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Real Science vs. Bill Nye the "Science" Guy

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If you grew up among Generation Xers and Millennials as I did, then you probably loved watching Bill Nye the Science Guy on TV. Nye's quirky, off-beat, after-school PBS show achieved no small feat: It made kids laugh and got them to appreciate science -- and they didn't even realize they were learning.

While most Bill Nye-fans -- myself included -- enjoyed his wacky experiments and corny jokes, few if any realized there was another side to Bill, one that he didn't start unveiling until just the past few years: Nye advocates a hardline, intolerant, and divisive materialistic worldview view that stands diametrically opposed to the values shared by most Americans.

In 2010 he was named "Humanist of the Year" by the American Humanist Association. In his acceptance speech, he explained his deeply nihilistic views:

I'm insignificant. ... I am just another speck of sand. And the earth really in the cosmic scheme of things is another speck. And the sun an unremarkable star. ... And the galaxy is a speck. I'm a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks among still other specks in the middle of specklessness. I suck.

Nye again made headlines in 2012, after declaring that parents who "deny" evolution should not instill in their children their own beliefs about life's origins:

When you have a portion of the population that doesn't believe in [evolution], it holds everybody back. Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science. ... And I say to the grown ups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine. But don't make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.

In 2014, Nye gained even more notoriety by participating in a debate watched by millions of people, pitting him against a famous young earth creationist, Ken Ham. While Nye deftly argued that the universe is billions of years old, he also highlighted his materialistic view that life is the result of strictly unguided natural causes. He then set out to capitalize on that publicity by releasing a book at the end of last year, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation.

Undeniable promotes the standard dumbed-down atheistic narrative about science, society, and evolution -- except now his book is influencing younger thinkers who mistakenly think Nye is an objective source of information for everything about science.

On the first page, we learn that for Nye, evolution answered his biggest questions about life, the universe, and the meaning of everything. "As I learned about evolution and descent by natural selection, the answers fell into place," he writes. "After all, evolution made us who we are."

Later, Nye reveals that his view that humans "suck" comes directly from his study of evolution: "As I learned more about evolution, I realized that from nature's point of view, you and I ain't such a big deal." According to evolution, Nye says, "humankind may not be that special."

And why aren't we special? Under Nye's nihilistic thinking, "evolution is not guided by a mind or a plan," and nature even shows "lack of evidence of a plan." For Nye, "Every other aspect of life that was once attributed to divine intent is now elegantly and completely explained in the context of evolutionary science."

Under Nye's outlook, even humanity's advanced abilities, like our moral codes and selfless altruism, are not special gifts that show we were made for a higher purpose. Rather, "Altruism is not a moral or religious ideal, no matter what some people might tell you," for human morality is merely a "biological part of who or what we are as a species."

If you think Nye's ideology is bad, wait until you see the science he uses to justify these claims.

On the natural chemical origins of life, Nye maintains that the famous Miller-Urey experiments "simulate[d] the conditions on earth in primordial times," and "produced the natural amino acids." Yet it's been known for decades that the Miller-Urey experiments did not correctly simulate the earth's early atmosphere. An article in Science explains why the experiments are now considered largely irrelevant: "the early atmosphere looked nothing like the Miller-Urey situation."

Nye also promotes the unsophisticated argument that humans and apes must share a common ancestor because our gene-coding DNA is only about 1 percent different. "This is striking evidence for chimps and chumps to have a common ancestor," he writes.

This argument is not just simplistic, it's also false.

Another article in Science challenged "the myth of 1%," suggesting the statistic is a "truism [that] should be retired," and noting, "studies are showing that [humans and chimps] are not as similar as many tend to believe." Geneticist Richard Buggs argues more accurate genetic comparisons show "the total similarity of the genomes could be below 70 percent."

But if we do share DNA with chimps, why should that demonstrate our common ancestry? Intelligent agents regularly re-use parts that work in different systems (e.g., wheels for cars and wheels for airplanes). Genetic similarities between humans and chimps could easily be seen as the result of common design rather than common descent. Nye's crude argument ignores this possibility.

