Greg Wright, who edits Hollywood Jesus and runs Past the Popcorn, impressed me with his thoughtful examination of the new documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed when we participated in a roundtable discussion at The Kindlings Muse a week ago. (That discussion will be available via podcast soon.)
So I was delighted to see that Wright had published a full review of the film at Past the Popcorn, and I quickly asked him if he would be willing to share the review here.
So here is Greg Wright’s review of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed…
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
a review by Greg Wright
Here are the two truest statements you are likely to hear in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the latest quasi-Moore-ish documentary:
“Intelligent Design is merely a skirmish in a much larger war.”
“We all have our biases.”
Expelled, which argues that “Darwinian evolution” is exercising a stranglehold in our schools and scientific institutions, certainly provides proof of bias—in both intentional and unintentional ways. And the vituperative response from detractors who haven’t even seen the film proves that, yes, there is a much larger war going on out there.
Before talking about the film itself and its claims, it’s worth talking about that larger war just a little. It’s one we’ve all experienced to some degree and at some level: you know, those moments when we have encountered some educator who was far more interested in “shaping minds” (of the right sort) than in instilling a thirst for education. We may have encountered such indoctrinators in Sunday School classes; we’ve almost certainly encountered them in high school history classes or college comparative religion or literature courses.
This week in The Los Angeles Times, Greg Lukianoff wrote the following about such Thought Police:
It is chilling that we are raising a generation of citizens who believe it is their right to mandate the appropriate views that other citizens should have. It’s a formula for totalitarianism. … I shudder for the republic if the next generation of leaders brings such fundamentally anti-democratic thinking to America’s institutions of power.
It’s into this context—and with a long history of mutual antagonism, lawsuits, and hateful rhetoric between proponents and foes of Intelligent Design—that Expelled rather blithely wades. I say “blithely” because it seems the makers of the film don’t (or at least didn’t) appreciate the stakes of this “larger war.” To my taste, the film is neither precise enough nor rigorous enough to be of much value other than stirring an already sloppy pot.
For those who don’t know, “Intelligent Design” is a notion that has been around for a long, long time. Anyone who’s heard of the “Divine Proportion” or “Golden Ratio” knows the gist: when you look at certain aspects of nature, it’s hard not to think, “Gee. All this looks as if someone designed it.” And again, such observations have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Well, along came Charles Darwin, who popularized the also long-cherished notion that nature wasn’t designed at all, but came about through gradual processes that weeded out non-useful genetic variations, as well as traits that no longer suited the environment. Ideologues of all sorts jumped on board for all sorts of reasons, and Darwin’s theses got applied and extrapolated in all sorts of bizarre ways. Along the way, as the larger culture became saturated with neo-Darwinist influence, it became intellectually suspect to actually believe in a Designer; and when the grand Creationist project of the late 20th Century jumped the rails, many of its passengers rather craftily snuck about the I.D. train because they felt it could get them somewhat near their destination. But those who had fought the Creationists weren’t snookered… and the fight was on. It’s been waging now for going on twenty years. Poor Intelligent Design; it really didn’t deserve that kind of attention. And being distracted by the public relations battle hasn’t helped it gain any real traction as a scientific theory, either.
What Expelled posits—and, on the surface, it’s plausible, given the general recognition we have of Thought Police of all shapes and breeds—is that there is a concerted and organized effort in scientific academia to suppress inquiry into I.D. The film presents interviews with a number of editors, educators, and scientists who feel that they have been unfairly excluded from the scientific dialogue (and even punished) for daring to broach the subject of I.D. The film uses Michael Moore-ish documentary film techniques to entertain us as Ben Stein goes on a hunt to figure out if these claims are true; and it argues that the answer is “yes”—and that fundamental American freedoms are being challenged.
On the entertainment level—the one that probably counts the most to audiences (and should, to critics)—the film comes in at about a B level. It isn’t as outrageous as its Moore-ish or Spurlock-ian counterparts, and the subject matter just isn’t the kind of thing that can be easily dressed up as popcorn fodder. Relatively inexperienced director Nathan Frankowski does a decent enough job of helming such a powder keg of a topic, though it’s fair to say that Moore could probably have done a better job with such material. But heck; Moore’s been refining his techniques for twenty-odd years.
When it comes to its subject matter, though, Expelled fumbles the ball quite a bit. In the interests of entertainment and of simplifying its argument, it never bothers to tell us much about I.D., its tenets, its history, or its connections to Creationism. It oversimplifies the “opposition,” too, conflating activist atheists with practicing scientists who object on purely scientific grounds, and failing to distinguish between “Darwin,” “social Darwinism,” and “Darwinian evolution” as merely one branch of evolutionary biology. It also conveniently ignores voices in the debate who represent something of a middle ground.
Worse, in driving toward its “why this is important” conclusion, it takes us along on an unnecessarily distracting and inflammatory side trip to Germany so that we can get riled about Nazi Germany’s links to “Darwinian” thinking. Sure, such thinking was part of the recipe for the holocaust; but so was the Church. Eugenic laws were still on the books in the U.S. as late at the 1960s, so the film needn’t have raised the specter of Hitler to make its case.
On the plus side—and in my book, this is a big plus—Frankowski and primary screenwriter Kevin Miller don’t resort to the worst of Moore’s tricks in crafting their narrative. They don’t splice bits of archive footage together to make it appear that folks believe things that they really don’t; they don’t stage “recreations” and pass them off as real documentary footage; and they don’t strain our credulity by trying to pack in every outrageous claim they could possibly devise.
At the end of the day, though, I don’t find that the film makes a compelling case. Yes, I am inclined to believe that the opposition fights pretty dirty, particularly when Dawkins prattles on about his stereotyped description of God, or when P.Z. Myers dismissively compares religion to knitting, or when I read intros to emails like that from XVIVO’s David Bolinsky who writes to “the anti-ID community which is giving XVIVO support in our ideological battle against the microcephalic apostates of ‘Intelligent Design’.” So, yeah. I imagine there’s a cabal of repressionist, hateful thinkers out there who are as “systematic and ruthless” as the movie claims. And it’s kind of scary when you think that you might just be targeted by such folks. I simply don’t think those folks are really the same cabal that Expelled wishes us to believe that they are.
But if they are—and I stress, if they are, and they might be—Expelled simply plays too nice to catch them red-handed.
Expelled is rated PG for “thematic material, some disturbing images and brief smoking.” I am not a fan of this style of documentary, and think all such beasts should be rated at least PG-13. Certain levels of critical thinking skills and experience analyzing filmmaking techniques are required to guard against the kinds of cinematic manipulations that these films practice, and Expelledis no exception. Go in prepared and informed, keep your radar whirring, and be sure to do some of your own research on the issues when you leave.
Courtesy of the Discovery Institute and a national publicist, Greg attended a private screening of the final cut of Expelled.