Expel the Lies (or, “Win Ben Stein's Career!”) : Selections from recent reviews of the movie Expelled, starring Ben Stein


Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opens with Ben Stein addressing a packed audience of adoring students at Pepperdine University. The biology professors at Pepperdine assure me that their mostly Christian students fully accept the theory of evolution. So who were these people embracing Steinʼs screed against science? Extras. According to Lee Kats, associate provost for research and chair of natural science at Pepperdine, ‘the production company paid for the use of the facility just as all other companies do that film on our campus’ but that ‘the company was nervous that they would not have enough people in the audience so they brought in extras. Members of the audience had to sign in and a staff member reports that no more than two to three Pepperdine students were in attendance. Mr. Steinʼs lecture on that topic was not an event sponsored by the university.’

Expelled trots out some of the people whom it claims have been persecuted. First among them is Robert Sternberg, former editor of the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, who published an article on ID by Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute. Sternberg tells Stein that he subsequently lost his editorship, his old position at the Smithsonian Institutionʼs National Museum of Natural History and his original office.

What most viewers of Expelled may not realize—because the film doesnʼt even hint at it—is that Sternbergʼs case is not quite what it sounds. Biologists criticized Sternbergʼs choice to publish the paper not only because it supported ID but also because Sternberg approved it by himself rather than sending it out for independent expert review. He didnʼt lose his editorship; he published the paper in what was already scheduled to be his last issue as editor. He didnʼt lose his job at the Smithsonian; his appointment there as an unpaid research associate had a limited term, and when it was over he was given a new one. His office move was scheduled before the paper ever appeared. [For more details see Ben Stein Launches a Science-free Attack on Darwin by Michael Shermer.]

Steinʼs case for conspiracy centers on a journal article written by Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow at the intelligent design think tank Discovery Institute and professor at the theologically conservative Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University. Meyerʼs article, ‘The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,’ was published in the June 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, the voice of the Biological Society with a circulation of less than 300 people. In other words, from the get-go this was much ado about nothing.

Nevertheless, some members of the organization voiced their displeasure, so the societyʼs governing council released a statement explaining, ‘Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The council, which includes officers, elected councilors and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.’ So how did it get published? In the words of journalʼs managing editor at the time, Richard Sternberg, ‘it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors, I chose myself.’ And what qualified Sternberg to choose himself? Perhaps it was his position as a fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, which promotes intelligent design, along with being on the editorial board of the Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group, a creationism journal committed to the literal interpretation of Genesis. Or perhaps it was the fact that he is a signatory of the Discovery Instituteʼs ‘100 Scientists who Doubt Darwinism’ statement.

Meyerʼs article is the first intelligent design paper ever published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it deals less with systematics (or taxonomy, Sternbergʼs specialty) than it does paleontology, for which many members of the society would have been better qualified than he to peer-review the paper. (In fact, at least three members were experts on the Cambrian invertebrates discussed in Meyerʼs paper).

Meyer claims that the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of complex hard-bodied life forms over 500 million years ago could not have come about through Darwinian gradualism. The fact that geologists call it an ‘explosion’ leads creationists to glom onto the word as a synonym for ‘sudden creation.’ After four billion years of an empty Earth, God reached down from the heavens and willed trilobites into existence ex nihilo. In reality, according to paleontologist Donald Prothero, in his 2007 magisterial book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press): ‘The major groups of invertebrate fossils do not all appear suddenly at the base of the Cambrian but are spaced out over strata spanning 80 million years—hardly an instantaneous ‘explosion’! Some groups appear tens of millions of years earlier than others. And preceding the Cambrian explosion was a long slow buildup to the first appearance of typical Cambrian shelled invertebrates.’ If an intelligent designer did create the Cambrian life forms, it took 80 million years of gradual evolution to do it.

