Expelled: Anyone Listening? Anyone? Anyone?

Those who don’t recognize Ben Stein’s name will probably recognize his voice, best known for intoning “Bueller? . . . Bueller?” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. However, Stein has also been a speechwriter for Nixon and Ford and a conservative economics columnist. In his newest role as actor and co-writer in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, he uses Michael Moore-esque tactics to raise important questions about Intelligent Design, academic freedom, and the power of ideas. However, the movie can’t decide which of these Big Questions it’s about and ends up giving us flippant and/or irrelevant footage instead of deep inquiry.

Of course, Expelled is a movie, and part of its purpose is to entertain. However, Michael Moore’s films at least manage to make huge logical leaps and false analogies and yet remain funny. Expelled’s non-interview footage—from the black-and-white clips of a 1950s-era schoolteacher addressing “boys and girls” to the inexplicable, seemingly endless animated footage of a protein (at least I think it was a protein) journeying through a cell accompanied by weird techno-music—makes you scratch your head more often than laugh.

Expelled begins with footage of the Berlin Wall, Stein’s central metaphor for the hostile wall erected by the academy and the “scientific establishment” to keep ideas other than evolution out. (Don’t push the metaphor too far, because then you’ll start thinking about how the Wall was really intended to keep people in.) However, you won’t be given time to think, because Stein quickly flits to images of Civil Rights marchers, who are supposed to somehow represent Intelligent Design proponents being persecuted by academia and organizations like the National Center for Science Education.

Now, I don’t doubt that ID supporters are being persecuted. I’m a part of academia. I know how having the “wrong ideas” can destroy your career. However, I think it’s disastrous to the cause of true academic—and religious—freedom to compare academic pettiness to legalized racial discrimination.

Stein also does a disservice to the cause of Christians and others who have gotten the cold shoulder from academia by overstating the case of the particular individuals he has chosen to interview. For example, Stein claims that Baylor University shut down Professor Robert Marks’s research web site because it promoted Intelligent Design. This doesn’t seem terribly egregious to me, as the site seems like the sort of thing that should have been hosted on a personal site rather than a university server in the first place. Stein fails to mention that Marks remains a Distinguished Professor at Baylor, and his site is still up on another server. Stein offers other, harsher examples of professors being denied tenure, but, the thing is, it’s hard to prove with certainty why any professor fails to receive tenure or have a contract renewed. Academic politics are extremely fuzzy and filled with phrases like “not productive enough” and “a candidate who is a better fit.” It could be because of their beliefs, but you can seldom prove it.

After the section on academic freedom, Expelled launches into interviews on the topic of whether Intelligent Design can be considered valid science. Stein interviews both Intelligent Design proponents and detractors (including famous anti-religionist Richard Dawkins). The latter group has claimed that Stein used misleading interview tactics, and that may indeed be the case. I have to admit that I don’t feel much pity for Dawkins, because the evidence from multiple sources leads me to the conclusion that he is a jerk, but I do wonder if the dishonest and exaggerated aspects of Expelled will do more harm than good to Intelligent Design and other attempts to reconcile faith and science.

The most flawed—and yet most interesting and compelling—part of Expelled begins when Stein interviews a scientist (and atheist) who argues that Darwinism inevitably leads to the belief that there is no God and no life after death. This scientist said, proudly, that if his brain tumor recurred, rather than suffering and waiting to die, he would shoot himself in the head. It’s a heartbreaking scene, and it introduces the section in which Stein ponders whether the theories of evolution and natural selection lead to euthanasia, abortion—and, yes—the Holocaust.

I’m torn about this argument. On the one hand, I’m afraid that this kind of thinking (Hitler believed in Darwinism; therefore, Darwinism led to the Holocaust) is exactly the sort of logic Dawkins and his kind use to argue that Christianity inevitably leads to the Inquisition. If Christians support this logic, it could come back to bite us in the backside.

On the other hand, I think the most valuable contribution of Expelled is to point out that ideas are not morally neutral. True, this is not a new observation; it was made by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, where philosopher Ivan’s belief that “Everything is permitted” leads to his half-brother’s murder of their father. It’s hard to trace the chain of events leading from an abstract idea to a concrete action, but this doesn’t mean that ideas dwell in their own little harmless realm.

The moment that most particularly struck me in this section of Expelled is when Stein asks two people—one the curator of a former Nazi “hospital” that had executed the mentally ill, and the other the author of the book From Darwin to Hitler—if they thought Hitler was insane. Both answer “no,” that Hitler was absolutely rational about what he was doing, and that he believed he was doing right. His ideas—and actions—were deeply, deeply evil, but he was convinced they were right.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote of the disastrous potential of an idea, even a seemingly harmless idea like “tenderness,” once it is separated from God. “It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chambers.”

