Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Fatal Flaw in the Thesis of Stein's "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"

Yesterday I went with my step father-in-law to see Ben Stein's new film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed".

I actually really enjoyed it.

Stein's easing personality is funny and uniquely charming. I love his facial expressions and his tone of voice and his way of asking the most obvious questions in the most earnest fashion. I like his dryness. I like his sarcasm. I like his ability to instantiate comedic situations. I like his shoes.

The film is really well put together cinematically, and it even makes a decent case that there has been some shifty censorship in the American scientific academy.

Then it progresses into some of the actual arguments proffered by the budding Intelligent Design movement.

Because of this progressive quality to the film, it can be difficult to summarize its thesis. Nevertheless, in light of the overarching theme indicated by its title, I offer the following summary of "Expelled": the prevailing posture assumed by scientific academia in America is wrongfully both dogmatic and censoring.

Even though I like Stein's personality and think that he does a winsome job of establishing his thesis, I maintain that that thesis was wrong-headed to begin with.

The movie's central metaphor is the Berlin Wall. The idea is that the entrenched neo-Darwinian machine discriminates against those whose views are fundamentally distinct from it, thus acting like a kind of intellectual wall preventing alternative paradigms from being considered. Images of the Jewish Stein speaking in exposé of the cases of censorship he documents are cross-cut with images of Reagan speaking his infamous instructions to Gorbachev to "tear down this Wall".

But is the metaphor justified? Certainly censorship is like a wall in many respects, but just as sure as the fact that not all walls are created equal, it is so that we ought not condemn all instances of censorship. Stein himself admits this during a line in the film when he tentatively reasons, "perhaps Intelligent Design should be censored - I mean, we don't want scientists teaching that the earth is flat" (paraphrased).

Stein implies that if there isn't any substance to Intelligent Design, as there is no substance to Flat Earthism (or is there?), it deserves to be censored.

This point should be obvious. Nobody is complaining about the censorship of Spontaneous Generation in American science classrooms. That's because there is a consensus on its falsity. We've learned that maggots aren't spontaneously generated by rotting meat, and any who teach so authoritatively should be criticized, characterized as child abusers, and prosecuted like the leaders of the FLDS.

We've thrown out concepts like the Ether, and "Ectoplasm" is now only used to comedically make points in philosophical literature.

We distinguish between alchemy and science.

C. S. Lewis' friend Dorothy Sayers wrote a book called "Creed or Chaos: Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster", whose point and mine are virtually one and the same. There simply must be a standard, some orthodoxy, a common worldview whose alternatives are censored in some fashion. This is true of religion and it is true of science.

Both need creeds.

A friend to them both, G. K. Chesterton provides us with a well put insight:
Religious authority has often, doubtless, been oppressive or unreasonable; just as every legal system (and especially our present one) has been callous and full of a cruel apathy. It is rational to attack the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of religious authority are like men who should attack the police without ever having heard of burglars. For there is a great and possible peril to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier. And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin.

That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself.

- Orthodoxy, Chapter 3: The Suicide of Thought
That is true of religious authority and it is true of scientific authority.

What the Darwinists have right is that when we as a society determine that a scientific theory is well-supported enough, we should teach it. And something should be reared as a barrier - a wall - in protection of it.

And when we have determined that a paradigm has little merit (like Flat Earthism, the Ether, and Ectoplasm), we absolutely should censor it from being taught in our schools.

Censorship doesn't have to mean that we never speak of something again. We could mention it in history (like Alchemy or Roman Mythology), English (like Atlantis), World Religion (like Islam), philosophy (like the postmodern epistemology), or even in the science classroom if it merits mention as a controversial movement under development (like M-Theory) - so long as we do not teach fringe theories as scientific doctrine. There must be a paradigmatic scientific orthodoxy whose teaching prevails until it is unseated (think of how Einsteinian relativity unseated Newtonian physics).

This isn't a matter of free speech like Stein claims. Let's be honest; he has been allowed to make this film! And according to its website, it will be propagated more extensively than any other documentary:
“Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” will boast the largest U.S. opening of any documentary film ever. Scheduled for release in 1,000 theatres, “Expelled” will be hotter than “Farenheit 9/11,” which debuted on 868 screens, and much more convenient to see than “An Inconvenient Truth,” which I was surprised to find opened on only four screens nationwide despite all the hype, peaking at 587 before its appeal melted.

