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Ben Stein : no intelligence allowed

So, I finally got around to watching Ben Stein's movie "Expelled : No Intelligence Allowed". I guess since my last post ended with a Ferris Bueller quote, it makes a nice seguey into this one to mention his acting career got made from his role in Ferris Bueller's Day off, as the monotonous economics teacher, teaching a class full of bored drooling high school students about the Laffer Curve, Ronald Reagan's "voodoo economics", and repeating "anyone? anyone?" after every question regardless of the fact that nobody ever answered his questions.

Before I watched the film, I couldn't help but brush up on my knowledge of Ben Stein's life on Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Stein

He was the son of an economics professor, but went to school for law. Became a lawyer and at one point was a professor of law at Pepperdine University. I knew that he had been a speech writer and lawyer for President Richard Nixon, but I had no idea that he had taught as an adjunct professor for a while at UC Santa Cruz (where I went to grad school) before he became a real professor at Pepperdine. That surprised me more than anything on his resume, given UCSC has sometimes been referred to by conservatives as "the worst school in America for leftwing indoctrination", and given how insanely conservative Ben Stein is. He must have found plenty of enemies there!

The most entertaining thing I found on his Wikipedia page, though, is that apparently--even though he's not an economist, many news outlets such as Fox News regularly ask his opinion on economics as though he's some kind of expert (presumably either because his father was an economist, or because he played an economics teacher in Ferris Bueller). For example, in August 2007, he appeared on Fox News with a panel of other "experts" where he proclaimed loudly and arrogantly that subprime mortgages were a wonderful "buy opportunity", dismissing fears that they might be unsafe. Peter Schiff was also there and disagreed strongly with him, saying that subprime mortgages and perhaps even the whole mortgage market was in danger of crashing. Stein and everyone else on the panel laughed at him saying "you must be a laugh riot at parties". Talk about putting your foot in your mouth!

Regarding Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate, he defends him by saying:

"Can anyone even remember now what Nixon did that was so terrible? He ended the war in Vietnam, brought home the POWs, ended the war in the Mideast, opened relations with China, started the first nuclear weapons reduction treaty, saved Eretz Israel's life, started the Environmental Protection Administration. Does anyone remember what he did that was bad?

Oh, now I remember. He lied. He was a politician who lied. How remarkable. He lied to protect his subordinates who were covering up a ridiculous burglary that no one to this date has any clue about its purpose. He lied so he could stay in office and keep his agenda of peace going. That was his crime. He was a peacemaker and he wanted to make a world where there was a generation of peace. And he succeeded.

That is his legacy. He was a peacemaker. He was a lying, conniving, covering up peacemaker. He was not a lying, conniving drug addict like JFK, a lying, conniving war starter like LBJ, a lying, conniving seducer like Clinton—a lying, conniving peacemaker." - Ben Stein


The film Expelled is his defense of the Intelligent Design movement, where he lays out the case for a full-blown conspiracy among scientists who believe in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. His central claim is that ID advocates within the science community are systematically identified and expelled from the rest of the community, never allowed to explore ideas that might contradict Darwin's great theory.

I have to admit--I sort of thought that I might watch this movie and get very angry. And I suppose I should be, because there are probably plenty of evangelical Christians who will watch it and think his investigative reporting is brilliant and his arguments against Darwinism are air tight. But for the most part, I just thought it was hilarious. I mean some of the antics in it were very entertaining, but so far from reality that it's hard to watch it and not think "OMG, that is so cute that he thinks that!"

