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Nye/Ham postmortem: William Saletan and the corporatist fallacy

I’ve been collecting responses to the notorious debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, and intend to write a couple of summaries of various aspects of the debate: Bill Nye won it hands down, but that does not remove him from criticism, and there have been some weird arguments presented both to defend and criticize him.

Right now, I want to focus on William Saletan, corporate tool and professional contrarian, who also seems to have some kind of weird Malcolm Gladwell envy. Don’t feel jealous, Will, to me you’re both glib and superficial apologists for capitalism. here’s the gist of Saletan’s bizarre interpretation of the creationism offered by the profitable folks at Answers in Genesis.

Creationism, as presented by Ham and his colleagues, is a compartmentalized myth. It doesn’t prevent its adherents from functioning as ordinary people or as scientists.

I would like to see evidence of this “compartmentalized” aspect of the myth. It looks to me like it’s spilling out all over. Saletan might want to look at the people Republicans appoint to oversee environmental concerns. John Shimkus, who believes global climate change is no threat, because the story of Noah’s Flood is literally true, and God promised he wouldn’t do it again; Paul Broun, who called evolution “lies from the pit of hell”. Is James Inhofe safely “compartmentalized”?

And then I look at what’s being done to public education. Louisiana is using state funds to promote creationism; are we building a wall around the whole state to compartmentalize it? About a third of Minnesota teachers are talking up young earth creationism in their classes — it seems to be an awfully porous compartment. The Texas Board of Education is packed with young earth creationists who do their damnedest to keep science out of the textbooks. Are these not doing harm?

Further, I’d argue that it does interfere with your ability as a scientist. Ken Ham trotted out a series of people who basically executed significant engineering projects, and called them scientists; Saletan, totally clueless as ever about what science actually entails, accepts that without question and thinks Ham was effective in portraying creationism as compatible with science.

Science is a process for generating new knowledge, and for creating a deeper understanding of how the universe works. Important as it is, it is not engineering. It is not about building gadgets for satellites. You can do science with satellite gadgets. It is an important distinction. And we’re dealing with people who reject science, who claim the universe is less than ten thousand years old, in defiance of all the science that says otherwise — you don’t get to claim that they are functioning as scientists.

But I also have to criticize Nye, who has been repeating this same kind of line over and over, and it really misses the point. Here’s Saletan again:

Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer. Each time he spoke, he closed with the same warning: Creationism threatens technology, innovation, and prosperity. He insisted that you can’t do good science or run a successful society while maintaining a distinction between real, experimental science and mythical “historical science.” At one point, he showed a satellite image of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. “That capability,” he said of the satellite, “comes from our fundamental understanding of gravity, of material science, of physics and life science.”

Actually, no. It doesn’t. You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life. That doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory. But it does mean we can live with it as a compartmentalized fetish. Believe whatever you want to about monkeys, Noah, and the Garden of Eden. Just don’t let it mess with your day job.

Impractical as this sounds, science isn’t about jobs. Nye is making a huge mistake tying understanding science to strictly utilitarian and immediate ends, and that may be a consequence of his background as an engineer.

Let me rephrase it to make the flaw in this argument obvious. What if we were talking about art?

Art is clearly important for a healthy society — it’s how we see and think about ourselves, it’s how we express human values, it’s fundamentally part of being human. It’s also an effective and powerful way to challenge preconceptions and make our culture better. But it doesn’t pay. And corporate art tends to be bland pablum that does nothing to fulfill the essential functions of art.

(If anyone here dares to make that stupid joke of smug philistines everywhere, you know the one that ends Want fries with that?, you deserve to be lobotomized and shackled to an assembly line for the rest of your life, OK? You don’t understand anything. You have drunk the kool-aid and think the purpose of your life is serving your bosses, you don’t understand art or science, and you can just fuck off.)

So here’s Nye asserting that the measure of the importance of science is how well it trains you to do a job, and here’s Saletan basically agreeing with him on the purpose of learning about science, and disagreeing with Nye by claiming that learning bad science isn’t going to have any impact on your work prospects, because he thinks The McJob is what science is all about. Not only is he building a fallacious case for science, he’s essentially throwing art under the bus along with it.

A pox on both of them. Nye is good at communicating a passion for science, but fails to note the conflict when he pretends that science is about being a better, more employable widget maker for Big Widget, Inc. Saletan is just a cynical contrarian twit who isn’t even aware that his cocky excuses for the corporate status quo are the opposite of contrarian or challenging or provocative. They’re simply sad.

I’m going to have to ask that all you confident utilitarians please sit it out when you’re asked to discuss the validity of science, because you’re prone to reducing it to the wrong foundation. I’m also going to ask what the hell is wrong with Nye for making an argument based on personal profit when he ignored Nick Matzke’s commandments for wanna-be debaters, which are all about locking down where the money will go.

