Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled

This is the sixth of the series of reviews of Expelled, the video produced by Premise Media and featuring Ben Stein. In the previous installment I reviewed the case of Pamela Winnick, a journalist supposedly “expelled” for even mentioning the term “Intelligent Design.”

Winnick has written the book A Jealous God: Science’s Crusade Against Religion, published in 2005 by Thomas Nelson and sold by HarperCollins Christian Publishing (established in 2012). Thomas Nelson is a centuries-old publishing concern that now has a presence in America:

Thomas Nelson, now based in Nashville, publishes leading Christian authors, including Billy Graham, Max Lucado, John Eldredge, John Maxwell, Charles Stanley, Michael A. O’Donnell, Ted Dekker, John Townsend, and Dave Stone.

So why am I bringing all this up? Maybe it’s because I find it curious that an author setting out a case against modern science is seeming to market her work to a Christian readership. Her response to a critique by Wesley Ellsberry is also enlightening:

 Those of you out there accusing me of being a creationist merely because I gave the PBS series a bad review (deservedly so) and have a foundation to explore, from a media standpoint, the evolution debate out to know that I’m a practicing Jew and a liberal Democrat and a native of New York City.

I am also an attorney.

Also FYI, the paper I write for, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, has strongly endorsed the teaching of evolution (and properly so in my opion)–primarily because I was the only reporter in all of PA who scooped the story of how PA almost adopted standards that might have allowed the teaching of evolution.

I am, however, writing a book about the subject showing how the media and scientific elite has stifled meaningful debate on the subject. In doing so, I am indeed supported ($25,000) by the Phillips Foundation, an organization which takes absolutely no position on the subject of evolution, but which seeks to promote fair and balanced reporting in all subject areas.

Whoever out there who is mis-identifying my purpose a ought to have the courage to identify him/herself. There is terribly reminiscent of the McCarthy period and reflects terribly on all of who seek to defend Darwinism.

[This was an RSS post, apparently written in haste. I have left the typos in place.]

A liberal Democrat? That is interesting. I have been in the creationism business for 25 years, and I have found few Democrats and fewer liberals siding with creationism. I was not able to track down Ellsberry’s original critique, but his response to Winnick’s response is available. Some of his remarks are notable:

The Phillips Foundation clearly states that the fellowship is about exploring the lack of “tolerance” for “teaching creationism”. It says nothing about “meaningful debate”. This contradicts Winnick’s claim that the Phillips Foundation takes “absolutely no position on the subject of evolution”.

Further, the content of the Phillips Foundation site gives no support to the claim by Winnick that the Phillips Foundation’s only concern is promoting fair and balanced reporting. Consider, for instance, this page, which repeats the phrase, “liberal bias”, throughout.

Other pages which belie the stated goal of “objective journalism” include this page, which lists the projects picked out by the 1999 fellowship recipients. It’s not just me who can see this, for this page on Contests and Scholarships: Free-Market Conservatism lists the fellowship program of the Phillips Foundation right at the top.

Full disclosure: I am a Wesley Ellsberry fan. He worked with the National Center for Science Education in preparing a case for the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, and we have hosted him at the North Texas Skeptics in years back. It will be interesting in future posts to explore the Pamela Winnick controversy at greater length.

In the mean time I will get on to the next and the final of the souls who suffered expulsion in the Ben Stein video.

Michael Egnor

Dr. Michael Egnor on creationism website

Dr. Michael Egnor on creationism website

Michael Egnor is a prominent neurosurgeon and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Stony Brook University. He became inoculated against evolution (the science of biological evolution) after reading  Michael Denton‘s book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Egnor has aligned himself with the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC), one of the leading creationist organizations in this country and likely the absolute leader in support of the Intelligent Design version of creationism. An excerpt from one of his posts on the CSC’s Evolution News blog may be characteristic:

Scopes was put on trial for violating the Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution to schoolchildren in Tennessee. What Scopes actually taught, if anything, is unclear, because Scopes was untruthful about what he did, and the trial was a legal ploy to spur a Supreme Court ruling. The truth was a secondary consideration at best to Scopes and to his team.

