Bill Nye, and why creationism will not go away

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fb/Bill_Nye_BSC_crop.jpg/203px-Bill_Nye_BSC_crop.jpg

Bill Nye, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week the Creation Museum responded to Bill Nye’s recent video, “Creationism Is Not Appropriate for Children,” with one of their own, and yesterday the Huffington Post reported Nye’s response. (Short version: Creationism is not science.) I wrote favorably about Nye’s video and received a long comment from a fellow blogger known as “The Janitor,” who argues that Nye’s remarks are a “jumbling mess of assertions that are ambiguous and don’t make much sense.”

Arguments in a blog’s comments section usually aren’t post-worthy in themselves, but I want to look at one part of this comment because it’s a good example of some things I’ve noticed when Christians argue about science.

Janitor complains that Nye is hopelessly vague in his terms:

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.”

And then he goes on to specify some different aspects of evolution — old earth, increasing complexity of life, descent from a common ancestor, and several others — and wonders which ones Nye means, explaining that even young earth creationists like himself accept certain things associated with evolution.

Nobody wants to be anti-science, not even a young-earth creationist.

At first I was dumbfounded by this complaint. “Evolution” is not even a little ambiguous in this context. When scientists talk about “teaching evolution” they mean Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the central unifying theory of biology. They don’t specify which bits and pieces of it they mean, because they mean the whole thing. It’s a unified explanation. That’s what a scientific theory is. When has that ever been unclear?

But what’s happening here is that nobody wants to be anti-science, not even a young-earth creationist like my commenter. They want to pick out bits of science, even bits of evolutionary science — all those parts that don’t contradict the Bible — and even as they reject the rest out of hand, they say, “Look at us! We believe in science, too!”

No… no, you really don’t.

I grew up creationist. I heard the speakers, read the arguments. When I studied science, I knew beforehand what I was supposed to believe, and accepted easily whatever seemed to confirm my beliefs, and actively sought evidence against anything that contradicated them.

Now that sort of thing isn’t unique to religious believers. Confirmation bias is an unfortunate part of human cognition. Scientists are prone to it, too.

But here’s the difference. The central idea of science is hypothesis testing. In order to be accepted, a scientific theory has to explain the data and make testable predictions, and not once, but continually. This is a powerful mechanism for self-correction. Scientists come up with a lot of bad ideas, but in time those ideas are discredited and abandoned.

Faith builds protective walls around sacred ideas.

Faith, on the other hand, builds protective walls around sacred ideas, and gives divine sanction to confirmation bias. God has spoken and it’s a sin to question the clear teachings of His Word. True believers can only reject a Bible-endorsed bad idea if they first convince themselves that God’s Word means something other than what it plainly says (and a fair amount of theology is devoted to this very thing). But honest Bible scholars may find this impossible to do in good conscience.

For me, I gradually stopped trying to rationalize the Bible’s countless stupidities and moral atrocities. And it became clear that the evidence for evolution was too strong to deny. The fact of evolution is simply not a matter of scientific controversy and hasn’t been for generations. The theory’s explanatory and predictive power is overwhelming, and the case gets stronger with each new discovery. (For a good  introduction, see the National Center for Science Education, or Jerry Coyne’s excellent book, Why Evolution Is True.)

For decades, the case for creationism and intelligent design has consisted mainly of false complaints about a lack of fossil evidence, arguments from personal incredulity, quote-mining, cherry-picking, straw man arguments, and attempts to find something that evolution can’t (yet) explain and then insisting that only God could have done it. Websites such as Panda’s Thumb and Talk Origins continually debunk this stuff, but it will not go away, because that’s not how faith operates.

The Creation Museum video gives us a pretty good idea of what they mean by science:

Starting at about 1:40, Georgia Purdom argues that both evolution and creationism are  “historical sciences” that can’t be observed directly:

Yes, we do see fossils and distant stars, but the history of how they got here really depends on our world view. Do we start with man’s ideas about the past, who wasn’t here during the supposedly billions of years of earth’s history, or do we start with the Bible, the written revelation of the eyewitness account of the eternal God who created it all?

