By David Harding
Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is certainly the most dishonest movie I have ever seen, portraying Intelligent Design supporters as political martyrs to Big Science, academia as the equivalent to the USSR, and doing everything it can to link Charles Darwin and evolution directly to the Holocaust. It truly is despicable and intellectually insipid in a way I thought not possible until now. If you want all the gory details about how awful this film is factually, please visit the NCSE’s Expelled Exposed website and Scientific American.
Unfortunately, the movie is almost certainly a success. In the US, most people know absolutely nothing about evolution, or any other form of science for that matter. They probably never heard anything about it in their schooling, from the media, or from the science establishment. If they know anything about it, it is probably something negative (and false) they heard from a creationist. It must also be remembered that most people in the US (and for that matter, around the world) rely on understanding their world through perceptions, feelings, and intuitions, not facts, logic, or evidence.
This film may very well be the only thing that many people ever hear about evolution, and while factually worthless, it is decent propaganda. I thought that the film would be hard to watch because Ben Stein wasn’t likable enough. I was wrong. Stein is human: funny or serious as the situation demands, with his characteristic dead-pan delivery and wit. Although the film sags in the middle when Stein takes his little trip to Hadamar and Dachau, and then on to Down House, it moves at a fairly brisk pace and effectively uses images, editing, and symbolism to get its point across (though Stein and the director are no Michael Moore).
The images used play more to a generally conservative, though not overtly evangelical/conservative, audience: evolutionists are associated with Stalin, communism, the Berlin wall, angry atheists, Planned Parenthood, eugenics, euthanasia, and abortion, while Stein and the ID supporters are juxtaposed with Reagan, American flags, the Washington monument, MLK Jr., the destruction of the Berlin wall, Mom, and apple pie.
The ID supporters are given ample time to present their vague and ill-documented claims, while the evolutionists get scant screen time and, for the most part, look bad (not necessarily their fault, probably due to editing). All of this makes for a compelling, if somewhat heavy-handed and overwrought, film. Most people who do not know anything about evolution or ID will probably be swayed by it. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking. Contrary to the opinion of many prominent science bloggers, it is a really big deal for a documentary to be shown in thousands of theaters in the US (most documentaries will only be shown in a handful). It is a big deal for a documentary to take in $3 million dollars in its first weekend (most never take in hundreds of thousands). It is a big deal for a documentary to be supported by millions of dollars of PR and expensive TV and print advertising (most documentaries get none).
People can argue over whether Expelled will ever make enough money to cover its costs (I think it will through DVD sales), but it will influence a lot of people, and no debunking website (not matter how factually correct) will reach as many people. The only thing that would be effective would be another film to counter it, like Randy Olsen’s Flock of Dodos. But that isn’t likely in the cards. This is a bad day for the public understanding of science. Really bad.
David Harding is the vice-president of CNY Skeptics.
Originally published April 2008.