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Review: Ben Stein’s ‘Expelled’

bensteinexpelledmovieposter.jpgThere’s a wonderful moment toward the end of “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” Ben Stein’s new documentary on the intelligent design controversy, where Oxford zoologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins speculates on how life came to be. Beings from somewhere else in the universe, he says, may have developed self-replicating molecules and planted them in the primordial ooze, giving birth to the first single-celled organisms and the great chain of evolution. Even cold-eyed rationalists, it seems, have their creation myths. To see Dawkins pitch his, hedging and hemming as he goes, is more than odd; it’s daffily sweet.
That Dawkins has the best moment in a film advocating for intelligent design, however, spells trouble for “Expelled.” For Dawkins, author of the best-selling book “The God Delusion,” intelligent design is one particularly virulent symptom of a broader ill known as religious faith. This is precisely what the intelligent design people in the film tell us their inquiry is not about, and precisely what their opponents tell us it is.


And it’s the non-religious aspects of intelligent design Stein tries to convince us we should be worried about. In his rather ham-handed opening scenes, full of foreboding references to the splitting of Berlin by Communist Germany and our own civil-rights battles of the 1960s, Stein sells us his movie as an investigation into why intelligent design has been suppressed on university campuses. He is shocked to find that some qualified scientists have been sidelined, denied tenure, and even fired for entertaining thoughts about a conscious creator. A former White House speechwriter, author, actor and television personality, Stein here plays the slightly befuddled, increasingly outraged Everyman—a role perfected by Michael Moore—on a quest for answers.
His interviews with those who have been “expelled” for their association with intelligent design are often poignant and impassioned. The astronomer Guillermo Gonzales, denied tenure last year by Iowa State University, has a quiet sincerity that summons one’s protective instinct. Stephen C. Meyer radiates the authentic outrage of a man whose sanity has been questioned. Their point, as it is presented here, is simple: If Darwin’s theory of evolution cannot fully explain the origins of life, why not give them room to seek other explanations?
It’s a perfectly good question, but Stein soon abandons it to chase others. Some are interesting—does serious scientific inquiry necessarily lead to atheism?; others are provocative—did Darwinism lead to the Holocaust? But soon all the questions, for Stein, boil down to the Biggie: does God exist or not? In his showdown with Dawkins, Stein quizzes the scientist on whether he believes in Yahweh, Allah, Shiva—anyone? No, no, and no, come the answers, but as Stein mutely glares in triumph, what’s left of his film’s argument goes down the tubes.
Not that the argument was ever very serious. Along with his interview footage, he mixes in archive material from the building of the Berlin Wall, outdated P.R. reels and educational filmstrips, all ridiculing “the establishment,” until “Expelled” starts to play like an evangelical “Reefer Madness.” (Beefing up the Michael Moore parallels, Charlton Heston is shown here getting hosed down by a hirsute, Darwin-gone-wrong prison guard from one of the “Planet of the Apes” flicks.) Other propaganda techniques are more subtle. The camera repeatedly scrolls the texts of what appear to be dossiers on persecuted scientists, complete with passages censored with thick black marker: only by peering closely do we see that the documents wouldn’t pass even Dan Rather’s smell-o-meter.
Stein’s gimmicks often intrude just as professors on either side of the debate are getting to their best points. One disappointed scientist posits that the academic community’s vociferous rejection of intelligent design has something to do with funding. The pursuit of science depends in this country on grants from foundations and even governmental bodies that are susceptible to nonscientific pressures in their decision-making, including politics and religion; in this arena, intelligent design may be seen as unfair competition. It’s a jarring moment of relevance, but no sooner has the word “money” been blurted than Stein cuts away. Earlier, Michael Shermer, editor of the rationalist journal “Skeptic,” floats the idea that “there was more to” one case of scientific ostracism than simple prejudice. Was there? Stein exhibits no curiosity.
Like many cannonades in the culture wars, “Expelled” is designed to not to scatter the enemy, but to hearten the loyal. After the Potemkin battle is inevitably won, Stein is sure to award himself a gaily ribboned medal. His own peroration is intercut with footage of President Ronald Reagan speaking in Berlin, challenging Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” equating “Expelled” with the fight against Communist oppression and Stein himself to the Great Communicator. If you believe that one, you’ll believe we were put here by space aliens.

