Thursday, January 20, 2005

Bill O'Reilly: Scientist

There's a site called News Hounds whose tagline is, "We watch FOX so you don't have to." Priceless.

Well, News Hounds has the transcript of a segment of The O'Reilly Factor in which O'Reilly confronts a biologist about whether creationism is science or not. Here's a real gem from the segment:

O’REILLY: OK. But science is incomplete in this area of creationism, is it

GRANT: Science is always incomplete in all areas.

O’REILLY: Well, I don’t agree with that. Science is not always
incomplete and I’ll give you an example. There are twenty-four hours in a day.
Alright. That’s science. And there are four seasons. That’s science. So you can
state things with certainty in biology or any other science you want. However,
if I’m a student in your class and you’re telling me, well, there might have
been a meteor or big bang or there might have been this or there might have been
that, I’m gonna raise my hand like the wise guy I am and say “Professor, might
there be a higher power that contributed to the fact that we’re all here?” and
you say - what?

Well, first off, science has nothing to do with there being twenty-four hours in a day. Humans decided to divide the day up into twenty-four units of time and call them "hours." The length of time that a day lasts, outside the issue of units, is also not a scientific theory (which is what Grant takes O'Reilly to mean by "science" and thus I will too, since O'Reilly fails to object). Scientific theories are explanations of observed facts. The length of time that it takes for the Earth to rotate 360 degrees on its axis, which humans have chosen to call "a day" is a fact. It isn't an explanation for anything, it just is. Explaining why the Earth rotates on its axis in the same amount of time each rotation would be a theory. Theories explain facts.

By the same token, it isn't "science" that there are four seasons. For one thing, the number of seasons is arbitrary. Humans defined it. You could say there are just two seasons, winter and summer, or you could say there are eight including the four normal ones and also pre-Autumn, post-Autumn, pre-Spring, and post-Spring, or however else you wanted. But, the changes in temperature and precipitation that accompany the Earth's orbit around the sun are not scientific theories. They are also facts. The explanatory theory is the laws of motion which explain why the Earth continues to orbit the sun rather than spinning off on its own or something.

So, O'Reilly clearly doesn't know what science is, and yet he goes on TV and acts like an expert.

But he's disingenuous at the outset. Science isn't "incomplete in the area of creationism," and Grant should have called O'Reilly on it. Since creationism does not meet the definition of a scientific theory, since it lacks explanatory power, makes no testable or observable predictions, and is inherently unfalsifiable, creationism isn't science, and so science cannot be "incomplete in the area of creationism." In fact, science has nothing to do with creationism. Saying that "science is incomplete in the area of creationism" is kind of like saying "ice cream is incomplete in the area of tax evasion." They have nothing to do with each other.

Now, evolutionary theory is incomplete, as all scientific theories are considered to be, since new data and observations could come to light that would cause scientists to rethink those theories. But scientists don't hold off on testing and using theories because of all the improbable things that theoretically could turn out to be true but for which there is not a shred of evidence, like creationism.

O’REILLY: But, what if it turns out there is a God and He did create the
universe and you die and then you figure that out? Aren’t you gonna feel bad
that you didn’t address that in your biology class?

No. Because evolution doesn't deal with the creation of the freakin' universe, you idiot! Evolutionary theory and biology are neither confirmed nor denied by the existence or lack thereof of a creator of the universe. Or of life, for that matter, since evolutionary theory doesn't deal with the origins of life, either. Abiogenesis, a separate field of inquiry, does that.

O’REILLY (overtalks all words): ‘Cause then it would be science, wouldn’t
it? You know, if tomorrow the deity came down and proved himself, then it would
be science, wouldn’t it, sir?

I disagree with Grant on this one too. If God or some deity came down and proved himself tomorrow, it would be a fact, not a scientific theory. It is always possible that there are facts not yet in evidence that would affect scientific theory as we know it. In fact, it is certain. But the fact of the existence of a creator, supreme being, God, or deity is utterly without evidence to support it. As such, we must discount the possibility of the existence of such beings until and unless some evidence comes to light. If we were to suspend judgment pending the sudden appearance of facts that no evidence indicates are likely to be found true, then we would be unable to learn anything. After all, you could say, "You know, if tomorrow Santa Claus came down and proved himself, then it would be science," or, "You know, if tomorrow McDonald's-hating bugs from Mars came down and proved themselves, they would be science." Sure. But none of those things is likely to happen, and, in fact, are unlikely enough that we can safely ignore them until and unless they do.

O'Reilly continues making a fool of himself for the rest of the interview, almost calling the story of Adam & Eve "nonsense" in front of his evangelical audience, and claiming that human cloning is not "science" according to a nonexistent theory he claims Grant has put forward.

How does O'Reilly manage to tie his shoes in the morning? This is the problem with modern society: It has eliminated most pressures of natural selection. If not for modern society, a result of modern technology provided by science, O'Reilly long ago would have been eaten by a lion or something because of his own stupidity.


