Monday, March 23, 2015

Bad Science Guy

Bill Nye won the hearts of a lot of kids who watched his videos in their science classes. He was goofy yet funny, corny but personable, and very likeable. In the last few years, however, a different side of "The Science Guy" has revealed itself. In 2010 Nye gave a speech to the American Humanist Association in which he declared that,
I'm insignificant. ... I am just another speck of sand. And the earth really in the cosmic scheme of things is another speck. And the sun an unremarkable star. ... And the galaxy is a speck. I'm a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks among still other specks in the middle of specklessness. I suck.
It's ironic that he received a hearty ovation for this speech given that not only does it reveal a bleak, even nihilistic view of himself in particular and mankind in general, but one of the criticisms that humanists make of Christians is that their belief in their inherent sinfulness ("I suck") is dehumanizing and depressing. Maybe it's okay to be dehumanizing and depressing as long as one agrees with the humanist world picture.

At any rate, Casey Luskin at Evolution News and Views talks about some of the scientific infelicities in Nye's new book Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. Luskin writes:
Undeniable promotes the standard dumbed-down atheistic narrative about science, society, and evolution -- except now his book is influencing younger thinkers who mistakenly think Nye is an objective source of information for everything about science...

Later, Nye reveals that his view that humans "suck" comes directly from his study of evolution: "As I learned more about evolution, I realized that from nature's point of view, you and I ain't such a big deal." According to evolution, Nye says, "humankind may not be that special."

And why aren't we special? Under Nye's nihilistic thinking, "evolution is not guided by a mind or a plan," and nature even shows "lack of evidence of a plan." For Nye, "Every other aspect of life that was once attributed to divine intent is now elegantly and completely explained in the context of evolutionary science."

Under Nye's outlook, even humanity's advanced abilities, like our moral codes and selfless altruism, are not special gifts that show we were made for a higher purpose. Rather, "Altruism is not a moral or religious ideal, no matter what some people might tell you," for human morality is merely a "biological part of who or what we are as a species."
If that's true, of course, then there's no reason why we should think that we have any objective moral duty to do anything. Nothing is really right or wrong if human morality is simply the product of blind, impersonal processes which cannot know what they were creating and cannot hold anyone accountable.

Luskin moves from Nye's metaphysics to reviewing some of his scientific claims and finds that Nye's science is still stuck in the 1970s:
On the natural chemical origins of life, Nye maintains that the famous Miller-Urey experiments "simulate[d] the conditions on earth in primordial times," and "produced the natural amino acids." Yet it's been known for decades that the Miller-Urey experiments did not correctly simulate the earth's early atmosphere. An article in Science explains why the experiments are now considered largely irrelevant: "the early atmosphere looked nothing like the Miller-Urey situation."

Nye also promotes the unsophisticated argument that humans and apes must share a common ancestor because our gene-coding DNA is only about 1 percent different. "This is striking evidence for chimps and chumps to have a common ancestor," he writes.

This argument is not just simplistic, it's also false.

Another article in Science challenged " the myth of 1%," suggesting the statistic is a "truism [that] should be retired," and noting, "studies are showing that [humans and chimps] are not as similar as many tend to believe." Geneticist Richard Buggs argues more accurate genetic comparisons show "the total similarity of the genomes could be below 70 percent."

But if we do share DNA with chimps, why should that demonstrate our common ancestry? Intelligent agents regularly re-use parts that work in different systems (e.g., wheels for cars and wheels for airplanes). Genetic similarities between humans and chimps could easily be seen as the result of common design rather than common descent. Nye's crude argument ignores this possibility.
Nye fares no better in his discussion of fossil transitional forms:
Nye cites Tiktaalik as a "'fishapod' (transition between fish and tetrapod, or land animal with four legs)" that is a fulfilled "prediction" of evolution because of when and where it was found in the fossil record.... Nye is apparently unaware that this so-called evolutionary "prediction" went belly-up after scientists found tracks of true tetrapods with digits some 18 million years before Tiktaalik in the fossil record. As the world's top scientific journal Nature put it, this means Tiktaalik is not a "direct transitional form."

In another instance, Nye claims we've "found a whole range of human ancestors, including Sahelanthropus tchadensis," apparently not realizing that an article in Nature reported there are "many... features that link the specimen with chimpanzees, gorillas or both," since " Sahelanthropus was an ape."

Nye calls the fossil mammal Ambulocetus a "walking whale" with "whalelike flippers, and feet with toes." Nye apparently missed a paper in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics which found that Ambulocetus had "large feet" and called its mode of swimming "inefficient" -- very different from whales. Another paper found that unlike whales, Ambulocetus was tied to freshwater environments and lived near "the mouths of rivers, lunging out at terrestrial prey -- analogous to the hunting process of crocodilians." This mammal had nothing like "whalelike flippers."
Luskin mercifully concludes his recitation of Nye's embarrassing unfamiliarity with current discoveries in biology with one more illustration. Word has apparently yet to reach the "science guy" that one of the anti-designers' favorite examples of poor design, the human eye, is actually an example of excellent design:
Nye also promotes an old canard that the human eye is wired backwards. According to Nye, "the human eye's light-sensing cells are tucked behind other layers of tissue" which is "not an optimal optical arrangement." He apparently never saw a 2010 paper in Physical Review Letters which found that our eyes have special glial cells which sit over the retina, acting like fiber-optic cables to channel light through the tissue directly onto our photoreceptor cells. According to the paper, the human retina is "an optimal structure designed for improving the sharpness of images." Indeed, just this month a headline at Scientific American reports: " The Purpose of Our Eyes' Strange Wiring Is Unveiled." That article confirms the purpose lies in, "increasing and sharpening our color vision."

Nye tells his readers that the eyes of cephalopods like the octopus have "a better design than yours." But an article at called our retinal glial cells a "design feature," and concluded: "The idea that the vertebrate eye, like a traditional front-illuminated camera, might have been improved somehow if it had only been able to orient its wiring behind the photoreceptor layer, like a cephalopod, is folly."
There are more examples of Nye's faulty science in Luskin's article which also contains links to his sources.

Evolution, at least in it's Darwinian form (i.e. a process that admits no "non-natural" influences), is a theory in crisis, as geneticist Michael Denton has described it, but if one is a naturalistic materialist it's really the only game in town, which is the main reason many scientists cling to it. Scientists like to say that they follow the evidence wherever it leads, but what counts as evidence is, as the philosophers of science like to say, theory-laden. That is, only evidence that fits the scientist's worldview is allowed to count as data. Everything else is ignored. It is an interesting fact that science is often driven by the scientist's metaphysical commitments, and only secondarily by empirical evidence. That's certainly not the way it's supposed to be or the way it's portrayed in the popular culture, but it is the way it too often is.