All wrong: A review of Ben Stein’s Expelled: Part II

Is the Academy enforcing thought control against Intelligent Design?

Part I of my review covered Expelled’s specious attempt to link Darwinism to nasty “social engineering” projects like eugenics and the Holocaust. Here, I discuss the film’s second major theme: Alleged “thought persecution” of pro-Intelligent Design professors by the academic establishment.

ben-stein-fake-ass-rebelBen Stein: Fake-ass rebel

Negative “freedom”: A bogus virtue

A valorization of ‘negative freedom’—defined as the absence of external constraint—frames the whole film. Stein begins his narrative, “Freedom is what makes this country great….But imagine if these freedoms were taken away.” Well, he doesn’t have to imagine: American professors, he argues, are being punished for sympathizing with Intelligent Design (ID) theory.

The “taken away” line, consequently, is accompanied by a montage of young black Civil Rights marchers brutalized by police dogs and hoses. Stein must intend that the “freedom” fought for by these marchers is the same object now being denied his academics.

This seems a stretch precisely because it is. In truth, there is no generic “freedom” to guide us in morals or social policy. There are only specific freedoms to do specific things. And just as our commitment to “food” doesn’t commit us to favoring every nutritive substance on earth with equal vigor, it is possible to embrace “freedom” without being equally committed to, or worried over, every freedom to do every thing. (Indeed, as every freedom is mutually incompatible with some others, we can’t be equally committed to all.)

If by “we should secure freedom,” Stein really means, “we should secure freedom to teach Creationism in the classroom,” fair enough—and make the case on the merits of the thing. But let us not pretend that a commitment to “freedom” automatically spells a commitment to this freedom.

Academic freedom, no less

Stein is shocked that “scientists” should be less than “free to ask any question, to pursue any line of inquiry without fear of reprisal.” But a strict absence of constraint in the classroom has never existed, much less “made America great.” Nor should it exist. (Nor is Stein really, in his heart of hearts, agitating for any such thing.) It would amount to nothing less than the abandonment of curricular standards.[1]

“Persecuted” professors?

Stein’s general approach

Regardless, Stein’s examples of ID sympathizers persecuted by the academy are so exceedingly weak that we can assume, if this is the best he has, the issue is effectively nonexistent.

Stein’s entire case rests on the testimony of five science professionals profiled in the first fifteen minutes of the film. I dare anyone to watch to that point, parse the narration carefully, and tell me precisely where Stein demonstrates how, in his words, “ID is being repressed in a systematic and ruthless fashion” by the academic establishment.

To establish the victim-hood of his subjects, Stein employs the following suspect tactics:

(1) “Suggesting” causal connections without evidence: Stein describes how a subject (A) made public a commitment to ID, and then (B) suffered some loss of position. “A happened; later, B happened.” Of course, this gives the impression that the two events are actually connected in some way; but if you watch carefully, you’ll see Stein never makes the case. He doesn’t even try.

(2) Overlooking possible causes other than ID loyalties: Often Stein’s “victims” violated some university or professional policies which could just as likely explain their “discriminatory” treatment.

(3) Confusing “fired” with “expired”: In three cases, the so-called “expulsion” of Stein’s subjects coincide with the predetermined end of their contract period.

The charges which don’t fall under these categories are “offenses” which, even if true, are simply not serious. Nor is there evidence they had anything to do with the victims’ ID commitments.

Finally, all of the accounts are purely anecdotal; nothing any “victim” claims is corroborated by other first-hand accounts. (Indeed, where others involved give their versions, they always contradict, and outnumber, Stein’s subjects.)

Stein’s profiled “victims”: A case-by-case analysis

(a) Richard Sternberg

This appears to be Stein’s “flagship” case. According to Expelled, Dr. Richard Sternberg, while managing editor of a biology journal, decided to publish a colleague’s paper “suggest[ing] intelligent design might be able to explain how life began.” At the time, Sternberg also held an “office” at the Smithsonian.

