Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled

It’s been suggested I add some skeptical news items and posts to the NTS blog. I’m going to start by reposting a series I previously wrote the the Skeptical Analysis blog. Here is the first installment. I’ve added some screen shots from the video that were not in the original.

– John Blanton

In 2008 the word began to circulate, and there was a lot of excitement. I eagerly awaited the release of the video and purchased my copy through Amazon. It’s Expelled, starring movie and television personality Ben Stein.


As you can see, the subtitle is No Intelligence Allowed. If by now you are getting the idea this is going to be about Intelligent Design, then you can come up to the head of the class.

Also, note that Ben Stein’s most famous movie role was Ferris Bueller’s teacher in the movie. You may think it’s just a coincidence this video’s title is Expelled, but I see a deeper intent.

Anyhow, the video is about Intelligent Design, and it starts with an elderly and bearded professor dryly explaining biological evolution. He intones in a dry way, reminiscent of Ben Stein’s portrayal in the movie.

Moving through history, in an unguided and undesigned way, the theory of evolution …

Ben Stein is sitting on the very back row of the class room (where else). He speaks out.

Excuse me.


Yes … Ben!

You get the idea the two have been through this before.


How did life begin in the first place?

Professor (exasperated):

Mr. Stein, you have the same question every time.


But you never answer, Sir.

The professor stutters in obvious confusion, or could it be frustration? His response is unintelligible. All this time the other students are watching the exchange much as spectators at a tennis match.

Ben Stein continues:

Could there have been an intelligent designer?

Students’ faces turn in unison and cast a gaze at their professor. They are looking for an answer. If there is one. The professor is beaten.

Of course he is. He’s not a real professor. He’s just an actor playing a part in the video. He’s following the script. The theme music strikes a down beat, and the titles roll.

Expelled is nothing if not a good video production. The titles are first rate. The production is by Premise Media:

Ben Stein’s ‘Expelled’ To Be Auctioned as Premise Media Faces Bankruptcy

Ben Stein’s creationist propaganda film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is facing auction after the film’s makers, Premise Media Holdings LP, filed for bankruptcy.

Expelled was Stein’s attempt to push ‘intelligent design’ into the mainstream, but it failed on just about every level.

The Anti-Defemation League condemned the film, which attempted to link evolution to the Holocaust. Academics and scientists, as well as film-makers and documentarians, heaped scorn on the movie. And critics panned the movie, Roger Ebert first among them.

The really pernicious thing about Stein’s propaganda film, however, is not that it pushed intelligent design and creationism, but that it attempted to convince Americans that we should teach these things in our public schools.

Americans have voted with their wallets, and now Expelled and Premise Media are feeling the pinch.

Some background: I purchased my first copy of the video in 2008, and I lent it to somebody and never got it back. No problem. Following the bankruptcy of Premise Media Amazon now offers the disk at the low price of $2.00. Shipping is $4.00 from the original source (not Amazon). So I was this week I was able to get a replacement copy for less than I paid for the original.

Anyhow …

Spoiler alert: This is a propaganda film. As propaganda it is first rate, and I am here to tell you I have looked at a lot of propaganda. This aspect is what I will analyze most in this and following reviews. There is no science. Sorry.

The propaganda starts with the titles, again first class.

The theme music is playing. It’s by Andy Hunter, and it’s first class. It’s stirring, and it propels the viewer into the story line. Some children are playing soccer in a street. There is a wall. It soon becomes apparent the street is supposed to be in West Berlin in the days of the Soviet Union, and the wall is the Berlin Wall. There is no color. The titles are cast as an old news reel film, sometimes jerky.


The scene cuts to some military officers poring over plans on a table. It’s apparent they are not Wehrmact. They must be Soviet. The screen flashes a depiction of the route of the Berlin Wall and the fortified border that separated East and West Germany from 1961 to 1989. The theme music is a quick string beat that moves the viewers along.


We see soldiers setting up wooden posts and stringing barbed wire. There is a bullet-pocked wall with names painted on it, but it is just a part of the title sequence, and the names are those of the producers.

Hands are placing concrete blocks on top of a partially-completed wall and securing them in place with mortar. Workers mortar more blocks in place. The music surges forward, the rhythm compels the viewers attention.

Men in suits stand in the street and observe the construction of the wall. They are perplexed. Crowds in the street mill behind the men.

The wall is nearly to it’s full height, and it partially obscures a poster on a wall behind it. The poster is part of the credits, listing Mark Mathis as associate producer.


