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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why Bill Nye's plea will (unfortunately) fall on deaf ears...

My commentary here is a bit late to the party, but I hope still relevant. On a quick personal note, I've spent 40 hours on planes in the past month, covering more than 25,000 miles. Between flights, I spent all my free hours in the laboratory or trying to experience the U.S. one last time before departing on my year long adventure. It's good to be 'home', but it seems I have a lot of news to catch up on, particularly the YEC community's response to the video below.

I imagine that you have all seen Bill Nye's brief comments regarding evolution as a foundational science and the societal speed bumps created by those who deny it. I also predict there would be a mixed reaction among you to his exhortation, even if you generally agree with it. If you're like me, Bill Nye played a large role in developing your childhood fascination with science in action. Now that we are 'grown up', it follows naturally that he check up on his prior audience to remind them what is and is not science (he is also active in promoting the public understanding of anthropogenic climate change).

To put it briefly, I don't mind at all that Bill Nye's popularity is a medium for these messages. In fact, I fully support his efforts and generally agree with his position. Few things are more bothersome to me than celebrity lecturers, but Bill Nye is not merely a likable personality that is passionate about some message. He is also uniquely qualified to teach it. It would seem, therefore, that he is the perfect choice to awaken aspiring parents of young scientists from their dogmatic slumbers. Yet somehow I am skeptical as to whether any YEC parent will be moved to do anything but to remove Bill Nye from their list of childhood heroes. Let's take a look at the video together, and I will explain why this message will (unfortunately) fall on deaf ears:

"The denial of evolution is unique to the United States..."

It is not entirely fair to single out the United States as a unique home of those who deny macroevolution/common descent. These groups are sufficiently popular in several European countries to warrant frequent news coverage, as well as educational offices devoted to supplementing the teaching of evolution (e.g. the British Center for Science Education). Young-Earth varieties are more popular and more successful in South Korea, and anti-Darwinian sentiments dominate public and academic spheres in Turkey. For this reason, YEC parents watching this video may come away with the impression that Mr. Nye has not kept up on current affairs and geography.

Nonetheless, the United States is unique in harboring the most successful 'counter-offenses' to the 1859 revolution, and its ministries (e.g. Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research) continue to offer unmatched resources to global networks battling the teaching of evolution. Nuanced as such, Bill Nye is not wrong to warn us that whereas the United States ought to be a lighthouse for the nations when it comes to innovative science, she is currently muddying the waters. But for YEC's that see themselves as bearing that very light, this warning must be accompanied by both persuasive and compassionate speech. This video lacks both, in my opinion.

"...the United States is where most of the innovation still happens..."

The United States is and will continue to be a leader in innovative science, medicine, and technology, but largely for economic reasons. We have an abundant supply of funding for these disciplines with a relatively low demand (from the society, that is) for qualified people to fill them. Consequently, countries in which there is a deficit of science funding tend to export top scientists to the United States (not intentionally, of course), where these ex-patriots can pursue their groundbreaking research without financial hindrance. Few of you would have difficulty choosing between $200/month and $8,000/month salary to work as a full-time professor, even if choosing the latter involved leaving your home country. Combine that with the potential for $150,000+ research grants from the National Science Foundation, and you can understand why the U.S. is supported by a wonderfully multinational research base.

What can we expect for the next generation? Consider the following two trends. First, there is growing skepticism for scientific establishments/disciplines whose academic conventions conflict economically, politically, or (somehow) theologically with major communities in the U.S. The result appears to be that scientists are slowly losing their credibility as role models for society (the riposte "but science says!" has all but lost its flavor). Skeptics of evolution, for example, constitute a major voting group that will decide (or vote for officials that decide) how and when and why we fund scientific research and education, and science funding is currently being cut. Secondly, many developing countries (e.g. China, India, and Russia) may soon be able to match American funds, at least to the point that the U.S. is no longer an importer of capable scientists to make up for our slack.

If these trends continue and converge, the U.S. will no longer have the 'luxury' of devoting so many resources to debating major scientific paradigms that, for many, have long been established. So I would support Bill Nye on this point, though I think it should have been explored to avoid misunderstanding (especially for non-U.S. scientists that may feel insulted by his characterization of American ingenuity).

"When you have a portion of the population that doesn't believe in that, it holds everyone back..."

If I were a YEC, I would consider this a victory call. That 'secular' scientists should feel that they are losing their grip of influence on the general population is a well known mission of organizations like AiG. Therefore, it pains me to think how many parents will ignore Bill Nye's reasoning to follow as to how precisely we Americans are 'held back' by their attitude toward science.

"Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science..."

Yes. More specifically, evolution is a unifying concept that currently explains the range of phenomena from all aspects of the life sciences. One need not accept evolution to accept this fact. Whether in medicine or in classifying dinosaur bones, evolution is the fabric by which we approach the problem. Since it consistently yields positive results in biological/geological research, has not been contradicted by numerous incoming data (e.g. the Human Genome Project), and currently has no rival theory with anywhere near the explanatory power, the vast majority of earth and life scientists accept it. Yes, evolution is a subject of ongoing research and yes, there are details to be resolved. But by and large, this statement is true.

It has not always been the case, however, that evolution was the unifying concept, and the revolution begun by Darwin's ideas was not the only in history to alter the academic landscape. Therefore, most YEC's will find comfort in the hope that one day, a more palatable concept may replace the theory of common descent, even among secular academics. Perhaps in two centuries, evolution will be consigned to a list of scientific dogmas that died so hard with such a dedicated following.

I suppose a creationist can hope, and I sympathize with this kind of hope. Everyone struggles in trying to reconcile differences between how the world appears and how we hope or believe it ought to be. Even in grieving over the death of a loved one who we think shouldn't have died. We might feel that he/she didn't deserve it, even if we don't believe in any sort of 'cosmic justice'. If you can understand this struggle, then you can understand why YEC's are reluctant to dialogue when told to 'face reality'.

Don't get me wrong here. I am not suggesting that YEC or even Christianity in general is something that people simply accept against all reason or evidence. Every worldview interprets facts through a lens of faith ("brute facts are mute facts") and each bears unique challenges from those facts—some apparent and some real. Consider, for example, the paradox raised by Paul between a suffering church and a victorious King. The Gospel itself is not a palatable answer given because it makes simple sense, but a powerfully subversive one that flies in the face of all we thought we knew.

So should we expect that one day evolution will disappear to the vindication of all skeptics at present? There is good reason to say no. Although evolutionary biology may look quite different in 50 or 100 years, its core principles (common descent, the phylogenetic tree, speciation through natural selection and genetic modification, etc.) have been so corroborated by multiple independent methods and disciplines that they are likely to survive even future scientific revolutions, much in the way that the core of Newtonian physics survived the 20th century.

"...analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates..."

A legitimate question is raised as to whether one may be a successful/prolific scientist (particularly a successful biologist) without accepting certain aspects of the evolutionary paradigm. Bill Nye suggests here that "you're just not gonna get the right answer" if you deny evolution, and he cites pre-Plate Tectonic geology to make his point. One can also add Sequence Stratigraphy, which was developed by Exxon Mobil and applied with great success to exploration geology.

In my experience, however, this charge does not hold up. Even today, geologists regularly cite papers that were published before the geological paradigm shifts in the late 70's and 80's because they do, in fact, give many of the right answers. In principle, one can identify ancient coastal margins and correlate sedimentary strata without reference to plate tectonics and sequence stratigraphy. Likewise, it is possible to contribute to the fields of medicine, biochemistry, ecology, and so forth without accepting common descent.

The answers are incomplete, however, lacking a mechanism to explain all the data. One may conduct geological research successfully without accepting the theory of Plate Tectonics, but the conclusions are held back when the most parsimonious explanation is excluded. This, I believe, is why Bill Nye suggests that your "world becomes incredibly complicated" when you deny evolution. It is currently the most parsimonious explanation for similarities in genomic data among primates, for example, or comparative anatomy or the general structure of the fossil record.

Leaving evolution aside for a moment, I hope you will recognize from discussions on this blog how complicated geology becomes when you approach it from a Young-Earth, 'Flood Geology' perspective. Flood geologists reject deep time (billions of years) a priori, so the most parsimonious explanation for trends in radiogenic isotopes is no longer available. Instead, they turn to absurdly complicated (and quite impossible) scenarios in which accelerated nuclear decay produced the observed concentrations of these isotopes. But then another problem arises: the heat produced by enhanced rates of radioactive decay. So an even more complicated scenario is posited, in which cosmic expansion somehow offsets the additional heat. How this could possibly explain convergence between isotopic systems is still unexplained by such models (see the last two posts for more details). Nonetheless, 'Flood Geologists' would prefer to complicate their models ad infinitum before accepting what 99% of their colleagues accept as blatantly obvious—the Earth is much older than YEC's are willing to believe.

