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
The two videos made by the creationists at the Creation Museum can be found here and here. In rough order, the arguments made by the creationists are as follows:
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. Read more of this post