Friday, April 18, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Publically commenting on the vague claims raised by the Intelligent Design (ID) / Creationist movement can pose a difficult dilema. On the one hand, these claims, such that they are (that life exhibits a "complexity" too great to be accounted for solely by the process of natural evolution) are palpably false, or at best completely unsupported by available evidence. Ideas espoused by the ID movement, such as "irreducible complexity", which show themselves to be incongruous with reality should not, I think it is prudent to say, be allowed to propogate themselves uncontested. On the other hand, when prominent scientists do engage with these claims, it can lend undue credence to the widely held belief that there is some ongoing controversy about the role of evolution in biology: to the uninformed, this often one-sided conversation gives the illusion that there is a legitimate debate to be had here.

To be fair, there are legitimate controversies in the field of evolutionary biology that deserve attention. Is the progress of evolution uniformly gradual, for instance, or do periods of rapid specication punctuate bouts of extended equilibrium? Is evolution driven by strict genentic determinism, or is it a more stochastic process, mitigated by exogenous environmental factors (epigeneticism) and developmental factors (ontogenic plasticity)? These are, as yet, unanswered questions that cut right to the heart of the theory of evolution and therefore the discpline of biology itself, but one thing remains certain: if these questions are to be resolved, then they will be resolved by the scientific method in reliance of the available evidence. There will be no need to resort to supernatural explanations to paper over the cracks in our understanding. No legitimate existing controversy in the field of biology casts any doubt on the idea - supported by all the available evidence in fields as diverse as biology, geology, cosmology etc. - that the complexity exhibited in life on this planet is a consequence of random genetic mutation and non-random natural selection. It is disingenuous and above all wrong to argue otherwise.

Enter Expelled the movie. While I'm basically piecing the premise of the movie together based on the few snippets that have been released in advance (including the extended trailer available here) and the various reviews floating around, it appears to center on the "controversy" (in the loosest possible sense of the word) surrounding the treatment of "scientists" (ut supra) who have dared to speak out against the theory of evolution (or, as it is more sinisterly - and inaccurately - referred to in the movie, "Darwinism").

As Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptical Enquirer magazine, explains in his rather unflattering review of the movie:

Stein's case for conspiracy centers on a journal article written by Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow at the intelligent design think tank Discovery Institute and professor at the theologically conservative Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University. Meyer's article, "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories," was published in the June 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, the voice of the Biological Society with a circulation of less than 300 people. In other words, from the get-go this was much ado about nothing.

Nevertheless, some members of the organization voiced their displeasure, so the society's governing council released a statement explaining, "Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The council, which includes officers, elected councilors and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings." So how did it get published? In the words of journal's managing editor at the time, Richard Sternberg, "it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors, I chose myself."


Meyer's article is the first intelligent design paper ever published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it deals less with systematics (or taxonomy, Sternberg's specialty) than it does paleontology, for which many members of the society would have been better qualified than he to peer-review the paper.


Stein, however, is uninterested in paleontology, or any other science for that matter. His focus is on what happened to Sternberg, who is portrayed in the film as a martyr to the cause of free speech. "As a result of publishing the Meyer article," Stein intones in his inimitably droll voice, "Dr. Sternberg found himself the object of a massive campaign that smeared his reputation and came close to destroying his career." According to Sternberg, "after the publication of the Meyer article the climate changed from being chilly to being outright hostile. Shunned, yes, and discredited." As a result, Sternberg filed a claim against the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) for being "targeted for retaliation and harassment" for his religious beliefs. "I was viewed as an intellectual terrorist," he tells Stein. In August 2005 his claim was rejected. According to Jonathan Coddington, his supervisor at the NMNH, Sternberg was not discriminated against, was never dismissed, and in fact was not even a paid employee, but just an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term!

A major theme in the film appears, along the above lines, to pertain to the sanctity of "free-speech" in American society and how it is somehow being threatened every time blatant charlatans like Meyer and Sternberg (who both feature in the extended trailer) experience ostracism from the scientific community for, you know, deliberately undermining the spirit of the scientific endeavour*.

There is much that I can (and will) say about this premise, but the first and most important thing to note is that science is not a democratic process. No-one involved has the inherent right to demand that their voice be heard. If the ID movement wants to be taken seriously by that devious, clandestine cabal referred to in the film as "big science" then they need to put in the same hard yards that everyone else participating in the scientific process is required to put in. They need to propose a theory with testable claims, proceed to rigorously test those claims empirically, then fianlly publish the results in a peer-reviewed journal of science. Intelligent Design, with its deliberately vague premise (which can essentially be pared down to "some being did something, somewhere at some time, for some reason"), hasn't even passed that first step yet. Contrary to the theme of this movie, science is not inherently hostile to new theories that seek to challenge the status quo, but it is hostile - as a matter of process - to theories that do not lend themselves to testing or falsification.

So this appeal made to "free-speech" is naive in itself, but it takes on a more overtly disingenuous edge when you consider the somewhat contradictory attitude proponents of ID have toward this freedom when ensconced within their own little clique. To use just two examples, Meyer's aforementioned Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University requires, as part of it's guiding principles, "that all those who become associated with Palm Beach Atlantic University as trustees, officers, members of the faculty or of the staff, must believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; that man was directly created by God; that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin; that He is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior; that He died for the sins of all men and thereafter arose from the grave; that by repentance and the acceptance of and belief in Him, by the grace of God, the individual is saved from eternal damnation and receives eternal life in the presence of God". The sort of freedom of thought and expression that Meyer and the producers of the film are demanding from scientific institutions certainly don't seem to apply at PBAU!

Secondly - and more directly related to the film itself - was the explusion of prominent biologist and atheist PZ Myers from a preview screening of the film: a film that, it should be pointed out, he fucking appeared in! To quote Myers from his now famous blog:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled! It was kind of weird — I was standing in line, hadn't even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested.

The sort of cognitive dissonance that must be required to facilitate this degree of shameless hypocracy truly boggles the mind. I will soon make another post exploring some of the more specific claims of the movie, but for now I'll leave the final word on the matter to PZ himself, in a chat he filmed about the movie with Richard Dawkins:


* As Ronald Jennings, a UK paleontologist, noted in his lengthy critique of Meyer's claims:

"Rather than trusting in the ability of science to make progress, as it always has, Meyer is willing to throw up his hands in bewilderment, and exclaim miraculous intervention of an intelligent designer. That's not the spirit of science. Meyer's paper was neither deep nor comprehensive enough to merit being called an adequate review by any standard, certainly not in view of his profound conclusions."

(Cribbed from Chris Mooney's "The Republican War on Science", (pp. 187-188))

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