12 March 2008

Ben Stein's "Expelled" and the Reason I Don't Watch PBS

A passing comment from a certain learned Jesuit some months ago prompted me to dive into a subject of significant importance in the public square these days. After following through on his suggestion to pick up a copy of Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, the issues at stake were placed within the context of the larger debate over faith and reason within the long intellectual history that extends to the very roots of western civilization. This had the remarkable result of justifying my (vicious) inclination to buy books I have no immediate intention of reading, for when I came across a copy of Moral Darwinism sitting on my pile of untouched purchases, I experienced the temptation to read it, and gave in. It was written by Ben Wiker, a former professor of mine from Thomas Aquinas College, back when I didn’t have no clue ‘bout nothin’. He led me through 2400 years of intellectual history in a way that recast the way I discerned the principles (explicit or otherwise) that lay below the troubled waters of the “culture war.”

Following this, a thorough search through the First Things archive produced a 130-page collection of articles going back to the mid-nineties that I printed and read on an exercise bike during this ninth-circle-of-hell winter we’ve been having in Chicagoland. A recent exchange in that periodical between Cardinal Schönborn and Stephen Barr of the U. of Delaware has been particularly helpful. Other papers and theses by friends have made their way onto my desk since then, and it’s been a real joy to engage in the pressing philosophical issues of the day with the consciousness that a growth in competence will serve me very well in the mission to present the long tradition of the Church’s teaching on human reason to the faithful.

It’s certainly given me cause to approach the public dialogue with a heftier measure of cynicism than is my natural disposition; these are times that try men’s patience, after all. Without question it’s instilled in me a deference for minds far more capable than my own, on both sides of the issues. While I don’t feel my grasp of the questions would permit me to lay them out for others, I feel a greater confidence in filtering through the great deal of noise that various public figures continue to emit in one another’s general direction.

One thing in common among the authors that I found most compelling was their tendency to distance themselves from the parameters of the debate as it is presented in the media. It’s with this in mind that I’d like to weigh in with a few thoughts on Ben Stein’s new film “Expelled,” which will be released sometime next month, I believe.

I was given the chance to view a pre-production version of this film at the 2008 FOCUS National conference back in January. It is a film you must go watch on opening weekend (which, if the release date isn’t postponed again, happens to coincide with the papal visit). It is a well-done film that wins some points for the Intelligent Design movement, and clarifies some issues with the neo-Darwinian perspective that need to be clarified. It gets into some heavy matter when tracing out the potential consequences of rigorous Darwinism (eugenics, genocide) and its contemporary instantiation in organizations such as Planned Parenthood, while managing to not come across as wacky conspiracy theory. Stein, after all, in addition to being rather erudite, is Jewish, and while this doesn’t give him a license to brand his opponents an anti-Semite on a whim, it does allow the filmmakers to broach the subject convincingly. A visit to the Charles Darwin museum allows Ben to gaze upon a life-size statue of Darwin as if putting a question to him: “Did you see what we would do with your discoveries?” It is one of the most powerful moments of the film, all the more so for its subdued and earnest tone. There is some mockery of figures such as Dawkins in the film, which I could have done without, but overall the approach is civil and measured.

One exception to this is a conversation at the end of the film in which Richard Dawkins, with no real effort necessary on the producers, makes himself look like a deluded scientologist grasping at straws. I watched this conversation with great pleasure (and a new reluctance to acknowledge among the popular atheists even a thimbleful of good faith—which felt more like a wound than a victory). It would not be surprising if the popular scientific culture never takes him seriously again after his willingness to hypothesize that highly developed extraterrestrials are responsible for the beginning of life on earth.

