PZ Myers – Expelled from Expelled

June 27, 2008

P.Z. Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris and the author of Pharyngula, the most heavily-trafficked science blog online.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, P.Z. Myers details his expulsion from a screening of Expelled, Ben Stein’s documentary which claims that the scientific community is limiting academic freedom by not allowing Intelligent Design to be taught or discussed in the schools. He explains the background of how he and other scientists were invited to appear in the film under false pretenses, and what his response has been. He addresses “focus groups” and other marketing methods for finding the best way to communicate science to the public. Calling himself part of the “radical fringe,” he elaborates on his view that leading science organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement for Science and the National Academies of Science are “playing a shell game” on the public when it comes to teaching the compatibility of science with religion, arguing instead that there is a direct link between science education and religious skepticism. And he also shares his thoughts about the future of the atheist and rationalist movement in the United States.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, June 27, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, here’s a word from Free Inquiry magazine. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

I’m happy to have Peezy Myers back on the show. He was on last week and we really didn’t get to finish our conversation, so I invited them on again and he graciously agreed. Ronald Lindsay Myers is the author of the very popular Frangela, the most heavily trafficked science blog online. He’s also a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota. Morris, welcome back to a point of inquiry, Peezy Myers. 

Good to be back. P.S. last week when you were on, we were just broaching the topic of the National Academies of Science or the triple A-S, arguing that science and religion are compatible. And you were very clearly saying that they were a little dishonest and that that is an organization. 

They’re playing a shell game on public. But as individuals, of course, a lot of people are actually composing this, and I’m confident that they are completely sincere in what they’re presenting. So there’s this nice little strategic trick of picking the people who will write the documents for you and the most conciliatory way possible. And they’ve they’ve picked some good diplomats to do that. 

But it’s still smacks. There’s something dishonest to you. 

Oh, yeah. You know, I’m I’m on the radical fringe. And I admitted freely that I think the approach we ought to be taking is to make people much more comfortable with the social implications and consequences of scientific facts, that we should be aware that we should make them all aware that, yes, if you learn that evolution is the truth, it will impair your belief in a six day creation 6000 years ago that there are necessarily atheistic implications of evolution, that there are necessarily implications that will cause you to question Literal-minded faith. Then a question of what what’s happening here is that we are saying that and the creationists are noting this, they’re actually writing about this on the web and so forth. They’re what’s happening is that we are promoting a particular kind of religion and a liberal kind of religion with these documents from the NHS, which is very different from the more conservative kinds of religion that you will find in just about any Southern Baptist church. 

You go to Jim Underdown and that liberal kind of religion, that kind of secular humanist type religion. If you listen to the fundamentalists, it’s every bit as much a threat to the fundamentalist world view as the pro science kind of secular, atheistic worldview that you’re pushing. 

Oh, yeah. It’s heretics all the way down. If you read uncommon dissent, you know that horrible little blog from William Debbie Goddard. He’s got something up there recently where he’s just he’s just on a roll. He’s got a little tirade going against Ken Miller, who is a theistic evolutionist. 

And he’s everything. Sorry. He’s a fierce critic. Evolutionist. 

Yeah. So he’s basically saying that, you know, these theistic evolutionists are even an even greater danger than the atheists. He actually says this and he would rather deal with one of those infidels than he would with a theistic evolutionists. 

What do you think about outfits like the National Academies doing focus groups on how to successfully sell evolution? They’re aiming to speak to people who are conflicted. You know, the publics that are conflicted about evolution. Is there any merit to this at all or does it is it just marketing of science as a as opposed to speaking the truth, which is what science should be about? 

No, I. I don’t approve. OK, I don’t like the focus group strategy at all because what that ends up doing is producing nothing but mental pablum. They’re searching for this happy medium and the happy medium is often completely wrong. So it’s a it’s a bad way to go. Personally, I think the best way to go is to have lots of voices out there. Let people go the voices they find interesting. So I’ve mentioned 10 million. Lots of people really, really like Ken Miller’s approach overall. I mean, I like stimulus science. I don’t like his religion. But other people find that just this perfect blend. That’s what they want to do. And then you’ve got me out there, you know, all shrill and militant and atheist. And there’s lots of people like that as well. What we’ve got to do is take advantage of the media that are that are available to us to promote many, many different voices. Lots of people all singing the song of evolution saying, OK, science is great, this is wonderful, but doing it from a whole bunch of different perspectives. Mm hmm. 

So you’re against using focus groups to advance evolution or let’s say the appreciation of evolution in society? 

