Expelled’s Creationism is Bankrupt but Persistent (and Politically Connected)

Consider it proof that the opponents of evolutionary science are not just intellectually bankrupt.

Imagine my delight upon learning this news from the National Center for Science Education:

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed — the 2008 creationist propaganda movie fronted by Ben Stein — is scheduled to be auctioned, lock, stock, and barrel, pursuant to the bankruptcy proceeding of Premise Media Holdings LP. According to a document (PDF) filed in the United States Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, on May 31, 2011, the trustee of the bankruptcy estate is seeking to auction “[t]hat certain feature-length motion picture (‘Picture’) ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ and all collateral, allied, ancillary, subsidiary and merchandising rights therein and thereto, and all properties and things of value pertaining thereto.” The auction is scheduled to take place on-line from June 23 to June 28, 2011.

The high bidder will become the owner of the movie that The New York Times (2008 Apr 18) described as “[o]ne of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time … a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry … an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike”….

It’s music to my ears because back when Expelled debuted, I put no little effort into documenting its various assaults on science and truth. Here’s an essay I wrote about Expelled’s odious attempts to blame the Holocaust on Darwin; here’s a piece with Scientific American’s Steve Mirsky about some of the other misleading parts of the film; here’s a podcast in which Eugenie Scott, the NCSE’s director, Mirsky and I discuss the film, and here’s a recording of the bizarre roundtable discussion that SciAm’s editors and I had with Mark Mathis, an associate producer who screened the movie for us. Many others on the Web also rallied against the film, of course, and the NCSE’s Expelled Exposed site features links to a number of those resources, too.

Putting so much effort into rebutting Expelled seemed worthwhile at the time because it seemed all too plausible that if the film became a popular success, it might further energize the creationists’ efforts to compromise the teaching of evolution in public schools. In the end, Expelled grossed about $7.7 million, which isn’t bad for a documentary—more than Tupac: Resurrection but less than Hoop Dreams—but if it turned a profit, it wasn’t enough to keep the holding company that owned it afloat, which is why the movie is now scheduled for the auction block. The schadenfreude doesn’t come any schadenfreude-ier.

The news also elicited an intriguing suggestion to Craig Good, which he shared at Skeptoid:

Perhaps we (the skeptical community) should buy it and, assuming the assets include all the raw footage, re-edit it using only their footage to let Dawkins, Myers, et al have their say.

Indeed! Given that the scientists in the film were interviewed thinking that they were participating in a different type of documentary, there would no doubt be wonderful footage useful not only for explaining evolution but for demonstrating how unfair Expelled’s makers were in their editing and narrative. If I owned the film, I would be tempted to turn it into a Mystery Science Theater 3000-style lampoon of itself, but this idea seems more substantial (and nothing would stop the owners from doing both).

We supporters of good science education should take satisfaction in these victories when we can… but the war is far from over. As Robert Luhn of the NCSE summarizes the situation:

This has been a busy year for creationists. Since January, anti-science legislators in seven states have proposed nine bills attacking evolution and evolution education. Many are so-called “academic freedom” bills, like Tennessee’s HB 368, which allows teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” (For general background on academic freedom acts, go here.

But that’s not all. Some of these bills also target such “controversial” theories as global warming, the chemical origins of life, and human cloning.

Fortunately, of those nine proposed bills, seven died in committee. Tennessee’s HB 368 passed, but the identical bill in the state senate (SB 893) was tabled until 2012. Next year it will return to haunt us.

“Academic freedom” is the latest Orwellian perversion of sense that the creationists are using to undermine the teaching of evolution and other inconvenient scientific truths now that the previous disingenuous strategies built around “creation science” and “intelligent design” have lost in the courts. (If you have time, watch Eugenie Scott’s talk on “Not Over after Dover: Kitzmiller Trial and the Aftermath,” which discusses this point in more detail.) The creationists arguing for academic freedom say they merely want to be able to teach students about “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution as part of an unbiased “critical analysis.” Superficially, it sounds fair and reasonable, but as the NCSE puts it, “This is a strategy of teaching students what we don’t know, rather than what we do, and leaves students ill-prepared to learn new information as science progresses.”

Expelled was a relatively early effort in the academic freedom campaign. Notwithstanding all of its attempts to pin the Holocaust on the theory of evolution and to criticize evolutionary science, Expelled’s central argument was that not allowing creationist ideas into classrooms was unfair, and that allowing students to hear them would leave them better educated.  This is nonsense, of course, but it is powerful nonsense because it wraps itself in principles that proponents of science believe in.

