April 22, 2008

Expelled and Holocaust Irony

If you're not familiar with Ben Stein's recent involvement with a film called "Expelled," I'll give you the short version and you can check out the rest on Wikipedia and/or through a Google search.

Essentially, Stein is the host of an anti-science screed of a movie which seeks to get people all worked up against science, biology, atheists and Planned Parenthood. I first heard of this film when he fooled some prominent biologists into being interviewed, and again later when one of the interviewees was barred from seeing the film in public. The new York Times reviewed the film and called it "a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry."

I hadn't discussed this story before because it was all over the atheist blogosphere. But the latest development in this saga has me really upset.

If you're a skeptic, you've likely heard the name "Michael Shermer." He's the founder of the Skeptics Society and of Skeptic magazine. In addition to debunking psychics and other bullshit artists, he has written books on the reasons that people believe strange things and on pseudohistory.

It was from Shermer that I first learned about the deeply delusional world of Holocaust Deniers. Before I read Shermer, I didn't realize the depth of denial some people harbor regarding the Holocaust. I found it eye opening; it was a moment in my life when I saw more clearly how the delusional thinking that is the antithesis of skepticism is not harmless. The danger of delusion, of believing things that make us happy, was something I had suspected. But it became more real and more visceral when I read about Holocaust denial.

Shermer has spent a great deal of time debunking Holocaust Deniers. Which is why I am upset at what Stein and his fellow filmmakers have done.

In their linking of evolutionary biology to all the evils of the world, they have painted creationism skeptics as contributors to the Holocaust on the oft-repeated but unsupported belief that Hitler's atrocities were driven by atheism and evolutionary biology. In their effort to smear Shermer in the film, as a person who has opposed the creationist delusion, they've convinced some Jews that this champion of the facts of the Holocaust is somehow responsible for the Holocaust.

This came to the attention of Richard Dawkins, and he's posted about it on his website in an entry called "Open Letter to a victim of Ben Stein's lying propaganda." The short version is that after seeing Expelled, a moviegoer contacted Shermer and criticized him as someone who thinks "that it was okay for [his] great-grandparents to die in the Holocaust!"

I find this to be a very sad and upsetting irony, and an example of the infectiousness of delusion. Ben Stein and the other makers of Expelled have taken up their own kind of Holocaust denial, denying the reasons why the Holocaust happened and hijacking it for their own creationist purposes. In the process they have smeared innocent people.

What they have done is absolutely despicable.

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Posted by James at April 22, 2008 12:40 AM
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I did hear about this waste of celluloid, in the context of Dawkins almost not being allowed in, and another guy getting kicked out.

Now I'm seeing ads for this movie on TV. I stick my fingers in my ears and hum the "Speed Racer" theme until it goes away.

Note that I do this only to briefly ignore annoying things that are on TV, and not to cope with things I don't like in the real world - unlike the gang of numbskulls who will love this film for coddling them with some of the twisted beliefs that shape the tiny, frightened, fantasy-filled universe they inhabit.

If only it were a real universe, we could just seal the borders for our mutual convenience. Alas, there seems to be no way to contain delusional thought any more than you can reverse entropy.

(Perhaps "numbskulls" is too harsh. Then again, I'm not in a sympathetic mood.)

Posted by: Julie at April 22, 2008 3:51 AM

Actually that part of the story is at least amusing -- PZ Myers wasn't allowed in (presumably because they thought as an atheist/scientist he'd make a fuss), but his "guest" and family were allowed in, and his guest was Richard Dawkins. Dawkins and Myers were both in the movie (I believe). Most hilarious is Dawkins' review of the movie, as he's never heard of Ben Stein before. I just thought his description was hilarious. The movie, however, is no laughing matter.

Posted by: Maggie at April 22, 2008 9:08 AM

There's a funny follow-on to the PZ Myers expulsion from the theatre saga. Later the filmmakers held a "press dial-in" conference call where members of the press could call in and submit questions via email for the filmmakers to discuss... a sort of "phone press conference." But only the filmmakers would actually be able to speak and be heard by all the listeners.

PZ Myers called in early before the call got underway and overheard one of the filmmakers telling another one what the "administrative call in code" was, which would allow one to speak and be heard by all participants. Having heard this, PZ promptly hung up and dialed in again using the secret code. Then he listened to the ensuing disinformation conference until he couldn't stand it any more and finally spoke up about the utter ridiculousness of the notion of a connection between evolution and nazism.

Needless to say, the person who had put the event together was not happy to hear PZ Myers speaking to their press audience. Before PZ hung up he encouraged all the reporters who were interested in the truth to contact him once the filmmakers were done feeding them disinformation.

Did I mention that somebody who dialed in to the phone conference recorded it? If you poke around on PZ Myers blog Pharyngula you should be able to find it.

On topic: I agree James. It's a sad turn of events that someone would actually believe that dreck that weds atheism and evolutionary theory to nazism. That Michael Shermer of all people would be associated with nazism boggles the mind.

Posted by: Chuck S. at April 22, 2008 12:34 PM

just saw Expelled, Ben Stein's goal in making this movie (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.

Posted by: patrick at April 22, 2008 5:52 PM

Too bad he couldn't do it honestly.

Posted by: James at April 22, 2008 5:56 PM


That is an interesting conclusion. How did you arrive at it? What evidence is there that Stein wanted to broaden our minds. Suggesting that there is "No Intelligence Allowed" does not seem a free thinking statement to me. He seems to be trying to paint those he is criticizing as unintelligent.

Posted by: briwei at April 22, 2008 6:07 PM

What does "behind-the-scenes worldview that we tend to take for granted" mean?

Posted by: Julie at April 22, 2008 6:13 PM

Just to be devil's advocate here, you wrote:

I first heard of this film when he fooled some prominent biologists into being interviewed, and again later when one of the interviewees was barred from seeing the film in public. The new York Times reviewed the film and called it "a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry."

That sounds kind of like Michael Moore's MO, doesn't it? Of course, more people probably know of Moore than Stein, so Stein was probably more able to dupe his "interviewees."

I often wonder if discussing people like Stein is unwise as spending what Barbara Bush would call our "beautiful minds" on him gives him and his crazy ideas power. However, I do believe it is important to know your enemy.

Posted by: Patti M. at April 23, 2008 8:57 AM

One of the things that Shermer and his pseudohistory fighters have concluded is that free speech is necessary to combat this sort of bullshit.

Under the guise of "free thought" we have Stein and co's brand of wishful thinking. The silence of rational people gives their ideas power.

I won't put up with it when I see people like Michael Shermer taking the brunt.

Posted by: James at April 23, 2008 9:22 AM

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