Sunday, April 20, 2008


Ben Stein is a personable enough sort, especially when passionately talking about directing more money and effort -- even the sacred taxpayer's dollar -- to saving abandoned pets. But the way he has aligned himself with ID charlatans and hucksters, making a bullshit documentary to flim-flam the rubes one more time, is contemptible.

Stein explains that he is speaking out because he has "lately noticed a dire trend" that threatens the state of our nation: the ascendance of godless, materialist, evolutionary science and an unwillingness among academics to consider more theistic alternatives. A montage of short clips then shows Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other scientists scorning religion or ID without context. "Freedom is the essence of America!" Stein insists, and he frets that scientists who like their empiricism with a dash of deus ex machina are oppressed. He and Expelled charge that scientists, in their rejection of religious explanations, have become as intolerant as Nazis. Or maybe Stalinists—the film clips were ambiguous on that point.

There are so many intellectually dishonest elements in that thesis that it's hard to know where to begin. The most fundamental one that occurs to me is the one conflating "godlessness" with "materialism"; there is never a shortage of god-botherers with more money and more stuff than they need, driving their gas-guzzlers to the megachurches and so forth. Really, one has so little to do with the other they can hardly be considered correlative, much less causative. Yet frequently they are lazily bundled together in rote theistic phrases, while perhaps the most spiritually deadened creature is the mindless dogmatist.

Then there's the implicit rejection of bedrock concepts such as scientific method and peer review. True empiricism is something that can be hypothesized, defined, described, tested, and then reviewed. Anything that does not conform to that process is not science, but a cheap, agenda-driven evasion. That's what "intelligent design" is, and that's what Expelled is.

I normally don't disparage a movie I haven't seen, for obvious (at least to me; plenty of online savants, primarily conservatives, fortify the ramparts any time Hollyweird farts out something that ruffles their feathers) reasons. But Expelled is obnoxious and offensive enough, in its corner-cutting and repulsive assertions, all of which are easily repudiated without ever having to sit through the awfulness, to merit swift rejection.

Meanwhile, aside from Stein's reckless and morally cretinous insinuations, there is no shortage of people who have actually faced threats to their careers and to their physical well-being, from religious nutjobs outraged that their pet superstitions weren't being imposed on everyone's children. Would it be an entirely awful thing for actual empiricists to band together and run these hucksters out of town on a rail already, tarred and feathered if need be? It would at least begin to square the actual debt of genuine persecution.

Here's the thing, and maybe I've never seen anyone mention it thusly because it's too self-evidently obvious, but I think it should be reiterated as often as possible: efforts such as ID, or Expelled, have nothing whatsoever to do with science or religion, despite their claims. They are inherently political, relying on the sleaziest of defamations to state their case. The notion that "Darwinism" led to eugenics, and thence to Nazism and Stalinism, some of the most beastly crimes man has ever perpetrated on fellow man, has to be one of the most revolting -- and most easily refuted -- charges to come down the pike in a while. But make no mistake about it, there's not even the pretense of anything other than attempting to isolate political opponents there.

And hell, it might even work. It's not as if there isn't an endless supply of retards, who have no idea about history, religion, science, ethics, or much of anything else, but are easily manipulated and bamboozled into regurgitating this slackjawed buffoonery. It's just a damned shame that Stein, like Dennis Miller, has chosen to prostrate himself before such an undeserving bunch, and for no good reason at all.


Marius said...

All of the above stands, and makes Stein a contemptible buffoon. Yet even if he had not said it, this bit alone would have made him the butt of every reasonable person's jokes: "lately [he] noticed a dire trend" toward non-theistic empiricism. I daresay he's pretty slow on the uptake. Slow as in 'retarded,' if he's only noticed this "lately." In 1805, Napoleon asked Laplace where was God in his model of celestial mechanics; Laplace reputedly answered, "that is a hypothesis I did not need." T.H. Huxley's introduction of Darwin-Wallace evolutionary biology into the scientific mainstream also occurred around 1875. A pretty fuckin' long time ago, if you ask me. Yet Ben Stein only noticed these tends "of late"? William Jennings Bryant may have been able to say that they were recent trends, but not the chimps at the "Discovery" "Institute."

As to his plea that academic freedom entails tolerance for theistic bullshit, it's like arguing that properly understood freedom entails we should be permitted a bit of pedophilia now and then.


Grace Nearing said...

The film suggests, for example, that Dr. Sternberg lost his job at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History because of intellectual discrimination but neglects to inform us that he was actually not an employee but rather an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term.

