Saturday, February 08, 2014

Bill Nye and the One-Legged Stool

Version 0.3

Bill Nye and the One-Legged Stool

Some alternative titles might have been "Bill Nye can't Tip a One-Legged Stool" or "The One-Legged Stool Beats Bill Nye", leading to the conclusions that he isn't much of a debater and that he took his opponent rather too lightly because he presumed too much upon the weakness of his opponent's position. The topic is actually his recent so-called debate against a prominent creationist. It was actually such a dour show that I didn't feel like watching it to the end. I'll reduce it to one impression and a metaphor that came to my mind afterwards. I'll also address a few of the one-legged stools, including the biggest one.

However, as part of the introduction I should justify it's inclusion under the general theme of this particular blog, the decline of America. Mostly that's justified by a point that Bill Nye returned to several times, America's need for sound scientific research based on science that is not tainted by or limited because of religious biases. However, I think it's also qualified under this theme because of the low quality of the debate itself as part of the broader public discourse and the strong sway of these peculiar religious views over the political processes in large parts of America.

My general impression was that Bill Nye didn't bother to prepare at all, whereas his opponent has been playing the same game for many years. Precisely because the foundations of his creationist argument are so weak and baseless, he has to focus on clever argumentation and on laying rhetorical traps. Nye's response reminds me of "Ignorance of the law is no excuse", though in this case the form is more like "Ignorance of specious arguments is not going to make them go away." Many prominent scientists such as Professor Dawkins said this debate was a waste of time and would just give credibility to the creationists' fantasies, but I think the result is even worse than that. I think they are fundamentally sophists and will continue to rely on sophistry. As it applies to this situation, they will apply two tactics. First, the creationists will go down the list of their arguments to pick out the ones that Bill Nye didn't explicitly refute and proclaim that those arguments, no matter how silly, were not refuted because they are actually valid or even strong. Second, they will go through Bill Nye's comments quite carefully looking for any mistakes or bits that can be taken out of context, looking for anything that can be used against him, as proven by the use within the "debate" of several clips of Bill Nye that the creationist had prepared for use in his presentation.

My metaphor is the titular one-legged stool, which starts by representing the Bible in this situation. A small one-legged stool can actually be useful for some purposes. You can actually sit on it in a stable way, as long as your own two legs form a stable tripod. You can't move too much or raise one of your legs, and you have to be a bit careful, especially in standing up, but at least you can rest a bit. You can say that a bit of religion has a corresponding limited but positive usage, as long as you don't go too far with it.

However, the creationists are going much farther than trying to comfortably sit on a little one-legged stool. Their one-legged stool is giant, with a base that's 10 feet across and a giant leg. You can stay balanced on such a stool, but you aren't going to do any resting up there. However, the creationist's go even farther than that. On top of their giant one-legged stool, they are balancing a bunch of other smaller one-legged stools, one for each of their supposedly distinct "debating points". The one-legged stool is the only design they can understand, and all of them actually rest on the same leg, the literal accuracy of the Bible. All of the arguments are weak and constantly trying to fall down, and the creationists are desperately running about and trying to keep things balanced--mostly by accusing people like Bill Nye of sitting on one-legged stools. Remember, that's the only design model they can understand, so it's only natural for them to project.

Time to break a few legs. Let me start by breaking the leg of the largest one-leg stool, the inerrant nature of the Bible itself. It's sufficient to consider the internal contradictions to see that something is wrong here, but I favor the approach from information theory. We imperfect humans only developed the mathematics in the last century, but any powerful and knowledgeable god would have figured this stuff out long ago. Now we humans could write clear and unambiguous messages (within the linguistic limits of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem), but the authors of the Bible could not (unless by lucky accident, and they obviously weren't that lucky). Now if you think a wise god inspired or even wrote the Bible, what is that god's excuse for the poor presentation? The clever god couldn't even figure out how to write clearly in one language, whereas we lowly humans are now capable of encoding arbitrarily complicated messages to withstand lossy transmissions and various transformations, even translations?

One of the creationist's favorite little one-legged stools involved the existence of a few scientists with strong religious beliefs. Evidently the idea is to claim it is possible to do sound scientific work in spite of creationist fantasies. The obvious leg-breaker there would have been Bill Nye citing himself as proof of how mixed human beings are. From the creationists' perspective, his religious beliefs are completely incorrect, but that doesn't prevent him from doing good scientific work in various fields. In other words, no one is perfect and all of us, even the best scientists, have some mistaken beliefs. The trick is to have accurate information in the areas where you are doing your actual scientific work.

Another one-legged stool that came up several times was the dating thing. The creationists insist that none of us really know the past, but we can only see things that we interpret as evidence of the past. This leg is broken because there we can clearly see evidence of continuous processes that have been going on long before the creationists' time limits. That means there are only two cases: (1) The processes have drastically changed at some point in the past, where there is overwhelming evidence that the processes are constant, or (2) The evidence has been massively forged. Either there is a highly malicious god who wants to fool all of us with apparently overwhelming evidence of millions of years, or there is a malicious anti-god with godlike powers who is doing the fooling. Any way you slice it, it comes out looking ridiculous and completely unprovable. We could just drop to solipsism, eh? The whole universe was created 5 minutes before the debate started along with all of our memories of anything that's older than that.

There were various other one-legged stools. However, none of them were any stronger or more plausible or any easier to balance on. Actually, their main trait was probably just how forgettable they were.

One of the audience questions did hit a bit towards the creationist's weak leg. The question was whether any evidence could change the creationist's mind, and he honestly answered "No" and Bill Nye answered "Yes", though not very strongly. A rather stronger form would have been something like "You expect to meet Jesus. What if you meet Him tomorrow, He proves to you that He is Jesus (according to whatever criteria you set), and then He tells you that you are mistaken and the Bible does contain errors. Would you believe Jesus and change your mind?"

In conclusion, the simple facts that this sort of debate is still continuing and that proponents of these ridiculous views are still affecting the public policy of America are large reasons America is failing and ultimately falling.


Pablo Lobo said...

Somehow I managed to watch the 'debate' to the bitter end. I was hoping that there would be some 'ah-ha' moment on either side. But when Ken Ham said that *nothing* would change his mind I realized that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt to garner some of Bill Nye's popularity.

Ken's continued use of the argument that 'you can't observe the past' or more directly that there is no evidence that physics worked the same way in the past that it does today, is sliced to confetti by Ockham's Razor. The simplest explanation is that physics has not changed.

shanen said...

Yeah, what you said.

When I was much younger, I used to debate the religious fanatics quite often. We called them Jesus freaks in those days. Eventually I realized it was totally pointless.

My basic strategy was "why" regression. It ALWAYS led back to the Bible, and it NEVER led to any actual proof of anything. You just had to accept the ancient words and believe them, and ignore anything that disagreed with them, even themselves.

I guess for me it comes down to "Why would god give us reason and then demand we ignore it?"


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As a blogger from before there were blogs, I've concluded what I write is of little interest to the reading public. My current approach is to treat these blogs as notes, with the maturity indicated by the version number. If reader comments show interest, I will probably add some flesh to the skeletons...