Bill Nye can be Surprisingly Incoherent

Bill Nye, from the Big Think video, explaining why your children should be taught the way he wants.

I recently watched the Big Think video featuring Bill Nye. You may remember the one, where Nye claimed that it’s okay if you want to deny evolution, “[b]ut don’t make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.”[1] This was the same clip that eventually lead to the Ham/Nye debate at the Creation Museum. If you recall, the purpose of that debate was to address whether or not believing in creationism causes a drop in scientific literacy.

I’ll admit, I never watched the full clip back when it first came out a decade ago. I got the gist of it, and that was it. Watching it in full for the first time, I was surprised by how incoherent Nye was.

To begin, Nye claims that “[e]volution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, and all of biology.” So far so familiar. No, I don’t agree with Nye’s statement, not in the least, but for the moment, let us accept his premise. What does he say next? He goes on for a little bit, describing how the world is an exciting place, and it is exciting to tell people about evolution, and denying evolution removes some of that wonder. Then he actually addresses the necessity for evolution. He says, “[y]our 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 that are at a different point in their life cycle.”

Why is he talking about fossils, radioactivity, and stars if evolution is the fundamental idea of life science? Stars are part of astronomy, not biology. Radioactivity is part of physics or, if you are talking about radioisotopes, part of geology. Either way, it’s not biology. Fossils are studied by paleontology, which is a subdiscipline of geology, not biology. In other words, when it came time for Nye to demonstrate the importance of evolution to biology, he failed to cite a single application of evolution to biology!

I think I know why Nye deviated from biology when talking about the importance of evolution. Note that everything Nye mentioned relates to deep time. Fossils are habitually put in the context of millions of years. Radioisotopes are used to “prove” that the Earth is billions of years old. The life cycle of stars supposedly lasts billions of years. When it came time to defend evolution, Nye immediately switched to long ages, not a biological mechanism. Why?

I am speculating here, but consider this scenario. When pressed for an example of the application of evolution to our modern life, people will sometimes cite the need to produce new vaccines each year against the flu. Why? Because strains of the flu are constantly mutating and changing, so much so that our bodies do not recognize the new strains as varieties of the old strains. Now, it is true that such an explanation requires an understanding of mutations, natural selection, and other mechanisms that can alter the genetic frequency of a population and that these mechanisms are used to explain evolution. However, creationists have no problem with these mechanisms. Mutations, natural selection, and so forth taking place on a smaller scale (that is, within a kind) is perfectly acceptable to creationism. Thus, the theory of evolution is not necessary to understand biology in the present. However, evolution is “necessary” to talk about the history of life on Earth. Hence the reason Nye switched to long ages, rather than talking about biology or life sciences. He had to talk about something that was unique to evolution, and he didn’t find one that exists in the present.

Nye pulls a similar bait-and-switch later on in the video. After he talks about the need for “scientifically literate voters and taxpayers,” he says that, “[w]e need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” Now, it is true that some engineers deal with biology. Genetic engineers are such an example. However, without specifying what type of engineer he is talking about, Nye leaves his statement open to all engineers, including those who build airplanes, cars, phones, and so forth. None of these types of engineers apply biology: they apply physics, electronics, and chemistry. Once again, he fails to tie evolution, which he says is a biological idea, to a practical application of science.

Nye’s failure to give a practical application of evolution is a problem. It makes his point, that evolution should be taught so that we are ensured “scientifically literate voters and taxpayers” seem much more hollow.

Finally, I want to address his point that those who believe in creationism should not “make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.” First thing I want to point out is that, according to Wikipedia, Nye has no children.[2]  Thus, Nye is not speaking as a concerned parent. Rather, he appears to be presenting himself as a concerned citizen, and an ideologue at that. If you prevent your children from learning about evolution, then the country he lives in will fall behind technologically, and he doesn’t want that to happen. Notice, he wants you to behave differently so that he is satisfied.

Granted, every person has his own view of what life in the United States should be like and will always strive for that ideal. However, I think Nye crossed a line with his statement. He said that you can believe what you want, but don’t make your children believe the same things because we need them. Apparently, he considers “we,” which is presumably referring to society, the government, or the country in general, as having some sort of claim on our children (and I am saying that as a concerned parent, not as an ideologue). That view disgusts me. My children are my responsibility, as explained throughout the Bible (Deuteronomy 11:18-19, Ephesians 6:4, Proverbs 1:8-9, for example). My wife and I will decide what our children are taught, not some ideologue who can barely create a coherent argument.

Thoughts from Steven



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