I think the NYT reviewer's phrasing here -- neglect to inform us -- is far too generous. Personally, I'm assuming that it was intentional and will continue to do so unless the film is re-edited to include that intriguing bit of information.

As to Stein himself, he is sui generis. He was the valedictorian of his Yale Law School class and yet he wants to be associated with this jumbled, thought-disordered mess of a movie.

Stein has also maintained, bizarrely, that the theory of evolution is "the most compelling argument for imperialism." Now that's just silly coming from someone who studied economics. Empires are about resources, land, slaves/workers, tributes/expanded tax bases, sea lanes, etc.

Is Stein seriously arguing that the Romans, Ghengis Khan, Atilla the Hun, Napoleon, et al were inspired by a theory of evolution that did not yet exist?

patrick said...

just saw Expelled... Ben Stein's goal in making this flick (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.

Marius said...

There's a deep ambiguity in the phrase 'free thought.' It can mean (1) a way of thinking that is free from illegitimate imposition and interference, such as state authority, religious dogma, and dogmatisms of any kind except one: the dogmatic rule of the laws of reason. That's why some people take free thought to be (2) "thought" freed from any constraints, including logic, the need for evidence, the demands of rationality, etc. But, as my use of the scare quotes suggest, such activities are not thought. They're mental confusion, intellectual chaos, gibberish and nonsense -- all neatly wrapped in ideology, the mask of sheer self-interest.

Thought can and should only be free in the first sense. In the second sense, freeing it is like letting a wild beast in a public square full of children. There's no telling what will happen.

Ben Stein and his ilk want thought to be free exactly from that: from the need to support it with reasons, grounds, and evidence.

There's no question that academic cliques and little mafias can and should be exposed. But that has to be done in the right way. Arguing that academics refuse to consider "intelligent" "design" out of 'liberal bias' is like trying to claim that a molecular biology department has a class bias because it refuses to hire a truck driver who wants to write a paper about 18-wheelers as elements of redneck identity. That's just not what they do in molecular biology. Similarly, in biology departments, they only consider theories and hypotheses that are scientific -- that is, make empirical, falsifiable claims, and are subject to naturalistic tests of truth: experiment and observation. An alleged supernatural being what intelligently designed live organisms cannot be verified experimentally. It's as simple as that.

Heywood J. said...

About all I can add to that is that maybe it's time for a documentary that discusses the true motivations of ID promoters. It's important to be clear that this is a strictly political movement, utilizing people's faith to their own ends. Whether Patrick or any other proponent is aware of that or not is irrelevant, it's political all the same.

This does not necessarily mean that Stein does not believe what he's saying; he probably does. But you don't even have to see the movie to understand that loading it with terms such as "Darwinism" is intellectually dishonest. It's a deliberately abusive term, in the sense of subverting basic meanings.

It suggests a cult, rather than an empirically based common ground, which is what evolutionary theory is. And conflating isolated episodes of intramural cliquism with murderous, nationalist totalitarianism is not just irresponsible and ludicrous, but profoundly insulting, both intellectually and morally. Especially considering the very real dangers and harassment (as I linked in the post) non-believers can face even today, much less historically.

It's an amazingly cheap shot, reminiscent of Jonah Goldberg's recent crappus maximus, which essentially postulated that since Hitler was a vegetarian who was nice to his dog, all vegan animal-rightists and enviromentalists are Nazis. It doesn't deserve a dignified reply, except insofar as otherwise sensible people might be gulled into it by their social conditioning.

Movies like Expelled rely on Christians who are conditioned to believe that a debauched, decadent media culture is persecuting them. Everyone's out to take your god away from you. It's a ridiculous assertion, of course, considering that there is exactly one admitted atheist out of the entire congress. There's no surer way to get elected in this country than to gin up fear and resentment, and dress it up with the usual homilies.

The bottom line is that ID belongs in a science class about as much as astrology does. Science is about method and process as much as observation, and ID has never stood up to any of those fundamental requirements, nor even a mild peer review process, much less a truly rigorous one. Things like gravity can be empirically observed in terms of mass, force, distance, and velocity; the refraction of light can indeed be demonstrated in determining why the sky is blue rather than green, or pink and orange during a sunset.

I think a true test of scientific dedication for the ID proponent might be this: ask them -- hypothetically, of course -- that if there were some way to empirically observe a Prime Mover, and if said PM turned out not to be their preferred deity but one from another faith, or from no recognizable contemporary faith at all.

What then? What if it's the Mormon god, and the Lamanites really sailed from ancient Babylonia to Jackson County, Missouri? What if it's Ahura Mazda? What if we're headed toward Ragnarok instead of the more contemporary Armageddon, and an earthquake is really just Yggdrasil shedding his skin or coiling his tail?