-The blog for "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"
Therefore even if Stein succeeds in documenting several cases in which those with questions about Darwinism were censored in a harsh or at least secretive manner, he fails to establish that they who no longer maintain the prevailing orthodoxy should not have been censored at all.

The effort is wasted, because there will always (at least should always) be a standard platform on which we absolutely require our teachers to stand - and fire them if they cease to. Making it politically incorrect to do so will only result in its occurrence being performed secretly.

Should we then be so surprised that this is perhaps already happening?

Or worse yet - efforts like Stein's just might succeed in tearing down the Wall altogether.

Can you imagine what kind of crazy theories that would allow to come flooding into the academy? What if science professors were allowed to teach whatever they want?

The prevailing scientific paradigm in America is rightfully both dogmatic and censoring.

Instead of arguing that the prevailing scientific orthodoxy of today is wrongfully dogmatic and censoring, Stein should argue that the prevailing scientific orthodoxy of today is wrong. He should then offer a rival paradigm powerful enough to unseat the current orthodoxy.

But isn't that what he does during the latter stages of the film? Haven't I been a bit unfair to Intelligent Design, by comparing it with such barbaric concepts as the Ether and Flat Earthism? Isn't it the case that the neo-Darwinian machine is so stubborn that it is refusing to even consider Intelligent Design as an alternative paradigm in the first place? Haven't the Darwinists replaced an open-minded scientific posture with a closed-minded one? Haven't they erected a Wall that keeps even the citizens out? Isn't that the whole point of the film?

There are two claims bound up in the reaction I anticipate from my modest but beloved and probably largely theistic readership. The first is that the prevailing Darwinian orthodoxy is too stubborn to consider alternative paradigms. The second is that Intelligent Design is a robust scientific theory, which deserves consideration.

I disagree with both.

In rebuttal of the first claim, allow a word from a recent LA Times opinion writer:
In Charles Darwin's own time, of course, numerous books and articles were published critiquing his theory, and through the turn of the century there was still no underlying mechanism to explain how natural selection works and why so much skepticism remained. From the 1930s through the '60s, the neo-Darwinian synthesis and its many variants seriously revised many aspects of Darwin's original theory. In the '70s, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge successfully remodeled Darwinian gradualism with their theory of punctuated equilibrium.

In the 1980s, Lynn Margulis overthrew neo-Darwinism in the microscopic world with her theory of symbiogenesis, demonstrating that random changes in DNA and natural selection alone do not lead to speciation (at a science conference I attended she said, "It was like confessing a murder when I discovered I was not a neo-Darwinist"). In the '90s, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists battled Gould's and Richard Lewontin's belief that Darwinism cannot account for much of human psychology and culture. Currently, David Sloan Wilson's theory of group selection is making inroads into seriously modifying models of individual selection, and I even heard the highly respected evolutionary theorist William Provine (featured in "Expelled") tell an audience of scientists, "Natural selection does not shape an adaptation or cause a gene to spread over a population or really do anything at all."

-Michael Shermer
Darwinism has undergone scrutiny at every turn.

And in rebuttal of the second claim, that Intelligent Design is a robust theory, which deserves consideration, allow a second word from the same writer:
the ID proponent Paul Nelson (also featured in "Expelled") confessed: "Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don't have such a theory right now, and that's a problem. Without a theory, it's very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we've got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as 'irreducible complexity' and 'specified complexity' -- but, as yet, no general theory of biological design."
And this point shouldn't be too controversial either; even the Discovery Institute's list of dissenters has as its creed:
We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

-Dissent From Darwinism
This is not a stand-alone theory, which makes falsifiable predictions about the future in order to direct scientific research. It is an undercutting statement about an existing theory. But that's just their Dissent website. What about their main site? It suffers from the same problem:
Intelligent Design starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what inferences can be drawn from that evidence.

-What is Intelligent Design?
The keyword cited above is "inference". The current state of Intelligent Design is one of inference; it starts with the evidence and works backwards, reasoning to the best explanation. Such a method may provide a little warrant for certain beliefs, but it ought not masquerade as Scientific. Science is one particular method of inquiry, whereby falsifiable predictions about the future are made (not inferences about the past).

Perhaps the Intelligent Design movement is on the right track, but it has a very long way to go in order to rival the reigning orthodoxy, and it ought not demand respect until it has earned it.

There are no shortcuts.

Then, when Intelligent Design unseats the neo-Darwinian machine, becoming king of the Hill, and proceeds to govern research in the Scientific Kingdom, it can appreciate the Wall without being hypocritical.


