Expelled A Parade of Logical Fallacy

Friday, May 2, 2008

Biology professor David Bourgaize takes a critical look at Ben Stein's new documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The film focuses on how proponents of intelligent design have been shunned by academia. Unfortunately, Bourgaize writes, Stein takes on "everything from evolution, science, religion, communism, eugenics, and racial extermination."

Expelled: A Parade of Logical Fallacy

By David Bourgaize, Fletcher Jones Professor of Molecular Genetics

I often enjoy one-sided documentaries. Despite their bias, there are usually good points made, interesting questions asked, and at least one side of the debate is presented clearly and logically. In the one-sided documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein takes on... well, any number of things, including, but not limited to, evolution, science, religion, communism, eugenics, and racial extermination. It is exceedingly complex to relate all of these under any circumstances, and unfortunate that Stein tried to in the span of ninety minutes.

The movie begins with Stein talking to what appears to be a group of high school or college students. We are then introduced to a number of scientists who have seemingly endured hardships as a result of involvement with intelligent design. Academic freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of belief are all questioned. And, the self-serving "Scientific Establishment" (whatever that might be) is quickly identified as the culprit. The major injustice being described is the establishment's perceived goal of discrediting any idea that challenges evolution. Evolutionary biologists are also "interviewed" to provide counterpoint and perspective. The relationship between science and religion is brought into the argument, but only to tell us that evolution fosters atheism. Many comparisons are made between the current state of science in the western world and the unquestioned obedience and lack of information prevalent in communist societies. This dialogue is accompanied by metaphorically triumphant images of the Berlin Wall being brought down.

Then the movie moves from communism to eugenics, with its last third devoted to remembrances of Hitler and Nazi Germany, including visits to death camps. These visits are interspersed with images from a famous early-20th century American eugenics institute. We are told that the scientific establishment's crusade led to the development of eugenics, and that this led to Hitler's rise. Apparently, this happened because freedom of thought and the search for truth were repressed.

All told, it seems that Ben would have us believe that the propaganda campaign enacted by a restrictive scientific establishment, and aimed at discrediting intelligent design is not only anti-religious, but is as horrific as communist repression and Nazi extermination.

The movie contains so many logical flaws and inconsistencies that I cannot possibly describe them all. For example, we are told—over and over again—that the inability of the theory of evolution to explain everything about the known universe not only means that evolution is invalid, but provides direct support for intelligent design. 

As most of us learn in elementary school, the very nature of a good scientific theory is that it will be tested against observations, and will be changed and modified, perhaps even discarded—but only based on the collective weight of repeated and verifiable observations. The inability of a theory to explain every detail does not refute the entire theory nor does it strengthen any alternative. Yet, time after time, Stein and the "persecuted" argue that the inability of evolution to provide every answer is evidence in favor of intelligent design.

The logical fallacy parade continues in so many ways. Arguments used to support one idea are discredited if applied to another. Infinitesimally small probabilities are used as evidence against one theory, but used to support the possibility of another. Deceit is used in order to support the search for truth. I simply do not know what to say—I was under the impression that effective journalism would reveal inconsistencies within the subjects, not the other way around.

There are of course important questions to be asked about this subject matter. Is there politics and injustice in science? Of course. To believe that science would be any more or less influenced by its human practitioners than any other pursuit is simply unreasonable. Certainly we should be concerned about misdoings. Are there interesting conversations to be had about evolution and intelligent design? Of course. Although a more transparent conversation about the nature of science and religion would be preferable. Have there been misuses of science? Sure, and the eugenics movement is one of them. But, again, to expect that science, as a human endeavor, would be free from misuse and misinterpretation is unreasonable. Science joins religion (and every other human activity) in having a history that sometimes seems abhorrent to us today.

I wish that these questions had been asked in the movie. But, instead of being asked, we are simply told what to think. It is stunningly hypocritical to couch such anti-intellectualism as an effort to insist on freedom of thought and the pursuit of truth.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a great deal of this going around these days. My only possible reaction to this movie is to pray for increased scientific literacy, informed conversations, and for God's sake, real education.