Science Guy Bill Nye says he stands for excellence in thinking skills and scientific reasoning. Recently, however, he violated both of those values in the very act of promoting them.
HuffPost reports him as saying,
The biggest danger creationism plays… is that it is raising a generation of children who “can’t think” and who “will not be able to participate in the future in same way” as those who are taught evolution.
Later the article adds,
Speaking on MidPoint, Nye said he blames an older generation of evangelicals “who have very strong conservative views” and who are “reluctant to let kids learn about evolution.” Their presence on school boards leads to debates over curriculum, Nye argued, which further inhibits schools’ ability to teach facts.
For schools to teach facts is great, but it’s not the same as teaching how to think.
Now, what I’m criticizing here comes out of a very short televised interview, and I’m sure that if given more time to discuss it, Nye wouldn’t have made quite the same careless blanket statements he made here.
Given what we have to work with here, however, it seems likely that Nye has confused two categories: knowing and reasoning. All the facts in the world couldn’t teach a student to discern good reasoning from poor. Nye’s complaint about schools inability to teach facts has more to do with teaching students what to think than how to think.
Where’s His Own Reasoning?
But if the interview could be trusted as representative of what Nye really thinks, it would be another instance of the error in reasoning that I discussed in my chapters of True Reason. Along with many atheists, Bill Nye (who may or may not be an atheist, I do not know) here equates thinking well with thinking the right things. If that were the right test for good reasoning, though, if I think the earth is round then I am reasoning well, even if I think so because I like basketballs, and basketballs are round.
I stated that tentatively, since I doubt what I got out of the interview is exactly what Nye would say he really thinks. The rest of what I have to say, however, is not so tentative. He was pretty clear about these topics.
Where Is His Own Support for Critical Thinking?
Nye focuses on Ken Ham and dogmatic young-earth creationism as the alternative to good teaching on evolution. In this he relies on a fallacy, the error of the false dichotomy. Notice his lack of awareness that the leaders of the Intelligent Design community, the Discovery Institute, have for many years been calling for more teaching, not less, on evolution, including both its strengths and the evidential challenges it faces.
This would help students discover that science is rarely cut-and-dried, and that when nature gets complicated so does the message it speaks to us. (The science of life is incredibly more complicated than chemistry or physics.) Students would have the opportunity to evaluate conflicting theories on the basis of evidence. They would learn how to think about these things. Nye says he’s worried about parents who are reluctant to let their kids learn about evolution. What about parents and educators who are reluctant to let kids learn the complicated side of the story?
And yet he says (7:50 in the interview) that the only way to learn it’s okay to question things, to use skeptical thought, is to learn evolution, as if learning exactly one prescribed side of the story could accomplish that.
He’s Right About This Much
I do think he’s right to the extent that it’s hard for children to learn to think well when while trying to square the facts of nature with dogmatic young-earth creationism. There has to be room there for questioning. Some young-earth creationists seem to think we have to make a final decision, and we have to agree that they’re right. They miss what should be obvious: that even if they were right, to reach that conclusion responsibly would require making judgments on topics that are both highly controversial and extremely technical, exceeding almost everyone’s expertise.
It’s wrong to demand a final conclusion from people who are not equipped to reach it. Putting it more bluntly, they ask us to assume it’s impossible they’re wrong—wrong about the science, and wrong about what the Bible actually teaches about creation—and that’s wrong.
But Still, Where’s His Own Science?
So while I could agree with some of what Bill Nye says, he has also committed the extremely unscientific fallacy of generalizing from an unrepresentative sample. At about 7:25 in the MidPoint interview he lumps all evangelical families into one pile, none of whose children will be able to “participate in the future” along with kids who learn to think (about evolution, that is). Doesn’t he know that not all evangelicals think exactly alike, or educate their children the same way?
There’s actually reason to believe many Christian students learn to think better than others. Whether I’m right or wrong about that, I do not know. Neither does Bill Nye–though he claims to know something about Christian students’ thinking skills. He’s committing yet one more breach of science there, you see; he’s drawing very strong sociological conclusions without acquiring the data to justify those conclusions. Where’s the science to support his theorizing?
Bill Nye, Deniable Guy
It’s never a pretty sight to see someone of Nye’s stature proclaiming such a deep concern for science and rationality in such an unscientific, logically fallacious manner. He just released a new book called Undeniable. It’s sad to see him denying his own principles this way.