Nuclear Weapons

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

04.18.08 | 12 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

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.

The theme of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, indeed the title, is that there are two possible foundational explanations for biology, evolution (which Ben Stein consistently refers to as Darwinism, as though it is a cult ideology like Leninism, even though biologist rarely use the term any more than mechanical engineers would refer to their field as Newtonism). Ben Stein asserts that neither evolution nor creationism is rock solid; that there is room for serious debate between the two. But woe to anyone who questions the scientific “orthodoxy.” If you are not on the “Darwinist” bandwagon, you will be hounded, threatened, and soon unemployed. On the movie’s webpage, Stein says “Those who challenge the status quo rarely go unpunished.” This is where he gets the process of science wrong: The idea of orthodoxy.

Nothing will win you a Nobel Prize faster than explaining to everyone that everything they thought was true is wrong. Ideas that energy is quantized, that time can run at different speeds in different frames of reference, that light might be bent by gravity, all of these things upset the established view of the time of how the universe is put together. Just a few years ago, astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Surprise! This discovery sent theorists running back to the drawing boards. And they love running back to the drawing boards. That is the sort of thing that makes reputations, gets you tenure, and wins you prizes. Other fields have similar stories: in geology, the idea of plate tectonics, that the continents moved around, was considered revolutionary.

Is biology different? Hardly. The rate of expansion of knowledge in biology should make physicists blush with shame. A decade before the discovery of AIDS, no one imagined that retro-viruses (of which, HIV is one example) even existed. A few years ago Robert Pruitt at Purdue University did an experiment on a mutation in a type of mustard plant, Arabidopsis. Just as biologist would expect, the offspring of the plant carried the mutation, and their offspring, and then…the next generation was back to normal. What? This finding was not only totally unexpected but had the potential to upset the very model of how genetic information is passed from one generation to another and, therefore, the very foundation of genetics and, or course, the basic mechanism of evolutionary as we understand it. (As far as I know, no one has fully explained how the DNA repair happens.) So how was this scientist punished, how was this dangerous information suppressed? By plastering a photo of the little plant on the cover of Nature magazine, the most widely circulated science journal in the world.

There is a reason that creationists are not common in science departments: Creationism, now called Intelligent Design to circumvent prohibitions on teaching religion in public schools, is not science. Even so, Ben Stein’s argument that creationists are systematically excluded from research has been refuted. If fact, the “debate” about ID is far more extensive than is warranted by any scientific controversy. We don’t have a big debate going on about whether the Earth is the center of the universe; but we would if the Earth’s position still challenged religious views of mankind’s place in the world.

Should every cosmology department have someone who believes the Earth is the center of the universe? Thinking the Earth is the center makes some sense. I can’t feel myself moving, so presumably the earth isn’t moving. I can see the stars turning around me at night and, if I am not moving, then they must be rotating around me, hence, I am sitting at the center. The idea wasn’t ridiculous. But, as new instruments, for example, the telescope, and new theoretical tools, for example, calculus, were developed, the idea was abandoned through a process we call “science.” The change was resisted by religious leaders not because they had better data or theories or instruments but because it assaulted their view of mankind’s role in the universe. That is a valid religious belief, but it isn’t science, and anyone who believed today that the Earth is the center of the universe would probably not get tenure in a physics department based on that idea and they would have a hard time getting the idea published without supporting data. Of course, if, based on scientific observation supported by a good theory, you could show that the Earth was, in fact, the center of the universe, you would be on the cover of Nature and on your way to Stockholm.

Some additional great links:


Added the morning of 25 April.

Well, golly. I never get so many comments when I write about nuclear weapons. You should all see my next blog on the military budget; it is quite good. I will be able to respond only briefly on the comments below.

I write now because I finally saw the movie. Clay below writes “When I read that you had not even seen it yet I did not even bother to read any more of your dribble.” Several others make the same point. I assume he means “drivel” not “dribble,” but I state quite clearly I had not seen the movie and what I was basing my comments on and and I say what I was talking about. I was talking about an idea in the movie, not the movie per se. If Ben Stein were going around talking about how funny his new comedy is, I would have to see the movie to judge how funny I found it but Stein has been all over the place giving interviews and doing his best to promote the ideas in the movie and I was talking about one of those ideas.

Now that I have seen the movie I can say it is not a very good movie. It drags. It is only showing in one cinema in DC that I know of. I went to the 5:00 p.m. show and there were only three other people in the audience. I sat near the front as I always do, I forced myself to sit through to the end, and when I got up, I was the only person there; the others had left early. Silly things like being lost looking for something (the Discovery Institute in this case) were half charming and half stupid when Michael Moore did it but just don’t work when repeated. The cutting in with old black and white clips to humorously editorialize was a blunt instrument and constant return to film of the Berlin Wall to symbolize modern science is, at best, heavy-handed. So now Ben Stein has won $10.50 of my money.

There are many factual errors in the film and outright misrepresentations, starting with his first interviewee, Richard Sternberg, whose case of suppression is seriously distorted. (See my SciAm link above.)

One thing that does come out of the whole movie that is not clear from the trailers and website and interviews is that Stein makes it clear in the last half hour or so that he is advocating a values-based science. Science should be informed by a sense of man’s purpose in the universe, with an awareness of a higher power. He sees a global struggle between godless science and god-inspired science and he clearly supports the latter.