The only part that made me kind of angry was the part where he visits the Nazi death camp, and has some tour guide explain to him how all of the Nazi's beliefs were based on Darwin's ideas. In scenes before that, he has drilled in to the viewer that the natural consequence of belief in evolution is to become a Nazi and engaging in forced eugenics and genocide. The theme of Nazis is woven from beginning to end of the film, but only the part where he actually visits the camp is creepy. The rest of it is more aimed at a metaphor for erecting a wall where science is on one side and religion is on the other, and if scientists ever stray over onto the religion side of the wall, they get shot. He mixes up his analogies though, because while they keep showing shots of Nazi guards on one side or another of a wall, they also keep cutting to shots of the Berlin Wall, which was erected by the Communists, not the Nazis. At the end there are a lot of shots of Reagan talking about freedom, while simulataneously Ben Stein is talking about academic freedom, and shots of the Berlin Wall falling down are interspersed. (I think the speech Reagan is giving is when the wall was coming down.) Very poetic, and interesting how he ties all 3 of those ideas of "freedom" together. But downright idiotic if you think about it in a larger context!

He has interviews with PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, and other great skeptics. If there is one thing that really impressed me about the movie, it was that he actually let them talk for a pretty long time. I was surprised at this, because at times, they appear to completely annihilate his arguments, or at least make him look foolish... and yet he doesn't cut it from the film. Those parts made me think he did a decent job at being an honest filmmaker and including what his opponents have to say--unfortunately, there are other parts where he is clearly being dishonest. The worst one, I think, is when he talks about winning the lottery of life. There's a catchy cartoon about a guy playing a slot machine. Stein claims that winning the lottery of life (creating the first few organic building blocks of life, out of inorganic materials) is like playing a slot machine and winning, and then playing 250 more slot machines and winning on every single one of them, all in a row. While I'm sure that's a powerful image for many people, it's completely dishonest because after all the scientists he interviewed about how life got started, I am sure that at least *one* of them explained to him how big the universe is, and how many galaxies there are out there. So his metaphor is completely dishonest in that it only shows one casino, not trillions of casinos all running simultaneously, where only in at least one of them this has to happen. In fact, he asks questions just like this, where I'm sure that was the answer given, but then he deliberately cuts that out of the movie and instead leaves the more emotional rants about how stupid creationists are.

In terms of Darwin's theory itself, namely that species form from previous species through natural selection, none of the ID advocates interviewed even attempt to give an alternative suggestion to that. Instead, it seems like what these people claim is just that somehow, there are some ingredients somewhere mixed in with life that supposedly can't be explained without recourse to "intelligence" designing them. None of them seem to realize that if this really were true, then there would be no more science to be done--that would be the end.

Overall, I thought it was definitely worth watching, if nothing else as a window into how really whacky conservatives like Ben Stein think about science, and how the intelligent design people in general think. And there is one big theme in the movie that I whole-heartedly agree with and enjoyed. And that theme is that people don't seem to realize just how incompatible religion is with Darwinism. He interviews scientists who explain how political correctness and the desire to win court cases has led scientists to mute what they say against mainstream religion and pretend that it is more compatible than it really is. This is absolutely true, and I think he does a great job at pointing it out. Unfortunately, his conclusion is that since they are incompatible, Darwinism must therefore be wrong. And also unfortunately, one of his main arguments, and arguably the strongest argument he has, for why it's Darwinism that must be wrong rather than religion, is that Darwinism naturally leads to genocide, while religion leads to happy happy joy joy. I say it's the "strongest" argument he has in a sort of tongue and cheek way, because while he does lay out an entirely plausible route through which Darwinism could lead a normal well-meaning intelligent person down the path to Nazism (through the intermediate step of Social Darwinism), it's not actually an argument for Darwinism being "wrong" in the sense of "not true". And he seems to ignore the obvious fact that the vast majority of people who believe in evolution are not Nazis (although he does warn several times that "I'm not saying belief in Darwinism *requires* you to believe in Nazism or that all Darwinists are Nazis"). But even the way he says that seems to suggest that he *mostly* believes that, or *almost* believes that which of course is total nonsense.