But how about the charge that life will "still be a mystery" rather than an "exciting place"? Young-Earth Creationists sincerely believe that because of their faith in 'biblical' creation, life is no longer a mystery. Many are quite enthusiastic about studying natural phenomena, and they have no sense that their foundation is mistaken or unscientific. Therefore, they will swiftly reverse this claim by saying that evolution makes life not only mysterious (there is so much unknown about the origin of life and complex biochemical 'machinery') but also dull and hopeless. It is wonderful that Bill Nye can share his passion for science, but he has little to offer to a dedicated YEC, who conflates the Young-Earth view with a respect for God's message. Since they know the joy that comes with the gospel, they will never believe that 'evolutionists' could match it with a fascination for nature. I too know that joy, and I concur.

"And I say to the grown-ups, if you wanna deny evolution...that's fine. But don't make your kids do it, because we need them."

Perhaps the most quoted section of this video, Bill Nye makes a bold but heartfelt plea for YEC parents not to pass on their denial of evolution for the sake of society. Assumed in this plea is that one cannot be scientifically literate or a successful engineer if one denies evolution. Of course, this assumption is demonstrably not true. Although I disagree strongly with geologists at AiG like Andrew Snelling and Steven Austin, they are scientifically literate and they do understand how science works. They just rebel against that method in favor of what they perceive as 'more biblical' to conduct their own research. I think their methods and conclusions are quite flawed regarding Earth history, but it does not prevent Andrew Snelling, for example, from consulting with a mining company and identifying an economically significant ore body. Likewise, engineers who are creationists can and have 'built stuff', including the rockets that delivered American astronauts to the moon.

I have not yet delved into the responses to this video by YEC's, but I predict that most will drive at this point first. They will reach into their list of 'famous scientists that believed in biblical creation' to show that one can be a successful scientist and deny evolution. Perhaps next post, I will focus on specific responses. But for now, I think this tried tactic begs the question. If I am studying sedimentary geochemistry, for example, does it matter where I stand regarding the latest in psychoanalytical theory? Very few scientific disciplines, especially in engineering, are held back in practice by the denial of macroevolution and common descent, even if evolutionary theory helps to explain them better. This is true even of many fields in medicine.

Bill Nye's main point, however, drives at the bigger picture: what is our attitude as a society toward the natural sciences if a large portion of the population is willing to reject major unifying paradigms on the word of a handful of dissidents? Will it continue to progress, or will even the developing world soon pass us by? Will we always have the luxury to debate the finer points of biochemical evolution in bacterial flagellum and how to qualify the teaching of evolution in public schools?

The world is not so static. If these questions do not seem pertinent now, give it a few years. I think they are worth considering, whether or not Bill Nye's message will be received by any YEC parents. My prediction is that, unfortunately, it will not.


  1. Jon, I think that you should consider more the implications of a YEC point of view. Ask yourself this question: What would you do if you believed that the Bible definitely teaches the YEC position? There would then be a conflict between the Bible and mainstream science. How would you respond to it? What would be the rational response? In my view, as I think that there are objectively conclusive/certain reasons to think that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, the rational thing to do would be to accept the claims of the Bible and assume that mainstream science is wrong on these issues. After all, mainstream scientists themselves admit that their convictions are only (very highly) probable, not absolutely certain; and probable arguments, no matter how strong, revert to 0% evidence when up against objectively certain claims.

    So for YECs who have this view of what the Bible is and what it teaches, their rejection of the mainstream scientific paradigms on these issues is entirely rational. They are doing exactly what they should be doing. And their attempt to rebuild science on what they take as biblical foundations is entirely appropriate and rational, and we should all join in with them. IF YEC assumptions about the Bible and what it teaches on this issue are valid, all of this follows.

    So the real point of controversy, the real issue, is what the Bible is and what it teaches on this issue. The scientific evidence is not the determining factor in this dispute. It is important, but it is rationally overridden by other concerns.

    I know you know the biblical issues are important, and thus you have used many blog posts to provide an alternative interpretation of the Bible on these issues. And I also recognize that presenting the scientific evidence clearly can force people to go back and rethink the biblical issues. But I do think it would helpful to consider further the rationality and logic of YEC scientific claims, given certain assumptions.

    As you know, I have held this YEC position in the past, and I would hold it still if I had not come to the conclusion that there are legitimate ways of reconciling biblical teaching and mainstream science. I am still agnostic on many scientific claims, but I will not oppose them with any strong conviction, because I do not believe I have the clear backing of God's Word behind me, but just my own non-expert opinion.

  2. Thanks, Mark!