Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (documentary)

“Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” is crap, but it’s well-produced crap. I’ll give it that. It leads the choir gently by the hand and entertains it with snarky humor before settling in to preach to it.

I don’t say the film is crap because I disagree with it. I say it’s crap because it disagrees with itself. It teems with contradictions, false dichotomies, and specious reasoning. It has Ben Stein saying “I know that Darwinism doesn’t automatically lead to Nazism” right after spending 10 minutes very strenuously implying that it does. It has a scientist saying there’s no inherent conflict between Darwinism and belief in God, or else all scientists would be atheists — and then takes several minutes to show that belief in evolution leads directly to atheism, thus negating that professor’s statement.

I could go on and on. In fact, I will.

The documentary’s central thesis is that there is a figurative wall in the scientific community that prevents scientists from even suggesting that Intelligent Design might possibly be a factor in the origin of life on Earth. (Later, this figurative wall is compared to the Berlin Wall, no joke.) Ben Stein, the former Nixon speechwriter, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” teacher, and game show host, is our on-camera guide, talking to several scientists who have been pressured to resign or openly fired — essentially blacklisted — for daring to suggest such a thing.

The reason, the film says, is a misunderstanding. Many scientists equate Intelligent Design with Creationism, when the two are not the same thing. Creationism is essentially the belief that the Genesis account of how the world came to be is a true record of how it happened — and yeah, there’s not much a scientist can do with that. But Intelligent Design merely says that certain things about life on Earth are best explained by something supernatural. It does not necessarily specify that the Judeo-Christian God did it, only that it was some force beyond the normal scope of human knowledge.

So consider this. There is no scientific consensus on how, exactly, the first life on Earth came to be. We know there were elements and proteins and primordial soup, and that somehow, a single-celled living organism emerged from that. There are theories on what sparked it, some more fervently held than others, but nothing conclusive.

That’s where the wall comes up. The party line is that we’ll keep experimenting and researching and testing until we come up with a definitive answer. That’s the usual scientific process. But some scientists say, “Well, on that part where we don’t know what happened … maybe it was Intelligent Design? Some kind of creative force or something? Maybe?” And that’s when, according to the film, the blacklisting and name-calling begins.

I agree that it’s unfair to malign a scientist simply for offering a place-holder answer to a currently unsolvable mystery. If you said, “I believe it was Intelligent Design that launched life, so we can stop researching now!,” then I suppose that’s a problem. That’s not very scientific. But if all you’re doing is suggesting the possibility, well, why not? Science can’t prove the existence of God, but it can’t disprove it, either. Why not offer this as one possible solution until we find a definitive one?

On the other hand, the religious explanation isn’t much better. Even if you believe that God (or Someone) provided the initial spark that led to life on Earth, well, where did God come from? “He was just always there” isn’t very satisfying, is it? Scientists and religious practitioners both ultimately reach the same dead end, where you just have to say, “We don’t know.” The only difference is that scientists keep looking, while people of faith leave it at that.

My point is that there is no inherent conflict between science and a belief in God. Plenty of scientists are religious, and plenty of religious people accept the basic ideas of evolution. Most people of faith figure God will explain everything eventually, and in the meantime, don’t sweat it. It’s the extremists on both sides — the narrow-minded scientists and the fundamentalist religionists — who muddy the waters and create a conflict where there shouldn’t be one.

Among those is famed atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins, who says in the film, “Evolution is a fact, and therefore God doesn’t exist.” That is an egregious misuse of the word “therefore,” especially for a scientist. Evolution’s factuality or falseness has nothing to do with the possibility of a higher power. It might contradict Genesis, but not the idea of God altogether. Yet the film takes Dawkins’ statement and runs with it, as if his attitude is representative of Big Science as a whole. The message: If you believe in Darwinian evolution, then you can’t believe in God. And if you start out believing in God, the more you study evolution, the more atheistic you’ll become. Scientists who underwent such a shift personally are cited as cautionary tales. Beware of Darwinism! It will destroy your faith! (Of course, you have to wonder how strong someone’s faith was to begin with if it’s annihilated that easily.)

Ben Stein takes a surprisingly Michael Moore-ish attitude in his on-screen demeanor. Knowing that the comparatively small Discovery Institute in Seattle is at the root of the pro-Intelligent Design movement, he makes a point of wandering the streets pretending not to know where their headquarters are. “It must be this entire building,” he muses, since surely a group that has caused SUCH a ruckus must be a HUGE organization! Elsewhere, he pretends to think that “Intelligent Design is just reheated Creationism,” which he knows full well it isn’t. Those cloying tactics are annoying when Michael Moore uses them, and they’re no less grating coming from Stein.

But the film really turns to crap in its second half, when Stein and Co. take pains to point out that Hitler was a Darwinist. The concept of eugenics, of purifying the human race by killing the weaker members, goes along with Darwin’s “natural selection” theories. So the Nazis were Darwinists. Well, guess what? The Crusaders were Christians. Murdering 6 million Jews is no more a natural extension of Darwinism than killing unconverted Muslims is a natural consequence of Christianity. Evil deeds have been committed in the name of just about every belief system. And if you really want to go down THAT road, Ben Stein, more people have been killed in the name of religion than in the name of Darwin or science. So how about we not go down that road, OK?

The film’s director, Nathan Frankowski, and co-writers Kevin Miller and Walt Ruloff know the buttons to push for their audience, which they know will be mostly fundamentalist Christians and Creationists. Planned Parenthood, which passes out condoms (!) and helps women get abortions (!!), was partially founded by Margaret Sanger, who believed in eugenics! Of course, Planned Parenthood today has nothing to do with eugenics (or atheism, or science, or anything else related to this movie), but why not take the opportunity to increase the audience’s outrage anyway?

I find two quotes in the film to be particularly telling, in an ironic way. Bruce Chapman, the head of the Discovery Institute says, “People who don’t have a good argument are reduced to throwing sand in your eyes.” Indeed.

Then there’s Stein himself. While decrying how staunchly anti-Intelligent Design most scientists are, he says, “Rational discussion is a nice thought, but it’s virtually impossible in the current environment.” This film is evidence that the ID crowd has given up on rational discussion and decided to be guilty of everything they accuse the other side of. It’s always nice when a movie reviews itself right in its title, and “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” does just that.

D+ (1 hr., 40 min.; PG, some disturbing Holocaust-related images.)