Undeniable also covers fossils -- but Nye botches his arguments that the fossil record shows "transitional forms."

Nye cites Tiktaalik as a "'fishapod' (transition between fish and tetrapod, or land animal with four legs)" that is a fulfilled "prediction" of evolution because of when and where it was found in the fossil record. (This is at least a bit better than when Nye called Tiktaalik a "fish-lizard" during his debate against Ken Ham.) Nye is apparently unaware that this so-called evolutionary "prediction" went belly-up after scientists found tracks of true tetrapods with digits some 18 million years before Tiktaalik in the fossil record. As the world's top scientific journal Nature put it, the tracks mean Tiktaalik is not a "direct transitional form." Henry Gee, senior editor of Nature, starkly explained that these fossil tracks mean that the so-called successful evolutionary prediction is "a cruel illusion":

It means that the neatly gift-wrapped correlation between stratigraphy and phylogeny, in which elpistostegids represent a transitional form in the swift evolution of tetrapods in the mid-Frasnian, is a cruel illusion. If -- as the Polish footprints show--tetrapods already existed ... then an enormous evolutionary void has opened beneath our feet.

In another instance, Nye claims we've "found a whole range of human ancestors, including Sahelanthropus tchadensis," apparently not realizing that an article in Nature reported there are "many... features that link the specimen with chimpanzees, gorillas or both," since "Sahelanthropus was an ape."

Nye calls the fossil mammal Ambulocetus a "walking whale" with "whalelike flippers, and feet with toes." Nye apparently missed a paper in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics which found that Ambulocetus had "large feet" and called its mode of swimming "inefficient" -- very different from whales. Another paper found that unlike whales, Ambulocetus was tied to freshwater environments and lived near "the mouths of rivers, lunging out at terrestrial prey -- analogous to the hunting process of crocodilians." This mammal had nothing like "whalelike flippers."

There are many other scientific errors in Nye's book, but one more will suffice. Throughout Undeniable, Nye attempts to demean humanity by claiming our bodies are poorly designed. Some of his examples -- he quips that our "waste disposal plumbing is immediately adjacent to our reproductive and pleasure producing plumbing" -- cause no biological problems whatsoever, and are not any kind of design flaw. But he also promotes an old canard that the human eye is wired backwards.

According to Nye, "the human eye's light-sensing cells are tucked behind other layers of tissue" which is "not an optimal optical arrangement." He apparently never saw a 2010 paper in Physical Review Letters which found that our eyes have special glial cells which sit over the retina, acting like fiber-optic cables to channel light through the tissue directly onto our photoreceptor cells. According to the paper, the human retina is "an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images." Indeed, just this month a headline at Scientific American reports: "The Purpose of Our Eyes' Strange Wiring Is Unveiled." That article confirms the purpose lies in, "increasing and sharpening our color vision."

Nye tells his readers that the eyes of cephalopods like the octopus have "a better design than yours." But an article at Phys.org called our retinal glial cells a "design feature," and concluded: "The idea that the vertebrate eye, like a traditional front-illuminated camera, might have been improved somehow if it had only been able to orient its wiring behind the photoreceptor layer, like a cephalopod, is folly."

Undeniable offers triumphalist statements, with Nye saying things like "The natural world is a package deal; you don't get to select which facts you like and which you don't." Yet in his book Nye consistently ignores, or appears simply unaware of, facts that contradict his arguments for evolution.

Mostly, however, Nye dismisses Darwin-critics by labeling them as "creationists" and "science deniers" marked by "stubborn ignorance," a lack of "honesty," who "want to suppress" evolution by teaching "fictitious alternatives" in schools. He adopts the customary scare-tactics of censors, arguing that if we allow kids to question Darwinism, then that amounts to an "assault on science," and threatens to throw society back to the Dark Ages:

Our understanding of evolution came to us by exactly the same method of scientific discovery that led to printing presses, polio vaccines, and smartphones. ... What would the deniers have us do? Ignore all the scientific discoveries that make our technologically driven world possible, things like the ability to rotate crops, pump water, generate electricity, and broadcast baseball?