So overall, I think it has some important and true messages, but it also has some deeply dishonest and misleading messages. Oh, one more entertaining bit. Upon interviewing one scientist, who explains one plausible hypothesis for how the first organic cells may have formed--by "piggy-backing on crystals"--he stares at him with a stupid look and says "um, excuse me?? Did you say... *crystals*?" and then there's a flash to a shot of a wizard holding a crystal ball and smiling devilishly. Pure genius in the cinematography, although I really feel sorry for the person who watches it and thinks that's what the theory actually says.

Sigh. I seem to be really fascinated by conspiracy theorists lately. I may have to make another post about the Books-on-Tape I've been listening to this month, called "The Rise of the Fourth Reich : How Secret Societies Threaten to Take Over America". Totally batshit crazy guy wrote it, and ties together every conspiracy theory known to man, from 9/11-truth, to UFO's, to perpetual motion machines, to JFK, to the Illuminati, to Hilter using a body double to fake his own death, to the CIA being filled with Nazis and putting Floride (aka "Prozac" according to him) in the water to pacify everyone into obedience to Nazi control, to NASA being founded by Nazi occultists who time all of their launches meticulously according to astrological signs. Anyway, more totally nuts stuff, but for some reason it's a hard book to put down. Perhaps in some ways only slightly crazier than Ben Stein is.

Comments

( 59 comments — Leave a comment )
catithat
Oct. 12th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
religious darwinists
Do you think Darwinism is incompatible with all forms of religion, or just with the literal 7-day creation story?
-Steve

Re: "there is one big theme in the movie that I whole-heartedly agree with and enjoyed. And that theme is that people don't seem to realize just how incompatible religion is with Darwinism"
spoonless
Oct. 12th, 2010 09:20 am (UTC)
Re: religious darwinists

Do you think Darwinism is incompatible with all forms of religion, or just with the literal 7-day creation story?

I think that any Abrahamic religion, no matter how loosely interpreted, is fundamentally incompatible with Darwinism. For Eastern religions, it's more complicated, but most versions are incompatible. The one I'd say has the best chance of potentially being compatible would be Advaita Vedanta, or perhaps the atheist sects of Buddhism. The only way in which Advaita Vedanta is incompatible with science that I can think of, would be that it is idealist rather than materialist. So it may not be incompatible with evolution itself, just with science more broadly.

Then there are philosophical ideas such as pantheism and deism. I would not consider these religions, since they are not widely practiced and developed more through philosophical thought rather than through folklore and dogma. I think it might be right to say these are compatible with Darwinism, and that the reasons they are bad philosophy have more to do with internal problems than with any incompatibility with evolution.

I think if you were to poll people, they would have a very different (and very wrong) impression of the compatibility between science and religion in general, and especially between evolution and religion. So it's good to see movies clearing this point up.
spoonless
Oct. 12th, 2010 09:24 am (UTC)
Re: religious darwinists
Just to try to say more specifically where the incompatibility arises from...

Most religions start from the point of view that ideas and mind and intelligence is fundamental, and matter is something that was either created by intelligence or is projected or imagined by intelligent beings. Whereas the insight that Darwin's theory has given science is that intelligence arose from matter as an emergent property, not the other way around. So it's completely backwards to picture matter arising from intelligence, rather than intelligence arising from matter.
catithat
Oct. 12th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: religious darwinists
I have some pretty different views, so next time we're in the same place and feel like a good argument let's throw down :)

Specifically, I have a more limited view of the kind of knowledge achievable through the scientific method. I think scientists can observe the world, document what happens, and explain what happens and how things happen so they can predict what'll happen next.

I don't think the scientific method sheds any light on morality or on "why the world is the way it is, instead of being different or not existing at all." Science is descriptive, and deals with objective truth that everyone can agree on, or agree that more data's needed. As a scientist, I don't mind saying "my experiment doesn't answer your question" or even "I can't imagine any experiment that would answer your question."

How to live our lives, what we should cherish or fear, why there's a universe: to me these are questions for philosophy, religion, politics, etc. I don't think evolution or the big bang, or any other truth found through science, provide any evidence for or against religion. That's not something science does, or can do.

