Bill Nye the Science Guy Waxes Unscientific on the Theories of Evolution and Creation

NOTE: The author of this article believes not only that irrational creationists and irrational evolutionists alike are in the wrong, but that there are practically as many of one as there are of the other.  The goal of this criticism of Nye, therefore, is not to promote creationism, as many might ignorantly presume, but to criticize irrational argumentation wherever it exists—even when it emanates from a demigod of popular science.  I could just as well write a critique of the rhetoric of a famous preacher, and may well do that when I’m finished with this present piece. 

In a recently-published video by Big Think (wikipedia, website), popular kid’s science personality, Bill Nye the Science Guy, engages in rhetoric that employs several non-scientific tactics to criticize believers in creation theory.  Under the title, “Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children”, Nye takes an approach that criticizes creationists not on scientific terms, but on more dubious terms, such as I have detailed below in the order that they appear.

“Denial of evolution is unique to the United States.”

Nye begins his argument with this absurd and extraordinary claim, presenting neither evidence nor source to back up the claim.   The claim itself is demonstrably false.  Consider these three quick and casual disproofs that I gathered in just moments from Google searches:

  1. National Center for Science Education (USA) cites a  Russian survey showing that 49% of Russians are creationists.
  2. Britain approves creationism-teaching schools.
  3. Malaysian Survey Shows Over Half Deny Evolution. 

Thus do we learn right off the bat that Nye’s framing assertion is bogus.  Interestingly, however, Nye’s exact statement, when searched in quotation marks at Google yields 107,000 results.  That is remarkable for words spoken only a week or so ago.  I even searched it with the beginning of his second sentence included just to be sure that the Google returns weren’t from some other source that Nye might have been quoting.  I found 69,000 returns for ["Denial of evolution is unique to the United States. I mean, we're"].  This raises interesting questions about why such a bogus piece as this would be so widely distributed, but I digress.

“People still move to the United States. And that’s largely because of the intellectual capital we have, the general understanding of science. When you have a portion of the population that doesn’t believe in that, it holds everybody back, really.”

These sentences are a cluster of troubles.  Let’s break it down into pieces:

“People still move to the United States.”

This sentence alone is an another unsupported claim from Nye, yet this one happens to be fairly obvious.  You’ll get no argument from me here.  But now let’s put it into its original context:

“People still move to the United States. And that’s largely because of the intellectual capital we have, the general understanding of science.”

We must note that, now that Nye has given the reason for people moving to the United States, he utterly fails to provide any fact, logic, or sourcing to support it.  Are we to assume, Mr. Nye, that certain Mexicans risk life and limb to come here illegally because of our “general understanding of science”?  Or is it rather because they find work here that they cannot find at home?  The latter is fairly obvious and is very well documented.  But what source shall we call upon to vet your assertion?

Then Nye continues with this twisted mass:

“When you have a portion of the population that doesn’t believe in that, it holds everybody back, really.”

The implication here is that creationists in the US are “hold[ing] everybody back”.  This is, of course, in direct contradiction to Nye’s assertion in the previous two sentences.  Indeed, he does not paint a picture of “everybody” being held back, but of people coming here because of “the intellectual capital we have”.  How is it that these people could come here at all if the presence of creationists did indeed “hold everybody back”?  And how interesting and instructive is it that a scientist (Mr. Nye) would not immediately recognize the fallacy in such a statement?

To be fair, however, I should leave room for the possibility that Mr. Nye means to convey, rather, that if only the creationists would change their minds, a great many more people would move to the United States.  If Mr. Nye thinks this would be a good thing, my un-researched hunch is that he would constitute a minute majority.  Is there a public movement in support of massive immigration?  I’m not aware of such.

Is it Mr. Nye’s view that the ideal picture is one in which the entire world has moved to the United States because of “the intellectual capital we have”?   If so, he has once again highlighted the contradiction in his own argumentation, for he simultaneously holds to both of the following contradictory ideas:

  1. If we would only drop the denial of evolution, people would move here.
  2. The United States is the only place on earth where evolution is denied.

Why shouldn’t all these would-be immigrants simply stay home and be content in their non-evolution-denying cultures?

And now we move to untangling Nye’s next paragraph:

“Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology. It’s like, it’s very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates. You’re just not going to get the right answer. Your whole world is just going to be a mystery instead of an exciting place.”

Again, I’ll break it down line by line:

“Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology.”

