Monday, March 24, 2008

PZ, ID and BS

It happened just this Friday, but it's already the stuff of legend.

An advance screening of Ben Stein's anti-evolution, pro-ID documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" was held in Minneapolis. Atheist blogger PZ Myers, who is one of the stars of the movie, signed up himself and a number of guests. The film's producer spotted Myers in the theater and had him expelled by security.

The guests were able to attend, though. Who was one of the guests?

Richard Dawkins.

Evolutionists have been grinning all weekend. That's the very short version.

For those who savor irony like a fine wine, I will try to decant the whole story.

Last April, atheist, blogger and evolutionary biologist PZ Myers received an interview request for a documentary called "Crossroads."

PR gaffe #1: It was a con. Under false pretenses, PZ was actually being interviewed for "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," Ben Stein's new documentary against evolution. Richard Dawkins was similarly duped into participating in the film.

PR gaffe #2: The producer of the film, Mark Mathis, claims that "Crossroads" was just the working title. That's a fib. The domain dame for was registered the previous March. Here's the Whois page to prove it.

Currently, the movie is touring the country with advanced screenings in various cities. In February, critic Roger Moore saw the movie and wrote a scathing review for the Orlando Sentinel. The producers of "Expelled: No Critics Allowed" responded with a media alert demonizing Moore. The alert quotes Stein, "The only thing I find despicable is when reporters sneak into screenings by pretending to be ministers. This is a new low even for liberal reporters." Moore says he never portrayed himself as anything but a reporter. That story made it to the New York Times.

PR gaffe #3: A pre-screening of "Expelled: No Skeptics Allowed" was held at the Mall of America during the same weekend as the American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis. So PZ signed up for the movie online -- for himself a number of guests from the conference.

PR gaffe #4: But PZ was ID-ed. Producer Mark Mathis told a guard to expel PZ Myers from the theater. When PZ asked why, he was informed that they didn't need to give a reason. PZ went to explain the situation to his guests, including ... here's PR gaffe #5: the most prominent evolutionary biologist in the world, Richard Dawkins. If anyone at the theater recognized Dawkins, no one greeted him. Dawkins is, after all, the most famous star in the film aside from Ben Stein.

The guard prompted PZ to leave immediately under threat of arrest. The guests entered the theater. PZ went to the Apple store and blogged the moment for posterity. His blog Pharyngula, owing to his red-meat style of humor, is one of the most popular blogs in the atheism movement. If producer Mathis was seeking ridicule, he could not have designed it more intelligently.

Pharyngula's Expelled post received record traffic. Within a day, it clocked well over 1000 responses in the comment thread.

Back at the theater, Myers' family, friends and the most prominent atheist in the world, Richard Dawkins, watched the movie. Here are reviews/eyewitness accounts by PZ's daughter Skatje, her boyfriend, Collin, and friend Kristine.

And here is an excerpt from Dawkins' account entitled, "Lying for Jesus?"*

...did he [Mathis] 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.
Dawkins says quite a bit more about the film itself:
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.
In the question-and-answer after the movie, Dawkins stood up and asked, "Why, when he was featured in your film, when the entire theme of your film was free speech and oppression, did you EXPEL my friend and colleague Dr. PZ Myers from the viewing tonight?"

PR gaffe #6: Mathis gave the old "no ticket" line. This is a canard. People could sign up online to see "Expelled: No Ticket Necessary." Recently, Mathis changed his story, "I banned pz because I want him to pay to see it. Nothing more."

That evening, PZ and Dawkins taped a short discussion of the event on video.**

The New York Times reports:
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.”
PR gaffe #7: Mathis' claim is ridiculous. Dawkins writes:
...Mathis almost certainly detected Myers' name on the list of those who signed up on the Expelled website. 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.
PR gaffe #8: A summary gaff -- attempting to create "positive buzz" by screening the audience on ideological grounds could not have backfired more spectacularly.

For a list of the dozens of blog posts and articles on "Good Friday Fiasco," check Greg Laden's Blog.

Sites sympathetic to the film have set out to demonize PZ and Dawkins. Here and here.

PZ blogged late that night:

This outcome so far has been absolutely perfect, as far as I'm concerned. The hypocrisy of the Expelled makers has been exposed by their expulsion of one of the people they filmed (final lovely irony: I'm also thanked for my contributions in the credits), they've revealed their incompetence by throwing me out when Richard Dawkins was right next to me, and I didn't have to waste two hours on a bad movie.

I've also got a story to tell: when the creationists saw me and Dawkins in a lineup, I am the one that had them so frightened that they had to call for the guards. I feel mighty.

The story reads like an urban legend except far more multi-layered and nuanced. The story also has the virtue of being true.

In all honesty, I have been a fan of Ben Stein. He is obviously very intelligent and very knowledgeable. His public persona has been one where he doesn't take himself too seriously. Granted, his ultra-conservative views are bonkers but he seemed likable in other respects.

In fact, I sent him an email saying as much and hoping he had some other projects in the pipeline. I could anticipate that his "Expelled" movie looked like a very bad move.

He replied graciously, thanking me for the email but saying that the movie is not what I had expected. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have seen Ben Stein on Bill O'Reilly and the "Expelled" trailer. These two videos are actually worse than I expected. Here are just a few problems with Ben Stein's arguments:
  • Believing the fact that evolution happened does not mean one endorses brutal selection processes in society. That's the the is/ought or naturalistic fallacy.
  • Calling modern evolutionary thought an imperialist relic of Darwin's days completely ignores 150 years of advances in the field. That's a straw man.
  • Blaming "Darwinism" for Hitler is several fallacies at once. It's false cause, appealing to emotions, appealing to the crowd, and cherry-picking. Capitalism too has been justified on flimsy evolutionary terms. See William Graham Sumner for an influential example.
  • Portraying evolutionists as an ideologically-driven cabal which demands party-line orthodoxy is a mischaracterization. It's a smear. It sounds paranoid. Calling it "Big Science" is a misapplication of the term. And given the events at the theater, it also sounds like psychological projection.
Ben Stein's no dummy. He should know better. He is presenting dishonest and manipulative arguments. Maybe the film will be better than its "hype" -- which itself is pretty disastrous. Maybe the film will be completely re-edited before its release next month and it will present excellent arguments. This hope bucks probabilities.

You need to be smart and very well educated to become a presidential speech writer (as Ben was for Nixon and Ford). I'm sure Ben is familiar with logical fallacies. But being a smart, well-educated Presidential speech writer doesn't necessarily mean one is honest. So far, given the fibs, the canards, the ridiculous statements, the fallacies and the weirdly clumsy PR gaffes, this is all pretty dishonest work. And the movie isn't even released yet.

Why'd you have to do it, Ben? Why'd you have to do it?

*Note: The title refers to whether Mathis is a liar for Jesus. I don't think Ben Stein himself is a Christian, perhaps I'm wrong. I do know he is a very devout Republican.

**Note: In the video PZ and Dawkins mention a slick computer animation. Mistakenly, they attribute the footage to an XVIVO visualization which was recently plagiarized by the ID crowd. (They have since stopped using it.) For the purposes of the movie, a new animation was produced which is clearly based on the XVIVO work, but it's not, legally speaking, plagiarism. The copy job may or may not constitute plagiarism.

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