Well-meaning scientist condescendingly gets it all wrong

Today we welcome my wife Christina as co-author of this post!

Bill Nye is a hero to many millennials.  Once a mechanical engineer by day and stand-up comic by night, his ’90s PBS daytime show Bill Nye the Science Guy introduced our generation to biology, chemistry, earth science, astronomy, and physics in much more entertaining ways than our schoolteachers ever did.  In the past four years Nye has leapt back into the public eye for his Internet activism against scientifically-illiterate education and legislative proposals, especially in regard to climate change and evolution-vs-creationism.  When he speaks, millennials listen.

But Bill Nye is starting to go astray.  His weekly video commentaries on Big Think (“a YouTube for ideas”) nowadays frequently address questions that aren’t what most of us would call “scientific”, like free will, art’s relationship to science, and religion’s place in politics.  Earlier this week Big Think posted to Facebook an abridged version of Nye’s video from last September on what science has to say about anti-abortion laws.

The full video can be found here (we don’t pay for the fancy WordPress plan that lets us embed videos).

To spoil the ending: abortion opponents probably mean well and have sincere religious reasons for their beliefs, but their ignorance of what science says about fertilized eggs makes them want to pass laws that hurt women and distract society from more important crises.

The new video has been viewed over 8 million times in the past seven days, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that his arguments inform the scientific and moral outlook of many American 20- and 30-somethings today.  This is a shame, because Nye’s arguments are logically muddled and incoherent.  We say this not as scientists (which we are not) nor as religious believers (which we are), but as critical thinkers – the kind of thinking that Nye ought to be doing and teaching his viewers like he used to teach us about the world we live in.

Let’s walk through the transcript of the full video linked above.

Many many many many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans.  Eggs get fertilized – by that, I mean sperm get accepted by ova – a lot.  But that’s not all you need.  You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.

We have no idea whether “many many many many more hundreds” is an exaggeration or not, but of course Nye is right: not every fertilized egg implants, and plenty of them do simply die.  Nye introduces two distinct events: conception, the creation of a genetically distinct human organism when a sperm fertilizes an egg, and implantation, when the blastocyst (fertilized egg already undergoing cell division) attaches to the uterine wall and the mother’s medical condition of pregnancy begins.  Nye is apparently talking about implantation rather than fertilization/conception, and talking about it as a necessary step in the process of “becoming humans.”

Now Nye clearly doesn’t want to deal with any philosophical opinions about personhood, and neither do we.  But the scientific facts are clear: the fertilized egg contains a unique homo sapiens genetic sequence, and therefore it is a human distinct from either its father or its mother.   So clearly when Nye says “human,” he means something more than just a genetically human organism.  He means a human further along the pre-natal development process.  Let’s see if he’s about to make that clearer.

But if you’re gonna hold that as a standard – that is to say, if you’re gonna say “when an egg is fertilized, it therefore has the same rights as an individual” – then whom are you gonna sue? Whom are you gonna imprison?  Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her?  Every guy whose sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human?  Have all these people failed you?

Nye has switched to the legal discussion without clarifying when humanity begins.  (We’re not using the usual “when life begins” language, because he doesn’t use it, and we don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth.)  Moreover, he has failed to distinguish some crucial categories: “die,” “kill,” and”murder.”  Sure, plenty of fertilized eggs die en route to the uterine wall, but not a single anti-abortion bill targets these eggs.  And how could they?  Those eggs aren’t murdered, since no-one deliberately intervenes to make them die; they’re not even killed, since no-one intervenes to make them die at all, deliberately or otherwise.  There’s not even a negligence claim to be made.  No-one even knows these fertilized eggs exist at all until well after they happen to implant.  All abortions are of implanted embryos, so abortions are of blastocysts that could well qualify as human by Nye’s own account.

It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding, and you apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

OK, first, that’s just really condescending.  Second, we also don’t know what you’re talking about: fertilization or implantation?  Death or murder?  We understand the science; we don’t understand your argument.

And so, when it comes to women’s rights with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women.  You cannot help but notice – I mean, I’m not the first guy to observe this! – you have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance.

Another red herring here.  Again, we’re not here to debate the legality of these abortion laws, whether they’re “extraordinary” or not.  But what do European males as such have to do with any of this?  What in their European-ness is relevant here?  And what is it about their maleness as such that disqualifies them from being able to weigh in on women’s health matters?  To claim that only a woman may speak on women’s matters is a fallacious appeal to authority, and to cast aspersions on legislators’ reasons for proposing these laws is a fallacious appeal to motive.  Neither of them takes on the content of the debate on its own merits, but diverts attention to the circumstances of the debate.

I’m sorry, you guys.  I know it was written, or your interpretation of a book that was written five thousand years ago, fifty centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, they always have a baby.  That’s wrong.  And so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.

We have to say, Nye is correct that passing laws based on a belief that every sex act produces a child would be inconsistent with nature.  Unfortunately for him, we can’t fathom how any real person existing in the real world could honestly believe that.  Certainly any person who has had sex before, unless rather implausible odds are at play, knows that even unprotected sex often doesn’t produce fertilized eggs, whether or not they implant.  Nor does the Bible teach this in any of its 66-75 books.  We don’t expect Nye to have read the Bible cover-to-cover to figure this out for himself, but we do hope he would consult a slightly more authoritative source on Christian teaching than Monty Python.