Again, he leads with another extraordinary and unsupported assertion.  Is evolution the fundamental idea in all of life science and biology?  Well, let’s see if anyone other than Mr. Nye says so.  Here are some search results that bode poorly for his assertion:

  1. Wikipedia makes no such claim.  In its article on Life Sciences, Wikipedia makes no such claim about evolution being a fundamental.  In fact, it merely lists “evolutionary biology” and “evolutionary genetics” in a listing of 50 or so other life sciences.  Further, in Wikipedia’s article on Biology, evolution is not listed as “the fundamental idea”, but is merely included in a list as follows in this defining sentence from the article (emphasis added):“Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, origin, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy.” Perhaps the author(s) of this article might call evolution “a fundamental”, but clearly he or she does not consider it “the fundamental”, for several co-fundamentals are listed as well.  And finally, I checked Wikipedia’s article on Evolution and found no such statement as Nye’s, that “evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology.”  It would appear, therefore, that Wikipedia has missed the opportunity to agree with Mr. Nye.
  2. Merriam-Webster.com (online dictionary) makes no such claim.  It’s definition for “Life Sciences” does not mention evolution at all.  Nor does its definition of evolution mention it as a fundamental of life science.

I’m at a loss, therefore, as to how to support Mr. Nye’s claim about the fundamental role of evolution in the life sciences.  At best, it is a gross exaggeration.  Beyond that, it is an unsupported assertion.  Neither has any place in scientific discussion.

And now we return to the remainder of the paragraph at hand:

“Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology. It’s like, it’s very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates. You’re just not going to get the right answer. Your whole world is just going to be a mystery instead of an exciting place.”

Mr. Nye’s obvious assumption here is that no “right answer” can be derived if evolution (and presumably, macroevolution, to be exact) is left out of the equation.  He seems disinterested in acknowledging at this point that not one shred of evidence known to science proves that macroevolution  (the changing of one species into another) has ever occurred one single time.  It is far from proven, far from certain.

Coincidentally, I just happened this morning to be reviewing my notes on a book by another evolutionist, Keith E. Stanovich, who is a cognitive scientist (another of the Life Sciences, for which evolution is “the fundamental”, according to Nye).  In it, Stanovich points out the very irrational behavior we witness here in Nye (emphasis added):

  “…an important aspect of epistemic rationality is the ability to calibrate evidence appropriately to belief.  One rule of such calibration is that ambiguous evidence should lead to tentative belief.  People often violate this stricture, particular when myside bias is operating. ”
What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, by Keith E. Stanovich (2009, Yale University and Press, New Haven and London, p. 36)

As per Stanovich’s observations, Nye fails to calibrate his belief in macroevolution appropriately with regard to the fact that it is at best ambiguous–meaning that the same observable cosmos and the species in it could indeed have come about in some other way than by his Big-Bang/Evolution model.  In fact, the odds are similarly astounding with more than one possible model of origins.  Assuming, therefore, that macroevolution does indeed find an evidentiary basis for itself some day, and that creationism does not, then and only then will Nye be in a position to justify his certainty.  For now, however, the evidence is most certainly ambiguous, and Nye is no more able to prove macroevolution than a creationist is to prove the burning bush.

Nye caps off this paragraph with:

“Your whole world is just going to be a mystery instead of an exciting place.”

The implication here, of course, is that only evolutionary scientists are excited.  This is demonstrably false and deserves no further consideration.  A further implication of Nye’s sentence  above is that “mystery” is anathema to excitement.  But just because Nye claims to have been a pupil of Carl Sagan, I’ll let Sagan contradict him here (emphasis added):

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works…?”
~Carl Sagan  Pale blue dot : a vision of the human future in space. New York: Random House. 1994. LCC QB500.262.S24 1994. ISBN 0679438416.

“Stirring” certainly sounds like excitement to me!  Meanwhile, the Internet abounds with creationist/evolution-deniers who voice great excitement over a cosmos that they believe was created by God.  A search such as this one will easily prove my point:  ["god created man" exciting]

A little further down, Nye makes another preposterous point:

“Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.”

I observe that just the opposite would be true.  It is for those who believe in macroevolution that the complications persist, provided that they intend to be rational people, for they are faced with matching the evidence to their beliefs, rationally increasing the tentativeness of their belief as the scarcity of supporting and unambiguous evidence becomes apparent.  The creationist, on the other hand, chooses to believe an unprovable position based, in part at least, on his belief in the accounts of the Bible.  His does not purport to be an evidentiary position (if he is honest!), but a matter of believing the say-so of what he has read.  The life of the dogmatic creationist, therefore, is far from “fantastically complicated”; if nothing else, it is irresponsibly care-free!

