In early February we were regaled by a debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham over “creationism vs. evolutionism” which attracted more attention than it deserved. I’m tempted to move on about this except for this fawning piece in the New Republic (lefties can certainly be sycophants when the situation calls for it, something Barack Obama is greatly thankful for). Now, of course, Nye has graduated from defending evolution against New Earth Creationists to being the current darling of climate change fanatics (we’ve passed from advocacy). So, since they’re going to keep him in the spotlight, I think I will oblige.
Nye and myself have a few interlocking life threads. He graduated from Sidwell Friends school in DC (where my father started his educational career) the same year I graduated from St. Andrew’s in the land where the animals are tame and the people run wild. He went to Cornell (and from there on to Boeing) with a high school friend of mine. Nye and I both had the same major (mechanical engineering) and would have graduated at the same time except that I graduated from Texas A&M a semester early. I too went first into the aerospace industry before moving in the other direction.
But, as you will see, the similarities end soon. This is a classic case of two people who have taken the same data and come to opposite conclusions. Since Nye’s “day job” for many years was to promote science, let’s consider that in view of the hot topic in education these days: STEM education. It’s traditionally been something of a job to get Americans interested in STEM careers and the education that leads up to them. Let’s start by considering two fundamentals in favour of that career path.
The first is that STEM educated people eat and many others don’t. That’s more obvious today but it was certainly true when Nye and I were making career choices. Part of Nye’s problem is, perhaps, that he never considered a non-STEM type of career; many engineers and scientists are that way. For me, I bounced around various career options (most in the arts) until just before my senior year in prep school; for me STEM was an afterthought, which made playing catch-up as an undergraduate something of a challenge.
The second is that our civilisation, such as it is, is powered by the results of science and engineering being applied. Although we think of our present state as the demonstration of that, this fact was true in Nye’s formative years as well. In some ways, however, the interaction of that fact with the social movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s has skewed the debate about science and engineering in this country in the wrong way.
I’ve made this point before but it bears repeating: the social upheaval of the 1960’s was a profoundly Luddite, anti-technological business, from the anti-moon Luddites (who have finally triumphed in Obama’s scaled back NASA) to the attempted destruction of the computer at the Courant Institute. Those upheavals put an end to a “golden age” in STEM which were (in part) detonated by the Soviets’ Sputnik launch. That was the backdrop for just about anyone getting, for example, an engineering degree in the 1970’s, and many others went into professions that promised more money for less work and higher grades: law, business, etc. That last process continues to this day; the work (and lower grades) involved with STEM majors means that they are often left to those who value hard work and diligence, i.e., the immigrants.
Given both positives and challenges, how do we build on them and induce people to make a career in STEM? Nye’s career as the “Science Guy” has been based on an underlying assumption: if we make science “exciting” for kids, they’ll want to grow up and make a career out of it. Personally, I’ve always found “science promoters” like Nye (sadly, there are others) a little creepy and “gee-whiz” in nature. Superior pay and the technological nature of our society have worked for my family for more than a century and a half, why isn’t that enough? Americans, however, hate to promote anything from hard necessity; like John Lennon, they’d rather be dreamers, even though their dreams turn to nightmares.
Nye would do well to consider the nightmares he is promoting these days. I think it unwise that he would carry the water of people (and their disciples) who, having turned the world upside down by closing campuses (including Nye’s at Cornell) now trumpet themselves as the “scientific” élite lording over the Luddite masses. (Think: how can another Harvard lawyer really be the “scientific” President?) Thoughtful consideration of the two “litmus test” issues (evolution and climate change) will bring to light the weaknesses of such an approach.
For me, the Nye-Ham debate was a dissatisfying business. By making the debate squarely about the age of the earth, Ken Ham let Nye off of the hook about the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory. Those implications–or at least the ones that the proponents want to promote at a given time–have always been evolution’s most distasteful result. They range from Social Darwinism and Marxism in the nineteenth century to the fatalism engendered by current evolutionary biology.
Adding to the problem the evolutionists’ favourite mantra: that it’s necessary to “believe in evolution” to be scientific. The blunt truth of the matter is that there are substantial areas of science, engineering and technology for which “belief” (which makes the business a religion) in evolution is totally unnecessary for successful result. One which is significant for Nye is mechanical engineering; one can go through an education and career in same without ever having to consider evolution at all.
With climate change, it’s been understood for a long time that, everything else being equal, the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will result in a greenhouse effect and temperatures will rise. But with earth sciences there is one basic problem: nothing else is ever equal, which is why the data, to use a good Thomistic term, is not univocal. And as someone whose first degree is in mechanical engineering and his later academic specialisation is geotechnical engineering, I know all too well that mechanical engineers can easily miss the finer points of earth sciences.
Beyond that, climate change fanatics have raised justifiable suspicion about their cause by their proposed (or lack thereof) method to fix the problem they are so passionate about. When pressed for solutions, we always get the same answers: solar, wind, etc. Although these are promising, the simple truth of the matter is that, with one exception, none of these fossil fuel burning alternatives will meet the requirements of our technological society in the foreseeable future, and certainly within the horizon that climate change fanatics normally live in. That exception is nuclear power, the bête noire of environmentalists for nearly half a century, even though Greenpeace’s founder has found peace with it.
The only way, using the limited options the fanatics place in front of us, we’ll get to where they want to go is to return to a poor, primitive state that makes the fifty square metre apartment look luxurious. There’s nothing particularly scientific about that. Fanatics characterise their opponents as “anti-science” but why should their opponents believe them? Science got us into this mess, why can’t science get us out of it?
That’s a question that Nye, if he were true to his original profession, would be asking, and asking intently. It bothers me that so many in the scientific and engineering community have rolled over to the highly unscientific powers that be these days. Nye, like the Imitation Foreign Devil, is playing up to those who trashed his first profession in times past. I don’t think the result will be as rosy as he would like to think.