Why creationism is bad for America: we aren’t the only game in town

Dan Colman at Open Culture has posted a link to a two-minute video in which Bill Nye (The Science Guy) explains why teaching creationism to kids is a bad idea. It’s a good, concise explanation of the real-world consequences of failing to grasp the unifying theory of biology.

But one of Colman’s own comments is worth repeating:

Now you might be inclined to say that America has always had creationists, and that didn’t stop the country from becoming an economic and military superpower. Perhaps that’s true. But you need to recall this. America reached its zenith when every other power had blown themselves to smithereens. We were the only game in town. And it almost didn’t matter what we thought, or how much we thought. We just needed to show up to work. Nowadays, we don’t have that luxury. We face stiff competition from ambitious nations that take science and education seriously. A country that scoffs at scientific reasoning, that dismisses it all as “elitist,”  has only one way to go, and that’s down.

Open Culture is such a cool site. A few days ago they posted a link to this killer Aretha Franklin concert from 1968, and today it’s the Talking Heads from 1975. (Just in case you’re not in the mood for anything sciencey, like blowing up asteroids with Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

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2 thoughts on “Why creationism is bad for America: we aren’t the only game in town

  1. Hi PA,

    I’m not sure why atheists are parading Bill Nye’s video. I think if we critically analyze what he’s actually saying, one would rather want to sweep it under the rug. It’s basically a jumbling mess of assertions that are ambiguous and don’t make much sense.

    Mr. Nye opens with an ambiguous and false assertion–that denial of “evolution” is unique to the united states–and follows it up with a string of assertions that look just as problematic.

    i) Mr. Nye opens with the ambiguous and false assertion that denial of evolution is unique to the U.S.. Other countries such as England, Australia, and South Korea (to name just a few) have “Creationists” or those I assume Mr. Nye would identify as evolution deniers.

    ii) But Mr. Nye never actually tells us what he means by “evolution.” In these sorts of debates the “creationist” side has been careful to specify exactly what they are denying and what they are not denying with “evolution.”

    Alvin Plantinga specifies at least six ways in which the term ‘evolution’ is used: (1) the idea that the earth is old (we see Mr. Nye doing this, I suppose in his reference to deep time); (2) the idea that life has progressed from less complex forms to more complex forms; (3) the idea that this progress is carried out through descent of offspring with modification; (4) the idea that all of life shares a common ancestor; (5) what drives descent with modification is–basically–natural selection and random genetic mutation (what Platinga calls Darwinism); (6) life came from non-living matter.

    The infamous Michael Behe sees 4 & 5 as constituting “Darwinism.” So what exactly do “evolution” deniers or “creationists” deny? There is no simple answer. Some, like Michael Behe, deny only that the conjunction of 4 & 5 is sufficient to explain all of life. But they do not deny that the theory is true in limited areas. For instance, Behe accepts 4 as an independent thesis and in fact would embrace 1-5. These are folks in the intelligent design movement that are often indiscriminately labeled “creationists” who promote “creation science.”

    Maybe these folks are on the outer edge of creationism, i’ll call them IDers. More towards the center we have young earth creationists (YECs). Obviously, these creationists deny 1. But not all YECs deny 2 or 3 in limited senses or 5. The only thing they would throw out whole-sale is 1, 4, and 6.

    iii) Given (ii), Mr. Nye’s statements are a mess. It’s hard to make sense of them or assess whether they are true or false.

    (a) He says “When you have a portion of the population who doesn’t believe in [evolution] it holds everybody back.” Well, what exactly is not being believed that holds everyone back? Is it the idea that speciation occurs through natural selection and genetic mutation? But many YECs would not deny that and I don’t think any IDer would deny it either. Which denial holds everyone back or is it the denial of *any* sense of evolution listed above that holds everyone back? Or perhaps there is some other sense of the term Mr. Nye has in mind, the denial of which holds everyone back.

    How exactly does this denial of whatever Mr. Nye is specifying with “evolution” hold everyone back? Let’s take a strong form of creationism that denies 1, 4, and 6 and believes 2, 3, and 5 in a limited sense (in other words; at least some forms of life have progressed from less complexity to more complexity, this occurs through descent with modification, and one of the means driving this is natural selection and genetic mutation). How is that holding everyone back?

    (b) Mr. Nye repeats Dobzhansky’s claim that nothing in biology makes sense without evolution. Since he is talking about biology, let’s confine ourselves to 2-5. We’ve already seen that not all “evolution deniers” reject 2-5 per se. Some embrace most of it, but reject that these are sufficient to explain all the biological diversity we presently see. Stronger forms of “evolution denial” would only reject 4 wholesale, but still embrace parts of 2, 3, and 5.

    So if we take some fact of biology and ask “Does this make sense without appeal to evolution?” It’s not obvious that that fact wouldn’t make sense without appeal to evolution and that what’s being called “evolution” in such a case is something that creationists (our “evolution deniers”) would deny anyway.

    (c) Mr. Nye says if you reject evolution your world becomes fantastically complicated. He then says dinosaurs, radio activity, distant stars, and deep time, explain so much of the world around us. Well, since I don’t see much sense in saying dinosaurs “explain so much of the world around us” I think what he’s trying to say is that things like this become fantastically complicated if we reject evolution. But it’s not obvious what any of this, aside from deep time, has to do with evolution or being an “evolution denier”? For instance, how are any of these things fantastically complicated for “evolution denier” Michael Behe? Or, to pick an easier one, Ken Ham?

    (d) Mr. Nye claims that if you try to ignore “that” (not sure what “that” refers to specifically: dinosaurs etc. or evolution?) your worldview becomes self-inconsistent. Again, how? How is it self-inconsistent to reject that 1-5 is sufficient to explain all the biological complexity we presently observe? Or how is it self-inconsistent to deny 1, 4, and 6 are true and that hold that 2, 3, and 5 are true in a limited sense?

    (e) Mr. Nye closes with an appeal to evolution deniers, saying it’s fine if they want to believe what they do but don’t make their kids believe what they do, because Bill Nye needs them. What’s the point of this? Does Bill Nye expect evolution deniers to go along with him? Surely not. Is it supposed to be a bit of empty rhetorical flourish or is Mr. Nye slyly suggesting parents be coerced into teaching them evolution? But if it’s the latter, upon what principle is Mr. Nye going to make that case and how is that supposed to play itself out consistently? It would have to be something like “It is illegal to contradict scientific consensus.” But surely Mr. Nye doesn’t want such a principle to be enacted in law. That would do more damage to science, by politicizing it, than good.

    iv) Finally, in response to Coleman’s comment that you quote. He says, “A country that scoffs at scientific reasoning, that dismisses it all as ‘elitist,’ has only one way to go, and that’s down.” The problem is his sweeping generalization. Evolution deniers don’t scoff at scientific reasoning or dismiss all of it as elitist (read the early chapters of young earth creationist Paul Garner’s book ‘The New Creationism’ where he lays out the methods of science and show me where it scoffs at or dismisses scientific reasoning or even where it’s wrong). Nor are evolution deniers representative of the country. His statement strikes me as the sort of alarmist, over-the-top rhetoric that a fundy would use.

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