Mocking the mockers: The ambiguity of a Youtube video

“This is too clever to have been done by creationists.”

I thought this while watching a nearly four minute Youtube video called “Beware the Believers” depicting a rapping Richard Dawkins and headband-wearing Christopher Hitchens. After a brief prologue in which an animated Dawkins introduces an audience to a “glorious age, the age of the machine,” it launches into biting lyrics that tear into the “appeal to authority” arguments often employed during evolution-versus-intelligent design debates. The cast of this music video is comprised of prominent atheists and scientists ranging from Charles Darwin to anthropologist Eugenie Scott, and if there’s one thing this lyrical group wants to convey to you, it’s that Dawkins “is smarter than you, he has a science degree.”
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At surface level, the video is targeting the atheists and scientists it depicts. Creationists and religious apologists have long complained of the supposed elitism of prominent atheists, and here is a two-dimensional rendition of the alleged snobbery. With non-believers constantly using the word “irrational” to describe religious belief, it’s not too far-fetched to think the religious would strike back at the very university degrees that give many of these scientists their stature.

But seen another way, the video is mocking those very believers. The characters appearing in the piece are literally cut-out, enlarged heads bobbling to-and-fro over dancing real bodies — they’re essentially caricatures. Viewed in this light, the video is riffing on the often-bizarre paranoia of creationists who think “Big Science” is actively trying to suppress scientists who don’t subscribe to some kind of mainstream scientific doctrine, e.g. evolutionary theory. Given that a new documentary touting this very thesis, Expelled, was soon to be released, the video seemed an appropriate way to address this play-the-victim assertion.

The fact that the video was of unknown origin (the username of the person who uploaded it didn’t give any clue) further enhanced the ambiguity of its message. Perhaps because of this almost-perfect balance, the piece was widely linked across the web, making its way onto a number of extremely popular sites. Rather than being offended by the video, much of the online atheist community embraced it. As one Digg user put it, “Whether you’re a person of science, a person of faith or a mix of the two I think we can all agree that this is one catchy song. Kudos to the guy who made this, it’s hilarious.”

As the video spread, its origin remained a mystery. Many of those who viewed it — including me — thought it was too well written to have been created by the people behind Expelled. After all, movie critics have already eviscerated the film for its lack of originality, boring use of stock footage and overall failed attempts at humor. Clearly something as sharp and well-written as this couldn’t come from a Ben Stein cohort.

Well, it turns out we were wrong — somewhat.

PZ Myers, a biology professor and vocal atheist who appears in “Beware the Believers,” received an email this week from a man named Michael Edmondson who outed himself as one of the creators. “The intent of the video has been questioned a lot,” he wrote. “…I suppose the answer is that I tried to make something that was funny to me and It’s not really meant to convince anyone of anything.”
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Edmondson is a 27-year-old film school graduate living in Vancouver. He previously worked creating marketing videos for Electronic Arts but left the company in 2004 to start Float On Films and do work on the side as a photographer providing artwork for the hospitality industry. From late last summer until the end of last week, he had done contractual work for Premise Media, the producers for Expelled. He has a visual effects credit in the documentary and was one of the main players behind the Youtube video.

I interviewed Edmondson this week and asked him how “Beware the Believers” came about. “Originally it was a six minute piece to be used within the film Expelled,” he told me. “It told the story of the ‘rise of the Machine’ (darwinism). When I had arrived the script was already written having passed through three sets of hands of writers directly or loosely connected to the film…In the editing room for Expelled the production team decided the film had taken a different direction in tone than expected and that the unfinished animation no longer fit the film.”

It was the producers who decided to shift the video online and make it a separate entity, with the hopes of it becoming a “viral piece,” as Edmondson put it. A person named Matt Chandler was brought in to write the lyrics. “Matt and I each wrote a version of the lyrics,” he said. “My version was the requested 90 seconds and well received. Matt’s was five minutes long but very layered and smart so we went with Matt’s and trimmed it to three minutes.”

To save time, he set up a blue screen in his kitchen and performed the dancing rather than animating the bodies of each character. It took him over seven months to complete, “worked on intermittently between other projects and tasks.”

Which brings me to the nagging question about the video’s origin: Was the creator — Edmondson — sympathetic to the Expelled thesis (that intelligent design is a legitimate theory and should be taught in the classroom), or was this a fly-by paid-for-hire production? To make matters even more confusing, at nearly the same time he outed himself Edmondson released a “sequel” to “Beware the Believers” in which Ben Stein is wearing a shirt that has the words “Poe’s Law” written on it. For those not familiar with it, Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to make a parody of fundamentalism without it being interchangeable with the real thing.

But which “fundamentalists” are being parodied here, the intelligent design proponents or the scientists?
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I tried to get a reading on Edmondson’s leanings on this matter, asking him if he was sympathetic to Expelled’s cause. “The video wasn’t just meant to be funny. I think it has something to say,” he replied. “It was meant to spark debate and bring attention to the issue…What I meant was that the animation was not intended to convince people of anything. I hope no one over five years old learns really important things about the world through the song and dance of cartoon characters. In the second video there appears the text ‘In Vitro Vertas.’ It means ‘the truth is in the test tube.’ I think that is a true statement for this issue. If intelligent design is true the truth will eventually come out through the science. I think the film has a viewpoint that has the right to be heard.”

I pressed further, asking if the “Poe’s Law” written on Stein’s shirt meant that he was intentionally mocking the intelligent design promoters. “No… but yes,” he said. “Like many things we included in the videos what you see has everything to do with what you bring to it and can be interpreted a few different ways. A person’s world view colours how they see the world and these animations. We knew some people would see it that way. The animations make fun of everyone.”

Myers, who’s featured in both “Beware the Believers” and Expelled, seemed to agree with this notion, calling the video “equal opportunity mockery.”

“It’s a video that used wit and humor and irreverence and knowledge of contemporary attitudes that earned the attention given to it, no matter what view point it might have been pushing,” he told me in an interview this week.

I asked the biology professor about the possibility that Edmondson had crossed enemy lines to help out the Expelled people (it should be noted that I asked this question before I had been able to interview Edmondson). After all, many of Myers’s blog commenters had accused Edmondson of being just as guilty as the Expelledcreators because he had helped out in the marketing.

“Most people don’t see the ‘enemy lines as sharply as an educated scientist or an ignorant creationist would,” Myers said. “To most people, the lines are pretty blurry and uncertain (although a little more education in biology would certainly help open their eyes), and the battle isn’t as clearly laid out as the actual participants see it. It seems to me that Edmondson is an artist who is playing around right on that boundary, and not so much an active transgressor.”

Besides, he said, the video “was an absolutely horrible piece of marketing.”

“It wouldn’t be a draw to Expelled‘s target audience, nor would it persuade critics to go see the movie,” he explained. “The Expelled producers wasted their money on it, if they thought they were getting a marketing tool. I hope Edmondson got paid a LOT of the creationists’ money.”

Sadly, when I asked Edmondson how much he got paid to produce the video, it was the one question he neglected to answer.