Big Think is “a knowledge forum featuring the ideas, lessons, stories and advice of leading experts from around the world”. They often post videos with scientists such as Stephen Pinker and Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about various issues. A video was posted on the Big Think Youtube channel featuring Bill Nye, a scientist and a popular science educator. The video topic is creationism and how it is inappropriate for children. As far as I can tell, most of the things that Bill Nye said was completely rational and evidence-based. However, among young-earth creationists, this sparked vitriolic attacks, culminating in the production of not just one, but two video responses. One of them was from Dr. David Menton and Dr. Georgia Purdom at the Creation Museum. According to the video, both have PhDs in life science. The second video response is from Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum.
This post will outline the statements made by Bill Nye, the rebuttals by the young-earth creationists and why they fail.
What arguments did Bill Nye make?
More specifically, the arguments and points made by Bill Nye are the following:
- Denial of evolution is unique to the United States, as it is one of the most technologically advanced nations with a lot of intellectual capital in the form of the general understanding of science.
- Evolutionary biology is the grand unified explanation of biology much in the same way that plate tectonics is the grand unified explanation for geology.
- The worldview of creationists is “fantastically complicated” and “untenable”.
- If you want to rejection evolution, that is fine. But do not indoctrinate your children into creationism as the future needs scientifically literate individuals (e. g. “voters”, “taxpayers”, “engineers”).
- There is no evidence for creationism.
As far as I could tell, these were the substantive points made in Bill Nye’s video.
Were Bill Nye’s arguments reasonable?
Evolution is the grand unified explanation of life science and creationism does not reasonably explain a lot of the observations we see around us, such as distant starts or nested hierarchies, at least not without a credulous flood of ad hoc assertions. There is no evidence in favor of creationism and it seems reasonable to suppose that scientific literacy matters for the direction of a society. So far so good.
The only statement that I found to be debatable was the first. I can think of two possible interpretations: (1) creationism is unique to the U. S. in the sense that it is not widespread outside of the country or (2) U. S. is unique in being a technologically advanced society at the same time that a large proportion of the population are creationists. The first interpretation is wrong. Creationism is quite prevalent in the Middle East and creationist have a noticeable presence in other geographical areas as well, such as Australia, Great Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Turkey (Numbers, 2006; Numbers, 2009). The second interpretation is more reasonable. The graph Nye is probably thinking of is the one from Miller et. al. (2006) that depicts the acceptance of evolution in 34 countries, where the U. S. finishes at the bottom of the list, just above Turkey. In this sense, the U. S. stands out: despite its technological level, it has a very low acceptance of evolution. It is not entirely clear which of the two interpretations that is closest to what Bill Nye said or meant (others like Gould and Lewontin has made the claim in the first interpretation), but one could charitably assume that it was the second.
So in summary, the claims made by Bill Nye hold up pretty well.
The creationist retorts and their flaws
1. The first argument is an attack on the first interpretation of the uniqueness of creationism argument. It can be countered by noting that the second interpretation is probably closer to what Bill Nye meant, and so the creationist argument is really a straw man.
2. The second argument is a standard false balance argument: children should be taught both evolution and creationism. This can be rejected by noting that it is unfair to teach scientific falsehoods as if they were evidence-based facts. As Glenn Branch explains in Scott and Branch (2006, p. 135):
The power of the appeal to fairness is so strong that it is wisest to reply in kind: there is nothing fair about the creationist ambition for public education. It is not fair to citizens of a republic in which a basic constitutional principle is the government’s religious neutrality. It is not fair to tax payers , who run the risk of footing the legal bills due to lawsuit over actions that compromise the teaching of evolution. It is not fair to teachers, who have a professional duty to teach in accordance with the scientific consensus. Most important, it is not fair to the students, whose scientific literacy is on the line.
3. The third assertion is the classic “there are no mechanisms to gain genetic information” to become more complex over time. This astoundingly erroneous assertion was delivered by Dr. Purdom, PhD in molecular genetics. Gene duplication with subsequent adaptive divergence fulfills any potentially relevant definition of “genetic information” in biology.
