Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (review)

My personal anticipation of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” has varied since early last fall.

After I first heard about the movie, seeing the early trailer and Ben Stein attached got me pretty excited. I’ve learned (as we all have) to be a bit reserved in my excitement over upcoming related-at-all-to-faith-issues films. But I was guardedly optimistic.

Then, that optimism was systematically undermined in the ensuing months. A promised screening at a college ministers’ conference in November was suspiciously canceled. Next, the shifting release date looked awfully unprofessional. Third, I thought I noticed a distinct lack of involvement by Stein himself in promoting this film. If he, the brilliant, savvy, well-known protagonist was in fact distancing himself from his own show… That spelled trouble. Plus, some of the promotional material seemed awfully corny. But I was gonna wait and see.

In recent weeks, though, I’ve heard more about Stein’s involvement in promotions, and I started hearing great things from several sources about this movie – although some Christian sources, as we all know, have a hard time with subtlety when it comes to discussions of cultural phenomena they appreciate (as well as those they don’t).

So it all came down to opening night on Friday, when I went to see “Expelled” at the local cineplex here in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. I was a little worried, and a little hopeful. All at once.

Question 1: Should you see “Expelled”? Yes. Particularly if you’re involved at all in higher academia, which includes us college ministers. And you should take your students, who need as often as we can tell them to understand that there are biases everywhere – even in the professors they respect.

There are several very good quotes in the movie that make the basic argument for academic freedom succinctly. At the same time, balance is generally preserved, and very, very little is said that could (honestly) be considered “outlandish” or contrived. Some of my fave quotes:

  • On daring to disagree with the majority of very brilliant scientists who hold to evolutionary theory: “It may seem a little cheeky, but it’s what scientists are supposed to do.”
  • “The questions that aren’t properly answered don’t go away.”
  • “It would be nice to have a real spirit of self-criticism pervading [the scientific community].”
  • Richard Dawkins’s words to God, if he did encounter Him in the afterlife (apparently quoting Bertrand Russell): “Sir, why did You take such pains to hide Yourself?” (good quote, even if I disagree)
  • On the possibility of discovering some sort of intelligent designer behind the natural world: “What could be more intriguing than that?”

Critics are already decrying this movie as “propaganda,” and I don’t understand that concern at all. (Find the growing list of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.) My surprise is not because “Expelled” clearly isn’t propaganda, but because it so obviously is – so what’s the problem? Has the movie or its advertising made any attempt to hide the fact that it has deliberately presented its information with a cause in mind? (See the definition of propaganda.)

The cause, as delineated in the last five (powerful) minutes of the film, is creating a hole in the Berlin-like wall that has kept Intelligent Design from being considered within academia. At the movie’s beginning, Stein says he always assumed scientists were free “to ask any question, to pursue any line of inquiry, without fear of reprisal.” The film hammers toward making that wish reality. It’s a documentary-with-a-purpose and is therefore propaganda. Nobody said it wasn’t.

[Update: While most of the negative reviews I’ve seen have been quite strangely unbalanced and even angry, I feel like Variety presents a much more balanced take, even if they ultimately found “Expelled” ineffective as well.]

Question 2: Is it an apologetics movie? No. Or, better said, the greatest weakness of “Expelled” comes at the point it tries to build an apologetic against evolutionary belief. The only real attacks against evolutionary theory (rather than just against “Big Science” and its refusal to discuss the issue) come in the last 20 minutes. These attacks come at the points of linking evolutionary thought with the Holocaust, abortion, eugenics, etc., as well as linking Darwinism with atheism. While such links (debatably) exist, they:

  • are not very strong arguments against evolutionary theory
  • do not fit tightly with Stein’s overall purpose in this film
  • have received a disproportionate focus among movie critics reviewing this film, which is a bummer

At the same time, I didn’t find the movie’s efforts here to be as heavy-handed as some seem to have found, or even uninformative. It was very interesting to think about links between Darwinian thought and, for instance, the Holocaust, Planned Parenthood, and “eugenics” (which I didn’t really know much about). Still, this semi-diversion may hurt the film’s cause more than they help it.

However, “Expelled” does do a pretty good job of showing some speciousness in the theory that “Big Science” has a unified voice on evolutionary theory, or even a unified understanding of each scientist’s personal positions. The discussions with several people from this community are enjoyable to watch, and it’s not “gotcha” editing, either. The footage shows that some of these scientists’ own (semi-private) leanings are, at times, quite peculiar.

Most powerful among these episodes comes with Richard Dawkins, the biggest spokesman of the recent anti-god fervor, at the end of the film. (Don’t read Christianity Today’s review yet if you want to save that surprise.)

Question 3: Did I enjoy this movie? Yeah, I actually did! It was a documentary that certainly kept my interest, with an excellent use of “samplings” of old movie / TV clips, songs, etc. It was fast-moving, which was great – although with some of the stories it told, I wanted to know more. The movie was funny at several points, both in its sampling as well as in Stein’s back-and-forths with the interviewees depicted. (Many reviewers are overzealously mocking the “sampling,” but it fit the tones of the movie and should be appreciated by youth and collegians, especially.)

