"Expelled" and the Reviewers

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Expelled and the Reviewers
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
Volume: 
28
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2008
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
24–25
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

The creationist propaganda movie Expelled was anything but a critical favorite, with the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website reporting that only 10% of reviews (4 of 40) were favorable and summarizing the critical consensus as “Full of patronizing, poorly structured arguments, Expelled is a cynical political stunt in the guise of a documentary” (www.rottentomatoes.com/ m/expelled_no_intelligence_allowed/).

Not surprisingly, reviewers who were already familiar with, or took the time to investigate, the “intelligent design” movement and its claims saw through Expelled. Reviewers who took the film on its own merits were generally unimpressed, although they sometimes worried that there might be a grain of truth in the complaints of the “martyrs” featured in the movie. And, of course, reviewers who were predisposed to accept the claims of Expelled were effusive in their praise.

A summary of the reviews would be lengthy and repetitive, but there are a few reviews that deserve special notice — because they were particularly informative and complete, or because they appeared in particularly influential publications, or because they were particularly fine examples of the same rhetorical excess in which Expelled indulged. (Not included here are organizational statements about or reactions to Expelled, whether favorable or unfavorable; for these, see p 52).

Informed reviews

Dan Whipple was perhaps the first journalist to review Expelled, having been invited (“probably by mistake,” he wrote) to a preliminary screening. His preliminary review appeared in Colorado Confidential (2007 Dec 16; available on-line via www.coloradoconfidential.com/tag.do?tag=Expelled), and he continued to keep his eye on Expelled, publishing a detailed review in Skeptical Inquirer (2008 May/Jun; 32 [3]: 52–3).

After attending a preliminary screening in Minneapolis, Richard Dawkins, who was himself interviewed for Expelled under false pretenses (see p 24), discussed the screening and the film in a post on his website (2008 Mar 23; available on-line at richarddawkins. net/article,2394,Lying-for-Jesus,Richard-Dawkins) with his characteristic brio: “Quite apart from anything else, it is drearily boring, the tedium exacerbated by the grating monotony of Stein’s voice.”

Most extensive, and most impressive, was Scientific American’s package of reviews and commentary (available on-line at www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=sciam-reviews-expelled). At its center was a lengthy review by Michael Shermer, who like Dawkins was interviewed for Expelled under false pretenses. Also included were a review by Scientific American’s editor John Rennie and a lengthy, and revealing, discussion with Expelled’s associate producer Mark Mathis.

Lauri Lebo, a journalist who covered Kitzmiller v Dover for the York Daily Record and then wrote a book, The Devil in Dover (New York: The New Press, 2008), about the trial, reviewed Expelled for AlterNet (2008 Apr 24; available on-line at www.alternet.org/movies/83427/), writing that it is “a slick misleading piece of shrill propaganda. ... It exploits both the concept of democracy and the victims of the Holocaust.”

Mainstream reviews

Time’s reviewer Jeffrey Kluger (2008 Apr 10; available on-line at www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1729703,00.html) was intrigued by the tales of martrydom (“if there’s anything to it at all, it’s a matter well worth exposing”) and critical of evolutionary biologists espousing “sneering, finger-in-the-eye atheism,” but dismissive of the movie’s scientific claims and even more so of its attempt to link Darwin to euthanasia, abortion, eugenics, and Nazism.

Variety’s review (2008 Apr 11; available on-line at www.variety.com/review/VE1117936783.html?categoryid=31&cs=1) began unpromisingly — “There’s an intelligent case to be made for intelligent design” — but was critical of the film’s style and claims, especially regarding its attempt to link evolution and the Holocaust, which it described as offensive and fatuous. The review added, slangily and punningly, that the film “will be a natural selection for Christian audiences.”

The New York Times’s reviewer Jeanette Catsoulis (2008 Apr 18; available on-line at movies.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/movies/18expe.html) hit the nail on the head: “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 ... the only expulsion here is of reason itself.”

The Los Angeles Times’s Mark Olsen was dismissive in his review (2008 Apr 18; available on-line at articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/18/entertainment/et-expelled18), recommending that Expelled be viewed as “a tiresome ideological bludgeon, an attempt to deceive audiences into believing it is one thing when it is, in fact, quite another.” “As a work of nonfiction filmmaking it is a sham,” he concluded, “and as agitprop it is too flimsy to strike any serious blows.”

Favorable reviews

Tom Bethell, a veteran anti-evolutionist, wrote in the American Spectator (2008 Feb; 41 [1]: 54–5; available on-line at www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=12759) that Expelled “is surely the best thing ever done on this issue, in any medium. At moments it brought tears of joy to my eyes. I have written about this controversy for over 30 years and by the movie’s end I felt that those of us who have insisted that Darwinism is a sorry mess and that life surely was designed are going to prevail.”

In World (2008 Apr 5; 23 [7]; available on-line at www.worldmag.com/articles/13903, Marvin Olasky wrote that Expelled “is perfect for adults and children of middle-school age or above: It should be rated R not for sex or violence but for being reasonable, radical, risible, and right,” and endorsed the claim that “Darwinism bulwark[ed] Hitlerian hatred by providing a scientific rationale for killing those considered less fit in the struggle for survival.”

In the Baptist Witness (2008 Apr 18; available on-line at www.bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=27872, “intelligent design” proponent William Dembski acknowledged that the scientific establishment is not likely to be convinced by Expelled, but added, “The unwashed masses, in which I place myself, will love the film.” He concluded, “When future intellectual historians describe the key events that led to the fall of ‘Darwin’s Wall,’ Ben Stein’s Expelled will top the list.”

Writing in the California Catholic Daily (2008 Apr 26; available on-line at www.calcatholic.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?id=38c958af-e3dd-4c92-b28b-f8db9ba4c172), Matthew Lickona and Ernie Grimm discussed the film, with Grimm wholeheartedly endorsing its claims and going beyond: “The Darwinists even have their own Gestapo in the National Center for Science Education led by a modern day Heinrich Himmler named Eugenie Scott.”


About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org

Glenn Branch is NCSE’s deputy director.