Monday, March 24, 2008

Seeing Ben Stein's "Expelled" as Propaganda

Note: I will be at the First Freedom First Simulcast at the Denver Pavilions 15 in downtown Denver on Wednesday night, March 26.

I, like several others, have been entertained by the fiasco whereby the people responsible for the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed had PZ Myers evicted from a ‘private screening’ of the movie while letting Richard Dawkins and others in to see it.

There are, however, some elements in these accounts that I would like to comment upon.

Documentary vs. Propaganda

The more I read about this movie the more it seems that the point of the movie is to sell hatred of atheists and evolutionists by associating the terms with images of concentration camps, gas chambers, Hitler, Stalin, and anything else threatening.

Richard Dawkins reviewed the movie as a documentary , and found it to be a very poor documentary. However, this is a lot like picking it up a saw, trying to use it as a hammer, and then writing a critique that the tool is a very poor hammer.

Of course it is a poor hammer – it is a saw. And of course “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” is a poor documentary. It is a propaganda film.

From what I have read of descriptions of the movie, its purpose is to create an association in the minds of viewers (or at least those who are susceptible, which explains the marketing strategy) between ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ on the one hand, and ‘Nazi’ and ‘Stalin’ images on the other. They are seeking to plant in society a tendency, whenever one hears or reads the concept ‘atheist’ or ‘evolution’, the listener or reader immediately calls to image gas chambers and concentration camps.

Imagine the effect that this will have on American politics and American culture to have a significant portion of the population react in this way to anybody seeking to present atheism or evolution in a positive light.

It does not matter that the audience member is bored while the movie is planting this association in his head. Indeed, it may well be easier to plant the idea into the brain of an otherwise bored audience member. Their resistance may well be lowered while their brain is disengaged. What matters is the effect that the presentation will have on those who leave the theater.

In addition to providing the viewer with this association of concepts and images, the presenters make sure that they provide their viewings to a receptive audience, so that the audience members can reinforce this association in their fellow members. The Q&A after the presentation performs the same function.

Here, Richard Dawkins in his posting “Lying for Jesus” does a spectacular job of missing the point.

Now, to the film itself. What a shoddy, second-rate piece of work. A favourite joke among the film-making community is the 'Lord Privy Seal'. Amateurs and novices in the making of documentaries can't resist illustrating every significant word in the commentary by cutting to a picture of it. The Lord Privy Seal is an antiquated title in Britain's heraldic tradition. The joke imagines a low-grade film directory who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, then a seal. Mathis' film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Khrushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like 'emotional outburst'). There is similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.

Claiming that the film is full of Lord Privy Seals misses the point. The images described are not Lord Privy Seals. They are deliberate attempts to associate ‘atheism’ and ‘evolution’ with ‘gas chambers’ and ‘concentration camps’ or anything else that looks dangerous and evil.

This practice of associating the terms 'evolution' and 'atheist' with images of gas chambers and concentration camps is not pointless. It’s the whole point. Its purpose is to create a society in which mentioning evolution or atheism in a political speech, television show, classroom, or casual conversation brings up images of gas chambers and concentration camps in a sufficiently large portion of the population that people substantially give up using these terms.

We already have an environment in this country where high school teachers do not teach evolution because they do not want to deal with the hostility. After April 18th (and beyond) they will have to deal with students brought to associate any talk of evolution with images and ideas of gas chambers and concentration camps.

I am not saying that this is all a part of some conscious plan or, God forbid, some intelligent design. It may well be that the promoters went with a plan that ‘felt right’ to them and that seemed to provide them with the feedback they wanted. Through experimentation and observation they hit on a program that turns the audience into the type of people they want the audience to become.

Intentional or not, this is the how the movie should be evaluated. It is a poor documentary in the same sense that a hammer is a poor saw or sandstone makes poor wires.

Public Relations

Another claim that I have seen made about this event is that it was a public relations nightmare for those who are promoting the film.

