We say you can't say that
CCT May, 1,2008
When I went to see Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 911" back in 2004, the line was out the door and into the parking lot. I went to see an equally controversial film this week, and there were only 10 people in the screening. That may change soon.
The film is called "Expelled," and it was made by Ben Stein in a style very similar to Moore's. These aren't the old style documentaries, where an omniscient voice intoned known facts about the subject on the screen. These new films have a point of view, and aren't afraid to be advocates.
"Expelled" interviews professors and scientists denied jobs, grants and tenure, who had their professional lives compromised, after advocating for Intelligent Design, the idea that a divine force may have been a contributing force to the evolution of life on Earth. The film also gives significant time to the views of those who absolutely reject the idea, notably scientist Richard Dawkins and the head of a group called the National Center for Science Education, whose main purpose is to fight any attempt to introduce ID into classrooms. Stein gives them plenty of time to voice their thoughts — no edited interviews or cut-off remarks — or perhaps, enough rope to hang themselves.
Ben Stein is instantly recognizable, but many familiar with the pop personality aren't aware of his career as an academic and writer. Stein got a BA at Columbia University 1966, with honors in economics. He worked in the civil rights movement for voting rights. Valedictorian at Yale Law School in 1970, he went to work as a trial lawyer in false and deceptive advertising cases. Later Stein was a teacher at American University in Washington, the University of California, and at Pepperdine Law School, where he also taught securities law for five years. In 1973, he became a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, and later for Gerald Ford. Stein became a columnist for the Wall Street Journal in 1974. In 1976, he moved to Hollywood where he became a screenwriter, TV writer, novelist, and syndicated columnist.
Stein is far from a conventional conservative, and claims he made the film because of the increasing intellectual dogmatism he sees on college campuses.
"Big Science in this area of biology has lost its way," says Stein. "Scientists are supposed to be allowed to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, no matter what the implications are. Freedom of inquiry has been greatly compromised, and this is not only anti-American, it's anti-science. It's anti the whole concept of learning."
After watching "Expelled," I sought out criticism of it. I wonder how many viewers of Fahrenheit 911 bothered to find out about the veracity of the views in that film. Most criticism centered on Stein's musings that Darwin's work, and the concept of natural selection and survival of the fittest, gave rise to the science of eugenics and, in its most extreme state, the Nazi obsession with executing all inferiors in Aryan society — the handicapped and mentally ill, the retarded, and of course, Jews — "useless eaters" was the Nazi phrase. The web site ExpelledExposed.com has myriad such criticisms of the film.
Scientific establishment figures argue that the film is specious — that ID is merely creationism in disguise, and therefore is beneath discussion. I listened to a podcast by the editors of Scientific American (SA), who complain that the movie doesn't have enough facts about science. But the movie isn't about science per se; it's about freedom of discussion, tenure, grant eligibility, and academic practices in general. The evolution vs. ID debate is a metaphor for the doctrinaire attitude of science academics — it could be about any number of "off-limits" subjects.
For instance, editor John Rennie writes on the SA web site, in response to an offer for a private screening from the film's producers, "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."
That encapsulates the attitude that Ben Stein's movie is about. But don't take my word for it — see the movie and make up your own mind. Unless you're a modern college student — then, you'll be told why you shouldn't.
Cynthia Stead's column appears on Thursdays. She serves as Cape and Islands State Republican Committeewoman. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No ticket needed for pseudoscience
May 05, 2008
Cynthia Stead, in her May 1 column, can't figure out why there are only 10 people in the theater watching Ben Stein's documentary "Expelled," which attempts to legitimize intelligent design theory. She notes that people lined up around the block to see Michael Moore's last film.
It's pretty simple, Ms. Stead. People don't pay money for something they can get for free. Turn on Fox News, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the mainstream media and you can see plenty of talking heads mouthing the pseudoscience of I.D. to the credulous American public.
Go back five years. When Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" was in theaters, you could not turn on a television and find critical voices speaking against the Iraq war. You could, though, hear the views of ex-generals on the Defense Department payroll mouthing Rumsfeld's talking points. To this day you won't find any in-depth reporting on no-bid contracts going to Blackwater and Halliburton.
Moore's film took advantage of an underserved market: Americans who distrust corporate media. The problem with Ben Stein's movie, and Ms. Stead's columns, is that the credibility of conservative pundits is following the same trend line as Bush's popularity.