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Monday, April 21, 2008

The Propaganda Arm of the Intelligent Design Movement…

posted by on April 21 at 10:06 AM

… is off to a brilliant start with Expelled, an agitdoc proposing that a vast conspiracy has risen out of the academy to shut down free thought and inquiry. The evidence for this supposed conspiracy is completely anecdotal (here, an underperforming assistant professor being denied tenure, there, an unpaid research assistant being moved to another office at the Smithsonian), but that hasn’t stopped the movie from doing a rollicking business at the box office.

The Discovery Institute has been covering the movie obsessively on its blogs: Ten of the last ten posts on its Evolution News & Views blog are dedicated to the movie (sample headlines: “Discovery Salutes Expelled; “Is There a Connection Between Hitler and Darwin?”; and, my favorite, “Opponents of Academic Freedom Using Outlandish Rhetoric). Officially, however, the Seattle think tank denies any connection to the documentary. This official position is belabored during the movie itself, in a scene where host Ben Stein wanders the streets of downtown Seattle struggling to locate the organization’s headquarters. There are reasons to doubt this official story (in an unguarded interview with the Christian film site Past the Popcorn, Stein explains he learned about arguments for intelligent design from one of the film’s producers, Walt Ruloff, and someone named “Steven Meyer”—presumably a transcription error for Stephen C. Meyer, vice-president of the Discovery Institute and cofounder of the intelligent design movement).

But even if you charitably assume that the Discovery Institute was not directly involved with the production, an alarming percentage of the people who helped make the film have Northwest connections. The production company is located in Vancouver, B.C.. Producer Walt Ruloff lives outside of Vancouver and made his millions selling a software company to Microsoft. Almost all of the intelligent design proponents interviewed in the film are affiliated with the Discovery Institute, including Meyer, senior fellows David Berlinski, William Dembski, and Jonathan Wells, and fellow Paul Nelson. Meanwhile, several of the academics who claim to have been discriminated against for their ideas about intelligent design have a Seattle connection. Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer who was denied tenure at Iowa State University, received his PhD from and did postdoctoral work at the University of Washington. He is now a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow. Robert J. Marks II, an engineer at Baylor University (which declined to host his intelligent design website), taught at the UW for 25 years and served as the faculty advisor for the UW’s chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ for 15 years.

So when the Discovery Institute tries to brag about box office performance in my hometown, it annoys me:

Across the country this weekend, people did a rare thing and turned out in droves for a documentary. In Ames, Iowa the line to get into Expelled stretched around the block Friday night. In Seattle theaters were crammed with students—on a Saturday afternoon, no less.

In the spirit of anecdotal sharing, I’d like to point out that Pacific Place at the 3:10 pm Saturday screening was hardly “crammed with students.” There were about 20 people in attendance, most of them sweet, delusional older couples. A couple of teenagers pranced in about halfway through, but I suspect they, like me, had not bought a ticket to this particular show. (Don’t worry, Pacific Place—I did buy a ticket to 10,000 B.C. and several items from the concessions stand.)

My review of Expelled will be in this week’s issue of The Stranger. For now, please enjoy the National Center for Science Education’s anti-Expelled website,

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Ben Stein presumably knows, assuming he has access to a map and the Discovery Institute's address, that their offices aren't downtown. He's a stone cold liar.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 10:16 AM

I thought they were on 3rd.

The Discovery Institute is our secular city's shame. And Mars Hill Church.

Posted by max solomon | April 21, 2008 10:23 AM

Darwin Award!

Er, right? No? Oh.

Posted by elenchos | April 21, 2008 10:27 AM

Expelled's showing this weekend is actually very bad. Compared to what they've spent on marketing, with this opening they stand to lose their shirts.

For comparison Sicko and Fahrenheit 9/11 earned far, far more on their opening weekends while opening on fewer screens.

Posted by Dave M | April 21, 2008 10:28 AM

I was more than a little horrified to see this playing at the Uptown. Ben Stein is such a fucking waste of flesh.

Posted by kid icarus | April 21, 2008 10:44 AM

Expelled earned $3.4m on 1052 screens ($3,232/screen). By contrast, Sicko, the last highly partisan issuementary, did $23.9m on 441 screens ($54,195/screen).

And I'm willing to bet that a good portion of Expelled's revenue is from people who strongly disagree but want to know the specifics so they can talk about it intelligently (to be fair, the same is true for Moore's dreck, I'm sure).