The paper, Stein recounts, “ignited a firestorm of controversy…[Sternberg’s] political and religious beliefs were investigated and he was pressured to resign.” Sternberg adds that the department chair (and other unspecified “people”) said bad things about his decision. But at this point, the worst we have is “pressure…to resign.” And Sternberg didn’t resign from anything. This hardly rates the imposing, red-inked “Expelled!” stamped across Sternberg’s face with a thud—a recurring graphic motif in the film.

So what did happen?

First, Sternberg could not have “resigned” his editorship on account of the article, as it appeared in the issue he’d already scheduled to be his last. In a subsequent issue, the journal’s publisher ran a retraction of the article. This was not for its ID-themed content, but because it violated their own (and standard) peer-review protocol: Sternberg claimed the paper had been reviewed by “four well-qualified biologists,” but refused to name them (and never has); he also failed to mention that he was one of them. The entire process was done behind the backs of the other editorial staff. This is all highly unorthodox and violates the practice and express rules of the journal.[2]

Neither could Sternberg have “resigned” from his job at the Smithsonian, because he didn’t have one. He was an unpaid researcher there under the rubric of another institution. He did, as he claims, “los[e] his office,” but this was not because of the paper, or ID, but because his set term as researcher was up. Right after, he was offered another research position at the same institution. Sternberg’s own email records document his supervisors’ opposition to any sanction of Sternberg for his ID sympathies.

This hardly describes the “exile” the professor claims to have suffered.

(Note too that the journal is a tiny regional paper with a circulation mostly internal to its publishing council. Whatever happened to its editor would hardly implicate “the academy.” )

(b) Caroline Crocker

Caroline Crocker was a biology professor at George Mason University. Stein begins, “After simply mentioning intelligent design in her cell biology class…her promising academic career came to an abrupt end.”

Note the correlation without causality: Crocker mentioned ID here; she lost her job there. But the link between the two events, if any, remains unshown.

Crocker’s “lost…job” amounts to the university’s failure to renew a contract that ended at a set time. This is not at all unusual—especially for part-time faculty, as was Crocker—and implies nothing particularly sinister. The university claims the decision had nothing to do with ID, and there is nothing but Crocker’s “feelings” to say otherwise.

(And Crocker did much more than “simply mention” ID. She taught the damn thing. But more on this below.)

(c) Michael Egnor

Stein narrates: “When neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor wrote an essay…saying doctors didn’t need to study evolution in order to practice medicine, the Darwinists were quick to try and exterminate this new threat.”

So what did this sinister effort look like? In Egnor’s own words, “A lot of people on a lot of blogs called me unprintable names.”

This is the entire charge. At most, some of these bloggers encouraged their readers to call the university and ask for Egnor’s resignation. (We are not told whether any of them ever did.) But Egnor wasn’t fired or driven out from anywhere. His name-callers weren’t associated with any university or professional administration. For this, Egnor is the most dubious recipient of Stein’s thunderous “Expelled!” stamp across the forehead.

(d) Robert J. Marks II

Dr. Marks, an engineering professor at Baylor University, erected a website on the university server to solicit grant moneys for private research. The site explored ID theories. Marks’s entire complaint in Expelled is that the university asked him to add a disclaimer—the same type that introduces every infomercial—clarifying that Marks’ personal views may not represent those of the university. This reflects university policy, which, if anything, appears to have been bent in Marks’ favor to let him keep the site. Instead, Marks chose to export it to another server, where it remains.

Again, this is the entire complaint. Marks is still at Baylor university and continues to receive a river of grant monies totaling in the millions. (And again with the “Expelled!” logo. Jesus. A disclaimer on a website is “Expelled”??)

(e) Guillermo Gonzalez

Finally, Stein profiles astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez of Iowa State University. After publishing the ID-sympathetic book, “The Privileged Planet,” Gonzalez’s petition for tenure was turned down.

Once more, we are presented with two events but no evidence—no attempt, even—to show how they might be connected. Gonzalez himself can only speculate: “I have little doubt that I would have tenure now if I hadn’t done any professional work on intelligent design.” (Well.)

