Thursday, April 17, 2008

Shame on Ben Stein

All cultures have their creation myths - the ancient Egyptians believed that the god Atum, deity of the solar disk and the sun itself, masturbated himself, exploding a life-giving burst of energy that seeded the dark unformed void with countless galazies. In the land of the pyramids there was no impropriety in the concept that 'self abuse' created the universe, although millennia later Victorian archaeologists wer predictably shocked to the core by the ancient Egyptians' melding of sex and divinity.

In the first act of creation, Aten was perceived as an androgynous figure, the hand that made the world being the female aspect, while his phallus represented the equal and opposite male principle. As the eminent American scholar Professor Karl Luckert writes: 'The entire system can be visualized as a flow of creative vitality, emanating outward from the godhead, thinning out as it flows further from the source.'

However, this apparently primitive - if somewhat explicit - tale actually encompasses a highly sophisticated understanding of the cosmology...It literally describes the 'Big Bang', in which all matter explodes from a point of singularity and then expands and unfolds, becoming more complex as fundamental forces come into being and interact, finally reaching the level of elemental matter.
-From Lynn Picknett's Secret History of Lucifer.

Ben Stein has a new movie coming out. Seeing the trailer I thought that maybe the movie was a gentle castigation of his comrades on the right who persist in their victim fantasies and pout about how schools don't teach their religion. Well, flip that on its head.

Stein's movie 'Expelled' is a screed against science, though the people who work in science related industries, laboratories and classrooms are not labeled 'scientists' by Stein. They are 'Darwinists'. I guess that's probably all you need to know to ascertain that there won't be much even-handed discussion of the current debate between science (particularly any science related to evolution) versus intelligent design.

Though the movie's not out yet, its producers have invited people like Richard Dawkins and the editorial board of Scientific American to preview it. According to John Rennie at Scientific American
No one could have been more surprised than I when the producers called, unbidden, offering Scientific American's editors a private screening. Given that our magazine's positions on evolution and intelligent design (ID) creationism reflect those of the scientific mainstream (that is, evolution: good science; ID: not science), you have to wonder why they would bother. It's not as though anything in Expelled would have been likely to change our views. And they can't have been looking for a critique of the science in the movie, because there isn't much to speak of.

Rather, it seems a safe bet that the producers hope a whipping from us would be useful for publicity: further proof that any mention of ID outrages the close-minded establishment. (Picture Ben Stein as Jack Nicholson, shouting, "You can't handle the truth!") Knowing this, we could simply ignore the movie—which might also suit their purposes, come to think of it.

A quick look at the Expelled website shows Rennie has pegged their motivation. Headlines show a particular taunting of Dawkins, not even worth looking into. You can guess what's there.

Wouldn't you think that a movie that is all about how Intelligent Design isn't being given its props as a science might try to spend a little time trying to establish its own scientific underpinnings? You and I might. I don't understand why Stein doesn't. It's as if he has a stake in the dumbing down of America.

Alonzo Fyfe, who writes the blog "The Atheist Ethicist" begins his open letter of critique to Stein of the movie (which he acknowledges not to have seen) this way:

I want to begin by pointing that your legacy, as a result of your work on this particular project, will be the suffering and early death of countless people who otherwise could have been saved or benefited from advances in science.

No punches pulled there.

Fyfe offers up such a simple rebuttal to the nonsense that intelligent design has to be accepted as science in our schools and colleges:
I am going to have to say something about the nature of science to demonstrate this point. Science is involved in explaining and predicting real-world events. This includes real-world events that cause real-world death and suffering. The better we are at understanding the real world, the better we will be at avoiding the death and suffering that nature would otherwise inflict on us.

Science does this by comparing theories. Theory A predicts that under conditions C, that R will result. Theory B predicts that under conditions C, S will result. Scientists then set up or observe conditions C, and see if they detect R or S. If they detect R, they go with theory A. If they detect S, they go with Theory B. [snip]

Now, please, try for me to put the concept of intelligent design into the description that I wrote above about how to compare scientific theories. Come up with a condition C, and a result R1 or R2, that will tell us whether or not to accept Theory A or Theory B, where Theory B is intelligent design.

You will fail.

No scientist has yet been able to present a “Theory B” that includes a God variable that produces more accurate results under Conditions C than any comparable theory that lacks a God variable.

If it seems that Fyfe is over-the-top in saying that Stein's Expelled will lead to human suffering consider that one of Stein's claims in the movie is that 'Darwinism' led to the Holocaust!

The movie claims to show several Americans who have been persecuted for trying to bring about an open and honest debate between intelligent design and evolution. The problem is that in each case major parts of the victims case are left out.

Rennie describes the situation of one such victim:

Expelled then trots out some of the people whom it claims have been persecuted by the Darwinist establishment. First among them is Richard 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 Institution's National Museum of Natural History and his original office. Looking a bit smug in his self-martyrdom, Sternberg also reports that a colleague compared him with an "intellectual terrorist."

