Bill Nye the not all that offensive guy

Posted: 30/09/2012 in apologetics, science
Tags: , , , , , ,

In a recent interview, Clint Eastwood spoke on his opinions on gay marriage.  He said we have more important things to talk about.  I like his sentiments on that political football.  I’d like to extend them to the recent Bill Nye the Science guy comment about evolution.

Bill Nye recently posted a  short video on creationism in America.  He later posted a follow up to defend his statements.  This  created a lot of inflamed responses from the creationists wings of Christianity.  Particularly Worldview Everlasting’s recent youtube response.  Jonathan Fisk, host of Worldview Everlasting, is evidently a young earth creationist (YEC).  So what do we make of this pair of dueling internet memes?

The first issue is whether or not Bill Nye is attacking religion.  I’d let the reader watch the two videos and ask yourself this: can you tell Bill Nye’s religious views are?  I honestly could not.  Bill Nye might be as a mad dog of an atheist as Hitchens.  If he was, he showed remarkable restraint.  There was no accusation that religious people inherently are destructive.  He did not broad brush Christians with fringe, cultish, wackos.  He did not make a mockumentary about religious people.  He did not make an asinine expose based on a flat-out lies.  In fact, he kept a laser beam focus on what he discussed.  It’s down to a few points:

  1. It is ironic that creationism is so popular in a technologically advanced society.
  2. If part of the population does not believe in evolution, it holds society back as a whole.
  3. Belief in creationism faces a lot of problems, such as the fossil record and star distance.
  4. Children should not learn creationism because we need scientifically literate voters.

In his follow up CNN video, Nye clarified himself.  He’s really not out to get at anyone’s religion.  He thinks that it is important to believe evolution, because that’s important for a democratic society.

Now, let’s move on the Pastor Jonathan Fisk’s response.  First, let me note this was an 18 minute video response to a two minute promotional video.  That alone should raise some eyebrows, but it does not mean that his response is off.  His youtube fans have said that he understood Bill Nye correctly.  Did he?  For sake of brevity, I’m choosing only a few points to respond to.

At his opening, Jonathan Fisk misinterprets Bill Nye.  Bill Nye says that a denial of evolution is unique to the United States and then says that we are most technologically advanced nation.  Fisk jumps at the word “unique” and charges Bill Nye with a factual error.  He continues to argue that the point about technology has no logical relation.  This is unfair, uncharitable and nit-picky.  The principle of charity -which says you must interpret the opposition’s arguments in the most generous way possible- dictates that Bill Nye probably did not mean that only Americans deny evolution.  I think he probably means that when compared to other first world countries, this is the only one where it so endemic.  Secondly, the issue of technology is part of the problem that Bill Nye wishes to discuss.  He probably feels it is ironic.  That interpretation of Bill Nye’s opening statements is more charitable than Fisk’s video.  The beginning isn’t the only time that Jonathan Fisk violates the principle of charity.  He unfairly presents Bill Nye’s comments about tectonic plates as well.

About three minutes into his response, Jonathan Fisk asserts that the study of science has roots in Christianity.  After all, Christians believed that God created a regularity in nature.  Monks began to look closely at the natural world for that reason.  Thus, QED, the intellectual foundation of science owes more to Christianity than Bill Nye realizes.  After all, who founded the first hospitals?  Bill Nye should not act that Christians contributed nothing to western civilization.  Atheists do not own science.  However, Bill Nye never discussed whether atheists or Christians owned science.  He never asserted that Christians did not contribute to western civilization.  He never discussed the historical and intellectual foundations of science.  He never brought up the metaphysical questions of “why is the universe ordered?”  This makes Jonathan Fisk’s statements completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

Reverend Fisk did interpret Bill Nye correctly on at at least one point.  Bill Nye said that if you do not believe in evolution, your world becomes overly complicated.  One example he gave was the age of stars and the star distance problem.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with this, the argument is like this: light travels at a constant speed.  We measure the distance of stars by light-years.  We observe stars that are greater than six-thousand light-years away, therefore the Universe must be older than six thousand years.  Additionally, a star’s life cycle lasts billions of years.  We observe stars that are different stages in this dramatically long life cycle.

Fisk’s response is this:

I’ve never been able to wrap my head around this one: that atheists can’t believe … that God created a star that’s halfway burned…  That light could only start where that star is.  He couldn’t also just make light where earth is, from the star.

This is a common creationist response.  God created a half-way burned star, and created some light-on-its-way from the star.  This additional theory is what what overcomes the star distance problem for the creationist theory.

It’s interesting to note that even Answers in Genesis does not endorse this response.  But more to point consider this: what evidence is there that God created light-on-its-way?  Sure, I can imagine that God did that, but that is not the same as saying that he did.  Is there a verse somewhere in Genesis 1-11 that covers that?  Is there some kind of empirical data that would lead us to believe that that?  Did the apostle Paul cover it in his letter to the Ephesians?  In other words, is there any reason to believe that light was created between earth and a distant star other than young earth creationism?

