An Open Letter to Bill Nye the Science Guy

(Started this when that video first made the rounds, got sidetracked, and, well, here it is:)

Dear Mr. Nye,

I’ve just reviewed your recent YouTube video on creationism, and, while I suppose I could be said to ‘believe’ in evolution – that’s the rather odd word you use – and certainly don’t teach my children creationism in lieu of the theory of Natural Selection, I found your complaints and recommendations peculiar and unconvincing. Ultimately, if science isn’t being learned, shouldn’t the finger be pointed rather at those who are paid to teach it, than at those who have been victims of those teachers’ evident incompetence? What is it that you and all those science educators have been doing wrong all these years that has resulted in so few people understanding what science is and why its claims are convincing?

Here’s an overview of the problems at a high, non-technical level. A the core is that word ‘believe’. One of the great appeals of science is a sort of built-in humility – the hopes, dreams and egos of scientists are constrained, somewhat, by the physical evidence – and the hopes, dreams and egos of their fellow scientists. All scientific propositions must be laid out in public for anyone who wants to to review and challenge. Only those theories which undergo and survive this process are accepted, and then only with a big caveat: this is the best we’ve got, given the information available. We could be wrong, but until some further evidence that just doesn’t fit our understanding comes along, we’re going with what we’ve got.

We call these bits of understanding ‘theories’.  One area where science educators have clearly failed is making clear that a scientific theory is far removed from mere speculation. To be scientific, a theory must account for the facts and be in harmony with the natural laws deduced from those facts. Moreover, a theory must be beaten up, must face and triumph over an army of critics who attempt to array an army of facts against the facts and laws  the theory is supposed to explain. Only then, after having successfully run the gauntlet, does a theory become accepted science.  And the battle can be started anew whenever new data becomes available or some new insight into the data is proposed. This battle-testing can and often does go on for years. Sometimes, it is inconclusive – but we keep trying.

Described in this way, science is one of the great, grand adventures of humanity, and very appealing. And – here’s the critical piece – limited. Science does not and cannot provide a theory of everything, because not everything important can be made to provide scientific data. Love, beauty, truth, freedom, equality, meaning – these are core ideas for us humans that are not even in theory accessible to the methods of science – they cannot be observed, measured, arrayed in tables. Slightly more subtly, the scientific approach assumes a whole bunch of these ideas. Scientists who attempt to apply their methods to philosophical truths are quickly exposed as unsophisticated rubes, as clueless in their own way as the most dogmatic creationist.

For decades now, science educators, most outstandingly your model Carl Sagan, have visibly chaffed at and rejected these obvious and historically recognized limitations. And that’s a big part of the problem. Because they – you, too, evidently – recognize no distinction between all things of interest and things that can be properly approached scientifically, you feel free to use words in the context of science that are properly reserved for those other realms. By asking people to ‘believe’ in science, you misstate the claims of science.

Which brings us to the next issue: I’d guess some single-digit percentage of Americans understand this – that science is the process of weighing the evidence under very well-defined rules and developing laws and theories that are useful, and giving our contingent assent to the best, most useful theories unless and until some new evidence overturns it. Right, Bill? Using the language of faith – does one *believe* in evolution” – moves us out of the realm of science altogether.

Unfortunately, for 90%+ of Americans, believe is the right word – because members of your profession – here I’m granting that science education is a profession of yours – have consistently, for decades, failed miserably to educate anyone in science! How can this be? Millions and millions are routinely spent trying to beat a little science into people, yet, as your video and, more importantly, your language reveal – it hasn’t worked. In any normal profession, you all would be sued for malpractice.

Rather than manning up and taking the blame for the mess you and yours have made of science education, you blame the victims. And then cite as one of your influences one of the absolute worse perpetrators of ‘faith’ in lieu of science – Carl Sagan. His much praised ‘Cosmos’ series was an unending effort to ‘gee wiz’ us rubes into having faith in science. Rather than give us any insight into the messy, awkward and fascinating world of real scientists and real science, we get sermon after colorful, primitively animated sermon on how we peons should gratefully submit to our betters, and swap out the old mysticism that sometimes asks awkward questions about what scientists are really up to for the new mysticism that meekly submits to the likes of Carl.

Creationists correctly sense this, and are correctly offended, even when they are muddle-headed about the science – as muddle-headed as you, when you describe science in terms of faith.

(BTW, Bill – love the lab coat. Really gives the extra weight of Science! to whatever you say. Too bad you’re not actually, you know, a scientist.)

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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