Biologist PZ Myers: Expelled from creationist film, he’s creating controversy with his passion for science

PZ Myers
Photo by Allen Beaulieu
PZ Myers was barred from a screening of the movie “Expelled.” His reaction: “I’d be rolling around on the floor right now, if I weren’t so dang dignified.”

You’ve heard of carbon offsets, the scheme to compensate for greenhouse gases you cause to be released into the atmosphere.

How about stupidity offsets?

“Let’s say you’re going to do something that will increase the net amount of stupidity in the universe, like, say, paying to watch some inane creationist propaganda film because you’re curious about just how bad it can be,” PZ Myers wrote last week on his award-winning science blog, Pharyngula.

You can go without guilt, he went on, if “for every dollar you spend on the dumb movie you also invest an equivalent amount in something that increases intelligence.”

It was the latest broadside in America’s long-running battle over evolution. And Myers — a biology professor at University of Minnesota, Morris — is leading the forces for Charles Darwin’s landmark theory.  His weapons: a bitingly irreverent wit, an audacious blog and a driving passion for science.

On the other side are the creators of the film Myers impaled: “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” It opens today in Minnesota and around the country.

Beginning with dark images of the Berlin Wall, the film attacks evolution linking it to the horrors of Nazi Germany, communism and fascism. Alternatively, it promotes intelligent design, the claim that there is evidence of some supernatural force in nature.

The film features Ben Stein, the former Nixon speechwriter turned actor, game-show host and conservative commentator. It has been cleverly peddled by Motive Marketing, which also promoted “The Passion of Christ” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” And it has been lauded by conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, the Discovery Institute and some Christian groups.

The film’s central point is to blast “Big Science” for persecuting champions of intelligent design and hounding them out of science labs and teaching posts.

Ben Stein
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Ben Stein

Myers is blasting back. He has taken on Stein and the Expelled promoters in a blogosphere battle that also has made the pages of the New York Times, and a raft of other papers around the world.

A small public university on Minnesota’s prairie is not the first place most people would look for the leader of this cause. Myers, 51, grew up in a working-class, Christian family in Kent, Wash., near Seattle. He was named Paul Zachary for his grandfather but goes by the initials PZ. 

At the University of Oregon, where Myers got his Ph.D. in biology, he focused on questions of how organisms assemble themselves, especially in the formation of the nervous system.

Along the way, Myers also became an outspoken atheist.

Misfit in Morris?

Myers acknowledged that he is something of a curiosity in a Minnesota community of church-goers, many of them deeply committed social and political conservatives.

Still, Myers has created no big buzz in town, said the Rev. Tom Fangmeier, an Assemblies of God pastor who chairs the Stevens County Ministerial Board. One Lutheran pastor complained to the board about Myers, Fangmeier said, but “I haven’t heard about him in the cafes or anywhere else around town.”

Fangmeier holds “strong views about creation” as it is described in the book of Genesis, he said, and he disagrees wholeheartedly with Myers’ athiesm. But that’s as far as it goes.

“He’s probably a nice man,” Fangmeier said. “He just doesn’t believe the things I believe.”   

Myers said debates over religion have no place in his classroom: “I’m teaching biology, so we keep that out of there.” But his students clearly think about it. A few have written “I love God” on their reviews of his course.

Creationism is fair game in the class. Myers debunks it. He stresses evolutionary development — called evo-devo in science circles — which explores the ancestral relationships between organisms and how their development evolved.

Blogging is where Myers really breaks loose.

His blog is named after the pharyngula stage in embryonic development. It speaks to science with enough rigor to have been named the top science blog of 2006 by the prestigious journal Nature.

But don’t look to this blog for a professorial voice. Just the opposite. The blog — one of Minnesota’s most popular — is a cheeky and irreverent mix of commentary on politics, science and culture.  