I think they’re ineffective. I think what they do is they just they just produce this bland stuff that’s palatable to everybody. And when you do that, you just rip all the flavor out of it. 

But the charge against you by some obviously I’m talking here about matinées, but people like that. Is that you? 

As a scientists are, in fact, rejecting the best known scientific approach to communicating evolution to the public when it comes to its relationship to religion and to that kind of argument and reply that I, you know, compare Matt Nesbitt’s blog to my blog in terms of popularity and who’s who’s reaching larger number of voices. Look at Richard Dawkins book, which is so incredibly successful. You know, I think we can make a case that we are reaching a large number of people and we’re doing so successfully. 

Yeah, but as you mentioned, the last episode, the people that you’re reaching are the people who tend to already be on this side of the fence, or at least they’re on the fence. You’re not actually engaging believers and I’m infuriating believers, which I think counts for something. Jim Underdown not persuading any of them. And as to the popularity comment that you just mentioned, it is true that Dawkins successful book, God Delusion and your blog are immensely popular. But if it’s just a numbers game, the people who believe the stuff we’re calling nonsense, they have a lot larger following. So it’s not just a numbers game. We can’t decide what’s right by tallying up how many hits to a blog or how many people buy a book. 

Ah, yeah, but I mean that that’s kind of a two faced approach of saying, OK, well, we’ve got this scientific measure that says, OK, you’ve got the popularity level X and this other approach and popularity level Y, and we’re going to go with this because it fits my preconceptions. And yeah, I agree. I don’t I don’t think that the fact that for UNGULATE is very, very popular somehow makes it the best blog in the universe. All it means is that it is an expression of a voice that many people are finding copacetic. 

They want to go hear that, and that’s all we can do as individuals. So, you know, what I would say is, what are you going to do? Are you going to tell this particular point of view that you don’t like being until Richard Dawkins and Peezy Myers that they have to quiet down and be silent and let these other voices speak? Or shall we be telling all the voices out there, speak up and speak your mind to get the word out there and let the best ideas rise to the top? 

That’s right. Let’s let’s wrestle it out. Don’t don’t try and silence somebody by saying, well, the statistics show that you’re ineffective. 

So what do you even if I only had one reader, I would still be doing exactly the same thing. So it’s not as if this argument either way is going to influence what I do. Right. 

Well, and in Mat’s defense, he’s an old buddy of mine. I’m not obligated, though, to say this. I don’t think he ever called to silence you. He criticized you. He I think he said just that you were not the most effective voice. But even Dawkins concedes that point. Dawkins has said on point of inquiry before that he may be giving the perfect in ammunition to the intelligent design proponents, but that he doesn’t mind that. He says that the battle to fight for evolution education is part of a bigger war against religion, which he says is much more important. And it’s the battle he wants to wage. Is that your take, too? 

My focus would not necessarily be against religion, but in favor of rationality. We should be fighting for something, not necessarily just against something. 

I may have, you know, caricatured his view slightly on that. But the point is, he says that the bigger war is the science and religion thing, not just pushing for evolution. 

And like I mentioned last episode, that, you know, I would argue with Richard a little bit. I think he is a very effective voice. 

One of the most beautiful science writers out there, even when he’s not touching on religion. 

Yes. This is something I’ve been telling people, is that if you want to read Richard Dawkins great ethe his book, you have to read the ancestors tale on God Delusion. 

The answer to his tale is the one that got the real power of science. And that and one is gonna make you question the origin stories that the religion gives you. Mm hmm. The thing is that Richard Dawkins is also contrary to many of the characterizations of him. He’s he’s he’s a very polite, well-mannered fellow who thinks a lot about how he comes across to people and so forth. And he’s concerned about that. 

Is he more concerned than you are a boy? That’s a tough question. You know, we should have a Rudolph and see who’s a mean man. Yeah, I kind of suspect that that maybe he is more careful than I am. But my point of view is that we can not let the opinions of the extremists on the far side mute our voices. 

You mean the other extremists? You said that you yourself are on the fringe on this side. 

Yeah. Yeah. We can’t let you know. 

Born again. Christian. Born again. Even. Fundamentalist Christians dictate what the atheist will say. And we can’t concede that to them. What we should be doing is we should be encouraging the full flower of secular thought to be expressed everywhere. And that includes the agnostics, includes a secular humanist. It includes those darn annoying new atheists. It includes a whole range of thought. And if we allow them to say, well, this segment of your particular philosophy is is objectionable to us. Shut it down. That that’s wrong. That’s that’s conceding too much power to them. 