That’s the essence of her “science”: You start with the Bible.

Michael Shermer interviewed Purdom during a visit to the Creation Museum in 2009. The video below is a fascinating look at how faith has warped the mind of a reasonably intelligent and highly-educated woman:

Starting at about 4:20 Purdom has a lot to say about worldviews, developing an idea she alluded to in the anti-Bill Nye video, which is that everything depends on your starting point. Start out believing the Bible and the data means one thing; start out not believing it and the data means something else. You’ll hear this sort of thing a lot from Christians; it’s based on presuppositional apologetics. I don’t want to get into that here, but the basic idea is that there’s no neutral intellectual ground, no true suspension of judgment while you wait to see where the data leads.

Purdom’s belief system, in other words, is deeply antithetical to science. At 14:30 Shermer asks how she would test a particular hypothesis of hers, what experiments she’d run. Her reply is astonishing:

“We wouldn’t do that, there would be no point in that, because we know God did that.”

And people are upset at Bill Nye for suggesting that this kind of bullshit-masquerading-as-science could somehow hold our nation back.

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9 thoughts on “Bill Nye, and why creationism will not go away

  1. Hi Prententious Ape,

    Thanks for the response, although the small paragraph below seems to be the only relevant portion to my response on Mr. Nye:

    “Evolution” is not even a little ambiguous in this context. When scientists talk about “teaching evolution” they mean Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the central unifying theory of biology. They don’t specify which bits and pieces of it they mean, because they mean the whole thing. It’s a unified explanation. That’s what a scientific theory is. When has that ever been unclear?

    If by “Evolution” Mr. Nye meant “Darwin’s theory of evolution” (which is what Plantinga or Behe specifies as “Darwinism”) then his examples of one’s world becoming fantastically complicated when denying evolution make little sense, as I pointed out. What about dinosaur bones or distant stars or deep time has to do with Darwinism per se, in a way that is problematic for a Darwinist denier like Michael Behe? What part of distant-star-belief is involved in Darwinism denial of someone like Behe or even Ken Ham? This is what makes his use of “evolution” ambiguous and his assertions a jumbling mess.

    Now in the rest of your post you want to show that there is some difference between creationists and science/scientists that disqualifies creationists or faith persons generally from believing in science or, perhaps, doing science. I’ll come back and address that later, but right now it’s beta weekend for PlanetSide 2 and I want to play… 🙂

  2. Taking a PS2 break…

    So in the rest of your post you want to show that there is some difference between creationists and science/scientists. I think this is the key portion:

    But here’s the difference. The central idea of science is hypothesis testing. In order to be accepted, a scientific theory has to explain the data and make testable predictions, and not once, but continually. This is a powerful mechanism for self-correction. Scientists come up with a lot of bad ideas, but in time those ideas are discredited and abandoned.

    Faith, on the other hand, builds protective walls around sacred ideas, and gives divine sanction to confirmation bias. God has spoken and it’s a sin to question the clear teachings of His Word. True believers can only reject a Bible-endorsed bad idea if they first convince themselves that God’s Word means something other than what it plainly says (and a fair amount of theology is devoted to this very thing). But honest Bible scholars may find this impossible to do in good conscience.

    I suppose this is the basis for your remark that “No… no, you really don’t [believe in science].”

    But I don’t see how that logically follows.

    i) Theory testing is certainly an important point of many sciences, but let’s not be simplistic. Not all sciences have (or even can have) theory testing as their central method. So, Samir Okasha: “Many people believe that the distinguishing features of science lie in the particular methods scientists use to investigate the world. This suggestion is quite plausible. For many sciences do employ distinctive methods of enquiry that are not found in non-scientific disciplines. An obvious example is the use of experiments, which historically marks a turning-point in the development of modern science. Not all the sciences are experimental though – astronomers obviously cannot do experiments on the heavens, but have to content themselves with careful observation instead.” (Philosophy of Science, Kindle locations 218-222). And lest you object to this coming from a book on the philosophy of science and not a book exploring a subject as science, try this one: “…physicists do not always follow a rigid set of steps, [but] investigations often follow similar patterns. Theses patterns of investigation procedures are called scientific methods…. Depending on the particular investigation, a scientist might add new steps, repeat some steps, or skip steps altogether” (Physics: Principles and Problems, p. 5). I think any scientist would admit, if he is familiar with the philosophy of science and the problem of demarcation, that the question of what constitutes science is difficult to answer and there is no such thing as “the” scientific method, but rather method*s* of science.

