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?
#ad#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.
Examples can be multiplied. The witty and mild-mannered federal Judge Jones, who presided over the 2005 Kitzmiller trial in Dover, Pa., felt moved to note that: “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.” The response of the Discovery Institute was to launch sneering, slanderous attacks on the professionalism and competence of Judge Jones (a church-going conservative Republican appointed by President George W. Bush).
#ad#So it goes with the stalwart defenders of truth and morality over at the Discovery Institute. So it goes with Ben Stein, apparently, since he has signed up with these mountebanks, for reasons that remain mysterious to me. The misrepresentations in Expelled are far too numerous for me to list here, and the task is unnecessary since others have done it. The aforementioned Expelled Exposed website is a great resource. Biologist P. Z. Myers, in a less organized way, has been pointing up the errors and deceptions in Expelled since the wretched thing hove into view. (Here he links to a whole stack of reviews, including a couple of positives.) Other science-literate bloggers have been weighing in, often very angrily. One of my favorite comments came from “Pixy Misa” (Andrew Mazels) who correctly called Ben Stein’s accusing Darwin of responsibility for the Holocaust “a blood libel on science.”
I would actually go further than that, to something like “a blood libel on Western Civilization.” One of the most-quoted remarks by one conservative writer about another was Evelyn Waugh’s on Kipling. It bears quoting again.
[Kipling] was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.
Western civilization has many glories. There are the legacies of the ancients, in literature and thought. There are the late-medieval cathedrals, those huge miracles of stone, statuary, and spiritual devotion. There is painting, music, the orderly cityscapes of Renaissance Italy, the peaceful, self-governed townships of old New England and the Frontier, the steel marvels of the early industrial revolution, our parliaments and courts of law, our great universities with their spirit of restless inquiry.
And there is science, perhaps the greatest of all our achievements, because nowhere else on earth did it appear. China, India, the Muslim world, all had fine cities and systems of law, architecture and painting, poetry and prose, religion and philosophy. None of them ever accomplished what began in northwest Europe in the later 17th century, though: a scientific revolution. Thoughtful men and women came together in learned societies to compare notes on their observations of the natural world, to test their ideas in experiments, and in reasoned argument against the ideas of others, and to publish their results in learned journals. A body of common knowledge gradually accumulated. Patterns were observed, laws discerned and stated.
If I write with more feeling than usual here it is because I have just shipped off a review to an editor (for another magazine) of Gino Segrè’s new book about the history of quantum mechanics. It’s a good, if not very remarkable, book giving pen-portraits of the great players in physics during the 1920s and 1930s, and of their meetings and disagreements. Segrè, a particle physicist himself, who has been around for a while, knew some of these people personally, and of course heard many anecdotes from their intellectual descendants. It’s a “warm” book, full of feeling for the scientists and their magnificent enterprise, struggling with some of the most difficult problems the human intellect has ever confronted, striving with all their powers to understand what can barely be understood.
Gino Segrè’s book — and, of course, hundreds like it (I have, ahem, dabbled myself) brings to us a feeling for what the scientific endeavor is like, and how painfully its triumphs are won, with what sweat and tears. Our scientific theories are the crowning adornments of our civilization, towering monuments of intellectual effort, built from untold millions of hours of observation, measurement, classification, discussion, and deliberation. This is quite apart from their wonderful utility — from the light, heat, and mobility they give us, the drugs and the gadgets and the media. (A “thank you” wouldn’t go amiss.) Simply as intellectual constructs, our well-established scientific theories are awe-inspiring.
And now here is Ben Stein, sneering and scoffing at Darwin, a man who spent decades observing and pondering the natural world — that world Stein glimpses through the window of his automobile now and then, when he’s not chattering into his cell phone. Stein claims to be doing it in the name of an alternative theory of the origin of species: Yet no such alternative theory has ever been presented, nor is one presented in the movie, nor even hinted at. There is only a gaggle of fools and fraudsters, gaping and pointing like Apaches on seeing their first locomotive: “Look! It moves! There must be a ghost inside making it move!”
The “intelligent design” hoax is not merely non-science, nor even merely anti-science; it is anti-civilization. It is an appeal to barbarism, to the sensibilities of those Apaches, made by people who lack the imaginative power to know the horrors of true barbarism. (A thing that cannot be said of Darwin. See Chapter X of Voyage of the Beagle.)
And yes: When our greatest achievements are blamed for our greatest moral failures, that is a blood libel against Western civilization itself. What next, Ben? Johann Sebastian Bach ran a slave-trading enterprise on the side? Kepler started the Thirty Years War? Tolstoy instigated the Kishinev Pogrom? Dante was a bag-man for the Golden Horde? Why not go smash a few windows in Chartres Cathedral, Ben? Break wind in a chamber-music concert? Splash some red paint around in the Uffizi? Which other of our civilizational achievements would you like to sneer at? What else from what Waugh called “the work of centuries” would you like to “abandon … for sentimental qualms”? You call yourself a conservative? Feugh!
For shame, Ben Stein, for shame. Stand up for your civilization, man! and all its glories. The barbarians are at the gate, as they always have been. Come man the defenses with us, leaving the liars and fools to their lies and folly.