Thoughts on the Expelled Affair

By now, I assume, the entire blogosphere has heard about the public-relations fiasco which the producers of the creationist film Expelled have brought upon themselves. If you haven’t, here’s a brief rundown: last week, everyone’s favorite fire-breathing atheist blogger and biology professor, P.Z. Myers, went to see an advance screening of the film. It seems only fair that he’d get to see it – he was deceived into appearing in it by the producers, who told him it was going to be called Crossroads and would be an exploration of the relationship between science and religion, not the hardcore anti-science polemic it turned out to be. But while he was standing in line at the theater, he was met by security, who demanded he leave the premises immediately. It turned out the film’s producers didn’t want him to see it. But in the grandest stroke of irony ever, Myers’ guest – who is also interviewed in the film, and whom the producers apparently did not recognize – was allowed in to see it. That guest? Richard Dawkins.

Mark Mathis, the producer of Expelled, has rapidly cycled through excuses in the past several days trying to explain this. First it was alleged that P.Z. Myers was being disruptive (a lie), then it was alleged that he was gate-crashing a private screening (also a lie; there was an open registration on the internet for anyone who wanted to attend). Finally, he seems to have settled on the ad hoc excuse that he simply wanted Myers to pay to see it. Apparently, Mathis is oblivious to the hypocrisy of making a film which asserts that dissenters are being unfairly shut out of scientific discourse, then banning people whom he disagrees with from seeing it and threatening them with arrest if they don’t comply. (A post filed on another screening of Expelled reports that Mathis is still threatening people with expulsion for asking too many non-supportive questions. The producers have also tried to make critics sign non-disclosure agreements in an apparent bid to prevent them from writing negative reviews.)

By most accounts, Expelled is a remarkably shoddy piece of filmmaking. Its entire premise is that evolution led directly to the Holocaust, making its case by showing footage of scientists followed by footage of Nazi death camps. Of interest, it also drops the flimsy pretense of intelligent design being “science”, instead claiming repeatedly and straightforwardly that ID is religious. The film’s strategy of marketing directly to churches and homeschoolers ties in with that. (I really, really hope some Christian group congratulates the film’s narrator, Ben Stein, on how many souls his wonderful movie is bringing to Christ. Stein is Jewish, incidentally.)

All in all, this affair has proved to be a wonderful piece of good news for friends of science. This whole affair has made the creationists look like hypocrites, and not only that, it’s shone a light on the shoddy and deceptive tactics of their film and the ID movement as a whole, the very outcome they were hoping to avoid. How could this have turned out any better?

However, at least one non-creationist thinks this is somehow a disaster for us. Anyone care to guess who?

As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education. Dawkins and PZ need to lay low as Expelled hits theaters. Let others play the role of communicator, most importantly the National Center for Science Education, AAAS, the National Academies or scientists such as Francis Ayala or Ken Miller. When called up by reporters or asked to comment, Dawkins and PZ should refer journalists to these organizations and individuals.

If Dawkins and PZ really care about countering the message of The Expelled camp, they need to play the role of Samantha Power, Geraldine Ferraro and so many other political operatives who through misstatements and polarizing rhetoric have ended up being liabilities to the causes and campaigns that they support. Lay low and let others do the talking.

The above piece of condescending concern trolling is courtesy of Matt Nisbet, the “framing” proponent who’s only ever offered one piece of advice: namely, telling atheists to shut up and not voice their views or criticize religion. He’s done this before, but this latest statement is by far the most arrogant and obnoxious one he’s offered.

Nisbet’s attitude seems to be that religious believers are overwhelmingly powerful, their opinions cannot be changed, and thus we must genuflect to them or else. His above post is of a piece with a long line of writings he’s produced urging atheists to go back into the closet and hide – a ridiculous piece of advice which, I’m happy to say, has been treated with the contempt it deserves.

Nisbet’s piece says bluntly, “It’s Time To Let Others Be the Spokespeople for Science”, with a prominent photo of P.Z Myers and Richard Dawkins. This claim displays a serious misunderstanding of what is going on here. Nisbet seems to assume that this position is some kind of mantle that can be passed from person to person. What he hasn’t grasped is that, to whatever extent Myers and Dawkins are viewed as influential scientists whose opinions are worth listening to, they earned that authority by their own effort. They are doing just what they’ve always done – writing, speaking, publishing their opinions. Their following was not bestowed upon them from on high; they created it for themselves by presenting persuasive arguments that won people over. In other words, they’re winning the battle of ideas, and Nisbet is not. His ridiculous call for them to shut up and hand that authority over to him is really just a plea for him to be handed the acclaim that he’s failed to achieve by his own effort. The similarities with creationists are instructive.