The scientific process accepts whatever is there, and adjusts premises accordingly. ID, being pure dogma, uses roughly the same process as the Bush foreign policy -- establish premises as given axioms, assemble convenient data (even if ridiculous and/or contradictory), discard inconvenient data, use cheap broad-brush tactics to demonize all who oppose, and cobble fallacious logic to justify it all. It's the antithesis of "free thought" and genuine empirical inquiry.

Heywood J. said...

Operating from distant memory here, but I think I scrambled my Norse mythology a tad, thinking of the Midgard Serpent. IIRC, Yggdrasil is the tree of life, which may or may not be provable in a "free thinking" botany class.

Marius said...

What you say makes sense only on the assumption that these guys are genuinely interested in settling theoretical differences by means of reasoned argument. But, as Taibbi's piece shows here, some of them have lost both the desire and the capacity to engage in that.

You're right, though, a well-made, intelligent documentary on the politics behind the ID movement would probably be a more effective combating tool than appeals to reason and empiricism.

Heywood J. said...

That's funny, I'm right in the middle of reading that Taibbi article. The alcoholic clown dad bit is too funny.

An anti-ID doc couldn't be a sober counter-argument relying 100% on reasoned dialogue because, as you point out, at the root of many of these arguments is a deep-seated tendency toward irrationality, which is almost never converted solely by logic.

I don't even mean the simple irrationality of blind faith, as Dawkins might attack it, I mean the bundled conflations of intellectual dishonesty and ignorance about the fundamentals of science. It's like the 28% hanging in there for Dubya, nothing will ever convince them because they have a proprietary set of arguments.

Since ID is a stunt to begin with, it makes sense that a stunt documentarian, such as Nick Broomfield, might be able to have some fun with the people behind the "movement" as well as the people who have fallen for it.

But like I say, if it is shown sometime in the future that Ahura Mazda is responsible for all this wonderment, will they become fire-worshipping Zoroastrians? Of course not. This was never about science vs. religion, this is about aligned subsets of people who can't stand that their belief systems have been empirically challenged.

RC said...

after reading your post, i really think you should see the movie and do a fair review on the subject.

i certainly would be interested in your perceptions of the film and whether the tone of the initial statement you posted cares throughout the film.

i'd be curious if there is anything you agree with in the film.

Heywood J. said...


I can pretty much guarantee that I won't see it in its (limited) theatrical release -- I'm not even sure if it's playing in this area, and I doubt I could get the wife to watch it, even to throw rhetorical tomatoes.

That said, I don't like passing judgment on something I haven't seen all the way through, although I have read more than enough sources to know the narrative arc of the film, and I am very familiar with the subject in general. I know the premises, I know the players, and I know the angle. I've never been to Antarctica either, but I know it's cold and there's penguins. So I would probably Netflix the movie once it's out on DVD, just to be more thorough about it.

But you should understand something from the outset -- "fairness" is not the point of Expelled. There's no sensible reason to characterize academics -- even supposedly elitist academics -- as Nazis or Stalinists, simply for hewing to principle and expecting the same level of rigor in research and peer review as they would expect from anyone. It defies even the commonly accepted limits of sensationalism. Why not just show Darwin with a Hitler or Stalin mustache and have done with it?

Ask yourself this, RC: why would the producers of the movie put science blogger PZ Myers -- whose particpation in the doc was misrepresented to him from the outset, by the way -- on a watch list at a pre-screening of the movie? They had a cop (or perhaps a mall-cop, it's not entirely clear) threaten to arrest Myers if he went into the movie or even stayed on premises. (Oddly, they let Myers' guest, Richard Dawkins, into the screening.) Does that sound like the actions of people who are interested in "fairness" and open discussion?

So here's the deal -- when the movie hits DVD, I will make a point to Netflix and watch the whole thing through, and write a more comprehensive review based on my own first-hand impressions. Be prepared for the possibility that, with more specificity comes more rhetorical ammunition, and thus perhaps an even more scathing review.

I have no problem with discussing the actual principles of science and religion, but am less and less patient with the nakedly political underpinnings of most of these things. The "design", if you will, is to muddy and obfuscate reasoned and informed debate. It's not a coherent rebuttal to anything, it's choir-preaching. It's a stunt.

thedevilzone said...

Ah, I see you got one of the Expelled trolls that was over at World O'Crap posting the same shit. You're moving on up, H.! Either that, or the Discovery Institute is paying morons to scour Google looking for references to the movie so they can proceed with Operation: Jesus-Spam.