Dear Ben Stein:
Dear Ben Stein:
I have heard that you have a movie coming out – a documentary, "Expelled – about how creation scientists (a.k.a., intelligent design theorists) are suffering from violations of their free speech rights in academia.
Naturally, I have not seen the documentary yet. Consequently, I am not going to raise any objections against the movie itself. However, I have read reports about its content and if true these reports indicate that the documentary will try to portray the claim that intelligent design is not science as a violation of freedom of speech.
I also suspect that you will hear a lot of objections based on the fact that you failed to properly understand what a scientific theory is, and I have no interest in repeating what they would say.
However, the film (or at least descriptions of it) bring up the issue of freedom of speech, which is a moral issue, and that is the sphere that I write in.
I want to begin by pointing that your legacy, as a result of your work on this particular project, will be the suffering and early death of countless people who otherwise could have been saved or benefited from advances in science.
I am going to have to say something about the nature of science to demonstrate this point. Science is involved in explaining and predicting real-world events. This includes real-world events that cause real-world death and suffering. The better we are at understanding the real world, the better we will be at avoiding the death and suffering that nature would otherwise inflict on us.
Science does this by comparing theories. Theory A predicts that under conditions C, that R will result. Theory B predicts that under conditions C, S will result. Scientists then set up or observe conditions C, and see if they detect R or S. If they detect R, they go with theory A. If they detect S, they go with Theory B.
Over time, they continually revise their theories. Theory A1 predicts that under conditions C1, R1 will result. Theory A2 predicts that under conditions C1, R2 will result. (The conditions have to be the same, or there is no way to rule out theories). They then try to detect R1 or R2, and refine their theories accordingly.
It is not the case that everything that scientists like to study has an effect on human death and suffering. However, the methods that they use to study nature in general are the same methods that they apply to those things that result in death and suffering. They are continually involved in refining their theories about things that cause human death and suffering. As a result of their work, we have become extremely good at avoiding human death and suffering – at least in those cultures that are wise enough to put these scientific advances to practical use.
Now, please, try for me to put the concept of intelligent design into the description that I wrote above about how to compare scientific theories. Come up with a condition C, and a result R1 or R2, that will tell us whether or not to accept Theory A or Theory B, where Theory B is intelligent design.
You will fail.
No scientist has yet been able to present a “Theory B” that includes a God variable that produces more accurate results under Conditions C than any comparable theory that lacks a God variable.
Intelligent design tells us nothing that we can use to better understand and cure cancer or Parkinson's disease. There is nothing it can tell us that can lead to the discovery of a way of preventing malaria that would have otherwise gone undiscovered. It will not provide us with food sources that can survive droughts to that people in arid parts of the world can feed themselves. It says nothing at all useful in determining the effects of different chemicals that we are putting in our air, our water, and our food to tell us whether they are poisonous or beneficial. It tells us none of the things that science tells us - things that protects our lives, health, and well-being.
So, what these people want to do instead of providing us with the fruits of their research is to force scientist to use another criterion – other than the criterion of coming up with a theory that better predicts results under given conditions. That criterion is the criterion of force - perhaps not the force of a gun to the head, but the force of legislation and social sanctions.
I want to repeat this in case a reader might skip the point of this post. Intelligent design has no 'condition C' with an R1 and an R2 where evolution produces one prediction, intelligent design produces another, and observation confirms intelligent design. If it did, it could count as science. In the absence of scientific evidence favoring intelligent design, its proponents want to introduce something other than evidence into the scientific process - political bullying. Under this system, a theory is viable to the degree that its proponents can use lies and distortions to manipulate the public into including it in the scientific discussion. That's what the movie 'Expelled' is - an propaganda instrument for the sake of rallying people into bullying science educators into including an idea that has absolutely no merit as science.
What is going to make a scientific theory “worth considering” on this standard is not whether its defenders can provide experimental evidence, but whether its defenders can get the government and the mob to threaten scientists who reject their views.
On this system, force replaces truth as a standard of truth.
Part of the problem with introducing force as a standard of truth is that you will end up promoting systems that will do more harm than good. Intelligent design itself finds its home in a context that does a particularly poor job of predicting and explaining the causes of human death and suffering, and of helping people avoid death and suffering.
A scientist says that hurricanes are too large for us to be able to control where they go. However, by taking measurements of air speed, ocean temperature, pressure, the principles of evaporation and condensation of water, and the like, we can make increasingly accurate predictions of where hurricanes will strike and how best to avoid the worst consequences. The consequences suffered in New Orleans show the price to be paid by those who ignore science.
Theocrats want to argue that we can control the severity – even the existence of hurricanes by passing laws against homosexuality, putting prayer in school, and closing down abortion clinics. They have got the fanatical belief that these variables somehow influence the nature of hurricanes.
Now, we can test these types of claims. We can come up with theories that determine relationships between the frequency and course of hurricanes based on number of abortion clinics, presence of laws against homosexual acts, and the numbers of state-sponsored school prayers. Yet, in 400 years of science, these types of relationships do not hold up. The people who advocate these types of solutions will add to the total amount of human suffering (the suffering imposed on people as a result of these laws) without doing any good whatsoever.
