Ben Stein Is Very, Very Wrong: Problems with Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Wolfgang Pauli is a legendary figure among physicists. He is remembered for having both one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century and one of its sharpest tongues. One student’s paper he dismissed by saying: That’s not right; it isn’t even wrong. (Or words to that effect in German; Pauli was Viennese.) If a theory isn’t relevant to the facts at hand, if it can’t be tested, if it doesn’t advance our understanding, then it isn’t that the theory is not right, it’s not even really a theory, it isn’t even wrong. It simply isn’t a tool for scientific understanding. Congressman Rush Holt once used Pauli’s expression in response to the claims that creationism, now often called Intelligent Design (ID), could be an “alternative” to the theory of evolution. Creationism isn’t even wrong because creationism can’t explain anything in the sense that science understands the word “explain.” Most advocates of creationism accept that evolution works at some scale and explains some things but for anything evolution does not explain they then assert that God, the Intelligent Designer, simply made it so. This is a valid religious belief. But what is the testable hypothesis? What is the prediction? What is the deeper understanding of mechanism? There isn’t anything there for a scientist to grab hold of. As far as science is concerned, creationism isn’t even wrong.

In contrast, Ben Stein has just released a movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, that is very, very wrong, indeed. (I confess, I have not seen the movie yet. It opens later today. This essay is based on Ben Stein’s extensive interviews, the movie website, and an extended, nine minute trailer available on the website. I will see the movie this weekend, although it pains me to give him any of my money.) I won’t argue about creationism here; it has been discussed in depth elsewhere. That “Intelligent Design” is a phrase designed in a transparent attempt to teach creationism without using the word “creationism” is well established. Ben Stein’s charges of unethical suppression of creationist spokesmen has been repudiated. But what is so very wrong about Ben Stein’s movie is not just the science; what I want to discuss here is his portrayal of how science works.

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