Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Expelled: The Movie

According to my traffic log, this post has become one of the most frequently visited in my entire blog. Apparently it shows up high on the top of Google searches for info about the movie. But since this post has little information, I figured I should probably rewrite this with all the information concerning the movie I can put together for everyone coming here looking for such things. The original post is below.

First off, what is this movie? Expelled claims to be a documentary showing the persecution of those supporting Intelligent Design in the academic community.

In reality, it's nothing less than a distorted propaganda piece.

In order to produce the film, the producers knowingly lied to the evolution supporters it interviewed regarding the nature and purpose of the film. This was done in the case of PZ Myers, as well as Richard Dawkins, and Eugenie Scott in which they told they were being interviewed for a film called Crossroads which was intended to be a balanced look at evolution and Intelligent Design (we'll see later just how "even" this is). Although producer Mark Mathis has claimed that this was a "working title", this is belied by the fact that the domain name for Expelled was purchased two months before the interviews took place while no domain was ever purchased for any film of the name Crossroads.

In this film, they also claim to show how ID proponents were persecuted. However, the film apparently grossly misrepresents the cases of ID sympathizers.

One of their martyrs is Guillermo Gonzalez who was recently denied tenure from Iowa State. The ID crowd claims it was because of his ID views. They even went so far as to obtain departmental Emails under the freedom of information act and then quote mine from them. But in reality, the major factor cited was the wholesale drop in actual academic productivity and publications since beginning at Iowa state and failure to move into a primary position in the department. The film also ignores the fact that tenure in the Astronomical field is also notoriously hard to achieve, with only 4 out of 12 candidates at Iowa state gaining tenure in the past decade. Also cited in the tenure denial was the underwhelming lack of funds that Gonzalez was able to attract in grants for the university. Apparently, none of this information is passed along in the film.

Also presented in the film is the case of Richard Sternberg, who, on his way out of the door, put a paper by Discovery Institute Founder, Stephen Meyer into the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a scientific journal he edited. However, it became apparent that by allowing himself to be one of the reviewers and not used an assistant editor, he had intentionally biased the selection process which typically requires that reviewers not be inherently favorable to the topic as Sternberg was. As such, the council incharge of the paper, "deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content..."

Caroline Crocker is another ID advocate presented in the film, who claims that she was discriminated against and her academic freedom restricted for inserting pro-ID rhetoric into her cell biology course at George Mason University. She claimed that evolution was false because, "[n]o one has ever seen a dog turn into a cat in a laboratory." This is, of course, a pathetic strawman version of evolution and reveals either a profound misunderstanding of basic biology (which would have made Crocker inappropriate for the position) or outright dishonesty to students (which is similarly inappropriate). Regardless, Expelled and other ID advocates hide behind the guise of "academic freedom". GMU spokesman, Daniel Walsch, noted that, "teachers also have a responsibility to stick to subjects they were hired to teach .... Does academic freedom "literally give you the right to talk about anything, whether it has anything to do with the subject matter or not? The answer is no." Incidentally, although the GMU had clear grounds for dismissal, Crocker was not fired, although her contract was not renewed.

Meanwhile, while the film proclaims to support academic inquiry and open discussion, press conferences have been staged with pre-written questions and actual questions from the press, being screened. Similarly, the producers have been attempting to control who is and is not able to see the movie and attempts to disinvite and remove people that are not sympathetic to their cause. Similarly, they have lied and claimed showings were canceled to those they deemed undesirable.

This is just a symptom of the refusal to offer itself for criticism (as with the rest of the ID movement). The film doesn't even bother defining Intelligent Design nor Evolution. Instead, it merely attempts to conflate Evolution with Nazis, eugenics, atheism, and racism. None of these are actually true.

