During this past week a new war was declared that went unnoticed by most Americans. And it was announced in the most unlikely venue of movie theatres all across America, where previews of the new movie "Expelled", starring Ben Stein, were being screened. I attended one such showing in Seattle on March 24th, and while I was struck with the Fahrenheit 9/11-like approach it takes, I was more smitten with the impact this movie is going to have on American culture in coming days and years. Mark my words, the debate between evolution and Darwin skeptics is about to take a seminal turn with the release of this film, which I consider to be a significant tipping point with far reaching and long lasting effects.
Years ago Rosa Parks got on a bus and sat where she shouldn't have - a form of protest letting the world know she'd had enough. Ben Stein, about as unlikely a candidate as Rosa for similar notoriety, has now done much the same thing, only this time the issue isn't about racial prejudice, it's about prejudice against those who question any aspect of evolution. And this time the vehicle for the protest isn't a bus, but a documentary.
In this must-see documentary, Stein traverses across America and even to Paris and Germany in search of experts who can provide him with rational answers to questions about why it is that Darwin skeptics are treated so poorly and why dissent over evolution is such a no-no. He ends up taking a contemplative review of the Holocaust and then sits down one-on-one with Richard Dawkins (one of the most outspoken atheists of our day) in what starts out as a needling of Dawkin's views on God but ends up with Dawkins making some very embarassing admissions about Intelligent Design, which leaves viewers thinking - wait a minute - Dawkins is not arguing against the notion of Intelligent Design, just one particular brand of ID. You'll need to see the movie to learn which brand he opposes. The movie injects lots of humor via appropriately placed 1950's era black and white film snippets, and many belly laughs are to be had. And, during Ben Stein's sobering reflections on the Holocaust, you'll be able to hear a pin drop anywhere in the theatre.
While most Americans are likely aware of some level of conflict between evolution and creation in our culture, most have not been informed about the degree of ubiquitous and absolute seething hatred and intolerance that has been growing ever more hostile in academia and the halls of science against Darwin skeptics for the past several decades. Academia largely regards Darwin doubters as the intellectual lepers of our day, and have exacted untold misery as their nefarious acts of discrimination, persecution, and good-old-boy politiking have been allowed to run rampant against students, scientists, and professors. I'm not kidding when I say it's been a career bloodbath, and is perhaps THE reason why there seem to be so few people in science and academia today who openly challenge any aspect of evolution. For those who have managed to survive with their careers intact, rather than risk professional suicide, many prefer to stay in the closet.
Expelled will bring all of this home to viewers, and will provide them with a glimpse of what has been going on by presenting case studies of a handful of victims of this discrimination. What Expelled does not explore is the agonizing after-effects created by the treatment extended to many other victims. Not mentioned in this movie is the fact that some marriages and families have collapsed under the strain, and some have been driven to such depths of desperation and depression as a result of how they were treated that they committed suicide. And though Expelled hints at the likelihood that other victims have been discriminated against, viewers might wonder if the movie exaggerates the idea of widespread discrimination and persecution. Well, as someone who has studied and investigated this issue for over a quarter century, allow me to add my two cents: Expelled reveals just the tip of the iceburg. There have been literally thousands of instances where qualified students have been denied degrees, scientists and science writers have been fired, and professors have been denied tenure (or were moved to their University basement if they already had tenure) only because they questioned some aspect of evolution.
Even our government, which is sworn to uphold the rights and freedoms of Americans, has largely stood idly by to what can only be described as one of the most blatant forms of discrimination currently being practiced openly in America today. And now the release of "Expelled" not only opens a window on the wall of demagaugery but has already become a very hot topic even before it's release on April 18th.
Blogster and University of Minnesota Associate professor PZ Myers, one of the more strident opponents of Darwin skeptics and featured in the film, found himself on the receiving end of a mild form of the same treatment he likes to dish out to Darwin Doubters - he was expelled from the screening of "Expelled". Though claiming that he found such treatment to be laughable, his brand of hatred for those who question evolution is no laughing matter. And believe me when I say that when American moviegoers view Expelled next month, they won't be laughing either as they leave theatres.
This is the kind of rhetoric Myers throws out on his web site:
"The only appropriate response should involve some form of righteous fury, much butt-kicking, and the public firing of some teachers, many school board members, and vast numbers of sleazy, far-right politicians â€¦ I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It's time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots."
(note - this is a blended quote from two different Myers sources)
Myers, ever on alert for others who share his appetite for roasting evolution skeptics, is quick to post comments on his blog from others who are like-minded. Take this one for example:
"I'd like to suggest a very simple strategy for American liberals: Get mean. Stop policing the language and start using it to hurt our enemies. American liberals are so busy purging their speech of any words that might offend anyone that they have no notion of using language to cause some salutary pain." http://www.alternet.org/mediaculture/80507/?page=1
This is an open call to encourage even more hate speech directed at Darwin Doubters of all stripes.
