Ben Stein Watch, Expelled Edition

I went to a screening of Ben Stein’s new movie this evening. My favorite bit, unsurprisingly, was when the film quoted Pamela Winnick thusly:

If you give any credence at all to Intelligent Design, you are just finished as a journalist.

Not at the New York Times you’re not, clearly.

Winnick is presented in the film for all the world as a diligent journalist – a Jewish journalist, no less – who just happened to mention Intelligent Design, en passant, in one of her columns, and ended up getting fired.

Omitted from the film: any indication that Winnick is the author of "A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade Against Religion," published in 2005 by Thomas Nelson. Or that in her journalism for the newspaper from which she was fired she talked of Darwin’s influence on eugenics and Hitler, and "the serious people –scientists included — who continue to challenge his theories".

I’m not going to even attempt a fisking of the film as a whole; I’ll leave that to others more qualified than myself. (Update: Once the film is out, the most authoritative debunking site will be this one.) I will note, however, that most of the "movie clips" at this site are not in the cut that I saw (which I believe is the final cut). Those clips actually engage the subject of evolution, which is something the film really doesn’t do, weirdly enough. The closest that the film comes is to attack science on the grounds that scientists don’t know what the origins of life are, which is a bit weird since scientists happily admit that they don’t know what the origins of life are, and in any case the origins of life aren’t part of Darwin’s (or anybody’s) theory of evolution.

In general, the film (to a godless audience of New Yorker media types, at least) seemed to fall somewhere between the pathetic and the self-defeating. (Stein literally segues, at one point, from ridiculing the "directed panspermia" hypothesis to saying that science outright refutes any directed explanation for the origins of life. You can have it one way, but you can’t have it both ways.)

But there’s a large chunk of the film which is downright offensive, too – when Stein talks at length about the Holocaust and blames it directly on Darwin, who is called "a necessary condition" for National Socialism. And then, just to make matters worse, Stein extends that theme to include abortion rights in general, and Planned Parenthood in particular: he’s basically saying that all pro-choicers are Nazis. Ugh.

PZ Myers calls this "the simple falsehood at the heart of Expelled", and his short blog entry should be required reading for anybody who sees the film. Because once you realize how stupid the Nazi bits are, everything else in the film just kind of falls apart.

Even without that insight, however, and even without knowing the details of the lies that the film propagates, Stein manages such a spectacular own goal at the end that only the most committed creationist is likely to come out of the theater having any sympathy for him. He sets up an interview with Richard Dawkins, and then leaves Dawkins sweating it out in the studio, tapping his fingers on the table, until Stein walks in with a fake and smarmy "sorry for keeping you waiting". In voiceover, he tells us he’s going to "confront" Dawkins. And what form does this confrontation take? A grilling on the subject of which gods Dawkins – author of "The God Delusion"- might believe in. Does he believe in Hindu gods? In the Jewish god? In Allah?

Dawkins can hardly believe this line of questioning; all he can do is just giggle, eventually. The proud atheist reiterates over and over again that, yes, he’s an atheist, and no, he doesn’t believe in any god. And Stein just keeps on popping the same question. It’s downright weird.

But the episode does help reveal what I think is the real message of the film, which of course is aimed much more at the Bible Belt than it is the secular blogosphere. The film sets up Dawkins, Myers and other atheists against the likes of Eugenie Scott, of the National Center for Science Education, who sees less of a conflict between science and Christianity. And weirdly the film comes down on the side of the atheists in this debate: Darwinism does lead to atheism, we’re told over and over again, by atheists and believers alike.

At this point it’s worth remembering that atheists are America’s least trusted group – if you want to stir up an irrational response directed against any group of people, one of the best ways of doing that, in America, is to label them atheists. Indeed, as I said two years ago,

Everybody defines himself at least in part in opposition to someone or something else, and "atheist" seems to have become a catch-all term for whatever that something else might be.

If you set out to make a propaganda flick on any subject, then, painting your opponents as atheists would be a pretty good idea. In this case, it’s laughably easy, since so many of Stein’s opponents happily embrace the label.

Stein’s confrontation of Dawkins, then, wasn’t designed to embarrass Dawkins: it was designed to create an association in the public’s mind between Darwinists and atheists – an association which has the power to sway minds when it comes to those crucial school-board elections and whatnot. "Science" is a positive term, still, in America; "atheist" is very much a negative term. And while Expelled naturally can’t do a very good job of persuading its viewers that Darwinism is unscientific, it can do a good job of persuading them that it’s atheistic. It’s cheap, and underhanded, and pretty bloody effective.

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