Review: Expelled

I'm not in a reviewing mood, but I definitely wanted to bring this to the attention of those who might miss it. I would have been one of them but for the lame TDY I was on this week, during which I spent a great deal of time in my hotel room watching television.

Ben Stein's new movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is already being mischaracterized and parodied. It's not a movie that purports to debunk Darwinism, nor to prove Intelligent Design or Creationism. The purpose, stated again and again, is to show how honest debate is being stifled to prevent any theory that deviates from the Darwin line from even being discussed. That's not the scientific method that I learned in high school. It's a little closer to the journalism that I learned in my half a quarter within the communications department in college.

The criticisms in the Boston Globe article boil down to complaints that it was marketed and screened toward friendly audiences and not with massive press screenings, that some of the interviews were done under false pretenses (to make the Darwinists look bad), and that one scene where Ben Stein speaks before a crowd was staged.

The first point is pretty ironic on the face of it, as one of the key points of the film is that the scientific establishment--aided and abetted by the mass media--is keenly interested in squelching discussion of the topic. Gilsdorf (the writer of the Globe article) basically accuses the filmmakers of marketing the film toward people who would be interested in seeing it, and not courting an audience they know will be hostile. Color me surprised.

As for the second point, I have no doubt that the filmmakers were less than forthright about their purposes in talking with Dawkins and the other prominent Darwinists, but no theatrical lighting tricks are necessary to make Dawkins look like an unhinged lunatic--just listen to the man talk. I will look into this further on some of the critical response sites, but I'm not terribly impressed by this argument. Again, if the whole point is that the community is not willing to discuss the issue, you're not going to get very far by openly demanding to discuss the issue.

As for a staged crowd scene, ummm... So? He was speaking before an auditorium audience who sat listening spellbound as he began speaking, and gave him a standing ovation at the end of the film. Not having read anything about the film prior to seeing it--I'd only seen the 7.5 minute super trailer--it was still quite clear to me that this was a staged crowd. You occasionally do theatrical things when making a movie, even a documentary. You can study this in your local community college if you are interested in learning more. I do not believe that such a staging enhanced or reduced the credibility of its thesis--it was simply to give some sort of hopeful conclusion to the movie.

You'll note that none of these criticisms really address the point of the film. Some of them rather support it. I'm not going to speculate on the fact that the official movie web site has been timing out on me all morning.

I was apprehensive that the movie would go from the quest to find out whether suppression of non-Darwinian theories was occurring in academia would somehow morph into trying to prove Intelligent Design; this was not the case. The conclusion of the friendly scientists was simply this: it sure would be nice if we could discuss this rationally.

Anyone interested in the state of science in America today really ought to go see this film. Anyone who believes that science is nonpolitical REALLY ought to go see this film.

I give it 9 out of 10 DNA-seeding space aliens.


Update: I have been perusing some of the other reviews that people are giving this movie. Many are simply foaming at the mouth without ever addressing anything about the film at all. Others are critical of the same points that I've already mentioned, though they go into some greater detail. For what it's worth, I tend to agree that doing interviews under false pretenses (that is, the subjects thought they were being interviewed for a somewhat different sort of film) was rather unethical.

However, even the most organized and formal criticism at Expelled Exposed makes use of some heavy straw man argument tactics. Several arguments that Stein never made in the movie are thoroughly debunked. Wow. Congratulations. You get an ArCom.

I'll keep reading, but it's discouraging. The movie seems to inspire a lot of vitriol, but not much in the way of reasoned discourse.



just saw Expelled... Ben Stein's goal in making Expelled (i gather) is to promote free thought, especially more thinking about motivations that drive American academia and a lot of other behind-the-scenes worldview that we tend to take for granted.