The most bizarre thing about the new intelligent design propaganda film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed isn’t that former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein is being paid to extol a pseudoscience whose hypotheses can’t be tested (everyone has a price), or that the film compares science with Nazism and Stalinism (though it does, repeatedly and remorselessly). What’s truly weird is that the filmmakers don’t seem to understand the tenets of intelligent design.
Proponents of intelligent design—which is essentially a legal strategy, developed in the wake of a Supreme Court decision rejecting the teaching of creationism in public schools—try to discern traces of an intelligent designer in the universe and in living things. Crucially, however, the “theory” remains agnostic as to the identity of that designer. This was an important component of the legal underpinning of the movement: If intelligent design proponents ever hinted that the designer was God, the teaching of intelligent design in schools would, like the teaching of creationism, constitute an infringement on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. At the same time, though, not naming the designer meant that intelligent design proponents like Michael Behe had to allow the possibility that their designer is one of many gods, or even an intellectually superior alien. (Followers of the almighty Flying Spaghetti Monster memorably satirized this problem.)
So when Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and atheist who is a prominent critic of intelligent design, concedes to Stein in Expelled that he is open to the idea that aliens may have seeded our planet with life, intelligent design has actually scored a point (even if Dawkins never argues that an alien visitation could be somehow inferred from the evidence, and even though the theory of natural selection isn’t particularly preoccupied with how life first began). But this modest victory means nothing to the movie’s target audience of evangelical Christians, so Stein takes the intellectually bankrupt way out and makes vicious fun of Dawkins for believing in aliens.
Intellectual bankruptcy is in fact the defining characteristic of Expelled. Stein flits around the country collecting risibly anecdotal evidence of a conspiracy to choke academic freedom (apparently tenure-track professors have an inalienable right to spend their time writing intelligent design textbooks instead of peer-reviewed journal articles, and unpaid research associates at the Smithsonian have a right to...well, I’m not exactly sure what Richard von Sternberg wasn’t permitted to do), but he never bothers to define his terms. You won’t learn the definition of intelligent design from this movie, much less anything about the theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
Instead, you’ll be told that scientists are all vehement atheists. Not a single agnostic or religious person who accepts the theory of natural selection appears in the film. You’ll learn that the Discovery Institute’s headquarters in downtown Seattle are modestly sized, and that Ben Stein had a conspicuously difficult time locating them. (The filmmakers go to great lengths to persuade you they received no funding from the think tank that normally holds a monopoly on efforts to publicize intelligent design.) Clumsy montages of archival film clips will try to convince you that the science departments of research universities are like the Soviet Union, East Germany and Communist China all rolled up in one ivory tower. And, most memorably, you’ll be warned that accepting Darwin’s theory of natural selection is a slippery slope that will soon have you espousing eugenics, embracing racial purity and genocide, and sieg-heiling Hitler himself.
Comparing one’s opponent to Hitler is a debate technique so unsophisticated it would get you laughed off an Internet message board. Expelled doesn’t resort to this evolution-leads-to-Hitlerism hysteria in passing. It devotes a solid 20 minutes of its running time to a sequence in which Stein, who is Jewish, visits a German hospital where Nazis starved, murdered and cremated the physically and mentally disabled. Asked what inspired this cruelty, a random museum docent (who doesn’t speak English very well) softly replies, “Darwinism.” Never mind that scientific theories do not stand or fall depending on whether homicidal dictators wantonly misinterpret them, or that Charles Darwin was never a proponent of social Darwinism, or that he contributed only a modest portion of modern evolutionary theory. Just compare scientists to Nazis—that’ll, uh, really convince everyone that intelligent design should be welcomed as a legitimate scientific pursuit.
If Expelled is the best argument the intelligent design crowd can muster, thinking people who hope that the next generation will be taught the scientific method—not lazy, religiously motivated shortcuts like intelligent design—can breathe a sigh of relief.