In contrast, the anti-Creationists were depicted in a far less flattering fashion; the lighting often artificial and harsh, the angles strange, and the cutting often was choppy. There wasn’t really that much data or new evidence in the film, and the arguments for and against Intelligent Design weren’t really explored with any depth. It was a superficial exposition of the issures, but Expelled does a good job of being less embarrassing than the ameteurish films that Creationists have been peddling for years (this is a low bar, I know).

All that being said, I thought the second half of the movie was less well done. Ben Stein’s sardonic delivery really didn’t fit well, in my opinion, with attempts to show the connections between evolutionary theory and the Nazi genocide. I’m sure that Ben Stein is really genuinely appalled, but he’s spent too long as a comedic actor to not be typecast. The novelty of Stein the actor also being a conservative public intellectual with a razor sharp mind doesn’t work for me when it comes to exposing the intellectual innards of the Nazi movement. And Stein was acting, the Expelled Exposed site notes that he had already made up his mind long before the film when it came to the connection between Darwin & the Holocaust. His moments of surprise and shock were almost certainly feigned, and I thought transparently so much of the time.

What’s going to be the long-term effect of the film? There was some buzz about Expelled exceeding expectations and becoming a hit. It looks like it will take in a little more than 2 million dollars, so scratch that. When it comes to Creationism I’ve always held that it is a shallow but widely held belief; half the American public rejects evolution, but never with enough ardor to overcome the elite consensus with any staying power. It seems likely that George W. Bush is sympathetic to Creationism, but what has he done about it? When it comes to evolution the elites accept it is the scientific standard, and I doubt that movies such as this will do anything to change that. At the end of the day Ben Stein, who has an economics degree from Columbia, has more cash on hand. And that’s about it.

Note: It seems like there’s just no way to make David Berlinski not seem creepy. And Will Provine seemed really wack; what was going on there?

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    April 19, 2008

    Berlinski is so unselfconscious that he can describe Richard Dawkins as a reptile without sensing the irony.

  2. #2 MPW
    April 20, 2008

    2 million dollars on opening weekend is impressive for any documentary not by Michael Moore; for a talking-heads one on religion, politics and science in academia, it’s kinda stunning.

    I’m recently finding myself less sanguine about l’affaire Expelled than yourself and apparently a lot of people around Scienceblogs. This looks to be the most widely seen and talked about single piece of evolution denier propaganda in a long time, maybe ever, if you count its DVD afterlife, where I’m sure it will long haunt science teachers cursed with students and parents who have it on their shelves. Neither turning a good profit nor getting the mainstream media’s approval are the goal of this thing; the goals are keeping the creationist troops fired up and keeping the fencesitters confused.

  3. #3 Lassi Hippeläinen
    April 20, 2008

    “At the end of the day Ben Stein, who has an economics degree from Columbia, has more cash on hand.”

    It seems that he has found a good market niche. There are people all around the world who want to get the DVD on their bookshelf, right next to the Bible. He’s going for a steady-seller, not best-seller.

  4. #4 BGC
    April 20, 2008

    My feeling is that the promotion of intelligent design benefits some types of ‘bible based’ Christianity in the short-term; but at the severe cost of building-in a structural theological flaw that will be very damaging to Christian belief in the long term.

    If at all possible, the best long-term strategy is perhaps that Christian intellectuals need to work on making their religion ‘natural selection-proof’; so that Christian belief does not continue to depend on ‘proving’ the falsity of natural selection.

    In other words, Christial theology should evolve such that biological evolution by natural selection beomes *irrelevant* to Christian belief.

    I hope they succeed.

  5. #5 razib
    April 20, 2008

    where I’m sure it will long haunt science teachers cursed with students and parents who have it on their shelves

    there wasn’t any new talking point they can trot out though.

  6. #6 windy
    April 20, 2008

    It seems like there’s just no way to make David Berlinski not seem creepy.

    Rosenhouse can do it!

  7. #7 RKU
    April 20, 2008

    Well, I haven’t seen that stupid movie, and might not even bother.

