Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Expelled, the new pro-intelligent design documentary directed by Nathan Frankowski and starring Ben Stein, first gained notoriety when one of the film’s subjects, biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers, was, ahem, expelled from a Minneapolis test screening a few weeks ago, while fellow interviewee, Richard Dawkins, was allowed through to watch the film. Stein, a comedian, game show host, and former Nixon speech writer, imports his droll style to the debate over intelligent design in perhaps the most heavy-handed and misleading documentary I’ve seen in some time. I’ll admit that I went into the film already skeptical of Stein’s arguments, but nothing prepared me for some of the unbelievable logical leaps taken by the film. Still, because Expelled (probably wisely) wasn’t screened for critics and because the producers apparently have a distribution strategy of releasing the film first to those of us in flyover country, rather than the urban “elite,” I felt obligated to check it out.

The film begins by focusing on a small group of scientists who were denied tenure at various universities (or endured some other form of public criticism) for expressing a belief in some of the tenets of intelligent design. Ominous music suggests a conspiracy among the scientific community to hold these decent, hard-working, and potentially revolutionary scholars back. However, as the Expelled Exposed website reveals, there is much more to the stories of this group of “expelled” scholars. I don’t want to go into specifics with each scholar, but Stein’s film desperately labors to make these scholars look like rock-and-roll rebels against a scientific establishment that is so orthodox and so stifling that there is absolutely no room for dissent or even debate about any issue that might even be remotely controversial. Of course, it can only do this by ignoring the specific content that is controversial–in this case, what Fox News critic Roger Friedman refers to as the “junk science” of intelligent design. In fact, the film in places tries–absurdly–to position these scientists as latter day Einsteins, ready to introduce the next great paradigm shift in scientific thought. More crucially, the “scientific elite” are seen as stifling free speech, an absurd assertion when science scholarship can by no means be reduced to or equated with the state.

The critique of the theory of evolution would be bad enough on its own, but Expelled is also one of the most transparently manipulative films I’ve ever seen, with Frankowski comparing an utterly homogeneous scientific community to the Communists and the Nazis at various points and referring to scientists who study evolution as “Darwinists,” as if Darwin is just another ideology on par with these political philosophies. One of the film’s structuring elements involves black-and-white footage of the building of the Berlin Wall alongside color stock footage of the major Washington, DC, landmarks in order to position intelligent designers on par with the founding fathers, Lincoln, and conservative hero Ronald Reagan, virtual freedom fighters on the front in the battle against tyranny and totalitarianism. Darwinism becomes or at least logically leads to eugenics, the film seems to argue, and Stein drops a couple of ominous passages from Darwin’s research to reinforce this point, as if all scientists accept Darwin’s theories to the letter. In fact, Expelled crosses a line that few films do in establishing its analogy between evolutionary theory and Hitler’s theories of eugenics by actually entering the concentration camps and showing the ovens where hundreds, if not thousands, of victims were cremated. Such a manipulative use of the Holocaust dead to score relatively cheap political points should not be tolerated.

Expelled culminates with a montage cutting between shots of intelligent design scientists discussing their ideas and footage–now in color–of German citizens taking chisel and hammer in hand to tear down the Berlin Wall, with footage of Reagan’s famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech providing a vocal counterpoint, making transparent–as if we’d missed it before–the argument that intelligent designers are simply free speech radicals who have been oppressed by the scientific community, the state, whatever.

But one thing that jarred me about this final montage was the use of the Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done” to reinforce the image of the ID crowd as rock-and-roll rebels. I found myself asking: How could the Killers license their music to such a crap documentary? I even considered deleting their CD from my iPod. It turns out that apparently the filmmakers used the Killers’ song and John Lennon’s “Imagine” without getting permission.** I certainly support the idea of Fair Use when it comes to academic uses of intellectual property, and the use of “Imagine,” as absurd as it might have been, bordered on “fair use” (the film sought to equate Lennon’s “imagine…no religion” line with, uh, something like meaninglessness, a lack of purpose, a reason not to kill people), but the use of the Killers was simply to support the film’s emotional climax and plays as if the band endorses Stein’s politics. While Brian Flemming correctly points out that Yoko could likely sue for more money than the film earned at the box office, it’s tempting to see their use of these songs as intentionally provocative, yet another haphazard attempt at ginning up a controversy by pitting underdog filmmakers against yet another institutional power–Yoko’s lawyers. Thus far, the attempts to sell the controversy don’t seem to be working that well. The film finished eighth at the box office this week, despite conservative claims that the film was finding a relatively wide audience, and there were, in fact, a grand total of three people at my late night screening in Fayetteville.*