    ii) You say “The central idea of science is hypothesis testing” and then say that “Faith […] builds protective walls around sacred ideas […]”

    Let’s grant that science is hypothesis testing. Next, let’s say that by building protective walls around sacred ideas, this means one cannot test what is being claimed on the basis of faith.

    What logically follows from this? Well, it follows that what is claimed on the basis of faith is not “scientific” in the sense that it is not subject to hypothesis testing. But it does not follow that faith-persons do not believe in science per se or that they cannot be good scientists. At most, it may mean that some faith-persons are inconsistent in some way. Perhaps they refuse to apply the “central idea of science” to a question that would otherwise be an appropriate subject for hypothesis testing. So maybe there is some inconsistency in application. But upon what basis would you say they reject the whole enterprise or that they cannot engage in any fruitful scientific exercise in any part of science?

    iii) Actually, I find the attitude you exhibit of saying that those who deny Darwinism cannot believe in science to itself be contrary to a proper scientific attitude. What you do is conflate a scientific theory–Darwinism–with science itself and make it the benchmark for belief in science as an enterprise. In other words, because someone rejects Darwinism, they must reject science itself. That strikes me as naive and dangerous to the necessary tentativeness to the nature of science.

    Take someone like Hugh Ross, who has a PhD in astronomy and accepts everything that is considered mainstream in that field, but rejects Darwinism. On what basis do you claim that he rejects the entire enterprise of science, including astronomy, on the basis of his rejection of a scientific theory in biology?

    iv) In (ii) I granted for sake of argument that “faith,” by “building protective walls” around some ideas, requires that these ideas cannot be subjected to testing. But in fact there is nothing that prevents a faith-based belief from being tested. In fact, isn’t this exactly what “creation scientists” are attempting to do? You may think the tests fail, but failing a test and failing to test are two different things. So it looks like you’ve constructed a false dichotomy. Now you do quote a creationist, Purdom (who I’ve never heard of prior to reading this), as saying she wouldn’t test one theory against another because she already knows such and such. But nothing she says is required by creationism and the point of testing is not always to demonstrate to yourself that something is the case but it can also be to demonstrate to others that something is the case. And it looks like she works for AiG, an organization that attempts to offer scientific defenses of its position and scientific critiques of opposition (again, you may think it fails miserably in that endeavor–but that’s beside the point).

    And people are upset at Bill Nye for suggesting that this kind of bullshit-masquerading-as-science could somehow hold our nation back.

    Well I must point out that nothing you’ve said demonstrates that it will hold our nation back or that it is “bullshit-masquerading-as-science.” At most, if you were to flush out what you’ve said, you may have shown that some persons who hold to some beliefs on the basis of faith may be inconsistent with other science-beliefs they hold to. But you haven’t actually accomplished that, because you haven’t shown that faith necessarily entails what is required for your contrast between what you claim is “the central idea of science,” among other problems I mention above.

    • I think Pretentious Ape’s essential point stands: The scientific approach involves comparing our ideas and theories against the empirical evidence (i.e., hypothesis testing). This is a self-correcting approach, especially when strong evidence is used. There is no such self-correcting approach when your explanation is simply assumed to be true in the absence of evidence or, even worse, in spite of evidence. Faith permits bad ideas to infect important decisions that affect all of us.

      The Janitor’s point that there are different kinds of evidence and ways to collect evidence (Section i) seems to be “tinkering around the edges”. Similarly, the observation that people apply the scientific method (or methods, if you prefer) unevenly is rather obvious. The important point is that people often apply the scientific method unevenly in ways that serve their agenda. AIG is an excellent example of this.