P.S., I want to turn to the amazing events surrounding your involvement with this Pro Idee movie out there. Expelled. You were literally expelled from that movie when you legitimately tried to see a screening of it. 

Yes, that was so perfect. 

It almost seemed like you set it up from the beginning, you know, just just to have this great PR gotcha moment. 

Yeah, I slipped. Mark Mathis, 29, so. No. Yeah. 

I mean, it’s just it’s just an indication of how clueless and incompetent they are. But here’s this whole movie they’re making where they’re they’re arguing that there’s no free exchange of ideas, which is completely false. We talked about this stuff all the time. And what do they do? They silence or try to silence one the people they’ve actually interviewed for the movie. It’s like it’s like they stood up there and slit their own throats for us. And it was it was it was a beautiful thing to see, even if it was a bit messy and bloody and ugly. 

What kind of impact do you think that you’ve had in countering the impact of that movie? 

Well, the first thing I got to admit this, that my approach made them some money, that by creating more controversy and publicizing it, I was filling more seats for them in the theaters that, you know, I know there were a number of atheist groups, including one here in Minneapolis, that actually made little field trips where everybody goes there to see the movie that their local member of Peezy Meyer was kicked out of. So, yeah, I gave them some money, free money from me. Wasn’t that generous to me. But at the same time, what I was doing was a a planned campaign of undermining their message. That was my goal all along. Is it here’s this movie that’s trying to make an argument that academia is unfair and excludes ideas. And I just hammered on it for months that, no, this this is not true. We talk about the stuff all the time. And look here, this movie had to obtain its interviews under false pretenses. 

Get into that a little. Tell our listeners exactly how they went about pulling the wool over your eyes. 

You can see in the interviews, if you see the movie, you know, you find me and Richard Dawkins and a bunch of other people. Eugenie Scott. 

Right. Giving we’re giving interviews. And what are we talking about? We’re talking about what we were told to talk about the intersection of science, religion, the stuff that we’ve been talking about in these podcasts is, you know, does science a road religion? They were asking me that. That’s what they told us. The whole thing was about was a documentary about this intersection between science and religion. The movie itself. Now, of course, is is about intelligent design. 

And if you were told the movie was about intelligent design, you would have been saying different things. 

We would have been talking about intelligent design. 

It doesn’t follow that you would be having a different message. You would just be having a different subject. 

Oh, yes, very much so. Well, we would have been doing you know, Richard Dawkins would have been doing this. Eugenie Scott would be doing this. I would have been doing this. We would have been up there and we would’ve been saying, well, here’s the problems and intelligent design. Here’s this absence of evidence. Here is this proposal. They’ve got it going nowhere. You don’t hear us saying any of those scientific criticisms of intelligent design in the movie because they intentionally avoided bringing them up. 

And they got you to say things like you’ve said in last week’s episode with me and earlier in this episode, that science erodes religion. They got you to say stuff like that. And then they held up your appearances in the movie as evidence that there is this vast conspiracy of scientists to erode people’s religion. 

Correct. And, you know, I’m not reluctant to ever say that. And I’m saying it on your podcast even. But it’s a little bit of obtaining interviews for one purpose and then using it for another Jim Underdown. If they want to talk about the validity of intelligent design and they didn’t in the entire movie, then they should have asked us about what biologists think of intelligent life. We’re well qualified to talk about that. But no, what they wanted was this little little story that they could use to inflame a Christian audience. 

And that story straight from your own mouths, did, in fact inflame that Christian audience. Their argument goes something like this. No. One, that intelligent design is really just about academic freedom and and the. These unelected elite scientists like Peezy Myers and Richard Dawkins and other people and science is an institution, in fact, is conspiring to keep intelligent design from being talked about. And that’s happening even though scientists say, oh, they’re all about free inquiry. But the second argument that they have in the movie is that science is just actually all about Athie ism. And they give what you say as evidence. 

But I mean, it’s all a lie all the way through. I mean, your first point, you know, I teach about intelligent design in my introductory biology class was here and I show the students how to argue against it. Even so, you know, it’s it’s not as if it doesn’t get an airing and gets a critical airing in the classroom. As for your second point, you know, I, I just find it weird to hear myself called an elite scientist because I’m at a small teaching institution in the Midwest. So, you know that that, again, is another example of them cheating a little bit in the movie by presenting me as this big shot and saying, well, I don’t want to throw a bone to the intelligent design movement, surely. 

