Thursday, May 01, 2008

Review: Expelled

This weekend, I went with my friend Karl to watch the pro-ID documentary Expelled. It was an odd experience, to say the least. Before reading my review, you might want to read this review found via Vic Reppert. I don't link because I consider it a good review in the traditional sense, but because I suspect it's a good example of how people who don't know the issue are likely to respond: they find some things convincing, but can't buy all of it. This sort of movie is way too much to swallow whole.

The movie opened with black and white stock footage, most of it looking WWII (I'm retrospect I'm less sure because the use of stock footage was so indiscriminate, but hold off on that point). It wasn't just Holocaust, it was also war planning (Normandy Invasion, I think, again not quite sure). It threw me off for a moment; I thought perhaps I was watching the trailer for some other film. The relevance of that isn't made immediately clear. Only after seeing the end of the film do I suspect some of it may have been Berlin Wall shots.

Then we get to the movie proper, and for a moment it looks like things are going reasonably well. We get an audience waiting to hear Ben Stein speak, Ben Stein in his dressing room looking Very Serious (actually not terribly overdone) and then he goes out and begins delivering a ringing speech about Freedom. Trying to set up the battle over Intelligent Design as a matter of fundamental American freedoms seems a bit overdone, and there's a feeling of dissonance when you realize Stein is a comedian giving that speech rather than, say, a serious nonfiction writer, and those who did their homework will know the audience at Stein's speech were mostly extras. Still, all in all it's pulled off pretty well. It looks like a slick presentation.

Then we get to the claims that ID supporters are being persecuted, kicked off by an interview with Richard Sternberg. At this point, the presentation collapses with its very first instance of Lord Privy Seal. Lord Privy Seal is that feature of bad documentaries where content is paired with dubiously relevant images. The joke is that a discussion of the Lord Privy Seal would have shots of a lord, an outhouse, and a seal balancing a ball on its nose. In Expelled, this first precious moment comes when Sternberg says people got really, really mad about his publishing a sup-par pro-ID article, and it cuts to stock footage of guys pounding their hands on a table. I found the moment hilarious, though as the saying goes, I wasn't laughing with the movie. This first LPS was quickly followed up by shots of a guy in 19th century dress getting pushed around, I guess as a metaphor for how Sternberg got treated.

One thing I noticed with both Sternberg and the other big example of a supposedly suppressed scientist Guillermo Gonzales is that the claims were a bit vague. With Sternberg, there was a comment about "that's where my office used to be" (he was merely moved from one office to another) and being "pressured" to resign (it's clear he didn't lose any job over the controversy). It's also claimed his life was "almost" ruined, but only almost. Similarly, with Gonzales, they complain about his not getting tenure, but the filmmakers weren't about to go into the minefield issue of the details of his publication and grant record.

Nevertheless, both of those cases looked vaguely sinister if you don't know the full story behind them. However, one case I couldn't wrap my head around was the Michael Egnor one: he wrote a pro-ID article and got criticized harshly online. This was supposed to be shocking. To quote Expelled Exposed: "Michael Egnor had apparently never been on the Internet before." This seemed to be part of a pattern in the movie: it was unable to stop with a few effective bits of deception, and couldn't resist the temptation of completely overblown posturing.

Interestingly, I have at least one bit of evidence that the impact of the movie's "persecuted scientist" sequence wasn't as sharp as was intended. A few weeks ago, the campus atheist group I'm a part of spent some time discussing the movie (before it came out) and it turned out one Christian girl who had been showing up at meetings and was planning to see the film. She came back a little unclear on what exactly we had been discussing the other day. After seeing the film I tried to sort that out with her, and we worked out that she kinda remembered seeing Sternberg and it seemed "a little unfair," but I got the distinct impression it hadn't made much of an impact.

The handling of the arguments for and against ID was even more inept. The initial case against was presented in the form of one-sentence clips of representatives of the "scientific establishment" (which apparently includes Christopher Hitchens) saying variations on "ID is bad." The Stein asks, dramatically, "Do they have any other reasons for rejecting ID?" and plays a clip of a scientist talking about how boring it is. The intended impression seems to be that this is all scientists have by way of criticism of ID. Obviously, this is an instance of dishonest video editing, but it's so obvious that I don't know what Stein thought he would gain by the tactic.

The basic approach to presenting pro-ID academics like Dembski is to give them slightly more screen-time for their largely unexplained assertions, and hope this counts as a good argument. Stein keeps saying "I still have this question, so I'll go talk to so-and-so," but so-and-so is never given enough screen time to say anything of substance. The only real argument against scientific explanations of life comes with the first cell, where they go on about how cells are too complicated to come into existence by chance, yet everyone agrees that life had to start with a single cell. This isn't true though, most scientists assume life started with a simple self-replicating molecule. This was actually mentioned by an interviewee at some point (I think it was Dawkins) though a viewer would have to be really paying attention, and know what to look for, to catch this.

Also on the origin of life issue: Michael Ruse is shown proposing that life formed on crystals. This provided the context for the movie's most memorable Lord Privy Seal: a quick cut to a guy in a turban with a crystal ball. I can only wonder what impact that had on ordinary people who remember just enough of their high school earth science classes to know that crystals actually exist.

The number of points where the film goes clunk in this way are endless: attempts pseudo-dramatism made ridiculous by Stein's monotone; inane, repetitive questions ("was Hitler evil?" "Yes" "Do you believe there's such a thing as evil..."); a random shot of Stein scratching his back with a strange metal implement.