      • Hey Fomoose,

        I think Pretentious Ape’s essential point stands: The scientific approach involves comparing our ideas and theories against the empirical evidence (i.e., hypothesis testing).

        If that is PA’s essential point, then there is no controversy and nothing significant to be said. This is what creationists try to do.

        There is no such self-correcting approach when your explanation is simply assumed to be true in the absence of evidence or, even worse, in spite of evidence.

        Two things: (1) absence of evidence and (2) contrary evidence.

        Regarding (1), the problem is that the creationist does not see there being an absence of evidence for their position. They take it that the testimony of the Bible is a piece of evidence for their position. I’m sure this will probably raise other issues for those who are inclined to read a humanist blog :). No doubt someone will think to object “But you’re arguing in a circle!” or something along those lines. I’m prepared to address those objections if necessary.

        Regarding (2), some creationists would admit there is contrary evidence–such as myself–but think that the mere fact of contrary evidence falsifies a theory is very simplistic. It may be that there is counter-evidence for a theory, but what favors the theory outweighs the contrary theory. Take the example of Newton’s theory of gravity and the contrary evidence of the motion of Uranus. One may want to point out that in the end this bit of data turned out to be a great piece of evidence for Newton’s theory, but that wasn’t until after the fact. At the time it was a piece of evidence to the contrary.

        Faith permits bad ideas to infect important decisions that affect all of us.

        That’s an odd statement. In a sense, science rests on faith–as even atheist scientists and philosophers of science have pointed out. Perhaps you mean some faith based ideas permit other bad ideas that affect us all. But (1) which ideas are bad and (2) how it is that they negatively affect “all of us” isn’t clear.

        Concerning (1), you may say, for instance, that the belief that the earth is roughly 6k years old is an untrue idea and all untrue ideas are bad ideas. So the belief that the earth is roughly 6k years old is a bad idea. Well, okay, but obviously that’s a statement that can be made by those who have already reached the conclusion that the earth is not roughly 6k years old. For those who have reached the opposite conclusion, belief in an earth that is not roughly 6k years old is the bad idea.
        Concerning (2), it’s not clear how bad ideas “affect all of us”… at least not in any significant sense. In whatever way bad ideas affect all of us, it would seem that good ideas affect all of us too, right? So perhaps the good ideas are made negligible by the good ones or vice versa? But I’m not convinced that bad ideas negatively affect anyone other than the person holding them (ceteris paribus). Often bad ideas or wrong ideas can provide a balance–something to keep you thinking critically and prevent blind dogmatism. And again I would point out the presuppositional nature of the claim: the idea that YEC negatively affects all of us only has value for the one who already believes that YEC is negative or bad.

        But thus far the idea that YECs are somehow hurting all of us just seems like a motivational party slogan.

        The Janitor’s point that there are different kinds of evidence and ways to collect evidence (Section i) seems to be “tinkering around the edges”.

        Not sure what that means.

        Similarly, the observation that people apply the scientific method (or methods, if you prefer) unevenly is rather obvious.

        You’d be surprised how many new atheists think there is One Grand Holy Scientific Method… Anyway, the misconception is prominent enough that other more even-headed atheists like Massimo Pigliucci have had to write blog posts exposing it.

        The important point is that people often apply the scientific method unevenly in ways that serve their agenda. AIG is an excellent example of this.

        I don’t keep up much with AiG, but I haven’t seen any examples of them applying methods of science unevenly.

  3. A point of clarification. Where I said: “This is what makes his use of “evolution” ambiguous and his assertions a jumbling mess” in my first reply I should say “This is [part of]…” because there are other things contributing to it being a mess, such as the false claim that evolution denial is unique to the U.S. and other things I pointed out in my comment on your other post.