We see from this that the type of thinking that surrounds intelligent design will cause death and suffering in two ways. First, there is the death and suffering surrounding the laws that those who think this way would impose on others – the diseases not prevented, the poverty promoted, the prohibitions that deny people the opportunity to realize important values in the brief lives they have.
Second, this way of thinking will result in more death and suffering than there would otherwise be because it will take attention from reason-based policies that show a scientifically provable effect of reducing death and suffering. People devoted to preventing harms from natural disasters through community prayers and repressive social laws are not devoting their energy to scientific research and understanding. People who are demanding that science yield to a ‘political force as proof of scientific validity’ way of thinking are not allowing scientists to discover those methods that truly do the best job of predicting and explaining real-world events.
Both of these pathways lead to death and suffering, and both pathways will be opened up by the false and irresponsible claims that, at least judging from the press reports, will sit at the heart of your documentary.
A standard political move these days would be to take an argument like the one that I gave above and use it to accuse the person who made it of ‘fear mongering’ – of trying to manipulate people through fear. President Bush suggests that staying in Iraq will harm our national interests, and he is immediately condemned for fear-mongering by those who do not want the public to even consider (and debate) the possibility.
So, let us take a look at fear mongering, and see whether the term would apply in this case.
Imagine a room with a table in the center, and a pitcher in the middle of the room that you know contains poison. A woman enters the room and fills a glass from the pitcher. If I were to warn her that the pitcher contains poison, it would not be wrong to think that I was attempting to manipulate her behavior – attempting to warn her against drinking from the pitcher. However, it would be wrong to accuse me of fear mongering.
In order to be guilty of fear mongering, it would have to be the case that I did not believe that the pitcher contained poison or that I adopted the belief irresponsibly based more on convenience than on evidence. Furthermore, I would need some motive to prevent the woman from drinking the liquid – a motive that the woman would probably not find persuasive. So, I make false or irresponsible claims about the harmfulness of the liquid in order to prevent her from doing something I have other reasons to prevent her from doing. This would be a case of fear-mongering.
The arguments that I gave above deflect any charges of fear mongering. Science is, as a matter of fact, involved in a practice of comparing theories by determining what the theory says will happen under conditions C, making observations about those happenings, and determining which theory most accurately predicted the results. This method is particularly important when the results provide information useful in avoiding human death and suffering. The type of thinking that surrounds and permeates intelligent design is a type of thinking that rejects this method. So, the type of thinking that permeates intelligent design is a type that will interfere with our abilities to prevent death and suffering.
That particular drink is poison, and a morally responsible person would warn others not to drink it.
Freedom of Speech
As a matter of fact, people who advocate intelligent design pretty much prove that they are incompetent in matters of science, in the same way that an engineer who advocates making a bridge out of common clay proves that he is an incompetent engineer.
The fact that the common clay bridge builder is able to rally his friends to beat up on (legislatively or socially) the steel-bridge builders if they do not give their friend an engineering license is no proof that the friend’s engineering is sound. People can be forced to deny reality, but reality does not yield to individual stupidity. Give the common-clay bridge builder a license, and a lot of people are going to start suffering death and injuries in the collapsing bridges that result.
His ‘opinion’ that clay bridges are as sound as steel bridges is not enough to prevent clay bridges from collapsing.
However, let us assume that this engineer does not want to build clay bridges. He wants to teach at an engineering college where he will inform countless students that clay bridges are structurally sound. And when the engineering department denies him a position, he goes to court, claiming that they are violating his rights to free speech. Clearly, he has a right to stand before a bunch of students and tell them that common clay bridges are structurally sound.
By your standards, such a teacher must be permitted to teach that common clay is as good as steel, because refusing to do so would be a morally impermissible violation of that individual's right to freedom of speech. In fact, if we were to make your principle a universal law, as the moral philosopher Immanual Kant contends, any attempt to regulate the quality of teaching is a violation of free speech. No individual shall be denied a position in a university based on the quality of his research - but all individuals shall be permitted to teach whatever they want to whomever they want.
As I said, the policies and principles that appear in your documentary, at least as reported in the press, are clearly policies and principles that will lead to death and suffering.
I have no illusions that this letter will change the course of events. The documentary will play. People who would have otherwise studied and applied the principles of science to discover or at least understand how certain policies can reduce death and suffering, will instead pursue policies that promote death and suffering. The institution that best seeks to explain and predict the forces of nature that kill and maim individuals will be weakened, and death and suffering that could have been prevented, will not be prevented.
Of course, you will deny any responsibility for this. Unfortunately, reality does not care about what we believe. A person's unwillingness to accept reality does not change reality; a person's unwillingness to accept responsiblity for the harm he has done to others does not prevent them from being harmed.
These effects are real. You have made the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been, and some will pay with their lives. Hopefully, they (or those who survive them) will at least have the wisdom to know who is responsible for their situation.
Note: The National Center for Science Education also exposes a number of inaccuracies in its site, Expelled Exposed.