In Nye's vision, humanity's salvation comes from "celebrating evolution" so "we can open more minds and unlock more of our vast human potential."

Yet it is Nye who is doing the disservice to society. By caricaturing the debate over Darwinian evolution as one of enlightened science vs. ignorant religion, Nye uses his position as a spokesman for science to hide from his readers -- many of whom are students -- the facts about legitimate scientific challenges to evolutionary biology being raised by mainstream scientists.

Moreover, by adopting the patently false atheist-supremacist position that Darwin-skeptics can't do good science, Nye's rhetoric discourages many bright young Darwin-doubting students from entering scientific fields. In effect, Nye's own divisive prejudices and discriminatory attitudes towards Darwin-doubters may be hindering his own goals to inspire young people to become scientists and find scientific solutions to problems facing society.

Those who want to read about scientists who raise credible challenges to Darwinian theory might turn to Stephen C. Meyer's 2013 book Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.

Meyer, a Cambridge University trained philosopher of science, explains that the mainstream peer-reviewed scientific literature is saturated with technical papers challenging neo-Darwinian evolution. His challenge to Darwinism is rooted in the Cambrian explosion, an event in the fossil record where many of the major animal phyla appear in a geologically abrupt manner, without evolutionary precursors, some 530 million years ago.

Meyer explains that rapidly building all of these new types of organisms would require the origin of an immense amount of new biological information to specify their diverse body plans. Where does new genetic information come from? He explains:

Our uniform experience of cause and effect shows that intelligent design is the only known cause of the origin of large amounts of functionally specified digital information. It follows that the great infusion of such information in the Cambrian explosion points decisively to an intelligent cause.

Bill Nye also tackles the Cambrian explosion in Undeniable, dismissing it briefly. Apparently using an analogy to smoking a joint, Nye tries to argue that gradual evolution can explain the explosive appearance of new animal life: "If you were to puff on almost anything for 20 million years, you might expect an increase in volume, no?" In his view, the Cambrian explosion simply reflects "an increase in the size and robustness of the shells of invertebrate sea creatures that are inherently better preserved as fossils" and is thus "an artifact of the fossils ... rather than an actual very, very fast production of diversity in species."

The problem for Nye is that paleontologists disagree. As Meyer documents, the Cambrian explosion not only reflects the origin of hard-shelled animals but also the abrupt appearance of many soft-bodied animals as well, such as polychaete worms, lobopods, and various jellyfish-like creatures. Moreover, the consensus of paleontologists agrees that the main pulse of the Cambrian explosion lasted less than 10 million years. Meyer shows that given the mathematics of evolution, this is not enough time for animal body plans to evolve.

Even evolutionary biologists are mystified at how to explain this. As one paper in BioEssays admitted in 2009, "elucidating the materialistic basis of the Cambrian explosion has become more elusive, not less, the more we know about the event itself."

My present purpose is not to wade into the paleontological details of the Cambrian explosion, but rather to highlight a fascinating scientific debate that Bill Nye obscures. At the same time that mainstream scientists are raising serious scientific challenge to the adequacy of neo-Darwinian evolution, popularizers like Nye are telling the public that those who would question Darwin want to send us back to the days before electricity.

Nye's aggressive atheistic worldview apparently cannot allow him to fathom the possibility that evolutionary biology might not be the right answer. He must cast everything in stark, black-and-white terms, where there are enlightened, honest, and factually correct evolutionists and ignorant, corrupt, and entirely misguided people whom he labels "creationists." There's no room for dialogue, no room for debate.

Unfortunately, Bill Nye's intolerant worldview seems to be rubbing off on many of my Gen-X and Millennial friends. But if they want their views to correspond to reality, they would do better to read Darwin's Doubt, and get a factually-based appreciation for how 21st century science is leaving Bill Nye, and Charles Darwin, behind.

Image by Bill Hrybyk, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.