Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, April 10, 2009

Review of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Expelled Movie PosterI hadn't intended to watch Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. My wife thinks that I already spend too much time following the evolution/creation controversy, and I'd already heard bad things about Expelled, so I didn't think that I should have wasted time watching it. Well, two of my friends have seen it and found it convincing. I wanted to be able to set them straight, but it's hard to argue against something you've never even seen. So, I bought a used copy of the DVD and sat down to watch it.

Wow, was it bad. And I do mean terrible. I have a hard time understanding how people can create a film like this. I sure am glad that I bought a used copy, and didn't directly contribute any profit to the filmmakers.

For a quick summary for those that may not have seen the movie or heard about it, Expelled is a documentary that gives a voice to Intelligent Design (ID) advocates. It covers several topics. It starts with the supposed mistreatment, firing, and blacklisting of individuals who have supported ID, attempts to discredit evolution by questioning the origin of life, says that ID is in no way religious (it's a scientific theory), then spends a good deal of time criticizing evolution as being atheistic. Probably the most odious scenes, though, were the ones filmed in concentration camps, exploiting the memory of Holocaust victims to further the filmmakers' propaganda goals.

There's not much that I can say about Expelled that hasn't already been said. The Wikipedia entry is probably a good place to start, giving brief explanations of many of the problems with the movie. A more in depth resource is a website created by the National Center for Science Education, Expelled Exposed, which goes into great detail correcting the misinformation from the movie. However, since this is a blog, it's my duty to add my 2 cents worth, so I will briefly cover the topics I mentioned above.

As far as individuals being 'expelled' merely for talking about ID, it just plain didn't happen. The cases discussed in Expelled are mostly fabrications, or making mountains out of molehills. I would hardly equate being insulted on the Internet with being 'expelled' by the scientific establishment. The case discussed in Expelled with the most resemblance to reality is that of Caroline Crocker. However, contrary to being fired for merely mentioning ID on a slide, she was allowed to teach to the end of her contract, and then her contract simply wasn't renewed. Although there's no direct evidence of what she taught in the course, slides that Crocker has used in presentations, and for which there's evidence that these are the same slides she used while teaching the course, contain long discredited creationist claims. If, in fact, this is what she was teaching, the university had every right to not renew her contract. 'Academic freedom' doesn't mean the freedom to teach any old drivel you want - it's freedom for researchers to explore whatever research topics they want. Teachers are expected to teach the accepted curriculum, not falsehoods.

The filmmakers tried to make a big deal out of the origin of life. Currently, we're not exactly sure how life got started on this planet. There are a few promising hypotheses, but we're talking about an event that happened 4 billion years ago (give or take). Historical evidence is going to be a little hard to come by. But still, trying to argue that evolutionary biology is invalid because we don't know exactly how life got started, is like arguing that meteorology is invalid because we don't know exactly how the atmosphere got started. It's silly.

Like I said, there are a few promising hypotheses of how life might have gotten started on this planet. One of the most famous experiments on this front is the Miller-Urey experiment, which showed that amino acids could be created through non-biological means given the right conditions. Expelled at least mentioned the experiment, but said that since it didn't produce any actual life, that it was a failure, completely missing the actual relevance of the experiment. Obviously, to go from a 'primordial soup' of simple organic molecules to cells requires some way to organize those molecules. One of the few hypotheses for the origin of life that was discussed in Expelled is that crystals could have been a substrate that organized those organic molecules. Actually, I'll quote the scene, which is an interview with the historian and philosopher, Michael Ruse, since I found it kind of funny. (This YouTube clip contains much of the discussion on origin of life, with the Ruse segment starting at around 1:45. You can check my transcript for yourself.)

Stein: How did we get from an inorganic world, to the world of the cell.

Ruse: Well, one popular theory, is that it might have started off on the backs of crystals.

cut scene of B/W Movie "My crystal ball"

Ruse: Molecules piggy-backed on the backs of crystals forming, and this lead to more and more complex... But of course, the nice thing about crystals is that every now and then you get mistakes - mutations, and that this opens the way for natural selection.

Stein: But, but at one point, there was not a living thing...

Ruse: Yeah

Stein: And then there was a living thing. How did that happen?

Ruse: Well, that's just the hy... I've just told you. I don't see any reason why you shouldn't go from very simple to more and more complex to more and more complex.

Stein (talking over the end of Ruse): I don't either, I don't either. But I don't know how you get from mud to a living cell. That's my question.

Ruse: Yes, well I've told you. I think... I'll try one more time.

Stein (talking over Ruse): You think it's on the backs of crystals.

Stein (no longer talking over Ruse): On the backs of crystals

Ruse: On the backs of crystals is at least one hypothesis, yes.

Stein: So, so that's your theory, and you think that is more likely and less far fetched than intelligent design.

