Recently, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, has been defending science, while scientists sit on the sidelines. When Nye debated Ken Ham, a leading creationist, it seemed as if all the media coverage revolved around the spectacle of the conflict. Almost none of it included the substance of debate or described the incredible disparity in the strength of the arguments.
Many scientists believe we should not even engage with non-scientific critics, but the time has come to speak up. The fact remains that approximately one-half of Americans credit creationism over evolution, and Nye is correct that perpetuation of this belief is harming science education and scientific literacy. Thus, I applaud his efforts to expose those who deny science, and to raise awareness of the dangers that ignoring science poses to our society.
During the evolution debate, there was disagreement at the most fundamental level about what science is and what it can do. Science is an empirical method of employing evidence-based, reproducible observations to draw conclusions about the physical world and make testable predictions. Those conclusions can be made about future or past events based on the evidence.
They inform our understanding of the world in which we live, but do not make any claims or predictions regarding that which we cannot observe (for example, what happens after we die, or what happened before the Big Bang). This is why most religious people, including Pope John Paul II, have had no problem with evolution. Only those who make the most literal interpretation of the Bible, and refuse to admit that any of it could be metaphorical rather than historical, cannot and will not accept evolution.
This threat is not simply hypothetical, since a recent Program for International Student Assessment global study of student performance in science and math showed that from 2009 to 2012, American students declined from 19th to 23rd in the world in science, and from 24th to 30th in math. Moreover, a 2007 survey found 60 percent of high school biology teachers de-emphasize or ignore evolution in their classrooms. Just last month, the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee blocked the teaching of “natural selection” in its academic standards.
Nye did not simply give a convincing defense of science and evolution, refuting claims of a young Earth only 6,000 years old. He made Ham’s position intellectually indefensible by providing real evidence refuting his claims, demonstrating unequivocally that the two sides are not on equal footing. He described living trees that are greater than 6,000 years old, ice cores from Antarctica that contain material over 600,000 years old, rocks that are reliably dated over a billion years old, and billions of stars more than 6,000 light-years away that we can see.
He also pointed out that a literal interpretation of the tale of Noah and the Great Flood 4,000 years ago would mean the thousands of species unique to Australia would have had to migrate from Noah’s Ark in Asia to Australia over a recently lost land bridge without leaving a single kangaroo fossil anywhere in Asia.
One of the key distinctions between creationism and science is the ability to make predictions that can be tested empirically, and to provide physical evidence consistent with those predictions. Nye provided multiple examples of how evolution, the foundation of all biology and medicine, does exactly that again and again, and pointed out that creationism has never done it, even once. When it comes to the question of whether creationism is a viable model of origins, Nye provided a resounding no, and in this debate, he clearly won the argument.
But in all of the reporting on this debate, no news outlet ever says he won — either from some journalistic principle that both sides should have an equal say, or for fear of offending a large part of the American public. By focusing on spectacle rather than the substance of the conflict, an important opportunity to accurately inform and educate the public is lost.
The scientific community needs to step forward and meet the distortions and misinformation with a voice that is loud and clear. And the press needs to accurately represent the science without giving disproportionate weight to those who argue against it for non-scientific reasons.
Carlos S. Moreno is an associate professor at the Emory University School of Medicine and a cancer researcher.