Only once did I want to yell at the screen during Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, an expose of repression in science. Narrator Ben Stein asks the former editor of a Smithsonian Institute journal what he would say to the head of the National Center for Science Education if she were sitting there with them. "I would ask her on what authority does she get to decide what is science?"
"By the definition of science!" I wanted to yell. "You have gone the entire movie without defining science. At least have the decency to acknowledge what differentiates science from other forms of knowledge." It's too much to yell, though, and the sparse Blount County crowd had been quiet. Attempts at humor drew a few lonely chuckles, revelations a few gasps of outrage, but a thin crowd on opening night in one of the few counties in the nation with a school board that has endorsed intelligent design does not bode well for a long or lucrative run.
Numerous marketing opportunities lie ahead if Expelled flops in theaters. Each film festival will be an opportunity for either awards or martyrdom, and experts at marketing Christian films have been pushing it for months as a Michael Moore antidote. Discovery Institute, a Seattle organization that publishes books and DVDs for churches and home schoolers, is advertising Expelled on their website. Discovery Institute Vice President Stephen Meyers is the film's prominent intelligent-design advocate.
At one point in the movie, Stein is lost on the streets of Seattle looking for the Discovery Institute, and no one he asks has ever heard of it. When he finally finds the obscure office, staffers duck from the camera like they have guilty consciences. The scene is intended to be funny, but since I know about the business relationship between the institute and the movie producers, I found it in poor taste.
Stein's droll delivery works best when he is surrounded by a dynamic cast or a sexy sidekick, and the pack of nerds at the heart of the intelligent-design debate are neither. Relentless cutaways to Cold War footage further deaden the mood, but provide a way to get Ronald Reagan into the movie and sell more product. The movie opens with World War II imagery and the erection of the Berlin Wall and closes with it coming down. The wall represents the barrier Big Science puts between itself and those it expelled, a handful of people who claim their science careers faltered when they mentioned intelligent-design theory.
From the movie, you would think a Baylor University engineering professor fell into ruin for dabbling in biology, but he was only asked to keep his hobby off university servers. He continues to teach and do research within his area of expertise at Baylor, somehow eluding ex-Soviet border guards hired by Big Science to enforce evolution, or something like that. Expelled leaves out a lot of the details.
When Stein queries scientists about atheism, the film gets interesting. P.Z. Myers says religion should be a weekend hobby to help people feel good, and Richard Dawkins says the absence of God is implicit in evolutionary theory. Their remarks come as close as anything the scientists say to matching the film's repressive imagery, but even other scientists condemn Dawkins for asserting that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. The fault line within Big Science adds texture and creates moments where you can see beyond the entrenched debate, but such insights are brief.
The film is aimed squarely at the choir, and if you don't know much about evolution or intelligent design, you might leave the theater knowing even less. You won't learn the full story behind the alleged blacklistings, and you won't learn that science is not defined by committee, but by whether you can present a testable hypothesis.
Thus far, intelligent design has not generated testable ideas. A few scientists are working to overcome that failure, but like the omissions in Expelled, it's a hole in the heart of the theory. In this movie, "Ich bin ein Berliner" really does mean, "I am a donut."