There was one instance, though, that really exemplified everything wrong with the movie: the infamous unauthorized use of John Lennon's "Imagine." Here's the context: shot of PZ Myers talking about religion gradually fading as science literacy improves. Then Stein declares "Myers thinks he's being original, but he's just taking a page out of John Lennon's song book!" Cue song, and random clips of commies. Two things are odd about this: one, the need to melodramatically inflate Myers' supposed claims, making him claim things for himself he never said, and two, there's an odd anti-climax in how random the shots are: Stalin waves, we are shown other things with no clear connection to anything.

I saw that clip on YouTube before seeing the full presentation and thought it exceptionally odd, but it didn't mean much the second time around: the whole movie is like that. Half the time, whoever was in charge of editing apparently had no idea why a piece of footage was included.

The one other part of the movie that needs comment is the section on the conflict between evolution and religion. Dawkins is seen saying some quite sensible things: most of the people who really invest their time in fighting creationism are non-believers, they reach out to believers for political reasons, putting Dawkins on the stand in the Dover trial would have been a bad move. Stein could have stopped with this, but had to go completely over the top and declare that this had completely refuted what Genie Scott said about evolution and religion and proved you couldn't accept them both. Then the film sinks to outright dishonesty in showing clips of theologian Alister McGrath saying Dawkins is all wrong about science and religion. The implication is that McGrath thinks we should allow religious explanations into science, the truth is almost exactly the opposite: McGrath thinks there's no conflict between the secular theory of evolution and religion, a view completely at odds with the view being promoted in the movie. This is not to say it was wrong about these claims, just that it lacked an argument beyond manipulating interview footage to create the impression of an open and shut case.

The final sequence was in some ways the most precious: Stein not only compares the supposed persecution of Intelligent Design with the Berlin wall, but intersperses shots of himself speaking with clips of Reagan calling for the destruction of the Berlin wall. It's a nice symbol of the movie as a whole: at every turn, it can't leave well enough alone but has to heap on loads and loads of melodrama, burying the well done bits of propaganda. Had I not seen any of the publicity for the film, you might have been able to convince me it was a clever parody of Lee Strobel: it's a lot like Strobel's Case for X books, only with Strobel's limited substance dialed down to zero and his annoying dramatism dialed up to eleven, and with everything done more ineptly.

None of this to say the movie is without value. I enjoyed it immensely, and I expect it to be loved by anyone who enjoys watching things done badly in subtle ways. It will be hard to resist the temptation to buy it on DVD. The Lord Privy Seals alone would provide sufficient fodder for a Rocky Horror Picture Show style screening. It would be fun to try to shout out rationales for every nonsensical use of stock footage. I, for one, consider it an prime example of something so bad it's good.


The Inoculated Mind said...

A couple days later, I realized that there should totally be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 made of Expelled. It is perfect for that!

Preston said...

What I don't understand is that I always had the impression Stein was a pretty smart guy. But it seems from everything I've read (haven't seen it yet), that even for a pro-ID movie this was terrible and melodramatic. I suppose I'll have to see it for myself, but I'm not spending $8.

Chris Johnson said...

I would have rather if expelled had not had any b-roll and flashy graphics, but honestly I'm afraid that's what's needed to get the attention of your average American. I disliked many of the cut-ins, especially the crystal ball one. However, in your review you put so much effort into critiquing the method that you hardly touched the actual arguments presented by the movie.

Maybe Richard Steinberg's situation is not as bad as the movie described and was not as directly related to Intelligent Design as the movie portrayed, but are you saying it had nothing to do with Intelligent Design and that nothing wrong happened to Richard Steinberg? Would you say that every person Stein interviewed who said they had experienced scientific discrimination was a fraud? And if so, what is your evidence for that?

Hallq: "The intended impression seems to be that this is all scientists have by way of criticism of ID". How do you know for sure what their intention was? Was that the only criticism of Intelligent Design the movie mentioned?

When it comes to Dawkins and Eugenie Scott, are you saying that their statements were compatible, because from everything I saw they could not vote have been right on that matter. And as for McGrath, Stein used some of the points that McGrath made but Stein never said he agreed with everything McGrath said.

But beyond that, Hallq, I am very impressed with the precision and thoroughness of your post. I recently posted an essay on my blog at proposing a certain piece of evidence in favor of Intelligent Design and would love to hear your take on it.

Hallq said...


The reason I didn't talk much about arguments is the movie was so weak in that regard--and I just find the stylistic things interesting. The most substantial point, I think, was the argument against a naturalistic origin of life. I've said what I had to say about that, and you haven't mentioned seeing anything in it that I don't.

On Sternberg: "are you saying it had nothing to do with Intelligent Design." The fact that he was criticized certainly had to do with Intelligent Design. I don't see anything wrong with criticism, though. And as far as I can tell, there's no evidence he suffered materially.

On the intentions in presenting anti-ID arguments: The "do they have any other arguments" line clearly suggested we were about to get the best the opposition had to offer, which clearly wasn't the case.

On Scott, Dawkins, and McGrath: I'm not sure how to make clearer what I already said. Scott's and Dawkins' views may not be entirely compatible, but treating Dawkins as an easy refutation of Scott doesn't work. And the problem with McGrath is not just that things were left out, but the overall impression of his views was largely opposed to the actual one.

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