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Penny Higgins

May 16, 2008

I recently attended a showing of Ben Stein’s new movie “Expelled.” I could, very easily, go off on a point-by-point rebuttal of the film, but I feel that would be a waste of energy, especially given that the National Center for Science Education has created a wonderful website that does this in a most elegant manner. Instead, I’d like to share my guttural feelings and thoughts about the movie, as a scientist, a paleontologist, and an evolutionist.

What surprised me first about my own reaction to the movie is that it really didn’t bother me that much; whereas, my friends who saw it with me were very upset about its content. Why didn’t it bother me so much? I think it was because I saw it as silly. It brought up the same old, tired arguments used again and again to ‘refute’ evolution. Additionally, the scientists and their stories that were highlighted in the film as having been ‘expelled’ for supporting intelligent design as a valid theory didn’t strike me as having been singled out for their support of ID. They simply lost their jobs as many in academia do (myself included): their contract wasn’t renewed, they didn’t get tenure, or the funding for their position simply ran out.

Then I realized that my own reaction was buffered, due in part to my constant exposure to the ‘usual’ arguments and in part to my familiarity with the workings of academia. Had I not already been familiar with the arguments in favor of ID and were I not an active member of the academic community, I would have been horrified by the implication that academic freedom was at risk and that good scientists were losing their jobs for promoting ideas that conflicted with mainstream lines of thought. What’s more, it’s possible I would have found Stein’s arguments compelling enough to believe. Once I realized this, I too was deeply upset with the film.

The movie starts out innocently enough. (Stein) is told that another scientist lost his job for supporting a viewpoint opposing that of mainstream science. The scientist who lost his job was apparently a supporter of the ‘theory’ of Intelligent Design, and this is why he lost his job. Surely this must be a unique instance, Stein [pretends to posit], but he parades several examples of proponents of ID losing their academic, scientific jobs for supporting this viewpoint. While I thought the question was fair - did these scientists lose their jobs because they supported ID? - my conclusion was quite the opposite of Stein’s.

Richard Sternberg published a paper whose authors supported ID in a mainstream science journal that he himself edited. He subsequently “lost his position". The movie fails to mention that it was never a permanent position - his contract was simply not renewed. Editorships are seldom if ever permanent, anyway.

Caroline Crocker also lost her job. Once again the movie omits an important detail - she was in a non-tenure-track position. The funding ran out or her contract was not renewed - these things happen all the time. It’s happened to me. It’s an accepted, expected part of academic life. Guillermo Gonzales didn’t survive the tenure review process. Clearly, he doesn't understand how tenure review works, and he misconstrues it in the movie. Whether or not a person gets tenure does not depend upon their colleagues at their home institution agreeing with or even liking them. During tenure review, letters are sent to persons all over the world in a person’s specialty, to find out whether or not the scientific community at large has even heard of the tenure candidate and if they think that the candidate is deserving of tenure. Nothing about these examples of ‘expelled’ scientists struck me as being peculiar or being anti-ID.

More troubling in the film were the interviews of scientists that do not support the ‘theory’ of intelligent design or even the idea of special creation. These interviews make scientists that support evolution appear to be pompous, egocentric zealots that support their ‘pet’ idea at any cost. I could tell immediately that each and every one of them had been misled about the purpose of the interview. I knew it, because they chatted about evolution and intelligent design in the same way I chat with colleagues about intelligent design when I already know we agree that ID is not valid science. That is to say, the supporters of evolution had clearly been led to believe that Ben Stein and crew were also supporters of evolution. Had they known the intent of the interview, they might not have been so flippant about their opinion of ID. Then again, maybe they would have been, and that’s at least in part why they were selected to be interviewed.

However, if those interviewed had known the purpose of the interview, they certainly would not have indulged Stein with answers to some of his questions (for example Richard Dawkins putting a number on just how certain he is that God does not exist and his discussion of how proof of design might be discovered and what it might mean). And, most importantly, they would have been more deliberate in their answers and explanations for some questions. Michael Ruse did a terrible job of explaining the origin of life ‘on the backs of crystals.’ It isn’t that the idea of minerals catalyzing early life functions is a bad hypothesis - I think it’s a good one - but that Ruse left out a number of details and grossly oversimplified his explanation, thinking that Stein supported his position, that Stein was kidding, and/or that the footage simply would not be used. Stein took this and ran with it, asserting that all scientists agree that life began with a complete cell, and making a mockery of what Ruse had just said.