It’s just inconsistencies all over the map.

Comments

  1. raven says

    Creationism, as presented by Ham and his colleagues, is a compartmentalized myth. It doesn’t prevent its adherents from functioning as ordinary people or as scientists.

    Oh really? This is just wrong.

    1. It makes them into hate filled bigots who vote for the GOP/Tea Party.

    2. Fundies on average, score low on IQ tests, education levels, and socioeconomic status. They score notably higher than the general population on any social problems you care to look at.

    3. Many of them openly hate the US government, democracy, and are xian Dominionist theocrats. They will destroy us if they can, something they say and often.

    Fundies are just baggage being dragged along behind our society and holding us back. Every society has some baggage, this is ours.

  2. raven says

    Creationism, as presented by Ham and his colleagues, is a compartmentalized myth.

    It doesn’t prevent its adherents from functioning as ordinary people or as scientists.

    This is the old, What’s the harm? fallacy.

    We could list the harms. It would take pages and pages. I’m just going to mention a few.

    1. The hatred and violence they use to maintain their tribal identity, is directed at…people like me. A lot of scientists get death threats. And xian terrorism has been a problem in the USA for decades.

    2. The two terrorist incidents nearest my house were both xian terrorists. One guy got in a shootout with the police while on his way to bomb an environmental group. And the local xians firebombed the local mosque.

    3. Faith healing. The fundie ritual of human child sacrifice kills ca. 100 of their kids a year.

    4. The fundie Wars on Science, Education, and Reality takes a huge toll every year. Science is the basis of our modern civilization and US leadership in the world. It’s as cuckoo as a War on Your Liver, Pancreas, or Foot.

    5. Fundieism is a package deal. It comes bundled with rightwing extremist politics, racism, misogyny, hate, lies, hypocrisy, and often child abuse of one sort or another.

    6. One fundie demographic, white women in the rural south and west is showing declining life spans. As much as 5 years. This isn’t supposed to happen. It only matters if you think dying younger is undesirable.

    I’m sure everyone has seen the harm and malevolence of fundieism. Some people have even lived through it and escaped.

  3. mattwatkins says

    I don’t think Nye was asserting that science is only useful for getting a job; I think he was saying more that the most obvious benefits to society of science aren’t just new knowledge (though knowledge is a good in and of itself). Science confers two obviously useful things on society: 1) an epistemology that we privilege because it produces useful results. And 2), the most obvious benefit of science is technology. Creation ‘science’ begets no technology, and cannot because its epistemology is not useful. That’s the point Nye was making, and Saletan missed it. Sure, the engineer that designed the satellite could be a delusional nutbag, but the science that underpins that design, that was used to develop the technology, could not have been done with creation ‘science’ as a starting point. Could not have been done without the scientific method, without experiment, without skepticism and hypothesizing and rigor.

    And maybe I’m just betraying my utilitarianism (I am also an engineer, after all), but this is the reason I trust science and not religion: because the results are useful. The analogy to art is a bad one: you could make a similar case for religion: it provides a sense of community, a moral bulwark, a link to tradition, a shared set of values, a locus for activism. One could argue that these things are also necessary for a healthy society. Why is religion bad? Because its methods, at best contribute nothing, and at worst actively suppress, the acquisition of useful knowledge. And how do we know the knowledge is not useful? Because it cannot be used to develop technology. If all we care about is the acquisition of new knowledge, we might as well be hermits on the mountaintop communing with invisible deities.

  4. mnb0 says

    “I’m going to have to ask that all you confident utilitarians please sit it out when you’re asked to discuss the validity of science, because you’re prone to reducing it to the wrong foundation.”
    Sorry PZ, I’m a confident utilitarian and am not going to sit it out. Science has helped to improve life conditions on Earth enormously. If that isn’t useful I don’t know what is. On a psychological level science satisfies human curiosity, which makes many people feel good. That’s exactly the goal of utilitarianism.
    You write it yourself notably:

    “challenge preconceptions and make our culture better”
    Very, very useful.
    You have a rather limited vision of utilitarianism.

  5. raven says

    I don’t have a problem calling science useful. That is a feature, not a bug.

    Science is expensive and runs on money. The US has its lead by spending ca. 1/3 of the world’s R&D budget, ca. $400 billion a year.

    People aren’t going to part with $400 billion a year without good reasons.

  6. Michael says

    I think you are being a little too critical of Bill on the science point. When Bill talked about needing good scientists for innovation in society, he always highlighted this point towards voters, etc. I took that as Bill trying to be a good communicator, and making a point the average person could understand and relate to.