At the very same conference, however, only a day or two before a talk was delivered to about eighty students by a certain Mark Ryland of the Institute for the Study of Nature, in which he laid out a critical perspective of the evolution / ID debate. Alluding to a number of different addresses and articles by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Schönborn, Ryland made it clear that both sides have succumbed to what is known formally as “scientism”: the refusal to acknowledge any form of knowing as valid other than the empirically verifiable. It can at times be referred to in terms of “materialism” or “positivism.” Whatever its specific form, its fundamental attitude is best summed up in the words of one of its foremost representatives, the geneticist Richard Lewontin:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

This sort of talk simplifies things greatly, for it allows people of religious belief to take issue not with those who work within the reductive bounds of science but those who claim that knowledge so gained is exhaustive. With this distinction in hand, we can let the scientists do their work without feeling threatened by their explorations and conclusions, though always conscious that it will be necessary at times to make corrections.

What does this look like? Ideally, science and religion—reason and faith—work to mutually encourage and purify one another. John Paul the Great succinctly noted in his 1988 address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences that “science can purify religion from error and superstition, [just as] religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes …” The operative word here is “ideally.” Stephen Jay Gould famously outlined this relationship as between “non-overlapping magisterial authorities,” in which reason and faith, science and religion, exercise sole authority over their respective domains. Only at the point of intersection will any wrist-slapping be necessary, with the net effect that by and large the two realms of science and religion can leave one another alone.

While this bifurcation seems reasonable, there is a catch. When science names itself the arbiter of what is empirical and verifiable, it is in effect denying any possibility for religion to make truth claims by confining the consideration of facts to science alone. What is left to religion (and other non-empirical disciplines, for that matter) are the fuzzy and ultimately unimportant questions of personal meaning, responsibility, and identity. Truth, then, is reduced to what can be verified by experiment—that is, by the scientific method.

This is the “self-limitation of reason” to which Benedict XVI referred so ominously in his highly misunderstood Regensburg address. The effect of this restriction is momentous. As he explains,

... if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by ‘science’ so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.

Since the secularist wonks were busy trying to pin the explosive backlash of Islamic jihadists on the passing remark of this theologian to a university faculty, very few of the pope’s substantial remarks were able to gain a hearing much beyond his immediate listeners present with him that day. This is very unfortunate, because what he had to say was crucial. With regard to what's been said above, it makes clear that the NOMA principle of Stephen Jay Gould (non-overlapping magisteria), one that has been thoroughly internalized by the West, is unsatisfactory.

What is unsatisfactory about it is that it is ultimately a compromise of the human. The secular paradigm of “rational” public debate devoid of any reference to what cannot be assented to by all “reasonable” persons is nothing less than a dehumanized society that is ignorant of where it is headed and which has forgotten where it’s come from.

Just what needs to be done in the face of this situation will be taken up in a later post—perhaps even my next one. (Hint: Benedict has some interesting suggestions.) What’s of interest to me now is what the Intelligent Design movement in general and Ben Stein’s movie in particular can mean for us. Critics of ID point out that agency is never invoked in scientific explanations; the goal of science is to provide explanations of phenomena solely with reference to natural causes. Intelligent design, they claim, is not science, but something else masking itself as science in order to find an audience within our scientifically-minded culture—a Trojan horse of sorts. This seems to be a valid criticism.

However, to accept this does not render ID useless: I believe a particular example of this is Expelled. While it was produced by advocates of ID, the movie prescinds from much explicit endorsement of ID beyond whatever is necessary to establish a basic rapport with the audience over its viewpoint. It consciously restricts itself to two goals: pointing out the holes in Darwinian theory as it now stands, and loosening the deathgrip Darwinists hold over the scientific community that stifles the principled exchange characteristic of good science. This bears a remarkable similarity to JPII’s clarification of religion’s competence to “purify science from idolatry and false absolutes” quoted above.

I am certainly not saying that Expelled is at heart a religious film, doing religious work. What I am saying—nothing more than an echo of Schönborn, Benedict, and others—is that it is neither a scientific nor religious issue, but a philosophical one. This is their critique of the debate: no one wants to acknowledge that it will continue to go nowhere as long as materialists are allowed to determine its parameters through a restriction of the object of reason to matter. Philosophy, and indeed the Church, finds it(her)self in the unique position of having to defend human reason from those who would deny its applicability to the realm of purpose, meaning, and all things human. Expelled does a fine job of raising the question in a compelling way, and in that sense, religion finds its philosophical perspective a welcome bedfellow.

