I like Bill Nye the Science Guy. If you have kids you probably have seen his show at one time or another. He is a great science teacher within the context of television (which has limitations, but can have a place as well). Bill Nye has a wonderful, goofy shtick that is engaging and somewhat effective. His goal, it seems to me, is to get kids excited about science. It’s possible that he succeeds in this, though real science if quite different in terms of personal experience. Regardless, it is clear that Nye loves science and is keen to promote it. So I am not surprised by his comments in a recent Popular Mechanics article. The article presents some statistics about the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. The numbers tend to show a surprisingly low level of embracing of evolution by teachers, at least in terms of confidently teaching evolution as scientific fact. Nye responds by saying this is horrible. No surprises there. But then he goes on to say:
Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back. And it’s fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don’t believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don’t believe in science, that’s a recipe for disaster.
What struck me about this quote, which seems rather straightforward, is that it presupposes a naturalist/materialist philosophical position which is false. The idea that “science is the key to our future” comes out of the Enlightenment project which has both a deep power and fundamental flaws. This is even a bigger issue than whether evolution is scientific theory or fact. On the other hand, it is fair to say that “science is the key to our future,” but in a way not intended by Mr. Nye. Science has provided so much that we love and value, but it has not changed the human heart. In that sense science will bring about at least as much pain as good. Nye has forgotten that not many years ago people lived in fear of total earth annihilation from atomic bombs and radioactive fallout. The reality of that potential scenario is still with us. But that is not the real problem. If we continue to live and act as though science will solve our problems then our ultimate undoing will come from science in service of the human heart. The 20th century was the century of blood. Science made that possible. That will be our scientific future.
I support much of what Nye says. We must support science in the classroom. The problem is that science is one of the lesser subjects. The humanities, history, language, philosophy, and theology, social studies, literature, and rhetoric, are all more important subjects than science. That is a bold statement, but science must be in the service of those subjects, of that kind of education, first than put out front as something “solid” and powerful that is foundational. Physics and biology are not a foundational subjects of study. Our problems do not come from the inability to understand, manipulate, and subdue the natural world. Woe to the society that advances in subduing the earth ahead of knowing why to do so. Woe to us, for we are there.
Another way to say this is that believing in science, as Bill Nye would have us do, is fine as long as one first and foremost believes in a morality that guides that science. I would argue that that morality must over-arch all of life, including science, but also including relationships and all human action. I would also posit that morality must, necessarily, be metaphysical in origin. I am a Christian and I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I do not see another metaphysical origin to morality that can compete. On the other hand, to “believe in science” is, on the whole, laughable. That’s like saying I believe in Higher Criticism or Semiotics. One can speak of their relative value, but one cannot believe in them in the way one can believe in God. Science cannot prove or disprove God, but neither can science address what Christians really mean by believing in God. Such belief is not so much a question of existence, though that is a part of it, rather it is like saying, “I believe in you.” It is about trust and character, two necessary aspects of human existence that science cannot begin to explain or provide a satisfactory alternative.
Bill Nye, thanks for much of what you do. I love your show. But do not unwittingly lead us down a path to destruction, even in the name of something as appealing a science.