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How science gets swiftboated

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Actor Ben Stein, right, sits with a student outside a principal's office in a
trailer publicizing the documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed."

Ben Stein has done good things and funny things during his more than three decades as an actor, economist and writer (going back to his days as a Nixon speechwriter). His latest work, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," is not that good and not that funny. There's something creepy about the documentary, which blends a no-holds-barred assault on evolutionary theory with what sounds like a high-minded cry for academic freedom. It's a 90-minute campaign ad, aimed at swiftboating science.

Talk about negative campaigning: Stein and the "Expelled" filmmakers try to link Charles Darwin and "Big Science" to Nazism and Stalinism. Scenes of death camps, mad scientists, marching minions and the Berlin Wall are flashed on the screen when Darwinism is discussed.

Before I saw the movie, I wondered how wacky it might be. Now I don't think it's wacky. Instead, it's worrisome. The creepiest thing about "Expelled" is that the filmmakers' strategy of casting the scientific establishment as a big bad godless conspiracy just might work.

It won't work among those familiar with the current state of evolutionary science. And it certainly won't work among contemporary researchers who are showing where Darwin went wrong as well as where he went right.

"If you have a losing hand, you're going to use every amount of rhetoric you can to distract people from the fact that you don't have any facts," Sean B. Carroll, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me in his lab last week. "And that's what 'Expelled' is all about."

But "Expelled" is also about rallying people who are unfamiliar with the issues to take a stand against mainstream science. For many of the million or so people who have seen the film over the past couple of weeks, "Expelled" might be as close as they come to examining the arguments for and against current evolutionary theory.

All the sound and fury may well turn those filmgoers against not only evolutionary biology, but against supporting any kind of study that they're told runs counter to their world view - ranging from stem cell research to paleontology to particle physics. And then what? In the interest of equal time, would research money have to be reserved for divining the signature of the designer in nature, or even discerning which holy book reflects that design best? 

That's the bad news. The good news is that the controversy over "Expelled" could represent another teachable moment, analogous to 2005's federal court decision against intelligent design. Is it possible to turn a negative campaign into a positive win for science education?

Intelligent design and academic freedom
In the movie, Ben Stein takes on a quest to find out what's happening to teachers who promote the intelligent-design concept - that is, the idea that some complex things in nature, such as molecular machines or DNA code, are best explained by an intelligent cause.

"We are losing our freedom in one of the most important sectors of society: science," he tells listeners in a lecture hall at the start of the film.

Several cases are cited, starting with the case of Richard Sternberg, an evolutionary biologist who approved the publication of an intelligent-design paper during his stint as the editor of a scientific journal. Was he unjustly persecuted as a result? You can get Sternberg's perspective as well as the opposing view over the Web. The same goes for the other cases: the "Expelled" Web site goes into the claims of victimization, and the "Expelled Exposed" Web site (created in response to the film) presents the counterclaims.

Even at the time of 2005's Kitzmiller v. Dover court decision, it was clear that an argument based on academic freedom would be the next frontier for the intelligent-design debate. But the freedom to teach isn't absolute. It's subject to the usual checks and balances of academic institutions, plus the constitutional ban on state establishment of religion - and the idea that the content of a science class should be, well, based on science.

That doesn't mean science teachers can't have wacky ideas. Some of the wackiest ideas have been held by the world's greatest scientists - including Isaac Newton, a religious heretic who calculated that the world would end in the year 2060. To Newton's credit, he kept relatively quiet about the wackier claims and pushed ahead with better ideas like calculus, optics and universal gravitation.

Similarly, Carroll said teachers were free to hold onto unscientific ideas in their private life, but should stick to the science when teaching.  "Do you want your kids taught by people who are living in the 18th century? I don't think so," he said. "They have a right to think these things or believe these things, but they have an obligation to be technically competent."

The task has implications that go beyond the classroom, he said.

"The biology community will tell you that understanding genetics and evolution is fundamental to being a literate biologist, and you can say, to a literate citizen, too," he said. "But if we don't teach that stuff, and teach it properly, where are we going to be? This is an economic competitiveness issue, this is an innovation issue."

Good, evil and Darwin
If the movie were merely about academic policy, there wouldn't be much of a movie to "Expelled." The juicy stuff has to do with the Nazi concentration camps, Soviet crackdowns  and ranting atheists. Stein doesn't go so far as to say every evolutionary biologist is a Nazi, but the movie does say that Charles Darwin served as the inspiration for Adolf Hitler's Holocaust.

