Trouble ahead for science
By Kenneth R. Miller
Boston Globe, May 8, 2008
AMERICAN science is in trouble, and if you wonder why, just go to the movies. Popular culture is gradually turning against science, and Ben Stein's new movie, "Expelled," is helping to push it along.
"Intelligent Design," the relabeled, repackaged form of American creationism, has always had a problem. It just can't seem to produce any evidence. To scientists, the reasons for this are obvious. To conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, Intelligent Design is nothing more than a "phony theory." No data, no science, no experiments, just an attempt to sneak a narrow set of religious views into US classrooms.
Advocates of Intelligent Design needed a story to explain why the idea has been a nonstarter within the scientific community, and Ben Stein has given it to them. The story line is that Intelligent Design advocates are persecuted and suppressed. "Expelled" tells of this terrible campaign against free expression, and mocks the pretensions of the closed-minded scientific elite supposedly behind it.
There are many things wrong with this movie. One example: Viewers are told that Dr. Richard Sternberg lost his job at the Smithsonian Institution because he edited a paper favorable to Intelligent Design. Wrong.
Sternberg wasn't even employed by the Smithsonian (he had no job to lose), and had resigned as journal editor six months before the paper was published. In fact, the irony is that neither Steinberg nor any of the other people featured as martyrs in "Expelled" lost jobs as a result of their advocacy of Intelligent Design, while many others who supported evolution have. In 2007, Chris Comer, the director of science education for Texas schools, was fired for having done nothing more than forwarding an e-mail announcing a pro-evolution seminar.
The movie also uses interviews with avowed atheists like Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," to argue that scientific establishment is vehemently anti-God. Never mind that 40 percent of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science profess belief in a personal God. Stein, avoiding these 50,000 people, tells viewers that "Darwinists" don't allow scientists to even think of God.
Puzzled, the editors of Scientific American asked Mark Mathis, the film's co-producer, why he and Stein didn't interview such people, like Francis Collins (head of the Human Genome Project), Francisco Ayala, or myself. Mathis cited me by name, saying "Ken Miller would have confused the film unnecessarily." In other words, showing a scientist who accepts both God and evolution would have confused their story line.
Despite these falsehoods, by far the film's most outlandish misrepresentation is its linkage of Darwin with the Holocaust. A concentration camp tour guide tells Stein that the Nazis were practicing "Darwinism," and that's that. Never mind those belt buckles proclaiming Gott mit uns (God is with us), the toxic anti-Semitism of Martin Luther, the ghettoes and murderous pogroms in Christian Europe centuries before Darwin's birth. No matter. It's all the fault of evolution.
Why is all this nonsense a threat to science? The reason is Stein's libelous conclusion that science is simply evil. In an April 21 interview on the Trinity Broadcast Network, Stein called the Nazi murder of children "horrifying beyond words." Indeed. But what led to such horrors? Stein explained: "that's where science in my opinion, this is just an opinion, that's where science leads you. Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place. Science leads you to killing people."
According to Stein, science leads you to "killing people." Not to cures and vaccines, not to a deeper understanding of nature, not to wonders like computers and cellphones, and certainly not to a better life. Nope. Science is murder.
"Expelled" is a shoddy piece of propaganda that props up the failures of Intelligent Design by playing the victim card. It deceives its audiences, slanders the scientific community, and contributes mightily to a climate of hostility to science itself. Stein is doing nothing less than helping turn a generation of American youth away from science. If we actually come to believe that science leads to murder, then we deserve to lose world leadership in science. In that sense, the word "expelled" may have a different and more tragic connotation for our country than Stein intended.
Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, is author of "Only a Theory - Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul," which will be published next month.