KSJ Tracker August 29, 2012

Bill Nye Attacks Creationism - Says We Need Engineers. What's The Connection?

There are plenty of reasons not to teach kids creationism as science – the primary ones being that creationism is devoid of scientific merit, and it's nutty. So when Bill Nye the science guy posted something on CNN’s website urging parents not to impose creationism on their kids, I was surprised with one of his reasons: “We need engineers that can build stuff and solve problems," he said. He made the same plea on a widely circulated video.

Of course we need engineers, but is there any evidence that creationism prevents people from becoming engineers, or that it interferes with the ability of engineers to do good engineering?

Nye ended his plea to parents by saying that there’s no evidence for creationism. What I want to know is whether there’s any evidence that creationism is bad for engineering. If we’re going to take people to task for believing unfounded things, we should be rigorous about it.

Creationist belief doesn’t prevent people from being engineers. A number of engineers espouse creationism, after all. For all I know they may be perfectly good engineers. Some creationist engineers have already bragged about their techie prowess in ever-growing comments sections following stories about Nye’s speech.

Yes, many of these engineers believe in Intelligent Design – but is there any reason to think this gussied up form of creationist pseudoscience is any better than the old fashioned Biblical version?  So-called ID allows for the right age of the Earth, but the concept behind it is still wrong, badly motivated and antithetical to scientific inquiry.  

Some chemists are creationists as well. This uncomfortable topic came up at last week’s meeting of the American Chemical Society during a talk by Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education. She said that there are a disproportionate number of evolution deniers among chemists when compared to other types of scientists.

She attributed this to the fact that chemistry has no historical component, so it’s possible to be good at chemistry and still believe magical beings brought about the origin of the world and humanity. (I wrote about this in my Philly.com blog here). Many of us know artists, poets and designers who are skilled and creative and also believe in goofball things. Scientists and engineers can be creative, and they’re often pretty narrowly focused. They don’t necessarily have to see the big picture so solve their chosen puzzles.   

The Nye comments made me think of a chapter in Michael Shermer’s recent book The Believing Brain.  Shermer, who founded Skeptic Magazine, writes about encountering Kary Mullis at a party. Mullis, who is a Nobel laureate, regaled Shermer with his enthusiastic embrace of astrology, ESP, several AIDS-related conspiracy theories. Despite all this seeming lunacy, Mullis made one of the most important discoveries in biology – polymerase chain reaction – which has become essential in all kinds of biomedical research and DNA forensics.

That’s not to say that loony beliefs are good – only that people who hold them may not be the threat to competitiveness they’ve been made out to be. There’s a long history of technical innovation in America and also a long history of religious crack pottery, after all.

We journalists are the ones who should have our eyes on the big picture and the larger truth. That’s our obligation. All brands of creationism that masquerade as science pollute the scientific enterprise and hinder humanity’s efforts to understand the universe and our place in it. Whether these beliefs also prevent techie types from designing better car engines or solar panels or bridges is not so clear. If we’re going to say it’s the case, we should offer some evidence. 


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