If there’s some back and forth on these questions, so much the better. After all, if it’s a matter of survival of the fittest, we wouldn’t want those Darwinists getting fat and happy, would we?

(By the way, if you are interested in that compilation of articles from First Things, which includes the relevant correspondence generated after each article or series of articles was published, post a comment indicating your desire and I’ll send it to you via email. This does, of course, presume you are not posting anonymously.)


scripto said...

I notice "Expelled" is being prescreened by invite only with the attendees asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. It is also being privately screened for the Florida legislature in advance of consideration of 2 "teach the contraversy / academic freedom bills". That should raise some alarm bells.

I suppose that given that there is a curious lack of research, a movie will have to do. These ID guys are underhanded and dishonest. Critical examination is the last thing they want.

Aelfwyn said...

What's "underhanded and dishonest" about pre-screening a film? And who are the "ID guys"? To my knowledge, they didn't make anyone sign a non-critical examination agreement.

Please substantiate your blanket and alarmist claims.

scripto said...

OK. But I've been following the machinations of these ID Guys (Behe, Dembski, Luskin, Wells, Meyer, Nelson Klinghoffer - all from the Discovery Institute) for a couple of years now and the one alarming trait that they show in common is an inability or unwillingness to take their arguments to those most qualified to critique them. Wells has published one incoherent paper in a creationist leaning Italian journal, Dembski has not published his ideas on Specified Complexity in any information theory or statistical journals, and Behe has published nothing concerning Irreducible Complextiy in any journal.

Check for yourself if you wish but they show all the hallmarks of crank science, particulary now that, having failed to come up with any corroborating empirical evidence for Design, they seem to be relegated to making movies and political arm twisting, all the while setting themselves up as a group of beleaguered loners who are prohibited from doing their research by some sort of monolithic Darwinist conspiracy. Please. Tell that to Gould and Eldridge, Margulis or Wegner.

If the Discovery Institute is not somehow involved in this sham (I know, I should reserve judgement until I've seen it) I find it curious that Casey Luskin, special-ed paleontologist and pr flack for the Discovery Institute, was involved in this Hootenanny

The sorry affair regarding the non-disclosure can be found here at Wheat-Dog's World complete with links to tow reporters regarding the non-disclosure cause. If you feel uncomfortable trusting information from someone who calls themselves "Wheat-Dog" the gist of the story is easily verified. Supposedly the non-disclosure agreement is to protect a tender, not fully formed product. Evidently it is completed enough to show at venues such as the Creation Museum and other carefully selected venues where the audience can be expected to swallow it whole. Constructive criticism is apparently expelled .

Anonymous said...

This films' main thesis, that anyone in the science community who believes in God, or is a Darwin dissenter is being "expelled" is false at its core.

In a New York Times interview, Walter Ruloff (producer of Expelled) said that researchers, who had studied cellular mechanisms, made findings suggestive of an intelligent designer. "But they are afraid to report them".
Mr. Ruloff also cited Dr. Francis S. Collins, a geneticist who directs the National Human Genome Research Institute and whose book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”, explains how he came to embrace his Christian faith. Mr. Ruloff said that Dr. Collins separates his religious beliefs from his scientific work only because “he is toeing the party line”.

That’s “just ludicrous,” Dr. Collins said
in a telephone interview. While many of his scientific colleagues are not religious and some are “a bit puzzled” by his faith, he said, “they are generally very respectful.” He said that if the problem Mr. Ruloff describes existed, he is certain he would know about it.

Similarly, Dr. Ken Miller is a professed Christian who wrote "Finding Darwin's God" (which I suggest you read). Dr. Miller has not been "expelled" in any fashion for his belief in God.

The movie tries to make the case that "Big Science" is nothing but a huge atheist conspiracy out to silence believers, but only presents a very one-sided look at some of the Discovery Institute's "martyrs".