Where does that conclusion come from?

This is an empirical claim. The individual is making a claim about the world. Is this claim justified? On the basis of what evidence is this claim made?

I find it particularly interesting that people who claim to think that it is particularly important that people draw their conclusions from the available evidence. Where is the evidence that this is a public relations fiasco for the organizers of this movie?

Look around you on the bus, or in a restaurant, or at the movies, or any place where there is a crowd of rather ordinary people. Ask yourselves (or, better yet, take a poll) on the numbers who are familiar with the Dawkins/Myers version of the story. Then ask how many of them have heard the Discovery Institute version of the story. Finally, ask how many of them even know that the event took place.

But they will know about the movie soon enough. They will learn about the movie, and watch the movie, and tell their friends about the movie, all without ever hearing about this event.

Yes, the story was heavily covered in the atheist blogs. Combined, how many unique readers do you think we all have? Combined, how many people can fundamentalist and other theist organizations reach with their version of the story?

In evaluating the effect of these types of incidents, one has to pay attention to a numbers. Simply because a person runs around in a universe where blog-reading atheists are a majority does not mean that one can extrapolate findings within this group to the whole population. That is a fairly fundamental statistical error. We, of all people, should not be making it, and should not be encouraging others to make it.

Update: 11:18 MDT. The backers of 'Expelled' have just sent out a press release to help to ensure that, when the general public does hear of this event, it will be their version that the people hear of. Will this truly be a public relations debacle for the movie? These are professional spin-doctors. Do not expect them to just lie down on the job.


One of the things that I dislike about many religious claims is that false beliefs cause people to act in ways that are, to put it bluntly, irrational. They think that they are accomplishing something of value, but the value they have been told to believe in does not exist. In the mean time, real-world values that do exist are sacrificed to the imaginary values of religion.

However, I find the same problem with false beliefs generating irrational action in the claims made above. People who do not recognize the actual function of the movie, or come to irrational conclusions about the movie being hopelessly mishandled, are not likely to take the types of actions that an accurately informed person will take.

The purpose of the movie is not to fight for free speech. It is to create in the minds of as many people as possible a relationship between ‘evolution’ and ‘atheist’ on the one hand, and ‘gas chambers’ and ‘concentration camps’ on the other. And it will probably succeed. After the movie is aired, we will probably be dealing with a significant increase in public sentiment that says that anything that supports evolution or secularism or church/state separation supports the next wave of gas chambers and concentration camps.

We cannot start too soon to deal with that issue. The way to start is to inoculate as many minds as possible against the hate-mongering that is written into this movie by informing as many people as possible of the fact that the movie is designed to sell unreasoned, unfounded hatred.

It’s not (as far as I can tell) a documentary. It is a propaganda film built to sell hate.

Instead of complaining that the hammer is a very poor saw, we should try evaluating the hammer in terms of how well it functions as a hammer.

Addendum: Goons

The accounts I have read have mentioned the actions of some guards or police officers or some sort of uniformed security person. The accounts that I have read suggest that this individual did not do anything improper. He did his job and he did not do anything that he did not have a right to do.

However, when I read accounts of this event, I have been treated to descriptions of this person as a ‘goon’, ‘guerilla’, and similar statements that almost invite me as the reader to imagine a goose-stepping Nazi SS officer threatening the masses. I do not know anything about this person (or these people). For all I know they are off-duty police officers trying to make a little extra money to cover health insurance or buy a few extra things for the home. Or they may have been on-duty police officers. Or they could have been employees of the theater.

Whatever the fact of the matter is, if somebody wants to resort to name-calling and making other derogatory comments about these people, please provide me with some evidence that they actually did something wrong. Otherwise, this baseless name-calling is completely inappropriate.

