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Win Ben Stein's mind


I've been accused of refusing to review Ben Stein's documentary "Expelled," a defense of Creationism, because of my belief in the theory of evolution. Here is my response.

Ben Stein, you hosted a TV show on which you gave away money. Imagine that I have created a special edition of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" just for you. Ben, you've answered all the earlier questions correctly, and now you're up for the $1 million prize. It involves an explanation for the evolution of life on this planet. You have already exercised your option to throw away two of the wrong answers. Now you are faced with two choices: (A) Darwin's Theory of Evolution, or (B) Intelligent Design.

Because this is a special edition of the program, you can use a Hotline to telephone every scientist on Earth who has an opinion on this question. You discover that 99.975 of them agree on the answer (A). A million bucks hangs in the balance. The clock is ticking. You could use the money. Which do you choose? You, a firm believer in the Constitution, are not intimidated and exercise your freedom of speech. You choose (B).

Squaaawk!!! The klaxon horn sounds. You have lost. Outraged, you file suit against the program, charging it is biased and has denied a hearing for your belief. Your suit argues that the "correct" answer was chosen because of a prejudice against the theory of Intelligent Design, despite the fact that .025 of one percent of all scientists support it. You call for (B) to be discussed in schools as an alternative theory to (A).

Your rights have been violated. You're at wit's end. You think perhaps the field of Indie Documentaries offers you hope. You accept a position at the Institute of Undocumented Documentaries in Dallas, Texas. This Institute teaches that the rules of the "$64,000 Question" are the only valid game show rules. All later game shows must follow them literally. The "$64,000 Question" came into existence in 1955. False evidence for earlier game shows has been refuted by scientists at the Institute.


You look for a documentary subject. You know you cannot hope to find backing from the Main Stream Media, because they all fear reprisals from the powerful Game Show Establishment. You seek a cause that parallels your own dilemma, and also illustrates an offense against the Freedom of Speech. Your attention falls on the persecution of Intelligent Design advocates like you, who have been banished from Main Stream Academia. This looks like your ideal subject. But where can you find financing for such a documentary? You discover a small, promising production company named Premise Media. You like the sound of that word premise. It sounds like a plausible alternative to the word theory. To confirm this, you look both up in your dictionary: premise noun. A previous statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion: if the premise is true, then the conclusion must be true. e.g., if God exists, then he created everything.

theory noun. A system of ideas intended to explain something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained. e.g., Darwin's theory of evolution.

Your point exactly! You do a web search for Premise Media. Its co-founder, Walt Ruloff, has observed, "the scientific and academic communities were deeply resistant to innovation, in this case innovation that might revise Darwin's theory that random mutation and natural selection drive all variation in life forms." You could not agree more. Darwin's theory has been around for 150 years, and is stubbornly entrenched. This is a time for innovation, for drawing on fresh theories that life and the universe were intelligently created in recent times, perhaps within the last 10,000 years. How to account for dinosaur fossils? Obviously, dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time as human beings.


Dinosaurs walk the earth at the same time as Alley Oop.

Ben Stein, you are growing more excited. You continue your research into Premise Media. Its CEO, A. Logan Craft, once observed that questions about the origin of Earth and its life forms "are answered very differently by secularists and people who hold religious beliefs." Can you believe your eyes? Craft has depended upon one of your own favorite logical practices, the principle of the excluded middle! This is too good to be true.

By his premise no secularists believe in Intelligent Design, and no people with religious beliefs subscribe to Darwin's theory. If there are people with religious beliefs who agree with Darwin (Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Mormons, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, for example) they are mistaken because they do not subscribe to A. Logan Craft's religious beliefs.

He is certainly right about secularists. You think it's a shame he's right, because then the 1968 Supreme Court decision was correct, and Tennessee's anti-evolution law was "an attempt to blot out a particular theory because of its supposed conflict with the Biblical account, taken literally." Therefore, according to the Court, ID was a religious belief and did not belong in a science classroom but in a theology classroom. This clearly would be wrong, because the new approach to teaching ID in schools omits any reference whatsoever to religion. It depends entirely on the findings of scientists who are well-respected within A. Logan Craft's religious tradition. These scientists of course are perfectly free to be secularists, although almost every single one seems to be a fundamentalist Christian. This is America.You meet with the people at Premise Media. It is a meeting of the minds. At a pitch meeting, they are receptive to your ideas, although with the proviso that you should change the proposed title of your film, "From Darwin to Hitler," because that might limit the market to those who had heard of neither, or only one.