Hunter’s textbook Civic Biology was racist and taught eugenics. It was vile stuff. If a teacher taught from it today, he would not be prosecuted for violating the Butler Act. He would be prosecuted for federal civil rights violations.

If Dr. Egnor had a great interest in laying out the facts about the Scopes Trial he could have further elaborated:

  • The ACLU advertised for somebody to participate in a test case of the Butler Act.
  • John T. Scopes was a college student at the time, on a break in his education, teaching high school physics in Dayton, Tennessee. He was also the baseball coach.
  • Prominent citizens in the town decided to bring the ACLU case to Dayton, and the persuaded Scopes to volunteer as the subject.
  • Scopes did not teach evolution. That was never a secret. The high school principal taught the section on evolution, but nobody wanted him to be prosecuted.
  • Students of Scopes were tutored by the defense not to reveal that Scopes had not taught evolution. This was an open secret, because everybody involved wanted a trial.

What is refreshing is that Dr. Egnor did go to the trouble to read George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology. The original copyright is 100 years old this year, and Amazon’s Kindle edition became available two years ago, with a free version appearing on Amazon in December of last year. Being on a tight budget (currently unemployed) I obtained the free version. The book contains 11 uses of the word “eugenics.” In one case the word is used twice in reference to selective breeding of plants and animals (not people). There is one section on eugenics involving people. The remaining uses of the word are in references to other publications and in the index. Here is an excerpt on human eugenics:

Eugenics.—When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.

Hunter, George William (2012-12-18). A Civic Biology Presented in Problems (Kindle Locations 3261-3264). . Kindle Edition.

The section goes on to describe stories of two famous families, one exhibiting the flower of human intellect and achievement and the other exposing the worst of human nature. I will send a copy of the full text of this section to anybody who requests one.

In his desire to enlighten his readers Dr. Egnor has glossed over a number of points:

  • John Scopes did not write this book.
  • John Scopes did not cause this book to be purchased for the school. The Dayton, Tennessee, school system did.
  • John Scopes was not the biology teacher. He taught only some classes.
  • Eugenics has nothing to do with Darwinian evolution. Darwinian evolution relates to evolution facilitated by natural selection. Selective breeding of plants, animals and even humans is not natural selection.

Then what was it that got Dr. Egnor expelled?

Summary

The Alliance for Science, a citizen’s group in Virginia, sponsored an essay contest for high school students on the topic “Why I would want my doctor to have studied evolution,” to highlight the important role of evolution in the medical sciences. Physician Michael Egnor posted an essay on an intelligent design blog in response, claiming that evolution was irrelevant to medicine. This was more a statement of Egnor’s ignorance about evolution than a reflection on evolution’s place in medicine.

The Claim

“When neurosurgeon Michael Egnor wrote an essay for high school students saying doctors didn’t need to study evolution in order to practice medicine, the Darwinists were quick to try and exterminate this new threat.” (Ben Stein, Expelled)

This is from the NCSE Expelled Exposed site. They provide some additional elaboration:

The Claim

Michael Egnor says in Expelled that he expected criticism, but was shocked by the “viciousness” and “baseness” of the response.

The Facts

Michael Egnor had apparently never been on the Internet before.

Yes, tell me about it, Dr. Egnor.

Back in 2007 Burt Humburg posted on The Panda’s Thumb blog a doctor’s response to Dr. Egnor’s assertion that physicians do not study evolution and do not need to know or accept evolution:

[Egnor]

