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Should ID advocates be expelled?

After concluding that ID is being suppressed, Ben Stein asks the fascinating and absolutely essential question: “but maybe it should be suppressed?” He at least rhetorically considers the possibility - as he must, in an honest examination - that ID might be like teaching the earth is flat in a geography class or there was no Holocaust in a history class. Surely it is possible for some ideas to be so thoroughly discredited and so incompatible with academic integrity that anyone who endorses them justifiably relinquishes credibility as a competent practitioner of a discipline. And if so, is ID (or rejecting evolutionary common descent) such an idea?

Unfortunately, on just this question - the one on which the entire point of the film most crucially hangs - it remains almost completely silent. In order to assess the point, we need to know what “the idea” of ID entails, and then what some of the arguments might be that support it, and then whether such arguments are properly scientific or perhaps better dealt with in philosophy. Even the first question is left hanging. What, besides believing that an intelligent Creator made the cosmos, does ID actually stand for? Don’t many on the “other side” of ID - including committed evangelical Christians - also believe this about the cosmos? Ok, is it that ID argues there are reasonable grounds for believing in an intelligence behind the universe? But many critics of ID accept this as well. Is it that science is unable to explain the origin of life and design is? But Gonzalez’s book doesn’t claim this. Is it that evolutionary common descent is false, and design explains origins of taxa? But Michael Behe - perhaps the most famous ID advocate in all the world (and not included in the film) - doesn’t believe that. Ok, is it just that there are some things that natural law is inadequate to explain, which point to an intervening intelligence? But fine-tuning arguments for design don’t rest on the inadequacy of law, rather on their wondrous endowment pointing to an underlying but not necessarily intervening intelligence.

If you don’t know what the candidate stands for, it is not clear who deserves a vote. Or perhaps a better metaphor closer to the point of the film - if you don’t know whether someone is even a citizen of the realm, it’s not clear they deserve a vote. Is ID a bona fide citizen of scientific inquiry? I am not raising this to be insulting, nor am I even providing an answer. The film rightly raises the question of citizenship on its own. But it doesn’t ever seem to check for a passport.

Now one important thing the film does do in this section, and does entertainingly, is ask whether we have an elected official, or even a solid majority candidate, for an explanation of life’s origin. We don’t. The fun of science is in wrestling with what we don’t understand, and the danger in science is in pretending we understand when we don’t. So this is a welcome point for the film to drive home: we don’t know. But it is not actually a relevant point to the question of what ID is and whether it should be allowed or suppressed - for several reasons.

First, it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual cases of viewpoint suppression the film purports occurred. Crocker and Sternberg didn’t get into trouble because they questioned a non-existent theory of life’s origin. They were challenged over claims that rejected the theory of evolutionary common descent, virtually universally regarded to be the central and one of the best established ideas in modern biology. And the Gonzalez case had nothing to do either with evolution or the origin of life. In relation to the only cases the film presents, the origin of life question is a red herring. Second, the film focuses on the freedom to challenge the “Darwinism machine,” and in a scene reminiscent of the old Chic tract “Big Daddy,” its trailer even opens with Ben Stein getting into trouble for challenging his evolution teacher about where life came from. But the question of life’s origin has nothing to do with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.Natural selection requires self-replicating systems, and does not purport to explain their origin. Darwin’s theory of evolution starts with the fact of life – an emphasis retained throughout all editions... More red herring. Third, merely lacking an explanation of life’s origin is not evidence for design. [And ID advocates are sophisticated enough to agree with this completely.] One complaint often leveled against ID is that it involves an argument from ignorance. While this criticism is over-employed,Stephen Meyer and William Dembski (interviewed in the film), and Michael Behe (not interviewed in the film) have all worked on versions of an in principle argument. These claims have been widely disputed...the film’s emphasis on what we don’t understand about life’s origin is vulnerable to this claim.ID advocates actually have more to say on this than was represented in the film. Not having a good naturalistic theory doesn’t tell us that ID is a good theory, or whether it is even a scientific theory of any kind.

