Last night, I watched the movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” written and hosted by Ben Stein. This movie takes a look at the mainstream reaction to Intelligent Design – especially that of academia. Prior to seeing this film, I had heard about it through a couple TV ads and a discussion on the podcast “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”. As you can guess, the TV ads were mostly 3 second sound bytes, and the science-based Skeptic’s Guide was especially dismissive (without even having seen the film) of even the idea that there is a shred of credibility to Intelligent Design (ID).
Frankly, I decided to watch the film mostly on a whim. Perhaps a better characterization would be a fascination with the bizarre and fringe. Because I most certainly didn’t go into the film with much sympathy for the ID movement. What I left the film with was a healthy dose of humility and intellectual honesty. It should serve as a reminder to us all that the hubris of certainty in science (at least with respect to Evolutionary Theory) is indeed a developmentally harmful trait to engender.
This reaction may come as a surprise to those who know me. Trained as a physicist (heh, at least at the undergraduate level), I was bathed in the glowing warmth of mainstream science. The corrective nature of science, peer-review, and repeatability of experiments are the hallmarks of good science, and the basis for Evolutionary Theory. But what is never clear from within the grand narrative is what effect it has at self-sustaining and burying criticism from outside the system. (I use the term “grand narrative” loosely here, as many would argue that “Science” is a methodology, not a world-view).
Ben Stein takes particular care to pick out the reasonable proponents of ID in his documentary. (This is to be expected, of course, but important to note for my comments to follow later). He picks out professors in academia who have lost their positions, chances for tenure, or have been censored. His reasoning goes something like this: “These nice people have been unfairly treated by the system. They wanted free inquiry, but when they strayed from the party line, they were shut out.” O.K., maybe he has a point. Shame on academia for treating every proponent of ID as a nut-job.
Similarly, the link between religion and ID is almost always used to discredit ID as bringing religion into the science classroom and public schools. Is that a universal condition, though? Are all ID proponents just fiendish religious zealots who would do anything to slip religion into the secular public schools and science classrooms? C’mon, that’s conspiracy talk, folks. It’s the classic poisoning-the-well fallacy writ large. Accuse everyone who utters the letters ID of trying to inject religion into science? You know better. Shame on academia again.
What really disgusted me was the sheer hubris and arrogance of the featured scientists in the film. I know that there’s been very little evidence shown to support ID so far, and many of the featured ID proponents in the film (the rational, non-zealot proponents) would probably agree. But to dismiss ID as “all varnish and no substance” – Daniel Dennet, is to state a priori that there can be no valid theory of ID. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and P. Z. Meyers say much the same, and so do a handful of other highly-regarded public science figures. Michael Schermer is more modest and true to skepticism when he says that it hasn’t really proven itself as a viable alternative to Evolution yet. That’s the key; don’t bash an incomplete theory. After all, what hath String Theory wrought but wasting research dollars chasing a supposedly elegant theory that has no testable hypothesis to date?
While more a rhetorical ploy than damning critique, Stein puts some of the big-shot scientists on the spot by asking them how life first formed. That’s a red herring, Ben. Evolutionary Theory has nothing to say about the very first origins of life. It concerns itself with the origins of species. Unfortunately, the hot-shot scientists forgot about that minor detail in their zeal to enlighten Stein on the cutting-edge theories currently floating around for the origins of life. They’re very insubstantial theories at best, and have very little evidence to support them. Stein scores some major debate points for stumping the scientists with what they should have known was not part of Evolutionary Theory.
O.K., so the film definitely has some important points. But it also has its significant flaws as well. The first one that springs so clearly to mind is that there’s a good reason why mainstream scientists are so biased against ID: there’s barely any evidence for it. Why should we teach a theory of ID when there’s not any substance to the theory other than “some intelligent force did it . . . somehow, we don’t know really know how.”
The Dover, PA court case is a perfect example of this. While it is one thing to allow professors to research or discuss ID at the level of higher education, its quite another to place a disclaimer on science textbooks that Evolution is “just a theory” and hand out a “Of Pandas and People” textbook to teach ID. Is there any reason to suspect Evolution of being so weak-in-the-knees as a scientific theory that we have to spend extra time teaching any available alternative? We don’t teach Quantum Mind-Control theory alongside General Relativity, do we? We also don’t teach Alternative Alchemy alongside Organic Chemistry, do we?
So the scientific community has an understandable loathing of ID that has been slipped into the public science classroom with no good evidence for why it deserves to be taught. Stein doesn’t mention this, and instead relies heavily on the vague value “freedom” that we all should hold supreme. I like freedom too, Ben, but should any teacher be “free” to teach any subject of their choosing at anytime? Take a closer look at the implications of your über-freedom rhetoric, Ben. Academic freedom is indeed important to protect, but if an Alchemist loses her job as a chemistry professor because she wants to teach an alternative idea to standard chemistry, can you really fault academia for imposing some modicum of quality control?
The film takes a nose-dive, in my opinion, when Stein takes a trip to Germany to visit the concentration camps of WWII. Stein commits the same poisoning-the-well fallacy by associating Hitler and the Eugenics craze of the early 20th century with the Theory of Evolution through the infamous “Social Darwinism.” Darwin had nothing to do with Social Darwinism, and even if hypothetically would have, does Evolutionary Theory somehow belong to him alone? It’s a scientific theory that has grown by leaps and bounds since Darwin’s time! Let’s focus on the theory and not the guy who happened to come up with it! (See the NY Times article titled “Darwin Must Die So That Evolution Can Live“).
