Review: Ben Stein documentary, “Expelled”

[The following essay was written in fulfillment of an assignment for a class I took at Reasons Institute in the spring of 2020.]

Critics of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution are systematically denied a fair opportunity to present their views in and through established science organizations.  That is the major premise of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a 2008 Ben Stein documentary.

Through a series of interviews with scientists on both sides of the creation-evolution divide, Stein establishes that Intelligent Design theory (ID) is suppressed in the science establishment.  The scientists whom Stein interviews are well-credentialed and articulate, but they are almost to a person taken from one or the other of two classes, namely, Discovery Institute fellows, or the victims of anti-ID persecution.

Stein’s authorities claim that in private, leading scientists will sometimes acknowledge concerns about the truth of neo-Darwinism.  There are numerous published writings which show that such admissions do not occur in private only, and it would have advanced Stein’s argument considerably had he mentioned them – or better yet, interviewed their authors.

It also would have been useful had Stein spent more time explaining ID and demonstrating its religious neutrality.  This is especially the case in view of the justification which evolutionists typically offer for suppressing ID, namely, that it is just religion in disguise.

Perhaps the most serious weakness of the film, however, is the extravagantly bad light in which mainstream science is presented.  It is true that ID advocates are censored and persecuted by the science establishment, and the western public needs to be aware of it.  It is also true that Darwinism was a significant contributor to Nazism abroad and euthanasia in this country, and that it helps to sustain the right-to-die and abortion movements.  These are all important circumstances.  They are even marginally relevant, but Stein makes far too much of them.

The premise that evolution is necessarily progressive and that it is driven forward by a process whereby only the fittest organisms survive to propagate – the “survival of the fittest” – has indeed led to a phenomenon known as “social Darwinism,” according to which the extermination of certain classes of humans by other classes of humans is regarded as a good thing.  But Stein does not here so much critique social Darwinism as use it to damn his opponents by association, which is a type of ad hominem fallacy.  Darwinism isn’t false merely because it has effects which most people deplore.  It is possible, moreover, to believe in Darwinism while energetically opposing the death cult in all its forms, and some leading scientists do exactly that.

What is probably worst of all is that almost all of this propaganda is not conveyed in the script, but as part of the visual accompaniment of the relatively innocuous verbal material.  Such a device reaches the audience at an emotional, not a rational level. 

Stein is justifiably upset about the establishment’s refusal to permit ID theory a fair hearing; but I think he has missed an opportunity to make a more winsome, and perhaps a more effective appeal.  Darwinists viewing this film are likely to see Stein’s choice of means of persuasion as outrageous and, as always, to dismiss his arguments summarily – if they finish watching at all.  So much for winning over one’s opponents!

I doubt that I would recommend this film to anyone.  It contains a lot of important information about discrimination against perfectly competent scientists who happen to recognize the scientific status of ID, and I would like to see that information disseminated as widely as possible.  But I am afraid that the less an individual knows about that already, the more likely he or she is to be influenced by the propagandistic features of the film, and to become incensed at mainstream scientists.  And that can only make the work of the more circumspect more difficult.

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