You and Premise Media agreed that the case for ID had not always been argued very well in the past. For example, a photograph of a human footprint overlapping a dinosaur track (proof that Man walked the Earth side by side with dinosaurs) has been questioned by secularists, who say the footprint looks more like the print of a running shoe. If you studied it carefully, it could be argued that they had a point, although skewed by their secularist bias.

What was needed was better use of photographic evidence. For example, in your film, "eXpelled: no intelligence allowed," you document the story of Guillermo Gonzales, who was denied tenure at Iowa State because of his personal premises, after 400 professors signed a petition opposing "all attempts to represent Intelligent Design as a scientific endeavor." Gonzales was forced to accept employment at Grove City College, an evangelical Christian school in Grove City, Pennsylvania.

In documenting the secularist hysteria and outrage against Gonzales, you use more convincing photographic evidence than the footprint. For example, you use footage showing a newsstand selling copies of the New York Post with this front page headline:

CRISIS: 1. Creationist on the loose 2. Support the Petition 3.Stop Gonzales

The typographical design of the New York Post logo, the cars and store signs in the background, and the clothing of the people in the street establish without question that this footage was filmed in the late 1940s. Gonzales was born in 1963. So your film would prove beyond doubt that his enemies walked the Earth with his parents.


Charles Darwin, caught in the act of evolving from a monkey

Gonzales, trained as an astronomer, cited as proof of Intelligent Design that "Earth is in a prime location for observing the universe." Thus he refutes the theory of elitist secularist academia that the universe "does not have an edge nor center, just as the Earth's surface does not have an edge or center." Since all you have to do is look up at the sky to realize that the whole universe is right up there to be seen, the secularists fly in the face of common sense. Yet for stating such an obvious premise, Gonzales was opposed for tenure at Iowa State. That hit home, Ben Stein. He was a victim like you.

You release your film "eXpelled."As you fully expect from all your experience, it is rejected almost unanimously by the MSM. It receives an 8% rating on the TomatoMeter, earning it a place on the list of the worst-reviewed films of all time. In a review not catalogued by Tomatoes, writes that your film "has made Ben Stein the new hero of believers in God everywhere, and has landed a smart right cross to the protruding jaw of evolution's elite."

Again, the useful excluded middle. Those for whom Ben Stein is not a hero are not believers in God. It also follows that the phrase "believers in God everywhere" does not extend to believers in God who agree with Darwin. So ChristanAnswers has excluded two middles at one fell stroke.

Let's hope that word doesn't get back to the bosses of the critic named "Yo" at Yo takes a chance by saying:

This creator could have been anything of intelligence, including aliens. Intelligent Design is a scientific movement, not a religious one, a fact stated more than once in interviews in this film. Unfortunately, those statements are constantly ignored as 'Expelled' continually brings up the question of God's existence and thereby equates the movement with a belief in God.

And right there, Ben Stein, we can clearly see Yo's error. He has included the middle.

Here is Stein's most urgent question: "How does something that is not life turn into something that is?" Stein poses this stumper to a jolly British professor who seems direct from Monty Python. He thinks there's a "very good chance" that life might have started with molecules on crystals, which have a tendency to mutate. Cut to a shot of a turbaned crystal-ball gazer. Stein dubs them "joy riding crystals." He wonders what the odds would be of life starting that way.

"You would have to have a minimum of 250 proteins to provide minimal life functions," an ID defender explains. We see an animated cartoon of the Darwinian scientist Richard Dawkins pulling at a slot machine and lining up--three in a row! Not so fast there, "Lucky" Dawkins! The camera pulls back to show one-armed bandits stretching into infinity. To win, he'd have to hit the jackpot about a gazillion times in a row. An Intelligent Design advocate estimates a streak like that would take a trillion, trillion, trillion tries. (That number is a fair piece larger than 3 trillion.) Quite a joy ride. ID's argument against the crystal theory seems like a new version of its classic argument, "How could an eye evolve without knowing there was anything to see?" Very easily, apparently, because various forms of eyes have evolved 26 different times that scientists know about, and they can explain how it happened. So can I. So can you if you understand Darwinian principles.

4 200px-ManWhoBrokeBankAtMonteCarlo.jpg

Anyway, the slot machine conundrum is based on an ignorance of both math and gambling. From math we know that the odds of winning a coin toss are exactly the same every time. The coin doesn't remember the last try. Hey, sometimes you get lucky. That's why casinos stay in business.