Science is well-equipped to insist that a 7-day creation story, or lots of other divinely-revealed but scientifically-impossible assertions about physics or history, can't be true and can have value only as allegory and tradition. But, again, the final issue of why the world is here, why our fun times are emergent properties of atoms whizzing about, and what to hope for in your life: these are outside the purview of science.
Re: religious darwinists - spoonless - Oct. 12th, 2010 11:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - easwaran - Oct. 13th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - spoonless - Oct. 13th, 2010 07:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - easwaran - Nov. 4th, 2010 01:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - spoonless - Nov. 4th, 2010 01:40 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - spoonless - Oct. 13th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - easwaran - Oct. 13th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - spoonless - Oct. 13th, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - easwaran - Oct. 13th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 14th, 2010 01:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - easwaran - Oct. 14th, 2010 01:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 14th, 2010 02:26 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - easwaran - Oct. 14th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 14th, 2010 08:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - easwaran - Oct. 14th, 2010 10:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 15th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - easwaran - Oct. 16th, 2010 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 17th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - easwaran - Oct. 26th, 2010 02:08 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 26th, 2010 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - easwaran - Oct. 26th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 27th, 2010 10:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: the is-ought gap - spoonless - Oct. 14th, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - vaelynphi - Oct. 14th, 2010 07:08 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: religious darwinists - spoonless - Oct. 14th, 2010 03:44 am (UTC) - Expand
essius
Nov. 29th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
Re: religious darwinists
…the insight that Darwin's theory has given science is that intelligence arose from matter as an emergent property, not the other way around. So it's completely backwards to picture matter arising from intelligence, rather than intelligence arising from matter.

Except that Darwin's theory doesn't claim that all intelligence arose from matter or that al intelligence had to so arise. Darwinian theory is compatible with God as the ground of all existence, and thus with the view that an intelligence is the first efficient cause of all matter and material processes. You seem to be extrapolating a philosophical principle from a scientific one, like the guy who reads a little bit of quantum mechanics and then decides that the law of the excluded middle has been debunked. Darwinism does not imply naturalism, for there is nothing logically contradictory about a God who creates a universe in which are included processes of natural selection and random variation.
vaelynphi
Oct. 12th, 2010 08:08 am (UTC)
Allied Atheist Alliance FTW!
Incidentally, molecular evolutionary biology is fascinating.

Stein, et al... eh, I'd rather watch South Park.
easwaran
Oct. 13th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Allied Atheist Alliance FTW!
If you're going to be watching conservative/libertarian propaganda, it might as well be South Park, which has the advantage of being entertaining about half the time.
Re: Allied Atheist Alliance FTW! - vaelynphi - Oct. 14th, 2010 07:04 am (UTC) - Expand
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Oct. 12th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
Excellent write-up. Stein strikes me as a complete bafoon. One question though: Michael Shermer = "excellent skeptic"? (I'll ignore the others since he makes such an easy target)

You heard where he recently got busted for posing as a prof of a uni he had no affiliation with, right? Or when he got busted for claiming to have read books he couldn't name? Having followed spurts of his career I have a difficult time not thinking of him as a fraudster and opportunist... I guess we have different ideas of necessary/sufficient for "excellent skeptic"...

Why opt for the lunatic fringe? There's plenty of coherent fringe to explore...
spoonless
Oct. 12th, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
I guess I don't know that much about Michael Shermer. I remember enjoying his column in Scientific American while growing up, but as an adult I've mostly lost track of what he's been up to. Incidentally, I used the adjective "great" to describe him rather than "excellent"... not that there's a huge difference, although when writing narrative evaluations for students I remember we would typically use the word excellent for A+ or A students and great for B+ students.

I recall you have said some nasty things about James Randi in the past (which as far as I can tell from what I've looked into, he does not deserve). Would you put him a step up or a step down from Shermer?

