Tuesday, 15 January 2008

No Intelligence Allowed (And it shows)

I've been wondering whether or not to do an entry about the "documentary" Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed for some time now. Mainly, I've been ignoring it as doing research into it would probably cause me irreversible neurological trauma - multiple rapid collisions between head and desk can do that to a brain. So, for those of you who do not wish to suffer such side-effects I shall once again brave the white-water rapids of abject stupidity, being careful to avoid the piranhas of downright lying and the deadly whirlpool of conspiracy theory.

The Trailer

The film isn't out until spring 2008, but there is a trailer that you can watch here. I would hope that most sane people will spot the tone of the trailer and run for the hills in fear of their sanities. Unfortunately, the film is being released in the US, home of creationism and at least a million (figure estimated from cursory observations) other kinds of nonsense. I present below some highlights from the trailer.

The movie opens with our "hero" standing in a lecture theatre - oddly labeled "Biology 101"; it doesn't strike me as normal for a university to devote a whole lecture room to one class a year but there you go - writing "I must not question Darwinism, I must not question Authority" many times on a large blackboard. This immediately struck me as odd, since the whole point of Intelligent Design is that you do not question the Authority (God).
Stein then goes on to assure us that he is qualified to talk about a complex scientific issue. Or at least he's not but he did write speeches for President Nixon (and do a lot of apologising on his behalf) and he hosted an award-winning game show as well as being alawyer and lecturing on social issues and human rights. Whether this qualifies him to debunk one of the best supported areas of modern science I shall leave up to you, dear reader, to decide.

He then briefly pontificates about the "big" questions before hitting us with his first logical fallacy. Apparently we have a choice: either there is purpose and meaning to life, or we got here by "pure dumb fate and chance." It's clear that the "purpose" referred to is going to turn out to be divine so he is presenting a simple false dichotomy, the fallacy of bifurcation. I also feel the need to leap to the defence of poor old fate again. He gets a bad rap, always being portrayed as dumb or completely random, and always being used to describe the non-random process of evolution by natural selection. What's so bad about chance? So we might not have ended here at all? All that makes us is lucky, not special. If anything, we should be more thankful that we got here by natural processes than if we were made by some capricious deity.

He goes on to describe evolutionists as thinking of humanity as nothing more than "mud animated by lightning." Once again I fail to see the bad here. Isn't being animated mud quite amazing? But no, he prefers his "divine spark" and further spiritual mumbo-jumbo.
He then steamrolls right on to fallacy number two, the argument from personal incredulity. Apparantly the fact that this "mud" learned how to grow, reproduce, swim, crawl and think is so hard to believe - with incredulity growing exponentially with every added biological mechanism you list - that it just can't have happened naturally.

But it's OK, he doesn't mind if some people believe in evolution because he likes freedom of speech. Also, I need to make sure and flag up the Nazi Germany reference here. Those crazy IDers always manage to get it in somewhere!

It is then that we are introduced to "mild mannered scientist" Richard Sternberg. I'm not sure that his manner, mild or otherwise, is relevant to the discussion but there you go. Basically, Sternberg was editor of the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington and allowed an article advocating Intelligent Design to be published. There was some controversy about his editorial methods (it was his last month as editor after resigning) and the publishers pulled the article on the basis that it didn't meet their scientific standards. But by then, Sternberg has ensured the the ID crowd won a major victory by being published in an actual, real-life science journal. After that there were some fairly inconsequential court disputes which basically came to nothing.

Stein suggests that Sternberg was editor of the journal "until" he published the article, which appears to be misleading as it suggests that he was fired because of his actions when he actually resigned. Apparently there was then a "massive campaign" to smear his reputation and destroy his career. Having looked around, all I see is the response you'd expect from the scientific community when someone publishes a clearly unscientific paper to further their own ends. If he hadn't been resigning anyway, they should definitely have sacked him. Freedom of speech is one thing, being employed to uphold editorial standards is another thing entirely.

It's OK though, because Stein can't find anything wrong with the article so it's obviously OK. Let me reiterate here that Stein has none of the credentials one would require of a journal editor or peer-reviewer in the sciences. I'm sure this fallacy has a name but I'm just going to call it the "I'm always right and I know everything anyway" fallacy.
Apparently there are signs of ID in nature, which is news to me and the rest of the scientific community. Also news to me is that DNA is a "digital code" (pictured as zeros and ones forming a double-helix). Ask your nearest biologist how many base-pairs there are in DNA and they should tell you that it's four. Now ask your nearest computer engineer how many states there are in a digital system (they'll say two).

It is at this point that Stein makes his first historical mistake. It seems that there would have been no problem publishing this paper in the time of Galileo (really? The same period where the church arrested him for questioning doctrine? How odd) or Einstein (only 50-odd years ago). Apparently we now live in the era of Darwin and in this period no such papers would be allowed. Darwin died in 1882. Einstein was born 1879. It seems to me that the era of Einstien comes after the alleged Darwinian era began. But then, religious people have always been good at creative history.