  7. raven says

    “I’m going to have to ask that all you confident utilitarians please sit it out when you’re asked to discuss the validity of science, because you’re prone to reducing it to the wrong foundation.”

    Oops. I didn’t see that. Not that it would matter, being somewhat catlike.

    Well OK. The truth matters. Reality matters. They should matter.

    There is no UFO Flying Saucer hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp. So committing suicide to join them is pointless. (Referring to the Heaven’s Gate cult that did exactly that.)

  8. boyofd says

    I agree with the criticisms of Saletan and his too narrow view of what Creationism is and how it seeps into other areas of thinking. However, with respect to your criticism of Nye’s approach, I think you might be overthinking it a bit. I take Nye’s argument to be a pragmatic one that is aimed at the specific target audience involved (Creationists and almost-creationists who are willing to listen). Many of the individuals in that audience are not likely to be swayed by appeals to the transcendental value of scientific knowledge or discovery, but many might be much more interested if you can tie scientific discovery to the economic value it creates (and has created historically in our country).

    Yes, there is something impure about appeals to patriotism or arguments by consequences, but (1) they are effective, and (2) they are, in my mind, aimed not at convincing listeners of the truth of evolution, but in just getting the listeners to feel invested enough in the outcome to hear the underlying proof. I feel that debates like this can only be won, if at all, by pragmatism, and I think Nye’s aim was pretty true on that point.

  9. tubi says

    Saletan’s problem is in trying to separate creationism from its source, i.e. fundamentalist Christian thinking (and Muslim, but that’s not at issue here). As commenters above have noted, it’s not just creationism that is poisonous, it’s the well from which creationism spews that leads to backward thinking about all sorts of things. Ham and his sycophants aren’t just creationists. They are hateful, misogynistic, homophobic brain-addled, deluded assholes.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Art is clearly important for a healthy society…. But it doesn’t pay.

    Interesting. So that stuff Damien Hirst does isn’t art, presumably? Come to that, who was it said of his unspent wealth “However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man”? Can’t have been an artist, apparently.

    Reader’s exercise: name 100 other artists making a better living than me, or PZ come to that. Shouldn’t take long.

    I’m going to have to ask that all you confident utilitarians please sit it out when you’re asked to discuss the validity of science, because you’re prone to reducing it to the wrong foundation

    Shorter version: if you don’t give the Right Answer for the Right Reason, just shut up. Yessir.

  11. rinn says

    It bugged me during the debate that Nye hadn’t done his homework – he let some of Ham’s assertions go basically uncontested and in those instances where he did counterattack, he left a lot of room for Ham to escape:
    NYE: We can’t make any progress without good science!
    HAM: Look, here are these creationists, who do amazing scientific stuff!

    (I’m paraphrasing, because it is too depressing to go back to the original)

  12. Randomfactor says

    I presume Saletan understands and accepts the theory of evolution. Part of his job is to think about current events and trends and then to make (I hope) intelligent comments on them.

    How would it have affected his review of the debate if he had been a Creationist himself? Would he have been able to “compartmentalize” and do a good job with the column in that case? Or would his belief in nonsense inevitably affect his work?

  13. Rey Fox says

    Reader’s exercise: name 100 other artists making a better living than me, or PZ come to that.

    And for each of those artists, name 1000 that do not make a better living than you. You might need a phone book for that.

  14. screechymonkey says

    I think Slate sometimes gets a bad rap with all the complaints about knee-jerk contrarianism and #slatepitch. I read the site regularly and enjoy a lot of it. But Saletan personifies all those negative stereotypes about the site. “Corporate tool and professional contrarian” sums him up pretty well. I might add “professional concern troll” to the description.

    Saletan isn’t a creationist, he’s just concerned that you’re misstating the case against it.

    He isn’t anti-choice, he’s just concerned that the pro-choice movement is making all the “wrong” arguments.

    It’s sad, because he’s a competent writer, and there are some subjects where a contrarian take is actually useful, either because one side has come to dominate the discourse, or because nobody’s even appreciated that there is another side to a particular issue. But there’s no shortage of pro-lifers, or of creationists (or their fellow travellers who have fallen for the “teach both sides” fallacy), so what’s the point in assigning someone to ape their arguments in an insincere, just-playing-Devil’s-Advocate way?

  15. says

    Reader’s exercise: name 100 other artists making a better living than me, or PZ come to that. Shouldn’t take long.

    This is the same bullshit as talking about Bill Gates as proof that income inequality isn’t a problem, or that there’s plenty of upward mobility in this country.

    YES, there are people who make a really good living doing art, but they are a tiny minority, just like most writers don’t make the money Stephen King or J.K. Rowling make, and most actors don’t earn what George Clooney earns, and most musicians don’t pull down the kind of cash Beyonce makes, and most community organizers don’t end up as president.