The crowd I was with seemed to enjoy it, too, even in the Research Triangle near Raleigh, NC. But we had far from a packed house at 9:15pm, and I imagine most who saw “Expelled” on its first night were friendly to its premises. There were occasional chuckles from the audience and scattered clapping at the end (which I found slightly annoying, but whatever). Most encouraging to me were the multiple small groups of students standing around outside the theater, clearly discussing what they had just seen.

Whether individuals like the film and its premise or not, its biggest “win” will be inducing this sort of discussion. And that’s exactly what the film hopes to accomplish within the scientific community at large, as well: Whether scientists like Intelligent Design theory or not, it seems it should be “on the table” for discussion.

[the movie’s site is at www.expelledthemovie.com, and it’s got lots of “extras” for your perusal]

Written from “The Triangle,” North Carolina (as part of a year-long road trip researching college ministry)

12 Comments

  1. Benjamin Franklin

    Propaganda is OK. Propaganda, like Expelled, which is filled with deception, half-truths, and flat out wrong information is not OK, it is dangerous.

  2. Frank

    I enjoyed the documentary and it is clear that there really are two distinct world views and that Stein is correct – the “scientific” point of view has totally bought into the atheist, evolutionist position. The result is a culture of death that has lost the integrity of scientific inquiry and embraced the kool-aid of abortion and eugenics. Cheers to Stein for having the courage to call them on it!

  3. Benjamin Franklin

    Hi Ben

    First, my name is Ben Franklin

    Here are a just a couple of things that I saw that was wrong with the movie.

    The scenes with Ben Stein giving the lecture at Pepperdine were phony. According to officials at Pepperdine, there were only 2 or 3 actual Pepperdine students at that “lecture”, the rest were hired “extras”. Now this would be considered propaganda, but the fact is that according to officials and teachers, virtually every student at Pepperdine has no problem with the theory of evolution, so thats where the lie comes in.

    A more egregious example, the whole segment on Richard von Sternberg was rife with inacuracies. He was never “removed” from his office, the Smithsonian had announced the change of 20 or so offices months before. Likewise his keys were not “taken away”, they switched from keys to magnetic keys – deception.
    He never lost his job, he continued to work at the Smithsonian (he was an unpaid researcher), he was actually employed by NIH, and he didn’t lose his job there. At the journal he was editor of, his term as editor was up, but he snuck in the Meyers paper, without standard peer review in the next to last issue he was editor of. – More deception.

    Nobody shown in the movie had their lives “ruined”. Hyperbole.

    The rest of the cases have been widely written about, but a good source of accurate information is http://www.expelledexposed.com

    The movie tried to make the case that all scientists, and certainly all scientists who use the theory of evolution are atheists. That is a lie. One of the producers, Mark Mathis said in an interview that the decision was made not to include noted scientists and biologists like Dr Ken Miller, and Dr Francis Collins ( who headed up the Human Genome project), both of whom are professed Chrstians, because in his words – “that would make the move confusing”. Obsfuscation!

    I can give more examples from what I saw in the movie, compared to what I have determined through research to be facts if you like, but I think that I have made my point.

    I also am taking up a collection to buy David Berlinsky a proper chair to sit in. Care to contribute?

    Benjamin Franklin

  4. Thanks, Ben. I really appreciate it.

    Berlinsky is the guy in France, right? You’re right – that chair thing was CRAZY. I didn’t understand why he was sitting like that at all, and it cracked me up. Remind me never to hug my knee while sitting, or to let my face ever be parallel with my knees while sitting. Never.

    I agree that not all evolutionists are atheists, and Frank does seem to lump ’em in his comment.

    But the movie definitely does not. It specifically says that’s not true. The movie does produce evidence that evolutionism helps people to atheism, which I’ve already written is one of the weaker points. However, they do present one or two people who say that was true in their case.

    As for not presenting theistic evolutionists, they shouldn’t have. The movie is not meant to be “balanced” in the sense of showing equal evidence from all sides (a fact many, many reviewers out there don’t seem to understand). It is not a documentary in that way. It’s propaganda, which is okay – and is the natural form of “classic debate.” Opponents marshal THEIR best evidences (and aren’t expected to marshal everybody else’s).

    The problems people apparently have with Michael Moore is when he takes quotes, etc., out of context. Certainly, ID and Creationist proponents seem to have been guilty of that in the past, too. But I didn’t see that in this movie – no splicing to make it appear as though evolutionists were saying something they weren’t (at least not that I remember).

    So anyway, presenting theistic evolutionists would indicate what? Either they would argue for evolution (which is fine, but creation vs. evolution isn’t the thrust of the movie) or they would show that such people exist (also, not the point of the movie). Likewise, there would be no need to show a bunch of ID-believing bank tellers who had been divorced because of their belief, or atheist ranchers who were well-liked in the ranching community.