He then makes a plea on behalf of the "many" scientists who have lost their jobs or tenure or had their papers refused (papers can be refused for a lot of reasons) "all for questioning Darwin". I guess it won't matter to say that evolutionary biology has moved on a huge distance since Darwin, or that the number of such scientists is quite small, although overpublicised by the ID proponents.
He then paints a picture in which there is a global conspiracy to stifle the academic freedom of these scientists. This is odd, because scientists can get away with an awful lot, that's kind of the point. They have the freedom to say what they want. However, if they're interviewing for a job in a university biology department and they answer that the whole edifice of evolution is wrong and the reason is that the bible told them so, that department is quite right not to employ them. What the department wants is the best scientist, the most rigorous investigator, not someone who cries "no fair!" and hides behind unsubstantiated doctrine. They are free to be religious and believe any old nonsense they want, but if they run their research on the basis of that nonsense they are not a good investment.

Next it's on to the old idea that Darwinism is dangerous (cut to images of concentration camp ovens and so on) and a selection of clips of famous science types (Dawkins, Dennet and so forth) saying that ID is rubbish. And it is here that Stein commits his most grievous misrepresentation. He shows a clip of Richard Dawkins saying "as a scientist, I am pretty hostile to a rival doctrine..." The clip cuts away there so we never get to see him finish his sentence. Now I've seen the worst kinds of quote mining but this is brazen beyond belief! You can't cut a video clip mid-sentence and expect us to take it as it is!. Though I guess the creationists will lap it up.

Next it's time to compare Intelligent Design to the civil rights movement (gratuitous use of Martin Luther King here) by saying that we have freedom of speech everywhere else, why not in science? What? You can't maintain scientific standards if you allow anyone to publish anything. That's how it works! So what the ID people want is a science where we can say what we want and that magical fairies did it so long as we are free. I wonder how advanced our life saving medical technologies or our computers would be if we took that approach?

So, in conclusion, science is a huge conspiracy to defraud the public about the true divine origin of the universe and our very special fluffy little place in it, and ID is gawd's own troof about how we got where we are. All those complex theories and equations are just made up. Nobody understands them after all, apart from those evil scientists!
Or, alternatively the above paragraph is utter crap and Ben Stein is a credulous idiot, seduced by the usual dead-end arguments from the creationists. I shall allow you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

[Apologies for the enormous rant, but I couldn't help myself. This kind of thing just angers me more than it really should.]


Harespring said...

It's an awfully good rant, even though it will only be preaching to the converted, and remain unread by the walled gardeners and all their scary chums, who so like to portray themselves as the persecuted and pure of thought. And, instead of producing coherent and well-thought-out counter arguments, will fall back on the cry "The Light is here, Praise the Light!" in a headless chook sort of a way. Oh and if you don't like someone's blog you should just not read it. (thereby not criticising/arguing with any of it) Boooooring!! I wish some of them would come here and share knowledge with all these ignorant scientists...take a deep breath...now hold it...

Stephen Bain said...

Yeah, I thought one of the major points of having a blog was that people could choose to agree/disagree with you as they wanted and that some kind of discussion might thencefrom (is this a real word? If it is, is this the right way to use it? Do I mean therefrom?) ensue.

The weird thing is that there are lots of issues brought up by science that they could be discussing. Medicine has all kinds of moral and ethical questions in it for example. Instead, they decide to just disagree with the science itself, which leads to the usual cranial trauma.

artificialhabitat said...

This is an automated message....

The author has just watched the trailer for "Expelled" and his brain has melted

Stephen Bain said...

I only survived by watching it in 30 second chunks and ranting in between. I made sure everyone was out of the office at the time for safety reasons.

Laurie said...

At least you don't live here in the nonsensical US. The IDers and creationists frighten me almost as much as they infuriate me. I gave my son a t-shirt that says Intelligunt Desine (for Christmas!), but it is now making me nervous when he wears it. I hope it doesn't make him a target for the Campus Crusade for Christ at his college.

As I said to artificialhabitat, welcome back! I thought everyone in Southhampton had fallen off the face of the blogging world. Must have been winter break.

Laurie said...

Oops. Just re-read my comment. Sorry about the misspelling (of Southampton, not Intelligunt Desine).

Harespring said...

I see there has been some scrubbing out of 'disrespectful' comments going on over in the walled garden. It was the inference of idiocy I expect. Tsk! How could you! They are, one and all, intelligently designed humans over there.

Stephen Bain said...

You make a good point laurie. From this side of the Atlantic I can only gaze across and wonder how bad the ID crowd really are in person.

I think I might have to get one of those T-shirts myself. Is there really a Campus Crusade for Christ? Does it affiliate with that other infamous triple letter organisation in the US?

And yes, I paid less attention to the websites and blogs that infuriate me over Christmas. It was relaxing but a little boring.

Stephen Bain said...

I used the word idiot? When talking to a cdesign proponentist? (creationist ID intermediate species, I kid you not)

The horror. I think I also used the word nonsense too. She started it though!

Even without the "idiot", trying not to "offend" those people is like walking on eggshells.

Laurie said...

Yep, CCC is unfortunately just one of the many christian campus organizations. That particular one walks around in brown shirts with a huge white cross on the back. They like to ensnare vulnerable freshmen and start the brainwashing young. Earlier would be even better, but they aren't allowed on state run secondary school grounds...yet.

You can get the t-shirt through the Landover Baptist Church website, and it looks as though they ship internationally--I just checked. There's a not very good picture of my son's on my Keystone post.

Stephen Bain said...

They walk around in brown shirts with bold, cross-shaped emblems on them.

Do they have a short, dark haired leader with a silly mustache who is famous for making animated speeches about the inferiority of other races?

I wonder if they have any plans to invade Poland any time soon.