The Chronicle of Higher Education notes Gonzalez, by the time of his tenure denial, “had no major grants during his seven years at ISU, had published no significant research during that time and had only one graduate student finish a dissertation.” A Physics Dept. colleague of Gonzalez reported his work leading up to the denial conspicuously lacked any math, measurements, or tests.[3]

Conclusion

Expelled was Stein’s big chance to slam the intellectual establishment. With two years and a ton of resources (in his words, it is “possibly the most expensive documentary for its length ever made”), he produces this anecdotal piece of shit. It is as if the Klan produced a documentary to prove once and for all the validity of white supremacy and all they present is a couple people saying black guys cut them off in traffic. I’d love to hear from people who find this convincing. I just don’t get it. Ben Stein has always sucked, but he’s better than this.

Two concluding points:

(1) Again, nobody in the documentary was fired, or otherwise sanctioned, for teaching ID. But what would be wrong if they were? As noted, “academic freedom” per se is simply crazy, and even the people who invoke the value don’t believe it in a strict sense. Stein himself gives the caveat that we wouldn’t want teachers to push Holocaust denial or flat-earthism in the classroom. So he must want limits to this “freedom.” But he never specifies what they should look like.

So why couldn’t ID in principle be relevant to one’s claim to lead a classroom or edit a journal? If the theory is plainly, grossly wrongheaded—crudely put, if it’s a damned stupid thing to believe—why should its endorsement not be a sign of scientific incompetence? I mean, fine, argue that it isn’t stupid; but stop acting as though nothing a professor believes could be ever relevant to his tenure.

On the other hand, ID could be a serious liability to scientific performance. It is classic god-of-the-gaps. And if you stop at the next gap, the next unknown phenomenon, and just assume it is designed, you stop looking for a genuine explanation. And the whole history of science—even the science the ID folks accept—is nothing if not the history of naturalistically filling gaps which looked at first to be designed.

(2) The most annoying part of the project is its faux rebellious air. Stein snarkily reports that his subjects “questioned the powers that be” and are now paying the price for it. This is accompanied by montages of the old Soviet Union building walls and showing force against “dissidents.” Of course the academy is supposed to be the brutish, conservative Regime and Stein and the ID guys are the lone rebels. This imagery is part of Stein’s cloying effort to hippen or “MTV”-up the film.

But rebellion in itself is nothing to celebrate. The NAMBLA pederasts’ website is full of challenges to a rigid orthodoxy. Every purveyor of every vile or idiotic thing is almost by definition a convention-flouter. You don’t get to be a cool rebel just because you believe crazy shit.

* * *

Notes

[1] By “scientists,” Stein refers to academics who are also scientists. Granted, the (alleged) persecutions are not strictly for things said, as I wrote, “in the classroom.” Some teachers have been targeted (again, allegedly) for things they wrote in academic journals. But my comments stand: Not only is it unreasonable to expect total freedom in the classroom, it is unreasonable to expect that you can exercise total freedom in your published work and it not affect your claim to a classroom. I’m sure Stein has no objection to teachers’ receiving jobs, or tenure, on the basis of published works. Everyone sees these as factors relevant to one’s teaching status. This is why every published professor with a website lists a C.V. But this relevance works in two directions.

[2] Nor was Sternberg, among those associated with the journal, nearly the most qualified to review the article. The article covered Cambrian-era invertebrates, on which many of the publishing Council are experts. (Sternberg is a taxonomist with no paleontological background.)

The article grew out of a meeting between Sternberg and the author (Stephen C. Meyer)—not the other way around. There is some reason to think they planned it as a “lame duck” parting shot which they knew would never fly under normal circumstances, and which Sternberg would likely be sanctioned if he weren’t already leaving. Meyer offered no new scholarship that would normally occasion publication, but cobbled together parts of papers he’d already published.

[3] The film also mentions “petitions” circulated by an “Avalos,” hinting that it sealed Gonzalez’ fate. Hector Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at ISU. He co-wrote a general statement (not a “petition” for anything) against ID explanations which was signed by 130 other faculty. It wasn’t a policy document, nor did it result in any policy change. It predated Gonzalez’s tenure bid by two years. Nor did it name Gonzalez or any specific person.

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2 responses to “All wrong: A review of Ben Stein’s Expelled: Part II

  1. Pingback: Expelled redux: Darwinism and atheism « amerikanbeat

  2. Pingback: All wrong: A thematic review of Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” part I « amerikanbeat

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