Nisbet’s post also displays what I call “the myth of the silenced middle”: the notion that there’s some reasonable, moderate center that’s being drowned out by those on both extremes. The truth of the matter is that no one is being prevented from speaking their minds exactly as they wish. If Nisbet can’t hear this mythical centrist majority, perhaps it’s because they’re not speaking out – and I agree that they’re not, which is precisely why we radical, uncompromising atheists have arisen in the first place. We’re tired of the fundamentalists shoving government and the media around without anyone standing up to them forcefully or effectively. We believe people’s minds can be changed, and we intend to do just that. The vested interests of religion have not silenced us. I can assure Matt Nisbet that his comparatively feeble efforts are not going to succeed either.

UPDATE: Further thoughts.

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  • LindaJoy

    I really don’t think those involved with this film will have a change of their minds unless God reaches into the huge gaps in their brains and does some tinkering….now THAT would be evidence of an Intelligent Designer!

  • Sam L.

    Thankfully, most bloggers have come out against Nisbet:

    Nisbet’s point is essentially moot anyway. I recently guest-lectured at a public university in the southeast US, and was amazed at how few of the students had even heard of Richard Dawkins, much less know who he is. If Dawkins is pretty much the only public face of atheism and science in America and hardly anybody knows who he is, then how is he damaging the cause of science? How is PZ Myers hurting “the cause” by gaining a huge following on his blog, which helps people organize and get together to discuss these issues? As far as I know, the New York Times only did ONE article about the current controversy, and it sure wasn’t front page material. The only place this is an ongoing issue is on the internet.

    Isn’t it better for the scientific community that there is someone out there willing to speak up? In politics, any publicity is good publicity. It’s better for people to know what’s out there and disagree with it than for the issue to never come up at all.

  • Samuel Skinner

    My only regret about atheism not being an ideology is that we can’t accuse Nisbet of heresy. However, we can still accuse him of being a moron- a fair enough trade.

  • nfpendleton

    Sweet. This is a great entry and a boost to me personally. Thanks.

  • Ellwood

    Staying silent kills everything we atheists worked so hard to gain in our lives. If we don’t speak out, we’ll be just as good not existing at all. Dumbing up only means that we have nothing good to contribute to society – and we have a great deal to offer. Staying in the shadows in fear that we might look bad to others is a complete load of bullshit.

  • C. L. Hanson

    In theory it may be reasonable to address the followers of a political movement and persuade them to favor different leaders. I know in the feminist movement there are certain leaders who have earned their position through hard work and building up a following yet still make me want to say, as a feminist, “this person doesn’t represent me.”

    That said, Nisbet is way off base on this one. P.Z. is the coolest. He sometimes expresses opinions that I disagree with, but he links to everybody — whether they agree with him or not. He uses his blog to highlight all different opinions within the atheist community and without. It demonstrates that he’s ready to throw all of the ideas on the table and let the best ones win. This incident couldn’t have been more perfect in terms of allowing those Expelled clowns to dramatically, hilariously demonstrate their hypocrisy in pretending that they’re the ones who want a free and open exchange of ideas.

    Plus P.Z.’s blog is entertaining and has a lot of fun science news. Just today I posted about how much my son liked a whale evolution video that we found through Pharyngula.

  • Greta Christina

    “Nisbet seems to assume that this position is some kind of mantle that can be passed from person to person.”

    Which, among other things, is a profound misunderstanding of how fame — recognition, being a spokesperson, whatever you want to call it — works.

    Speaking as someone who has struggled for close to twenty years to gain even a small amount of professional recognition in the writing world, gaining recognition in almost any field is an example of harsh Darwinian natural selection at both its best and its worst. People become well-known in science, in writing, in filmmaking, in snowboarding, in hula dancing, in every other field you can think of, for a combination of two reasons: they’re good at what they do, and they’re good at self-presentation. (Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of the other.) It’s not like Science is a corporation with a board of directors that hires and fires its spokespeople. It’s more like an election… except it’s an election that keeps getting held again and again, every single day.

    I’m not sure that Dawkins and Myers actually are the primary spokespeople for science in our era. This fellow named Hawking leaps to mind. But if they are, and to whatever degree that they are, it’s because people are interested in what they have to say.

    A whole lot more interested than in what Matt Nisbet has to say.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m not sure that Dawkins and Myers actually are the primary spokespeople for science in our era. This fellow named Hawking leaps to mind. But if they are, and to whatever degree that they are, it’s because people are interested in what they have to say.

    A whole lot more interested than in what Matt Nisbet has to say.

    There seems to be a good argument that, from his perspective, that last sentence nails the root of the problem.

