maandag 24 maart 2008

Lying for Jesus? by Richard Dawkins

The blogs are ringing with ridicule. Mark Mathis, duplicitous producer of the much hyped film Expelled, shot himself in the foot so spectacularly that the phrase might have been invented for him. Goals don't come more own than this. How is it possible that a man who makes his living from partisan propaganda could hand so stunning a propaganda coup to his opponents? Hand it to them on a plate, so ignominiously and so UNNECESSARILY.

In writing this for, I have assumed that our readers will already be familiar with the facts of the case, from Pharyngula and the more than 40 other blogs that have picked up the story and are listed at
For the same reason, I shall not discuss the main message of the film -- that American creationist scientists are being victimized for their views -- except to say that it was very much NOT its main message when the film was called Crossroads, and when I, together with PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott and others, were conned into taking part.

Now, to the Good Friday Fiasco itself, Mathis' extraordinary and costly lapse of judgment. Just think about it. His entire film is devoted to the notion that American scientists are being hounded and expelled from their jobs because of opinions that they hold. The film works hard at pressing (no, belabouring with a sledgehammer) all the favourite hot buttons of free speech, freedom of thought, the right of dissent, the right to be heard, the right to discuss issues rather than suppress argument. These are the topics that the film sets out to raise, with particular reference to evolution and 'intelligent design' (wittily described by someone as creationism in a cheap tuxedo). In the course of this film, Mathis tricked a number of scientists, including PZ Myers and me, into taking prominent parts in the film, and both of us are handsomely thanked in the closing credits.

Seemingly oblivious to the irony, Mathis instructed some uniformed goon to evict Myers while he was standing in line with his family to enter the theatre, and threaten him with arrest if he didn't immediately leave the premises. Did it not occur to Mathis -- what would occur any normally polite and reasonable person -- that Myers, having played a leading role in the film, might have been welcomed as an honoured guest to watch it? Or, more cynically, did he not know that PZ is one of the country's most popular bloggers, with a notoriously caustic wit, perfectly placed to set the whole internet roaring with delighted and mocking laughter? I long ago realised that Mathis was deceitful. I didn't know he was a bungling incompetent.

Not just incompetent at public relations, incompetent in his chosen profession of film-making, for the film itself, as I discovered when I saw it on Friday (and this genuinely surprised me) is dull, artless, amateurish, too long, poorly constructed and utterly devoid of any style, wit or subtlety. It bears all the hallmarks of a film-maker who knows nothing about the craft of making films. I'll come to that in a moment.

But first, I should deal with some questions that have arisen over the Good Friday Massacre of Mark Mathis' reputation (some commentators are publicly wondering whether the film will ever be released, speculating that its financial backers will pull out for fear of being tarnished with some of the ridicule?)

In a desperate effort to scrape some of the egg off their faces, the creationist wingnuts are spinning the story to make it look as though PZ and I were 'gatecrashers'. The ill-named 'Discovery' Institute heads its web article, "Richard Dawkins, World Famous Darwinist, Stoops to Gate-crashing Expelled." The article says that I "apparently acknowledged that I was not invited". Mark Mathis himself said something similar about PZ in the Q & A after the showing, when I publicly challenged him to explain why he had expelled him, claiming that this performance was by invitation only, and PZ had not been invited. But, as many commentators have pointed out, this was most certainly not an invitation-only affair. The way to get into this showing of the film was simply to go on the Internet and apply. This was exactly what PZ did. He went on the Web and put his name down for a place at the showing, just like everybody else, including several others from the American Atheists annual conference in Minneapolis. Not a man to hide behind a false name or false beard, PZ openly sported his own. Like many other people, including his daughter and Kristine Harley (see her Amused Muse website), PZ took advantage of the generous offer to let him book guests in as well, and then kindly invited me to be one of them. There was no request to give the names of guests, and no machinery to do so, which was why my name did not appear on the list.

Many people have wondered why, if PZ was expelled, I managed to get in. This has been adduced as further evidence of Mathis' bungling incompetence, but I think that is unfair. It was easy for Mathis to spot PZ Myers' name on the list of those registering in advance. Like all guests, my name was not on any list, and therefore Mathis didn't spot me. So I think he can be absolved of stupidity in not spotting me. But convicted of extreme stupidity in expelling PZ when he spotted him. What was he afraid of? What did he think PZ would do, open fire with a Kalashnikov? Now that I think about it, that would have been all-of-a-piece with the overblown paranoia displayed throughout the film itself.