  4. Janitor,
    It’ s true that only a small part of my post responded directly to yours. And it’s also true that I didn’t offer any direct evidence against creationism. Look, I’m not going to pretend that the past 150 years never happened and that we’re starting this argument from scratch. The scientific debate is over, and your side lost. I’m not going to try to convince you of Darwin’s theory any more than I would try to prove to your satisfaction that the earth revolves around the sun, or that germ theory works. (The resources I cited in my post lay out the case for evolution, for anyone reading this who hasn’t made up their mind.)

    If creationists want to be taken seriously, they’ve got to produce a strong enough case to overturn several generations’ worth of mulitple lines of evidence that consistently support the theory of evolution. Not only have creationists not done this, but they’ve mostly focused their efforts on bamboozling the non-scientific public and on trying to sneak creationism into the classroom under one guise or another.

    As for how rejection of evolution makes the world, in Nye’s words, “fantastically complicated,” the idea here is that if a creationist wants to say something more sophisticated than “God did it,” they’ve got to provide explanations that consistently fit the existing data and predict new data better than the explanations we’re already using. That’s the only way to gain the respect of scientists…

    …because, contrary to your assertion, science doesn’t rest on faith the way creationism does. If a new theory demonstrates better explanatory and predictive power than the established theory, in time the old theory is discarded. Can you say the same thing about your creationism and your Christianity? Are you willing to change your mind if you find the weight of evidence is against you? Or is your faith an unshakeable presupposition?

    One more thing. You write: “I don’t keep up much with AiG, but I haven’t seen any examples of them applying methods of science unevenly.” Georgia Purdom is with AIG… you don’t think her comment about not needing to test her hypothesis “because we know God did that” is a travesty of science?

    • And it’s also true that I didn’t offer any direct evidence against creationism. Look, I’m not going to pretend that the past 150 years never happened and that we’re starting this argument from scratch.

      Right, I agree with that sentiment and I’m certainly not asking you to prove evolution to my satisfaction or disprove creationism to my satisfaction. I was only concerned with the more narrow issue of Bill Nye’s comments. In your last response, however, you attempted to critique creationism or a “faith” approach in general and so I responded to that broader issue of whether there is some necessary conflict between creationism and science per se.

      The scientific debate is over, and your side lost.

      Obviously I disagree. I suppose you could point to what the majority of scientists believe at this point, but since the majority of scientists have been wrong in the past about outdated scientific theories that’s not a very strong argument. The other option would be to open the debate ourselves, but I’m not interested in that and I’m sure you’re not either.

      If creationists want to be taken seriously, they’ve got to produce a strong enough case to overturn several generations’ worth of mulitple lines of evidence that consistently support the theory of evolution.

      I don’t think it’s simply a matter of the data. You mentioned presuppositionalism in your post and, indeed, the issue largely turns on that. But please don’t think these aspects of presuppositionalism (no neutrality, the idea of presuppositions and their role in epistemology, etc) are unique to the Christian school of Presuppositionalism. In fact, I think the vast majority of contemporary epistemologists would agree on those points. (Indeed, Cornelius Van Til, the founder of presuppositionalism, was a trained epistemologist who, I think, was building from insights of Immanuel Kant and others.) Naturally there are some unique aspects to Christian presuppositionalism, but not in the idea that it’s impossible for us to step outside our worldview and just observe “brute” facts. Whether one even thinks there are “brute facts” to be observed will itself depend on your worldview. It’s also commonly acknowledge that we all have biases. Some we can overcome, some we cannot, and some we may not even be aware of. I think the atheist Michael Shermer discusses aspects of this that any presuppositionalist would agree with in his book The Believing Brain. Of course, Shermer is attack religious belief specifically, but all his observations hold true for the atheist as well.

      Not only have creationists not done this, but they’ve mostly focused their efforts on bamboozling the non-scientific public and on trying to sneak creationism into the classroom under one guise or another.