For all of his sneering at Bill Nye’s poor logic, I think it is fair to point out ad hoc reasoning here.  Ad Hoc translates “add this” from Latin.  Basically, if your theory (in this case, Young Earth Creationism) is in trouble, you simply imagine another theory and “add this” to tape over an obvious problem.  The geocentric astronomers appealed to ad hoc reasoning too.  They believed that everything in the sky moved in perfect circles around earth.  However, they observed a problem: Mars and the other planets appeared to move back and forth.  So they ad hoc‘ed epicycles: That is, the planets must move in circles around earth, and then smaller circles too.  Thus, the problem was overcome.

Ad hoc reasoning isn’t always bad, but using it too much is like plugging so many corks into a leaky boat.  Eventually, you realize that you’d feel safer if you get into the less ad hoc boat.  I do not know if Reverend Fisk realizes how bad light-on-its-way makes young earth creationism look.

This isn’t to say that everything Bill Nye said is beyond question.  How important is evolution for a voting populace?  Some important political issues in our time are immigration, bank regulations, free-speech in a digital age, student debts, and healthcare.  It is not clear to me, at all, how one’s belief or disbelief in evolution affects an opinion on any of those important matters.  Additionally, Bill Nye believes if you don’t believe in evolution, you can’t do any other science either -espeically practical things like medicine and engineering.  This also not clear to me.  It seems to me that you could be a genius at architecture and be rather clueless about evolution.  Medical research is probably a lot closer to evolutionary biology.  Yet even here, I think doctor could be theoretically inconsistent, but practically a good physician.  I don’t care if my doctor believes the earth is six thousand years old.  I care that he prescribes the right medicine with some decent bedside manner.

Interestingly, I feel that both Nye and Reverend Fisk are showing their tendency to generalize.  Nye equates a belief in evolution with upright citizenship in a democratic republic.  Fisk equates young earth creationism with all of Christianity.

I cannot say much for Nye on this, but in regards to Fisk I’ll say this: I suspect he realizes that he does not speak for all Christians.  I suspect that he realizes that his views aren’t a majority.  Fisk might tow the line for the LCMS, but he probably doesn’t even speak for all of Lutheranism.

In this brings me back to Clint Eastwood.  There’s a lot of things Christians can get passionate about.  There are a lot of things that are important to discuss, explore, and to do.  When it comes to science and faith, issues such as NOMA, Augustinian Science, or that razor thin line between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism are all worthy points of discussion.

YEC, however, is no hill to die on.  Like Clint Eastwood said, we got more important things to talk about.

  1. Yes, while it is a generalisation, creationism is on the margins, and as a person outside the US, I agree that it appears relevant largely only to people in the US. Creationism creates a mindset that disregards evidence, and evidence based thinking is important in a democracy, otherwise reality is simply a majority vote. And yes, i have generalised a lot. And yes, I think the ad hocery of creationist thinking is an embarrassment. That trickster God, making the world look like it evolved, just so He can send intelligent people to hell. He could have given them brain damage at birth, to save himself the trouble. But then, the brainy people might not have been able to do a lot of stuff to help the elect. Interesting post.

  2. Alexander says:

    That science isn’t an important political issue in our time – but should be – is precisely Bill Nye’s point, I believe. I haven’t heard either candidate talk about funding for NASA, for example.

    I’m not sure it’s clear that Bill Nye thinks belief in creationism precludes doing science, or even good science. I’m sure there are many examples to the contrary. Perhaps a more charitable reading would be that he believes it brings unnecessary baggage into the process of doing science – namely the baggage of a worldview that’s internally inconsistent, and preconceived notions that might place certain hypotheses – or conclusions – outside of the allowable.

    These are intellectually sloppy habits to get into. If you allow for internal inconsistencies in your understanding of biology, why not in your calculations for a bridge? If you’re unwilling to brutally slash away ad hoc assumptions about the age of the cosmos with Occam’s razor, why not stick to your guns on a treatment when the latest research points elsewhere? If your pastor or your mom knows more than the geologists about the fossil record, why not about whether Plan B causes an abortion?

    I’m not saying the one follows the other as a matter of course, just that doing science requires a certain kind of diligence that can put closely held beliefs – of all sorts, not just creationism, not even just religious beliefs – in the crosshairs. In the words of Carl Sagan, “Whatever is inconsistent with the facts, no matter how fond of it we are, must be discarded or revised.” If one gets in the habit of burying or avoiding instead of discarding or revising, at some point what one is doing is no longer science.

  3. Alexander says:

    Also, nice post :)

  4. Tim Fink says:

    An interesting discussion. I myself was once an ardent young earth creationist. I looked into Barry Setterfield’s (circa 1982) theory that the speed of light has changed over time. That theory I believe was eventually debunked, leaving YECs with not much else to stand on. Now they are looking at white holes and so forth. Now I have learned that there are many OECs (Old earth creationists) that uphold creation and agree that evolution still can’t be viable.

    Personally, I see a very important statement in Genesis 1, where it says on the seventh day, God rested, ceasing from his creation work. At the point that man had been created to God’s satisfaction, he stopped his creative activity. That activity must have had some influence upon the energy and work available in the universe, in my opinion. If you want a source for the development of life, that was it. Once it stopped, no more development of life and other things were going to happen, it is now in a state of conservation.

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