September 2, 2012
Bill Nye the Pseudoscience GuyBy Terry L. Mirll
In a recent YouTube video, former children's TV host Bill Nye weighs in on evolutionary biology by telling the rest of us how to raise our children. If we want to deny evolution, he says, that's our business, "but don't make your kids do it." Presuming that what we teach our children is any of his business, a more fundamental question presents itself: how do we presume to teach our kids something that may or may not be true, particularly when we don't really seem to understand it?
There is a tendency in the economy of belief to oversimplify. Generally speaking, this is a good thing -- or if not good, at least practical. One hardly needs to understand how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car.
However, oversimplification is anathema to maintaining a robust and rigorous science. As Einstein famously put it, make it simple, but not simpler. He meant that any theory, if it is to be a scientific one, needs to be reduced to its fundamental elements, without omitting any elements necessary to make the theory workable.
In Nye's mindset, there are two basic positions concerning evolution: 1. You believe in it, or 2. You're just a big fat doody-head.
This, I would argue, is an oversimplification.
What is most remarkable is that Nye is hardly alone in his asseveration. In fact, the vast majority of people -- among those who believe in evolution wholeheartedly, as well as those who see evolution as just so much nonsense -- seem to hold the same view. Either we believe in evolution, or we believe in God.
Unfortunately, however, those who hold this view fail to understand what it implies about science and religion, setting up what philosophers of science call the Conflict Thesis -- that science and religion are mutually exclusive domains (that is, with no overlap) and are thus at odds with each other. But the Conflict Thesis is incorrect, offering up a false choice: science or religion. What, then, are we to make of Stephen C. Meyer's claim that "[s]cience, done right, leads to God"?
Additionally, this already overly simplistic notion is further exacerbated by another oversimplification -- that science is a rational proposition based on reason, while religion is a spiritual proposition based on faith. Thus, scientific formulations are reliable, based as they are on the Scientific Method of observation, hypothesis, theorization, testing, and reformulation; religion, in contrast, is antithetical to the Scientific Method, akin to fairy tales and superstition. Framed in this way, we can understand the essence of Nye's concern for what we teach our children: assuming that evolution is scientific, for any parent to teach his child to deny evolution is thus to teach him to deny reason.
And Nye would be right but for the inconvenient fact that he is wholly and utterly wrong, in his basic assumptions as well as his understanding of evolution.
When we examine the underlying assumptions of Nye's position, we find:
First, though reason is certainly a component of scientific inquiry, it is not the only component.
There are, for instance, any number of scientific assumptions that cannot be proved and thus must be accepted on faith. First and foremost among these is the assumption of uniformity -- that what applies to our corner of the universe applies to all corners. (This, after all, is what makes a universe a universe and not, say, a polyverse.) Imagine the caterwauling among physicists if we discover that light travels at a uniform speed within the confines of the Milky Way, but at a variable speed in the galaxy Andromeda.
Nor is reason relegated only to science. Religion, too, has its rational component, with pronouncements based on observation and empirical knowledge. The Buddhist considers the Buddha, studies his life, hears his message of compassion and service to others, and makes the rational decision to emulate him. The Christian hears the story of the resurrected Christ, an event that is claimed to have occurred in real time and witnessed by some five hundred, and chooses to follow him. These are not simply matters of faith.
Instead of "the" scientific method, we find any number of methodologies that share various features but which cannot be said to demonstrate anything akin to a single, uniform method. Consider, for instance, the notion that science is based on observation. If this is a necessary prerequisite to a scientific theory, what are we to make of the claim that our universe may be only one of a series of universes? Has anyone ever observed one of these extra universes? How can such an observation be possible, even in theory? There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for the multiverse. And what do we call "the evidence of things not seen"?
Those who equate religion with fairy tales fail to understand what the word means. "Religion" comes from the Latin religio, which means "to bind or constrict" and thus entails a twofold meaning. First, it identifies a body of adherents to the religion itself. These need not be adherents of any particular religion; it is sufficient that they identify themselves as members of the group, whatever the group. Second, it is in some way normative; that is, it prescribes what the members of the group ought to believe, though it does not necessarily imply that the members will adhere to their beliefs at all times. In other words, though a Christian will on occasion do things that are demonstrably un-Christian, this does not stop him from being a Christian altogether. Neither aspect of religio has anything to do with fairy tales.
In fact, Nye's own understanding of evolution is itself a kind of fairy tale. For him, it is akin to biological magic, to be believed for its own sake. (Woe unto you, ye unbelievers!) Evolution, he says, "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."
Actually, it's like, it's not like that. For one, geologists operated for centuries without believing in tectonic plates. As nifty as plate theory may be, it's hardly fundamental to the idea of geology; rather, it's derived from geology, based on current scientific understanding of the earth's structure. Evolution, likewise, is deduced from two primary observations: the fossil record, which, so it is claimed, shows evidence that life represents a continuum of biological forms expressing a progression from the simple to the more complex; and the similarity of hypothetically related species, such as human beings and apes.
But these are mere claims, not scientifically, independently verified facts. The fossil record is stubbornly discontinuous, and human beings ultimately may only look like apes -- a 1972 Chevy Malibu looks an awful lot like a 1971 Chevy Malibu, but this does not mean that the '72 Malibu is biologically descended from the '71 model.
Nye's position, then, is no acquiescence to scientific truth; it is merely a component of his belief system. He may as well tell us not to raise our kids as Presbyterians.
And Bill Nye the Pseudoscience Guy can keep his beliefs to himself.
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