But Richard Dawkins in Expelled and you in the last episode of this podcast really suggested that the elite scientists or the elite scientific institutions like the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that they are in fact being dishonest when they say religion and science are compatible. Correct. And so they feel like you’re at least on that point, proving the expelled crowd. Right. 

Well, that in essence, they are correct. And, you know, I’ve said it over and over again that science is going to erode religion just on that point. 

They’re correct. 

Yes. On that point, they are correct. I would agree with the 100 percent on the point of whether we we exclude scientific ideas like they claim intelligent designers. No, that’s not true. And, you know, if they’d asked me about that, we could have talked quite a bit about how intelligent design is is taught and should be taught. And it would you would not be a matter of of me saying, well, we’ve got to silence them. Mm hmm. 

So through your blog and through your public appearances, you give talks out there. You’re whether or not you intend to be you’re something of a celebrity to our little subculture, the atheists in America, through your appearances and your blog. You’ve exposed the specious argument in expelled. But can’t you concede how, even though it’s all hogwash, that it’s really persuasive at the legislative level, at the local news level? I mean, the film really pulls out all these strong emotions from the audiences and uses your own words to kind of do it. 

Oh, yeah. But did you have to see the movie? 

I did. But I’ll I’ll admit, maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but that I didn’t pay to see it. 

But do you remember my words? 

I do. You talked about. You really wanted religion to be something innocuous, like knitting. But you did liken religion to belief in hobgoblins. Religion being a fairy tale. 

Yes. That you know. Yeah. I’m critical of religion now. I’m not going to stop being critical of religion because creation is really relish it so much. But what I was saying in that movie was incredibly inoffensive on this year, committed, of course, to the absolute veritable truth of religion. What I was saying is we’re going to argue with religion. We disagree. We think it’s a bunch of nonsense, but we’re not out to shut down religious fundamentalism. 

But even a moderate religious person. I mean, come on, you’d admit that likening their moderate religion to belief in fairytales or hobgoblins. Surely that’s offensive and good for me. 


OK. Well, just on that point, you just said that you you weren’t. 

Oh, no. 

Look at the just the position they pulled that, you know, they’re they’re comparing my words to Nazi Germany. They’ve got of stepping Nazis and they got Jewish corpses. Right. 

They say unconscionable things about the Holocaust. Yeah. And you’re right to expose that, to call them the liars that they are. But how much does. How much does your whole effort to expose them as liars really have an impact on the people they’re lying to? I mean, you’re calling out the producers for lying, but you’re also kind of admitting that science is lying when they say that science doesn’t corrode religion. 

That’s correct. But the question is, in my lying and I don’t think I am, I’m trying to be as honest as I can. 

You’re saying the truth when both of these sides, the fundamentalists and kind of mainstream science are both kind of not telling the truth? 

Well, let’s put it let’s put it this way, that with this movie, what we were doing is demonstrating over and over again that the producers were lying. They were they were making stuff up. And at the same time, I’m saying, you know, religion is a fairy tale, then it’s kind of a silly story if you look at it carefully. And the ideal would be that people would look at this and they’d realize that, hey, he’s right. These guys were lying. Maybe I should think about what he’s saying about religion. 

Yeah, but the third thing in there is not just that you’re telling the truth about religion being like a fairy tale or that you’re telling the truth when you expose them for lying, but that you’re also kind of exposing National Center for Science Education for being dishonest. 

The National Center for Science Education is a wonderful organization, is doing great things, but it is a political organization and they are doing smart political things. So what they are doing is that the NSCLC is carefully trying to pave the ground so that religious people can accept evolution. You know, they’re saying true things. They’re saying that there are many people who are religious who are also scientists. 

That’s not a lie. That’s that is not a lie. 

Definitely, no. I can think of lots and lots of examples all over the place, including some extremely prominent people in evolutionary biology, like, you know, Theodosius Dobzhansky, for instance. You know, what you often have to do is you have to compromise. Right. And then a compromise is actually a kind of lie. It’s saying, well, I’m going to accept your position this far and no further. 

Mm hmm. And the NCC is doing a very good job of doing that. They are trying to get this middle ground where, you know, Eugenie Scott, for instance, is an atheist. She she makes no bones about it. 

Yes. She said so that she’s a naturalist, an atheist, a secular. She is on this show. 

Yeah. So she. That’s her position. But what she’s saying is, you know, I will take these these few extra steps in your direction so that you can make a few steps in my direction. 