Recently, Expelled has also become the target of a lawsuit for plagiarism when it was realized that an animation used in the film was a close replica of a film produced for Harvard by XVIVO. This film had earlier been used for profit in lectures by William Dembski who used an altered version with a Creationist narration and the Harvard credits stripped. Although some creationists would try to argue that the producers of Expelled tried to make their own animation separate than the XVIVO one, the Expelled animation makes the same simplifications, leaving out the same proteins. Additionally, Dembski admitted to being in contact with the producers who long ago set aside money for what was to be an inevitable law suit. Thus, we can only conclude that they fully understood their culpability in the infringement.

Additionally, to promote the film, the company is offering rebates and discounts, specifically targeting "faith ministries and organizations, church groups, youth and university groups" (and they wonder why people see a religious agenda? Especially when they keep giving screenings at infamous creationist "museums" and other religious institutions).

So, as we can see, Expelled has absolutely pathetic standards. It lied to get interviews, distorts positions, hypocritically stifles questioning, and intends to bribe students from classrooms to see this propaganda which doesn't even define its own position, but rather relies on emotional appeals and falsehoods to make their arguments.

Original post is below

The intarweb is buzzing about a new creationist "documentary" about how they've been unfairly kicked out of the scientific establishment (as if they deserved to be let in, in the first place after Behe affirmed that "there are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred" during the Dover Trial pg 22-23). The film is reported to star Ben Stein and a "Cast of thousands".

However, it doesn't look like I can find any supporting evidence for the actual existence of this film, either on Ben Stein's official website or on IMDB which frequently lists films that aren't even in pre-production. Needless to say, I'm somewhat skeptical that this is in any way real.

Update: Looks like a number of other sources have confirmed the film. Of course, being the dishonest lot they are, the ID crowd has had to resort to deception to get interviews. Shame I wasn't interviewed. After all, I'm a perfect example of "Anti-ID intolerance". Sounds like just what they'd want!

Monday, August 13, 2007


Just got back from watching the Perseids with some of my roommates. Wasn't the best show this year, but we did see about 3 really good ones in ~2 hours. I took my telescope along, so of course, I had to be looking for something in that when the first of the three came along.

The second one, however, wasn't a Perseid at all. Instead of coming from the northeast, it came from the west, leaving a long smoke tail as it streaked all the way across the sky and fragmented. The last one was one of the Perseids and was very bright, with a thin smoke trail.

Aside from meteors, I was able to find a few objects in my telescope despite not having my glasses with me, which made it difficult to get my bearings. Easiest for me to find is always M57, a planetary nebula known as the "Ring Nebula". I also found another planetary nebula, the Dumbell, which is M27.

I also managed to find M13 and M15, which are both globular clusters. The Andromeda galaxy was on my list, but unfortunately the leg of Pegasus in which it's located stayed below the treeline for quite awhile and was then obscured by clouds once it would have been up far enough to see.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Perhaps they should come with warning labels

Plastic bags come with warning labels that notify users to keep them away from small children due to the suffocation hazard. But it seems that, in France, they may want to add another group that needs to keep away from plastic bags: Religious idiots.

Incase you weren't aware, plastic bags are not to be placed over someone's head in order to "trap the devil", during an exorcism.

And yes, idiots hurting or killing people while performing exorcisms looks like it's a common enough occurance that I've added a tag for it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Review - The Neptune File

Last spring I was given a copy of The Neptune File. It’s been quietly sitting on my shelf, but I finally picked it up a few weeks ago.

As anyone that’s familiar with the history of science should be able to tell you, it’s not the quiescent field of fact finding that it often appears to be. Rather, new discoveries can often cause contentious situations (although such situations are not necessarily indicative of discoveries).

I’ve written about one such situation before in which there was a large debate over the so called “spiral nebulae” and the subsequent realization that these were actually “island universes” or, as we call them today, galaxies.

Neptune File illustrates another situation of this sort: The discovery and aftermath of the discovery of Neptune.

