What on earth has happened to Ben Stein? He and I go back a long way. No, I’ve never met the guy. Back in the 1970s, though, when The American Spectator was in its broadsheet format, I would always turn first to Ben Stein’s diary, which appeared in every issue. He was funny and clever and worldly in a way I liked a lot. The very few times I’ve caught him on-screen, he seems to have had a nice line in deadpan self-deprecation, also something I like. Though I’ve never met him, I know people who know him, and they all speak well of him. Larry Kudlow, whose opinion is worth a dozen average opinions on any topic, thinks the world of Ben.
So what’s going on here with this stupid Expelled movie? No, I haven’t seen the dang thing. I’ve been reading about it steadily for weeks now though, both pro (including the pieces by David Klinghoffer and Dave Berg on National Review Online) and con, and I can’t believe it would yield up many surprises on an actual viewing. It’s pretty plain that the thing is creationist porn, propaganda for ignorance and obscurantism. How could a guy like this do a thing like that?
I turned over some possibilities, but decisively rejected them all. The first thing that came to mind was Saudi money. Half of the evils and absurdities in our society seem to have a Saudi prince behind them somewhere, and the Wahhabists are, like all fundamentalist Muslims, committed creationists. This doesn’t hold water, though. For one thing, Stein is Jewish. For another, he is rich, and doesn’t need the money. And for another, the stills and clips I have seen are from a low-budget production. Saudi financing would surely at least have come up with some decent computer graphics. No, Ben Stein is no crook. He must then be foolish; and that’s sad, because I now think less of a guy I once admired, and whom my friends admire. Life, it’s just one darn bubble bursting after another.
To return to the matter of computer graphics for a moment, it seems that the producers of Expelled, rather than go to the trouble and expense of making their own, may have just stolen some. (The creationists have posted a defense here. There will probably be a lawsuit under way, which I shall report back on. Oh, and as I write this, I see a Reuters report that our defenders of faith and morality may have stolen some music too. How many more shoes will drop, I wonder?) It is at any rate clear that they engaged in much deception with the subjects they interviewed for the movie, many of whom are complaining loudly. This, together with much, much else about the movie, can be read about on the Expelled Exposed website put up by the National Center for Science Education, which I urge all interested readers to explore.
These dishonesties do not surprise me. When talking about the creationists to people who don’t follow these controversies closely, I have found that the hardest thing to get across is the shifty, low-cunning aspect of the whole modern creationist enterprise. Individual creationists can be very nice people, though they get nicer the further away they are from the full-time core enterprise of modern creationism at the Discovery Institute. The enterprise as a whole, however, really doesn’t smell good. You notice this when you’re around it a lot. I shall give some more examples in a minute; but what accounts for all this dishonesty and misrepresentation?
My own theory is that the creationists have been morally corrupted by the constant effort of pretending not to be what they are. What they are, as is amply documented, is a pressure group for religious teaching in public schools.
Now, there is nothing wrong with that. We are a nation of pressure groups, and one more would hardly notice. However, since parents who want their kids religiously educated already have plenty of private and parochial schools to choose from (half the kids on my street have attended parochial school), as well as the option of home schooling, now very well organized and supported (and heartily approved of by me: I just wish I knew how they find the time); and since current jurisprudence, how correctly I am not competent to say, regards tax-funded religious instruction as unconstitutional; creationists are a pressure group without hope, if they campaign openly for the thing they want.
Understanding this, the creationists took the morally fatal decision to campaign clandestinely. They overhauled creationism as “intelligent design,” roped in a handful of eccentric non-Christian cranks keen for a well-funded vehicle to help them push their own flat-earth theories, and set about presenting themselves to the public as “alternative science” engaged in a “controversy” with a closed-minded, reactionary “science establishment” fearful of new ideas. (Ignoring the fact that without a constant supply of new ideas, there would be nothing for scientists to do.) Nothing to do with religion at all!
I think this willful act of deception has corrupted creationism irredeemably. The old Biblical creationists were, in my opinion, wrong-headed, but they were mostly honest people. The “intelligent design” crowd lean more in the other direction. Hence the dishonesty and sheer nastiness, even down to plain bad manners, that you keep encountering in ID circles. It’s by no means all of them, but it’s enough to corrupt and poison the creationist enterprise, which might otherwise have added something worthwhile to our national life, if only by way of entertainment value.
This dishonesty showed up very soon after the creationists decided to don the mask of “alternative science” in the 1990s. A key episode was the Kunming conference of June 1999. In very brief — you can read the full story in Forrest and Gross’s Creationism’s Trojan Horse (“A bad book, a very bad book,” shuddered the Discovery Institute’s Bruce Chapman when he saw it on my desk, like a vampire spotting a clove of garlic), pp.56-66 — there is a very interesting bed of extremely old fossils near Kunming, in southern China. Paul Chien, a little-known creationist of Chinese ancestry from San Francisco, acted as a front man for the Discovery Institute to organize a conference in Kunming, bringing in professional paleontologists from China and abroad, but without telling them of the Discovery Institute’s involvement. The aim was “to produce and then to promote a book containing the conference papers of [creationist] members immediately juxtaposed to those written by respected scientists in the relevant fields.” (Forrest & Gross, their italics.) When the real paleontologists found out what was going on, and how they had been brought across China, or around the world, they were not pleased. Embarrassing scenes followed. No book ever appeared.