Flunked, Not Expelled: What’s the Difference Between Peppered Moths and Pepperdine Students?

When textbooks illustrate crypsis using dead specimens of carbonaria and typica morph peppered moths (Biston betularia) placed on normal bark and soot-covered bark, you get Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Wells telling people in online discussion that such illustrations represent “fraud”.

When Ben Stein sets up a lecture room at Pepperdine University and fills it with hired extras representing students, DI Senior Fellow Jonathan Wells says nothing at all about that.

Michael Shermer has the goods on the Pepperdine thing.

It was with some irony for me, then, that I saw Ben Stein’s antievolution documentary film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opens with the actor, game show host and speechwriter for Richard Nixon addressing a packed audience of adoring students at Pepperdine University, apparently falling for the same trap I did.

Actually they didn’t. The biology professors at Pepperdine assure me that their mostly Christian students fully accept the theory of evolution. So who were these people embracing Stein’s screed against science? Extras. According to Lee Kats, associate provost for research and chair of natural science at Pepperdine, “the production company paid for the use of the facility just as all other companies do that film on our campus” but that “the company was nervous that they would not have enough people in the audience so they brought in extras. Members of the audience had to sign in and a staff member reports that no more than two to three Pepperdine students were in attendance. Mr. Stein’s lecture on that topic was not an event sponsored by the university.” And this is one of the least dishonest parts of the film.

Now, one might make an excuse for Wells. Maybe Wells is just not paying attention and the various things happening around “Expelled” simply haven’t come to his attention, and he’d be right up front to show his consistency in denouncing “fraud” wherever it shows up.

Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise. Wells has put in his two cents concerning the very recent flap about charges of copyright infringement and the “Expelled” film:

Expelled does NOT use the Harvard animation. The producers paid a professional to create a new animation that is more accurate than the Harvard one (based on current knowledge of cellular processes). Any similarities between the Expelled animation and the Harvard one are due to the fact that both animations depict many of the same processes.

Wells doesn’t address the issues raised concerning the shared errors in the animations, but notice how hot off the mark Wells is to dismiss that there is any basis to the copyright infringement charges in the “Expelled” case, and how little credit Wells ws willing to extend in the case of the peppered moth crypsis illustration. Is it credible to assert that Wells has not been apprised of the Pepperdine incident? That doesn’t seem likely. Now, even if that were the case, I’m sure that Wells will shortly have that information. Will we then see Wells as loudly proclaiming the fraud-like character of the “Expelled” sequence at Pepperdine as he did for peppered moth crypsis?

I don’t think so.

But I’d love to be proved wrong, with Wells acting on principle here and giving the “Expelled” folks a taste of his displeasure.

Remember to visit Expelled Exposed.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

11 thoughts on “Flunked, Not Expelled: What’s the Difference Between Peppered Moths and Pepperdine Students?

  • 2008/04/11 at 5:16 am

    I don’t know about this one (the Pepperdine moth students.) Sounds a little nit-picky. It seems to me that using friendly extras to mock up a full lecture as a device to set the stage for the “meat” of the documentary is a reasonable practice. I haven’t seen that clip–but I assume they show close-ups of “students” nodding knowingly, wide-eyed in appreciation for the new insight, and laughing at Stein’s jokes. In other words, it would look like it was–a planted audience.

    As I said, I haven’t seen it. I can imagine ways in which they went out of their way to imply that it was an audience comprised of a real cross section of real students (do they show any students sleeping or texting?) –and if so I’ll change my tune when I see it. Otherwise, as described at least, I’d be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this particular instance.

  • 2008/04/11 at 6:30 am

    David, the point was about Wells’ apparent standards for crying “fraud”. I don’t recall you yelling “fraud” in relation to illustrating crypsis in peppered moths, and your reluctance to cry “fraud” in the instance of the Pepperdine “students” is of a piece with that.

  • 2008/04/11 at 7:50 am

    Not only are we seeing the old double standard, but Wels’ charge of ‘fraud’ in the peppered moth pictures is just stunningly over the top. They are for illustrative purposes, for crying out loud. It is sad, but it seems that false charges of fraud by creationists is about the best thing they have to offer for their cause.

  • 2008/04/12 at 1:38 pm

    Yeah, I think the key distinction on the Pepperdine thing is how much play they give the audience. If they are just background, well, that’s filmmaking. If they show faces and make a big deal out of it being a real lecture, that’s a little shady.

    But still not a particularly big deal. I have no doubt that Wells would just brush it off as the difference between claimed scientific evidence (even though the pictures weren’t) and good entertainment moviemaking techniques.

  • 2008/04/12 at 1:53 pm

    Wells would be inconsistently and hypocritically crying wolf for the one and making excuses for the other, then. Wait, he’s already done that.

  • 2008/04/13 at 6:49 am

    Remember, this is what “Jonathan” Wells has said:

    He [Sun Myung Moon] frequently criticized Darwin’s theory that living things originated without God’s purposeful, creative activity…

    Father’s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

    And this is what the Right Irreverend Moon has said:

    So telling a lie becomes a sin if you tell it to take advantage of a person, but if you tell a lie to do a good thing for him that is not a sin. Even God tells lies very often; you can see this throughout history.

    In other words, these people openly and proudly quote-mine their very own Bible: “Thou shalt […] lie.”

  • 2008/04/14 at 5:27 am

    Wells used staged photos in the video for his book “Icons of Evolution”. But then, as Philip Kitcher wrote, consistency is not the hobgoblin of the creationist mind.

  • 2008/04/14 at 9:13 am

    David, as a Christian, I think it is incredibly important to our integrity to hold ourselves to any standard to which we try to hold others. Certainly staging scenes is acceptable, though I would question it if it tends to represent a specific event differently than it was when it took place.

    But this standard in terms of illustrations has been repeated time and again by creationists. If those creationists believe in the standard to which they are holding others then they should both practice it, and notice when their own side fails to uphold it.

  • 2008/04/16 at 11:14 pm


    “I don’t know about this one..” “I haven’t seen that clip…”
    “As I said, I haven’t seen it”.

    Sorry for quote mining you, but.. why show up here to post?

    To tell us all how much you liked the movie?

    paul fcd

  • 2008/04/17 at 8:10 am

    I don’t think that Heddle has expressed a liking for the Ben Stein movie.

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