Thoughts on the Expelled Affair

Thoughts on the Expelled Affair March 27, 2008

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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