Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
Director : Nathan Frankowski
Screenplay : Kevin Miller and Ben Stein
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2008
I am neither a scientist nor a theologian, although I have great personal stake in both areas, so I will not pretend that I can address in any substantially meaningful way the arguments and claims made in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. This has not, of course, stopped many, many other critics from slamming the film without mercy, accusing it of being one-sided, ill-informed, and shallow at best, disingenuous and immoral at worst. In my opinion, to make such claims would require me to do doctoral-level work in both evolutionary biology and Judeo-Christian theology, which unfortunately I have neither the time nor the energy to do.
This is not to say, of course, that I can't and don't have an opinion about the film and at least a gut instinct for whether or not it's being honest about its subject matter. I have also read enough about Expelled and various responses to it by members of the scientific community to have a sense that the film may not be all that it's claiming to be. Actually, you don't have to look much past the surface of the film to realize that, in Michael Moore fashion, it's not playing quite fair. When you see a shot of an interview subject who is contrary to the film's ideological position being powder-puffed in his chair before the camera is technically set to roll, it doesn't take a scholar to recognize it as a cheap shot. And, let's face it: Expelled is filled with cheap shots. Michael Moore, see what you hath wrought.
Expelled is actually two films in one, and one of its primary weaknesses is the tenuous connection it attempts to make between its two subjects. Narrated by Ben Stein, the droll actor, commentator, and game show host who is either that funny teacher from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) or a former speechwriter for Nixon, depending on your political bent, Expelled first sets its sights on the idea of “intelligent design,” which is a theory promulgated by some scientists and mathematicians that it is sensible to conclude that the complexities of the universe are ultimately best explained by some intelligent designer. Stein interviews a number of scientists and professors whose lives were apparently ruined by the scientific powers-that-be when they dared to teach or write about or publish anything having to do with intelligent design, which is accused by its critics of being indefensible pseudo-science at best, dangerous religious fundamentalism aimed at dismantling centuries of scientific progress and returning us to the Middle Ages at worst.
This then leads into Expelled's second and arguably primary subject, which is Darwinism and, in the film's view, its chokehold on scientific discourse. The film attempts to show that Darwinism as a theoretical force has taken over science and become tantamount to dogma, and any questioning of it constitutes heresy that will get you banished (the reigning metaphor for this is the Berlin Wall, which we are shown ad nauseum). This is, of course, an issue of academic freedom, and, having worked in academia for a number of years (for the record, I'm an assistant professor at Baylor University, one of the schools chastised in the film for “punishing” a scholar for doing ID work), I can attest quite confidently to the fact that every discipline has its dominant discourse and to challenge it can be a dangerous thing. Science, like everything else, can be and is often political. Expelled is not content to stop there, though, as it plows ahead and connects Darwinism to eugenics, abortion, and eventually the Holocaust. Explaining the Holocaust via Hitler's obsession with Darwin may have some historical validity, but it's a dangerous gambit that risks overshadowing the argument with histrionics.
Throughout the film, Stein interviews various proponents and critics of intelligent design, but at no point does it ever seem like a balanced view. Not that it should. Expelled is not a documentary about intelligent design and Darwinian evolution; it's a polemic in favor of open academic discourse and the necessity of questioning dogma in all its many forms, even if that dogma is draped in the sacred robes of science. This is a good and necessary argument, but Expelled gets too caught up in its own self-righteousness, which isn't surprising given that the makers clearly feel that their film is a corrective. If it is weighted too far on one side, they would surely argue that this is necessary because they're going up against a powerful intellectual elite that controls the scientific gates. But, like Moore, whose documentary-cum-polemical style they are clearly imitating, the makers of Expelled give their critics too much ammunition, so even if you're sympathetic to some of the ideas and the underlying argument, it is still difficult to defend.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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