  1. What the Darwinists have right is that when we as a society determine that a scientific theory is well-supported enough, we should teach it. And something should be reared as a barrier - a wall - in protection of it.

    We as a society should not decide anything. Every individual scientist and layman should decide if a theory is supported enough. Parents should decide if a theory is supported enough to teach it to their children or send their children to a school that teaches something. We as a society should not determine this.

    We as a society do not determine what is true. We as individuals (within a body, the church), decide what we believe the Bible teaches. We do not rely on a religious authority, like Chesterton's Roman Catholic Church, to erect a wall and tell us what to believe. Individuals decide what they believe.

    And when we have determined that a paradigm has little merit (like Flat Earthism, the Ether, and Ectoplasm), we absolutely should censor it from being taught in our schools.

    The whole problem here is public schools. These issues cannot be determined by "society". They must be determined by individuals seeking to educate themselves and their children however they desire.

    Consider J. Gresham Machen's thoughts on the dangers of public education:

    Your collectivist mindset is very disconcerting, once again.

    I haven't seen the film, but my hope was that it simply exposed the presuppositions of evolutionary science that are not derived by experiment, but rather by choice. The error is that scientists are being excluded from major institutions because of their differing presuppositions, not because their practice of science is bad. Which is fine in a free society, exclude away, but the general public should be aware that these scientists are not being excluded for scientific reasons, but for differing philosophic presuppositions.

    I recommend reading this article:

    and this book:

  2. After being enlightened by your most recent blog post, it is now obvious to us that Chesterton's Roman Catholic Church is headed by the Antichrist (although the existence of the USPS and public school system certainly do make it difficult for us to single out those Catholic bastards), and when dovetailing this revelation with your liberatingly educational comment above, it becomes very clear to us that there should therefore not be any academic standards (or religious creeds).

    Instead of allowing our hegemonic science professor to ruthlessly dictate what we ought to believe, we will tell him "Shove it! For you do not determine what is true. Nay, we shall determine what we believe! And for that matter, you must begin charging us more money for this education!".

    That'll show that collectivist pig.

    Per your sage instructions, when we have children, we shall be the dictator of their worldviews - not some science professor or church pastor.

    Thank you so much for the tireless, selfless effort you have extended to break our ideological shackles and drag us up out of the cave of blind credence to fascist collectivism.

  3. PS Out of curiosity, did Fred Zaspel of the Word of Life Bible Church website that you recommend know about the Pierce v. Society of Sisters case wherein the Sisters (members of Chesterton's Roman Catholic Church) stood up to Oregonian Protestants, and the Supreme Court rejected the Oregon law that his citation of Machen refers to with a 9-0 vote? Or is it too easy to be blind to any instance in which the Roman Catholic church or the United States federal government defends freedom?

  4. I sense a bit of anger mixed with sarcasm in your voice. I wasn't trying to offend, just point out what I see as a danger in the way you think.

    Per your sage instructions, when we have children, we shall be the dictator of their worldviews - not some science professor or church pastor.

    Amen. (Though you seem to be setting up a false dichotomy. Just because parents should be free to choose what they want their children to learn in school doesn't mean that they shouldn't put them under the authority of the teachers, including pastors, of their choosing.)

    I have no idea what Fred Zaspel knows and doesn't know. I wasn't recommending him or his website, I was recommending the quote from Machen that he published on his website.

    RC, just like most, defend freedom only when they are in the minority. The same goes for most Protestants, and everyone else. Its fairly obvious that RC would oppose the Oregon law because it was directed specifically against them. A thief, when held at gun point, would try to avoid being shot. That doesn't mean he's a freedom fighter.

    I have no interest in defending "Oregonian Protestants." Protestants attempted to prevent RC from spreading by forcing RC children to go to Protestant public schools, not just in Oregon but throughout the country. It has now come full circle and look who's complaining about the indoctrination of their children now.

    For a discussion of official Roman Catholic positions on freedom, I recommend:
    Ecclesiastical Megalomania: The Economic and Political Thought of the Roman Catholic Church

    Or MP3s if you prefer
    The Political Thought of the Roman Church State

    The Economic Thought of the Roman Church State

  5. Expelled is another attempt by Creationists - now using the ID masquerade - to subvert science education and the First Amendment prohibition of official religion. Getting their dogma into public schools would provide leverage to enable the Creationists to expand their influence into other areas of our government with the ultimate goal of making Fundamentalist Christianity the national religion. Freedom of speech is not the issue as the movie alleges. Creationists have all the freedom they need to preach their peculiar view of the world through religious channels. Our governmental system is secular and must remain so if we all are to remain free. I have not and will not see the movie because it is another attempt to dispense the same propaganda that Creationists have been peddling for years.

