Nigh on Science

by Brian 1. October 2014 11:47

I understand Bill Nye (The Science Guy) spoke in Tallahassee the other day and I unfortunately didn't get to see him.[i] I think I would have enjoyed the show as he is an entertaining spokesperson for science. Supposedly during his presentation he told the audience creationism is an obstacle to scientific innovation. The example he gave had creationists shrugging-off a possible asteroid impact while scientists diligently solve the problem. I guess destruction-by-asteroid didn’t fit the eschatology of his hypothetical creationists. I couldn’t verify any of this online but I did find these words from Nye:

"If we raise a generation of students who don't believe in the process of science, who think everything that we've come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you're not going to continue to innovate,"[ii]

Now if all Nye is saying is scientific innovation is hindered when we don’t believe in the process of science (whatever that means) then of course he hasn’t said anything enlightening. But when we include his statement about ancient texts we see an implication. Nye is using rhetoric to conflate religion and science in such a way as to suggest the former is a cause for dismissal of the later.  In other words, religion leads to a trivialization of science. Nye is not the only contemporary pop-scientist to make such allegations. Neil deGrasse of the new Cosmos series has tried this.[iii] Lawrence Krauss has also joined in.[iv] Not everyone in the media is so antagonistic. Dr. Michio Kaku said: “They [science and religion] can be in harmony, but only if rational people on both sides engage in honest debate.” I agree, but Nye’s view seems to be more popular than Kaku’s. In this post I will try to address Nye’s perspective.[v]

Christians devalue science, its processes and deliverances…

In other words: Christians are more likely to be unappreciative of science, how it works, what it tangibly produces and what it has to say about reality. Now this seems plainly false to me. There is no evidence to show the Christian worldview necessitates a devaluation of science or precludes the acceptance of good scientific methodologies. Christianity does not make one forget the fact science has been fruitful. And, as a Christian I appreciate science. A friend of mine suggested we might be in the minority. Perhaps, but I have not often encountered an anti-science attitude within my Christian circles. No doubt some churches are perpetuating an anti-intellectual, anti-science mindset. But a lot of churches and Christian schools are drifting away from Scopes-era fundamentalism. It would be difficult to defend the thesis Christian apologetics over the last 30 years hasn’t seen significant growth. Apologetics employs history, philosophy and science. More and more Christians are equipping themselves with the knowledge and skills necessary to articulate their position on a variety of topics where science has input. This doesn’t seem like something Christians would engage in if they placed little value on science.

Christians use their religion as an excuse to stop inquiry or to continue down paths science has deemed unproductive…

In other words: Science is progressing, revealing more and more about reality. But Christians get in the way, denying or ignoring the proclamations of science. Christians want to explore contrary paths or just dig in and do nothing. Science says the world is 4.54 billion years old. Pastors teach it is only a few thousand years old. Science says all the broad strokes of evolutionary theory are settled. Creationists waste time on intelligent design. To Nye, when Christians profess things contrary to the current scientific consensus, scientific progress and innovation are hindered. To be fair, people on both sides of this debate tend to be divisive and simplistic. Things are often so polarized; what could be a fruitful discussion ends up as a mere fight between religion and science.  But if we are going to, as Dr. Kaku said, engage in honest debate, perhaps Nye should consider these facts:

  • It was the Christian worldview that furnished a conceptual framework for the birth of science.[vi] Does Nye recognize many of the greatest scientists from history were Christians?
  • There are plenty of productive, innovative and inquisitive scientists with a Christian worldview today. Would Nye agree with this?
  • Most people, with or without religious faith, do not significantly contribute to scientific innovation. Would Nye acknowledge there are far more relevant factors as to why people are not inquisitive, innovative or scientifically productive?
  • There are numerous lifestyles and worldviews causing and perpetuating a lack of initiative and inquisitiveness. Nihilism, hedonism, narcissism, laziness, and addictions all seem contrary to innovative science. Where is Nye on these more relevant hindrances?
  • One atheist I know spends most of his time playing video games. Would Nye claim this guy is hindering scientific inquiry and innovation?
  • Very few areas of science overlap the metaphysical views shaped by our faith. The primary fields of science where most conflicts arise are evolutionary biology, climatology, and geology. But the full scope of science is much larger than these. Can Nye tell us how Christians hinder innovation in particle physics, plastics or integrated circuit design?
  • Many who agree with Nye are Darwinists and view the entire eclectic theory of evolution as a comprehensive and mostly settled paradigm. To them, anyone who wants to consider an alternative is hindering innovation by wasting time and effort. But even a first-year philosophy of science student knows irrevocable-truth is not a deliverance of science. Theories are confirmed or disconfirmed. But this requires challenging them. Does Nye believe Darwinian theories are beyond questioning and testing?
  • Nye would say design-causation is not a valid consideration for science. Clearly, this is false as it would negate all of the activities and accomplishments of many scientists in fields like forensics and archaeology. Is Nye prepared to tell the forensic scientist his inference to a design-cause is not based on real science?
  • The kind of metaphysics Nye likely holds leads to a rigid view of unguided evolutionary processes. It’s the only game in town for the materialist. Many Christians are open to a spectrum of guided (design) and unguided (material) processes. Can Nye tell us how this more flexible metaphysical view is more of a hindrance to scientific inquiry than the more rigid bias of the materialist?
  • Resisting one theoretical avenue and pursuing others based on one’s metaphysical bias is part and parcel of the history of science. When the theory of an expanding universe began to take hold during the mid-20th century, scientists who held a materialist-metaphysic rejected the new science precisely because it smacks of creationism. Would Nye accuse them of being a hindrance to scientific inquiry and progress? Or were they entitled to challenge the expanding universe theories regardless of their underlying motives?

I'm sure the Science Guy is a bright one, but his comments are polemical and nigh-science. It wasn’t long ago Stephen J Gould claimed science and religion had nothing to say to one another, even if authoritative in their respective domains. His principle of NOMA (Non-overlapping Magisteria) has since been rejected by many pop-scientists. Instead, those like Nye, Dawkins and Hawking claim their field, science, is the only authority. Hawking in his recent book The Grand Design wrote:

“What is the nature of Reality? Where did all of this come from? Did the Universe need a creator? … Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

So philosophy is dead. Theology is dead. Only science remains. So what Nye and others are really trying to do is promote scientism – the view science is the only source of knowledge. Ironically, the question of whether or not scientism ought to be accepted cannot be settled by science. It is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Though the walls of self-refutation are closing in here, I won’t go there today. In conclusion; science, philosophy, and theology must have a consonant relationship with one another as they try to explain the same reality from different viewpoints. Gould’s NOMA goes too far and stifles the conversation. But the scientism of pop-science is untenable and perpetuates hostility. Good theology, good philosophy, and good science will harmonize if experts in their respective domains are allowed to collaborate without being demonized. As a popular spokesperson for science, Nye can either help facilitate this or continue to drive the wedge.  


[i] AN EVENING WITH BILL NYE, Tuesday, September 16, 2014 @ 6:00 pm – 10:00 pm, Location: Ruby Diamond Concert Hall, Tallahassee, FL

[iii] “revelation replaced investigation”

[v] Nye didn’t specifically call out Christianity in the online statement but the criticisms from pop-science often interchange Christianity, creationism, faith, religion, etc.  Given Nye said specifically “translated into English,” he was likely referring to Christianity. Krauss has specifically called out Christianity in his criticisms. De Grasse has called out those who believe in creation.

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I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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