What most viewers of Expelled may not realize—because the film doesn't even hint at it—is that Sternberg's case is not quite what it sounds. Biologists criticized Sternberg's 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 didn't lose his editorship; he published the paper in what was already scheduled to be his last issue as editor. He didn't 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.

Michael Schermer who is the publisher of Skeptic and who is interviewed for the movie says that the film opens with Stein giving a lecture to a group of enthusiastic Pepperdine students who adoringly approve of his anti-evolutionary jeremiad. Problem: those students presented on the film are extras. The film production company paid for the use of the auditorium and filled it with paid shills. A provost at the university estimates that there may have been three or four actual students in attendance.

Shermer's article describes what it was like to be interviewed for this movie. I don't need to go into it. You can guess that it involved being duped. I would encourage you to read it.

Back to our jack-off theory of the origin of the cosmos: If Stein is really interested in promoting the idea that God created the universe maybe we should press him to explain why, with thousands and thousands of creation theories to choose from, we can't accept the early Egyptians as true science. It melds much more closely with actual scientific theory than the story that goes 'And God said...'.

Just wondering.

P.S. for a beautiful take on the cosmos by my favorite mathmetician head over to mattyboy's ponderance of the galaxies

UPDATE: PZ Meyers at Pharyngula has asked that bloggers post a link to the site that is devoted to debunking the movie so that it moves up in technorati and google authoritay. Here is that link . Click away like you're Atum creating the universe, my friends!


Dean Wormer said...

Terrific post. Love that cartoon.

Hate Ben Stein. That he was in the Nixon administration is all we need to know.

The only answer to ID is to mock it and mock it soundly. In the real world they would need to be peer reviewed or shut the hell up.

The Imaginary Reviewer said...

Great post. I'd read a few things about this film and its stupidity earlier in the week. Apparently one of the scientists who was tricked into appearing in it went to a preview showing and took Richard Dawkins along. The scientist was thrown out but nobody recognised Dawkins, who watched the film and roundly panned it.

It's sad, the knowledge that Ben Stein is a fundie whackjob who used to write Nixon's speeches has severely affected my ability to enjoy Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

CDP said...

Great post, I also love the cartoon.

Dr. Zaius said...

I seriously doubt that Ben Stein is religious in any way. I would guess that he was just the closest thing to a celebrity that the producers of the film could afford. I liked him better in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".

Randal Graves said...

dr. zaius, you're probably right about the religion thing. Whatever wedge issue they can back in their quest for more loot, they'll do it. And you're certainly right about his role in that fine film. Jeffrey Jones was exceptional as well. Let us not speak of Howard the Duck.

Jess Wundrun said...

dean when you mock it is as if you place the very crown of thorns upon the heads of these oppressed christians and rend their garments! Oh, the persecution!

Would that the rapture could come tomorrow. I am getting a little weary of them.

cdp that cartoon sums it up. why are we limiting ourselves to two sides anyway?

dr. zaius you have hit the nail on the head. no doubt the right will want to make stein out as some kind of right wing answer to Michael Moore, but it's true , the film makers just hired him to read the lines. Yet the ads portray Stein as a "Rebel". gad.

randal I believe you are the grand prize winner. It's all about the loot.

Unconventional Conventionist said...

Excellent post. I've been following PZ since Tristero at Digby's blog brought him to my attention a while back.

And Dr. Zaius, did you know in that movie "Expelled" there is footage of, ahem, your people, hosing down "Bright Eyes" ? They're using it in a very negative manner, and highly unflattering to an ape of your status.

dguzman said...

Wow, thanks for the warning! As a former teacher, all I can think about is how deluded and uneducated these fundie kids are, blindly trusting their parents and little knowing how ill-prepared they will be for the real world. I see some very high therapy bills in the future for these kids.

Ed said...

I'll never think about the Big Bang in the same way again.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks for the link, Jess. I didn't do my post on Stein in particular because I haven't seen the movie, and don't intend to, so I won't review it. His movie coming out was the reason for giving this particular math post at this particular time.

I don't hate Stein, or I didn't until this nonsense. I actually went on his goofy TV show. I didn't win his money. I don't hate all conservatives, but this puts him from someone I disagree with but respect into the troll category, and that makes me sad.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I have had people dispute my claim that Stein's legacy will lead to human suffering by interpreting my statement as meaning that it will bring about the end of civilization. Such catestrophic effects would be unlikely, they argue, so I must be mistaken.

However, this is a straw-man argument, since I never argued that the effects of this film would be catestrophic. Suffering, and catestropic suffering, are not the same thing.