    But from just a little of the description alone, elements seem to strongly support a sweeping theory related to evolution and human behavior which I worked out a couple of years ago.

    A sweeping and highly-controversial theory…

  8. #8 MPW
    April 20, 2008

    there wasn’t any new talking point they can trot out though.

    Well, to an extent, of course, you’re right that there’s nothing new to see here, just move along, move along…

    But I think the fictionalized martyrdom stories of Sternberg, Crocker, Gonzalez, etc., are pretty new even to your average fundie creationist… and they do love their martyr stories.

    And this seems to be a wider dissemination and slicker packaging than normal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see teachers and school board members in some places seeing an uptick of pugnacious creationist challenges, wielding talking points about cell structure and oppressed academics straight from the movie. I’m surprised so few other folk seem to be expecting this. And with the burst of anti-evolution political and legal fights being picked, Expelled strikes me as likely fuel for the fire.

    I’d love it if I’m wrong, though, and will eat crow with a smile on my face if so.

  9. #9 MPW
    April 20, 2008

    the best long-term strategy is perhaps that Christian intellectuals need to work on making their religion ‘natural selection-proof’; so that Christian belief does not continue to depend on ‘proving’ the falsity of natural selection.

    Hmm, you make it sound like this is a new suggestion. There are, and have long been, plenty of Christian intellectuals (as well as “regular” Christians) who already take this approach and thus can accept evolution without qualms. Sounds like you’re just suggesting a further shrinking of God of the Gaps. That’s been happening for centuries and will continue to.

  10. #10 BGC
    April 20, 2008

    “There are, and have long been, plenty of Christian intellectuals (as well as “regular” Christians) who already take this approach and thus can accept evolution without qualms. Sounds like you’re just suggesting a further shrinking of God of the Gaps. That’s been happening for centuries and will continue to.”

    The point is that they haven’t really succeeded yet. Mainstream ‘liberal’ Christianity just believes *everything* less intensely – the problem is to make the life-transforming intensity of evangelical Christianity fully compatible with modern biology.

  11. #11 Caledonian
    April 20, 2008

    Science is inherently hostile to belief systems, and rationality is hostile towards belief for the sake of believing.

    There is absolutely no way for people to gain the emotional benefits they derive from vigorous religions in a way that permits acceptance of the scientific method or is compatible with rational thought.

    You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too, guys. Choose one.

  12. #12 BGC
    April 21, 2008

    Caledonian says: ‘There is absolutely no way for people to gain the emotional benefits they derive from vigorous religions in a way that permits acceptance of the scientific method or is compatible with rational thought.’

    I disagree. For forty years the USA has experienced a simultaneous massive growth in science and the emergence and even bigger growth of New Age spirituality; while maintaining a high proportion of religious practice (church membership and attendance).

    This cultural trend contradicts the theory that science and religion are reciprocal.

    The reason is that modern cultures are characterized by a kind of modularity, with different functional domains that are not subordinated to any one overall domain. Science and religion are two modules – or three if religion is divided into church and spirituality; others include politics, public administration, the legal system, the military, the media, education…

    Each function runs by a different inner logic, and they only need to be compatible in terms of their functionality.

    So there is no need for religion to be compatible with science in terms of its inner logic, only in terms of its overall personal and cultural effects. Indeed, evolving functional efficiency tends to drive the inner logics further apart – so that (for example) the logic of law (language and principles) is likely to be increasingly different from science as time goes by. And the widening gap between the media and science is even easier to see. These divergences are just special cases of the general idea that ‘division of labour’ enables increased efficiency.

    What evangelical Christians need to seek is NOT that their theology be compatible with science in its minutiae, but that their religion as a whole be compatible with science as a whole – and modern US evangelical Christianity is indeed mostly compatible with science – even biology – except for a few tough problems notably evolution by natural selection and maybe genetic engineering.

    So I see grounds for optimism that the ‘evolution wars’ might be resolved in a way that leaves both sides stronger.