Ben Stein's Trojan Horse: Tracking Expelled's Impact

My latest "Science and the Media" column at Skeptical Inquirer Online is now up. In the column I review the likely audience impact of Expelled and focus on the use of the film as part of a communication strategy to push through "academic freedom" bills in states across the country.

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From the article:

With more than $7.5 million earned at the box office, Stein's propaganda film ranks as either the sixth or seventh top grossing public affairs documentary of all time.

Matt, your "success" frame for the film completely disregards the fact that by any reasonable accounting, the film has lost millions of dollars. Given that documentaries are usually done with a tiny budget, and that Expelled had a production budget of around $4 million, and a promotion budget of twice that or more, it would have been surprising if the film didn't do as well as it did. As it is, the film is a huge box-office flop.

I think you're right that the movie will be used for propaganda in legislative activism, but its efficacy will be seriously tempered by the fact that it failed to stir any real interest in the general public.

A nitpick: the Florida, Missouri, Alabama, and now South Carolina bills died in legislature but were not voted down, leaving Michigan and Louisiana as the two states with "academic freedom" bills awaiting further action. Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the "religious viewpoints anti-discrimination" bill passed by the Oklahoma legislature, which, while not an academic freedom bill per se, could have had a similar impact. Particularly troubling is SB733, which has been passed by the Louisiana Senate and House and awaits re-approval by the Senate after amendment by a House committee. It targets not only evolution, but also global warming, the origins of life, and human cloning, and has been met with almost no resistance in the legislature.

Tulse, I think you are looking at the wrong measure of success. The film doesn't go away when it is pulled from the theaters. It makes the rounds, and the overwhelming vote for "Academic Freedom" bills in the Louisiana State House indicates that there remains an audience. Florida didn't defeat their Academic Freedom bill, they lucked out this year because of the end of the session and the two houses couldn't agree in conference on the wording of two bills. Both had passed in their individual houses, and the issue will resurface in their 2009 session.

Matthew is correct in his assessment here:

Perhaps most troubling have been the advanced screenings for policymakers, interest groups, and other influentials. 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 strategically framed the matter at the screening in Florida: "This bill is not about teaching intelligent design. It's about free speech."

The meager box office is irrelevant. What is more relevant is the image left behind by the shameful edits of the Myers, Dawkins and others' interviews. It feeds the "persecution" complex that is driving the approval of the Academic Freedom bills.

Keep a close watch on the upcoming legislative sessions. More Academic Freedom bills will be introduced, and some will pass aided by private screenings of Expelled for legislatures and governors.

The meager box office is irrelevant.

This is moving the goalposts -- the producers of the film anticipated doing upwards of $24 million in box office opening weekend, and after the relatively paltry $3 million opening, various science bloggers deemed it a "box office success". It is clear that it isn't, and that failure is a good measure of how much this issue resonates with the public at large. That was the original concern around the film, that it would be used to push the issue with the public.

Now, after it losing millions at the box office, attention has turned to it being recycled as a tool to push ID legislatively. Will it be used for propaganda? Of course. Will it be used to support a legislative agenda? Quite likely. But it is a very expensive piece of propaganda, a pricey bit of support, and one that shows the failure to capture the public imagination (which no doubt will be of interest to savvy officials who run for office).