    You want me to name 100? I could probably name 300, and that would be a fraction of a percent of the number of people trying to make a living as artists. Just because a tiny handful of people can make a good living doing something does not mean that it’s reasonable to say that “you can make a living doing it”.

    Seriously – you couldn’t have picked a worse argument to make.

  16. says

    Reader’s exercise: name 100 other artists making a better living than me, or PZ come to that.

    A small fraction of the artists in the world make lots of money, therefore art is a profitable profession for everyone. Yeah, right, and how stupid are you? How stupid do you think we are?

  17. methuseus says

    That whole joke you reference, yes, I’ve laughed at it. I’ve also always known in the back of my mind that there are engineers who say that, and CS majors who say that. People from the first two (or three, depending on how the joke is worded) groups also have individuals that have found themselves saying “Do you want fries with that?” Yes, some professions make more than others, but no, there aren’t really any degrees that automatically disqualify you from getting a job that makes above minimum wage.

    I realize that some of the above paints me as part of the problem. I really shouldn’t laugh at that. I’m not asking anyone to forgive me or anything. I guess I’m mainly saying that the people here make me think, and I hope it’s making me a better person than I was.

  18. stevem says

    Re “compartmentization”:

    I think Saletan’s criticism (support for Hamsta) is a prime example. He is claiming creationism is just an idea, that since it is not useful, no one will ever try to use it for “real things”. Yeah, that’s fine, in theery, but doesn’t work out so good, in reelity. He doesn’t claim to even acknowledge what we see creotons do all the time. ‘Denial’ is not just a river, but the creatons favorite beach. Creationism teaches that “cause and effect” is utterly meaningless, that “miracles” really happen. He fails to realize; that while there are some people who can compartmentalize their creotard mind from their rational mind, it is a *rare* talent, and impossible to teach; while also teaching creotartion simultaneously. If he wants to allow creo’s to design satellites, teach them science only [time is limited, Science requires so much]; they’ll teach themselves those myths and fantasies if they are worth paying for engineering. (<hint; Saletan> Engineering *requires* Science; Miracles are disallowed)

  19. neuralobserver says

    Myers:

    Although I fundamentally agree–and have since I was in my early twenties–that science, in addition to art, and education in general are of primary importance in their own right,… in and of themselves and divorced from the need for a utilitarian end purpose.

    However,…. we are not living three to six centuries in the past, when the baby steps of pure science were being taken; we are no longer embedded in an early knowledge-seeking society of curious movers and shakers of the natural world. We are living in an age of more practically driven research; science with an end… with a caveat; a time fueled by the desire of the masses to drool and oogle over the latest tech offerings or sophisticated home gadget that can be punched out as cheaply as possible for the highest cost that the ‘market’ will tolerate. It’s a consumerist sense of ‘science’ that permeates our modern culture, to the detriment of those who are more deeply interested in the expansion of knowledge and understanding of nature and our place in it (i.e., wisdom.)

    I think that is one of the reasons so many others, in addition to Nye emphasize the ‘consumerist’ argument; it’s one that greater numbers can relate to (particularly as it applies to wooing converts and building resistance to the ever-present onslaught of the religious/right in our schools and society at large.)
    In essence,…they’re using this utilitarian approach in encouraging and promoting science in their debates and interviews as a tool–a societal ‘scare tactic’, if you will–since more fundamental and reasonable approaches don’t see to have as much impact.

  20. Holms says

    Science is a process for generating new knowledge, and for creating a deeper understanding of how the universe works. Important as it is, it is not engineering.

    I usually describe the distinction between the two as ‘science discovers new information, engineering puts it to use.’ Quite broad, but I think it works.

  21. nrdo says

    Regarding the engineering issue; it is true that a larger proportion of engineers hold ID-type beliefs and this may be partly due to the fact that they spend their lives designing things, which leads to a cognitive bias towards teleological thinking.

    However, there are fields of engineering where an understanding of science is of particular importance and where a creationist mindset would also likely impede performance. Bioinformatics and biomedical engineering come to mind. It’s difficult to see how anyone with even a cursory understanding of information theory could honestly deny that undirected physical systems generate information, structure and complexity all the time.

  22. Sastra says

    You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life… But it does mean we can live with it as a compartmentalized fetish. Believe whatever you want to about monkeys, Noah, and the Garden of Eden. Just don’t let it mess with your day job.

    What if you can still do your day job but the total nonsense which constitutes the basic foundation of your entire life starts to mess with your life?

