More on Bill Nye’s market-based defense of science

Someone started a reddit thread about my post last week on the Ken Ham v. Bill Nye debate. The user hpyhpyjoyjoy brought to my attention that Nye has promoted Bill Gates’ philanthropic projects, in particular his Foundation’s effort to eradicate disease among poor people. Hpyhpyjoyjoy writes:

“Nye was shilling for Bill Gates in his Gates Foundation newsletter not too long ago. The ‘science’ contained therein intimated that infectious disease was a static slice of a pie chart to be whittled away by triumphal government-corporate agencies. A creationism of static bacterial and viral kinds, ironically.”

Below is another example of Nye in one of the Gates Foundation’s promotional videos attempting to “dispel poverty myths” about disease:

Let me be clear. In criticizing Nye’s form of “science education,” I don’t mean “we” ought to accept Ken Ham’s Biblical literalism, nor do I believe “we” can just ignore the suffering of children in Africa. But who is this “we”?

I can’t help but cringe when Nye defends his white man’s burden to use techno-science to solve all Africa’s problems. Its the old Enlightenment myth about Western science conquering the darkness of nature, rationalizing it, economizing it, making it cleaner and more efficient. Nye’s image of science hasn’t yet shaken off its colonialist presumptions. His scientific materialism functions as an apology for American imperialism and the global capitalist system it supports.

Ham’s creationism is no better. His fundamentalist brand of Christianity can only function in the context of consumer capitalism, where one buys into this or that personal belief system like one wears Nikes, Reeboks, or Adidas. The credal product Ham is selling is extremely attractive in today’s unstable and anxiety provoking marketplace. Unlike so many of the other belief systems or world views operating among various populations of postmodern society, Young Earth Creationism has the benefit of being the one and only such system that offers its adherents complete certainty due to the fact that it is unquestionably true (at least for those who buy into it). “The world was created by a transcendent God several thousand years ago; it was perfect until Man sinned; but as long as I believe in God and His revealed Word (literally interpreted), I will be saved.” All of life’s confusion explained, all its suffering assuaged, just like that.

Scientism is another popular belief system providing its adherents with certainty about the way the world really is. It may not save souls by assuring them safe passage to heaven; but by dissolving the very idea of the soul it allows its adherents to enact different fantasy, that of improved bodily comfort through endless technological progress (a sort of heaven on earth). Scientism should be distinguished from the method(s) of science and the always re-interpretable body of scientific knowledge this method leaves in its wake. Nye does not strike me as an especially dogmatic believer in Scientism (unlike, say, Dawkins or Krauss). He seems to conceive of science as a disciplined process of discovery whereby the more you know the more you know you don’t know. I am not opposed to this description of science, but I do think it is partial: it leaves out the constructive side of its endeavors. The enactive epistemology I’d want to defend implies that all our knowing dwells in the tensionality between discovery and creation. Science doesn’t simply mirror an objective nature more or less accurately. Science is always wed to technology, to certain ways of intervening upon the natural flux, of actively resisting its given resistances. The implications of this marriage include the fact that the scientific project can never be “value free,” and that certain kinds of techno-science, like that deployed in service of the values of global capitalism, can have dire social and ecological consequences. Nye is better than some others, but he falls prey to the myth of the Enlightenment when he characterizes techno-science as a “fight against myth.” Science is not a fight against myth; rather, it brings forth a new kind of myth. Eric Voegelin warns of the “serious consequences for the stability both of personality and society” that emerge with the Enlightenment belief that humans might be made free of myth. Voegelin continues (excerpted from Volume 16 of the Collected Works, Plato and Aristotle):

“The model of positive science destroys the understanding of the myth for the past as well as for the present. With regard to the myth of the past the symbols and dogmas that have grown historically will be misunderstood as concepts and verifiable propositions and will inevitably be found of doubtful value. The symbols of the myth are cut off, through this attitude, from their basis in the unconscious and are required to legitimate themselves as if they were propositions concerning objects. The myth is erroneously supposed to be meant ‘literally’ instead of symbolically, and consequently appears as naïve or superstitious. With regard to the myth of the present the result is equally destructive. The myth has a fundamental function in human existence and myths will be created no matter what anybody thinks about them. We cannot overcome the myth, we can only misunderstand it. With regard to the contemporary myth, of the eighteenth century and after, the positivist misunderstanding has the consequence that the mythical symbols are claimed to be what the symbols of the past are charged not to be, that is, ‘science’ or ‘theory.’ Such symbols as ‘reason,’ ‘mankind,’ ‘proletariat,’ ‘race,’ ‘communist society,’ ‘world-peace,’ and so forth, are supposed to be different in nature from pagan or Christian symbols because their mythical truth is covered and obscured by the superimposition of the additional myth of science. Since the myth does not cease to be myth because somebody believes it to be science, the telescoping of myth and science has a peculiar warping effect on the personality of the believers. As long as the movements of the unconscious are allowed to express themselves in myth in free recognition of their nature, the soul of man preserves its openness toward its cosmic ground. The terror of an infinitely overpowering, as well as the reassurance of an infinitely embracing, beyond as the matrix of separate, individual existence, endow the soul with its more-than-human dimension; and through the acceptance of the truth of this dimension (that is, through faith) the separateness of human existence can, in its turn, be recognized and tolerated in its finiteness and limitations…When the balance of openness and separateness is destroyed through the telescoping of myth and science, the forces of the unconscious will stream into the form, not of the myth, but of theory or science. The symbols of the myth become perverted into intramundane, illusionary objects, ‘given,’ as if they were empirical data, to the cognitive and active functions of man; at the same time the separate, individual existence suffers an illusionary inflation because it absorbs into its form the more-than-human dimension…The powers of man can create a society free from want and fear; the ideas of infinite perfectibility, of the superman, and of self-salvation make their appearance” (241-242).

Nye and Ham would seem to have more in common than the dichotomous framing of their debate suggests. Both misunderstand the mythic dimension of the human unconscious because of over-literalization. Further, the scientific materialism and religious creationism each defends are both complicit in capitalism’s assault on the earth community. Neither world view is sufficient to guide us through the current planetary crisis. Another way is possible. And at least here in America (and in other countries whose cultural unconscious, for better or worse, has been deeply shaped by the Bible), one of the most politically pragmatic ways forward may involve a radicalization of the Christian mythos (see, for example, my essay “Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy”).