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Ben Stein: Front Man for Creationism's Manufactroversy

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Biblical creationism, repositioned as creation science and most recently intelligent design has lost the contest of ideas on all counts: the rules, the criteria and the judging. It doesn't follow the scientific method; it doesn't allow us to explain, predict, and control better; and the jury of relevant experts (aka biologists) keeps returning the same verdict.

Now the creationists have taken a new approach that they hope will help them achieve their goal of teaching religious beliefs in our schools as science. That approach can be summed up in one simple word: whining.

One week from today, the new movie, Expelled, attempts to turn creationist complaints into mainstream media. Featuring Ben Stein, one of the conservative right's biggest whiners, the film makes several plaintive appeals: There's a conspiracy among big government and big science, and it's not fair! All we ask is for our perspective to get equal time! (Read: we lost, so let's split the prize.) All we want is for teachers to "teach the controversy"! This is all about academic freedom. Americans like freedom, right?

The whiners actually have spent millions of dollars on the movie, and even more on the marketing of it. You have to give them credit: by bundling Creationism with freedom, they have created a sophisticated strategy. Of course, Americans like freedom! More importantly, both democracy and scientific progress depend on intellectual freedom -- the freedom to ask questions and, unencumbered by ideology, to follow the answers where they lead. After centuries of heresy trials and book burnings, for biblical creationists to position themselves as the champions of academic freedom is a brilliant Orwellian move.

University of Washington professor, Leah Ceccarelli has pointed out that their "teach the controversy" strategy depends on a very specific sleight of hand: blurring the difference between scientific controversy and manufactured controversy or Manufactroversy.

You can say you first heard it here, well, if you haven't heard it already on MySpace or Facebook: Manufactroversy -- a made up word for a made up controversy. There's even a new website, Manufactroversy.NewsLadder.net that aggregates articles and blog posts about this manufactroversy and some other pretty famous ones as well.

Scientific controversy exists only when the jury of relevant experts is out on whether a new finding meets the standard of evidence. The debate and evidence gathering still are in process. A manufactroversy is when someone motivated by profit or ideology fosters confusion in the public mind long after scientists have moved on to the next set of questions. Think tobacco and lung cancer. Think Exxon and global warming. Now think Ben Stein and evolution.

The fact is, there is no scientific controversy about evolution, just like there is no scientific controversy about whether tobacco causes lung cancer or whether human activity causes global warming. However, in all three examples, someone powerful and well established loses out when and if the scientific mountain of evidence becomes common knowledge and widely accepted.

The tobacco industry in the 1960's wasn't anxious to part with its profits just like the oil companies of the 1990's had no desire to walk away from theirs. So they manufactured controversies, paying scientists to publish papers they knew would distort the issue.

In the case of creationism, the a vast preponderance of evidence, conflicts with traditional mythos. What possible explanation but that the scientists are colluding, corrupt, and biased. But, of course, they're not. The proponents of intelligent design can't gain credibility among hard scientists because their evidence is pathetic. So what do they do? Follow in the footsteps of the tobacco and oil companies and spend millions in an effort to create public doubt. They plea for their side to be told, they imagine vast conspiracies and they cry out for fair play, but the reality is much simpler.

The mountain of evidence supporting mainstream biological science is overwhelming. The paltry evidence for "insurmountable gaps" and "irreducible complexity" is actually shrinking. Evolution should be taught as science and creationism, in its many guises, as religion, including the rich pre-scientific stories about origins from many cultures and traditions. So why not just ignore the whiners and hope they will go away? Because they won't until we force them to stop their marketing of religious beliefs as science. We're still fighting the tobacco industry to this day. Oil companies still fund global warming deniers.

Besides, how long has it been since the famous Scopes trial? How long have creationists been talking about "Darwinism" as if no one but Darwin had noticed the fossil record or the DNA code in the last 100 years? It does get tiresome, responding to their ever evolving anti-evolutionary rhetoric. But we need to expose the bizarre supernaturalist agenda behind all the sudden whining about academic freedom. And somebody needs to gently remind Stein and his creationist cronies that they haven't been expelled from school, they flunked.

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