It’s time to get caught up on a few things. The Nye/Ham debate attracted reams of commentary, some of it sensible, some not so much. Two of the sillier entries came from William Saletan over at Slate He’s very worked up about Bill Nye’s claim that creationism poses a threat to our scientific future. Saletan writes:
Ham presented videos from several scientists who espoused young-Earth creationism. One said he had invented the MRI scanner. Another said he had designed major components of spacecraft launched by NASA and the European Space Agency. If the spacecraft guy had botched his work, said Ham, you’d have heard about it. That’s true. In fact, it’s a perfectly scientific way of testing the perils of creationism. Can creationists function in science and technology? Manifestly, some can.
The reference to the fellow who said he had invented the MRI is to Raymond Damadian. I did a post on that whole issue way back in 2004.
Saletan is very keen on this point. He comes back to it later:
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.
It is trivially true that it is possible to hold crazy ideas in one branch of science while doing good work in another. But is that really the refutation of Nye’s point? Some people smoke their whole lives but don’t get cancer. Does that imply that cigarette smoking is not a public health problem?
The threat that Nye was describing was about public education. If we teach a generation of children Ham’s version of science then, yes, that is a threat to our scientific future. That threat is not mitigated by the fact that a few kids will stumble on to the real thing and go on to be scientists despite their upbringing. I don’t think Saletan disagrees with that, since he is clear that he does not want creationism taught in school. But what is his point, then?
I do think I have some basis for thinking that teaching Ham’s view, that science is the servant of religion and must submit its conclusions to the religious authorities for approval, has a deleterious effect on society. After all, that was the dominant view in Christiandom for quite some time, and there’s a reason that period in our history is known as the Dark Ages. The issue wasn’t simply rare cases like Galileo, where the Church actually came down on someone. It was the chilling effect of the Church’s constant policing of acceptable and unacceptable thought. That was precisely the attitude that needed to be weakened before the scientific revolution could occur.
Moreover, we could note that evangelical Christianity is all but nonexistent among scientists. That certainly suggests that there is some tension between science and evangelicalism. When you consider that Ham’s fundamentalism represents the most extreme version of evangelicalism, I am not optimistic that ignoring Ham and his ilk is really a sensible policy.
That’s what Nye was talking about, and I think Saletan knows it. As for Saletan’s point that creationism is just a harmless, compartmentalized fantasy, I fear he is just completely delusional. During the debate, Ham showed a few videos of actual scientists who endorse his lunacy. From this, Saletan concludes that creationism is harmless. But the people in those videos are not the day-to-day reality of what creationism is all about. Let Saletan go to a conference of religious home-schoolers, or let him go to the churches that preach this nonsense relentlessly, and then see how confident he is in his argument when he comes back.
The creationists are not interested in compartmentalization. They are interested in making sure their children do not stray from the fold, lest their souls be placed in jeopardy. They are also interested in using the tools of government and education to force everyone to live by their views. It is central to their view of things that “the world”, by which they mean everyone outside their own subculture, is so irredeemably evil that the most important thing in life is to ignore everything you hear from non-fundamentalists. And this is a view shared by a distressingly large percentage of the U. S. population, and which is the dominant view in many parts of the country. This is not a harmless worldview that resides safely compartmentalized in the minds of a few people. It is instead precisely the threat that Nye described.
Anyway, Saletan wrote a follow-up post in which he reiterated the same vapid points. I would not have thought it worth linking to, but for some of the pushback Saletan’s columns have received. You see, as silly as Saletan was, some of the replies were even worse. And while it pains me to say it, two of the very dumbest replies came from one of my favorite bloggers: P. Z. Myers.
In his first post he starts off sensibly enough by challenging Saletan’s claim that creationism is safely compartmentalized. But he starts going off the rails with this:
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.
What on earth is P. Z. talking about? How does arguing that art is valuable without being profitable expose a flaw in Nye’s argument about the practical utility of science?
I’m a pure mathematician. I obviously don’t think that immediate, practical usefulness is the only measure of an activity’s value. But I don’t get offended when people point out that mathematics pursued for its own inherent interest routinely ends up being very useful indeed. That, yes, it often leads to the production of better widgets? I have frequently made that point myself, especially when addressing audiences who don’t think math is beautiful.
But P. Z. really ramps up the crazy farther on:
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’ll leave Saletan to fend for himself, but as a criticism of Nye this is beyond stupid. Is he seriously attributing to Bill Nye the view that science is valuable only because of how well it might train you to do a job? Or that Nye does not think art has value? How does P. Z. get anything like that out of anything Nye said?
There is an annoyingly common, pseudo-intellectual argument that science, by explaining the mechanics of natural phenomena, robs nature of its beauty. Scientists quite rightly rebel against this. Knowing, for example, that rainbows are the result of light refracting through water droplets in the air does not in any way diminish the beauty of a rainbow. Quite the contrary. People who take an interest in science can enjoy a rainbow at several different levels.
P. Z.’s argument here is the equally foolish flipside of the argument. Emphasizing the immediate and utilitarian ends of science in no way suggests you are denying less obviously practical benefits. During the debate, Nye quite sensibly pointed out that evolution vs. creationism is not an abstract question, but instead impacts concerns that are relevant to our day to day lives. I can’t even imagine how P. Z. managed to twist that into, “science is about being a better, more employable widget maker for Big Widget, Inc.”
But it gets worse. Replying to Saletan’s second essay, in which he referred to the videos of engineers in Ham’s presentations, P. Z. wrote this:
Do you see the lie? He eases into it so artfully; these are guys who made “contributions to science and technology” drifts into “you can be a perfectly good engineer” and then he wraps it up by noting that the engineers in Ham’s claims practice science.
Engineers can practice real science, but an engineer is not the same thing as a scientist. I agree that creationists can be perfectly good engineers, but how can you trust the scientific acumen of someone who insists that the earth is only 6,000 years old? That says right there that they have no respect for the evidence. How can Saletan ignore Ham’s bogus distinction between historical and observational science, in which he flatly rejects any possibility of inference about the past from the present? This creationism is utterly incompatible with biology, anthropology, geology, astronomy, climate science, geochemistry, cosmology, and any other science that deals with cause and effect and history. These sciences apparently do not matter to Saletan, as long as engineers make satellites and doctors do surgery.
Oh for heaven’s sake! Engineers are scientists. Full stop. Are you really that desperate to deny that a creationist could ever make a contribution to science that you will sink to this level of insult and idiocy? (Yes, it is insulting to suggest that engineers are not scientists.)
As for the rest of the paragraph, does P. Z. not understand that a person can have a blind spot in one area while being perfectly sensible in another? Should creationists not be allowed to serve on juries because, you know, they have no respect for evidence? Can we really not grant that evolution, as important as it is, is not the only thing going on in science?
And while it’s hardly the most important point, let us note further that not all of Ham’s videos were of engineers.
This sort of extremism really bugs me. Isn’t it enough to point out that creationism is scientifically ridiculous, that it’s leading lights are shameless propagandists, and that if it ever becomes mainstream in education it will do serious harm to our scientific future? Must we go to the absurd extreme of denying that any creationist has ever made a contribution to science?
Saletan’s essays were silly, but P. Z.’s were even sillier.