I saw an interview today in which Bill Nye talked about the need for a scientifically literate future. Specifically, he thought that people needed to understand that Creationism was “clearly wrong,” and harmful to our economic future. As an explanation he suggested that science holds the keys to all sorts of technology, which we use everyday, whereas Creationism taught children not to use their critical thinking skills.
I’m a scientifically literate person; I really enjoy science. From early childhood I was also taught to use my critical thinking skills effectively and thoroughly. I have a masters degree even, gained primarily through coursework in critical engagement. This is why I know that Bill Nye is the one who’s “clearly wrong.”
However, I should be more specific. He’s clearly wrong to call Creationism “clearly wrong.” He’s clearly wrong about the connection between his cosmological beliefs and present society. He’s clearly wrong about the results of critical thinking. In short, he’s clearly wrong about science.
To explain what I mean, I need to establish a useful clarification. Science, in a very broad sense, is a collection of topics grounded in a specific methodology: experimentation, observation, and inference. What Mr. Nye espouses isn’t actually science; it’s a religion masquerading as science.
Proper scientific methodology is sufficient to refute Mr. Nye’s position. First, it’s important to look at the process of inference. Scientific inference is inductive, rather than deductive, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s conclusions are at best likely, rather than certain. If I deduce something, I’m suggesting that my conclusion is necessarily true. (I may be wrong, but that’s a different story.) On the other hand, if I induce something–that is to say, if I infer inductively–I’m asserting that I think my conclusion fits the facts and is probably true. Inherent in all induction is the awareness that additional information may prove me to have been wrong.
Even granting direct evidence which required no interpretation–I’ll discuss this more in a moment–Mr. Nye’s inferences about planetary age and creation wouldn’t be sufficient to show that another view was “clearly wrong.” At best he might suggest that another view was significantly less likely than his own.
You might ask then how I can suggest that Mr. Nye is clearly wrong. My answer is that there are different sorts of fact claims. Certain fact claims are observable; others aren’t. Observable claims can be observed to be wrong. For example, if I say that there are three balloons in my house right now, someone might look into my house and say that there are only two balloons. In that case I would have been clearly wrong. However, I were to say that I thought one of the balloons was a platypus, there isn’t a way for someone to peer into my head to observe whether that statement is true or false. It’s an unobservable claim, everyone but me is limited to declaring it merely unlikely.
The distinction between the two sorts of claims is important as we return to our examination of how proper scientific methodology can’t support Mr. Nye’s position. The origins of the universe, the earth, and humanity are unobservable, so claims about them are unobservable fact claims. No one saw these things happen, nor can they be reproduced in experiments. People might talk about watching amino acids arise in a laboratory, or watching distant solar systems form, but transferring such observations to the earth requires assumptions about the conditions when the earth formed: ”If conditions were like those that I just watched, then what I just watched might happen.” Such thinking is circular and largely empty though, tantamount to saying, “If you agree with my conclusion already, I can use other conclusions based off of it to prove it.” (Ironically, this is a critique that atheist scientists frequently level against theists.)
Here’s a simple and common example, to which Mr. Nye alluded in his interview. Scientists have spent a tremendous amount of time and energy studying the inner workings of molecules, atoms, and sub-atomic particles. They’ve arrived at some amazing conclusions, which they’ve used to produce similarly amazing gadgets. An important understanding exists between the conclusions and the resulting gadgets: scientists have observed particles behaving a certain way under certain common conditions, therefore they assume that such behavior will repeat in the conditions present in the gadget, which aren’t very different. That’s induction at it’s finest.
However, it’s an entirely different business to expand that understanding with something like, “and the universe has always worked like this.” A person can observe both the conditions in a research facility and the conditions in the rest of the world where a gadget might be used. A person cannot observe the conditions of the entire universe throughout its history, nor, given the frequent declaration that the universe is billions of years old, is it prudent to suggest that a few hundred years of observation should be sufficient to judge its overall character.
That particular step–forgetting that certain fact claims are unobservable and that unobservable fact claims need to be treated differently than observable fact claims–is taken by too many otherwise reputable scientists. What is unobservable and unrepeatable is outside of scientific purview however. The methodology doesn’t support exploration into those areas.
Creation claims are the subject of religion, even if the claims don’t involve a god. If Mr. Nye wants to assert his views as facts rather than theories–if he wants to be able to say that other views are “wrong” and not just “unlikely”–he needs to acknowledge that he’s making a religious judgment based on faith; the science can’t support him.
Thus, contrary to Mr. Nye, I would suggest that a greater need in our society is for a logically literate future. Irrationality is more harmful than ignorance of science, it lets otherwise sensible people force religious convictions on the unwilling. Even more, it’s important for someone to remind scientists that they also should think critically, even about science.