Stein's movie will have the effect of promoting general ignorance of the biological sciences. Knowledge of the biological sciences is useful in making sound policy and engaging in useful research in the fields of medicine, agriculture, and the environment.

It follows quite clearly that, to the degree that the people in our society are ignorant of biological facts, to that degree they will be less capable of making wise decisions in matters of health, agriculture, and environmental policy.

Furthermore, the students who are turned off to the biological sciences will, in some cases, be people who would have otherwise been able to make important contributions to our knowledge, thus contributing to advances in medicine, agriculture, and environmental sciences.

Both of these effects will lead to human suffering.

How much human suffering?

Of course, I cannot say precisely. That is why I said that 'countless' people would suffer as a result - precisely because I do not know how to count them. I do not have the resources to even estimate what that could would be.

However, I am quite certain that people will suffer. I am quite certain that if we turned our students' attention to understanding the biological sciences, we would be able to reap advances in medicine, agriculture, and environmental sciences that are otherwise going to be lost to us.

Such a statement is hardly 'over the top'.

Bubs said...

Wonderful post, and it illustrates what has become a really troubling point--when did it become necessary for conservatives to be anti-science? I mean, what the hell is someone like Ben Stein, a reasonably intelligent man, doing promoting a position that was only held 10 years ago by fundamentalist kooks? Who, I don't think I need to point out, as a group, are not all that crazy about Jews, except so far as the state of Israel helps bring about the end times and the rapture?

Spirula said...

It literally describes the 'Big Bang'

Maybe we should start calling it 'The Big O'.

Anyway, as a scientist myself, it's funny the only person they could muster to host this "manufactomentory" is a economist, D-list actor, and ex-speech writer for a criminal president. Those are the credentials you look for in all things science.

I've seen the commercials *gak*gak* for this tripe. If you haven't seen it, it shows some frumpy Einsteinish prof stating that the class will now be learning about the Theory of Evolution. Smugman Stein interupts with "Excuse me, how did life begin in the first place?"

That, right there, completely discredits the movie. Even high-school kids should know that the Theory of Evolution and Abiogenesis are entirely different issues only tangentially related. But, hey, these folks know that the marginally educated, uncritically thinking masses (a.k.a. Americans to other developed countries) won't realize the dishonesty in just the ad alone.

Anyway, hope Yoko Ono sues.

Jess Wundrun said...

alonzo fyfe First, thanks for visiting. I thought your letter was about the best thing that I've read regarding this movie and probably should have been effusive in my praise of it in my post.

I apologize because you've pointed out an error that I made without realizing it. Probably from writing more hastily than thoughtfully.

I do not think that your comments were over the top. I think that they are dead on. My attempt to compare/contrast your statements to those of the movie producers, upon review, does look like compare/compare.

Anyway, I'm truly glad you stopped by. I'm glad your column has been out there so long as an antidote to this silly buffoonery. And I think your website is excellent.

spirula there seem to be so many red flags raised against this film I can't believe that I had once thought it might be the opposite of what it was.

The fact that scientists, regardless of their field of inquiry are called Darwinists is pretty telling. In Michael Schumer's article he describes a conference among evolutionary scientist who, of course, disagree with each other. But the ID people don't want to know about that. They don't want to subject themselves to the intellectual vigor that Alonzo Fyfe suggests. They just want to let go and let god.

I got your *gak*gak* and I raise you an arrrrgggghhhh.

bubs I know that Stein has stepped off the ranch in the past. I think he may oppose some of the members of his conservative tribe by acknowledging global warming. (I'm too lazy to google that right now). Maybe that's whats most alarming is that there were the two distinct camps of conservatives and you kind of knew that one side was using the other to further their aims. But when the country clubbers let their knuckles drag you gotta wonder.

ed and to think the whole world was created six thousand years before Playboy! Astounding!

matty way to take the high road. I feel the same about Stein as about Michael Crichton when he published that awful 'state of fear' novel. Which, by the way is so poorly written that, topic aside, its nearly unreadable.

dguzman my kids will eat fundie kids for breakfast. How's that for Darwinism?

unconventional and they don't even discuss the Lawgiver!!!

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Way to go girl. Excellent post.

DCup said...

Wow. Excellent post, Jess. This kind of things drives me crazy because just as "some" would suggest that Darwinism led to the Holocaust, one could suggest that religion led to another Holocaust. That one was called The Inquisition. Funny, or really not so funny, now Jews were the primary victims of both.

For those who want to live without science, I say let them. Just don't let them near the education system.

patrick said...

just saw Expelled... Ben Stein's goal in making Expelled (i gather) is to promote free thought, especially more thinking about motivations that drive American academia and a lot of other behind-the-scenes worldview that we tend to take for granted.

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have lost or abandoned religion in the traditional sense by now, or have retained only a tenuous, formulaic connection, or have veered off into various unsatisfying concoctions of "spirituality"....................................