    What if the muddy thinking, magical beliefs, and conspiracy theory mindset which are entailed in Creationism fail to remain a “compartmentalized fetish?” And does that phrase “compartmentalized fetish” even apply here — as if we were talking about a proclivity for wearing hats to bed instead of a single aspect of an entire world view composed of muddy thinking, magical beliefs, and conspiracy theories? If you are a Creationist you are supposed to live out the implications of your belief, not just answer a certain way on a science test and skip merrily on to the next ‘compartment.’

    Someone should introduce Saletin to the concept of “crank magnetism:” People who believe in one weird, bizarre, conspiracy-style belief are very likely to believe in OTHER weird, bizarre, conspiracy-style beliefs which may seem completely unrelated. A Young Earth Creationist who invests in Zero Point Energy. A Homeopath who denies the Holocaust. A 9-11 Truther who thinks crop circles are secret messages from advanced alien beings. A pet psychic who campaigns against vaccines because they cause autism. And on and on.

    What’s to stop anyone from flipping through the loony toon options which can cause real havoc with living a useful life — or at least one which doesn’t cause harm? Cautious reason? Common sense? In a world in which cavemen rode dinosaurs and the vast majority of scientists will LIE about this in order to damn your soul to hell?

    I don’t think it will work.

  23. says

    Reader’s exercise: name 100 other artists making a better living than me, or PZ come to that. Shouldn’t take long.

    Oh fuck off, you stupid twit. I’m an artist. I am not rolling in money. I do okay, but that’s because I’ve spent a lifetime building up a client base that keeps me sorta solvent. It’s damn difficult to make a good living as an artist.

  24. screechymonkey says

    Creationism by itself isn’t so much the problem as it is a symptom of a larger problem. Which is why I don’t have much use for the accommodationist arguments that everyone should hush up about atheism, stop saying that religion and science aren’t compatible, and just let Ken Miller reassure the Little People that if they eat all their evolution veggies, they can still have Jesus for dessert. That argument assumes that getting people to “accept” evolution is everyone’s primary, over-arching goal.

    So if Saletan was just saying that hey, creationism per se isn’t that harmful, it doesn’t affect most people’s day-to-day lives, I’d agree with him. But as PZ’s post and stevem @19 point out, it’s not that compartmentalized, it’s part of a broader problem of ignoring the scientific conclusions you don’t like, and choosing your own facts that fit the public policy arguments you want to make.

    In that sense, I see creationism as a nice battleground on which to fight the broader war of reality vs. fiction.

  25. says

    Here’s the real test: if you were a Republican or Libertarian, and your son (your daughter is just getting married, so forget her — imagine it’s your son-in-law, if you must) declares his intent to go to college, and is asking for your assistance in paying tuition. He says he’s going into Theater. Would you have a hissy fit about throwing money down the drain, and tell him he’s getting an MBA, instead?

  26. neuralobserver says

    ” You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.”– Saletan

    Love that. As described by Richard Dawkins, Kurt Wise, capable U of Chicago/Harvard geology student, couldn’t be a ‘perfectly good’ geologist and maintain his belief in young-earth Creationism.
    According to Dawkins, he couldn’t square his modern geology education with the Biblical ‘geology’, so he gave up the former for the latter.

  27. neuralobserver says

    PZ Myers@26:

    Responding to your question, as they say on ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia’,… “Awww Hell No!’
    (And you wouldn’t necessarily need to be aligned with the right in any way . I’m sure there are plenty of progressives that might frown on the Arts or Letters as well, in terms of funding an offspring’s education.)

    My son, though I tried to encourage him in science or engineering, felt his calling is Journalism. And he loves film, which is another possibility for him (always trying to encourage him to consider documentaries.)

    Any liberal arts education–any good education and as much as possible– is always a good thing.

  28. Holms says

    Adding to the ‘compartmentalisation’ argument: saying that a person can do perfectly good work as a satellite engineer while believing in e.g. the biblical flood is fairly pointless, as the geology of the flood is irrelevant to the electronics or whatever the engineer is working on. A geologist who believe in the biblical flood… now, that is going to be a problem.

    The distinction is that the belief is only inconsequential to doing good work, so long as it is irrelevant to the subject being researched.

    Another example would be those that believe in trickle-down economics; if you’re a mechanic, then who cares what your economics idea are. If you’re an economist or legislator that has input to the economy, then that’s a problem. The state / nation / etc. that is has Reaganomics inflicted upon it is going to feel repercussions; and again the difference is relevence.

