Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Evolving Logic of Bill Nye

I like Bill Nye.  We have watched his “Science Guy” videos for years and have learned much from them.  Who doesn’t love the hardboiled egg analogy or the “Blood Steam” song.  Recently, Nye made a video for "Big Think" called “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Deny Evolution.” http://bigthink.com/users/bill-nye.  Many have commented on the content.  For example, Dr. David Menton, PhD Biology, Brown University, and Dr. Gerogie Perdom PhD Molecular Genetics, Ohio State University from “Creation Museum” produced a video answering some of the claims in the Nye video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-AyDtD6sPA).  Again, I like Bill Nye and I don’t mind if he disagrees with me or anyone, but I was saddened to see how well he presented such uncritical arguments.  I think he can do much better.

I am not a scientist so I will not address the science content of Nye’s video, however, I would like to support my claim that his arguments were less than critical with the following examples.

Bill Nye says that when people claim to not believe in evolution, his response is the following.

“Why not?  Your world becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.  I mean here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils.  Here is radioactivity.  Here are distant stars that are just like our star but are at a different point in their life cycle.  The idea of deep time.  The idea of billions of years explains so much of the world around us.  If you try to ignore that, your worldview just becomes crazy untenable…itself inconsistent.”

He says this beautifully. He says it with confidence and authority.  However, as pretty as it is, this response is a combination of at least two fallacies.  The first is a fallacy of simple ambiguity.  Mr. Nye seems to have a very narrow view of what it means to not believe in evolution.  His comments seem directed specifically toward young earth creationists.  He offers four arguments against “creationism” and each argument is connected with time – “dinosaur bones or fossils…radioactivity…distant stars and deep time.”  There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with young earth creationists or attempting to refute their beliefs.    However, the term “Creationism” does not necessarily mean “Young Earth Creationism”. It includes that view, but the position is actually much more complicated.  A man of Bill Nye’s education and confident voice should know that before speaking authoritatively on the topic. 

The second fallacy is the fallacy of composition.  This fallacy assumes that what is true or untrue of the parts must necessarily be true or untrue of the whole.  In this case Mr. Nye assumes that if he can counter young earth creationism (the success of his arguments is questionable), then he has countered all creationist views.  On the surface, this is clearly not the case.  The creationist worldview is simply more complicated than Nye assumes.  The mistake here is that he seems unaware that there is more than one species of creationist.  There are at least two other genus.  There is “Old Earth Creationism”, sometimes called “Progressive Creationism”.  There is “Fully Gifted Creationism”, sometimes called “Theistic Evolution”.  Within these worldviews there are also more nuances.  My point is that by attempting to refute young creationism, many aspects of old earth creationism or theistic evolution are not even touched.  Then having used a couple of pithy statements to not fully address the issue at hand, Nye dresses this poor logic up in a serious, confident face and authoritative voice, claims victory and goes on to advise parents not to make their children believe in the views he has not refuted.  As a scientist and teacher he should, and I am sure he does, know that arguments are more complex than he presented them and often need many qualifiers.

At the end of his video Bill Nye advised parents not to make their children believe in creationism, “…because we need scientifically literate voters and tax payers.  We need engineers that can build stuff (Minor point:  Engineers do not build stuff, they design stuff.)  and solve problems.”  This is simply a non sequitur – it doesn’t follow.  His argument assumes that belief in divine creation precludes critical thinking, literacy and the ability to do engineering.  This is clearly not the case.  To refute an argument like this, only a single counter example needs to be presented.  I am sure there are many but I can offer the first hand example of myself.  I am currently a missionary in Odessa.  However, for eleven years I worked as a computer draftsmen and then an engineer.  As an engineer I was paid well for my designs.  Most everything I designed was built and served its purpose or is still standing today.  The kicker is that I am currently a creationist and I was a creationist while I was an engineer.  I also have been and currently am an active voter.  I may not agree with Mr. Nye’s politics, but I read the positions of the candidates (I am literate), read the propositions, listen to the debates and make the best choice I can.  Finally, I am sure that the government is more than happy to take tax money from literate, illiterate, creationists and evolutionists alike.  If illiteracy was an excuse for not paying taxes, I am sure that many of our most financially successful people would suddenly lose the ability to read.

As I watched the video, it was obvious that it is well shot, edited and nicely produced.  It is clear that some thought and work went into it.  I don’t know if Nye’s thoughts were scripted or he just thought, spoke on the topic and then edited it together later.  Either way, there was some thought and work put into this production.  If this were an impromptu interview, we could almost excuse Nye’s poor logic, but it is clear that some preparation was put into the production of this video.  A man of Nye’s education and experience should know better than to not do his homework when speaking as an authority.  He was speaking against a worldview without really understanding the complexities of the world view.  When I took debate in college (yep went to college), my professor said that the first rule of debate is “know your opponents position.”  Nye does not understand the complexity of his opponent’s position.  This much is clear.

In conclusion, I would like to use some of Mr. Nye’s last argument as a counter argument.  In the end I agree that in the US we need literate voters, tax payers and good engineers.  However, in my view, these qualities are more connected with the ability to think critically than with a belief in creationism or evolution.  I would charge parents to teach their children to think critically and reason well in opposition to the way Nye reasons in his video.  This is not an attack on Bill Nye.  I did not say that he cannot reason well and think critically – actually I am convinced that he can.  What I am saying is that he did not reason well in this video.  This is too bad, because if a man of Nye’s intellect and knowledge were indeed to look into the claims and arguments of the various families of creationists, I think he would find a rich milieu for debate and lively intellectual interaction.

(Rebuttal warning:  If you say, “Nye is a scientist, not an expert on the Bible or religion or creationism or philosophy or logic.”  My response will be something like, “If that is so, then why does he feel the freedom to speak authoritatively on the topic.  This is not a false dilemma.  Either he did not do his homework or is speaking as an expert where he has no expertise or he is ignorant of his lack of expertise.  In any of these circumstances, he should not be giving advice to parents.”)


Unknown said...

The most sound, respectful and thorough argument I've seen regarding Mr. Nye.
Well done. :)

The Mosse' Family said...

Thanks Ty. You are very kind and always encouraging.