I had not heard either of the things you mention about Shermer--will look into it if I get a chance.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Oct. 13th, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
Randi and Shermer both strike me as scoundrels, but for completely different reasons. Randi was a showman through-and-through. His history as a "researcher" is laughable, and many of the studies he critiqued illustrated his incompetence. On the other hand, he also debunked a great many charlatans, frauds, shucksters, etc. Complex character, but definitely shady and certainly of questionable credibility.

Shermer has credentials. He got into the business of debunking by 'accident' - i.e. media and etc began calling him to act as "debunker" for random "paranormal" event/claim and he in a way he got typecast. That aside, his research methodologies are often of questionable rigour, his data often unreliable, his claimed results often inconsistent with observed data, etc. One of the sexiest examples of this involves his involvement with Sheldrake's "dogs that know" experiments.

But the fraudulent posturing as a prof is a recent thing. Scandalous.
darius
Oct. 15th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
I've read some of Shermer's columns (not recently) and he seemed pro-establishment rather than skeptical. (I don't remember what writings specifically -- maybe on cryonics and nanotech.) Dawkins OTOH impresses me. Randi I don't know enough to have much of an opinion on.
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 15th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - darius - Oct. 15th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 15th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Oct. 26th, 2010 02:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 26th, 2010 02:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Oct. 26th, 2010 07:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 27th, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - easwaran - Oct. 28th, 2010 12:06 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 28th, 2010 02:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 19th, 2010 11:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 20th, 2010 05:19 am (UTC) - Expand
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Oct. 19th, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
Here's a vid related to Shermer you might find... provocative: http://j.mp/bSzjTv

The beginning starts a little ... oddly, but stick with it...
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:24 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 20th, 2010 03:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 20th, 2010 05:14 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 20th, 2010 05:10 am (UTC) - Expand
neoteny
Oct. 12th, 2010 04:55 pm (UTC)
Soemthing I've always wondered

How do ID people reconcile selective breeding with their beliefs? Does the movie touch on that? Breeding clearly demonstrates descent with modification, and the use of un-natural selection to guide the change. Seems like that could be a valuable path to educating ID'ers.
spoonless
Oct. 13th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
Re: Soemthing I've always wondered

How do ID people reconcile selective breeding with their beliefs? Does the movie touch on that?

Ben Stein brings up selective breeding several times during the movie, but always in the context of arguing that Darwinism naturally leads to advocation of the selective breeding of humans and eugenics. He quotes Darwin saying something about how the current way our society is set up, where we treat mental patients rather than sterilizing them or letting them die off naturally, selects for undesirable traits. Actually, I don't remember the quote exactly and he was probably taking it out of context, but it seemed to indicate that Darwin was at least hinting that it might be better if we selectively bred humans for better traits. He then goes from there to quoting what the Nazis said which was very similar.

As far as selective breeding of animals, ironically--no, I don't think that is mentioned in the movie at all. I got the impression that most of the ID advocates interviewed agreed with some parts of Darwin's theory, although they varied on which parts they questioned. One guy said something about it would have been fine if Darwin just said that members of a species could change over time through mutations... but that he didn't believe new species could begin in this way. So I guess in his view, each species was created seperately, and they all evolve separately but never cross over into each other. Very bizarre.
essius
Nov. 29th, 2010 09:39 pm (UTC)
…people don't seem to realize just how incompatible religion is with Darwinism.

Darwinism conjoined with naturalism? Yes, this is (trivially) incompatible with (monotheistic) religion. But Darwinism understood in its pure form as the view that all we need and what suffices to explain the full panoply of life is natural selection acting on random variation? No, this is really clearly not incompatible with religion. Incidentally, even many naturalistic evolutionists do not think Neo-Darwinism suffices. Hence other supplemental mechanisms such as hierarchical selection, exaptation, neutral theory, evo-devo, morphogenic fields, self-organization, endosymbiosis, and semiosis.
( 59 comments — Leave a comment )

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