    I wonder how much of it is that, and how much of it is simply Nisbet having become a “True Believer” in his ideas about how best to communicate.

  • Valhar2000

    Well, I’m not so sure, Greta. Nisbet was able to organize an AAAS panel a few weeks ago dedicated to kissing his ass… er, I mean, to promoting his ideas about framing of science. That means that he is building a following among scientists, and, if he convinces them to follow his moronic advice, who knows what can happen?

    I am not unconvinced that Greg Laden may right when he says that Nisbet is trying to get a Templeton Prize. It would be a good way for him to make a living, if he doesn’t care about how much damage he does to science and society in the process.

  • Steve Bowen

    Richard Dawkins hold the Charles Simonyi Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science. So in the U.K at least, not only should he be the spokesperson against creationism due to his public profile; it’s his job!

  • random guy

    Well Nisbets only advice so far has been for atheists to shut up about religion while simultaneously supporting good science. I think if he does get followers the self imposed restriction they have on their own speech would nullify any progress they attempt to make in science.

    How scientific is it to say “you sir are wrong about evolution, but don’t worry we’re not going to discuss the ark, the crucifixion, or that guy that lived in the bellie of a great fish for three days, those ideas are all safe from criticism”? He’ll have no standard for what is and isn’t ridiculous. If he were to apply this line of reasoning fairly, then he would have to admit that questioning a seven day creation is just as insulting to (some) peoples religious sentiments as questioning the existence of jesus.

    At least PZ and Dawkins have a standard; any supernatural claim is fair game in a debate between science and faith. I just can’t figure out what Nisbets standard is. It appears that, to him, some claims are debatable and others aren’t based solely on whether or not they insult the person making the supernatural claim, except in some cases where that arbitrarily doesn’t matter, like evolution.

  • shifty

    It’s a funny thing, fame & notoriety. Having worked in media for the better part of 25 years, I have come to realize that many news directors and assignment editors are just plain lazy. OK, that’s being cynical. Due to the pressure and time constraints of their deadlines they are inclined to reach out to their “go to” sources for quotes and opinions. So we often see the same faces and opinions over and over again.

    Greta is right on in her Darwinian analogy. If expert ‘A’ keeps working out, we’ll keep using him until he doesn’t. Then on to the next one. Of course there are those self promoters who wish to impose themselves into the spotlight by making outrageous comments. Nisbet seems like one of those.

  • Ebonmuse

    I am not unconvinced that Greg Laden may right when he says that Nisbet is trying to get a Templeton Prize.

    Valhar, I think you may have put your finger on it. That’s by far the most plausible explanation for Nisbet’s behavior I’ve heard so far. Given the Templeton Foundation’s mission of bestowing large cash sums on anyone who makes happy noises about the compatibility of science and religion, I can readily see his behavior as angling for that.

  • Samuel Skinner

    What’s the value of the Templeton Prize? 30 shekels of silver? A quarter of a million?

  • Ebonmuse

    About $1.4 million. John Templeton, who endowed it, specifically required that the prize amount be adjusted whenever necessary so that it’s always greater than the value of the Nobel.

  • 2-D Man

    I didn’t know that about the Templeton prize. I wish I hadn’t just eaten a large bowl of pasta. I’m experiencing a rather sudden desire to ‘expel’ my stomach contents.

    I hadn’t actually heard what the story was until now. Thanks, Ebonmuse. The whole thing reminds me of a song my dad, a christian and a bluegrass musician, played when I was a kid called, “Everybody Else but Me”. (It’s about how God’s commands apply to everybody else but the singer.)

  • King Aardvark

    The Templeton’s $1.4 million? Holy moly, for that much money, I’d tell everyone that religion and science are compatible.

  • Ebonmuse

    I don’t want to beat up on this dead horse too much, but this whole business with Nisbet has really annoyed me and I’d like to say some more about it.

    I think Matt Nisbet annoys me more than the creationists do. And really, it didn’t have to be that way. He could have so easily stated his position in a way I would have agreed with. (See? Framing!) All he had to do was say that he acknowledges PZ’s and Dawkins’ right to believe and speak however they want, but he wants people to recognize that science itself has no inevitable theological consequences, that atheism is not the only possible result of accepting evolution, and here are some religious scientists who feel differently. That would have been so easy, and I don’t think it would have brought nearly this much ridicule and opprobrium down on his head. Truth, I would have agreed with that.

