In 2014, Bill Nye and Ken Ham debated about…the role of evolution in modern society? I don’t really know; it was a deliberately vague topic. And I surprised a lot of friends by judging that, from a purely rhetorical standpoint, I thought Ham had debated better. This wasn’t to say he changed my mind—I saw the gaping holes in his arguments. I just felt that Nye didn’t really understand them and failed to close the deal while Ham exploited that fact expertly. I felt the same way watching this (old) video of Nye talking about abortion:
Okay, let’s take the key chunks of this.
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 the womb. But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is, if you’re going to say that when an egg is fertilized it therefore has the same rights as an idividual, who are you going to sue? Who are you going to imprison? Every woman who has had a fertilized egg pass through them?
Say it with me: The anti-choice and pro-choice positions are not scientifically falsifiable.
The argument that life begins at conception has nothing to do with the uterine wall and everything to do with souls. Because from a scientific standpoint the concept of a soul is meaningless*, science is necessarily silent on the issue. When Nye points to implantation as a necessary ingredient for viability, he is nominally correct. But non-implantation is not, under this schema, murder. It is an act of God, akin to an 8-year-old child dying of heart defect. God works in mysterious ways. Nye is not answering the thornier question of purposeful abortion, nor could he use science to answer it.
I am a vehemently pro-choice atheist. I believe that every woman should be allowed to choose an abortion, especially during the first two trimesters. I also do not believe in any God or Gods or the soul. I therefore untroubled by the theological question of abortion, and indeed all theological questions. I have reasons—non-scientific ones!—for why I don’t think abortion is the same as murder. They obviously do not persuade everyone.
To see this problem in a different way, Nye makes a comment later in the video about sexual education. He is correct that abstinence only education does worse at preventing teenagers from having sex than full sexual education—and that is why I support it. And it is true that a lot of people have convinced themselves of the opposite. But the truth is that if you accept the fact that abstinence only prevents teenage sexual activity, you still have to deal with the dilemma that creates for those who believe sex before marriage is immoral. Communities must either prepare their children to sin or increase the number of their children who sin. It is the weirdest formulation of the Trolley Problem I have ever encountered. I agree with Nye, not only because of the scientific evidence, but because I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with teenagers having sex.
There are probably a small number of people who would change their views if they better understood the science underlying some of these value judgments. Further, on principle, I support correcting the scientific record. Finally, insofar as Nye’s points address some of the badly worded bills, I am with him. But I think it is deeply misinformed to think that the main issue is scientific illiteracy rather than a metaphysical disagreement.
But Nye has never shown much understanding of philosophy.
*Not non-existent. Meaningless. There is no way to check for the presence of metaphysical objects by physical means, so you cannot credibly point to material science to comment on them. If you could, they would be physical!