Saturday, 6 March 2010

No Intelligence Allowed

A review of the Ben Stein DVD - "Expelled: No intelligence allowed"

I watched this film with a "theistic evolutionsist" friend of mine (i.e. a committed Christian who agrees with the scientific fact of evolution) and we were both thoroughly disappointed with the total lack of content. To save you the bother of wasting money and an hour or so of your valuable lives, I will now summarise the DVD for you. It can be broadly divided into three sections: (1) An "expose" on the scientific gagging of ID supporters; (2) A demonstration of the extent and all round good-eggness of the ID community, and (3) The evil of evolution.

~ The Expose ~
The cleverest thing of the whole film is are the propaganda techniques the editor uses to equate the scientific establishment with Communist East Berlin (building a wall to keep dangerous democratic ideas out) and, worse, equating support of evolution with support for Hitler's genocide of the jews. (More on that later.)

The film starts with Ben Stein addressing an audience in a very "Inconvenient Truth" fashion but, unlike Al Gore, he presents no data to support his arguments. Instead, we are treated to a small number of anecdotes of academics who failed to secure tenure in American Universities (in itself not uncommon) and their belief that this was because they had entertained the notion of Intelligent Design (ID) as science. The institutions themselves deny these reasons and no actual evidence (or successful legal action) other than speculation was provided in support. If any of these did turn out to be true then it is very sad - and wrong - but is certainly not indicative of some major conspiracy. The fact remains that ID is simply not science and explains nothing, which bring us to...

~ The ID position ~
The most disappointing (but not upsetting) aspect of the whole film is the total lack of information of what the ID argument actually is. Basically, the argument Ben Stein makes is... "Look, here is an intelligent person. They think ID is right. Therefore it should be taken seriously." Wrong. Lots of intelligent people believe nonsense. Worse, lots of intelligent people take advantage of other people beliefs in proven nonsense to make money out of them. (E.g. Homeopathy.) Is ID an "intelligent" endeavour? Well, on commercial grounds, yes! There are lots of people who would like to be true and can be convinced to part with their money on books and DVDs, like this one. Is ID a "scientific" endeavour? No. At least, not as presented in this DVD, which presents no arguments against evolution (except the sickening one below) nor arguments for ID.

The closest there was to an argument for ID was a statement that (a) biological information has increased with time, and (b) evolution cannot add information, therefore there must have been an intelligent designer to add this information. This is just plain wrong. While *random* evolution cannot add information (which, in this context (information theory) basically means a deviation from random (similar to entropy)), the process of *natural selection* can. In fact, it is this very observation (in different words) that made Darwin so famous. In other word, ID is trying to argue that Darwin was wrong using an argument that Darwin himself revealed to be rubbish.

I should point out at this point that I am an evolutionary biologist, so I know something about evolutionary theory and encounter supporting evidence on a daily basis. I also know that, far from blindly accepting evolution without argument, any scientist worth his salt would *love* to disprove something as big as evolution. Look at Darwin's legacy. Does Ben Stein really think that there are no scientists with egos who would love to replace Darwin as the number one biologist of all time? Now who's being naive? Let's be clear about this - there is no cover-up and no controversy because there is no scientific evidence for ID. I was hoping this DVD might present some - it would have given me some interesting things to research - but it did not. As the opening sequence makes clear, this DVD is pure propaganda. Which brings us to...

~ The evil of evolution ~
The icing on the cake - and the true revelation of the weakness of the ID position - was the last third or so of the DVD. Rather than presenting a cogent scientific argument for ID, Ben Stein instead focuses on the fact that Hitler was essentially a Darwinist and used ideas of "Survival of the fittest" as an excuse for some of his horrendous activities during the Nazi rule of Germany, including the holocaust. Apart from being deeply insulting to me as an atheist, this argument is totally irrelevant to the issue of whether evolution is scientifically supported. It's a bit like saying that we shouldn't believe Atomic Physics because people have abused it and made nuclear weapons. Whilst it is true that some people use evolutionary theory to support their own radical agendas, that argument is equally true of religious ideas; it is a matter for society to deal with, not science. You could argue equally strongly that an atheist who does not believe in life after death is going to cherish life on this planet more than a theist, and concentrate on making *this* world a better place (rather than the next one) because this is all we have. Still doesn't make evolution more or less true.

In short, there is only one reason to buy this DVD - because you want to support the *political* ID/creationism machine. But in this case you might as well just send them some money directly and spend the hour or two you would have wasted doing something more useful to humanity, like sitting in a dark room with the TV firmly off. (It would also make Al Gore happy.) Or, better still, visit a website that contains some actual factual content (e.g. and make up your own mind rather than letting some ignoramus spout lies and hate at you.