The whole tone of the film is whiny, paranoid -- pathetic really. The narrator is somebody called Ben Stein. I had not heard of him, but apparently he is well known to Americans, for it is hard to see why else he would have been chosen to front the film. He certainly can't have been chosen for his knowledge of science, nor his powers of logical reasoning, nor his box office appeal (heavens, no), and his speaking voice is an irritating, nasal drawl, innocent of charm and of consonants. I suppose that makes it a good voice for conveying the whingeing paranoia that I referred to, so maybe that was qualification enough.

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 director who illustrates it by cutting to a picture of a Lord, then a privy, and then a seal. Mathis' film is positively barking with Lord Privy Seals. We get an otherwise pointless cut to Nikita Krushchev hammering the table (to illustrate something like 'emotional outburst'). There are similarly clunking and artless cuts to a guillotine, fist fights, and above all to the Berlin wall and Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps.

The alleged association between Darwinism and Nazism is harped on for what seems like hours, and it is quite simply an outrage. We are supposed to believe that Hitler was influenced by Darwin. Hitler was ignorant and bonkers enough for his hideous mind to have imbibed some sort of garbled misunderstanding of Darwin (along with his very ungarbled understanding of the anti-semitism of Martin Luther, and of his own never-renounced Roman Catholic religion) but it is hardly Darwin's fault if he did. My own view, frequently expressed (for example in the The Selfish Gene and especially in the title chapter of A Devil's Chaplain) is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you'll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein's own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism. Anyone who thinks that has any bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsity of Darwin's theory of evolution is either an unreasoning fool or a cynical manipulator of unreasoning fools. I will not speculate as to which category includes Ben Stein and Mark Mathis.

Stein has no talent for comedy, as he demonstrates in a weird joke about scratching his back, which falls completely flat. But his attempt to do tragedy is even worse. He visits Dachau and, when informed by the guide that lots of Jews had been killed there, he buries his face in his hands as though this is the first time he has heard of it. Obviously it was not his intention, but I thought his rotten acting was an insult to the memory of the victims.

More sinister than the artless Lord Privy Seals, and the self-indulgent and wholly illicit playing of the Nazi trump card, the film goes shamelessly for cheap laughs at the expense of scientists and scholars who are making honest attempts to explain difficult points. Cheap laughs that could only be raised in an audience of scientific ignoramuses (and here Mathis' propaganda instincts cannot be faulted: he certainly knows his target audience). One example is the treatment of the philosopher Michael Ruse: a decent man, bluff, bearded, articulate, and with a genuine and sincere desire to explain difficult ideas clearly. Stein asked Ruse how life originated. Ruse's immediate impulse (as mine would have been) was to launch into an honest effort to explain a difficult scientific idea. He began by saying that he doesn't know how life originated, and nor does anybody else. At this point in his interview, Ruse probably had no notion that his interlocuter had a completely different agenda to promote, with no hint of sincerity to balance his own. Ruse patiently explained that the origin of life (nothing to do with the Darwinian theory itself but the necessary precursor of Darwinian evolution) is an interesting and unsolved mystery, one that scientists are actively working on. By way of example, Ruse could have chosen any of a number of current theories. He chose just one (it would have taken too long to explain them all) purely as an illustration of the kind of properties such a theory must have. He happened to choose the theory proposed by the Scottish chemist Graham Cairns-Smith, that organic life was preceded by a strange and intriguing world of replicating patterns on the surfaces of crystals in inorganic clays. At no time did Ruse say he believed the Cairns-Smith theory, only that it was the KIND of theory that scientists are actively examining, as a CANDIDATE for the origin of evolution. Stein just loved it. Mud! MUD! The sarcasm in his grating, nasal voice was palpable. Maybe this was when Ruse realised that he had been had. Certainly it was at this point that he started to show signs of exasperation, although he may still have thought that Stein was merely stupid, rather than pursuing a malevolent and clandestine agenda. Stein kept returning, throughout the film, to the phrase "on the backs of crystals", and the sycophantic audience in the Minneapolis cinema dutifully tittered every time.

Another example. Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred. It's the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could. I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be. I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet. Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws. So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots ("oh NOOOOO, of course we aren't talking about God, this is SCIENCE") and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn't rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist. I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar -- semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such 'Directed Panspermia' was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent 'crane' (to quote Dan Dennett). My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe). Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen. That, for goodness sake, is the creationists' whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella! Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity -- and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently -- comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.