The odds of winning on a single number at roulette are 37 to 1. The odds of winning a second time in a row are also 37 to 1, because the table doesn't know who you are. Every single winning roll beats the odds of 37-to-1. And on and on. The more times in a row you win, the more times you face 37-1 against you. If Russian Roulette were played with a gun containing 37 bullets and one empty chamber, it would quickly lose most of its allure--by a process explained, oddly enough, by Darwin.

Still, in July 1891 at Monte Carlo, the same man broke the 100,000 franc bank at a roulette table three times. Wikipedia reports, "A man named Charles Wells won 23 times out of 30 successive spins of the wheel...Despite hiring private detectives the Casino never discovered Wells's system. Wells later admitted it was just a lucky streak. His system was the high-risk martingale, doubling the stake to make up losses."

The odds against Wells doing that are pretty high. But as every gambler knows, sometimes you do actually hit a number. You don't have to do it a trillion trillion trillion times to be a winner. You only have to do it once. This is explained by Darwin. If you are playing at a table with other gamblers and you win $100 and none of them do, you are just that much better able to outlast them as competitors. When the casino closes, one person at that table must have won more than any of the others. That's why casinos never close. Of course if you gamble long enough, you will eventually lose back more than the others. Your poor spouse tells you this. You know it is true.

But tonight you feel lucky. If you leave the table still holding your pot, you could become as rich as Warren Buffett. Somebody has to. Look at Warren Buffett. Evolution involves holding onto your winnings and investing them wisely. You don't even have to know to how to hold onto your winnings. Evolution does it for you; it is the bank in which useful genetic mutations deposit themselves. There is a very slow rate of return, but it's compounded. At the end of one eon, you get your bank statement and find your pittance has grown into an orang utan. At the end of the next eon, it has grown into Charles Darwin. Scientists, at least 99.875 percent of them, believe that in the long run only useful mutations deposit in this bank. Those mutations with no use, or a negative effect, squander their savings in a long-running bunko game, and die forgotten in the gutter. [1]

The assumption of "Expelled" is that no one could possibly explain how Prof. Monty Python's molecules and their joy-riding crystals could possibly produce life. As luck would have it, at about the same time as the film was being made, teams of scientists at the universities of Oregon and North Carolina explained it. They "determined for the first time the atomic structure of an ancient protein, revealing in unprecedented detail how genes evolved their functions."

"This is the ultimate level of detail," said the evolutionary biologist Joe Thornton. "We were able to see exactly how evolution tinkered with the ancient structure to produce a new function that is crucial to our own bodies today. Nobody's ever done that before." Unfortunately, this momentous discovery was announced almost too late to be mentioned in Ben Stein's film. It wasn't totally too late, but it would have been a great inconvenience for the editor.

What tools did the scientists use? Supercomputer programs and, I quote, "ultra-high energy X-rays from a stadium-sized Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago to chart the precise position of each of the 2,000 atoms in the ancient proteins." What did you expect? They put a molecule under a microscope and picked off bits with their tweezers?


Richard Dawkins: Rafting the River out of Eden

Intelligent Design "scientists" in "Expelled" are offended by being called ignorant. When Stein points out that "Catholics and mainstream Protestant groups" have no problem with the theory of Evolution, he is informed by an ID advocate, "liberal Christians side with anybody against Creationists." Now we have the smoking gun. It is the word liberal. What is the word liberal doing here? The Theory of Evolution is neither liberal nor conservative. It is simply provable or not.

Besides, I would not describe the Vatican as liberal. Look how cautiously it approached Galileo. He only claimed the earth revolved around the sun. No big deal like the earth being ideally placed in the universe. There are millions of conservative scientists, and only a tiny handful disagree with evolution, because rejecting scientific proof is not permissive conservative behavior. In that one use of the word "liberal" the Creationist religious agenda is peeking through. I would translate it as "evolutionists side with anybody against a cherished Evangelical belief." Why are they always trying to push evolutionists over the edge, when they're the ones clinging by their fingernails?

Scientists deserving of the name would share the delight of 99.975 percent of his or her colleagues after learning of the Oregon-North Carolina findings. Then, if they found a plausible reason to doubt them, they would go right to work hoping to win fame by disproving them. A theory, like a molecule, a sea slug and a polar bear, has to fight it out in the survival of the fittest.