      I assume that by “bamboozling” you have in mind ID theory and something like the “Wedge Document.” But any such objection is at worst ad hominem and at best simply irrelevant. Ultimately, what matters is not how the IDers arrive at their theory or their motivations in the theory but whether the theory itself can stand up to scrutiny. Suppose IDers want to have ID taught in school because they believe it will make people more open to theism. Does this mean that ID isn’t science? Of course not. Whether ID, as a theory, is scientific has only to do with the theory itself and not with the motivations of the scientists who hold to the theory. So does ID theory entail creationism? Not in any significant sense. I suppose if you want to label “partly the product of intelligent agency” as “creationism” then it entails creationism, but then the term “creationism” loses any significant meaning. It certainly doesn’t entail any religious beliefs–though it would be compatible with them. And all you would be doing is, again, relying the rhetorical, emotional force of the term and not on its cognitive content.

      As for how rejection of evolution makes the world, in Nye’s words, “fantastically complicated,” the idea here is that if a creationist wants to say something more sophisticated than “God did it,” they’ve got to provide explanations that consistently fit the existing data and predict new data better than the explanations we’re already using.

      Suppose God created dinosaurs. How does pointing out that God created dinosaurs make the world fantastically complicated??

      That’s the only way to gain the respect of scientists…

      I think that’s a naive view of scientists. Scientists are humans like the rest of us, with all the biases, presuppositions, and nefarious motivations that the rest of us have. This isn’t to say that people are generally dishonest (maybe they are, maybe they aren’t), but that to reason “Well all you have to do to convince someone is give a good argument (whether logical or scientific)” is incredibly naive. People aren’t reason-producing machines. As though you just input data and they output logical entailments.

      …because, contrary to your assertion, science doesn’t rest on faith the way creationism does.

      Well it’s not just *my* assertion. It’s also the assertion of atheist scientists and philosophers of science, like Paul Davies. Whether it rests on faith *in the same way as* creationism does: I didn’t claim that it did, but I only made the observation in response to your unqualified statement about “Faith.” But I’m not sure there is a significant difference between the ways they rely on faith.

      If a new theory demonstrates better explanatory and predictive power than the established theory, in time the old theory is discarded. Can you say the same thing about your creationism and your Christianity? Are you willing to change your mind if you find the weight of evidence is against you? Or is your faith an unshakeable presupposition?

      Two things. (1) My beliefs about evolution and the age of the earth are revisable. After all, many Christians do believe in an old earth and in evolution–some are even full blown Darwinists. Of course, these things run along a spectrum for me for “more probable to less probable.” So, for instance, I’m probably most open to being convinced of an old earth. I’m probably least likely to be convinced of full blown Darwinism.

      (2) My beliefs about God and Christianity in particular have the highest degree of certainty for me (though that’s not to say epistemically certain in the technical sense of that term). I would say these are “presuppositionally unshakable”–though I’m not entirely clear on what that means. But that doesn’t mean they are beyond evidence or argument (and anyone familiar with presuppositionalism beyond wikipedia would know that presuppositionalists believe their presuppositions can be argued for and make use of evidence–not to say that this is you, but that anyone who wants to critique should really study it’s not the pushover theory that many people–including many Christians–think it is). I also believe that everyone has presuppositions and these presuppositions are at the heart of a person’s epistemic web of beliefs and, therefore, are the most unshakable beliefs they hold to. (There are other, outlying presuppositions, so to speak.)

      Georgia Purdom is with AIG… you don’t think her comment about not needing to test her hypothesis “because we know God did that” is a travesty of science?

      No, not a travesty of science. In some sense, I can agree with what she is saying (if I understand her correctly). For instance, if you know the earth is roughly spherical, it’s a waste of time and resources to keep running tests on it. Or if you know that other people have minds, it’s a waste of time and resources to try and test it against the theory of solipsism (not that you could). Time and resources should be spent on unanswered questions. However, since many people are not convinced of what she is, I disagree with her. She should run test to convince them if not herself or to see if the data fits better in an opposing theory and, therefore, go about trying to resolve that difficulty, etc. But where I disagree with her, and think she is mistaken (or at least misspoke–where she might have said differently if she gave it more thought), doesn’t reach up to being a travesty in my opinion.

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