I’m pretty convinced that Expelled will disappear quickly enough, and in writing this review, I’m torn between advising audiences not to see it–I likely would have skipped it if not for the free movie passes–and following MaryAnn Johanson’s suggestion and recommending that people see it in order to understand the intelligent design arguments. My guess is that the viewpoints expressed here may even be hysterical and extreme for some IDers. It might also be worth watching as an example of some of the sloppiest filmmaking to hit the big screen in a long time. More than anything, it’s rather distressing that with all of the talented documentary filmmakers out there working, this is what gets distributed to the local multiplex. At least nobody here in Fayetteville seemed to be buying it.

* To be fair, Expelled is actually a relative box office success for a documentary, as A.J. points out, grossing over $3 million in its opening weekend, a number that would place it within striking distance of the all-time top 25 for top grossing documentaries. It’s still not a good documentary, though.

** It turns out that the Killers apparently did give permission for the song to be used but under false pretenses. When they saw how the song was used, they sought to have it removed, but it was too late.


  1. Frank Said,

    April 20, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    I enjoyed the documentary and it is clear that there really are two distinct world views and that Stein is correct – the “scientific” point of view has totally bought into the atheist, evolutionist position. The result is a culture of death that has lost the integrity of scientific inquiry and embraced the kool-aid of abortion and eugenics. Cheers to Stein for having the courage to call them on it!

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 20, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    The suggestion that people who accept evolutionary theory support eugenics is absurd. Reducing the political and philosophical beliefs of millions of people to that of one person is tantamount to suggesting that the Crusades represent the logic of all Christians, to name but one example.

  3. McChris Said,

    April 20, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    The most interesting facet about this movie might be how it exists as a business proposition. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the movie opened in smaller markets and your late-night screening was poorly attended. My guess is that the producers are expecting a lot of churches to encourage parishoners to watch the movie and organizing group trips to screenings. I doubt a lot of youth-groups are at the theater at 9:30; a lot of the revenue would come from matinée and early-evening screenings. This is pretty elitist, but I doubt a lot of evangelical youth watch documentaries, so the producers could cut corners on quality or logos as long as they hit the right notes. Anyway, whatever, it seems like the story is in how the picture is marketed, rather than the content of the movie.

  4. Chuck Said,

    April 20, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

    In fact, I attended a midnight screening on a Saturday night, so my comments are, admittedly, a little unfair. Groups who were planning to go to church the next day were likely in bed, and I’d imagine that local church groups may have attended earlier screenings. I think you’re right that the film is probably more interesting in terms of how it was marketed, and I’ll be curious to see if Expelled has legs, much like the Darwin fish on the back of many people’s cars (I wouldn’t be surprised if the film played well on Sunday evening, after the evening church services).

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that it played in smaller markets (as a comparison, we didn’t get the Spurlcok doc in Fayetteville this week). In terms of evangelical youth watching documentaries, at least based on my experiences, it probably depends on the documentary. The “quality” of the film may not have been *that* bad, but the guilt by association techniques–associating evolutionary theory with Hitler, Communism, etc–were the bigger issue

  5. Shahar Ozeri Said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 9:39 am

    Nice review. I have yet to get a chance to see the documentary, but have been following the reviews and press about it fairly closely. In fact, I’m thinking of taking my Logic and Critical Thinking classes to a screening for a final project in analyzing arguments, language and identifying fallacies. Anyways, from all accounts the science is largely absent from the film. I would like to see the evolutionary biologists and scientists explain to Stein why it is that the so-called irreducible complexity isn’t going to put the nails in the Darwinian coffin, or, discuss microevolution. Or, god forbid, discuss standards for scientific reasoning. What I find most atrocious is–as you rightly point out–the manipulative connection between “Darwinism” and Nazism, as if without Darwin the Holocaust would never have happened. While it’s certainly true that Hitler himself adopted selectively some ideas from Darwin, the idea that there is a strictly causal relationship between the two is at best, offensive in its trivialization of science and antisemitism, as if antisemitism didn’t exist until Hitler came along. It also conflates social and scientific “Darwinism.” Moreover, the inference we are to draw is that “Darwinism” has given rise to a whole cluster of bad “isms”–Maoism, Totalitarianism, Communism etc. is disturbing in its inaccuracy and fear mongering of the worst kind.