This 'Ultimate 747' argument, as I called it in The God Delusion, may or may not persuade you. That is not my concern here. My concern here is that my science fiction thought experiment -- however implausible -- was designed to illustrate intelligent design's closest approach to being plausible. I was most emphaticaly NOT saying that I believed the thought experiment. Quite the contrary. I do not believe it (and I don't think Francis Crick believed it either). I was bending over backwards to make the best case I could for a form of intelligent design. And my clear implication was that the best case I could make was a very implausible case indeed. In other words, I was using the thought experiment as a way of demonstrating strong opposition to all theories of intelligent design.

Well, you will have guessed how Mathis/Stein handled this. I won't get the exact words right (we were forbidden to bring in recording devices on pain of a $250,000 fine, chillingly announced by some unnamed Gauleiter before the film began), but Stein said something like this. "What? Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN INTELLIGENT DESIGN." "Richard Dawkins BELIEVES IN ALIENS FROM OUTER SPACE." I can't remember whether this was the moment in the film where we were regaled with another Lord Privy Seal cut to an old science fiction movie with some kind of android figure – that may have been used in the service of trying to ridicule Francis Crick (again, dutiful titters from the partisan audience).

Enough on the film itself. Quite apart from anything else, it is drearily boring, the tedium exacerbated by the grating monotony of Stein's voice. At the end, Mathis came on the stage to answer questions. He had of course taken the precaution of removing the one individual whom he apparently saw as a likely source of knowledgeable questions, Professor Myers. He must have been surprised when I stood up and asked him to explain why he had expelled PZ, given that the film was an attack on such expulsions, and given that the film's acknowledgments had thanked PZ for his role in the film. Mathis trotted out the lie that Myers had been excluded because he was not invited. This seemed to satisfy the loyal audience, even though they presumably knew perfectly well that they hadn't been invited either, and that they, like PZ, had simply booked their seats on the Internet. I pursued the matter until the audience's hostile demeanour persuaded me that there was no point in continuing. The point was made to all whose minds were not completely blinded by religious zeal.

The New York Times picked up the story, and caught Mathis in the act of perpetrating yet another piece of dubious spin-doctoring.

Mark Mathis, a producer of the film who attended the screening, said that "of course" he had recognized Dr. Dawkins, but allowed him to attend because "he has handled himself fairly honorably, he is a guest in our country and I had to presume he had flown a long way to see the film."

As I said before, Mathis almost certainly detected Myers' name on the list of those who signed up on the Internet. Since my name was not on that list, it is highly likely that Mathis didn't spot me until the moment I stood up in the Question session, when it was too late to expel me. So all that stuff about allowing me to attend because I have handled myself fairly honourably is almost certainly dishonourable spinning. As for the implication that I might have flown all the way from England to see his disreputable film, the very idea is as ludicrous as the film itself. Like PZ Myers, I was in Minneapolis for the conference of the American Atheists.

Josh Timonen and Kristine Harley took up the cudgels. Josh drew attention to the digraceful victimization of scientists espousing the Stork Theory of reproduction, by hardline members of the 'Sex Theory' establishment. And Kristine asked Mathis to explain what had become of a film called Crossroads which had mysteriously morphed itself into Expelled. The import of her question was the widely known fact, which I have already mentioned, that PZ and I had been tricked into participating in Crossroads without ever being told that the true purpose of the film was the one conveyed by the later title Expelled -- the alleged expulsion of creationists from universities. Mathis said that it was common practice for films under production to have working titles, which later change in the final version. That is indeed true. However, yet again, Mathis shows himself up as a wilfull deceiver. As Kristine herself said on her blog (

It would appear that Expelled's producer Mark Mathis was not being truthful when he told me tonight that Crossroads was a 'working title' for the film Expelled. As Wesley Elsberry points out, the domain for Expelled was purchased before most, if not all, of the interviews were conducted -- and yet Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, PZ Myers, and others were told they were being interviewed for a film called Crossroads.

Mr. Mark Mathis, do you want to come here and explain yourself?

Could Mathis have been sincere when he originally told PZ and me the film was an honest attempt to examine evolution and intelligent design? The evidence that they had already purchased the Expelled domain name argues against this. Certainly Mathis' friendly demeanour disarmed me into cooperating with him -- indeed, I went out of my way to HELP him on his visit to Britain -- in a way that I never would have if I had had the slightest suspicion that his outfit was in fact a creationist front. I may have misremembered the details of our exchanges, by eMail and by telephone, but I vividly remember his reassuring me, over the telephone, that he was on the side of science, and he made no attempt to distance himself from my sarcastic jokes about 'Intelligent Design'. I am reluctantly driven to wonder whether he is an inveterate liar, as well as a dreadful film-maker. Yet another example of Lying for Jesus?

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