Isn’t it “a funny question” whether we would want physicians to know evolution? There are basic sciences that are taught in medical school that must be “important to medicine” like anatomy and physiology. Doctors don’t “study evolution in medical school”, “there are no courses in medical school on evolution,” “there are no professors of evolution” in medical schools,” and “there are no departments of evolutionary biology in medical schools,” and “no evolutionary biologists” would provide useful information to a medical team in hospital. Therefore, evolution just isn’t important to the practice of medicine. I call upon my “20 years [of performing] over 4000 brain operations” to attest that I have never once used evolutionary biology in my work. How could I since evolution is random and doctors look for patterns, patterns that lie far afield from the randomness that is evolution? “I do use many” understandings provided by basic science in my work, such as population biology, “[but] evolutionary biology itself, as distinct from these scientific fields, contributes nothing to modern medicine.” “No Nobel prize in medicine has ever been awarded for work in evolutionary biology.” So I wouldn’t want my doctor to have studied evolution; that answer wouldn’t win the “Alliance for Science” prize, but it would be the truth.

[Humburg]

Section 1: Evolution is a Vital Basic Science for Medicine
I’ll start off my fisking by criticizing an aspect of medical practice and, to make sense of it, those who aren’t physicians need to know that there’s a great divide in the practice of medicine between the physicians who practice to simply the “standard of care,” (the kind of practice you’re expected to know for quizzes, tests, and boards and the level of care you need to meet to not get sued) and the physicians who know the basic science behind why the standards of care are what they are.

For example, when someone is having a heart attack (and daily after they have one), they need to be on aspirin because of the pathophysiology of heart attacks. (I review much of it that pathophysiology here.) Briefly, the aspirin irreversibly inhibits the platelet enzyme involved with forming clots. But you don’t have to know about the irreversible acetylation of cyclooxygenase that occurs in the presence of acetylsalycylic acid in platelets; all you have to do is give people aspirins after heart attacks. The “divide” I refer to is between the physicians who know the biochemistry behind that reaction and the doctors who are content to know only that they should give aspirins after heart attacks. Make no mistake: one can be a great doctor and simply practice to the standard of care knowing not a whit of the basic science that provides that standard’s underpinnings. But if you can know the reasons why the standard of care is the way it is, why on Earth would you limit yourself by choosing to not know it?

The example I’ve given here is limited to a single therapeutic regimen in cardiology, but ideally there’s basic science that undergirds everything we do in medicine. There’s a reason why it’s no big deal if you’re not wearing lead in the radiology suite (thanks to the inverse-square law, as long as you’re three or four feet away from the radiation source, the dose you get is negligible). There’s a reason why diazepam – a drug we use to treat seizures – can cause seizures (much of the brain’s neurons are inhibitory and their suppression leads to increased seizure activity). There’s a reason why two different rheumatological diseases can require separate therapies (diseases involving deposition of immune complexes wouldn’t likely be amenable to an exchange of antibiodies as much as they would be to suppression of the immune system overall). Again, there are doctors who know or want to know the reasons behind the practice and there are doctors who don’t know and/or don’t want to know those reasons.

Doctor Egnor seems to like being in that latter category. More than that, he seems to recommend not knowing the basic science that undergirds the practice of medicine, to the extent that he perceives evolution might have had a hand in developing the state of the art. I see his perspectives as nothing more than ignorance advocacy for the basic sciences, writ large and not limited whatsoever to evolution.

Michael Egnor has thrown in his lot with the science deprived at the CSC, and as a result a lot of shine has gone off his “M.D.” My personal perspective: I live in a city with (what seems to be) a highly religious population. My own personal physician asks me my religious affiliation. (?) I told him I am a Texan. My beloved spouse goes to a doctor in this city’s vast medical establishment. There are copies of prayers on the wall in the waiting room. I’m still alive and doing well, but I would get great comfort if my personal physician would talk dirty to me. Tell me about the biological origins of human diseases. All that nasty stuff. I think I know my doctor well enough to be sure he is up to speed and knows all about modern biology. That’s the assurance I need, not an appeal to some higher power that erupted in the brains of primitive tribes thousands of years ago.

More later on Michael Egnor. Next up I will renew my review of Expelled with a discussion of Hitler, the Holocaust and how Darwin is to blame.

And may Jesus have mercy on our souls.

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2 thoughts on “Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled

  1. Pingback: Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled | Skeptical Analysis

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