Ruse: I think it is.

I'm not sure entirely why Expelled was edited in that way. Ruse just gave a good explanation, albeit very simple, explaining one hypothesis. And Stein, repeatedly admits that he just doesn't get it. Were the filmmakers trying to make Stein look dim?

Expelled then went on to try to use probabilities to show how unlikely the origin of life was. I've written briefly about using probability arguments before - if you use certain assumptions to calculate something about the real world, and your calculation predicts something counter to what actually happens, your assumptions are probably wrong. One ID proponent is quoted in Expelled as saying that life requires at a minimum something on the order of 250 proteins. The film then makes a big deal about how unlikely it is to get 250 proteins all at once. First of all, the actual proteins required aren't set in stone. Several different chemicals can perform similar functions, so you shouldn't be arguing about the probability of getting 250 particular proteins. That's like saying, 'I saw a car with the license number ANJ-969 on the way to work today. What are the odds of that? In fact, the odds are so low that it couldn't have happened." And besides, nobody ever said it happened all at once. Just look at viruses. They exist and evolve as non-life just fine with only a handful of proteins.

Early in the film, Ben Stein visited the Discovery Institute, which is basically the driving force behind Intelligent Design. One of the statements made by the gentleman Stein was interviewing was, "This is not a religious argument, and so why would you bring religion into it? You don't need religion. This is a red herring." I suppose I'm reading the Wedge Document wrong, then, where it stated that the Discovery Institutes's goal was to "reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions" and to "affirm the reality of God." And I suppose that 'cdesign propentsists' in the ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, was simply an honest typo, not the result of an incomplete replacement of 'creationists' with 'design proponents.' And somebody needs to send the memo to William Dembski. As I wrote before, two years ago Dembski said the following in response to SMU faculty protesting an ID meeting, "Doesn’t the 'M' in SMU refer to 'Methodist' and aren't Methodists believers in God? Is SMU's anthropology department committed to hiring anti-God faculty?" For that matter, the makers of Expelled need to get the memo, too. Towards the end of the film, Stein said the following, "But, if the Intelligent Design people are right, God isn't hidden. We may even be able to encounter God through science." I realize that most people recognize that ID is inherently religious. What bothers me is the dishonesty of the leaders of the movement, speaking out of both sides of their mouth regarding its religiosity.

Expelled also tried to paint evolution as inherently atheistic. Obviously, many of the biologists interviewed, such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, agreed with that. But notably absent from the film were biologists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins, who have reconciled their religious beliefs with the knowledge of evolution we've learned through science, not to mention the fact that many churches, including Catholicism, have no problem with evolution. As I've written elsewhere, science of any stripe is secular, not atheistic. Meteorology predicts whether without resorting to divine intervention, and the germ theory of disease doesn't include demonic possession. Yet most people don't accuse those branches of science as being atheistic. Why, when looking at how life changes over time, is it all of a sudden atheistic to describe it naturally? It's not. It's just following the evidence.

Out of all the topics discussed in the film, it was the exploitation of the memory of Holocaust victims that disgusted me the most. They even had a guy say something to the effect of, "Darwinism wasn't a sufficient condition for the Holocaust, but it was certainly a necessary one." (Stein himself said much the same thing in an interview.)

I usually try to keep my blog entries pretty civil and avoid profanity. But to the maker's of Expelled - FUCK YOU. Have you no shame? Where is your sense of decency? What the Nazis did during the Holocaust was a horrible, horrible act. To lie about why it happened is not only a slap in the face to the survivors, but losing sight of how it happened risks repeating it in the future. It's hard to describe how mad I was during those scenes.

Were the filmmakers so hell-bent on tarnishing evolutionary biology that they were willing to lie to achieve their goals, or were they really that ignorant of history? One need only look up the term, Pogrom, to see how Europeans treated Jews prior to Darwin publishing The Origin of Species. Antisemitism had a long history. It was the religious icon, Martin Luther, who probably had the biggest influence on German antisemitism. To quote the Wikipedia entry on Luther's article, On the Jews and Their Lies, he "argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these 'poisonous envenomed worms' should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing '[w]e are at fault in not slaying them.'" The Nazis may have used evolution in an attempt to justify their actions, but it was only a rationalization. Their antisemitism had nothing to do with science.

From another point of view, the validity of a scientific theory is not based on the way people use or misuse the theory. Atomic theory has given the world nuclear bombs, but nobody uses that to say that fusion doesn't occur. Even if we ignored the actual history of antisemitism in Europe and could prove that evolution led to the Holocaust (which it didn't), it would say nothing about whether or not evolution actually occurs and explains the history of life on this planet.