4. The fourth argument is just a version of “evolution is just RM & NS”. The precise formulation delivered was: “random, purposeless change combined with natural selection”. However, this is an oversimplification. There are at least 50 unique mechanisms under the rubric of “random mutation”, such as gene duplication, exon shuffling, recombination etc (MacNeill, 2007). In other words, another straw man.
5. The fifth argument is the “evolution is historical science, not observational science”, and is also repeated by Ham. The fallacy here is that the division is rather experimental and observational science. Experimental science usually occur in the lab and involved well-controlled set-ups. Observational science often uses multivariate statistical techniques or perform hypothesis testing in a very general form. A lot of the pioneering work done in evolutionary biology is done in labs and the one of the best lines of evidence for evolution comes from comparison of DNA sequences from different organisms, which is something done almost entirely in a lab setting (experimental and computer-based). Wit that said, it is entirely possible to test ideas about past historical events, as long as they make predictions into the present, which evolution does. The point about repeatability is not that the events themselves need to be repeated per se, but that the studies of the predictions should be repeatable.
6. The sixth confusion is the standard false dichotomy “do we trust man’s word, or the word of God?”. Clearly, we do not need to bother with either, as we can do science. It is also interesting that Dr. Purdom makes a clear contradiction. First she says that creationism belongs in “historical science”, but later that “observational science” confirms the Genesis account of creation.
7. The seventh assertion is that it is possible to conduct biological research without reference to evolution. This is true in the sense that it is possible to study rocks and not care about plate tectonics or mix predefined amounts of chemicals without caring about the atomic theory of matter. This is not what Bill Nye means. He means that it is not possible to provide a unified explanation in biology without reference to evolution. Also, there has been only moderate collaboration between molecular biologists and evolutionary biologists, which is another partial explanation to the situation.
This ends the critical review of the first creationist video. The second, featuring Ken Ham, is even more confused.
8. Ham starts off by making an ad hominem fallacy: Bill Nye has received a humanist award, which means that he has an agenda to teach children not to believe in God. This of course misses the point. The character of Bill Nye has no relevance to the correctness of the he puts forward, and teaching evolution is not the same as teaching children not to believe in God.
9. Ham repeats the same flawed assertion about “historical” vs. “observational” science that was debunked in point 5.
10. Ham asks the rhetorical question: “what has evolution got to do with engineering?”. If we put evolutionary and genetic algorithms aside, Bill Nye probably meant that we need engineers in the future, and it will probably be a good idea to make sure these people are scientifically literate.
11. Ham straw mans evolution as random chance, but this was disproved in point 4: evolution is not random chance, but the non-random differential reproduction of randomly varying replicators (due to 50+ different processes).
12. The false assertion that evolution implies atheism implies moral nihilism that was covered in point 6.
13. Ken Ham thinks that the existence of God means that we can trust the laws of logic and the uniformity of nature. How does he explain miracles? Those are both illogical and a supreme violation of the uniformity of nature. If God exists, he must be incredibly powerful and to humans fundamentally unpredictable. He may have a morally valid reason to alter the uniformity of nature at any point that we do not know about. Therefore, the uniformity of nature is not guaranteed by the existence of a God.
Ken Ham finishes his video by rambling about how children are supposedly indoctrinated into evolution and brainwashed them to prevent critical thinking. A description better fitting for creationism.
A desperate attempt by a couple of young-earth creationists to save face. They merely repeat points that have already been debunked many times over the years.
References and further reading
Scott, E. C., & Branch, G. (Eds.). (2006). Not In Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
MacNeill, A. (2007). RM & NS: The Creationist and ID Strawman. Accessed: 2012-09-04.
Miller, J. D., Scott, E. C., & Okamoto, S. (2006). Public Acceptance of Evolution. Science, 313(5788), 765-766.
Numbers, R. L. (2006). The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Numbers, R. L. (Ed.). (2009). Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.