"Expelled" is not a bad film from the technical point of view. It is well photographed and edited, sometimes amusing, has well-chosen talking heads, gives an airing to evolutionists however truncated and interrupted with belittling images, and incorporates entertainingly unfair historical footage, as when it compares academia's rejection of Creationism to the erection of the Berlin Wall.

Hilariously, the film argues that evolutionists cannot tolerate dissent. If you were to stand up at a "Catholic and mainstream Protestant" debate and express your support of Creationism, you would in most cases be politely listened to. There are few places as liberal as Boulder, Colo., where I twice debated a Creationist at the Conference on World Affairs, and yet his views were heard politely there. If you were to stand up at an evangelical meeting to defend evolution, I doubt if you would be made to feel as welcome, or that your dissent would be quite as cheerfully tolerated.


Ben Stein and the author of "On the Origin of Species"

In the film, Ben Stein asks predictable questions, and exploits an unending capacity for counterfeit astonishment. Example:

Scientist: "But Darwin did not title his book On the Origin of Life. He titled it, On the Origin of Species."

Ben Stein (nods, grateful to learn this): "I see!"

The more you know about evolution, or simple logic, the more you are likely to be appalled by the film. No one with an ability for critical thinking could watch more than three minutes without becoming aware of its tactics. It isn't even subtle. Take its treatment of Dawkins, who throughout his interviews with Stein is honest, plain-spoken, and courteous. As Stein goes to interview him for the last time, we see a makeup artist carefully patting on rouge and dusting Dawkins' face. After he is prepared and composed, after the shine has been taken off his nose, here comes plain, down-to-earth, workaday Ben Stein. So we get the vain Dawkins with his effete makeup, talking to the ordinary Joe.

I have done television interviews for more than 40 years. I have been on both ends of the questions. I have news for you. Everyone is made up before going on television. If they are not, they will look like death warmed over. There is not a person reading this right now who should go on camera without some kind of makeup. Even the obligatory "shocked neighbors" standing in their front yards after a murder usually have some powder brushed on by the camera person. Was Ben Stein wearing makeup? Of course he was. Did he whisper to his camera crew to roll while Dawkins was being made up? Of course he did. Otherwise, no camera operator on earth would have taped that. That incident dramatizes his approach throughout the film. If you want to study Gotcha! moments, start here.

That is simply one revealing fragment. This film is cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted, cherry-picks quotations, draws unwarranted conclusions, makes outrageous juxtapositions (Soviet marching troops representing opponents of ID), pussy-foots around religion (not a single identified believer among the ID people), segues between quotes that are not about the same thing, tells bald-faced lies, and makes a completely baseless association between freedom of speech and freedom to teach religion in a university class that is not about religion.

And there is worse, much worse. Toward the end of the film, we find that Stein actually did want to title it "From Darwin to Hitler." He finds a Creationist who informs him, "Darwinism inspired and advanced Nazism." He refers to advocates of eugenics as liberal. I would not call Hitler liberal. Arbitrary forced sterilization in our country has been promoted mostly by racists, who curiously found many times more blacks than whites suitable for such treatment.

Ben Stein is only getting warmed up. He takes a field trip to visit one "result" of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. "As a Jew," he says, "I wanted to see for myself." We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. "It's difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place," he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.

[Footnote 1] My statement is correct as far as it goes, but a reader, Steve Vanden-Eykel, supplies a much clearer explanation of the principle. He writes me:

Imagine flipping a coin over and over. For each toss, the odds are fifty-fifty that it will come up heads (a one-in-two chance). The odds of getting two heads in a row is a one-in-two-to-the-power-of-two chance, or one-in-four. Five heads in a row is 1:2^5, or one-in-thirty-two. A hundred heads? 1:2^100, or roughly one in 1.3 trillion trillion trillion (thank Gates for the little calculator program on my computer). A creationist would claim that all the lucky chances that evolution requires is like getting not one, not five, but millions upon millions of heads in a row.

"But the creationists are forgetting something. Evolution ISN'T random, as they often claim. It's selected. You can't really blame creationists for missing this fact...Darwin cleverly concealed it from view by calling his theory 'natural selection.' Let's return to our coin-tossing example, this time including the principle of selection. What if, after every toss, we had the option of not counting it? What if we were allowed to simply discard every toss that came up tails? Now, given the ability to select, how long would it take to rack up a hundred heads in a row? About two hundred throws.

"Once you understand the concept of selection, and how it applies to evolution, you realize that what was thought to be vanishingly unlikely actually becomes virtually inevitable."


Auth (c) 2005 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reprinted by permission of Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.  



Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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