But Expelled reveals that this is much more than simply a war of words: real people are losing real careers right and left, all because they dare to dissent against one or more aspects of evolution.
And while PZ Myers critcizes Expelled, saying
"Unlike watching a movie, being awarded a professorship should require some substantial understanding of a discipline"
I would counter by suggesting that Expelled pulls back the hypocrisy of such misleading statments by revealing that "understanding of a discipline" is NOT the issue here. Many people with plenty of understanding and competence have been egregiously eviscerated from their careers simply because they dared to dissent. Make no mistake, this debate is not just a polite dialogue about a conceptual disagreement - its all about how to rid the planet of those lying, stupid, ignorant fundies. As Expelled gets viewed nationwide, I predict both sides will see this event as a defining moment of truth: can we really afford to allow our freedoms to get thrashed in the name of militant and arrogant demagoguery? If there was ever any need of evidence for the depth of hatred harbored against people who disagree about evolution, the PZ Myers blog has plenty to offer. The hate speech alone ought to give any rational American pause. We don't tolerate such talk against minorities on the basis of race or sexual preference, so I have to ask why we would tolerate it against Darwin skeptics? The answer is (according to those of Myers' ilk) because they are perceived to be "religious kooks", and that is considered to be reason enough for them.
Here's a wake up call to my readers: If you think Myers' comments (and those from others who respond to his blog) are directed only against "fundamentalist" creation science advocates, think again. The intolerance extends way beyond that small group to include evolutionists who have doubts (because they give comfort to the "enemy") -- that means literally anyone who is skeptical about any aspect of neo-Darwinian logic is a target of Myers-like inquisitioning. Who are the likely targets? If you are a teacher, and you want to share periodical articles from widely respected and refereed science journals -- articles that question some aspect of evolution -- you are a target. If you are a student, you will be asked "Do you fully believe in evolution?" If you say no - then kiss your GPA goodbye, look for a special love note in your school transcript, brace yourself for hard questions during your oral exams (designed to deny you a degree), and forget about that summer science project you were hoping to participate in. Do you question evolutionary suppositions based on non-religious reasons (as is true of many evolutionists and ID advocates?) Too bad - you too are a target, and worse, your doubts will be earmarked as "religious" no matter how much you might protest.
As Expelled makes clear, declaring yourself a Darwin skeptic in today's culture is the absolute kiss of death for those seeking a career in many university and scientific venues in America today.
But, as bad as all that is, why else is Expelled so important? Two big reasons.
First, for the simple reason that it marks a turning point. No longer will Americans be able to say they are unaware of what is going on with regard to this issue - this movie will forever be remembered as the vehicle that brought this issue out of the background and into the mainstream. And second, because at the end of this movie, Ben Stein issues a call to action. This is where the value factor of this movie hits home. The movie is not just an expose. It ends with Stein issuing a challenge to viewers: now that you've seen this, what are you going to do about it?
Incredibly, those who oppose Darwin skeptics are already coming out of the woodwork with their own call to action because of this movie using flaming rhetoric much like that of PZ Myers. And we have "Expelled" to thank for this, because it has taken an issue that has been simmering in the background and exposed it publicly for what it is. Critics like Myers relish the thought of tearing this movie apart:
I will go see this movie, and I will cheer loudly at my 30 seconds or whatever on the screen, and I will certainly disembowel its arguments here and in any print venue that wants me. That's going to be fun.
However, Myers and Co. fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of a central claim in this movie - that freedom of expression is under attack. No amount of "disembowelment" will get around that point, in fact, it simply underscores it.
That's why I say that for Darwin skeptics of all stripes, Expelled is our vehicle, and Ben Stein is our Rosa Parks.
That's not meant to be quaint, PZ - its meant to let you know that you're going to find yourself kicked out of more than a movie screening down the road.
Oh, and I should also mention that a new book will be coming out soon called "Slaughter of the Dissidents". That book will add even more insight to this issue as it chronicles the despicable and often heart-wrenching forms of intimidatiion, bigotry, prejudice, attacks on our freedoms, and outright discrimination that has been an ongoing blight in academia for years. It will pick up where Expelled left off. Stay tuned to this blog for more info on this in coming weeks.
Seattle area writer and Darwin skeptic Kevin Wirth is the publisher and editor of the new book "Slaughter of the Dissidents: The Shocking Truth About Killing the Careers of Darwin Doubters" by Dr. Jerry Bergman. He has investigated and researched issues related to the persecution of Darwin Doubters since 1982.
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