I am surprised at the number of comments. I don’t have anywhere near enough time to respond to them all (and I will just accept but not respond at all to favorable comment, still, thank you), but let me make a start:

Blake asks, “Are you a scientist? Do you understand the basic tenets of science?” Yes, on both counts, I have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Princeton, both in chemistry but my PhD work was really in nuclear physics. I have done research at the National Labs and taught physics and conducted research in nuclear physics at the Technische Universitaet in Munich. I have several papers in Physical Review and two Physical Review Letters. He goes on to state, “We don’t have that data for speciation (macroevolution)…” Of course, we do, they are called fossils.

Brad makes an interesting and common point: Atheist scientists like Dawkins can talk about atheism, why can’t religious scientists talk about religion? I think the answer is that anyone can talk about religion all they want but once you invoke supernatural explanations into nature it is no longer meets the definition “science.” Stein says that is precisely the problem: we should include values and our perceptions of higher powers in our science.

GailGal writes, “Truth will prevail no matter how hard you try to gag it.” This is, I believe, true, especially in the age of the internet. As the current dialogue proves, getting tenure does not stop debate on evolution; the ideas can still get out there. The “surfer dude” who proposed a theory of elementary particles did not have an academic position and his ideas are being seriously reviewed (and found wanting).

Black5 writes, “If you have done little or no reading on this issue then your viewpoint is one from ignorance.” While this is a true if-then statement, it does not apply to me.

Albert Moore writes, “Intelligent Design has not been refuted but rather censored.” This is precisely the problem with intelligent design: it can’t be refuted. Anything that evolution can explain it is allowed to explain and anything it cannot explain is asserted to be by design. If someone comes along and then explains what was previously unexplained, the IDers can just move on to the next unexplained thing because there will always be something left unexplained. During Darwin’s life, the focusing eye was used as an example until intermediate cases were demonstrated. Then bacterium flagella were a case of “irreducible complexity” until intermediate cases were discovered. Now I think certain cell chemistry is most popular, which has the advantage of leaving no fossil record. ID makes no claims that, by the normal scientific approach, can be, even in theory, disproved to the point that ID would have to be abandoned as an explanation.

Croath below writes, “It only takes one example in the history of science, where the correct theory was rejected unfairly, to support the premise of the movie Expelled.” This is a good point. I give examples from the past, but so what? We can make an even stronger statement: even if no idea had ever been suppressed in history, that doesn’t mean that ID is not being suppressed today. But I would take it another step: even if people were being fired from faculties for thinking about ID does not mean that the idea is being successfully suppressed. Certainly there is some university somewhere in the world where ID ideas can be explored, hypotheses developed, experiments conducted, and data collected. So we have to distinguish some large-scale problem with faculty from the validity of the idea. They are related but not identical issues.

He quotes me as “Creationism, now called Intelligent Design to circumvent prohibitions on teaching religion in public schools, is not science.” And goes on to write: “This displays equivocation that borders immoral. Creationism is usually equated with young earth creationism. Intelligent Design includes young earth creation, but is not identical to it.” I am basing my statement on evidence that came out of the Dover School Board case in which it was shown that, in the text of the The Panda’s Thumb, the word creationism had been removed and simply replaced by the words intelligent design.

Brandon writes, “Great post, one note though: the arabidopsis hotheat mutant experiment you’re referring to has been largely discredited. Turns out that the mutants are highly susceptible to cross-pollination, and this could only be discovered by growing the plants in labs that don’t work with arabidopsis or private homes.” I was not aware of the next chapter of the story but this strengthens by point. A radical observation is made, the experiment was repeated by other experimental groups and tested. Seems to turn out that the original observation was wrong but this is a great example of how science is done.

Jim M writes, “But I doubt that you have the courage or intellectual fortitude to support your own contentions here in an honest debate.” Hmmmm…… What is true is that I will run out of time before Jim does.

Toni Bourlon writes ‘Some have proposed putting those words on textbooks, along with the heresy that evolution is only a theory…” Saying that something is “only” a theory reflects a common confusion about the word theory. Be careful when borrowing scientific words for normal English. We use words all the time like pressure, force, energy, power, entropy, even “a quantum leap” and nobody pretends to respect the precise scientific definitions. Quantum theory, the theory of relativity, electromagnetic theory, these are all pretty solid. Theories are more than musings.

Brian Hanley writes “It’s a dirty little secret, but science can not duplicate the creation of life, from non-life.” First it is not a secret. Second, there are a lot of things science cannot duplicate, like black holes, the big bang, planet formation, dinosaurs. Evolution will never explain everything simply because the data are not available and never will be and scientists understand that. For example, we know a great deal about the evolution of mollusks but little about the evolution of jelly fish because the former make good fossils and the latter do not, so we will probably remain pretty much in the dark about ancient jelly fish. There simply is no fossil record of the first moment of life so we won’t know and scientists accept that. Even if we could produce simple life forms in a laboratory under early Earth conditions, that only shows that was one way it could have happened, it does not prove that was the way it in fact happened.

Cee has written a long comment and some will accuse me of shirking but I just don’t have time now so this is a good place to stop. Maybe later.