    The thrust of the movie is simply saying, “Lookie here! Some people weren’t allowed to follow evidence they felt leads to ID hypotheses! Boo! This should change!”

    That’s it. Everything they put into “Expelled” really does aim for that target. While some of their efforts are more helpful (and less distracting) than others, the movie admittedly aims in this direction – factually, emotionally, etc. Adding a “balanced” view would make the movie less effective FOR ITS PURPOSES, just like presenting a “kind side” to Hannibal Lecter or Dawkins writing a chapter on the beautiful poetry in the Bible. More balanced? Sure. But not fitting to the purposes.

    If von Sternberg’s facts weren’t straight, then that’s no good. Obviously. Either they’ll come out with a rebuttal, or they won’t, and I hope he and the moviemakers will own up to whatever the true story is.

    But your other points ring kinda hollow. For instance, you’re really going to judge for these people what level of life-effect they must have experienced before declaring their lives “ruined”? C’mon. That’s a very weird shot.

    I do have to ask – did you see the movie before your first comment? I asked that in the email I sent you, and I’m still wonderin’.

    On the Pepperdine thing – first, did the movie even say it was Pepperdine? It might’ve; I could have been taking notes. Thanks for that info, ’cause I was wondering. I love that campus – beautiful. I was there a few months ago.

    As for your point – kinda hollow. Not sure why it matters, and it’s certainly not deceptive.

    I would encourage people who want to know more to check out the expelledexposed.com site. I’m sure it does have some good arguments. But at the same time, I’m not encouraged by its opening paragraph, which is a great example of the reviews this movie is getting:

    “Welcome to Expelled Exposed, a detailed look at the Ben Stein movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. We’ll show you why this movie is not a documentary at all, but anti-science propaganda aimed at creating the appearance of controversy where there is none.”

    1) It’s only anti-science for those who feel science necessitates leaving ID off the table. Obviously, some do, and that’s their deal. But it’s a bit circular to say “We define science as non-ID; this movie argues that science should allow for ID questions; therefore this movie is anti-science.”

    2) I don’t remember “Expelled” even talking much about “controversy,” except when it indicated that they’re fighting to make sure school boards don’t allow ID in. It never claims that there’s some HUGE number of scientists who argue for ID, either. In fact, it says the opposite. And obviously, there is something of a controversy, or the site wouldn’t exist.

    One HUGE question for me is – why care so much? You said this movie was dangerous, and I kinda fail to see why. And I could ask that to lots of reviewers, whose strange ANGER at this film and at this issue certainly makes Stein’s point for him.

    And the second is like it: Can those doing science follow ID hypotheses or not?

  5. Benjamin Franklin

    To understand why this movie is dangerous, you have to follow the money. One thing thats been hardly touched on is the financial backing for the Intelligent design movement.

    Yes, there are some credentialed scientists who support the scientific concept of ID, but at the core, it is a political and philosophical movement, much more interested in shaping public opinion to accept a Christian Dominionist and Reconstructionist positiion.

    Are you familiar with Dominionism and Reconstructionism?

    See http://www.religioustolerance.org/reconstr.htm

    and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominionism

    The major funding for the Discovery Institute came from Howard Ahmanson Jr, who remains on the board of directors.

    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Ahmanson,_Jr and

    http://www.au.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5582&news_iv_ctrl=0&abbr=cs_

    If you look at those who really hyped-up Expelled, it reads like a Dominionist convention invitation list:

    James Dobson
    Chuck Colson
    Don Wildmon
    Tony Perkins
    Phyllis Shafley (Concerned Women of America)
    Coral Ridge Church (D. James Kennedy)
    Brent Bozell

    The more you learn about these folks, and their driving force, the more scared you should be.

  6. Marcie Dodd

    Ben,
    Your dad and I were talking today about Expelled and he recommended that I read your blog. I very much agree with your view on the movie.

    “It was very interesting to think about links between Darwinian thought and, for instance, the Holocaust, Planned Parenthood, and “eugenics” (which I didn’t really know much about). Still, this semi-diversion may hurt the film’s cause more than they help it.”

    You are right on about this – I was nodding in agreeance until this point was brought up and I was a little shocked that they would honestly try to take an intellectual debate into the “shock and awe” category.

    Overall, very good film – one I highly recommend going to see!

    I think the purpose of this film is lost, however, because of the fact that it’s main targets are people like you and me. This film might accomplish something if the scientists it discusses with such distaste actually were to watch with an open mind. Hard to have an open mind when you feel as though you are having to stand up for your beliefs!

    Keep up the good work!
    Marcie

  7. Ben Stein’s goal in making Expelled (i gather) is to promote free thought, especially more thinking about motivations that drive American academia and a lot of other behind-the-scenes worldview that we tend to take for granted.

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