  29. unclefrogy says

    Just what is meant by art in this discussion anyway? What is a perfectly good satellite engineer ?
    By Art are we talking about High Art like that found in a Soho gallery or the Metropolitan museum of Modern Art or The Hermitage only or are we including design also? Art and design are everywhere you look whether a degree is needed or not is a separate question. It was art and design that came up with type fonts and let’s not forget product appearance and advertising while were are at it or the art of choosing the paint for the walls in interior design even. Yes a great deal of money is spent on “art”
    What part of rocket engines or orbital mechanics need an understanding of biology to function as a good satellite engineer?
    The thing about the debate that really won it was the fact that Bill Nye did not let himself be side tracked down into the weeds of Hambones idiocy. He kept to his points as calm and reassuring as he could be. That creationism can not make predictions, that you the audience can and do understand this, it is not some bizarre plot, all of our modern society and place of leadership in the world is based on what we have learned from science. That he let some things go by is as it is but he kept to the heart of his argument. He did not become distracted by the cape of details Hambone was waving all over the place he kept his target in sight.

    uncle frogy

  30. says

    “(If anyone here dares to make that stupid joke of smug philistines everywhere, you know the one that ends Want fries with that?, you deserve to be lobotomized and shackled to an assembly line for the rest of your life, OK? You don’t understand anything. You have drunk the kool-aid and think the purpose of your life is serving your bosses, you don’t understand art or science, and you can just fuck off.)”

    That was fucking beautiful.

  31. says

    My problem with engineers is that they often act as though their point of view is the only valid one. Case in point: pretty much everybody advocating for geo-engineering schemes like sulfate aerosol release is an engineer who gives no thought to potential consequences aside from saying something like “there may be side effects, and we’ll just have to figure out how to deal with them.

    Or people like that asshole who poured iron filings into Inuit fishing grounds to try to spark an algal bloom, and ended up creating a dead zone.

  32. Menyambal --- making sambal a food group. says

    As was said, a lot of engineers believe in an engineer-type of god. I say that as a person former production engineer. Many of them know fuck-all about science, theory, or anything else, including design.

    Yeah, you could invent MRI while believing Genesis was literally true. But you can’t show that Genesis is true, accurate or consistent. No matter your skills.

    You can’t just compartmentalize a belief in Creation, really. Oh, maybe you could avoid thinking about it, and get on with your job, but it relates to so much else.

    Ken Ham, in his books, hammers the necessity of believing that Genesis is literally true, as the foundation of Christianity, the universe and everything. In the debate, he rattled off a line that is in his _Answers_ book, that included life, death, and clothing. Creationism is the root of his worldview.

    To want to keep Creationism, one has to already be in a certain worldview. To be able to keep believing in Creationism, one has to decide to believe in the incompetence of science, the conspiracy of other religionists, and a slew of other things.

    Oh, you could keep Creationism off in a corner of your mind, not really ever think about it, and only let it nod your head while listening to your mom rant. But that isn’t really a belief, that’s a habit. A belief that lights a fire in your brain and sets your arms waving on street corners isn’t something you can just compartmentalize.

  33. frank81 says

    Well, I am not especially surprised if Nye argued from a utilitarian perspective. He was an engineer, which is a utilitarian profession par excellence. Furthermore, we live in the most utilitarian society in history; Americans only understand ideas when you relate them to how they ‘advance technology’ so we can ‘grow the economy’, etc.

    The idea of a classical education, where one might learn values beyond those of base mercantilism is dead, dead, dead. Even in the humanities departments of the university’s an education in the humanities is generally justified by listing the jobs it could open to a student.

    An education to make me a better human being? Be still my heart!

  34. David Marjanović says

    Shorter version: if you don’t give the Right Answer for the Right Reason, just shut up. Yessir.

    If you don’t understand the right reason, if you don’t understand the method for finding answers, you’re just a stopped clock – there’s little hope you’ll find the right answer next time.

  35. Fetchez la Vache says

    I very much enjoy the blog, and most of the comments, but am very disturbed and repulsed by the call for anyone to “be lobotomized”. The same disturbing note is hit in some other posts which seem to anticipate with pleasure the deaths of real, named people in a mob revolt. I would hope that you’d recognize how repugnant this is, and how antithetical to the primary values you’ve championed over the years.

  36. says

    I disagree with you, PZ. Nye had only seconds to reply to each question/argument and I think he chose to highlight the practical benefits of scientific knowledge on USA. I think that he was politely saying that the alternative (e.g. creationism) could never bring about knowledge or development.

    Cheers

  37. says

    As a Utilitarian myself I see major problems with people believing in creationism. Firstly it harms the public good because whatever they do (does not matter what job) they represent a belief system that is outdated and in some cases keeps humanity back. Secondly they teach and spread this faulty belief system to others which does more harm than good from a Utilitarian perspective and, if we take Self-Actualization as the highest goal among humans, it actually decreases the amount of utility.

  38. says

    Also for all those pissing on art, art is a necessary part of society and allows individuals to express themselves as well as provide excellent and sublime commentary on society and culture.

