Film review: Expelled: No intelligence allowed

12 April 2008
Amanda Gefter
From issue 2651 of New Scientist magazine, 12 April 2008, page 46

THE highly controversial documentary Expelled: No intelligence allowed, is full of surprises, not least of which are endless clips of Nazis from the second world war.

Nazis? What have Nazis to do with a film about the "conflict" between evolution and intelligent design? Everything, apparently. The film-makers' logic is that by teaching evolution, the US public school system is telling children that there is no God, morality or free will. And this can lead to only one thing: Holocaust.

But fear not, Ben Stein is here. Those who love 1980s teen cult films will remember him as the monotone economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Stein was also a game-show host and speech-writer for Richard Nixon. Even more oddly, Stein, a Jew, is now a shining star among evangelical Christians who argue that intelligent design (ID) is a scientific theory. Maybe the film-makers thought they would get away with problematic references to the Holocaust if the narrator was Jewish.

Expelled is pure propaganda, its style reminiscent of a sub-standard Michael Moore flick complete with voice-over narration and lots of aimless wandering around. Its selling point is that academic freedom in the US is threatened by a vast conspiracy of atheist scientists, hypnotised by what Stein labels in the film the "Darwinian gospel". Supporters of ID are fired from their institutions or denied tenure, the film argues, while journalists who report on ID are silenced or shunned. This is an old trick. By claiming their views are suppressed, proponents of ID hope to be protected from criticism. When someone argues that ID is bogus, all they need do is yell: "See? Suppression!"

But why worry about such a silly movie, which makes absurd claims about threats to academic freedom? Could it really affect the public perception of evolution or ID? Just possibly - and here's how.

For starters, the film will open on 1000 screens in the US, a lot for a niche documentary. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 opened on 870 screens, while Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth opened on just four. Then there's the Stein effect. Most Americans know Stein from his Bueller days, not as a creationist. There's a good chance many who have not given the ID issue much thought will be drawn in unsuspectingly.

But perhaps the biggest way in which the movie seeks to manipulate - and one to which we are all vulnerable - is by appealing to raw emotion. Consider Stein's interview with biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is shown in the make-up chair, a move calculated to demean since surely everyone else, including Stein, is powder-puffed off-camera. The interview itself, accompanied by foreboding music, is shot in a low-lit room using sinister camera angles.

"The film manipulates by appealing to raw emotion"

Later, Stein wanders through the Dachau concentration camp, face in hands, bemoaning the nightmare he claims Darwin wrought. At the end, Stein walks alongside the Berlin wall: cue footage of people tearing it down plus triumphal music. Even the wary might feel the urge to start cheering.

For the converted, a DVD for "teachers, parents and faith leaders" accompanies the film. Included is a weblink to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, leading champion and financial backer of the ID movement. One of Expelled's producers, Mark Mathis, insists there are no ties to the institute, but is coy about where the $3.5 million of funds for the film came from. Interestingly, the institute has teamed up with Motive Marketing, marketers of Expelled, to promote a bill they have named the Academic Freedom Statute on Evolution. If passed, it would protect teachers from any negative consequences of expressing anti-evolution views in the classroom.

This seems to be the next step in sneaking ID into schools after the Kitzmiller vs Dover case saw the compulsory teaching of ID ruled unconstitutional in 2005. Last month, a press conference held by the Discovery Institute to promote the proposed bill included a screening of Expelled.

Ultimately, the Discovery Institute's support may be the film's undoing. The institute has argued long and hard that ID is not about religion, yet in the film the connections are explicit. If challenged on this, the institute may have to distance itself from the film, discrediting Expelled in the process.

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