Fourth, the film tries to avoid the fallacy of arguing from ignorance, by another classic fallacy: the forced dichotomy. A major emphasis of the film is the illegitimate either / or featured in its own promotional materials: “Were we designed or are we simply the end result of an ancient mud puddle struck by lightning?” But having a natural explanation for life’s origin wouldn’t preclude being designed. Setting aside the dismissive image of the mud puddle, a proposal for “just the right lightning bolt” would be concordant with both natural law and divine endowment.See, for example, Fitness of the Cosmos for Life: Biochemistry and Fine-Tuning. John Barrow, Simon Conway Morris, Stephen Freeland, Charles Harper eds. Cambridge University Press. 2008. Ironically, this is analogous to what the classical fine-tuning arguments propose, which Gonzalez’s ideas are similar to. The “God versus lightning” dichotomy in the film is never argued for. And it may actually exclude from the design camp the film’s featured expellee, Gonzales, perhaps the most scientifically productive advocate of ID in the world.

In any case, it turns out that whatever the content of design theories might be, Expelled does not give us tools for determining whether the theories as advocated by the exemplars in the film, are in fact intellectually bogus or legitimate. And importantly, even if they are legitimate, by what criteria would they be deemed science, in contrast to, say, philosophy? Or religion? These questions of how science is demarcated are fascinating, and ID proponents and critics have interesting things to say on the matter. But they aren’t said in the film.

In fact, in the film, Discovery President Bruce Chapman responds to the criticism that ID is not science, but religion, by saying “This is a red herring: when people don’t have an argument, they throw sand in your eyes.” Leaving aside the delightfully mixed metaphor (did the sand come off the herring?), the criticism is not a red herring. Nearly everyone familiar with the western intellectual tradition, and even most critics of ID, consents that the issue of an intelligent creator of the cosmos involves an intellectually legitimate question. But if ID is to be taught in the science classroom, the film must at least make a case, first off, that ID’s answers to this question are reasonble, and second - a different question - that they are reasonable science, rather than philosophy or religion. The question can’t be dismissed as “sand in the eyes.”

Perhaps one of the reasons that the film does not explore this crucial issue is because ID advocates themselves are conflicted about it. They claim it is strictly scientific. But they also claim "Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”In Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design. William Dembski and James Kushiner eds. 2001. Brazos Press.And the founder of the ID movement, Phillip Johnson, acknowledges "Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.”Phillip Johnson, appearing on American Family Radio, January 10, 2003. Cited in Matthew Bobrowsky. 2005. "Dealing with Disbelieving Students on Issues of Evolutionary Processes and Long Time Scales."...

It may sound like I’m asking for far too much in a popular documentary. But even just raising some of these questions in a serious way would convey the depth of these issues and a sense that the goal of the film is to get people to follow reason rather than the trumpet. Without really engaging the issues of merit, the movie ends up being a stirring story of David and GoliathI wish to thank my valued colleague in biology, Dr. Frank Percival, for this apt observation. I heartily recommend his elegantly thoughtful and charitable reflections, with a title not coincidentally reminiscent... - the underdog upstart versus the powerful giant. But beyond appealing to our inclination to root for the little guy, it doesn’t help us understand what the little guy’s claim to the land really is. The majority certainly isn’t always the only voice worth listening to; but neither does the minority deserve to be heard just by virtue of being a minority.

So in response to his own question - “does it deserve to be suppressed?” - Stein never really provides us with a justified answer. We do get a stirring tribute to those who have given their lives to protect freedom, along with a reading from the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” the document famously proclaims. But of course not all truths, much less all purporting to be truths, are self-evident. Some require argument. What Expelled lacks is exactly that.

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Go to Evolution Topic Index

Should ID advocates be expelled?

Seeking an Open Inquiry
Is Evolution Wedded to Atheism?
Do “anti-science bigots...censor scientists and stifle science”?
Are ID advocates being expelled?
Was Caroline Crocker expelled?
Was Richard von Sternberg expelled?
Was Guillermo Gonzalez expelled?
Did Darwin lead to Hitler?
Darwin and Hitler: Darwin disavowed selective breeding of humans
Darwin and Hitler: The idea of a master race and subhuman Jews does not fit well with Darwin’s theory
Darwin and Hitler: Prominent anti-Jewish voices rejected Darwin
Concluding Comments: Walls Torn Down?


Dr. Jeff Schloss
Dr. Jeff Schloss

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Purpose and Design
The Argument From Design
The Anthropic Principle
Charles Darwin
DNA Double-Helix