  39. gardengnome says

    I felt that Nye was tailoring his comments to his audience in simple terms they’d comprehend more easily. I still don’t think it was a good idea to get involved in the first place though.

  40. knowknot says

    - It seems to me that creationism, in effect, is essentially a belief (or the result of a desire to believe) that makes it possible to say “I’m special” in the biggest, most indelible and socially acceptable way. The earth can burn, the heavens wither, animals as well, since they lack anything like my wonderful soul; the entirety of creation speaks not of God’s glory, but rather how completely swell it is that he made all these complicated products for me to fiddle with, until they become dust in my immortal trail.

    – I certain I’ve known at least a few who are MUCH more humble, decent, compassionate and appreciative about the whole thing, but right or wrong, I’ve come to sense some of that same flavor in all of it.

  41. sonofrojblake says

    @Alteredstory, 16: And yet, Inaji is doing it, apparently.

    A small fraction of the artists in the world make lots of money, therefore art is a profitable profession for everyone. Yeah, right, and how stupid are you?

    No profession is a profitable one for everyone. How stupid are you? There’s a glut of lawyers in the UK, right now, and there are barristers working for what amounts to minimum wage. “Art doesn’t pay” as a generalisation is just false. It doesn’t pay everyone – but nothing does.

    @Inaji, 24:

    fuck off, you stupid twit. I’m an artist. I am not rolling in money. I do okay, but…

    Hang on, PZ specifically said “Art doesn’t pay”. I took issue with that, and you, who are making a living at it, are telling ME fuck off?

    My sister did a business studies degree, then a postgrad in journalism. Writes the odd magazine article, the odd book, subedits this and that, and generally makes a living writing. Makes half as much again as I do. Art pays, if you’re any good, work hard and are lucky. But looking at the people I graduated engineering next to, engineering is only paying the ones who were good at it, worked hard and were lucky.

    @Fetchez la vache, 36:

    I very much enjoy the blog, and most of the comments, but am very disturbed and repulsed by the call for anyone to “be lobotomized”.

    You’re surely not implying there’s a double standard here, are you?

  42. isochron says

    I’ve never understood why the biblical literalists regard “God promised he wouldn’t do it again” as good evidence of the absence of climate change. Surely it should be interpreted as “God promised he wouldn’t do it again…being omniscient he knew he wouldn’t have to”

  43. chrisv says

    #1. Re: item 3. But they don’t hesitate one second to suck up Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, FEMA, food stamps, Section 8 housing, free Larks and cell phones…….

  44. brucegorton says

    I disagree with the criticism of Nye.

    I think what Nye is getting at is that science leads to knowledge and that is good because knowledge is useful.

    Nye’s point is essentially answering the question “What is in it for me?”

    And that isn’t a bad question to ask really.

    One can talk about the joy of knowledge, but it is a very limited population that actually gets to get its hands on much of that knowledge, particularly as it gets more advanced and specialised – so really, if we aren’t going to talk about the economic benefits of science, if we aren’t going to look at nuts, bolts and food on the table – what is in it for the audience Nye was addressing?

  45. doublereed says

    I don’t think he was implying science was in important only for job purposes. I mean he’s Bill Nye The Science Guy. I’m not even sure what his job is. He put on low-budget, goofy educational content for kids.

    In fact, his argument applies just as strongly to art as it does science. If we allow our kids to learn nonsense, then we could fall behind in the art world. Right now, America is a premiere place for artists even if our public support isn’t as strong as Europe (we depend a lot more on private donors in general).

    I also find it weird to suggest this is a “capitalism” thing. We have public support for the sciences. We force companies to do research for the sciences using grants and tax breaks and such. It’s not like science just supports itself with the the fruits of market forces (in fact that’s been shown to not work at all). That’s just completely unrealistic and untrue. So art doesn’t either. I don’t see the big deal with this.

    The main problem I’ve seen is the focus on STEM specifically for a lot of tech companies, so it’s difficult to get corporate sponsorship of arts and humanities.

  46. Dexeron says

    Like others above, I think the criticism of Nye isn’t entirely fair. Yes, the purely utilitarian view does miss the point, but at the end of the day, science needs funding, and the people holding the purse strings want to know “what’s in it for me.” deGrasse Tyson talked about this a bit in “Space Chronicles.” It’s not that science isn’t so much more than just job training and widgets; it’s that science also has these extra benefits that come along with it, and it’s those benefits that hook the attention of the people in charge of funding.