One recent entry, for example, lit into Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty for vetoing funding for a new Bell Museum of Natural History: “This kind of dimbulb thinking annoys me beyond measure … over and over again we see an intentional deprivation of the most basic tools of a civilized society.”

When it does cover science it often takes playful tones. How dull could “tentacle sex” be? How about “worm porn?”

Lately, though, the blog has been a polemic against “Expelled.”

The fight erupted last month after Myers tried to attend an advance screening of the film at the Mall of America in Bloomington. He was expelled. The film’s producer recognized him in line and sent security guards to oust him.

That set off a battle that has raged for weeks.

Says Myers
It took only minutes for Myers’ gleeful version of the incident to hit the blogosphere: “I’m blogging this from the Apple store in the Mall of America, because I’m too amused to want to wait until I get back to my hotel room.”

“I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in… . The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested,” Myers wrote.

“Deep, belly laugh funny,” he continued. “I’d be rolling around on the floor right now, if I weren’t so dang dignified.”

What tickled Myers was this: Richard Dawkins, the famous Oxford University biologist — author of “The God Delusion” and one of the world’s most prominent critics of intelligent design theory — had been with Myers in line. He got in.

“He is in the theater right now, watching their movie,” Myers blogged. “Tell me, are you laughing as hard as I am?”

Both Myers and Dawkins appear in the film. Myers said the producers had told him he was going on camera for a film called “Crossroads” which would examine the intersection of science and religion.

Only later, he said, did he learn it was an attack on scientists who reject the teaching of intelligent design.

The film’s assertion that evolution leads to Nazism is completely backwards from the truth, Myers said.

“Diversity is part of evolutionary biology, part of Darwin’s principle,” he said. “You have a population with various forms and selection works on variation. What Hitler and others did was try to reduce variation.”

Says ‘Expelled’ creators
Myers got caught trying to sneak into a private, invitation-only screening, the producers said in a teleconference with reporters.

Motive Marketing sent invitations to people in certain religious, education and science groups, providing an RSVP link, they said. Myers got access to the RSVP site and signed up.

They knew he was coming and decided in advance to expel him, said producer Logan Craft.

Associate producer Mark Mathis said he watched the line for Myers: “I see him … I go over to a security guard and say we don’t want him in the film… . We knew what PZ would do. He would go out and blog about it. He has spent months attacking the film.”

The producers denied that they had used false premises to entice Myers, Dawkins and others to be interviewed for the film.

Mathis said he told everyone in advance that the film would focus on a “cultural flashpoint” that has unleashed intense passion on both sides.

Stein insisted the film accurately portrays the scientists’ point of view: “They were never misquoted. So end of story.”

Stein defended the attack on evolution: “Darwinism is basically politics masquerading as science.”

The film doesn’t say Darwinism leads directly to Nazism, he said.

“We are saying the Nazis themselves thought they were carrying out Darwinian ideas in the sense of eliminating inferior races, making mankind healthy and so forth,” Stein said.

Butts in the seats
On one point there is no dispute: Myers’ expulsion brought a lot of free publicity to Stein’s controversial film. 

“I definitely think it’s going to put more butts in the seats,” Myers said. “There are people who are opposed to the message who now are curious.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Abbie Smith on 04/18/2008 - 12:22 pm.

    Why why why do journalists keep repeating Mathis’s lie about PZs expulsion?

    PZ did not ‘sneak in’ any more than anyone else in the theater. And, if PZ ‘snuck in’, why werent all of his guests EXPELLED as well?

    Mindlessly parroting fed lines is not journalism.

  2. Submitted by Vladimir Val Cymbal on 04/18/2008 - 01:49 pm.

    These hacks that are ragging on Expelled have no other agenda than to belittle and demean. A real movie critic would have something to say about the movie other than that he/she disagrees with the story line.

    The movie is exquisite in presentation and execution. There is no dead air or long boring dialogue. It moves at a steady pace, not to fast to miss the gist of it or to slow to bore one to death. As to the message, I think it makes its point very well. As to its veracity, well I have a high regard for those that made this film, especially Ben Stein who is not a hick with inability to reason.

