Questionable Interview Tactics
For a number of scientists, their introduction to what became Expelled came during the spring and early summer of 2007. Several prominent scientists and creationism critics – including Eugenie Scott, P. Z. Myers, Michael Shermer, Hector Avalos, and Richard Dawkins – received similar emails, saying the following:
My name is Mark Mathis. I am a Producer for Rampant Films. We are currently in production of the documentary film, “Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion.”
At your convenience I would like to discuss our project with you and to see if we might be able to schedule an interview with you for the film. The interview would take no more than 90 minutes total, including set up and break down of our equipment.
We are interested in asking you a number of questions about the disconnect/controversy that exists in America between Evolution, Creationism and the Intelligent Design movement.
Please let me know what time would be convenient for me to reach you at your office. Also, could you please let me know if you charge a fee for interviews and if so, what that fee would be for 90 minutes of your time?
I look forward to speaking with you soon.
The scientists agreed to be interviewed for the documentary, and Mathis and the participants exchanged cordial emails organizing interview schedules and discussing the questions which would be asked. In personal communications after Expelled was revealed for what it was, Scott, Dawkins, and Avalos reported that each got the impression that Mathis was “pro-science” and “sympathetic to science and evolution”.
Some, like Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer, were interviewed by the host of the film, Ben Stein. Other scientists, such as Eugenie Scott and P. Z. Myers, were interviewed by Mathis and other production crew.
After the interviews, some of the scientists noted peculiar elements in the interviews. Dawkins recalled Stein being unusually aggressive in his questioning; Myers recalled Mathis’s odd behavior of holding up flashcards with prominent creationists’ names written on them to get his reactions. It seemed a curious approach for a documentary supposedly on the “controversy that exists in America between Evolution, Creationism and the Intelligent Design movement.” (Being quite low-key in person – contrasting with the sharpness of his writing on his popular science blog, Pharyngula – Myers apparently did not react to the flashcards strongly enough on camera, so none of this footage was used in the movie.) Shermer found Stein “rude and arrogant”.
All of these interviews were represented as being for a quite generic-sounding documentary film called Crossroads. Here is a short description taken from the Rampant Films website in Spring 2007:
Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion
It has been the central question of humanity through the ages: How in the world did we get here? In 1859 Charles Darwin provided the answer in his landmark book, “The Origin of Species.” In the century and a half since, geologists, biologists, physicists, astronomers, and philosophers have contributed a vast amount of research and data in support of Darwin’s idea. And yet, millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other people of faith believe in a literal interpretation that humans were crafted by the hand of God. The conflict between science and religion has unleashed passions in school board meetings, courtrooms, and town halls across America and beyond.
Therefore, it came as a bit of a shock when Scott and Myers independently discovered that the film Crossroads was not the film that they had been interviewed for. Myers says he suspected that something was amiss when he found an August 22, 2007, press release for an upcoming intelligent design film entitled Expelled, starring Ben Stein and produced by Premise Media. The release mentions that “The film confronts scientists such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, influential biologist and atheist blogger PZ Myers and Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education.” Since Myers didn’t recall ever being interviewed for a film called Expelled, he dug a bit deeper, only to find that listed in the credits for Expelled was a familiar name: Associate Producer Mark Mathis of Rampant Films.
Independently, at about the same time, Eugenie Scott had been tipped off about an upcoming pro-intelligent design film titled Expelled. When she and her staff at NCSE began to research the specific details of the film, they discovered that Rampant Films, the company behind Crossroads, and Premise Media, the company behind Expelled, were closely linked. Most notably, the staff members listed on the Rampant Films website, including Mark Mathis, were also listed as staff members on the website for Premise Media.
Research into the “upcoming and recently released features” listed by Rampant Films on their website led to dead ends; no Rampant Films products were listed anywhere. In fact, the Rampant Films website itself only appeared after Mark Mathis asked to interview ID critic Barbara Forrest in late February 2007. According to Forrest, when she asked, “Do you have a website?” Mathis replied with a vague, “Oh, yes, I’ve been telling them we should put a site up.”