On this matter, I would like to pause to in praise of several people who had placed comments in these reports, who have noticed the same issue that I am raising. In many cultures, name-calling is such an accepted practice that nobody within the community will concern themselves with defending the victims of this type of speech. At least among the atheist community there is generally (though not universally) accepted principle that accusations such as these should not be made without just cause.


Pedro Timóteo said...

I think Dawkins' error is that we unconsciously tend to think people have mostly the same values as us. As a scientist, he values truth, and, therefore, his first instinct is that the Expelled people are misguided, are honestly mistaken. When in fact they are dishonest, and their intention with this film is quite sinister -- as you say, to get people to associate "evolution" with "gas chambers". Dawkins simply doesn't grasp (yet?) the extent of these creationists' evil.

Susan said...

I'm so glad to see that you recognized this film for what it is. I hope you post to some of the other blogs that have been running the "controversy," in order to sound a wake-up to the reality-based community.
Thanks for your good work.

Jack said...

I agree that "Expelled" is a propaganda film, but it presents itself as a fair-minded documentary, and so it was appropriate for Dawkins to review it based on the producer's stated intention. As for the "goon" reference which exercises you so much, neither of us was there, but Dawkins was, and I put it to you that he has an impeccable reputation for honesty and fairness. If he called the guy a goon, I suspect that his behavious warranted the description. I also put it to you that a police officer is never under any circumstances justified in threatening to arrest someone under false pretenses, in this case for the "crime" of standing outside the screening room in a public theatre, not even if his off-duty employer so instructs him. This behaviour alone justifies the use of the word "goon". -oriole

Anonymous said...

The "images of gas chambers and concentration camps" connected to Atheism is not arbitrary. Unless of course, you are one of those revisionist historians.

Oh gee, now I get a 4 paragraph regurgitation about how "not all Atheists support genocide." and how evil stereotypes are.

Here it comes... wait for it...
go Fonzi, Go

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are going to get a lot more than 4 paragraphs. Come back tomorrow.

In the mean time - the fact that you are aware of the fact that you are guilty of making a bigoted overgeneralization, and dare others to accuse you of that which you are guilty, does not absolve you of guilt. It only proves that, in addition to being a bigot, you lack a conscience.

Like I said. Come back tomorrow, and I will fill in the details.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I forgot to mention. While you are waiting for tomorrow's post, please see:

The Atheist Terrorist

You might find it illuminating.

Kevin said...

How much longer will we let people wear mustaches? Look at the clear connection between mustaches and evil. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Geraldo, old movie villains with top hats tying innocent women to railroad tracks. Mustaches are a clear sign of evil.

Sure, some may tell you that most people with mustaches never commit heinous evil, or that there are people without mustaches who have committed just as much evil, but let us not let such facts get in the way of the clear link between mustaches and evil. Obviously, they're part of a pro-mustache conspiracy to keep the truth hidden. That's just how evil the mustachioed are.

Buffy said...

Of course the movie is propaganda. But it's just one more step in the "my beliefs trump the job requirements" movement that began with pharmacists refusing to fill birth-control prescriptions. Don't believe in evolution yet want to teach science? So what! You can sue claiming "religious discrimination".


Jaakonpoika said...

The whole title was: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). KAMPF was a direct translation from that 'Struggle'. There was, supposedly, not enough Lebenstraume. That's why in the industrial revolution in England 12 year old proletariat girls had to work over 100 hours a week. Malthus set the paradigm that is today very relevant even to Islamist terrorists. They believe that unconscious myth that there is not just enough space for us all.

Stein is under heavy attack for 'exaggerating' or 'going easy' on the influence of evolutionism behind Nazism and Stalinism (super evolution of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Russia). But the monstrous Haeckelian type of vulgar evolutionism drove not only the 'Politics-is-applied-biology' Nazi takeover in the continental Europe, but even the nationalistic collision at the World War I.