  6. Chuck Said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    Thanks for the comment. As I’ve suggested, the editing logic of Expelled is pretty disturbing, especially the conflation of social and scientific “Darwinism.” The equation between critics of evolutionary theory and free speech is also unsettling. Your connection between Stein’s film and Michelle Goldberg’s discussion of the “Wedge Strategy” in Kingdom Coming makes a lot of sense here, too.

  7. Shaun Huston Said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 11:02 am

    I just want to say that I am duly impressed by your dedication in going to see this film. As many reasons as I can come up with for why I *should* see it, from the nature of the student body at Western Oregon to being able to participate in the ongoing critical discussion, I’m not sure I could stand to sit through it. What would be interesting, I think, is an actual documentary about ID “scientists,” as opposed to the propaganda piece that Expelled appears to be. On the other hand, given that ID is as much a political maneuver in the “culture wars” as it is anything else, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this is the film that gets made.

  8. Anca Stefan Said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    Chuck, this is by far one of the most entertaining reviews I’ve read on your blog. Instead of the usual effort you put forth to see the good and the bad and to do justice to both, this time your honesty is disarmingly refreshing. In truth, I say, this is one of the rudest and most ignorantly argumentative documentaries I’ve ever seen.

    The scene towards the end where Stein flatters himself to think that, through the calculated genius of his Socratic questioning he’s succeeded in discrediting Dawkins is hilarious. He keeps asking poor Dawkins to “put a number on it” and after that names all the dieties he can remember in a pathetic “look at me” attempt to show the audience directly that he’s outsmarted an atheist who’s allowed for human error. I agree with you completely about the ill-chosen Killers song but have to say that this film was indeed great entertainment (for all the wrong reasons). This documentary is so bad, it deserves a cult following.

  9. Anca Stefan Said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    I attended a 5:30 screening in Durham on Saturday and there were a total of 7 people, including the 4 of us.

  10. Anca Stefan Said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 11:19 am

    Shahar talks about “the manipulative connection between “Darwinism” and Nazism, as if without Darwin the Holocaust would never have happened.”
    Exactly! I think I whispered a perplexed and exasperated “What?” when I recognized the same implication as you, Shahar. The Spartans, Swift’s and Spencer’s politics about the poor and the week (think Modest Proposal), were all waaaaayyy before Hitler’s genocide.

  11. Chuck Said,

    April 21, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    Shaun, I’m not sure there’s a really major reason that you need to see it. I’m glad I could contribute to the conversation about it (and glad that I paid less than full price for a ticket).

    Anca, there’s a certain beauty in the choice of the Killers’ song. Too bad the filmmakers apparently failed to clear the use of the song with the band. The scene at the end of the film with Dawkins is unbelievably manipulative as well, and my understanding is that the filmmakers obtained the interview in a “bad faith” manner, presenting the documentary as one sort of project (a thoughtful film on ID) and then producing another (the propaganda film it was clearly their intention to make).

  12. patrick Said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 1:50 am

    just saw Expelled… Ben Stein’s goal in making this flick (i gather) is to promote free thought, especially more thinking about motivations that drive American academia and a lot of other behind-the-scenes worldview that we tend to take for granted.

  13. Chuck Said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 8:23 am

    That’s what Stein pretends to be doing. He’s really using ad hominem attacks, false analogies, and scare tactics to discredit evolutionary theory which is just about as universally accepted in the scientific community as the theory of gravity.

  14. Chris Said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 9:57 am

    but that’s precisely the point, chuck. if evolutionary theory is as universally accepted as the theory of gravity, then that pretty much aligns perfectly with Stein’s position — that any other idea of how this world came into being (ID) is immediately thrown out the window.

    i didn’t see Expelled, so i can’t vouch for the quality of the actual film, although if it’s anything like other work by evangelical christians, i’m sure the quality is pretty bad. but even the heavy-handedness of its approach, along with some rather large logical leaps (Darwinism link to Nazis), doesn’t disqualify Stein’s point that ID is not tolerated by the scientific/academic community.

    let’s be honest here. the theory of evolution is NOT something that can be scientifically proven like gravity. so it stands to reason that theories like ID should at least be considered. but it’s obvious that anyone who does so immediately becomes a pariah. Expelled may not be the film to make this clear, but the reason for its existence cannot be so easily dismissed.