Well, I think what she says is her personal world view may be atheistic, but. But the position of NCSA is not atheist. Yes, that’s right. So NCMEC is a political organization and they have to make these compromises, but they’re still doing what they’re doing. The laws work. They’re doing important work out there that we should all still be support. 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. No, I you know, I gave a talk at Berkeley. We can a half ago. And one of the messages I told them is the very least they can do. Scientists there can do is they can join the NTSB. Mm hmm. And I was also done and there’s a whole bunch of other things you should be doing as activists. But, yeah, here’s here’s the simplest, cleanest, easiest thing to do is send you thirty dollars a year to NTSB. They are a great group, is doing all these wonderful things about trying to make a reproach right between. Evolution and religion, by sort of taking this neutral ground and saying, OK, we’re not going to take sides on Islam versus Christianity. 

But personally, you don’t seem to buy that. 

Of course I don’t. I think personally, I think religion and the real world are in constant collision. And that’s that’s what that’s a disagreement. I would have them. But on the other hand, I am not a political organization trying to get money from donors and trying to get legislatures to enact legislation. I am glad I’m not. 

Well, you’re at your hands aren’t tied. You’re able this speak the truth as you see it. 

Yes. And you know, what they’re doing is they are speaking a kind of truth. They’re saying, you know, in order to get better science education, we can’t push ageism too hard when we’re talking to lawyers and legislators. And and that’s true. So that’s that’s just their role. They’re their niche in the ecosystem is to act as the mediators among all these different competing influences. 

I hate to ask you to kind of rank it this way, but what’s the more important goal for you, advancing evolution, education or advancing eighth? I’m being skeptical of religion. You know, both being anti religious, but also pro kind of Athie ism and your worldview. 

Well, as I mentioned earlier, they’re all tangled up together. 

You cannot separate them, but you could have priorities, priorities shift depending on who you’re talking to. So, for instance, in my classroom, I’m I’m teaching biology here at the USC Minnesota Morris. And when I go in the classroom, my priority is to get biology across to them. I do not endorse. It isn’t at all in the classroom. If I talk about it, it’s to say, OK, well, you all know, because you read my blog that I’m this vicious atheist, I can affect your grades at all, for instance. 

So, you know, there are the priority shifts. But when you get out into the general public where I am talking to the great mass of people out there with him, what I do as a I present an uncompromised, unstinting militant position because that’s the position I actually hold. And I think the priority is always just to be true to yourself. And being true to myself means being a cranky atheist. 

What floors me about all these new atheists and talking to you is that all? Y’all are very different in the written word than you are talking in person. Richard Dawkins is one of the gentlest, kindest people. Everybody says that. I know that from talking with him in person. But now you read some of his books, you read your blog. It’s not a mild mannered college professor who’s kind of gentle. It’s vitriolic. It’s kind of full throttle. Take no prisoners approach. 

Exactly. When you when you’re dealing with people face to face, of course, you’ve got to do as you like. I mentioned for the NZC, you make compromises that what you do is do the social interaction thing on this year, some weird autistic person. 

And you actually try to see things as the other prisoners is seeing them. But on something like a blog or when you’re writing a book, the audience becomes something impersonal and remote. 

Do you think that’s a liability of blogging, specifically? The social scientists who look at blogging say that it only increases the polarization because you don’t have to take these social cues from people who disagree with you. 

You could just lay it all out there, you know, and and take no prisoners are coming at it from a scientific point of view. No, I don’t think it’s a liability that we are we are on in expression of our positions. So, yeah, you can say, hey, this is this is going to alienate some people. It’s going to make people angry. And that’s all true. But at the same time, what we’re doing is presenting this unvarnished view of what we’re thinking. And I think that’s valuable as well. 

Let’s finish up with where you think all of this is gonna end up. Is this movement of rationalists, of atheist, secular, humanist, pro science types that your an opinion leader of, if not a leader in the movement? Maybe you demure on that point. Well, is this movement actually shaking things up permanently? Is that a flash in the pan? Where do you see it all ending up 20 years from now, in other words? 

I’m very optimistic, actually. I, I think we are shaking things up. I think what we are doing is making a lot of people realize that it’s okay to disagree with established religion and. I he’s going to do is if we imagine the United States 20 years from now and ignore all the imponderable that might happen. I think what it means is that we will have a a good group of people, a good section of the electorate that has to be addressed by politicians, that will be demanding accountability, demanding real world evidence that will be a bit more rigorous in their expectations. Know the religious right is not going to go away. There’s going to be there. But what I’m kind of hoping is that there will be a fractured and irrelevant segment that it won’t have anywhere near the political clout that they do now. Mm hmm. 

Thank you very much for joining me again on point of inquiry, Peezy Myers. It’s been fun. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.