Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Scientist and the Salesman

It's finally here! I've been hearing and reading about it for months now, and last night, its direct physical manifestation just lightly brushed my sphere of influence. The wait is over.

I am referring, of course, to the professionally filmed, expensively hyped, 90-minute ball of crazy known as Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary in the spirit of Michael Moore (with Ben Stein subtly and cleverly substituted for Moore) about how the Scientific Establishment has circled its wagons around the indefensible dogma of evolution, ruthlessly persecuting any brave soul who dares to question Darwin's God.

The experience I refer to above took the form of a preview I saw on television last night. It was an interesting and illustrative subset of the propaganda this film is built from, and here's how it went down:

A decrepit, tweed-clad instructor dodders across the front of a classroom, sharply striking his pointer across the blackboard while dictating the mandates of Darwinian Evolution. Bored students sit in their chairs, hoping they can survive the inhuman terror of this lecture without drawing too much attention to themselves. Suddenly a brave hand shoots skyward. The teacher stops, notices the hand, and calls on its owner to speak his mind. The questioning student peaks out from behind his classmate, and is revealed to be the delightful, irreverent, graying little scamp Ben Stein. He then gets all up in Professor Crank-Ass McCrotchety's tired old grille by asking The Question That Shall Not Be Asked: "How did life begin in the first place?"

This, apparently, is too much for our poor, pathetic instructor to handle. He stamps his pointer on the ground and trembles with silent rage, his shoulders almost audibly groaning under the weight of his worn out, indefensible dogma.

This isn't exactly subtle imagery we're dealing with here, folks.

There's a lot of information in this preview, but not the kind of information that the filmmakers were hoping to get across. It is, in fact, a beautiful illustration about how the Creationist movement is, always has been, and always will be wrong. Not just wrong, but fractally wrong. You can focus on almost any component of their argument, at almost any level of detail, and find the same stunningly high density of muddled, ignorant, incomprehensible and irrelevant thought.

I don't need to delve into the details of how the film itself gets things wrong. Others have already done that job. What I'm more interested in here is the specific message conveyed in this preview -- the message that is one of the central themes of the movie.

Actually, let's go back a bit, because there's something else I want to point out first. There's something else the preview gets wrong; something so howlingly obvious that it provides a great view into the ignorant or dishonest (I'm honestly not sure which) mindset that could give birth to such a movie. In this little vignette, the instructor is lecturing on the theory of evolution, and Ben Stein stops him cold with a question about how life began. You don't need to think very hard to realize what is wrong with this picture. It makes about as much sense as derailing a lecture on Newtonian Mechanics by asking how the Big Bang happened.

But back to the main point. What they're trying to say is that the Scientific Establishment, embodied in the image of this crusty old monster, has run up against a brick wall and is so embarrassed by this fact that they shun anyone who dares to point out the holes in their theories. Fortunately, this is itself a testable claim, and the makers of Expelled are even nice enough to suggest a good experiment. I know the scene in the preview was meant to be allegorical, but screw that. Do exactly what Ben Stein did. If you're currently enrolled in a biology class, ask the instructor how life began. If not, seek out a biology professor at your nearest university, come to him during his office hours, and ask him to explain it to you.

Of course, you might be unlucky enough to get a response that's dismissive or condescending. There are assholes in science just as much as in any other profession. But, in the vast majority of cases, I predict that you'll get a response more along the lines of: "That's a really interesting question. Unfortunately, we don't know the answer right now. But here are some popular theories..."

At that point, the biggest problem you'll have is getting him to shut up about it.

The creators of Expelled, like all Creationists and pseudoscientists, don't just misunderstand what science is about. They misunderstand what scientists are about. I've known quite a few professional scientists in my life, and nearly all of them have three things in common:
  1. They love their jobs.
  2. They really love talking about their jobs.
  3. They really, really love difficult problems.
That last one is especially important, because it is a window into what makes science work. To many people -- but especially to people defending a dogma -- a difficult, unanswered question is an embarrassment. But to a scientist, it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity to earn prestige and research money, sure, but more fundamentally, it's an opportunity to do what most people love to do: solve a difficult problem.

I had a friend once who was an insurance salesman. And when I say he was an insurance salesman, I don't just mean he was a guy who sold insurance. I mean that he was, in just about every way imaginable, the embodiment of what you would expect an insurance salesman to be. And I recall that, in a rare moment of self-reflection, he told me something really interesting. When talking about his job, he explained to me exactly what it really was that he did -- what, in fact, all successful salesmen do:
invent a problem, and then offer a solution to that problem.

Which is exactly what the Creationist crowd has been doing for the last 20+ years. And the culmination of that is the current ID movement, embodied in this film. They're selling you a product -- Belief in a Creator and His Morals (conveniently interpreted by religious leaders, of course) -- and the first step in selling that product is to make it the solution to a problem. Science has gone off the rails! Scientists are unwilling to confront the unanswerable questions that their dogma rests on! Only you can prevent this travesty, by pushing for Creationism Intelligent Design in our schools!

Meanwhile, the scientists are out there, busily looking for already existing problems to find solutions to. It doesn't always pay as well, but it's a lot more rewarding.

Further Reading