By Brandon Bub
Feb. 20, 2014
Last summer, I taught a math and science class for 6th graders at a summer academic enrichment program. When it came time to introduce Newton’s laws, I told the students I had a treat planned for them: we were going to watch an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy (most of which can be found on Youtube thanks to Nye himself). One of the boys raised his hand and asked, “Who is that?” After taking a few seconds to mentally collect myself from a crisis of mortality, I turned on the show and proceeded to change these kids’ lives.
And while it is distressing to know that Bill Nye might not be a regular part of these kids’ academic development as he was mine, I was reassured by the show’s timeless educational and humorous value (although the Spice Girls references might be a tad dated now). The students were genuinely excited about discussing these concepts in class after the episode ended, a testament to Nye’s pedagogical prowess above mine.
Indeed, the children of the 90s who first watched his show are now the ones chanting his name when he shows up at colleges to give guest lectures. As someone who hopes to break into the field of high school education, I have unyielding respect for Nye and his mission to make science relevant to young people across the country.
And my regard for the man is precisely the reason why I was so distressed to hear about him debating Ken Ham on creation science a couple of weeks ago on CNN. Now, if anyone was to blame for this farce, it was CNN for organizing the event. These past few years, I’ve grown convinced that someone at the network gave reading Hegel the old college try and thought, “Hey, what if we put two people with diametrically opposed world views together in the same room, air their debate on prime time, and wait for them to agree with each other?”
Truth be told, it hardly upsets me that there are people out there who believe the Earth is 4000 years old. If I got angry every time someone said something wrong on the Internet, I would never get out of bed in the morning.
No, what bothers me about this kind of “debate” is that it belies any sort of legitimate conflict between science and religion. Very few mainstream Christian sects argue for the literal truth of the Genesis creation story. The Catholic Church, for instance, has accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution since 1950.
What does make for a more fulfilling discussion is one on the purpose of human existence. Positions on that matter are wide-ranging and cross-cutting. Science is not a religion; it is a tool, and a very useful one at that, by which we empirically test hypotheses and add to a body of existing knowledge. Faith, as we’ve seen the past few centuries, need not be thrown out as science advances. It serves a different purpose and seeks to answer different questions.
When we give people like Ken Ham a microphone, we are implicitly accepting their positions as legitimate. But the fact of the matter is that there are some viewpoints that are flat out wrong, and his is one of them. We should not be afraid to say so. Moreover, at a certain point, we should recognize when refuting those viewpoints simply becomes wasted breath.
So Mr. Nye, please keep bringing your message about the importance of science to the masses. We desperately need kids who are as excited about science as you are. But do not bother trying to change the minds of the Ken Hams of the world. Like doubters of the heliocentric universe theory, those folks will find fewer and fewer adherents in the coming years. The contributions that a scientifically literate body of students can make to our technological and political landscape, on the other hand, will last forever.