I meet a whole lot of creationists in my job, as one might expect. Some are confrontational or even rude; most are civil; a few are cordial — sometimes a bit too cordial, like the fellow who offered to take me out for dinner and dancing the next time I happened to be in his town. It is all part of the routine. But when they flat-out lie to me about what they are doing, I get angry.
In early 2007, I received a request from a representative of Rampant Films, asking to interview me for a documentary entitled Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion. Judging from the producer’s description, its approach was going to be objective and reportorial. I agreed to the request, and spent several phone calls, e-mails, and the better part of a day chatting on camera about the creationism/evolution controversy.
I thought nothing more about it until the summer, when NCSE received a tip about a forthcoming creationist movie, called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The movie was reported to be arguing that a dogmatic scientific establishment was fiercely suppressing the evidence for “intelligent design” and ruthlessly punishing — “expelling” — those who dared to challenge the orthodoxy.
Standard creationist fare, of course. But big money was evidently behind the effort. Expelled was going to have a major theatrical release — unheard of for a creationist film — and its production company, Premise Media, enlisted Motive Marketing, the company that successfully used viral marketing techniques to promote The Passion of the Christ to fundamentalist Christians.
So we were prepared to take Expelled seriously. Imagine my surprise, though, when we discovered that I was already involved! Rampant Films turned out to be a front for Premise Media, and the person who interviewed me was in fact the associate producer of Expelled. I had been lied to. And so had a lot of people who were interviewed, including my friends Michael Shermer, PZ Myers, and Richard Dawkins.
As I told The New York Times (2007 Sep 27), which ran a story about the interviews, “I have certainly been taped by people and appeared in productions where people’s views are different than mine, and that’s fine.” I added that I probably would have appeared in the film anyway, even if the producers had been candid about their intentions: “I just expect people to be honest with me, and they weren’t.”
Perhaps just as revealing as who was interviewed is who was not. Myers and Dawkins were interviewed because, in addition to being lucid expositors of evolution, they are also both outspoken atheists. A spokesperson for Expelled later divulged to Scientific American that people of faith who accept evolution, such as NCSE Supporter Kenneth R Miller, were not interviewed for the movie because they “would have confused the film unnecessarily.”
What kind of film is it that is confused by telling the truth? That’s right: a propaganda film. There are only two ways of dealing with propaganda: ignoring it and refuting it. Because of the potential influence of Expelled over a mass audience, we decided that it was not safe for NCSE to ignore its claims. Instead, we took on the massive task of debunking it — carefully, thoroughly, and authoritatively.
The NCSE response
As we prepared, we identified four central points likely to form the core message of Expelled: that “intelligent design” is a scientifically credible alternative to evolution, that proponents of “intelligent design” have been persecuted by the scientific establishment, that evolution is intrinsically atheistic, and — most outrageously — that acceptance of evolution was responsible for historical atrocities such as the Holocaust.
We decided to devote a separate website, Expelled Exposed (), to debunking Expelled. NCSE’s staff, especially Carrie Sager and Josh Rosenau, labored long and hard at designing the website and writing its content. We even commissioned four short videos to accompany — and draw traffic to — the website, on such topics as the forced resignation of Chris Comer (see RNCSE 2008 Jan/Feb; 28 : 4–7) and the evolution of complex structures such as the eye.
It was a lot of hard work. But it was worth it. When Expelled opened — in over one thousand theaters across the country — our website was already live, receiving tens of thousands of visitors every day. NCSE’s allies in the scientific, educational, and civil liberties communities updated their websites to link to it. Reviewers, journalists, and bloggers availed themselves of its resources, too.
At the end of the day, Expelled was a critical failure — “a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry ... an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike,” wrote the reviewer for The New York Times (2008 Apr 18). And despite a seemingly impressive box office tally, it is likely to have lost money for its producers and failed to reach beyond a small audience (see p 15 and 17).
NCSE’s efforts were not the only cause of Expelled’s failure. The ignorance, arrogance, and incompetence of the film, its producers, and its spokesperson, actor and pundit Ben Stein, were invaluable assets — to our side (see p 21). And Scientific American, the Skeptics Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Dawkins, Myers, Shermer, and a host of bloggers all played their parts.
I think that it is fair to say, however, that NCSE’s contribution to the response to Expelled was indispensable. As the only national organization focused exclusively on defending the teaching of evolution, NCSE was in a unique position to coordinate, as well as provide the bulk of, the response, both through Expelled Exposed and through one-on-one communications with reporters, reviewers, and bloggers.
But Expelled is not going away. It was released on DVD on October 21, 2008, and creationists are sure to be screening it from now till kingdom come. For that reason, we decided to devote a special issue of RNCSE to Expelled. Much of the content comes directly from Expelled Exposed, although we took the opportunity to correct and update a few details where necessary.
The limitations of our discussion should be acknowledged. For some topics, such as why Guillermo Gonzalez was not granted tenure at Iowa State University (see p 34), or whether Premise Media was guilty of plagiarism in developing the animations of the cell it used (see p 19), it is impossible for us to know exactly what happened and why — although it is still possible to tell that Expelled and its producers are not reliable guides to the events in question.
For other topics, such as Expelled’s charges that evolution instigated the Holocaust (see p 50) or that evolution is incapable of accounting for complexity in nature (see p 43), a complete discussion would have been neither feasible nor, given the attention span of the typical internet browser, desirable. Here, too, we do not pretend to have done more than highlight the more obvious ways in which Expelled misleads, errs, and flatly lies.
More than one critic of Expelled took note of the ironic suitability of its subtitle, No Intelligence Allowed: Arthur Caplan wrote, for example, “There is not a shred of intelligence on display in this just released ‘documentary’ purporting to be a careful examination of the fight over teaching creationism and evolution in America” (MSNBC 2008 Apr 23). I am sure that you will agree that the same cannot be said of NCSE’s rebuttal.