Bill Nye Once Again Demonstrates His Ignorance of Basic Science

Bill Nye calls himself the 'Science Guy' but doesn't know much about science. (click for credit)

Bill Nye calls himself the ‘Science Guy’ but doesn’t know much about science.
(click for credit)

Bill Nye has a habit of speaking and writing about things he doesn’t understand. For example, he speaks a lot about global warming but is ignorant of the data related to it. He also narrated a faked experiment about global warming, demonstrating that he doesn’t understand the physics behind the process. He then made an anti-science video regarding creationism and followed that up with an error-riddled book that demonstrates his ignorance of the evolutionary hypothesis. You would think he would learn from his mistakes and at least educate himself about a subject before he makes public statements. However, his latest video shows that he has not.

He opens up the video with a scientific error, stating:

Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova — a lot.

Of course, that is false. According to The Johns Hopkins Manual of Gynecology and Obstetrics,1 30-40 percent of all conceptions end in spontaneous abortion. The National Institutes of Health say that it might be up to 50%. The highest rate of spontaneous abortion occurs with in vitro fertilization, and that rate is nearly 93%.

So, in the normal course of things, maybe as many as half of conceptions end in spontaneous abortion. That means only twice as many eggs are fertilized than children who are born. Even with in vitro fertilization, about 13 times as many eggs are fertilized as children who are born. Bill Nye’s “Many, many, many, many more hundreds” statement has no scientific support whatsoever. Why does he make this false statement? Because he wants to use it to make a claim that is completely bizarre.

After spouting something that has no basis in science, he says:

But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say, if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized, it therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue, whom are you going to imprison, every woman who has 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?

Think about what he is suggesting. He is trying to say that when a woman loses a baby through no fault of her own, it is equivalent to when a woman goes to a “doctor” and tells the “doctor” to kill her baby. That, of course, is nonsense. It’s like saying that the mother whose son dies of cancer should be sued or imprisoned! We don’t sue or imprison people for events over which they have no control! The mother who suffers a spontaneous abortion isn’t at fault for her child’s death. The mother who tells her “doctor” to kill her baby is directly at fault for her baby’s death, as is the “doctor.”

Nye then goes on to suggest that men are responsible for wanting to outlaw abortion:

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.

What he would have found had he done even a bit of investigation is that the majority of women in the U.S. are pro-life. