Ben Stein freely admits he isn't a scientist. He's a lawyer, an actor with a signature deadpan delivery, and an eye-medication pitchman.
He's also the star of the new film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," which casts Stein as a "rebel" with "political dynamite" who is blowing the lid off a conspiracy of scientists to silence critics of evolutionary theory.
An underlying premise of Expelled is that creationism (or intelligent design theory, as it's called in the film) is a competing theory to evolution, and that schoolchildren should be exposed to all explanations about human evolution.
On one level, this makes sense. If there are differing theories and explanations for an observed phenomenon, they should be considered. The problem is that not all theories are equally valid. Some theories (such as evolution) have overwhelming evidence to support them, and other theories (such as intelligent design) have no evidence whatsoever to support them. In fact, intelligent design is not a scientific theory at all, and makes no testable claims.
There's a place for creationism/intelligent design theory in schools. It's in religion and social studies classes, not science courses. If Ben Stein and other creationists are truly concerned about giving fairness and equal time to competing theories, they should be demanding that students be taught that mankind came from a tree, as the Maasai tribe of East Africa believe; that according to Hindus, the gods Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma created the world and humans; and that the Incans believed that mankind first arose on two small islands on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. There is just as much evidence for these creation stories (and many others) as for the one told in Genesis.
One refrain is "teach the controversy," but among scientists there is no controversy about whether evolution is true. Evidence of evolution is all around us; for example, flu vaccines need to be reformulated each year because the flu viruses are constantly evolving and adapting to older vaccines.
Other than Ben Stein and a handful of other activists, relatively few people of any expertise, stature, or authority seem particularly concerned about the issue. In fact, when the issue was addressed in a 2005 courtroom (Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District) Judge John Jones III rebuked the intelligent design promoters, citing their "breathtaking inanity" and dishonesty: "Witnesses either testified inconsistently, or lied outright under oath on several occasions." In 1997, Pope John Paul II stated that "New knowledge leads us to recognize the theory of evolution [as] more than a hypothesis," and declared that there was no conflict between faith and evolution.
"Expelled" tries to criticize the theory of evolution for not providing answers to the origin of life. Yet that is a red herring; neither Charles Darwin nor his theory of evolution by natural selection ever claimed to explain life's origins. The question of how life first emerged on our planet remains unanswered, but that has nothing to do with evolution. It's puzzling that Ben Stein and "Expelled" don't seem to understand that. Then again, Ben Stein is no scientist.
- New Anti-Evolution Film Stirs Controversy
- Special Report: Evolution vs. Intelligent Design
- The Greatest Mysteries in Science
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books can be found on his website.