There are some creationists who post certain scientific challenges to the macroevolution tradition, however, so not all critics of macroevolution are arbitrary dogmatists.   Ironically, Nye stands as a perfect example of the “irresponsibly care-free” sort, for he summarily dismisses all such challenges as being unworthy of examination.  And this is exactly the sort of irrational behavior for which he chides the creationists!  I believe the word for this sort of behavior is hypocrisy.

Nye immediately continues:

“I mean, here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils, here is radioactivity, here are distant stars that are just like our star but they’re at a different point in their lifecycle. The idea of deep time, of this billions of years, explains so much of the world around us. If you try to ignore that, your world view just becomes crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent.”

His rambling style makes it difficult to pin down how many exact thoughts he means to convey.  This is especially true in trying to identify the antecedent of “if you ignore that” in the last sentence.  Let us assume the minimum, therefore, and take him to mean that one ought to embrace this assertion:

“The idea of deep time, of this billions of years, explains so much of the world around us.”

Nye seems oblivious to the possibility that there may well be other plausible or even viable explanations.  Indeed, the very history of science itself can be viewed as the story of replacing flawed explanations with better ones.  How unfitting, therefore, is Nye’s failure to leave room for better scientific explanations in the future.  And similarly unfitting is his grand (though unspoken) assumption that the idea of a creator can be rightly rejected out of hand.

He continues:

“And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them.”

I’m having difficult fathoming just what it is that Nye sees in the creationist model that is “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe”.  Here are some points of consideration:

  • A typical creationist believes that God created everything.  Nye is in no position to “observe” anything to the contrary.  Nothing in the evidence proves there was no creator, and even if science somehow figures out how to go back in time and witness a “Big Bang” billions of years ago, how will this disprove God?
  • A typical creationist believes that God created mankind from scratch as a unique species.  Nye could not even begin to prove otherwise.
  • A well-informed creationist believes (rightly) that there is not one shred of physical evidence proving that macroevolution occurs at this time or that it has ever occurred one single time in the past.  Nye is utterly without evidence to refute that particular creationist belief.

Even so, Nye makes the outlandish claim that what the creationist believes is not only “inconsistent” with the observable evidence, but “completely inconsistent” with it.  And as if that gaffe weren’t outlandish enough, he goes further in saying not merely that creationist beliefs are inconsistent with “what we observe in the universe”, but that they are “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe“.

This bombastic language suggests that somehow the asteroid belt and the butterfly alike disprove the creationist model, as would also the Snickers wrapper, the Crab Nebula, and Leave It to Beaver.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and opine that there is no need for further analysis of Nye’s illogic in this sentence.

Ironically, after making the previous and incorrigible statement himself, Nye produces a penultimate flourish that at once sounds the call for enlightened people and defies logic.

“We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”

I assume that Nye’s “scientifically literate voters” could be counted upon to vote differently from scientifically discriminating voters, who do not childishly take unproven theory as unqualified fact.  Instead, he seems to have in mind people who will simply take what they read (hence, his word “literate”) and assign it uncritically into their own belief systems.  You can call me crazy if you like, but that seems to be exactly the kind of behavior he bemoans in the creationists!

Then comes his absurd suggestion that only evolution believers can “build stuff” and “solve problems”.  Shall I suppose that he believes that the builders of the pyramids were evolutionists?  And the author of the Magna Carta or the builders of the Roman aqueducts?  And those who discovered how to avoid the bubonic plague?  No, all these things were built and solved before mankind supposedly reached evolutionary self awareness in 1859.

Again, if “Denial of evolution is unique to the United States” and if only evolution supporters can “build stuff” and “solve problems”, I wonder by what logic Nye explains underdevelopment and dysfunction in some predominantly-atheist societies.  If in the United States, our woes are caused by creationists, who causes the woes of the atheist societies?

And that brings us to Nye’s final utterance, now waxing prophetic:

“It’s just really hard a thing, it’s really a hard thing. You know, in another couple of centuries that world view, I’m sure, will be, it just won’t exist. There’s no evidence for it.”

How does Nye know what beliefs will and will not persist two centuries hence?

It would appear that he is attempting a skeletal logical argument here, something of this sort:

World views that are not based upon evidence cannot endure for two centuries.

No, that won’t work, because even Nye should admit that creationists societies have lasted for thousands of years.  Thus are we forced to modify the implied argument:

World views that are not based upon evidence cannot endure for thousands of years plus two centuries longer.

