Bill Nye Misses the Boat on Creationism

What does it mean to be a creationist?  Especially a young-earth creationist of the Ken Ham sort?  “Science Guy” Bill Nye argued the other day that creationism represents “striking science illiteracy.”

I like Bill Nye.  I like science.  But Nye’s statement represents a lamentable cultural illiteracy.  In the long run, it doesn’t help the cause of evolution education.  It does not help to bridge the culture-war trenches.

Around minute five of the video above, Nye begins to discuss his recent debate with young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham.  Nye humbly acknowledges that it might not have been a good idea to debate Ham.  But he went ahead with the debate.  Why?  Because Nye worries about the “striking science illiteracy” represented by young-earth creationism in the United States (around 6:23 in the video clip above).  Without science, Nye goes on, there would be no internet.  There would not be enough food for everyone.  Science and especially science education represent basic building blocks of a just and prosperous society.  Nye hopes that high-profile debates might help voters and taxpayers de-fund and delegitimize creationism in America’s public schools.

For the record, I agree that the “Ham-on-Nye” debate was a good thing for those of us who want more and better evolution education in America’s schools.  I applaud Nye’s bravery and his presentation skills.  But I wish he would not rely on this false notion that young-earth creationism represents a simple lack of knowledge about evolution.  It is not true, and it suggests bad policy approaches to improving evolution education.

Consider, for example, our best recent polls about science literacy and creationism.  As political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman recount in their book Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, creationists are not less scientifically literate than non-creationists.

For instance, one Pew poll from 2005 found that Americans who know about the scientific consensus in favor of evolution still support the teaching of creationism in public schools.  You read that right: Among the 54% of Americans who agree that scientists agree about evolution, large majorities (74%) supported teaching creationism, intelligent design, or some mix of evolution, ID, and creationism in public-school science classes.

Another poll that Berkman and Plutzer summarize found that general scientific literacy was not correlated with belief in evolution.  That is, whether or not one was aware of general scientific information had no relation to whether or not one evinced a belief in evolution.

As Dan Kahan noted recently, even the National Science Foundation has considered removing a question about evolution from its science-literacy poll.  Why?  Because there is no correlation between general scientific knowledge and beliefs about evolution.  What people know or don’t know about evolution does not give us any information about whether they believe it or don’t.

Knowledge is distinct from belief.

Bill Nye’s assumption that young-earth creationism represents a lack of scientific knowledge is more than just an embarrassing ignorance on Nye’s part.  The educational and political tasks in cases of naïve non-knowledge are worlds apart from the educational and political tasks in cases of intentional or constructed non-knowledge.  In the case of evolution education, if creationists were simply unaware of evolutionary science, then outreach programs would have a good chance of success.  The task would be simply to spread information.  But in reality, evolution education must recognize that many students and families are not simply ignorant, but resistant to this form of knowledge.  Educational efforts must strive first to understand the reasons for this resistance.  Only then can evolution educators hope to develop effective strategies to teach evolution.

Consider an example from outside the world of evolution education.  Imagine your task is to deliver polio vaccine in a rural area.  If the people in the area did not know about the vaccine, you could simply publicize the benefits and the location of the vaccination clinic.  Then people would bring their children to receive the vaccine.

But if the people in the area thought that the vaccine was dangerous, you couldn’t simply put up posters and distribute flyers.  You would have to engage in a very different task.  You would have to understand why people thought the vaccine was dangerous.  You would have to get to know the reasoning involved in order to offer counter-arguments that would be convincing.  Only if you could convince people that the vaccine was helpful and not dangerous could you ever hope to vaccinate large percentages of the population.

Bill Nye is talented.  Bill Nye is brave.  Bill Nye is smart.

But he continues to display a puzzling ignorance about the contours of creationism in America.  Instead of using his considerable influence to suggest pragmatic policies to spread evolution education, he continues to misdirect evolution education policy.  He needs to learn about creationism if he wants to debate it intelligently.


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  1. I agree that we can’t sum up Creationist belief as just scientific illiteracy. Ignorance, yes, to an extent. But saying that Creationists are sometimes ignorant of some of the detailed evidence for evolution is rather meaningless. Most people who agree with evolution are ignorant of these details as well. And most people who agree with evolution are also ignorant of Creationist arguments and “evidence”. Indeed, in my experience, many Creationists are more informed about evolution than your average, everyday evolutionist, because these creationists are expected to refute it, so they have to actually know a little something about it.

    Now I utterly support making information about science and evolution more accessible to all people (including through Ham/Nye debates) because some people WILL change their minds when presented with this evidence. I am one of them. But it is indeed ignorant to assume that all or even most of Creationists believe what they do because of a lack of scientific literacy. Our entire country lacks some amount of scientific literacy (because science is a very specialized field that not everyone cares to study deeply) so people often prioritize their beliefs over an actual understanding of science. Creationism is a belief, and unless the root of that belief is addressed, it will persist.

    I hope I can get back to Faith and Physics again soon to talk more about this. I had to drop everything in order to visit graduate schools, then get married, then prepare to move to a new city and start research at University of Minnesota. However, once I’ve moved in about a month, I’m hoping to have a little more time to work on my writing, and I promise if I do, Faith and Physics will come back. Even better, I’m going to clean out some of the attic space at my parent’s home and I suspect there might be a Creationist book or two hidden in there from my highschool years. If there is, I promise to share! 🙂

  2. Tim

     /  May 3, 2014

    The biggest error Nye makes is assuming that disagreeing with evolution = less scientific advancement. This was made very clear to him during the debate how beliefs in origins makes no difference in modern technological or engineering advancements. He is creating a false dilemma. This dichotomy simply doesn’t exist. He has plenty he can pick on with creationists, but this talking point is pure ignorance.

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