One of the things that struck me about the film was the utter lack of evidence presented for ID, and the lack of a coherent explanation for how ID would occur. Maybe that wasn't the point of the documentary, but with over an hour and a half to work with, you think they could have at least given us something. There was a lot of (untrue) whining about people losing their jobs, complaints that science doesn't yet fully explain how life got started, attempts to paint science as atheistic and even leading to the Holocaust, but where was the evidence for Intelligent Design? Hell, they can't even say for certain whether the Intelligent Designer was a deity or an alien (wink, wink), but they want it to be taken seriously as a science? Despite the ominous warnings of a vast conspiracy, science really does work by doing research and publishing your research. Even if you think Nature, Science, or any other prestigious journal will ignore your work, publish in an Intelligent Design journal. Until there's some evidence for a theory, especially when an existing theory has so much backing it up, don't expect it to be taken seriously.

One more thing I wanted to mention, is the discussion of euthanasia. First of all, euthanasia has nothing to do with evolution, and it's silly to bring up at all in Expelled. Still, I wanted to argue against the smug position of the people who assumed that Euthanasia presents a "de-privileging of human beings." When someone is in extreme pain, with a terminal illness and no chance of recovery, it seems to me that it's de-privileging them to take away their right to choose how to end the suffering. To force them to exist in a state of pain, solely because you're squeamish about death, is cruel.

There's so much more I could write about Expelled, but like I wrote above, I wouldn't be saying anything that hasn't already been said. So, in addition to the links I've already provided, I'll give the user a few more resources.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reminder of Texas BoE

Just a reminder to anybody who lives in Texas - the final vote on the state science standards is this week. If you haven't already done so, write you board member today.

More Info:
Steve Schafersman's Blog
Strengths & Limitations Entry on this Blog
Results from Earlier Meeting on this Blog

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why I Write about Atheism

The other day, my wife asked me why I write so much about my atheism on my blog. What am I trying to accomplish? Aren't I concerned about the possible negative consequences considering how prejudiced people can be towards atheists down here in the south?

One reason why I write so much about it is that writing things down helps me to organize my thoughts. When I'm simply thinking about things, I can have dozens of thoughts bouncing around in my head, and I may dwell on some of those thoughts, without following others to their logical conclusions. Writing those thoughts with an idea that someone else is going to read them forces me to present them coherently and to try to see the thoughts all the way through. Still, there wouldn't be any reason to publicize such writings if that was the only reason I did it.

There are actually several audiences I have in mind when I write my blog entries. One is the group of people who are very religious and have an open mind. I don't expect to 'convert' those people to atheism, but perhaps they will begin to question certain aspects of their religion and be a little less dogmatic (for example - the Christians who use the Old Testament to condemn homosexuality, but have no problem doing chores on Sunday, eating shrimp, or wearing a polyester/cotton blend shirt).

Then, there are the people who have already started to question things. I would hope that they find my essays informative and helpful. I would also hope that one more voice on the web helps them to see that they're not alone in having doubts.

The final audience is the group that's prejudiced towards atheists. The term, atheist, carries such a negative connotation in our society - many people even take it as a personal insult to be called an atheist. A recent study found atheists to be the most distrusted group out of all the options in the survey (which included other groups such as Muslims, homosexuals, Hispanics, conservative Christians, recent immigrants, Jews, Whites, and African-Americans). There really isn't any reason that it should be that way (or frankly why any of those groups should be distrusted). It's a term that simply describes one aspect of your view of the universe, and says nothing about your nature or what type of person you are. So, I would hope that those people who are prejudiced towards atheists would read my blog entries, and even if it changes nothing about how they view religion for themselves, that they will at least realize that most atheists aren't evil, amoral, hedonistic, or any of the other stereotypes that many believe. We're just normal people who happen to believe in one less thing than most.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards

TEA LogoMan, this is frustrating. There's been quite a bit of discussion recently over a small phrase in the current Texas science standards, whether to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. I wrote a blog entry specifically about that language, as well as several related entries about the Board of Education (election results, teach 'both' sides, review panel, shenanigans, and Chris Comer). Basically, I considered this a rather small issue - the language has been on the books for over a decade, it doesn't explicitly call for teaching creationsim, and competent teachers are going to teach science well, anyway. The only problem is that it opens a loophole for incompetent teachers to bring up bogus claims.

Well, with as much as people have concentrated on the "strengths and weaknesses" language, it seemed like a victory when the board voted (7-7) to keep the draft standards recommend by the expert panel of scientists and teachers, which instead used the language, "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing". However, that sense of victory was very short lived, when Don McLeroy managed to get language inserted into the standards questioning the very concept of common descent. See Steve Schafersman's post or the Texas Freedom Network's post for more details.

I had sent an e-mail to Gail Lowe hoping to influence her decision as one of her constituents. Unfortunately, I don't think I had any effect, as she was one of the seven on the creationist side in all these votes. I'll keep on writing her for the final vote this March.