    The only thing I have a hard time with is why does Ben where basketball shoes with a suite?

  3. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/18/2008 - 04:26 pm.

    Vladimir,

    This isn’t a movie review, it’s a news story. Note that the author “writes about foreign affairs and science” at MinnPost.

    As for your “regard” for Ben Stein, he certainly doesn’t have much of a track record (if any) in matters of science. For a documentary film attempting to be a serious examination of scientific principles and the scientific community, he’s not exactly the ideal writer/star.

    I’m sure if PZ Myers co-wrote and starred in a film that purported to be a serious examination of economics, or even acting, Mr. Stein would be equally dismissive/disapproving in his reaction. And I’d likely agree with him in that scenario.

  4. Submitted by Jim Hyde on 04/18/2008 - 04:32 pm.

    “I was told once by a former Air Force bombardier, you know when you’re over the target when you catch a lot of flak.” – Ben Stein, Radio broadcast 2008

    Ben, I think your right on target and they are now scared that everyone can see it.

    Sorry, I have to get back to the chalk board, I will not question Darwinism, I will not question Darwinism, I will not question Darwinism…

  5. Submitted by Ed Stych on 04/19/2008 - 09:55 pm.

    Just got back from the movie. Very well done. Thought provoking. Stein doesn’t manipulate the film to make anyone look like an idiot, a la Michael Moore, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dawkins look as unconfident as he does in the the last few minutes of the film.

    Stein’s movie is about freedom of thought — freedom to follow the evidence where it takes us. I think it’s safe to assume that like most humans, some (many?) of America’s scientists are following the (grant) money instead of the evidence, and they know they have to publicly support Darwinism even if they have misgivings about the theory, especially in regards to macro-evolution.

    Dawkins ridicules us believers in a supreme being by saying it’s as ridiculous as someone believing in The Flying Spaghetti Monster. Yet what do atheists say about the creation of the universe? Dawkins posits that highly evolved aliens could have created our universe. Another scientist in the movie says molecules could have “ridden on the backs of crystals,” but refuses to further explain this theory. Then there’s the old theory of mud being struck by lightning.

    These ideas from these Darwinists are “possible” but just as far fetched, if not more so, than the belief in a Creator God. When we say God created the universe, we’re asked, “Who created God?” All we can say is that God is eternal. But the atheist has the same problem: How did pre-Big Bang matter appear? Maybe all they can say is that matter is eternal. But that just leads to the next questions: “What ignited the Big Bang?” and “How did life come from non-life?”

    The bottom line is that we are far from understanding our origins, and while Darwin is helpful, his theory doesn’t have all the answers. So, why are scientists who use scientific means to challenge Darwin and to suggest that science might show us a glimpse of an intelligent designer not allowed to follow the evidence? That’s all that Stein is asking for in this movie.

  6. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 04/21/2008 - 10:37 am.

    Ed —

    I have no doubt that some atheists have condescending views toward religion and religious beliefs. But is that really enough to promulgate the notion that there is a “persecution of the many by an elite few” in modern science, as the Expelled web site proclaims? That “educators and scientists are being ridiculed, denied tenure and even fired – for the ‘crime’ of merely believing that there might be evidence of ‘design’ in nature, and that perhaps life is not just the result of accidental, random chance”?

    The very fact that the notion of a supreme being isn’t a testable scientific theory but rather a matter of philosophy and faith makes it hard to believe that any disagreement about it in science spheres isn’t simply relegated to the break room. Science does not exist to antagonize faith and philosophy. By definition, scientific theory isn’t based on faith, and faith isn’t based on scientific theory. What benefit is there to change this arrangement? Can we all of a sudden test evidence that there is a supreme being? I think we can all agree that isn’t possible. All of this commotion is just pointless posturing, including this film.

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