In one sense, it is very easy for Expelled to succeed. The standard Darwinist claim is still what it has been for the last one hundred years: That no one doubts evolution but the ignorant, the vicious, and the religiously fanatic. Several of the leading lights in Darwinism appear in the film and state this straightforwardly. But anyone who has seen or listened to Bill Dembski, David Berlinski, Richard Sternberg, Stephen Meyer or Jonathan Wells, among others, will have a hard time dismissing them as ignorant or religiously fanatic. So really all Ben Stein has to do is state the credentials of these gentlemen and put them on the screen, when the basic Darwinist line is shown to be the bluff that it really is.
In another sense, it is very difficult for Expelled to succeed. Stein wants to do more than just convince you that the Darwinist establishment is not being fair to Intelligent Design advocates; he wants to convince you that our basic freedoms are at stake. He references the Declaration of Independence and shows repeated footage of Khrushchev and other Communists. The film begins and ends with shots of the Berlin Wall. The implication is that we need to pay attention to the Darwinist/ID debate because our civil rights are ultimately at stake. First they came for your copy of The Design Inference, then they came for you. This is just way over the top. It’s really an echo of a similar hysteria on the Darwinist side: If we permit any criticism of evolution in science classes, then the scientific establishment will collapse and we will be ruled by a theocracy next year. Both scenarios defy common sense.
Let’s start with the Darwinist one. It turns out that the Haeckel embryo drawings that appeared in biology textbooks for most of the twentieth century (I have memories of them from the late 1970’s), and were regularly cited as primary evidence for evolution, were fakes. But, for some reason, to inform high school biology students of this is to somehow introduce religion into the classroom and put us onto the road to theocracy. How identifying a fake has anything to do with religion is something I will never understand. But this is the sort of thing Darwinists are adamant never be mentioned in school, and there are many other similar cases.
As far as ID goes: Yes, the Darwinist establishment systematically squelches any criticism of the reigning Darwinian paradigm. Yes, professors have been denied tenure for even raising questions about Darwinism. And, yes, Darwinism is about a lot more than just biology, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are more than happy to tell you. Stein makes it sound like the Berlin Wall around evolution is a recent and peculiar phenomenon that signals a general attack on freedom. But it isn’t recent and isn’t peculiar. Doubts about evolution have been banned from polite conversation for a long, long time. He mentions Margaret Sanger and eugenics, but this was an American phenomenon from the early twentieth century. All the “best people” were progressively pro-eugenics at the time. Yet somehow our basic freedoms have survived. And they will survive the travails of Bill Dembski and Richard Sternberg as well. Nor is the Berlin Wall peculiar to the ID/Darwin controversy. Try getting hired at any major university if you publicly espouse conservative political opinions.
It’s a little anti-climactic when Stein puts Khrushchev and Stalin on the screen, then brings on his cases of people who have been persecuted for questioning Darwinism. What was the fate of these rebels? Mostly, they were denied tenure or denied grant money. Sorry, but that isn’t exactly the same as being sent to a labor camp. It’s not even a denial of civil rights. If it were, they could sue. But no one has a right to tenure. Private universities are private and they can hire and give tenure to whomever they wish, for whatever reasons they wish. If they wish to deny tenure to anyone who questions Darwinism, so be it. If any rights are at stake, it is the right of universities to hire whom they wish (which is really the right of free assembly.) Just as Catholic universities can hire professors because they are Catholic (something I wish they would do more of), so any private university can hire a professor because he is a Darwinist.
No one’s free speech rights are at stake here, despite Stein’s citations of the Declaration of Independence. Even the hardest of hardcore Darwinists don’t think ID advocates should be censored and they agree that anyone should be free to read their published works. Richard Dawkins, I believe, says this explicitly in the film. Darwinists have a lock on mainstream universities, and they use that lock to systematically exclude any deep criticism of Darwinism on campus. So what? The story is dramatic enough with Stein trying to promote it into an existential crisis with respect to freedom.
I’ve read some of the work of IDers (Bill Dembski, David Berlinski, Jonathan Wells, and Phil Johnson) and their criticisms of evolution are trenchant, penetrating and exquisitely non-religious. But the Darwinists have a point when they say that IDers need to move beyond criticism of evolution and present a positive research project of their own. This is what the conservative political movement did in the face of the liberal takeover of universities. They set up their own independent think-tanks that did end-runs around the universities, developing and publishing a positive conservative political philosophy that did more than just criticize liberalism; they presented a political philosophy of their own that triumphed in Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. They made the liberal lock on the universities irrelevant. Nothing is preventing the ID movement from performing a similar feat. But, in my opinion, the ID movement has not been particularly successful in moving beyond criticism of evolution to developing a positive research project of their own.