NetFlix Review #15: Expelled

WEEEEEEEELL, this one might get people a little worked up.

I really wasn't looking forward to watching this movie. I've never been a proponent of Intelligent Design, but my parents recommended it to me, saying it brought up some interesting points and they'd like to hear my thoughts on. Well, now I've watched it, and you know what? It did bring up a few interesting points, and here are my thoughts on them.

The film, for those not in the know, is Ben Stein's take on why Intelligent Design is being shut out of Academia. Now, if you're like me you assumed that Intelligent Design was being shut out of Academia for an extraordinarily good reason: It's not science. I'd seen the kooks they brought out on all the news shows that gabbered on and on about how God made everything and if scientists didn't recognize God then we'd all face the consequences and we must protect the children and etc. etc. etc. I've seen the online video of Kirk Cameron discussing how awesome bananas are and that they are a sure sign that God created everything. These people are loonies, and they are the public face of Intelligent Design.

What Expelled does is attempt to show us some of the people who don't get any screen time, the actual... you know... scientists. And yes there appear to be some scientists who give Intelligent Design some credence. Their main points seem to be these:

(1) Intelligent Design is NOT Creationism. There is no "God made the world in 7 Days," no "Man sprung fully formed to rule the Earth." They regard that stuff to be just as insane as the rest of us do.

(2) Intelligent Design does not refute some claims of evolution. There appears to be room for Intelligent Design and Natural Selection to co-exist.

(3) Intelligent Design does not seek to boil down or simplify science into the easy answer of "God did it!" In contrast, they revel in the complexities of science and see that complexity and interconnectedness as a sign of some higher intelligence.

(4) Their main dispute with Darwinian evolutionary theory is that it doesn't provide a satisfactory explanation for the beginning of life. At some point in every evolutionary origin of life story there is a moment where something "just occurred" not for any other reason than... well... it had to, you know, for life to start and stuff.

The main focus of the documentary appears to be about reframing the conversation in various ways. One way in which the conversation gets reframed is to try and refute the polarization of the "You either believe in God or you believe in Science" debate. This I was glad to see, because for years I've thought people on both sides of this debate have been complete assholes, if you'll pardon my language. This is a false dichotomy. Many of history's greatest scientists were religious, faith is not inherently antithetical to science. This makes both sides blindingly obnoxious when they say that either we should simply take what's said in the Bible and be content with that or that anyone who believes in some form of religious thought is a blithering dunderhead who couldn't tell an atom from an Adam. Both sides are using extraordinarily shallow reasoning, and it's nice to see someone point that out.

Ostensibly the film's goal is to say that whether or not you believe in Intelligent Design, it should be allowed to be thoughtfully debated. And I have to say, on that ground the movie did somewhat succeed with me, as by the end I thought "Eh, I'd hear what they have to say." It was interesting to watch this movie so closely to Mr. Death, in that I felt like the frame of mind Mr. Death left me with affected the way I viewed this film. That film was all about a man who certainly wasn't correct and was pushing damaging information, but needed to be heard out and was unfairly demonized instead of being properly engaged with and debated. I like to believe that everyone should have their day in court, and perhaps we haven't let the actual, scientific Intelligent Design community plead their case. Unfortunately the movie fails to offer much of what the actual Intelligent Designers would have to say. It gets so caught up on the perceived stonewalling of Intelligent Design by the academic community and the unexplored "darker" sides of evolutionary theory that it never really lets the Intelligent Designers do that much speaking for themselves. What little they did have to say seemed intriguing, but I would certainly need to hear a whole lot more.

And I should also say, and probably have said much earlier, that the film is most certainly a hatchet job. I am well aware of this. I am aware that some of Stein's rhetorical devices are astoundingly both shameless and shameful (as befits a former Nixon speechwriter, ZING!), his misquoting of Darwin is disgusting, his Holocaust connections are both overwrought and non-demonstrative and when the other shoe drops at the end and you see him tie the fight for Intelligent Design into conservative positions on abortion and euthanasia it all becomes deadeningly pat. Which is all a shame, because he really needs none of that to make his point. What intrigued me the most was when he just let the Intelligent Design people talk about what Intelligent Design meant to them. Let that guy talk about how beautifully constructed a cell is! Let the astrophysicist go on about "The Privileged Planet"! In the end, all I could think is why not moderate a thoughtful debate between an Evolutionist and an Intelligent Design proponent?

The real reason, of course, is that reasonable discussions don't sell. They don't drum up interest or get you invited on ridiculous talk shows. And so instead we get the Intelligent Design crowd made to look like martyrs and the Evolutionists to look like uber-close-minded raving weirdos. It was fascinating to see the tables turned in that fashion, as normally it's the well-kempt, thoughtful Evolutionist versus the howling yokel from the Creation Museum, but that doesn't speak well of the actual content of this film. Or, of course, the reason could be that in the end the Intelligent Design crowd doesn't really have anything to say, but after what little I got from them in the movie, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

The long and short of it is that this is a propaganda movie, plane and simple, which is a shame because it easily could have been about something fascinating. It accomplishes one part of what it sets out to do in that it makes me curious and I now feel like the Intelligent Design people may not be getting an entirely fair shake, but the best way to combat that isn't to swing so far in the other direction that you're now pulling shenanigans on the other side.

It's telling that a lot of the reviews of the movie claim that it is "anti-science." Well, not really, as the "heroes" it lauds are people who have all dedicated their lives to science. And they aren't just the typical high school teacher out in Two-Sticks, West Virginia who doesn't want to teach that we-come-from-monkeys crap, they are university professors and scientists who specialize in things like astrophysics and neurosurgery. Pretty smart dudes. And what a lot of this basically boils down to is do you think, in those initial moments of creation, the world came together through random encounters or guided organization? In scientific analysis it is demanded that people find repeatable, verifiable data. Would it be possible to say that Intelligent Design is a way of enforcing that code, saying nature has obviously organized itself around extraordinarily complex, repeatable data shows a form of organization, so could there not be an organizer? Do the Intelligent Designers dig their own grave when they say that it is basically a way of reframing the organizational principles around which nature is based if we can then simply say, "Well, why not leave that frame out of it and just examine the data?" How exactly does approaching science through the structure of Intelligent Design aid the science? Does it aid the science AT ALL? What a fascinating debate! I haven't been following any of the Intelligent Design debates terribly closely, so perhaps they have already duked it out in this vein, but if not, wouldn't you love to see two brilliant people from either side of that debate really go head to head and talk about the possible justifications and ramifications of either viewpoint? I sure would. If you know of anywhere I can see something like that, let me know, because I didn't see it here.

Jake Thomas

Story Writer. Marvel Comics Editor. Wrangler of Squids.