Yes, that’s better, albeit troublingly imprecise for a scientific axiom.  But at least we know where Nye stands on the matter.   I note that Nye did not comment on the future of the Theory of Evolution.  Having first sprung from the mind of Darwin, it has been in existence since 1859, a mere 153 years ago.  In that time, not one shred of evidence has been produced that proves macroevolution (a major component of the Theory) exists.  Not once has it been observed to occur.

Not once.

One might even say, if he wanted to sting Nye, “There’s no evidence for it.“  And that would be ironic indeed, for this is Nye’s reasoning behind his 200-year prophecy for the death of the Creation Theory.  Would Nye, therefore, opine that the theory of macroevolution doesn’t have long for this world since there’s “no evidence for it”?

Of course he wouldn’t.  That’s because, like so many others in our society, Nye is not an authentic representative of the labels he chooses to wear.   “Science” is supposed to be an exercise in evidence and logic and rational thought, and not one in the dogmatic defense of predetermined conclusions.  Nye’s behavior in this presentation is little different from that of a “prosperity gospel” preacher on TV; it is packed with fallacies, contradictions, and unsupported claims.

Such behavior is shunned in authentic religion and science alike.  This, therefore, makes Nye not a scientist, but an entertainer.  And his case here amounts to little more than an appeal to fashion, by which he makes a thinly-veiled suggestion that the creationists simply need to get with it in order to fit in with the hip crowd.

If Nye, therefore, is to be taken as an official spokesperson for “science”, and if he were set against a typical televangelist representing “religion”, then I’d have to shun both fields as disingenuous and worthless.  I happen to know for a fact, however, that however few they may be, there do exist some rational and honest people in both fields.

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2 Responses to Bill Nye the Science Guy Waxes Unscientific on the Theories of Evolution and Creation

  1. bwktbarr says:

    Great post! I just wanted to let you know that this:

    “Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology.”

    …is actually said in my daughter’s college biology textbook.

    “Evolution is the fundamental organizing principle of biology and the core theme of this book.” (Page 1, Campbell Biology Vol. 1, isbn 1256166162)

    She was so shocked she had to read it out loud to me and stew for several minutes.

  2. jackpelham says:

    Thanks, bwktbarr! And thanks for the heads-up on the biology textbook.

    If I may, I’d like to make a point about this by way of two rambling anecdotes:

    1. I went to a Christian museum that purports to be about the science of the creation but I was troubled to see just how many ways they managed to work in the message of “The Fall” (of man, that is) into what seemed at the time to be practicallyevery display in the museum. It became very clear that that museum isn’t just about the science of the creation, but about the founder’s ideas on the status of and solution for mankind.

    2. Being a fan of the Rule of Law in general, I was quite interested in learning about the Constitution Party because it purports to call for a return to constitutional obedience. As I studied more, however, it became apparent that they are also the “win the nation back for Christ” party, which idea is quite problematic on several fronts in my opinion, not the least of which is the obvious fact that Jesus appears nowhere in the history of our founding.

    So that brings us to modern-day “science”, which purports to be about evidence, facts, and logic, but now we witness that more and more scientific institutions have a dual agenda that includes not only research, but the pushing of the unproven theory of macroevolutionary origins and the unrelenting attack on the creation theory. The first ought not be the aim of disinterested researchers, and the latter is done, quite hypocritically, I might add, on the grounds that creation theory is unprovable. (So is macroevolution to date.)

    That anyone would be eager to push an unprovable theory upon the world is regrettable in my view, whether in the name of science, religion, medicine, politics, law, or history. But that anyone would begrudge another the right to do the same thing in support of a competing predetermined conclusion is just plain immoral.

    For scientific institutions to take a view that their preferred theory of origins is not only to be taken as a given, but that it is to be the fundamental of their entire field of endeavor—well, that certainly disqualifies them as objective and honest practitioners. And the same goes for the bumpkin School Board who would insist on their preferred interpretation of Genesis (there are more than one, by the way) and who refuse to let the TOE be taught as an alternative theory in their classrooms.

    I believe the latter (refusal of TOE in schools) to be illegal in most places today, while the former (scientists preaching the TOE) enjoys the protection of the United States Government. In both cases, people who do not trust others to come up with good conclusions of their own wish to make use of unfair advantages in pushing their ideas upon a captive audience.

    And interestingly, in both cases, belief seems to be the real goal, and not proof.

    I, for one, do not believe I need to lie or take unfair advantage in order to make a point. And while it would be nice if people sent money in response to any good points I make, I have no desire whatsoever for someone to be a fan of my paradigms because they were won over by trickery or misinformation. No, my dream is for a rational society whose beliefs match with reality.

    Jack

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