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Bill Reichart

    Thanks Carissa for the review. I just came from the theater and saw it. It wasn’t as if I was running to see it, but I had to take my daughter and her group of friends to see Disney’s College Road Trip and when I found out Expelled was playing in the same theater at the same time – I thought that I would rather be engaged with Stein’s movie, rather than the silly antics of Raven Seymone and Martin Lawrence. All that to say, apart from those circumstances I wouldn’t have run out to see this movie. It certainly has received a lot of hype. But maybe it’s because I have been up to speed on this issue ever since Phillip Johnson wrote his book Darwin on Trial and his second book, Reason in the Balance (in which I heard him speak on at U Penn) – I just didn’t find anything NEW in this movie.

    Perhaps for Joe and Sally Six-pack this movie will be a wake up call to these issues that have been floating around for years. And perhaps Stein has in a small way popularized the issue and made it accessible to the average Joe – but besides that it doesn’t make any NEW or significant contribution to the debate. My recommendation is save your money, rent it on DVD if you have a free, rainy Saturday afternoon.

  • Carissa Smith

    Thanks, Bill. I’m not very up to speed on the debates in the scientific community, so it’s helpful to hear your perspective. I didn’t feel like Stein was presenting anything new, either, even with my limited knowledge of ID and of evolutionary biology. I’m more familiar with early 20th-century American eugenics literature, and I found myself wishing he had gone more into the frightening details of that movement. I think he had enough potential material for at least two movies, though, if he had covered the topics in greater depth.

  • Alan Noble

    Great review. The thing that concerns me most about this film is that it seems to be supporting a good cause with (what are in my opinion) unsupportable tactics. Propaganda whether from Moore or Stein is antithetical to the Truth of the Gospel. So if we go to support this film because it supports ID, which seems to support Creation, then I believe we are mislead. Equivocations, slick editing, and shocking but suspect evidence all do a great disservice to the Truth, even if it is done in the cause of Truth.

    We can be tempted to support films like this simply because they claim to support the Christian worldview, but it is imperative that we keep in mind that the medium through which Truth is delivered always shapes that truth. If the medium is self-conscious propaganda, what hope can their be for the Truth to emerge from it unscathed?

  • http://www.kogmedia.com patrick

    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.

    patrick’s last blog post..Ben Stein’s Expelled — Science Ain’t Expained Nothin’

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett


    Thanks for the helpful review. I always feel bad for being the party pooper- a movie that is genuinely supportive of Christian perspective is so rare that Christians inevitably get fired up about it, and then here I am saying, “Yes, but…”

    To me, it comes down to the age old playground argument- if you’re going to be on my side, make sure you play well! Don’t be a hindrance. It sounds like there is significant potential for polemic movies like this one to be detrimental rather than constructive to the Christian cause.

    Ben Bartlett’s last blog post..Proactively Vulnerable

  • Greg

    I haven’t seen this film, but is sounds absolutely absurd.

    “This scientist said, proudly, that if his brain tumor recurred…[]”.

    So they get one nutty scientist and imply that he’s representative of scientists in general? Anyone ever take Logic 101 in college? This is so obviously a fallacy. I’m a “scientist” and many of my friends are. This guy is absolutely NOT a representative of scientists in general.

    “I think the most valuable contribution of Expelled is to point out that ideas are not morally neutral. ”

    Scientific facts are morally neutral though. Nuclear science was not responsible for creating the atomic bomb. People were. Science just tells you “what is”, not how to use the information. To confuse the two is a big mistake.

    It is the same with Evolution/Darwinism. Whether you accept the theory or not is regardless. The theory was put forward to explain mechanisms seen in nature. It’s biology. It is not a social system, has nothing to do with society or culture, nor does it have anything whatsoever to say on how we should live or treat one another.

    The whole idea of “social darwinism”, which Expelled seems to presume was a cause for the Holocaust, is not related at all the the biological theory, nor natural science in general. Most scientists vehemently disagree with (or rather, “don’t believe in”) Social Darwinism — as it would lead to a very unpleasant society indeed.

    Nothing in the biological theory of evolution lends itself to imply that the theory should somehow be applied to society or culture. (Again, this is true whether you believe in evolution or not — and scientific theories NEVER say anything about “what should be”, they are simply explanations of observed phenomena). In addition, what Hitler did was an attempt at “Artificial Selection”, not “Natural Selection”. There’s nothing “natural” about genocide. It is terrible, disgusting and morally reprehensible.

    To attempt to tie what Hilter did to the biological theory of evolution/Darwinism is an attempt in vain. There is no connection. And to say that Hitler was influenced by Darwinism seems to be a similar conspiracy theory. Hitler wrote a lot. Mein Kampf is his most well known writing, and among all the people and philosophies he quotes throughout, he never mentions Darwin, evolution or natural selection. Not once. (I actually looked up this info after hearing this claim)

    Ben Stein should be ashamed of himself.

