Over the last few days Bill Nye the Science Guy’s two minute video of advice to creationists has gone viral. I must say I have a soft spot for Bill Nye since I watched his science guy schtick on Seattle’s “Almost Live” (which was broadcast in Southern British Columbia) back in the eighties when I was growing up. So it is a sad thing for me to see him old, wrinkly, and giving such bad advice. (I have rendered his strange commentary and bad advice in red, though a darker red than the font of some New Testaments so as to ensure we don’t confuse Bill Nye with Jesus.)
“Denial of evolution is unique to the United States.”
This is Nye’s opening statement. One would have thought it would be carefully chosen, but it sounds as if Nye is prattling off the cuff without having thought through what he’d say. Maybe he should try a teleprompter. What is this supposed to mean?
Perhaps it means something like this: “Only in the United States do people deny evolution.” Well no, that can’t be right. I suspect even tiny Luxembourg has enough evolution-deniers to fill a coffee shop.
So maybe Nye really means this: “Only in the United States does a significant percentage of the adult population deny evolution.” This, of course, begs the question: how significant? Does Nye really know the percentages of evolution denial among two hundred plus nations?
But then he refers to the United States being technologically advanced. So perhaps he isn’t worried about countries per se, but only developed nations. And so it may be that he really means this: “Among developed nations only in the United States does a significant percentage of the adult population deny evolution.” Again, I ask for his statistical validation.
Now this quibbling with Nye may seem churlish to you. But it is telling of two things: (1) the slapdash, poorly thought out nature of his commentary; (2) the off-putting crisis rhetoric that commonly goes with discussions of creationism.
Now let me be clear. I accept the biological theory of evolution. And I think it is important to get this right. In fact, it is precisely for this reason that I find Nye’s commentary so disturbing. The sloppiness of it, its confrontational nature and crisis mentality all work against the very aims he professes. People like Nye are like the anti-tobacco crusader who constantly inundates his kids with shrill warnings that if they ever puff on a cigarette they’ll get cancer. Such crisis rhetoric is overblown, off-putting, and ultimately ineffective.
“Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution.”
I take note of this comment simply because it offers such a poor reading of creationists. The creationists I know don’t have a “fantastically complicated” world. They tend to accept a naive reading of Genesis 1-11 as a literal account of past events, and that gives them a six day creation, a fall resulting from poorly chosen fruit, and a worldwide flood that gave many geological features to the earth. Now you can say things like “Oh, but how does a worldwide flood explain the fossil pattern? How does it explain the fact that trilobites are always lower than dinosaurs in the fossil record, and dinosaurs are always lower than people?” Sure, you and I may think that presents a serious — even devastating — problem for the worldwide flood hypothesis. And we may think creationist explanations of the fossil record are painfully contrived and overly complicated. But by and large the appeal of creationism is that it is simple and reassuring. And where the evidence requires a hopelessly complex and contrived solution it tends to get placed in the “We’ll get around to explaining that later” bin. But of course everybody has a “We’ll get around to explaining that later” bin.
Maybe creationism should be fantastically complex. But the creationism you’re likely to meet on the street isn’t.
“And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your, your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we’ve observed in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it because we need them.”
This is the real nadir of Nye’s blather, the terribly bad advice.
Here’s my first question: what was the point of that? Essentially Nye is saying “Hey creationist parents, if you want to be idiots, then be idiots. But don’t force your kids to be idiots too.” It is tough to imagine commentary that is more insulting and thus more ineffective at achieving its stated aims. Since we’re in election season, imagine an “outreach” video to Republicans produced by the DNC that says “And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny Obamacare and live in your, your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we’ve observed in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it because we need them.”
What Nye is proposing borders on a parental impossibility, namely that a parent will continue to believe that x is true and important for understanding the world and living a good life, but will nonetheless refrain from sharing x with their children. If a parent believes Obamacare represents the evil and ineffective incursion of socialism, then when their kids ask about it they’re going to share their views. And you can’t expect otherwise from them. Mutatis mutandis for a creationist parent.
As a result, what this comment really amounts to is merely an insult of creationist parents and thus their futher alienation from the scientific establishment. It is difficult to conceive more counterproductive “advice”.
“We need scientifically literate tax payers and voters for the future. We need people that can, uh, we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”
Nye then closes with more of that trademark overstatement-bluster. Scientific literacy is a wonderful thing, but I don’t think you need to accept evolution to be a tax payer or informed voter. I think Nye is correct that evolution is the foundational theory for the life sciences, but I don’t think that means that you need to accept evolution to “build stuff”. The Pyramids, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Taj Mahal were all built by architects that didn’t believe in biological evolution, and they’re still standing after hundreds (or thousands) of years. So Nye closes with more off-putting, hyperbolic, apocalyptic bluster, and in doing so manages only to alienate jaded creationists further.
And all this Nye accomplishes in two minutes and thirty two seconds. I dare say, not even Dale Carnegie could help this chap.