The anti-evolution movie Expelled has garnered a lot of attention in the aftermath of its release to the nation’s cinemas. I haven’t seen it. The mainstream reviews all point out that it’s a deceptive piece of propaganda. I have no doubt that it is after reading about the various canards it rolls out gleefully.

Of more interest to me is the reactions Expelled promotes in the neighborhoods of the blogosphere where the defense of evolutionary biology has long been a central commitment. This is interesting to me because after making the unexceptional and strong arguments against evolution’s non-scientific competitors and the rotting pseudo-philosophy underpinning those competitors, pro-evolution forces’ approach to persuasion unravel when the subjects are either ones of social psychology or scientific literacy.

Partly this is simply because the logical focus of scientific persuasion is different than the logical focus of generic rhetoric and persuasion. But the reasons so many people adapt so many unscientific stances are researchable. And those reasons defeat the commonsense arguments of the defenders of science, and atheism, not because they are more correct reasons but because they are more believable.

In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits. (John Lilly, Programming and Meta-programing in the Human Biocomputer; 1972).

Thus people do tend to be ‘experientialists,’ limited to the best belief a person is capable of. The questions which can fruitfully be addressed by the public intellectual cum scientist leverage the problem posed by Lilly. This is a problem of learning rather than it being a problem of persuasive propaganda.

Pragmatically this problem is about whether or not the given current limit, as it were, can be transcended. The least likely population to learn differently is the population most fixated on the believed truth they happen to be, in effect, fused to. This goes for the scientifically-minded too!

The most likely population to learn is the population for whom the believed truth is most fragile and most likely to be changed.

The comments of the science progress blog are much more interesting than Chris Mooney’s review of Expelled. I contributed the following:

“Smart tactics might be optimally supported by an understanding about the cognitive and social psychological features that tend to reinforce the truth claims of belief against other kinds of truth claims.

Probably the most cost effective approaches, accounting for both resource and cognitive costs, will aim to convince those whose beliefs are the most subject to being changed to a ‘better’ (more correct) belief.

This requires much better listening, analysis and targeting. This seems to me to be much more about teaching and teachability than it is about mastery of the ‘science’ of propaganda.


Filed under adult learning, social psychology, organizational development

4 Responses to EXPELLED

  1. Stein is under heavy attack for exaggerating the influence of evolutionism behind Nazism and Stalinism (super evolution of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Russia). But Haeckelian type of vulgar evolutionism drove not only the ‘Politics-is-applied-biology’ Nazi takeover, but also the nationalistic collision at the World War I. It was Charles Darwin himself, who praised and raised the monstrous Haeckel in the spotlight as the greatest authority in the field of human evolution, even in the preface to his Descent of man in 1871. I defended this A0 poster on the topic in two conferences on bioethics:

    Biochemist, drop-out (Master of Sciing)

  2. Thanks for the comment. Darwinism has been re-deployed as a “folk scientific” conception in informal domains for which it does happen to fit, albeit it does not critically fit.

    Yup, “vulgar evolutionism…” I don’t think there’s any reason to support–in our time–this superficial (and quaint) conception of Darwinism, so your comment will move me now to see the film just to see how Stein handles the sociohistorical aspects of the concurrent work of Darwin and the (semi)Lamarckian Haeckel.

    However, there comes to the fore making the factual and historic details into a straw man. I’ll be curious to see if Stein is forthright about the implicit category error should he conflate historical social agendas with biology.

  3. These aren’t William Jennings Bryan’s creationists. Whereas that was a populist movement concerned with mercy, temperance, and perhaps even progressive economic policies…today’s Creationists seem to be quite concerned with imperialism, oil wars, corporate cronyism, etc.

    what is the prize for proving “evolution” is wrong or “Creationism” is right today. Do the celebrity competitors even really care?

  4. Ryan, your question is interesting, although I’m not clear why creationists are tagged as “greed is good” types.

    Certainly most creationists understand that creationism is proved right, and yet they harbor a vigorous resentment that the opposing position is not defeated. I don’t know what the prize would be since it’s not about vindicating a position already taken to be correct. I don’t know what it’s about because it’s not a prize that can be won.

    Good question.

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