  • http://www.helsinki.fi/~pjojala/Expelled-ID.htm Pauli Ojala

    Stein is under heavy attack for ‘exaggerating’ or ‘going easy’ on the influence of evolutionism behind Nazism and Stalinism (super evolution of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Russia). But the monstrous Haeckelian type of vulgar evolutionism drove not only the ‘Politics-is-applied-biology’ Nazi takeover in the continental Europe, but even the nationalistic collision at the World War I. Catch 22: The 140 years old faked embryo drawings have been mindlessly recycled for the ‘public understanding of science’ (PUS) in most biology text books until this millennium, although Haeckel’s crackpot raging Recapitulation/Biogenetic Law and functioning gill slits of human embryos have been at the ethical tangent race hygiene/eugenics/genocide, infanticide, and Freudian psychoanalysis (subconscious atavisms). Dawkins is the Oxford professor for PUS – and one of the quilty ones.

    The marriage laws were once erected not only in the Nazi Germany but also in the multicultural states of America upon the speculation that the mulatto was a relatively sterile and shortlived hybrid. The absence of blood transfusion between “white” and “colored races” was self evident (Hailer 1963, p. 52).

    The first law on sterilization in US had been established in 1907 in Indiana, and 23 similar laws had been passed in 15 States and sterilization was practiced in 124 institutions in 1921 (Mattila 1996; Hietala 1985 p. 133; these were the times of IQ-tests under Gould’s scrutiny in his Mismeasure of Man 1981). By 1931 thirty states had passed sterization laws in the US (Reilly 1991, p. 87).

    So the American laws were pioneering endeavours. In Europe Denmark passed the first sterilization legislation in Europe (1929). Denmark was followed by Switzerland, Germany that had felt to the hands of Hitler and Gobineu, and other Nordic countries: Norway (1934), Sweden (1935), Finland (1935), and Iceland (1938) (Haller 1963, pp 21-57; 135-9; Proctor 1988, p. 97; Reilly 1991, p. 109). Seldom is it mentioned in the popular media, that the first outright race biological institution in the world was not established in Germany but in 1921 in Uppsala, Sweden (Hietala 1985, pp. 109). (I am not aware of the ethymology of the ‘Up’ of the ancient city from Plinius’ Ultima Thule, however.) In 1907 the Society for Racial Hygiene in Germany had changed its name to the Internationale Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene, and in 1910 Swedish Society for Eugenics (Sällskap för Rashygien) had become its first foreign affiliate (Proctor 1988, p. 17).

    Hitler’s formulation of the differences between the human races was affected by the brilliant sky-blue eyed Ernst Haeckel (Gasman 1971, p. xxii), praised and raised by Darwin. At the top of the unilinear progression were usually the “Nordics”, a tall race of blue-eyed blonds. Haeckel’s position on the Jewish question was assimilation, not yet an open elimination. But was it different only in degree, rather than kind?

    In 1917 the immigration of “defective” groups was forbidden even in the United States by a law. In 1921 the European immigration was diminished to 3% based on the 1910 census.
    Eventually, in the strategical year of 1924 the finest hour of eugenics had come and the fatal law was passed by Congress. It diminished immigration to 2% of the foreign-born from each country based on the 1890 census in order to preserve the “nordic” balance in population, and was hold through World War II until 1965 (Hietala 1985, p. 132).

    Richard Lewontin writes:“The leading American idealogue of the innate mental inferiority of the working class was, however, H.H. Goddard, a pioneer of the mental testing movement, the discoverer of the Kallikak family,
    and the administrant of IQ-tests to immigrants that found 83 % of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians, and 87% of the the Russians to be feebleminded.” (1977, p. 13.) Finnish emmigrants put the cross on the box reserved for the “yellow” group (Kemiläinen 1993, p. 1930), until 1965.

    Germany was the most scientifically and culturally advanced nation of the world upon opening the riddles at the close of the nineteenth century, and in 1933 the German people had not lived normal life for twenty years. And so Adolf Hitler did not need his revolution. He did not have to break the laws in Haeckel’s country, in principle, but to constitute them.

    Today, developmental biologists are anticipating legislation of laws that would define the do’s and dont’s. The legislation should not distract individual researchers from their personal awareness of responsibility. A permissive law merely defines the ethical minimum. The lesson is that a law is no substitute for morals and that dissidents should not be intimidated.

    I am suspicious over the burial of the Kampf (Struggle). The idea of competition is innate in the modern society. It is the the opposite view in a 180 degree angle to the Judaeo-Christian ideal of agapee, that I personally cheriss. The latter sees free giving, altruism, benevolence and self sacrificing love as the beginning, motivation, and sustainer of the reality.

    You may read more on the matter from my conference posters and articles defended and published in the field of bioethics and history of biology (and underline/edit them a ‘bit’):

    Biochemist, drop-out (Master of Sciing)

  • http://www.democratandchronicle.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=PluckPersona&U=80f670cc98cc4f79ac63c544c409f690&plckPersonaPage=BlogViewPost&plckUserId=80f670cc98cc4f79ac63c544c409f690& tvspel

    Very worthwhile, excellent study!