If you want an example of the kind of idiocy to which it opens the doors, consider the recent statements of the evangelist minister and rightwing activist David Barton, a former co-chair of the Texas Republican Party. As Tim Murphy at Mother Jones reports:

On Wednesday, Right Wing Watch flagged a recent interview Barton gave with an evangelcial talk show, in which he argues that the Founding Fathers had explicitly rejected Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yes, that Darwin. The one whose seminal work, On the Origin of Species, wasn’t even published until 1859. Barton declared, “As far as the Founding Fathers were concerned, they’d already had the entire debate over creation and evolution, and you get Thomas Paine, who is the least religious Founding Father, saying you’ve got to teach Creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that!” Paine died in 1809, the same year Darwin was born.

Some of Barton’s defenders point out that ideas about evolution did pre-date Darwin, but of course that can only mean that the Founding Fathers were debating ideas no longer relevant to evolution science. Murphy’s retort puts it perfectly:

[Barton]‘s conflating pre-Darwin and post-Darwin evolutionary theory in order to make a point about teaching Creationism in schools. My point isn’t that he doesn’t know the difference; it’s that he doesn’t mind blurring the difference.

We can laugh about Expelled being on the block now. But Tennessee’s SB 893 will be back soon enough, and the advocates for creationism who put bills into consideration in Florida, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma and New Mexico haven’t given up. Ben Stein may yet have a shot at a sequel.

P.S. I’m not sure that this is strictly a matter of pseudo-academic freedom, but it does mark an odd defeat of sorts for good science. Over at Retraction Watch, Ivan Oransky writes that “Elsevier, the publisher of Applied Mathematical Letters, which retracted a paper questioning the second law of thermodynamics earlier this year, will issue an apology and pay $10,000 in legal fees” to mathematician Granville Sewell. Last year the journal had somehow published a paper by Sewell in which he argued that the evolution of life must be violating the second law of thermodynamics. The journal retracted the paper in response to criticisms that the earth is an open system, which renders the relevance of the second law moot, notwithstanding Sewell’s arguments to the contrary. For whatever reasons, Elsevier is now apologizing to Sewell—though I can’t see why. Publishing the paper in the first place was an idiotic move; now this apology will give some kind of encouragement to the creationists. [Update added minutes after posting: And here is the apology itself. Make of it what you will.]

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4 Responses to Expelled’s Creationism is Bankrupt but Persistent (and Politically Connected)

  1. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    As for the re-edit idea, I love it! “Common Decency: Intelligence Allowed.”

    And: Sewell, again!? As noted in the links, he never tries of putting his deliberate misunderstanding of the 2nd law of TD as applied to Earth out there, starting with his textbook on math [!]. He is as busy palming the card that says “(Earth is an) open system”, as Dembski is with the card that says “information channeled (into the genome)”.

    You would think that the publishers got wise on these pseudoscientists and put up a watch list anytime soon. (Watch, not block, as they _may_ publish bona fide science any given day.)

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  2. anonymous says:

    Yikes, the movie is even crazier than I thought. Blaming Darwin for the Holocaust? And we see the free market–of which Hollywood is among the greatest examples in the history of mankind–not produce the results that conservatives want (just as it did, incidentally, with Atlas Shrugged.)

    Regardless of whether young-eartherism is true, or whether man-made global warming is true/significant/worth passing legislation over/etc., I have a real issue with how virtually ALL of the believers in the first group ALSO deny the second group.

    The fact is that young-eartherism and anthropogenic GW-denial are mutually exclusive positions! The most commonly accepted theory of there being little or no AGW, that “it’s just cyclical,” posits that there was a “cycle” 13,000 years ago and many before that, i.e. it cannot fit within the 6,000 year Earth/time frame!

    And yet Tom DeLay, Michele Bachmann, and seemingly the overwhelming majority of other creationists hold these incongruent viewpoints.

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  3. David Spring says:

    I love to read encouraging articles such as this one. However, I often become a little disheartened when it seems like every champion of evolution forgets the very real and even more profound struggle going on in my home state of Louisiana between a courageous young man named Zack Kopplin and pretty much the rest of the Creationist State’s Legislative arms including no less than Gov. Jindal himself (who ironically has a degree in Biology).
    It seems all too often my poor Southern home gets left out of the press when it deserves, perhaps, a lions share of it.

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  4. Pingback: 2011: The Year in Me | Retort

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