Catch 22: Haeckel's 140 years old fake embryo drawings have been mindlessly recycled for the 'public understanding of science' (PUS) in most biology text books until this millennium, although Haeckel's crackpot raging Recapitulation/Biogenetic Law and functioning gill slits of human embryos have been at the ethical tangent race hygiene/eugenics/genocide, infanticide, and Freudian psychoanalysis (subconscious atavisms). Dawkins is the Oxford professor for PUS - and should gather the courage of Stephen Jay Gould who could feel ashamed about it.

The marriage laws were once erected not only in the Nazi Germany but also in the multicultural states of America upon the speculation that the mulatto was a relatively sterile and shortlived hybrid. The absence of blood transfusion between "white" and "colored races" was self evident (Hailer 1963, p. 52).

The first law on sterilization in US had been established in 1907 in Indiana, and 23 similar laws had been passed in 15 States and sterilization was practiced in 124 institutions in 1921 (Mattila 1996; Hietala 1985 p. 133; these were the times of IQ-tests under Gould's scrutiny in his Mismeasure of Man 1981). By 1931 thirty states had passed sterization laws in the US (Reilly 1991, p. 87).

So the American laws were pioneering endeavours. In Europe Denmark passed the first sterilization legislation in Europe (1929). Denmark was followed by Switzerland, Germany that had felt to the hands of Hitler and Gobineu, and other Nordic countries: Norway (1934), Sweden (1935), Finland (1935), and Iceland (1938) (Haller 1963, pp 21-57; 135-9; Proctor 1988, p. 97; Reilly 1991, p. 109). Seldom is it mentioned in the popular media, that the first outright race biological institution in the world was not established in Germany but in 1921 in Uppsala, Sweden (Hietala 1985, pp. 109). (I am not aware of the ethymology of the 'Up' of the ancient city from Plinius' Ultima Thule, however.) In 1907 the Society for Racial Hygiene in Germany had changed its name to the Internationale Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene, and in 1910 Swedish Society for Eugenics (Sällskap för Rashygien) had become its first foreign affiliate (Proctor 1988, p. 17). Today, Swedish state church is definitely the most liberal in the face of the world.

Hitler's formulation of the differences between the human races was affected by the brilliant sky-blue eyed Ernst Haeckel (Gasman 1971, p. xxii), praised and raised by Darwin. At the top of the unilinear progression were usually the "Nordics", a tall race of blue-eyed blonds. Haeckel's position on the 'Judenfrage' was assimilation and Expelled-command from their university chairs, not yet an open elimination. But was it different only in degree, rather than kind?

In 1917 the immigration of "defective" groups was forbidden even in the United States by a law. In 1921 the European immigration was diminished to 3% based on the 1910 census.
Eventually, in the strategical year of 1924 the finest hour of eugenics had come and the fatal law was passed by Congress. It diminished immigration to 2% of the foreign-born from each country based on the 1890 census in order to preserve the "nordic" balance in population, and was hold through World War II until 1965 (Hietala 1985, p. 132).

Richard Lewontin writes:“The leading American idealogue of the innate mental inferiority of the working class was, however, H.H. Goddard, a pioneer of the mental testing movement, the discoverer of the Kallikak family,
and the administrant of IQ-tests to immigrants that found 83 % of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians, and 87% of the the Russians to be feebleminded.” (1977, p. 13.) Finnish emmigrants put the cross on the box reserved for the "yellow" group (Kemiläinen 1993, p. 1930), until 1965.

Germany was the most scientifically and culturally advanced nation of the world upon opening the riddles at the close of the nineteenth century. And she went Full Monty.

Today, developmental biologists are anticipating legislation of laws that would define the do’s and dont’s. In England, they are fertilizing human embryos for research purposes and pipetting chimera embryos of humans and monkeys, 'legally'. The legislation should not distract individual researchers from their personal awareness of responsibility. A permissive law merely defines the ethical minimum. The lesson is that a law is no substitute for morals and that dissidents should not be intimidated.