Stein and others draw false links between Evolution and Nazism. The philosopher Stein interviews points out the (obvious) fact that Evolution is not a sufficient cause of Nazism. But he says it is a necessary cause. Well, so is nationalism. Are all patriotic citizens exhibiting some of the causes of Nazism? Should we be wary of waving the American flag too proudly, lest we start goose-stepping in the next local parade? Of course, the philosopher would likely respond “no, but jingoism is a cause – extreme nationalism.” Exactly. Evolution is not a cause of Nazism, just as nationalism is not a cause of Nazism. But their perverted extremes (Social Darwinism and jingoism, respectively) are the necessary causes for something as ugly as Nazism. I have a feeling that Stein decided to draw this parallel simply to darken the image of Evolution from a scientific theory into a root cause of perhaps the worst ideology in the last century.
The other thing that really bothered me about Stein’s portrayal of ID is that it is emphatically not religious. That may hold true for some. No doubt, there are serious scientific researchers out there with an interest in ID research that have no religious motives. But what Stein tries so hard to mask (remember my earlier comment about hand-picking the people he interviewed?) is that the group of reasonable, moderate people he chose to interview are not necessarily representative of ID proponents in general.
Creation Science has been relegated to the far-right religious zealots, where literal Biblical interpretations are twisted oh-so-much to fit the findings of science. More often, the effect plays in reverse, and fossil remains spanning hundreds of millions of years suddenly become detritus from Noah’s flood. Or a test of one’s faith. Or some other nonsensical closed-system interpretation. So what happened to all those religious people who were at one point on-board the Creation Science Express? Did they jump trains and suddenly accept Evolutionary Theory? Or did they slowly inch away from the increasingly-discredited Creation Science toward the much more sophisticated and scientific-sounding ID?
Perhaps the most damning evidence comes from the Dover, PA trial where draft manuscripts of the book “Of Pandas And People” has the embarrassing type that quite clearly shows that ID – at least in this book – was nothing more that a politically correct term for Creation Science. While the book was still in draft form, there was a court case which the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to teach creationism in public school science classrooms. The draft before the court case had “Creationism” followed by the definition. The revised draft after the court case ruling simply inserted “Intelligent Design” in place of “Creationism” and used the same definition. An embarrassing find/replace error if there ever was one. So, was ID just a politically correct update to Creationism? In this case it certainly was.
It’s unfair to a priori state that all ID followers are promoting a hidden religious agenda. But it is likewise naïve to assume that there are no religious motives in the ID movement. C’mon, Ben, it doesn’t take a whole lot of analysis to realize that “an intelligent designer” is damn close to “the creator God.” What other entity is there to fill the role of “the intelligent designer” besides some form of God? No one has any theory for what the intelligent designer is, what it looks like, or what it does in its spare time when it’s not creating new species ex nihilo. Without even a vague understanding for this mysterious intelligent designer, where’s the substance to the theory?
This last question – where’s the substance to ID – brings me to perhaps the most result of the film. I’m not sold on ID as a theory. It has almost no evidence to its name, and holds little promise to provide any evidence any time soon. But what ID does – or at least the reasonable, rational proponents of ID do – is to establish a legitimate standing to call out the shortcomings of Evolutionary Theory. And while it is important to remember that no scientific theory is ever really “complete,” to ignore such incompleteness and instead claim big “T” Truth for Evolutionary Theory is to commit intellectual dishonesty and academic hubris.
It’s very hard for me to say that something like ID should be considered a serious area of inquiry. And while I don’t think it is anywhere near ready for prime time in a science classroom, neither should it be quashed as religious conniving. There are lots of important questions that are not answered by Evolutionary Theory. Most scientists would add the word “yet” to that last sentence, but to engage in that kind of indefinite verification to a theory is to commit, ironically, the same cognitive error as those who say, with sincere and fervent belief, that Jesus is coming . . . soon. Maybe Evolutionary Theory isn’t the best explanation out there. If I had to make a bet, it would certainly be with Evolutionary Theory. But maybe there are different, better theories that explain the available evidence.
Scientific theories aren’t an exact explanation of reality. They’re our best-effort attempt to explain and predict the world around us. Modern science – including Evolutionary Theory – has done incredible things for our advancement of knowledge. But, as the saying goes, the map is not the terrain. Our scientific explanations change over time: sometimes by incremental steps, and others by revolutions. While ID itself may never yield anything useful theory to replace standard Evolutionary Theory, perhaps its sharp and radical criticisms of Evolutionary Theory can help to advance it. And maybe the first step in helping to advance that understanding in science is to drop the shameful domineering position that academia has taken in favor of Evolutionary Theory.
I’m actually quite glad I watched Ben Stein’s movie. Not because it gave me a reason to believe ID had a real theory that was being repressed, but – like the potential for critical development that ID might have for Evolutionary Theory – maybe the questions raised by Stein’s movie can help to build a more robust and humble understanding of the evolution of life on Earth.
Until next time, bonnes pensées.