Stein, however, is uninterested in paleontology, or any other science for that matter. His focus is on what happened to Sternberg, who is portrayed in the film as a martyr to the cause of free speech. ‘As a result of publishing the Meyer article,’ Stein intones in his inimitably droll voice, ‘Dr. Sternberg found himself the object of a massive campaign that smeared his reputation and came close to destroying his career.’ According to Sternberg, ‘after the publication of the Meyer article the climate changed from being chilly to being outright hostile. Shunned, yes, and discredited.’ As a result, Sternberg filed a claim against the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for being ‘targeted for retaliation and harassment’ for his religious beliefs. ‘I was viewed as an intellectual terrorist,’ he tells Stein. In August 2005 his claim was rejected. According to Jonathan Coddington, his supervisor at the NMNH, Sternberg was not discriminated against, was never dismissed, and in fact was not even a paid employee, but just an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term!

The rest of the martyrdom stories in Expelled have similar, albeit less menacing explanations, detailed at www.expelledexposed.com, where physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott and her tireless crew at the National Center for Science Education have tracked down the specifics of each case. Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, for example, did not get tenure at Iowa State University in Ames and is portrayed in the film as sacrificed on the alter of tenure denial because of his authorship of a pro—intelligent design book entitled The Privileged Planet (Regnery Publishing, 2004). As Scott told me, ‘Tenure is based on the evaluation of academic performance at oneʼs current institution for the previous seven years.’ Although Gonzales was apparently a productive scientist before he moved to Iowa State, Scott says that ‘while there, his publication record tanked, he brought in only a couple of grants—one of which was from the [John] Templeton Foundation to write The Privileged Planet—didnʼt have very many graduate students, and those he had never completed their degrees. Lots of people donʼt get tenure, for the same legitimate reasons that Gonzalez didnʼt get tenure.’

Tenure in any department is serious business, because it means, essentially, employment for life. Tenure decisions for astronomers are based on the number and quality of scientific papers published, the prestige of the journal in which they are published, the number of grants funded (universities are ranked, in part, by the grant-productivity of their faculties), the number of graduate students who completed their program, the amount of telescope time allocated as well as the trends in each of these categories, indicating whether or not the candidate shows potential for continued productivity. In point of fact, according to Gregory Geoffroy, president of Iowa State, ‘Over the past 10 years, four of the 12 candidates who came up for review in the physics and astronomy department were not granted tenure.’ Gonzales was one of them, and for good reasons, despite Steinʼs claim of his ‘stellar academic record.’

The most deplorable dishonesty of Expelled, however, is that it says evolution was one influence on the Holocaust without acknowledging any of the other major ones for context. Rankings of races and ethnic groups into a hierarchy long preceded Darwin and the theory of evolution, and were usually tied to the Christian philosophical notion of a ‘great chain of being.’ The economic ruin of the Weimar Republic left many Germans itching to find someone to blame for their misfortune, and the Jews and other ethnic groups were convenient scapegoats. The roots of European anti-Semitism go back to the end of the Roman Empire. Organized attacks and local exterminations of the Jews were perpetrated during the Crusades and the Black Plague. The Russian empire committed many attacks on the Jews in the 19th and early 20th century, giving rise to the word ‘pogrom.’ Profound anti-Semitism even pollutes the works of the father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, who reviled them in On the Jews and Their Lies and wrote, ‘We are at fault in not slaying them.’ I donʼt think Protestantism is accountable for the Holocaust, either, but the focus on ‘the Jews’ as scapegoats, and the added idea that their ‘bad non-Aryan blood’ had to be eliminated by killing them, were not Darwinʼs ideas.

The weakness of the logic of Expelled is beside the point, however. No one who is familiar with the evidence for evolution is likely to leave the theater shaken. Some people with looser understandings of the science or the legal issues might buy into its arguments about ‘fairness’ and protecting religion against science. Expelled is nonetheless mostly a film for ID creationismʼs religious base. That audience has seen one setback after the next in recent years, with science rejecting ID as useless and the courts rebuffing it as for a constitutional violation in public education. For them, Expelled is a rallying point to revive their morale.

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