Ben Stein does his Angus Young impersonation!
This one will be a tough one for us here at Astroguyz to review; faithful followers of our blog already know our stance on this issue. We’ll make every attempt to be as even-handed as possible and not hurt too many feelings. Recent court rulings threw Intelligent Design (ID) out of the classroom. And yet the debate persists and continues to pop up world wide; should ID be taught along side of Evolution?
We finally had a chance to catch the controversial documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” via Netflix (Netflix rocks!) online. Why should astronomers care about the evolution debate? Because its part of a much larger scope of creationism, which can potentially encompass Big Bang theory and cosmology. Some folks find the notion of a universe older than 6,000 biblical years a dangerous one. The anthropomorphic principle has gained steam in recent years and poses that the very fundamentals of physics are structured in such a way that life must arise; this rides on the back of ID, and will probably gain more press in the near future.
Narrated by Ben Stein (of “Bueller, Bueller,” and “I’m not a real science teacher, although I play one in the movies,”) fame, “Expelled” makes no bones about its anti-science stance. If one was to believe its trendy position that the establishment was behind a current suppression of ideas, my very future as a science teacher is already in severe trouble for even writing the forbidden words “Intelligent Design”! And yet, ID bashing we’ll go… and two is not my limit for Ben Stein-isms…we welcome more!
Are you there, Darwin? (Its me, Ben.)
The documentary does give skeptics such as Richard Dawkins a brief chance, although it’s edited in such a way as to assume scientists aren’t very patient with “upstart theories”. Real science bloggers such as Pharyngula also get a brief mention (hey, Ben, our bat-phones’ been silent here at the Astro Cave!) The logic of these embattled skeptics does however still manage to shine through, despite the best efforts of the guys in the sound and editing room. “If anyone has a better theory that explains what we see out there in nature, bring it on!” quips one researcher.
And that is were ID fails. In order for a theory to be science, it must make some meaningful predictions about the world around us. Contrary to popular belief, proof of Evolution abounds. Why do you have to get a flu shot every year? Because that nasty bugger has a way of mutating via natural selection; this is a quick process that we can see occurring in our lifetimes. To say that anything we do not currently understand is the hand of a creator is back engineering the scientific method. Any theory must be able to stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny, something IDers seem unwilling to do and consequently cry fowl at. As the gaps in our knowledge close, we will have to resort less and less to the supernatural as an explanation for things. Could evolution require tweaking? Certainly; evolutionary biologists themselves are the ones on the battle front, constantly probing to see if the process will break down at some point. It does amuse me to see that ID is now trying to actively separate themselves from Creationism. But we don’t teach astrology, flat Earth, tarot card reading, or the Great Pumpkin in science class, all for the same reason. They do not offer anything that is verifiable or testable to our body of knowledge.
The Rise of the Great Pumpkin!
It did disturb me to see the attacks on other current ideas, such as panspermia. The film simply puts it down as “aliens did it!” This is seen as a badly botched method to explain how life began on Earth. However, there is much more to this than is presented. The idea is that microbes may have been seeded by asteroids, perhaps from Mars or elsewhere. We already have material from the Red Planet in our hands; day by day, this hypothesis seems more plausible.
The Mars Meteorite, ALH 84001. (Credit: NASA).
To say that this movie is an appeal to emotion is an understatement; but it’s an emotional issue.
Its also been sited (and tirelessly re-sited, yet again in this movie) that the basic unit of life, the cell, is too complex to simply have “fallen together on its own”… these pundits totally pass over the fact that original cells were very probably much more primitive than what we see today. We frequently make the mistake to assume that what we see around us today is the finished product; far from being happenstance, the forces of evolution are at work still.
Evolution has been to Hollywood before: The Scopes Monkey Trial. (Credit: the Library of Congress).
Serious science is also given short shrift; the famous 1950 Miller-Urey experiments that produced organic compounds by passing lightning through a container of a mixture of gases presumed to exist in the atmosphere in the early Earth are sited as a failure, probably because nothing came crawling out of the flask. (Yet!)
The ugly head of eugenics in the early 20th century is also raised, along with attempts to make a lengthy link between Darwin and Nazism. How about this simple axiom; anything, be it science or religion, when perverted towards a malicious end, is bad? Evolution can also be used to explain such noble human traits as compassion, loyalty, and love. It’s not all avarice!
In the end we get the impression that ID exists only in the margins of science. It makes its home in those gaps that science has yet to fill, but is closing in on. Far from being suppressed, I admire the kind of discourse it invites…it gives us a chance to counter with real science. Will this movie convert anyone? It’s doubtful; the camps are pretty polarized. But I would recommend giving this movie a look. Ironically, both sides of the debate site the sorry state of the American educational system as the primary problem! Already, students are arriving woefully unprepared at pre-med school with large gaps in their scientific understanding. The 5th column conspiracy theorists can watch and say “I told you so!” while skeptics can hone their logical fallacy spotting skills, maybe even sight some new ones in the wild. Now, if a documentary could get both camps in the same screening room, now that would be the trick!
Final thought: To see another view point, check out this NOVA episode about evolution and ID!
…And the Debate continues…(Credit:Wallace Barry).