Yesterday I went to a press screening of the new film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. For those who are unfamiliar with this film, it’s an agit-prop documentary of the Michael Moore variety, with one main difference: it’s conservative. It’s about the evolution debate, and takes the position that Intelligent Design theory (ID) should at least be allowed a place at the table in discussions of biological origins.
The film stars Ben Stein as the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock/Al Gore figure—mounting an “op-ed” type argument that is less about why ID is right or evolution wrong as it is about why there is such a concerted effort by the mainstream science community to squelch any and all debate on the matter. The film begins by recounting about a half dozen cases of highly-qualified PhD professors at various universities who have been fired in recent years for daring to mention that evolution as a theory has some weaknesses. From here the film gives a general narrative of how the scientific and academic powers that be have aggressively sought to silence any dissent—either by ID proponents or anyone else with questions about Darwin’s theory.
I came into this film very, very skeptical, worried that it would be all about trying to disprove evolution and argue for creationism (thereby reinforcing stereotypes of anti-intellectual religious fundamentalists). I was worried that it would further reinforce the (false) binary that says Christianity and science are on two sides of a battle and can never have any common ground. But I was pleasantly surprised with Expelled on a number of levels.
First of all, it’s pretty funny and quite entertaining. Ben Stein’s hyper-dry way of interviewing people is great fun to watch, and his “everyman” persona makes him easy to sympathize with. His “anyone, anyone” Ferris Bueller character also makes him an appropriate choice for a film about the expulsion of dissenting ideas in the classroom.
Secondly, it’s a reasonably effective, well-mounted argument (if a tad on the manipulative side). The filmmakers interviewed many prominent figures from both sides of the debate, including an extended (and deliciously uncomfortable) interview between Stein and Richard Dawkins (atheist extraordinaire and author of The God Delusion). The film is smart to keep its focus on the glaring double standards and contradictions among the evolution advocates—who have built impenetrable walls around the sacrosanct theory of evolution and (in a very un-academic spirit) refused to allow any rational dialogue on the matter.
Indeed, the film hits a nerve in its critique of the contemporary American academy. As a graduate student immersed in academia and all its idiosyncrasies, I can attest to the pervasive and disturbingly hypocritical sense of close-mindedness that stifles the spirit of progressive discourse. It goes beyond the scientific communities in higher education and touches many disciplines. Quite simply: if you are not on the “right” side of the wall (whatever wall it may be), your voice is stifled, your work discredited, and your intelligence questioned. It’s gone beyond political correctness and is now something altogether more militant and sinister. Sadly, the academy today is less about the sharing and discovery of truth as it is about the wielding and protecting of power.
Critics will attack this movie and claim that it is manipulative propaganda, but if Michael Moore can get an Oscar for it, why hate on Ben Stein? Certainly the film has its faults. It is less-than-subtle at times and heavy-handed at others (the sequence on Nazism and Hitler as direct descendent of Darwinist thought is perhaps unnecessary), and overall it is very derivative of other films of this type. Obviously Stein knowingly mimics Michael Moore in his leading-question, “I’m going to make you look stupid” method of interviewing. But there are also direct parallels to Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. Like Gore in that film, Stein gives a speech in a lecture hall, incorporates “deeply personal” elements, and plays on apocalyptic fears (in this case, the fear that free speech is increasingly suppressed, East Germany style).
But Expelled’s lack or originality and copycat style is, in a way, sort of the point. It’s a film that very deliberately presents itself as an alternative type of film—the anti-Michael Moore, perhaps. It is trying to argue that there is (or should be) room at the table for both sides, for multiple arguments on any issue. But more than likely the film will be denied wide distribution or much (if any) press coverage, just as Intelligent Design theory is either ignored or laughed out of most cultural discourse. Whatever you may think of ID or evolution (and I’m not saying either is wrong or right) it’s hard to argue against the injustice of denying the discussion. But unfortunately that’s just what is happening.