A soldier in uniform and wearing a Wehrmact style helmet marches by a shop window. He has a rifle slung over his shoulder.

People watch. The wall is nearing completion. Expressions on the faces of the people are grim. The are obviously frustrated. They can do nothing.

Now there is barbed wire above the top of the wall, and through the barbed wire we can see a street sign on the other side. Only it’s not a real street sign. It’s part of the credits, and the street names spell out “Simon Tondeur Editor.”

The title theme continues. Now all questions vanish. This is the Berlin Wall. There is a sign in an odd mixture of German and english that says “Achtung West Berlin.”

The title sequence draws to a close, and we again see the children kicking the ball in the street. Finally it sails over the wall and disappears. The children stand and stare. The ball is obviously gone forever. Behind the wall. Just as liberty and justice disappeared behind the wall in 1961. The theme music winds down and strikes a final chord. The presentation begins.

There is an auditorium. The crowd is waiting for the main speaker to appear. It’s Ben Stein. He’s waiting back stage. Waiting for the introduction to conclude. Waiting to walk on stage. The scene cuts to biologist and noted atheist Richard Dawkins, who says:

The battle over evolution is only one skirmish in a much larger war.

Others weigh in.

Creationist Jonathan Wells says, “Science simply makes no use of the hypothesis of God.” Biologist and noted atheist PZ Myers says, “Ask yourself, what does Intelligent Design give us—nothing.” Another scientist speaks: “We cannot accept Intelligent Design as an alternative theory.” And another, “They will never accept that we have a better argument, and they just pester us and waste our time.”

This section also features an interview with Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine. Ben Stein grills Shermer on the validity of Intelligent Design, and to my distress Shermer lets him off entirely too easily. Shermer is asked whether Intelligent Design is pseudo science or real science (my terms). Shermer places Intelligent Design mostly in the pseudo science portion of the spectrum. What he should have mentioned is that Intelligent Design is a complete fraud and is really just creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo.

In any event, that pretty much sets the mood. Mainstream science is really down on Intelligent Design. And God. But freedom?

Ben Stein comes to the podium and begins to speak. He speaks of freedom. He reminds us freedom is what made this country. Freedom is what made this country great. His speech evokes images of American icons, such as the Washington Monument, which the video displays while Stein is speaking. His speech evokes the image of Martin Luther King, shown, as well.

Ben Stein speaks of threats to liberty. The video shows these threats. It shows black people in the South standing up for their rights. It shows black people being manhandled by the police.

Richard von Sternberg

We see Ben Stein on site at the Washington Monument. It is a place where freedom was threatened. From a view of the monument the camera pans to the left, and we see the Smithsonian Institution. This is a place where freedom was threatened.

Ben Stein meets with Dr. Richard von Sternberg, a victim of repression:

Richard M. Sternberg is an American evolutionary biologist who has completed a BS degree from University of South Carolina and has two PhDs; the first from 1995 in molecular evolution from Florida International University, and a second in systems science from Binghamton University. He did post-doctoral work between 1999 and 2001 at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) at the Smithsonian Institution, on thephylogeny of brachyuran crabs.

In February 2001 he began work as an invertebrate taxonomist for the National Institutes of Health at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, later becoming a staff scientist. The position allowed time for research work, and he continued at the NMNH, now as an unpaid research associate. Soon after starting work, he agreed to take on the unpaid position of Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a taxonomic journal which usually publishes descriptions of newly identified species. Also in 2001, he joined the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group, a young earth creationist “creation science” attempt to identify and classify the created kinds mentioned in scripture. He has stated that he is an outside critic and remained skeptical of their young earth beliefs. Around this time he was sympathetic to historic ideas of structuralism of patterns in nature, but could not go from that to inferring the existence of a designer. He occasionally met proponents of intelligent design, and in 2002 presented a lecture on formal causation to the ISCID intelligent design group’s “Research And Progress in Intelligent Design” (RAPID) conference.

[Some links removed]

Sternberg relates how he used to work at the Smithsonian, but he does not anymore. The reason does not is he got crossways with the scientific orthodoxy. He was editor of a scientific journal and dared to publish a paper that gave credence to Intelligent Design. That’s why he doesn’t work there anymore. He lost the office he had at the Smithsonian, and he was pressured to resign. His religious beliefs were investigated.

Some skeptical analysis will be beneficial.