And in fact, a perverted view of Darwinism was one of the ingredients that produced the horrors of Nazism. But Hitler used plenty of other ingredients as well, including German victimhood, a perverted view of Christianity and plain old anti-Semitism. Books and movies could just as well be made (and in fact have been made) blaming Christianity for everything that ails the world.

"Expelled" portrays evolutionary theory as the first step down a road that leads to atheism, eugenics and Nazi-style human experimentation. That line of argument, borrowed from John West's book "Darwin Day in America," smacks of the same sort of distortion that has blamed Albert Einstein for promoting moral relativism along with relativity.

The movie also prods several interviewees who happen to be outspoken atheists - such as biologists Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers as well as philosopher Daniel Dennett - to indulge in some metaphysical speculation that goes beyond the biology (thus demonizing them for the movie's core audience). The perspective from respected scientists who happen to be religious (for example, Francis Collins and Ken Miller) is largely lacking, although physicist-turned-priest John Polkinghorne is a welcome exception to the rule.

The result is that the film casts the debate largely along the false battle lines of science vs. religion. That rhetorical approach ironically builds up the very wall Ben Stein says he wants to tear down.

What about the science?
Surprisingly for a movie focusing on science's role in society, "Expelled" breaks no new ground on the scientific front. Some of the arguments long advanced by intelligent design's proponents are hinted at - for example, the claim that no new genetic information can possibly be created, even though the insertion, duplication and beneficial revision of genetic code are well-established.

The most common theme is that the workings of biology are just so complex that it would be impossible for life to develop through "random and undirected" processes - even though genetics and computer simulations are telling a different story (and even though the workings of evolution are not always random or undirected).

"The doubters are writing the same stuff, as though not just evolutionary science has stood still, but as though genetics and geology have stood still," Carroll said. "I guess they have to pray that some level of uncertainty is still there, but the ballgame's over."

The branch of genetics that Carroll specializes in - evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo for short - has revolutionized the field over the past decade. Scientists are analyzing and comparing the genetic codes for hundreds of species, and the results are shedding new light on long-running posers such as the evolution of the eye or the cousinly relationship between elephants and manatees.

Despite what "Expelled" claims, modern-day biologists aren't afraid of pointing out where Darwin went wrong. As examples, Carroll cited the current understanding of genetic drift - a type of change over time that is not driven by natural selection - and the discovery that different species of bacteria are swapping genes all the time.

"The transference of genes between species is not Darwinian evolution," he said. "It's evolution. Not Darwinian evolution. ... Species aren't supposed to exchange genetic material, but bacteria do it."

Carroll said these new twists in evolutionary biology are not just matters of academic interest, but instead should be of concern even to the filmmakers behind "Expelled."

"In nature, viruses that infect bacteria are carting around cargoes full of genes and moving them around the whole microbial world," he said. "We better know about that - or we're gonna die. It's in our self-interest to understand this phenomenon. And that makes these people ... the kindest thing I could say is, it's irresponsible."

Carroll and many of his colleagues hope that the film will just fizzle out. "Do I think 'Expelled' matters? No, because it won't last," Carroll told me.

But like any other case of swiftboating, "Expelled" needs to be answered. Chris Mooney, the blogger who literally wrote the book on "The Republican War on Science," has been calling on readers to spread the word about "Flock of Dodos" as a DVD antidote. I'll put in a prescription for Carroll's latest book, "The Making of the Fittest," which serves as this month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used-Book Club. (Don't miss Chapter 9.)

There will likely be other antidotes available at bookstores and on TV next year, to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of "The Origin of Species."

In the meantime, please feel free to weigh in on "Expelled" and evolution in the comment section below. Intelligence is allowed, and even encouraged.

Corrections at 10:25 p.m. ET April 29: I originally attributed a quote used in the movie ("The battle over evolution is only one skirmish in a much larger war") to Ben Stein rather than to Richard Dawkins. Also, Daniel Dennett is a philosopher and a cognitive scientist (and an atheist), but not a biologist. I apologize for the errors, which have been fixed above, and thank my intelligent readers for pointing them out.

Update for 10:20 p.m. ET May 1: I've revised the definition of intelligent design to be more in tune with what intelligent design's proponents say (as noted waay down in the comment section). I've also corrected my transcription of Carroll's quotes to better reflect the flow of the conversation.