For anyone interested, my e-mail is included below the fold.

Continue reading "Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards" »

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Atheism and My Family

I'm an atheist, but I haven't always been one. My "deconversion" was a process that began around 3 1/2 years ago, and took over a year to be more or less complete.

The process began in earnest in an attempt to reconcile the Bible with the actual history of the planet as revealed through geology and biology. I'd just recently learned how many people were creationists (prior to that, I'd naively thought most people accepted evolution and the ancient age of the Earth), and at the time Intelligent Design was making big headlines. It made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian for not taking the Bible at face value. Well, the evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth are so overwhelming that there's really no doubt over them, so I vainly thought I'd be able to write a convincing essay showing how the Bible could be interpreted figuratively and still be accepted as true. However, by the time I'd finished researching the essay, I realized that the Bible couldn't have been divinely inspired. I didn't give up Christianity all at once with that realization, but it was a big first step, and within another year or two, I'd basically become an atheist. Obviously, there was a lot more to the process than just realizing that Genesis wasn't accurate, but that's not the point of this essay, so I won't bore the reader with those details (see here or here for more details, if you're interested).

It was around 6 years ago that I met the woman who was to become my wife. At the time, she was the one having doubts. Since I was still a good Christian then, I did a good job of telling her apologetics and getting her to start going back to church again. I was even the one who insisted that we get married in a church. Consider that it was only a few years later that I so thoroughly reversed my views, and you can imagine that she felt a bit mislead.

This period is also when I took on the responsibility of becoming a father. In fact, once I began having doubts about my religion, this responsibility was one of the main things that drove me to research the issue further - how could I teach my daughter things that I wasn't sure of myself? At first, being a good Christian, there was no question on how to address religion with her - respect everybody's views, but Christianity was the true religion. But once I started having my own doubts, things weren't so easy. I want her to think for herself, and I don't want to indoctrinate her into any particular view like I was into Christianity. So, I'm extremely sensitive to pointing out to her that she's going to have to decide these things for herself. (When I was partway through my deconversion and still considered myself a deist, I wrote about this in a series of e-mails with another non-Christian parent. Some of what I'm writing here I brought up in that essay, but they're still tough issues.)

My daughter goes with one of her friends to her friend's church every Wednesday night - kind of like Sunday school, except, well, on Wednesdays. So in addition to me trying to teach her about various religions, she gets to hear about Christianity from actual believers. The thing is, without that strong pressure from parents to accept Christianity, it's not an easy thing for kids to swallow, especially when they're being raised with a respect for science. I don't mean to say that religion and science are necessarily antithetical - plenty of scientists are religious, and plenty of religious people reconcile their beliefs with what we learn through science - but science teaches you to question everything and look for evidence. In that sense, faith just doesn't cut it.

Perhaps what I worry about with her the most is that she'll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Kids can be mean (and when it comes down to it, so can adults). With the strong emotions that religion can elicit, I worry how others would react if she were to say that her father was an atheist, or even if she decided that she herself didn't believe in God. To be honest, it was such an incident that got me to write this entry to begin with. At one of her extracurricular activities, she got into an argument with a boy over whether someone had to believe in God to be a good person, and he gave her a hard time until my wife got there at the normal time to pick her up. I don't want my daughter to have to go through things like that. I don't want to live vicariously through her and have her fighting religious battles simply because I'm an atheist. But at the same time, I don't want to lie to her just to make her life easier.

In The God Delusion, one of the points that Richard Dawkins makes is that we shouldn't call children Christian, or Muslim, or atheist, or anything of the sort. Children are still too young to have given these issues enough thought, and we shouldn't classify them based on their parents' beliefs. Oh, if that were only the case! Unfortunately, it seems to me as if freethinkers are about the only ones who think this way, and the religious have no problem applying such classifications. A part of me asks why I have to be so damn sensitive to pointing out everybody else's beliefs, when almost everybody else simply teaches their kids their own beliefs as the truth.

Sometimes, I almost wish that I hadn't started to question religion at all. Things would be so much simpler. I wouldn't have to worry about how people would treat my family if they found out my beliefs. I wouldn't question what worldview to teach my daughter, and fret over whether I was raising her properly (at least on this specific topic - I'm pretty sure parents always fret over their children). I wouldn't have to worry about her being discriminated against for simply repeating something she might overhear me say. I wouldn't feel like I had betrayed my wife.

But now that I have questioned religion, there's no going back. I didn't simply choose to be an atheist. I studied all the evidence I could find, initially in an attempt to become a better Christian, and atheism was the unavoidable conclusion. I could no more choose to go back to being a Christian than I could choose to go back to believing in Santa Claus, or choose to believe that the Earth is flat. I opened Pandora's Box, and it can't be closed again.


Selling Out