    Virgil H. Soule

  6. Thanks so much for commenting. Those are potent words, Virgil. I hope you recognize that even if all your allegations are true, they say nothing about the truth or falsity of Classical Theism, much less orthodox Christianity. I hope it is obvious to you that you are a sinner like me, and therefore deserve to die. I want you to know that there is a God who loves you so much that He died in your place, thereby demonstrating both love and justice. I want you to know that all you have to do is believe in this God who became incarnate and was named Jesus in order to receive this gift of Life. Even though I don't know you, I hope for your sake that you seek the truth for nothing more or less than the sake of the truth, and I sincerely hope that you manage to disallow the beliefs and behaviors of the many who report themselves to be "Christ-like" from influencing your best analyses of the historical, scientific, and philosophical facts available. And may God extend both patience and mercy to us all.

  7. Virgil, here is the text of the 1st Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    There are two parts here:
    1) no establishment of religion
    2) no prohibiting the free exercise of religion

    The institution of public schools forces the government to do one of the the two above. Either they establish a religion by teaching it in schools, or they prohibit a religion by not allowing it to be taught in schools. The solution is to abolish public education so that Americans are not forced to pay for an education they disagree with.

    Once that happens, you can send your child to a school that teaches the random existence of life through evolution and I can send my child to a school that teaches that God created the universe by the power of His Word, and we can avoid the unnecessary anger that accompanies the discussion when our choices are forced by the government.

    The Origins of the Public School

    The Dilemma's of Public Education

    Freedom of Education: A Civil Liberty

    Education: Free and Compulsory

  8. Brandon,

    Sorry for the delayed reply.

    The whole bit of sarcasm you sensed and much more, as we will see, was fully intended. Not a trace of anger was, however.

    Your "amen" struck me as odd pursuant to your stated recognition of the sarcastic nature of my prior comment.

    [As a note on this exchange, my consistent use of collective pronouns was intended to be satirical in juxtaposition to your contempt for my "collectivist mindset".]

    Nevertheless you are right to label the false dichotomy I demonstrated, but mistaken to interpret it independently of the sarcasm you sensed. It was intended to show the false dichotomy you had set up with the statements that we "as a society should not decide anything. Every individual scientist and layman should decide if a theory is supported enough".

    In fact I propose both, that well-supported and widely-affirmed scientific theories ought to be taught in public schools, and that individual scientists and layman should make up their own minds about each theory and proceed to believe and teach accordingly. But, as with any scientist teaching Flat Earthism, those individual scientists who make up their minds in opposition to the reigning orthodoxy ought to be prevented from teaching in public institutions. And those individual parents who do the same ought to be free to send their children to private schools, or school their children at home.

    You almost head this way yourself with your comment "just because parents should be free to choose what they want their children to learn in school doesn't mean that they shouldn't put them under the authority of the teachers, including pastors, of their choosing". I simply include public teachers in this set of options.

    I want it to be clear that all my collectivist-looking language in this thread supervenes on, and reduces to, individualistic components.

    Even in light of my belief in the moral (and pragmatic) permissibility of public education in 21st century America, all it takes is a small bit of imaginative work to see how some of my original statements might be pedantically fleshed out in individualistic terms.

    I cannot find even one of my statements that one would be justified in interpreting as a claim that individual parents should be forced to send their individual children to public schools, that individual children should be forced to believe what is taught in public schools, that individual teachers should be forced to work at public schools, that private schools should not be permitted to exist, or that we as a society determine what is true.

    Throughout every comment you have made on this blog you have demonstrated a well-educated, articulate, thorough understanding of your own position, and a limp, ignorant, persistently straw-man understanding of mine. At nearly every turn I have learned from you additional arguments in favor of, details about, further reading for, and implications of your views, but virtually always felt frustratingly and grossly misunderstood. Almost never have I felt that you fully understood a position or argument and proceeded to squarely addresses it.

