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Hearts and Minds

Expelled Suggests Defenders of Evolution are Losing Them

Propaganda on movie ticket SOURCE: iStockphoto The successful rightwing documentary demonstrates that science needs a loud, accessible, entertaining, mass media response to creationist nonsense.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way first: Ben Stein’s new movie, Expelled, is a deeply dishonest piece of propaganda. Pretty much everything in it is a sham, from the quality of its intellectual and scientific arguments to the nonsense premise that Stein is going on a learning odyssey to find out what’s really happening in the world of “Big Science” (hint: repression of dissent). In truth, it’s plainly obvious that Stein already had his mind made up, and has set out to deliberately construct a brief against evolution and for intelligent design.

The most disgusting thing about Expelled, though, is the craven guilt-by-association approach. Viewers are bludgeoned with the absurd argument that Charles Darwin is somehow to blame for Dachau, and that today’s scientific establishment has built the equivalent of a Berlin Wall to keep out threatening ideas (which makes Ben Stein, er, Ronald Reagan). The New York Times reviewer fulminated that Expelled “is a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry” and shows a “contempt for precision and intellectual rigor.” I entirely agree.

From Michael Crichton’s State of Fear to Stein’s Expelled, there is nothing to prevent the most awful, misleading drivel from reaching and influencing mass audiences.

However, anyone who acknowledges the foregoing must also go further, in my opinion, and admit this: This disturbing film is has made a considerable splash already, at least when judged by typical standards for a documentary. Expelled came in number ten at the box office last weekend and raked in nearly $ 3 million dollars after opening at over 1,000 theaters nationwide. That means in one week, Expelled! already ranks as the 8th highest grossing political documentary of all time.

In short, this dishonest film is being placed before mass audiences, and I’m afraid that most viewers are not going to have nearly enough grounding in the unending evolution-ID battles to see why it’s so deceptive. Instead, they’re going to find Ben Stein funny (I saw the film; he is), and many of the anti-religion evolutionists featured pretty off-putting (I certainly did, and I’m not even religious). The result? A potential public relations black eye for the world of science, and the evolution community in particular.

Here in Los Angeles, I had the privilege of going to see Expelled with Randy Olson, a pro-evolution documentarian whose 2006 film, Flock of Dodos, explains just how PR savvy anti-evolutionists can be (after all, it’s not like they have anything else going for them). In retrospect, Olson’s film seems like an unheeded warning that something like Expelled was coming. So as a Hollywood neophyte, I wanted to hear Olson react to the film. Also, I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

As we walked out of the show, Olson explained that really only one thing matters: Ben Stein is on a thousand screens, and no one in the science world can answer him on the same mass media level. I mean, sure, we’ve got the valuable ExpelledExposed website–but this is a whole different order of magnitude. Now, science might have tried to counter Expelled if it had been planning some kind of opposite response–a kind of Al Gore, Inconvenient Truth response. But as of now nobody in science even contemplates doing this kind of thing. And so Ben Stein has come along and exploited this substantial chink in the armor.

Who knows how much money Expelled will make, or how many minds it will influence. I suspect its strong opening will create additional buzz and attention, but even if not, this horrible but also damaging film ought to serve as a massive wake-up call to all who care about science in this media age. From Michael Crichton’s State of Fear to Stein’s Expelled, there is nothing to prevent the most awful, misleading drivel from reaching and influencing mass audiences. There are no standards. There is no filter. And the truth is not just automatically going to win in the competition of ideas when the playing field tilts against it.

In this context, it seems to me that we can all remain “dodos,” as Olson would put it, and go extinct–or we can evolve and adapt. Currently, I’m seeing plenty of dodoesque response–for instance, one ScienceBlogger recently labeled me a “creationist apologist” merely for pointing out Expelled‘s box office numbers. On my blog, another commenter claims that I’m “helping the anti-intellectuals.”

No, I’m trying to help the science people (although whether they want to be helped is another matter). And I won’t be quiet, because this is too important. This is far too big a mess, and it’s one we have to learn from.

Anyone wishing to do so, it seems to me, can begin by recognizing that our chief existing asset for answering Expelled in the genre of film is Randy Olson’s own funny and humane Flock of Dodos. So pass it on. Order a lot of copies. Until those who care about science start investing in a concerted way in mass communication, it’s all we’ve got.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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