At 12:37 PM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Unsurprisingly, I will use my response to your post to springboard in a slightly different, perhaps more general direction. I'll try to tie it back together at the end.

O'Reilly is an idiot, regardless the topic. Certainly thinking people should be able to spot his foolishness with comments such as these about the 24-hour day and the seasons. Someone needs to instruct O'Reilly on the dangers of epistemological certitude. Alas ...

Regarding science in general, it is not terribly surprising that he would be confused -- many Americans know very little about how science works or much in the way of scientific knowledge (see a 2003 NSF survey). Ironically, despite their ignorance, Americans seem to respect scientists more than almost any other profession (see a 2004 Harris poll) -- more than half of Americans consider scientists to have "very great prestige. You'd think they'd learn what we teach them, care what we say, and/or trust us more about our understanding of the natural Universe. Again, alas ...

What I would like to hear is President Bush make definitive statements about non-theism. He has made a specific effort to try to be clear that he respects people of "all Faiths" (whether or not his policies are consistent with that idea); however, theism is not, of course, a "Faith." This is particularly pertinent since his father, when Vice President said, "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God" (Wikipedia).

How does this connect with the theme of "science"? Well, despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans are theist (see a 2003 Harris poll), a huge majority of American scientists are not. In fact, according to a Journal of Nature follow-up survey, 72.2% of members of the National Academy of Sciences expressly disbelieve in [Gg]od(s) and 20.8% are agnostic, over 93% of American scientists are non-theist. Even a much less restrictive 1997 survey (same reference) holds that a strong majority of American scientists are non-theist.

Apparently, George H. W. Bush feels that nearly the entire scientific community is "unpatriotic" -- he is uncertain whether or not we should be considered "citizens." Good thing those of us in the American scientific community disagree, or America could find itself at the bottom of the world in terms of advanced technology and research ... the country could lose some of its "most prestigious" quasi-citizens!

This is all commensurate with what has been said in other posts. Americans want to believe what they believe, want their beliefs defended, and still want to remain at the top of the world in terms of their scientific advancement. That's all well and good, but apparently they want to do this while remaining as ignorant as possible of facts and logic whenever that knowledge threatens their beliefs. They want to have their theological cake, and eat their product-of-research antacid as well. It cuts both ways. Science is the razor, not the chin.

O'Reilly's comments reflect a particular ignorance of science that I find common among most creationist supporters: A lack of understanding of what the word "theory" means, or of how science advances. As you say, a theory is an attempt to explain observations, it is neither the observation itself, nor is it meant to be fact. We do not qualify the "theory of gravity" in textbooks, so why qualify the "theory of evolution"? As you say, creationism is not a theory because it does not attempt to explain anything -- moreover, to all those who claim scientists should be reluctant to accept the theory of evolution because it may have some explanatory troubles, I say: "Suggest a testable, more plausible explanation!"

I guess I would ask O'Reilly to put up or shut up. Scientists will easily abandon evolution for an alternative, as long as that alternative has more explanatory power, matches existing evidence at least as well, and contradicts or invalidates evolution. Give me that, and I have something to think about. Fail on any of those fronts, and you can go home and think some more. Science is not a bulletin board for any crackpot idea, you have to arrive at conclusions via a specific process.

That isn't to say that scientific knowledge is "right." Scientific knowledge is merely that knowledge which is arrived at via the scientific method, right or wrong. Creationism is not science because it cannot add to the body of scientific knowledge because its observation was not produced via the scientific method. It is that simple. I trust most scientific knowledge because I trust the process (again: science is the razor, not the chin).

If O'Reilly believes that the scientific method is a poor method for acquiring information, then I suppose he believes that some of the "most prestigious" quasi-Americans are foolishly beholden to a flawed process. Too bad, I guess. One wonders what in the heck the American people are thinking when they rate we fools so highly in their regard (obviously very little, since they also don't care what we have to say).

To Mr. O'Reilly (who will never read this post, I guess), I say again: Put up or shut up. Offer an alternative theory with more explanatory power that helps produce knowledge via the scientific method. I will consider that. To this constant hopping up and down saying "Evolution is uncertain! Evolution is uncertain!" I say this: "Yawn." Disputation is easy ... give me a more logical explanation. Until then, I will assume that some variation of the current most logical explanation is the most probable explanation of things (i.e., evolution). That is the theory I will accept, and that is the theory that should be taught to students in SCIENCE classes.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

Overall, I can only say, I agree!

Yeah, it really pisses me off that so many Americans seem to conflate their love of the nation with their love of their God or god(s), and thus cannot imagine that someone could love his or her country without also loving their God or god(s). I would like to ask Bush Sr. and every other theist who thinks that nontheists are not citizens and cannot be patriots what they think of Pat Tillman quitting a pro football career to go fight in Afghanistan, where he was killed. According to his family, he was a nontheist, if not an atheist.

Do you think Bush Sr. and his fellow compatriots are going to have the courage of their convictions and stand up and tell us that Tillman should not have been a citizen and was not a patriot? I doubt it.

Hypocrites and liars, all.


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