    But what he actually decided to do is not only stupid – did he seriously think for even a moment that he was going to get PZ to shut up? – it’s also tactically unsound. He is the one who’s helping the creationists, not PZ or Dawkins. His frantic attempts to hush the atheists make it seem as if our very existence is some kind of dirty secret that we should be trying to hide. Of course the enemies of science can use that. There’s a reason that the Uncommon Descent weblog favorably quotes him and not PZ: he helps their cause more than PZ does. If he had done what I suggested above – acknowledge the existence of atheists, but point out that there are religious scientists too – then he’d have denied the creationists that opportunity. Being an atheist is not wrong; it’s nothing we need to hide. When Nisbet acts as if it is, he’s playing right into the creationists’ hands. For a supposed master of the art of framing, he seems oblivious to the fact that he’s actually reinforcing their frames. PZ and Dawkins, by taking a stand for atheism and refusing to back down, are doing the rhetorical work that really needs to be done.

    The fact of the matter is, there are scientists who are atheists, and they have every right to say that. In fact, they should say that. The ID advocates are the only ones who are trying to hide their real motivations. We shouldn’t need to. As I said, science in the strict sense does not carry theological implications. If we did what Nisbet suggested, the result would be atheist scientists who were keeping quiet about what they really believed. That would be a juicy opportunity for creationists, to try to ferret out the “secret” that science supposedly leads to atheism, and quote-mine the few scientists who let that fact slip out to press a claim against us. In short, Nisbet’s approach would burden us with unnecessary baggage. It would make non-religious scientists into liabilities to the cause of science, rather than the assets they so clearly are. His maddening, irrational refusal to recognize that is why his approach irritates me so much.

  • Chris

    science in the strict sense does not carry theological implications

    This is true only if you don’t include in “science” a requirement that empiricism be the supreme principle of your personal epistemology. I’m not sure what kind of science you can practice while allowing empiricism to occasionally be trumped by other ways of knowing.

    But if you *don’t* allow that – if empiricism has to come first – then any theological position inconsistent with observed empirical realities must be abandoned, which includes a lot of theological positions that people actually hold.

    It’s certainly true that science doesn’t mandate atheism – many scientists have been First Cause deists, and that position is still logically consistent (assuming you don’t also construe science to include Occam’s razor). But it does at least mean you aren’t allowed to believe in things that have been *disproved*.

  • Karen

    Michael Shermer showed the Expelled trailer at the Skeptics Society meeting last night, and it has me worried. For those of us in the audience, it was frankly laughable the way it linked Darwin and Nazis, and its tone was dire and supercillious.

    However, the production values (of the trailer at least) are high. And I fear that if you don’t know him or the underhanded way he produced the movie, Stein comes off as a sympathetic guy who just happens to believe in god and who’s investigating this very sad and wrong violation of free speech. It could have a powerful effect not only on its intended audience of true believers, but also on lots of others who are perhaps nominally religious and only marginally aware of the science education debate.

  • windy

    I think this image captures something of the situation…

  • Jim S.

    It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but the recent Expelled brou-ha made me curious to see if there were any commentary here.

    Chris – your post is essentially correct but misses the same point that many other rational thinkers do – that mankind is really at the very beginning of our learning curve in regards to understanding the universe around us. The automatic rejection of all things that we do not understand is not a feasible or even a practical option. Our cognizant inference systems would never permit it. That said, you are absolutely correct that any concepts not consistent with observed empirical realities must be discarded, inclusive of religious concepts. The latter is , of course, an enormous problem with the dogmatic religions. I might suggest that this is possibly the core difference between a ‘religious’ world view and a ‘spiritual’ world view.

    I spent some time on the Expelled movie blog site a while back and I have to say it was a sobering experience. I was able to pull a couple of posters into a coherent, if brief, discussion although the best I think I accomplished was to cause some to re-think some of their mind sets (not a bad day in itself, I suppose). What is genuinely frightening is the amount of effort some will put into willful ignorance. It is absolutely stunning – an ongoing denial of the most obvious facts and proofs laid out before them. The film will play directly to those people. I’m concerned that this will be yet another contributor to the process that seems to be splitting the educated/rational/non-religious population from the less thoughtful religious devout population.

  • Jeff T.

    Ebon has a wonderful website with many essays that destroy ID’s credibility. But I am afraid this movie will portray evolutionists as nazis and whose ideas will lead to another holocaust. Many Americans will believe it. The film allegedly portrays Dawkins as the leader of an evil collegiate empire that is conspiring to keep ID out of the classroom—thankfully, Ben Stein is here to save the day and inject ID back into the academic vein.

    This ‘movie’ is a hypocrisy. ID proponents are stooping to anything to get ‘god did it’ taught in public schools. The hypocrisy is obvious, the IDers assume their christ is the god of choice even though there are millions of other unfalsifiable god(dess) creation theories out there and every single one of them is psuedoscience. As Ebon has stated, they can’t ALL be RIGHT, but they could ALL be WRONG.