Friday, April 18, 2008


One of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” is a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.

Thus begins the New York Times review (by Jeannette Catsoulis) published today.

Needless to say, in this fight I'm firmly on the side of Darwin's modern heirs. Prevailing science ought to be questioned, and probed for flaws and contradictions. But some people seem to hope that, if they just attack science in subtle enough terms, it will all just fall down and then we'll all go back to using the Bible for a science textbook. Which seems to me in some cases a tactic toward using the Bible as a literal guide to everything in life. In which case we might as well be Islamists with a different book.

My interest in anything Ben Stein does shrinks to zero with his involvement in this movie. I understand the point is not directly to argue for creationism, but to draw a sympathetic portrait of creationists in the education and scientific field who have been roughed up by their peers. But in that case I'm inclined to sympathize with the peers. Just like I'd be on the side of the humanities academics who expelled agenda-driven Ward Churchill from their profession. Honest, hard questioning of prevailing orthodoxies is one thing. Intellectual vandalism in the name of revolution is another.

The new film has been criticized in a number of extensive pieces for its twisty propagandism and loose play with facts, quotes, and interviews. That doesn't surprise me. There's already a fair degree of straw man in the usual creationist argument. For instance, nobody reputable in the world of biology thinks complex systems in living things "just happened by accident." And the creationists know well that the simplistic argument has an advantage in a public forum. Flat-earthers used to be judged winners in public debates in the 19th century, even by people who knew better. All they have to do is say, "look around you; you can see it's flat." An appeal to common sense that can be refuted, but only by a long explanation involving mathematics.

When I see atheist and agnostic and Shinto scientists embrace creationism or Intelligent Design, in any sort of numbers, and defend it as passionately and persistently as born-agains do, then I'll begin to take it seriously. When some biologist or paleontologist who has never even heard of the Bible reads an Intelligent Design text and says, "That fits the facts better than evolution by natural selection, and it explains them more coherently," then I'll pay attention.

[See more here and here and here and also this by quondam co-blogger reader_iam, to which I wholeheartedly consent. I should add that I also lament the excesses of some prominent voices for scientific rationalism when they step outside their turf and go after faith with a fundamentalist fervor.]

So the "New York Times" is unsparing in its evisceration of "Expelled," and I ought to approve that.

I don't.

Because I also remember this review.

Mixing sober outrage with mischievous humor and blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery, Michael Moore takes wholesale aim at the Bush administration, whose tenure has been distinguished, in his view, by unparalleled and unmitigated arrogance, mendacity and incompetence. Of course, your estimation of the movie will largely depend on whether you share this view, but this unabashedly partisan collage of interviews, archival video clips and Mr. Moore's trademark agitprop stunts is nonetheless his most disciplined and powerful film to date.

I have not seen either film. But I see the two films -- as described by both their makers and their critics -- as essentially the same shabby thing in purpose, method, and ethos.

Yet the "New York Times" (two different reviewers, same newspaper) is scathing about the one:

This is not argument, it’s circus, a distraction from the film’s contempt for precision and intellectual rigor. This goes further than a willful misunderstanding of the scientific method. The film suggests, for example, that Dr. Sternberg lost his job at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History because of intellectual discrimination but neglects to inform us that he was actually not an employee but rather an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term.

Mixing physical apples and metaphysical oranges at every turn “Expelled” is an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike. In its fudging, eliding and refusal to define terms, the movie proves that the only expulsion here is of reason itself.

And finds the other the work of a jolly good fellow who occasionally goes too far but his big heart is in the right place:

The movie's cheap shots and inconsistencies may frustrate its admirers, but by now we should have learned to appreciate Mr. Moore for what he is. He is rarely subtle, often impolite, frequently tendentious and sometimes self-contradictory. He is also a credit to the Republic.

A credit to the Republic! What contemptible bilge. There's not an ounce of intellectual consistency or probity in the art of criticism in the media, of course. That's not new. But the proof, to me, was rarely so baldly stated. You could reverse those two movie descriptions, and with a few noun changes, print them under each other's headline. So what makes for the difference?

If it's wrong in case A, it's wrong in case B. Perhaps, you will say, my accidental convergence of opposition to both Moore's self-serving America-skeptic pseudo-pacifist showmanship and "Expelled's" shabby special pleading for anti-scientific Trojan horses allows me to appear to take a higher ground than the "Times." I have spent the day trying to think of a single cause I advocate, however earnestly, that I would wish to see promoted by such tactics as these filmmakers use. One undeniable good that I think would be advanced by propaganda and deception and lies.

I cannot think of one. If I were framed for murder and on death row, I would not want Michael Moore to try to win sympathy for me.

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