26 Apr 2009

Ben Stein’s Expelled

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A few years ago, when I was a college professor at Hillsdale (where a large fraction of the student body was very interested in Intelligent Design), I spent a lot of time reading in this area. My conclusion was that (a) the vast vast majority of people who subscribed to ID were Christians who had already rejected the orthodox Darwinian account on other grounds, and (b) the prominent evolutionary biologists who said things like “evolution is a fact as well established as gravity” were bluffing. But as with most heated disputes that get people yelling at each other, a lot of the problem was in their framing of the dispute; each side was misunderstanding the claims of the other.

Anyway I recently watched Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which you can watch instantly at Netflix. My first thought is, “I can’t believe he interviewed all those big guns in the various fields, and managed to produce an entire documentary in which the new viewer would walk away with not a single major argument over which the ID debate rages.” The beginning of the movie focuses on people who were allegedly blacklisted by their professional peers because they had the audacity to discuss ID in a sympathetic light. (Tim Swanson points me to this site claiming that this sob stories are deceptive.) Judging just from the interviews in the movie, I got the sense that a few of the people seemed as if they had been railroaded, but a few other ones seemed to have a martyr complex, so I was suspicious.

The most hilarious thing in the movie–and which perfectly epitomizes the huge waste of time in this debate–is that in the final encounter, Richard Dawkins literally gives up the whole game to Stein, and then Stein manages to come back and (almost) surrender to the other side. Naturally, neither man seemed aware of how poorly he had played in their match. Argh.

In order to explain my observation, I’ll give a very quick background: Contrary to what you may have heard, the proponents of ID do not necessarily even dispute the theory of common descent. For example, I am pretty sure that Michael Behe (who coined the term “irreducible complexity” and loves talking about the “outboard motor” of a bacterial flagellum) is perfectly happy to concede that all living cells today are descendants from a single cell that was the only living thing billions of years ago. But what Behe (and other IDers) dispute is the standard neo-Darwinian claim that it was random mutations and natural selection alone that could have transformed that first cell into all of the things we see today in biology.

In particular, the IDers reject the standard claim that “nobody directs evolution” or that “there is no designer when it comes to life.” They think that this is a completely unwarranted leap beyond what the brute facts of biology tell us. The ID people think that the hard, scientific facts leave open the possibility–and in fact render it the most likely explanation–that something intelligent must have been involved to produce the current mix of life forms. Obviously, most IDers think that intelligence was in the mind of God, but strictly speaking ID theory itself does not get into the identity of the intelligence.

In opposition to ID, the standard Darwinian response has been to (a) dispute the particular “impossible” leaps that the IDers say foil the random mutation / natural selection story, (b) go even further and claim that the very notion of discussing an intelligent designer is unscientific and out of bounds, and (c) speculate that ID is really just a smokescreen for Bible-thumping Christians to smuggle Genesis back into the classroom and label it “science” instead of religion.

OK I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of this position. Like I said, a few years ago I got sucked into the debate and it was a huge time suck. (Not to mention, it convinced many people that I was crazy and/or an idiot.)

But I don’t have to discuss the pros and cons of the case, because Dawkins and Stein each validated the strongest charges of each other (and without realizing it). In the final scene, in a moment of graciousness Dawkins concedes that OK there could be an intelligent designer of terrestrial life, but only if life evolved on other planets (through the undesigned Darwinian process) and then those life forms designed and seeded life here on earth.

At that point, Stein had won. Had he really understood the ID position and the philosophical issues flying around in the debate, he should have said, “I am sorry to inform you, Dr. Dawkins, but you just declared Michael Behe and William Dembski the undisputed winners, and Eugenie Scott the clear loser. For Scott and the other “consensus” scientists have been saying that the very notion of looking for “motives” and “design” in biology is not just wrong, but unscientific. You have just shown that this is silly. If indeed aliens designed the first terrestrial cell and planted it here billions of years ago, then it would naturally take human scientists to uncover this fact and study it. We wouldn’t rely on philosophers and theologians to flesh out the theory of alien seeding.”

But alas, that’s not what Stein said. Rather, he muttered something like, “So you’re not against design, just a particular kind of designer.” Now actually, that was a decent point–i.e. Stein was highlighting that the Darwinians were bluffing when they categorically stated that design per se was unscientific–but he nonetheless confirmed all of the atheist biologists’ suspicions that the IDers really were after confirmation in God designing everything.

Final point: I could not BELIEVE Stein spent a large chunk of the movie exploring Nazi death chambers. I don’t know what the point of that was. Anybody who was convinced of the merits of ID didn’t need to see “where evolutionary theory takes us,” and opponents of course would just go ballistic at such a blatantly emotional ploy. It would be like a pro-Darwin documentary spending time on the Inquisition to show the “logical conclusion” of Intelligent Design theory.

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