    I do agree with the criticism of Nye’s answer, but it is, unfortunately, kind of reflexive for many of us at this point. Case in point: a story I read yesterday about new evidence for “multiple universes.” The immediate reaction from far too many is: “What’s the point of discovering this? What’s the return? How does this justify all the MONEY BEING SPENT on it!” So we want to shoot back with lists of economic boons and inventions and technologies that came about, sometimes unexpectedly, from unrelated areas of science. We have to justify “pure research” with promises of shiny toys. Ideally, we ought to make the argument that expanding our understanding of the universe, its nature, and our place in it is its own reward, but that hardly benefits next year’s budget.

  47. ragdish says

    Teaching creationism will not lead kids to future unemployment. Teaching evolution won’t necessarily lead to jobs in science and technology. A totally fundamentalist jerk can study well and get the 4.0 GPA and succeed regardless of whether it is evolution or creationism that is taught. I recall in my pre-med days we all took a required Zoology course. The prof was like-minded as I and a very hard core evolutinary biologist. And yet the students who accurately digested all the material and aced the exam were all Christian evangelical creationists! And we’re talking Kirk Cameron-like fundies! Why did this happen? Cause they desperately wanted to get into medical school and become wealthy capitalist doctors. So Bill Nye, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  48. Pierce R. Butler says

    A Missouri lawmaker has proposed what ranks among the most anti-evolution legislation in recent years, which would require schools to notify parents if “the theory of evolution by natural selection” was being taught at their child’s school and give them the opportunity to opt out of the class.

    State Rep. Rick Brattin (R) [:]… “What’s being taught is just as much faith and, you know, just as much pulled out of the air as, say, any religion.”

  49. says

    Teaching creationism will not lead kids to future unemployment. Teaching evolution won’t necessarily lead to jobs in science and technology. A totally fundamentalist jerk can study well and get the 4.0 GPA and succeed regardless of whether it is evolution or creationism that is taught.”> Teaching creationism will not lead kids to future unemployment. Teaching evolution won’t necessarily lead to jobs in science and technology. A totally fundamentalist jerk can study well and get the 4.0 GPA and succeed regardless of whether it is evolution or creationism that is taught.

    It is not just what “they” teach in school and subsequent employment opportunities. The core of the issue is to stop spreading creationist propaganda for political purposes: imposing Christian Sharia Law.

  50. David Marjanović says

    fuck off, you stupid twit. I’m an artist. I am not rolling in money. I do okay, but…

    Hang on, PZ specifically said “Art doesn’t pay”. I took issue with that, and you, who are making a living at it, are telling ME fuck off?

    You haven’t been around enough to know what “I do okay” means in this context. It means “I’m not quite starving right now, though it’s precarious”. That agrees with what PZ said, unless you’re so hyperliteral as to believe it means “art pays exactly zero”.

    You, on the other hand, come across as trying to deny that there’s such a thing as a poor artist.

  51. sc_a5d5b3a48ba402d40e1725cbb3ce1375 says

    I agree with most of the “target audience” points about Nye’s economics framing. I still strongly oppose those who say New Atheists go about things the wrong way because they ought to attract more flies with honey than vinegar. But honey has its place. The bad cop (or in this case, the awe-of-nature cop) needs the good cop.

    In a deeper sense, arguably the biggest problem with creationism is simply that it posits God as an explanation of things, and I completely agree with PZ agreeing with Steve Zara that God is a bunch of bafflegab impossible to demonstrate even in principle. So perhaps the silly assertions about a flood and a young earth are less problematic than the one major element YEC shares with theistic evolution (at least “giant flood” is wrong, rather than not even wrong). But in practical terms theistic evolution is not nearly as big a problem for the future enrichment of science.

    But of course I don’t think Nye should have said any of that (he’s not even an atheist!). Likewise, even though it’s true, he shouldn’t have overly focused on the value of science qua science. Especially because when you only have a window of a few hours, a lot of the audience is going to think they get all that philosophical/sheer-curiosity stuff out of their Bibles.

    Plus, that argument requires the prior assumption that creationism isn’t a valid science (or else it, too would count as part of the deeper value of scientific knowledge too, by definition of being true valid science), and that was the very topic of debate. Instead, pointing to the practical side of things cuts more quickly to the chase.

    I do have my own quibbles, though: I wish he had made more philosophy-of-science points, like emphasizing the meaning and importance of consilience versus cherry-picking, and so on.

  52. sonofrojblake says

    You, on the other hand, come across as trying to deny that there’s such a thing as a poor artist

    Only if PZ’s already lobotomised you.

    Of course there are poor artists. There are, as I believe I pointed out, such things in this country as poor lawyers. There are poor journalists, poor engineers, poor scientists. What I took issue with was this elevation of art to the status of something pure and spiritual that can only be done for its own sake, rather than something you can make a living at if you’re good at it, work hard and are lucky. It’s a perfectly valid career choice, it’s just unattractive to hear people whining when their career choice doesn’t make them comfortable.