Sunday, August 26, 2007

Expelled: No Intelligence Evident

The Expelled movie isn't yet out so we can't make fun of it in its entirety, but as everyone knows by now, the filmmakers started things off rather badly by lying to the pro-science people they interviewed, making them think that it was an entirely different film with a different name and a different premise. That's a good taste of the kind of sleaze we're dealing with.

Another taste can be found on the movie's official website, complete with press release and a blog post by Ben Stein. Although they say you can't judge a book by its cover, one has to assume that the claims being made in the press release and by Stein, who stars in the film, were actually made in all seriousness and truly reflect the content of the movie. I'm going to critique what I've seen so far based on these materials. The film could always surprise us of course by avoiding the insane rhetoric and untruthful claims found in its own promotional materials, but that seems unlikely to me. Also, I'm not going into detail about the specific cases mentioned in the press release, which have already been discussed at length and will be discussed in much more detail once the film is out. Instead I'm going to talk more generally about the persecution claims being made.

The promotional materials for the movie are heavy on rhetoric and light on substance, so it's hard to disentangle all the nonsense and get to the heart of what the filmmakers are actually saying. I'm going to start with Stein's blog post. As I see it, there are basically three issues at stake here, which are in descending order of craziness, about what supposed "persecution" that ID advocates may have suffered. I will address them in order, starting with a straight-forward reading of this passage:

Do you realize that some of the leading lights of “anti-intelligent design” would not allow a scientist who merely believed in the possibility of an intelligent designer/creator to work for him… EVEN IF HE NEVER MENTIONED the possibility of intelligent design in the universe? EVEN FOR HIS VERY THOUGHTS… HE WOULD BE BANNED.

Under a new anti-religious dogmatism, scientists and educators are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator. In today’s world, at least in America, an Einstein or a Newton or a Galileo would probably not be allowed to receive grants to study or to publish his research.

They cannot even mention the possibility that–as Newton or Galileo believed–these laws were created by God or a higher being. They could get fired, lose tenure, have their grants cut off. This can happen. It has happened.

[Foaming at the mouth emphasis original]

Okay, so question one: Are the above statements correct, as they appear? At the risk of stating the obvious... goodness gracious no. These are in fact extremely stupid claims. First of all, how would it even be possible to ban1 a scientist who merely thought about ID but never voiced his opinion? Do we have mind-reading devices? Secondly, just what the heck is up with the qualifier about not being able to believe in the possibility of ID/God? It appears three separate times in that short screed. This is a nonsensical descriptor, given that nearly everyone believes in the possibility that God might have created... whatever it is the IDists think was created (they're not exactly consistent on this). Mainstream scientists simply believe either that such claims are untrue, that they might be true but are without evidence, or that they are true but do not constitute scientific claims. Or any number of variants along those lines. IDists on the other hand don't merely believe in the "possibility" that God waved his magic wand, they dogmatically and inflexibly believe that it's true, and more importantly, they assert that it's a scientific fact. That's a mite bit different than the description above, and has everything to do with mainstream science's attitude toward ID.

And finally, there are a massive number of scientists who believe in God, many of them quite devout, most if not all of them believing that God created the universe and the laws of physics that govern it (among other things), yet they haven't all been fired, lost tenure, or had their grants cut off. The very notion is insane. If you think about it for five seconds, if someone were subject to that kind of treatment based on their religious beliefs, it would be extremely strong grounds for a lawsuit. Are we to believe that the ID movement, which spends most of its time screaming at the top of its collective voice that its being discriminated against, wouldn't jump at the chance to win an anti-discrimination suit? The reason that no such suits have been filed, much less actually won, is pretty obvious. There's no religious discrimination going on here. The claim that scientists "cannot even mention the possibility that... these laws were created by God or a higher being," simply has nothing to do with reality.

Now Stein might claim that it was their supposedly scientific beliefs, and not their religion, that was the basis of the discrimination. But that's not what he wrote. The anti-evolution arguments that constitute the sum total of ID's presumed scientific content go unmentioned. It's all about God, a higher being, the Creator -- pure theological constructs. What makes this especially ironic is that in any other context, the ID people would vehemently deny that ID was a religious belief. I'll say more about this hypocritical bait-and-switch later.