So I'm not sure it's all that accurate to characterize Expelled as having done "rollicking business" in its opening weekend. Better adjectives would be "disappointing" or "dismal."

Posted by also | April 21, 2008 10:46 AM

Not to mention the fact that the president of the Discovery Institute had a butt-long editorial in the Seattle Times last week:

Posted by PopTart | April 21, 2008 10:46 AM

You guys, an insane documentary anchored by Ben Stein isn't remotely comparable to Michael Moore. I mean, Ruloff may have set expectations pretty high in the LA Times last week, but a $3.15 million gross (for a movie with production and marketing in the "single-digit millions") with an almost $3,000 per-screen average isn't bad at all for a documentary. They will almost certainly recoup all costs and then some after DVD sales.

But I'm far more worried about the ideological success of the movie. Did you know legislation inspired by the film's topic ("academic freedom") is being pushed Louisiana, Florida, and Missouri right now?

Posted by annie | April 21, 2008 10:58 AM

I thought their offices were in West Seattle, in the building with the ginormous flag out front. My mistake.

It's so depressing to live in Jesusland.

Posted by Fnarf | April 21, 2008 11:05 AM

Someone should poll the people seeing the movie and ask if they are seeing it because they agree with it or because they want to make fun of it. My roommates and I are trying to figure out a way to see it without boosting their ratings. It sounds too awful to miss.

Posted by hmm | April 21, 2008 11:08 AM

Yeah, well I hope you Stranger folks remember what idiots the Discovery Institute are the next time you extol the virtues of road tolling - as they're also the biggest local advocates for that onerous set of (yes, dare I say it - elitist!) proposals.

Posted by Mr. X | April 21, 2008 11:08 AM

Saying "legislation is being pushed" or a "law has been introduced" is meaningless. Digging up scary bills that some obscure state lege wrote is a classic fundraising canard. And by the same token, fringe legislators introduce stillborn bills as red meat for their base.

Now if Annie has an example of a bill that has a snowball's chance to move through the statehouse, that would be interesting. Otherwise, this thing is just a hook that both sides use to hang their donation letters on.

P.S. Can I nominate Ben Stein for a Darwin Award for being too dumb to avoid trans fats or whatever he eventually dies of? Even if he has kids?

Posted by elenchos | April 21, 2008 11:10 AM

What Annie said.

Posted by Mr. Poe | April 21, 2008 11:29 AM

@12: If you're not worried about it, that's your prerogative. But state legislatures and local school boards have historically been the route by which creationism gets into public schools. Post-Dover, the intelligent design movement has obviously switched strategies from "teach the controversy" to "teachers should be able to teach whatever they want"; these academic freedom bills are really the front line for ID proponents. Currently the Florida bill seems the most serious; granted, I strongly doubt it would pass constitutional muster. But it's still smart to be aware of what's happening.

Posted by annie | April 21, 2008 11:54 AM

Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennysylvania, has a pretty scathing op-ed piece on "Expelled" up over at today:

Posted by COMTE | April 21, 2008 12:02 PM

@15: a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets it's pants on. this is what the american right understands about america: americans are shitkicking rubes. the "left" overestimates the intelligence of the voting public every fucking time.

Posted by max solomon, proud elitist | April 21, 2008 12:17 PM

There's a much bigger issue that no one seems to be discussing; The Discovery Institute has enormous power in shaping Seattle policy, specifically transportation, through their subsidiary Cascadia.

Many who have worked in political and non-profit circles have shared with me their concerns about directly, or indirectly legitimizing the embarrassing (and dangerous) anti-science of Intelligent Design through their partnerships with Cascadia, and acceptance of Cascadia-related funding.

The Discovery Institute has repeatedly proven they make no distinction between scholarship and propaganda, and a quick Google reveals countless instances of unethical and manipulative behavior to forward their religious agenda.

Someone needs to begin asking Seattle a very serious question of whether forward-thinking progressives should be affiliated with Cascadia. Perhaps some local, independent paper, not afraid to challenge the status quo?

Posted by Scott Kennedy | April 22, 2008 4:45 AM

just saw Expelled... Ben Stein's goal in making Expelled (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 | April 22, 2008 3:12 PM

Isn't it funny how the progressive, liberal, atheist, humanist, types often refuse to look at or respect the opinions of others, yet they preach tolerance and open-mindedness, all the while pounding down opposing viewpoints and working to pass legislation to limit the free-speech of opposing views? Grow up lefties!

Posted by Balanced | April 25, 2008 1:01 PM

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