Furthermore, we have here the fallacy of chronological snobbery, discounting the (wrongly characterized) testimony of something just because it is very old and dates from a time when plenty of beliefs were held that we now know to be factually unsupportable.  We know there are quite a few Christians who do take the Bible as a science textbook, and we agree they are wrong to do so.  But Nye doesn’t focus his critique on what the Bible teaches – he even concedes that he’s critiquing an interpretation rather than the book itself – but on the fact that it is so old, which in itself is neither here nor there.

It’s hard not to get frustrated with this, everybody.  I know – nobody likes abortion, okay?  But you can’t tell somebody what to do.  I mean, she has rights over this.  Especially if she doesn’t like the guy who got her pregnant.  Like, she doesn’t want anything to do with your genes.  Get over it.  Especially if she were raped and all this.  So, it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side.

We choose not to get sidetracked by the fact that law, of its very nature, tells people what they can and cannot do, and that this is precisely the lawmaker’s job.  Nor do we want to go down the rabbit hole of sexual ethics (though when it comes to preventing conception from rape, this article is worth looking at).  We do want observe that Nye here explicitly places himself “on the outside, on the other side” from the caricature of mainstream Christian thought, the straw man he has built for the purpose of this argument.  We also want to observe that it’s been quite a while now since Nye mentioned anything truly scientific, derived from empirical observation or experimentation.  A discussion that started with confusion over medical and legal categories has turned into something of a rant about telling people what to do.

We have so many more important things to be dealing with.  We have so many more problems.  To squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding – it’s very frustrating.

At least he’s bringing up the science again, though we’re no closer now to truly understanding the science as he has presented it or exactly how it’s relevant than we were up at the top.   And “squander resources” is an odd phrase to use here, as though if we all just agreed to let abortion be we’d be a lot closer to solving climate change.  Human endeavor isn’t a zero-sum game.

You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, for medical researchers looking diligently.  You wouldn’t know the process, you wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg – you wouldn’t have that without science.  So then to claim that you know the next step when you obviously don’t, it’s troubling.

We have no idea what Nye is saying here.  That there are no Christian scientists, or at least none who understand the process of conception?  Ah, but we’ve already established Nye’s own confused presentation of conception and implantation.  It seems that Nye’s point is simply that “science” – which apparently here means technological advances that allow us to observe very tiny things, and people who know how to do it – is how we know more about the process of conception than people fifty centuries ago did.  Which is true, and also irrelevant.

The only way these comments make sense in his argument is if he assumes that the anti-abortion legislators, or pro-lifers in general, or perhaps even his caricature Christians in general, don’t do science and know nothing about it.  But even then, what does he mean by “the next step”?  Presumably the point about implantation being necessary to gestate a human; but being a human and being a gestating human are not the same category, as we already said, and Nye seems to have a blind spot on this.  And that’s troubling.

Okay, let me do that again.  Let me just pull back.

If you haven’t watched the video, Nye is shaking off some frustration that he’s built up during that rant.  Maybe his argument will get more coherent from now on.

At some point we have to respect the facts.  Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective.  Just being objective here.  Closing abortion clinics, not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies.  I mean, I think we all know that.

Nope.  Instead we have another non sequitur into sex education and contraception legislation.  Let’s just move on.

And I understand that you have deeply held beliefs, and it really is ultimately out of respect for people, in this case your perception of unborn people.  I understand that.  But I really encourage you to look at the facts.  And I know people are now critical of the expression “fact-based.”  But what’s wrong with that?

So if you listen to Nye’s tone of voice, it’s clear that he really is trying to extend an olive branch to believers; it looks more condescending on paper than it sounds in the video.  But here’s his assumption again that “fact-based” and “faith-based” have some diametrical opposition to each other.  We happen to be believers, and also to be completely on board with the fact-based results of scientific inquiry.  Nye’s inability to envision someone in our position is insulting.  And anyway, we’ve repeatedly said that his “fact-based” account doesn’t establish the argument he needs to make his point.

So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do, and not pursue these laws that really are in nobody’s best interest.  Just really be objective about this.  We have other problems to solve, everybody.  Come on.  Come on.  Let’s work together.

We wonder what Nye means by “best interest.”  Scientifically?  Ethically?  In terms of public health, or individual health?  Since we’re limiting ourselves to the logical problems here, we don’t want to take on the ethical implications of the philosophical debate on personhood, though those of us who accept the argument that human-hood is coextensive with personhood would certainly say that abortion restrictions are in unborn humans’ best interest.  But here’s the thing: those who buy into this philosophical argument and those who don’t are both being objective about the scientific facts.  Facts alone don’t make an argument, anyway; they need to be paired with a philosophy that gives them order and argumentative shape.  Science tells what and how things happen; it cannot tell us what is right or wrong – moral categories Nye does accept, though he seems from other videos to consider them as products of societal evolution rather than as natural laws.

Nye must not simply write off believers as being uninformed or unserious about the biological facts.  It’s simply not true for many believers, and Nye seems to be chronically misinformed about the ways in which many Jews and Christians fully accept the findings of scientific progress and harmonize them with the tenets of their faith.

In the unlikely chance that Nye ever sees this post: Bill, we encourage you to take another shot at the argument you made in this video.  You built your reputation on being able to explain concepts in ways children can understand, and we think you owe it to your fan base, the future scientists and legislators of our society, to set aside all the non sequiturs and fallacious appeals and make a truly logical case.  We also encourage you to take the time to learn the most rationally coherent versions of why the “other side” believes what it believes, so that if you decide to make an argument against ignorance again, you can start from firmer ground.