How credible is it that a company of several film makers that supposedly had collectively made or were in the process of making a half dozen or more films, did not have a website? Is there really an independent Rampant Films? Or is it a shell for Premise Media, invented for the purposes of acquiring the cooperation of scientists who might otherwise be wary of participating in a production coming from Premise Media?
Though the producers have claimed that the title Crossroads was altered at the advice of marketing experts, a search for the registration date for the URL for Expelled (http://expelledthemovie.com) came back with a date of March 2, 2007 – well in advance of the interviews of Scott, Shermer, Myers, and Dawkins. The URL was registered to Premise Media. It appears that the producers of Expelled simply created Crossroads as an alternate title and description.
And regardless of the title of the movie, there is evidence that the concept of Expelled – rather than the generic concept of Crossroads – was the plan all along. In an April 19, 2008, interview in the Christian publication World, Ben Stein relates that the concept of Expelled, not the concept of Crossroads, was pitched to him “a couple of years ago”:
STEIN: I was approached a couple of years ago by the producers, and they described to me the central issue of Expelled, which was about Darwinism and why it has such a lock on the academic establishment when the theory has so many holes. And why freedom of speech has been lost at so many colleges to the point where you can’t question even the slightest bit of Darwinism or your colleagues will spurn you, you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be publicly humiliated. As they sent me books and talked to me about these things I became more enthusiastic about participating.
Plus I was never a big fan of Darwinism because it played such a large part in the Nazis’ Final Solution to their so-called “Jewish problem” and was so clearly instrumental in their rationalizing of the Holocaust. So I was primed to want to do a project on how Darwinism relates to fascism and to outline the flaws in Darwinism generally.
The claim made by Mathis and others of the Premise team that going from Crossroads to Expelled was merely a name change has no credibility. They flunk this one.
Although the producers probably believed that they would not have been able to secure interviews with scientists on the evolution side if they had told them they were filming a pro-intelligent design film, several of the scientists interviewed have previously participated in films favorably portraying intelligent design or creation science. As Scott was quoted as saying in the September 27, 2007, issue of The New York Times, “‘I have certainly been taped by people and appeared in productions where people’s views are different than mine, and that’s fine,’ … adding that she would have appeared in the film anyway. ‘I just expect people to be honest with me, and they [Premise Media] weren’t.’” And for those scientists like Forrest (who declined to be interviewed) and Dawkins who refuse to participate in creationist productions, is deception to obtain their participation ethically justifiable?
Mark Mathis has tried to deflect attention from these actions by arguing that all participants signed a release allowing footage taken to be used for “the feature length documentary tentatively entitled Crossroads (the ‘Documentary’) and/or any other production”. Such broad releases are common in the movie business, so none of the scientists would have realized that none of the footage would be used for a nonexistent movie! Mathis also contends that the issue is irrelevant because participants (or their nonprofits), were paid for their appearances, and they were sent their questions in advance. But these efforts to explain away bad behavior miss the point, which is the dishonesty and deception involved in obtaining the interviews.
The scientists interviewed are often requested to give their time and expertise to media, including unknown or little-known documentary producers. There is a consequence for documentarians and other media as a result of Premise Media’s actions: these scientists as well as others may be much less willing to participate in such projects in the future. As usual, biologist Richard Dawkins expressed their collective opinion the most eloquently, in an e-mail to Scott and Myers, August 22, 2007 (quoted with permission):
I feel betrayed and very angry. This has only happened to me once before, in a very long career of doing hundreds of interviews. I find that life is much more pleasant if I assume a reasonable level of trust with everyone I meet. It is extremely easy to take me for a ride. I am actually quite proud of being so trusting. It is frustrating and disillusioning to feel that in future I am going to have to be a lot more suspicious and grudging. The quality of life is sensibly diminished by having to do this.
Of course, there are consequences for Expelled, as well: if these producers cannot be trusted to interview scientists honestly, can we trust them to present an honest documentary? A perusal of the content of the movie suggests such trust would be misplaced.