Sternberg met with Steven C. Meyer, the author of a paper that Sternberg published in the journal of which he was editor. Apparently the two arranged to have the paper published in order to give Intelligent Design the prestige of having a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Sternberg did not consult with others on the editorial board of the journal, but he selected the four reviewers, including himself. He has never revealed the identities of the other three reviewers, which I presume were fans of Intelligent Design.

At any level of reading the paper has no scientific merit. I have read it and found it to be at the level of an op-ed piece that might be printed in the opinions section of a newspaper. You can read it for yourself.

The editorial board was highly outraged, which outrage provided much of the fuel for the fire storm fanned in the video.

Sternberg did not lose his job. He was not employed at the Smithsonian. He was employed at the National Institutes of Health, and in his free time he was doing unpaid research at the Smithsonian. His job as editor for the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington was a voluntary, unpaid position. He announced his resignation as editor even before the paper in question was published.

The National Center for Science Education dug a little deeper:

The Claim

“In October, as the OSC complaint recounts, [Sternberg’s supervisor] Mr. Coddington told Mr. Sternberg to give up his office and turn in his keys to the departmental floor, thus denying him access to the specimen collections he needs.” (Wall Street Journal editorial, linked from Expelled website)

The Facts

According to Coddington in a January 2005 communication, “Well prior to the publication of the Meyer article and my awareness of it, I asked him and another Research Associate to move as part of a larger and unavoidable reorganization of space involving 17 people and 20 offices. He agreed. I offered both individuals new, identical, standard Research Associate work spaces. The other accepted, but Dr. von Sternberg declined and instead requested space in an entirely different part of the Museum, which I provided, and which he currently occupies.”

Jonathan Coddington is more explicit in his posting on the Panda’s Thumb blog:

Posted by JAC on February 3, 2005 9:36 AM

Although I do not wish to debate the merits of intelligent design, this forum seems an apt place to correct several factual inaccuracies in the Wall Street Journal’s Op Ed article by David Klinghoffer, “The Branding of a Heretic” (Jan. 28, 2005). Because Dr. von Sternberg has filed an official complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, I cannot comment as fully as I would wish.
1. Dr. von Sternberg is still a Research Associate at the National Museum of Natural History, and continues to have the usual rights and privileges, including space, keys, and 24/7 access. At no time did anyone deny him space, keys or access.
2. He is not an employee of the Smithsonian Institution. His title, “Research Associate,” means that for a three year, potentially renewable period he has permission to visit the Museum for the purpose of studying and working with our collections without the staff oversight visitors usually receive.
3. I am, and continue to be, his only “supervisor,” although we use the term “sponsor” for Research Associates to avoid personnel/employee connotations. He has had no other since Feb. 1, 2004, nor was he ever “assigned to” or under the “oversight of” anyone else.
4. Well prior to the publication of the Meyer article and my awareness of it, I asked him and another Research Associate to move as part of a larger and unavoidable reorganization of space involving 17 people and 20 offices. He agreed.
5. I offered both individuals new, identical, standard Research Associate work spaces. The other accepted, but Dr. von Sternberg declined and instead requested space in an entirely different part of the Museum, which I provided, and which he currently occupies.
6. As for prejudice on the basis of beliefs or opinions, I repeatedly and consistently emphasized to staff (and to Dr. von Sternberg personally), verbally or in writing, that private beliefs and/or controversial editorial decisions were irrelevant in the workplace, that we would continue to provide full Research Associate benefits to Dr. von Sternberg, that he was an established and respected scientist, and that he would at all times be treated as such.
On behalf of all National Museum of Natural History staff, I would like to assert that we hold the freedoms of religion and belief as dearly as any one. The right to heterodox opinion is particularly important to scientists. Why Dr. von Sternberg chose to represent his interactions with me as he did is mystifying. I can’t speak to his interactions with anyone else.

Sincerely yours,
Jonathan Coddington

What is so interesting is that in the video Sternberg says, and Stein accepts as fact, that he lost his office. Sternberg never mentions in the video that he was given another office.

This episode sets the standard for the remainder of the Expelled video. It is a pure propaganda piece with a complete complement of innuendo, misstatement and deceit by omission. This is the standard of the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, the creationist organization that sponsors the campaign promulgated in this video and a number of others.

Sternberg is the first of the “expelled.” Others to follow are Caroline Crocker, Guillermo Gonzalez, Robert Marks, Pamela Winnick and Michael Egnor. And I haven’t even gotten to the gas chambers and the Nazi connection. This video is a beauty, and there will be more to come in future installments of Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled.