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.


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What you're criticizing is the logical outcome of a culture that relentlessly attempts to reduce intrinsic values to exchange values or commodity.

In a pragmatic sense, what mattered most in the Ham/Nye debate was persuading undecideds that the scientific worldview is correct and creationism is not.

The case could be made that (here I'm arguing devil's advocate) utilitarian justifications are more likely to get through to a larger percentage of the population.

But ultimately I'm with you that the intrinsic values of science, and the philosophical ground on which it stands, should not be reduced to instrumentality. (Speaking here as an engineer who designs "useful things" but has a deep appreciation for the aesthetic and philosophical aspects of pure science.)

It could be argued that individuals who are predisposed toward creationism are operating on the basis of seeking a sense of meaning that is deeply personal and that is at least internally consistent, regardless of its external contradictions and other practical shortcomings. In that case, presenting the intrinsic values of science is more likely to reach these individuals, because these values do add up to something deeply meaningful.

Where science and traditional religion differ in ths regard, is that religion externalizes the personification of the sense of meaning in the form of a deity, whereas science recognizes that the sense of meaning and personhood both come from within.

Carl Sagan got it right and succeeded, by emphasizing the sense of awe and wonder at discovery for its own sake. We need more like him today.

I think the utility argument is quite valid, but that he didn't go nearly far enough. Creationism is only an in-group identifier of a much larger, more pernitious pattern of magical thinking, which has much more serious consequences. As you already mentioned, the very existence of anthropogenic climate change is one of those real world issues that's effectively settled among scientists, but is still highly contentious and partisan among non-scientists. In this case the "widget" is making sober, pragmatic public policy. Without an informed, educated electorate, a democracy can't do that. The same goes for making policies that will help ensure that we can somehow feed, clothe, and educate the next six billion people who will be added to our population this century -- hopefully with a modicum of dignity. The same magical thinking that poisons people's minds into thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and modern biology is just an excuse for orgies is also the same motivator for denying that CO2 is an infrared absorber, and that climate change is a vast, global communist plot. The "widget" of clear thinking and informed policy shouldn't be discounted.

By Joe Delaney (not verified) on 14 Feb 2014 #permalink

"Creationism is only an in-group identifier of a much larger, more pernitious pattern of magical thinking..."

Great comment Joe. Thank you.

Bill Nye is correct. When the pope threw Galileo is jail, it didn't take long for the scientists to migrate north. By the way, the art did too.

By Mark Anderson (not verified) on 17 Feb 2014 #permalink