The story as it is told here, starts with an even earlier discovery: that of Uranus by William Herschel in 1781. At that time, the big thing for astronomers to do was to determine precise orbits of known planets, comets, and other celestial bodies. Knowing where they should be allows one to determine their location on the Earth, so having precise coordinates was especially important to seafarers long before the invention of GPS satellites.

Before precise measurement techniques were available, rough orbits were good enough, but eventually, astronomers realized that the planets weren’t behaving as predicted by the simplistic models. What was needed was to add in the gravitational effects of the other planets (namely Jupiter and Saturn since they’re the most massive by far).

But even adding in these perturbations from the innermost gas giants couldn’t quite account for why Uranus’ orbit would slowly drift off from predictions. Many hypotheses were given to explain this, such as some sort of ether, differential gravity, or even comet impacts, but none of them stood up to any scrutiny.

It slowly became clear that the only possible explanation was that there was another planet yet to be discovered, that was exerting gravitational influences. But how to find it? Uranus’ discovery was somewhat serendipitous when Herschel stumbled upon it almost by accident. Hoping to find another that way, especially one that should be further away and thus move slower, be smaller, and fainter, seemed somewhat unlikely.

Undergraduate astronomer John Couch Adams realized that it should be possible to predict this planet’s position mathematically. Quietly, he began working out the location and sent his results to Britain’s chief astronomer, George Airy. But Airy dismissed the predictions, replying to Adams with an inquiry as to whether or not his hypothetical planet could also account for some other errors in Uranus’ orbit. Instead of replying immediately, Adams decided to work on refining his calculations.

In the meantime, French astronomer Urbain LeVerrier began his own calculations and published them in a series of papers. When Airy caught word that a second person had predicted a location for the hypothetical planet very close to that of Adams, he secretly directed the observatory at Cambridge, under the direction of James Challis, to begin a methodical search for it by scanning an area of the sky the two predicted, and looking for any objects that moved.

The problem with this is that this required determining the positions of a large number of stars repeatedly for long periods of time. Doing positions a single time for that large an area alone would take weeks, but having to do it repeatedly meant the search would take months.

While Airy conducted his search, LeVerrier worked to find someone to search for the planet. He finally convinced Johann Galle to conduct a search. Galle compared recent star charts with a high degree of accuracy to observations at the eyepiece. He would describe the positions of the stars to student Heinrich d’Arrest who would make sure the stars Galle saw were on the map. Any star that wasn’t would presumably be the moving planet.

On their first night of hunting, they discovered an object less than 1ยบ from LeVerrier’s predicted position that did not correspond with any known star. They had just beautifully confirmed the mathematical predictions made by LeVerrier and, unknowingly, Adams.

Since Adams’ work had not been published, LeVerrier was initially given all the credit. But Airy, eager to keep the French from getting all the credit, revealed that Adams had also predicted the new planet’s position quite accurately. Furthermore, the Cambridge search under Challis had actually observed the planet on several occasions. But since Challis had not compared his observations with one another yet, the English lost out on the chance to make the discovery first.

The result of this was an intense nationalistic rivalry in which each country accused the other of trying to steal credit. Eventually the dispute died down and the consensus was that Adams and LeVerrier should receive equal credit.

This introduced an entirely new era of attempting to look for planets through their gravitational influences. It led to the prediction of the infamous “planet X” due to problems with orbits of Uranus and Neptune. However this was eventually resolved to be due to inaccurate estimations of the mass of these planets. It was also thought for a time that there may be another planet between the Sun and Mercury due to some strange properties of the innermost planet’s orbit (which was resolved with the incorporation of relativistic motion). But despite the failed predictions of those two planets, the technique has been refined and similar ones are now used to detect planets around distant stars.

Overall, this book is quite an entertaining read. It’s a very quick read (took me 3 days) and has almost no technical jargon (the most technical bit is the use of arcseconds which are defined early in). I’d highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the field as a wonderful reminder of how amazingly well science can make predictions, even if the politics gets somewhat muddled.