When I survey my colleagues, none of them think that the first life form was a complete cell. When I ask my non-scientist friends, many of them don’t think the first life form was a complete cell either. They usually mention RNA, which is much closer to what most scientists really think than that the first life form was a perfect cell. You might be able to argue that the most primitive form of life today is a single celled bacteria - this after you argue about whether or not viruses are ‘alive.’ But life began about 3.5 billion years ago! Even the most primitive organism on the Earth today has benefited from 3.5 billion years of evolution!

What is needed is a better definition of what ‘life’ is. In the earth and biological sciences, life is carefully defined in terms of thermodynamic disequilibrium, or as self-replication of molecules. With this definition, the idea that life arose ‘on the backs of crystals,’ ceases to be so absurd. This brings us back to the question of whether or not viruses are ‘alive,’ and will likely be the topic of a forthcoming column.

One aspect of the film I found appalling was the portrayal of Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, as a bad person. She was put forward as if she was specifically trying to attack everyone that supports intelligent design and that she was single-handedly responsible for folks like Richard Sternberg losing their jobs. Personally, I've found Eugenie to be among the kindest human beings I've ever met. She goes to great efforts to accommodate the different viewpoints of people. She simply draws the line when science is at stake. And yet, she was presented as smug and evil.

On the flip side of this was David Berlinski, (a fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture) who was presented as a strong advocate for the position that science is under siege by the “Darwinian Establishment.” He just oozed pompousness, reclining in his chair during the interviews, frequently leaning back so far that his knee was in every shot, blocking his face. Stein introduced Berlinski as having taught at this prestigious university and that prestigious university from the U.S. to Europe as if this were a good thing. My reaction was, “why can’t this guy keep a job?” I don’t know Berlinski’s whole story; all I know is that I wasn’t impressed, and I don’t really care to search for his resume.

The single most disturbing point of the film, of course, is the portrayal that accepting evolution is somehow equivalent to thinking that the Holocaust was a good thing. The line of logic was thus: believing evolution (specifically Darwinism) leads to atheism; atheism and Darwinism leads to eugenics, the devaluing of human life, and tragic events like the Holocaust. The film even included a dishonestly edited quote from Darwin himself that seemed to suggest that Darwin would have advocated selective breeding in humans and the sterilization of the “feeble minded.” Other quotes by Darwin were left out, including one that says that even though we might selectively breed dogs or farm animals, such is not proper for humans:

"With highly civilized nations continued progress depends in a subordinate degree on natural selection; for such nations do not supplant and exterminate one another as do savage tribes.” Darwin, The Descent of Man (2nd Ed), Chapter 5, 1874

The main theme of the film is that freedom of inquiry in science is being repressed, and that there is only academic freedom for those in agreement with the “Darwinian Establishment.” I suppose I could understand why the Theory of Evolution is such a threat, if I were heavily religious and looked to the bible (or other holy text) for answers to the big questions like why am I here, how did I get here, and where am I going. The trouble is that these ‘scientific’ ideas that are being repressed - “expelled” if you will - aren’t scientific ideas at all. Ideally, science doesn't start with the conclusion and then try to find evidence to support that conclusion. Science goes where it goes, whether we like the answer to our original question or not.

In an earlier column of mine, I explored the differences between ID and evolutionary theory. I concluded that ID isn’t scientific at all. In fact, it advocates stopping a line of scientific inquiry when the results begin to challenge our ideas about how things should be, because surely this must be the fingerprint of God. Is this what we want to teach our children? To stop asking questions when the answers make us feel uncomfortable? I don’t think so.

Penny Higgins

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Dr. Pennilyn (Penny) Higgins is a Research Associate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester. Most of her research revolves around studying the chemistry of fossil mammal teeth to learn about the environments in which the animals lived and what they might have been eating while living there. She is particularly interested in episodes of rapid climate change in the geologic record. In addition to doing research and managing a geochemistry laboratory, Penny also teaches courses in introductory geology and paleontology at the University of Rochester. When she's not in the office or laboratory, Penny can be spotted writing fiction, practicing the western martial arts, or just screwing around on Twitter.