I am suspicious over the burial of the Kampf (Struggle). The idea of competition is innate in the modern society. It is the the opposite view in a 180 degree angle to the Judaeo-Christian ideal of agapee, that I personally cheriss. The latter sees free giving, altruism, benevolence and self sacrificing love as the beginning, motivation, and sustainer of the reality.

You may read more on the matter from my conference posters and articles defended and published in the field of bioethics and history of biology (and underline/edit them a 'bit'):
Biochemist, drop-out (Master of Sciing)

Eneasz said...

Jaakonpoika -

So what you're saying is.... people used to be really racist. And they'd use any excuse they could (even psuedo-scientific ones) to justify their racism. Is this news?

Everything under the sun including religion (especially religion, perhaps?) has been used to justify racism. The twisting and mis-understanding of a science in it's infancy was just one more tool the racist used.

Interestingly, the more that science advances, the less supportable racism becomes and the more likely a society is to be tolerant of those who are different. It's hard to say the same of religion.

It is the the opposite view in a 180 degree angle to the Judaeo-Christian ideal of agapee, that I personally cheriss. The latter sees free giving, altruism, benevolence and self sacrificing love as the beginning, motivation, and sustainer of the reality.

Some versions of christianity, sure. Some versions of every religion contain those things. Many atheists hold by those same principles. But don't try to claim that all christians are like this - don't forget that all those god-fearing germans that so willingly carried out the holocaust were christians too.

Jaakonpoika said...

Evolutionism was politically and religiously driven. (By religion, I mean the old worship of nature akin naturalism.) Evolutionism was a revolution, and revolutions are violent. It is anachronism to mehasize the idea of selection since evolutionism was sold by much harder claims, especially constant spontaneous generation of life from mud (moneras), inheritance of acquired characteristics, mutationism in leaps (hopeful monsters), linear model of human races - and especially recapitulation.

I mean, fertilizing human embryos for research purposes? Pipetting chimera embryos of humans and monkeys?!? Go, U Kingdom, go! Also the last round of eugenics started by cheapening the embryos.
Biochemist, drop-out (M.Sci. Master of Sciing)
I have collected and scanned about 200 quotes and figures on the importance of Haeckel's frauds and recapitulation here:

Eneasz said...

Evolutionism was a revolution, and revolutions are violent.

To this day we still mourn the thousands of scientists lost in the great Darwinian Civil War of the early 1900s. Such a tragedy.

Sorry, just having some fun. ;) Seriously though, why the fear-mongering? The worst that I'm aware of is a heated debate. I wouldn't call that terribly violent.

I read through a fair bit of your site, and it seems to be an excellent archive of Haekel's dishonesty and manipulation. However that is not science. Your site even has the quote "Darwin himself was not a social Darwinist and thought it a biter joke that his scientific theories were being used, as he put it, to 'prove Napoleon was right and every cheating tradesman is also right'."

From what I've read, it looks like Haekel was a regular racist with fears of "race contamination" and so he twisted and misrepresented the budding field of evolution to the public so he could gain support for his racist views. Again, this has nothing to do with actual evolution, and everything to do with racism.

Your condemnation of Haekel and exposing his frauds is a praise-worthy thing. However you seem to be a few decades too late, no one still holds to his twisted ideas. Keeping a historical archive is certainly a good idea, but trying to use that to attack actual evolution is a mistake. You are picking innocent targets in your attempt to find an enemy.

fertilizing human embryos for research purposes? Pipetting chimera embryos of humans and monkeys?!? Go, U Kingdom, go!

I have not heard of this "fertilizing human embryos for research" before, could you provide a link please? However I am familiar with the human-animal chimeras. What exactly are your objections to this, aside from "It's yucky"? There are attempts to create sheep with human livers, and pigs with human arteries, and if successful the increase in transplant-available organs would save many thousands of lives. Are your feelings of "ickiness" worth thousands of lives every year?