Okay, now for the second issue: Given that Ben Stein's words are little more than irresponsible hyperbole, would a more milder form of the claim be correct? Are scientists getting fired, losing tenure, or having their grants stripped away because they are outspoken ID advocates? Again, the answer is no. Of course the film will try to convince you otherwise, but I've seen all their martyrdom claims before, at least all the ones mentioned in their press release (which one imagines are the best ones they've got), and none of them actually fit that description. The IDists have flogged a small handful of cases in which they allege discrimination, but none of them have featured a firing, a loss of tenure, or grant stripping as far as I know2. What's worse is that upon closer inspection, it turns out that these allegations are gross exaggerations. Their most celebrated case of persecution, that of Richard von Sternberg, turned out to be an almost complete fabrication. These isolated and dubious cases are then used to make a sweeping generalization that discrimination occurs all over the place, that there are literally hundreds of pro-ID scientists who are being mistreated.

They never give any evidence for this wild claim of course. And when pressed for evidence, they intimate that none can be provided because it would further jeopardize the careers of those who are being attacked -- a closed-loop conspiracy theory that, like ID itself, is impervious to empirical testing. The very idea however seriously strains credulity. The IDists have shown a penchant for trumpeting as loudly as possible a number of exceptionally weak cases, without any apparent concern for the supposed victims' future careers3, yet they expect us to believe that there are actually hundreds of genuine cases that they refuse to tell us about? It doesn't even pass the smell test.

And finally, the last issue: If IDists aren't really being "persecuted" as such, having their careers deliberately destroyed, are they at least suffering from a loss of reputation? Do scientists think less of someone who is an ID advocate? Does this have negative consequences for them? The answer is, you're damned right. One thing that really baffles me about this film and its antecedents is that for all their talk of free speech and academic freedom, the IDists seem to think it completely out-of-bounds that anyone would dare express a negative thought about them. Take the Sternberg affair for example. After all the material claims about Sternberg's suffering turned out to be unsubstantiated, the IDists and the politicians who maliciously attacked the Smithsonian kept going on about the loss of reputation that was hurting poor Sternberg -- their evidence being that his colleagues said mean things about him in private emails. Apparently, merely having a negative opinion about Sternberg was an act of persecution. This just stuns me.

Like everyone else in a free society, scientists have a right to think you're a moron. If you are making ostensibly scientific claims -- whether it's saying that the Earth is 6000 years old, new genetic information can't evolve, or that airplanes can't fly -- your colleagues have not only a right, but a duty to evaluate your claims and pass judgment on them. That is what scientific discourse is all about. Scientists have heated debates all the time, and the ones who eventually lose those debates inevitably pay a price by losing esteem in the eyes of their peers. And those who cling to false beliefs long after they've been debunked... why they really lose esteem. How could it be any other way? Without a doubt a bad reputation is unhelpful to one's career prospects, but the ultimate responsibility for this rests with those who earned the bad reputation to begin with. ID has simply failed to gain any traction in the scientific arena because it is poorly reasoned, contrary to established fact, and in many cases downright incoherent. The ID movement has thus responded4 by pouring all of its resources into their political machinations and highly dishonest propaganda campaign. Unsurprisingly this makes ID look even less legitimate in the eyes of the scientific community. If Ben Stein wants to a good example of why scientists think very poorly of ID advocates, this silly film he's starring in ranks right at the top.

The ID movement can't have it both ways on this. They can't demand to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment and then throw a tantrum when scientists actually do take them seriously. And that's exactly why they engage in the bait-and-switch I mentioned earlier. The actual merits of ID as a supposedly scientific theory are glaringly absent from the Expelled website. I don't doubt that they'll be absent from the film as well. They are taking ID's presumed intellectual merits for granted and are appealing instead to supposedly anti-religious sentiment as the reason why ID is being roughly treated. In doing so, they side-step the very issue that's at stake as far as science is concerned. Moreover, scientists as a group are actually quite tolerant of religious diversity -- much more so than the fundamentalist Christians who make up the base of the ID movement. But if you start claiming that your religious beliefs are scientific, and if you start demanding that they be taught in science class, scientists are going to respond. Don't start crying if the response is negative.



1. Lacking a rudimentary understanding of what the scientific community is like, Ben Stein apparently thinks it's something you can be "banned" from. Like the Tour de France.

2. The Gonzalez case for example involved not being granted tenure (and for good reason as it turned out), which is very different from having tenure taken away. Likewise, whatever happened with Crocker she wasn't fired; she's still at George Mason. As for taking away grant money, it's a mystery as to what Ben Stein is talking about. Anyone? Bueller?

3. Case in point, whatever harm Richard von Sternberg's reputation may have suffered as a result of his unethical practices in publishing the Meyer paper, the Discovery Institute made it a thousand times worse by turning him into their poster child. Much the same can be said of Gonzalez.

4. As most non-lobotomized readers will note, it's not as if the ID movement really gave it the old college try in the scientific realm, and then suddenly switched to crass political maneuvering after all else failed. It was always a political movement.