  15. Agnes Varnum Said,

    May 1, 2008 @ 10:37 am

    Don’t you just love planted comments? Thanks for sitting through the film so I don’t have to Chuck, and for addressing the fair use issue. Are the songs soundtrack elements, or are they actually being commented on? It would be very difficult to claim fair use if they are added as soundtrack to enhance an emotional arc, as you seem to suggest.

    I really wish that these masses of people who claim to believe in God and Jesus spent more time loving mankind and trying to make the world a better place through positive actions instead of trying to tear others down with their false attempts at intellectualism. It’s so frustrating to debate with people who have no capacity for it.

  16. Chuck Said,

    May 1, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    I knew this post was pretty much troll-bait, so it’s cool. From what I’ve read, the Killers did give permission to use their song but not in the context that it was used (they were apparently told them film was a satire of academic freedom or something). So they did give permission, I suppose.

    The “Imagine” example is interesting, but it’s been a while so I don’t remember the specifics that well. Arguably, it is “part” of a larger argument on the implications of Darwinism or atheism, so it could be read as fair use by a generous lawyer. The film seems to be commenting on the world view depicted in “Imagine” and it uses music from the song and shots of hippies to illustrate that world view. Whether the song is necessary to illustrate that is much murkier. I know that my politics are affecting my interpretation, so I’m not sure how I’d decide if I were ruling the case.

    And, quite obviously, I found the film’s arguments destructive, as well, especially the clearly false connections it makes between evolutionary biology and eugenics/social Darwinism, etc.

  17. Chuck Said,

    May 1, 2008 @ 11:56 am

    Just to add a little more: it seems like the filmmakers acted disingenuously in so many circumstances (including their interrogations of Dawkins and Myers) that I am a little less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. As I was watching the film, I remember feeling surprised that the Lennon estate would allow the song to be used in that way (or even in the film at all), so I’m beginning to think they may have crossed that very blurry line.

  18. Chuck Said,

    May 1, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

    That being said, I also don’t want to set any bad precedents with Fair Use. I’d hate for their borderline case to lead to more severe restrictions.

  19. Chuck Said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    A follow up to the follow-ups: there’s a really interesting discussion of this stuff going on over at PZ Myers’ blog, and one commenter raises the point that the use of “Imagine” here could be construed as being “in the spirit of” parody and therefore deserving of protection.

    I’m not quite convinced–subsequent commenters shoot his argument down more eloquently than I could–but it’s an interesting argument nonetheless.

  20. The Chutry Experiment » First Day of Summer Links Said,

    May 9, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    […] a wider trend.  And while George Reisch, writing at Pop Matters, may be right to describe Expelled as “the essence of bullshit,” virtually any political doc that makes over $8 million […]

  21. The Chutry Experiment » Hillary's Downfall Said,

    May 11, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

    […] generally speaking, I find the use of Nazi imagery to score political points somewhat troubling (as I discussed in my review of Expelled a few weeks […]

  22. The Chutry Experiment » Wednesday Night Links Said,

    June 4, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

    […] the doctrine of fair use.  While I found the film’s depiction of intelligent design to be misleading at best, I also felt their use of Lennon’s song should have been defended.  In the film, they use […]

  23. TangentTamagaci Said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Please, PLEASE can we not let people keep preaching evolution is unprovable?

    Evidence for evolution is: fossil record, position of fossils consist with gradual change, observation of heredity in flies, the similarity of DNA between all living things on earth even when such a similarity would be erroneous given perfect creation (bananas and people for instance), DNA testing revealing connective lineages between sexually divergent species like man and ape, or squirrel and packrat. The existence of actual specimens before the split of lineages (missing links).

    Evolution entails observable predictions about how the world should be, and over 100 years later we’ve yet to find anything inconsistent with it, while finding a whole lot of things consistent.

  24. Chuck Said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    I don’t know what can be done to stop people from making this claim. I do believe that evolution is scientifically proven, but I think that we need better approaches to teaching it.

  25. Bruce Gorton Said,

    August 12, 2009 @ 1:46 am

    I know it is a year later, but hey, it needs saying:


    Problem with your argument:

    Newton’s theory of gravity was replaced by Einstein’s theory of general relativity – so that something is as generally accepted as gravity does not imply that other explanations are automatically junked.

  26. Bob Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    You might want to watch it again, you seem to have missed the point.

  27. Chuck Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

    I got “the point.” I just disagree with the arguments raised by Stein in the film.

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