  • Karen Brown

    Actually, you were conned by what Dawkins has stated clearly was a doctored and edited quote in an interview about a whole different subject.
    What was missing was the actual question.
    Which was..
    [QUOTE]Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred. It’s the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could…
    Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn’t rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist.
    I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar — semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such ‘Directed Panspermia’ was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent ‘crane’ (to quote Dan Dennett). My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity…
    Well, you will have guessed how Mathis/Stein handled this. I won’t get the exact words right (we were forbidden to bring in recording devices on pain of a $250,000 fine, chillingly announced by some unnamed Gauleiter before the film began), but Stein said something like this. “What? Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN INTELLIGENT DESIGN.” “Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN ALIENS FROM OUTER SPACE.” I can’t remember whether this was the moment in the film where we were regaled with another Lord Privy Seal cut to an old science fiction movie with some kind of android figure – that may have been used in the service of trying to ridicule Francis Crick (again, dutiful titters from the partisan audience).
    Another gem from Dawkins’ post: Stein’s team went around telling scientists they wanted to interview that their film was tentatively called Crossroads, only later to change the title to Expelled, which is apparently a giveaway that the movie was going to be pro-creationism. They claimed to have decided on the title only after interviews were complete. Turns out? They had registered the domain name well before talking to the scientists.[/QUOTE]
    It was NOT what Dawkins thought actually happened. The sheer ‘far fetched’ nature of it was intended to demonstrate how far you have to go to even get to the ‘any circumstance possible’ that would result in life on this planet being designed.
    And a rather sleazy ploy by the movie makers.

  • Caitlin DiCristofalo

    Stein admits that Michael Moore is his inspiration and that Michael Moore “revolutionized” documentaries.
    Yes, Moore did, in fact, start a revolution. A revolution of twisting facts to fit into one man’s perception of the world and present it as a “documentary.” It’s well-known that Moore files the edges of the jigsaw puzzle pieces to make them fit into his big picture and make them entertaining, and Stein admitting to taking a cue from Moore is a confession of folding up falsities in a shiny wrapper for people to swallow.
    The sad part is, there is some truth in Moore’s movies, but they’re so mixed up with his gut-reaction bits that no one can tell the difference. The same is probably happening with Expelled.
    Now both sides have their crazy “documentarians.” Talk about fair and balanced.

  • FrostyBulb

    Skittles and M&M’s in the same bowl….if you KNOW what YOU want out of it, you’ll find it. If you don’t, you’ll have an indescribable aftertaste until the next bowl is brought fourth with the same intention.
    It’s Media folks…USE it or lose it.
    Should I have to say that I don’t beleive in ‘isms’ either?
    …peace and good vibes to you and yours. JTS

  • Harvey C. Kimmey Dover DE

    I really enjoyed the movie last night.
    It exposed the liberal educational mind how they will not even
    let students exam the I.D. for themselves.
    Ben has done a great service for “exposing” them for what are are
    and how they cannot tolerant any oyhrt point of view.
    Again, thank you Ben

  • Pierre JC

    People always claim that Michael Moore’s documentaries contain lies and inaccuracies.
    From his most famous film, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” name one.
    Just one.
    Can’t do it?
    Of course you can’t. There is absolutely nothing inaccurate in “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

  • John

    “If Darwin’s theory of evolution cannot fully explain the origins of life, why not give them room to seek other explanations?”
    1) This is a preposterous straw man. First, Darwin’s theory of evolution has nothing to do with the origins of life. It has to do with the mechanisms by which living things evolve. Second, we know that Darwin’s theory doesn’t even fully explain the mechanisms of evolution. That’s why we real scientists know about completely non-Darwinian mechanisms, such as drift. That’s why it’s both stupid and dishonest to describe real, working biologists as “Darwinists.”
    2) They’ve had plenty of room to seek, and they are afraid to test their own hypotheses (not theories) and seek new evidence. The entire movement has not produced a single datum. That’s what seeking is in science, and they don’t seek. They only blather and falsely present rhetoric as science, and this dishonest movie is a fine example.

  • Anna

    Dishonest? Maybe you should check out or Why hide all the facts? Now, everyone will be movtivated to research things on their own instead of being force fed lies in our schools and colleges.

  • Cernowain Greenman

    I loved the reference in the article to “Reefer Madness”. That’s exactly what this movie should be compared to.
    Even though I.D. has been exposed in the courts of Pennsylvania as a religious attempted coup, Stein does an end-round with the science and feeds on the paranoia of the “persecuted” Creationists.
    Kudos to the reviewer here for nailing this movie for what it is.
    blessed be,

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