Irony: Bill Nye uses a philosophical argument to disparage philosophy

Amused and disappointed. This is how I felt when I saw Bill Nye’s Q&A posted on YouTube on the 23rd of February 2016. In it, the Science Guy, as he is known to my generation, tried to criticize philosophy using a well-known philosophical argument. I was amused because seeing people make fools of themselves is, admittedly, entertaining. I was also disappointed because abject ignorance is discouraging, particularly when displayed by otherwise intelligent people.

There is a lot wrong with Mr. Nye’s entire tirade, but, for brevity, I will focus on the most egregious: the irony of using a philosophical idea to claim that philosophy doesn’t offer meaningful ideas. In the video, Mr. Nye says: “[philosophy] doesn’t always give an answer that’s surprising; it doesn’t always lead you to some place that is inconsistent with common sense.” These two sentences demonstrate how uninformed Mr. Nye is, because he is actually paraphrasing philosopher of science Imre Lakatos. In 1973, Lakatos proposed that a fundamental difference between scientific and pseudo-scientific theories was their ability to lead to unexpected, stunning, novel facts. Before Lakatos, theories were considered scientific as long as they were logically sound, supported by evidence, and, importantly, vulnerable to evidence against it (i.e., refutable).2 For Lakatos, however, this wasn’t enough; to be truly scientific, theories should also imply novel, surprising predictions that turn out to be true (i.e., empirically verified). Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, has led to the discovery of astonishing, novel facts like black holes.3 Now a common place among scientists and science enthusiasts, black holes were considered and anomaly at the time. Even Einstein doubted that nature could produce such an “aberration.”4 Decades later, in 1971, the first black hole was discovered.5

Lakatos’ proposition, in itself novel and contrary to common sense at the time, has become a pillar of the modern scientific enterprise and it often guides us scientists in our efforts to learn something new about the universe. In other words, it has become standard practice in scientific circles. Perhaps this is the reason Mr. Nye invokes this idea while being unaware that it was conceived by a philosopher.

I have dedicated these paragraphs to comment on Mr. Nye ‘s Big Think Q&A, because there is an important lesson for us science communicators: there are times when one should decline to comment and when it is best to concede that one knows very little about a particular subject. Otherwise, we risk loosing the trust of our audience and, thus, doing a disservice to them and to the scientific community.

References

  1. Lakatos I. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. New York, NY;  Cambridge University Press: 1989.
  2. Popper K. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, NY; Routledge: 2002
  3. Taylor N. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. In Space.com https://www.space.com/17661-theory-general-relativity.html. Accessed: 23rd of August 2017.
  4. Stillman D. Einstein and Beyond. In NASA Education. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/F_Einstein_5-8.html. Accessed: 24rd of August 2017.
  5. Tayor N. Black Holes: Facts, Theory & Definition. In Space.com. https://www.space.com/15421-black-holes-facts-formation-discovery-sdcmp.html. Accessed: 24rd of August 2017.