Watching Expelled in a Climate of Conflict

Frank Percival

Professor of Biology

Westmont College


Prompted by a couple of conversations and a scathing review in our local newspaper, I recently went to see Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.  Since reviewers have compared the film to those produced by Michael Moore, I decided to view Mooreıs Fahrenheit 9/11 ahead of time to get a feel for the Expelledıs genre.  Although the subjects and the perspectives were very different, they shared a common structure, and in both, the film-makerıs perspective was that of a disenfranchised minority trying to speak to power.  Both of the films also took a combative, gunning-for-the-opponent approach that I think limits their contribution to the societal conversation.


In thinking about these two films, I have been remembering the last time I served on a jury, a frustrating experience because the attorneys had complete control of the information flow, and their job was to ³spin² the story to the benefit of their clients.  By the end of the trial, I had concluded that the process was more about winning and losing than about a collaborative effort to determine what actually happened. Fahrenheit 9/11 and Expelled seem to take that same approach, and that means that they need to be viewed critically, however entertaining they may be.  For example, is there really a simple, cause-effect relationship between being an evolutionary biologist and losing your faith as Expelled seems to assert?  Was the holocaust merely an application of Darwinian theory?  Because of their combative approach, these films can energize viewers who already share their convictions, but they are unlikely to convince their opponents. Consequently, I think they serve mainly to reinforce cultural divisions.


I think Expelled did effectively highlight some of the limits to intellectual tolerance in academic institutions, and that is a helpful corrective.  That there are such limits would not be all that surprising if we did not hold up the value of creative thinking as much as we do.  Who does not want to be the person who gets the new insight and goes on to win the Nobel prize?  But any group is defined, at least to some degree, by the intellectual frameworks that serve as their paradigms.  At Westmont where I teach, we are explicit about that when we ask faculty to indicate their agreement with the collegeıs statement of faith each year as they sign their contracts, but in secular institutions those defining intellectual commitments are rarely articulated in a formal way.


I confess that I also enjoyed seeing Richard Dawkins get caught in the contradiction over whether some intelligent being could have designed life – it might be an alien race, perhaps, but surely not God!  Dawkins is so sure of himself, and he gets so much media attention that it is probably a service to establish that he is human like the rest of us, but it did feel like a guilty pleasure.  I was struck by the extent to which both films treated the ³good guys² with respect and deference while reducing the ³bad guys² to cartoon villains.  Admittedly, some of the Darwinist protagonists in Expelled made that easy for Mr. Stein, but their abrasive approach and notoriety cannot be completely unrelated to their being selected for the film.


For a number of reasons, the major concern I have about Expelled is its choice to make academic freedom its central issue.  First of all, the disagreement between intelligent design proponents and evolutionary biologists is never fleshed out in the film.  We are introduced to several intelligent design theorists who claim that Darwinian mechanisms are inadequate to explain evolutionary descent, and we hear that when evolutionary biologists talk among themselves with no creationists listening, they admit that the theory has problems.  However, we are not introduced to the nature of those problems, and we do not hear any evidence for or against the intelligent design claims.  Is a theory really untenable if workers in the field are still trying to understand it in depth?  Does any challenge to a prevailing theory warrant being taken seriously?  For example, every so often you hear someone claim that the holocaust never happened – most recently, it was President Ahmadinejad of Iran.  Would it be a violation of academic freedom to deny tenure to an individual who taught that position in a European History course?  I want to be careful here because my point is not about the relative merits of intelligent design and Darwinian evolution.  Rather, by choosing to frame the issue in terms of academic freedom instead of examining the competing claims, Expelled reduces a complex intellectual issue to a ³David and Goliath² story.


Second, this celebration of the underdog is facilitated by Mr. Steinıs choice to make personnel issues the heart of the story.  Getting an interview with a department chair or a human resources representative who appears to be stonewalling is easy in these cases because ethically, an institution does not get to talk about personnel issues in public.  Although it may be true that the individuals were denied tenure or not rehired because of their positions on intelligent design, we donıt know the back stories, and it is equally imaginable that they involved issues other than those relevant to academic freedom.


Finally, I think that the focus on academic freedom in Expelled obscures the impact of political conflict on the debate through the years.  Religious and scientific communities in this country have been fighting over this issue for 80 years or more – often in the courts –  and there is more than a little animosity on both sides of the argument. Casting the issue in the simple terms of academic freedom completely ignores the social dynamics of this controversy.  In this regard, I thought it was telling that the Polish academic Mr. Stein interviewed felt that there was greater freedom to entertain alternative views of evolution in Poland than there would be in the United States.  If that is actually the case, surely a contributing factor must be that they have no history of political conflict around this issue, and that provides them with a less emotionally charged context for dialogue.


One image that appears repeatedly in Expelled is the Berlin wall.  Mr. Stein uses the wall as a metaphor for the control of scientific discourse by an academic elite.  The image is a powerful one, and it works because the conflict over origins is there for everyone to see. However, there are other walls that I think capture the situation more accurately.  One is the wall that Israel is constructing in an effort to defend themselves from Palestinian terrorists, and the other is the wall we are building along the Mexican border in an attempt to control illegal immigration.  Both walls are the product of exasperation over unrelenting pressure from folks on the other side, and both walls are controversial for what they symbolize.  The science and science education communities experience much the same exasperation from the on-going conflict first with the creation science community and then with intelligent design proponents.  I agree with Expelled that a healthy academic community depends on the free exchange of ideas, but if the film has any impact at all, I can only see it leading to a reinforcement of the wall it seeks to criticize and to further cultural polarization.