Carolyn Crocker "expelled"? - No.
Her annual teaching contract was not renewed. Was she "fired" for daring to bring God into research? - No. She was hired to teach Cell Biology, and she decided to ignore the schools' curriculum and substitute her own curriculum.

Guillermo Gonzalez "expelled"? - No.
He was not granted tenure. The film doesn't bring up the fact that in all his years at ISU he had only brought in only a miniscule amount of grant money. Nor does it bring up the fact that in all his years at ISU he failed to mentor a single student through to their PhD. Nor does it mention that in his career at ISU, his previous excellent record of publication had dropped precipitously.

Richard von Sternberg "expelled"? - No.
Sternberg continues to work for NIH in the same capacity. Of course the movie doesn't bring up his underhanded tactics in getting Meyers work published.

This movie attempts to influence it's viewers with dishonesty, half-truths, and by a completely one-sided presentation of the facts.

If a scientists' research is not accepted by the scientific community, it isn't because the scientist either believes or doesn't believe in God or Darwin, it is usually because they are producing bad science. Like the idea of Intelligent Design.

flatlander said...

While I am no explicit advocate of the ID cause (as my original post should make clear), I do find it puzzling that opponents of intelligent design criticize its public proponents for not having published their purportedly scientific findings in any respectable journals. I don't know how these things work, but I would imagine that any and every comer is not welcome to publish in these journals, and it is the editorial staff that exercise control over what gets published. Supposing there was a controversial paper that argued an unconventional thesis (regardless of its scientific evidence), journals might be reluctant to publish it.

Now, there might be several good reasons not to do so, but the one reason that would NOT be valid was whether or not other papers on the same subject had been published before in that or other journals. It could be the product of bad science, or could have been poorly written or haphazardly researched. These would render it unpublishable. But if the editors of a journal simply don't like the thesis of the paper because it contradicts prevailing wisdom, this is unjust and equally bad science.

This is at least part of the contention behind the movie in question. Scripto would insist that ID proponents put their ideas under the scrutiny of the scientific establishment. Yet it is precisely this that ID proponents are being denied (as evidenced by the refusal of many journals to publish anything with the words "intelligent design").

At the very least, it indicates a misunderstanding of the claims involved to criticize ID for hiding behind a cloak of popularist jargon. Scripto, what you would insist upon, so also would the makers of EXPELLED, and, I imagine, other ID advocates.

One cannot fault anyone for trying to get issues discussed in the public square by using media such as film to present complicated ideas and issues in a more comprehensible format for the sake of the layman. If you don't agree, then you must also be of the opinion that Al Gore and the global warming nuts have been "relegated to making movies and political arm twisting, all the while setting themselves up as a group of beleaguered loners"? Would that be correct?

And as for the last anonymous comment, it was copied/pasted from another website, and I don't find such tactics particularly engaging.

Anonymous said...


I am the original author of the above annonymous post you reference.

I have, indeed, posted it on new blogs promoting Expelled, so readers could have at least the benefit of hearing the other side of the issues, becuase Expelled presents Crocker, Gonzalez, Sternberg, etc as "martyrs".

The more I find out about Expelled, the more I find it distastefull.

As an example, I'm sure you've read by now how PZ Myers was ousted from the screening in Minneapolis. Do you think it was appropriate for the producer of Expelled, a movie purporting to enable the debate about evolution, to expell an educator they had interviewed in the film, and thanked in the end credits?

Benjamin Franklin

flatlander said...

Thanks for following up. To be honest, I too find projects like "Expelled" distasteful, especially after reading some of the coverage regarding the Minneapolis screening you mentioned in your latest comment. The self-righteousness is in a steep crescendo (on both sides, to be sure) and this does no service to public discourse. I suppose the producer had every right to exclude persons from the screening of his film, but in my world we have a phrase for the arbitrary and petulant use of authority in a public way so as to give persons a reason to belittle or mock whatever truth you might have to offer: giving scandal.

Such is the way of the world...