    For example, while you say that you were citing Machen's thoughts on public education, you fail to see that they can only be raised as an attack on the current system if in fact his predictions come to pass. The context in which this quote was cited would have presented such a case had Pierce v. Society of Sisters been decided in favor of Pierce. That's why I mentioned the fact that it was decided in favor of the Sisters, which renders the article obsolete. The author himself even states that a "public school system, in itself, is indeed of enormous benefit to the race. But it is of benefit only if it is kept healthy at every moment by the absolutely free possibility of the competition of private schools".

    In the context of the original blog post, the thesis of my original post is that the thesis of Stein's film "Expelled" is wrong-headed. Specifically, I argue that Ben Stein asserts that we should take down the wall surrounding the extant prevailing scientific orthodoxy reigning over public education concerning contemporary science, and I argue instead that if we have fundamental disagreements with such orthodoxy we should argue that it is false while offering a rival paradigm powerful enough to unseat it and reign in its place. I briefly cite reasons why the current paradigm has never been beyond critique, and that Intelligent Design does not qualify as a scientific theory potent enough to direct research, much less unseat the current neo-Darwinism.

    All of your opinions and contentions lie on an echelon logically prior to the node at which Stein and I diverge: Your contentions flow from the conviction that there is no justification for the existence of public education in the first place.

    Therefore any thoughts you might have in reaction to my original post, or Stein's movie for that matter, necessarily fall into the classification "N/A".

  9. Thank you for your clarifications. The fact remains that public education involves force. It forces parents to pay for an education that they may not voluntarily choose. It prevents them from educating their children the way they desire by forcing them to pay double (at least) for an education different from what the state determines, or forcing them to provide it themselves, which they may be inadequate to do. (for more see the link above to "Education: Free and Compulsory")

    To be clear, my posts on your blog are not intended to be a full scale criticism of your ideas. They are intended to provoke you to read and consider resources that I have provided. It seems to be a pattern that you take my posts into consideration without taking into consideration the resources I provide. To do so is to miss my point. I'm not terribly interested in winning an argument with you, only in getting you to consider alternative views (which may explain my somewhat provacative, if overly generalized statements).

    You chose to focus on one paragraph from Machen (which was taken from a several page discussion in "Christianity and Liberalism"). You chose not to acknowledge the book length treatment from Machen, "Education, Christianity, and the State." I understand that you may not have time or interest to purchase the book and read it, but to only choose a small portion of my post to critique is to miss the point.

    You say that the only way Machen's views are legitimate is if the government succeeded in forcing all children to attend public schools and forbidding them from attending private schools. This was one example Machen was using, and it was the only small quote I was able to find online for you to read if you don't have the books. Here is another quote from Machen, from a speech he gave regarding the establishment of a Department of Education:

    "As a matter of fact, federal Departments are not efficient, but probably the most inefficient things on the face of this planet. But if they were the most efficient agencies that history has ever seen, I should, in this field of education, be dead opposed to them. Efficiency in a good cause is good, but I am opposed to federal efficiency in this sphere because the result of it is a thing that I regard as bad - namely, slavery. And I am not inclined to do what a great many people do today; I am not inclined to write freedom in quotation marks as though it were some sort of joke. I believe, on the contrary, that it is something that is very real. An ounce of freedom is worth a pound of efficiency. I think, too, that we may discern within the last year just the beginning of the rise of the love of liberty again in our people. I hope therefore that this measure may be defeated, and that all measures may be defeated that look in the same direction, and that we may return to the principle of freedom for individual parents in the education of their children in accordance with their conscience, and to the principle of freedom for the states, and to the reliance upon the multiplicity of them for a preservation of those things that have made our country great.

    It is to be hoped that the indications of a returning love of liberty which are just beginning to appear are not illusory, but that America, despite opposition, is going to return to the freedom that used to be the very atmosphere that she breathed. But let us be perfectly clear about one thing: If liberty is not maintained with regard to education, there is no use trying to maintain it in any other sphere. If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might just as well give them everything else. That is the reason why I think that every one of us ought to be opposed with all his might and main to the sinister legislative measure that we have been considering today. No, we do not want a federal Department of Education; and we do not want, any form whatever, the slavery that a federal Department of Education would bring."
    -Education, Christianity, and the State

    Feel free to dismiss my comments as "N/A". Sorry to intrude, delete my comments. What struck me was the perspective of your argument (the need for society to censor ideas) as well as your mention of the need for a religious authority by quoting a Roman Catholic.

    I believe we would see much more beneficial work coming from the evolution/ID debate if it was freed from the issue of public education. That is where the court cases have been fought and that is where the majority of the anger stems.


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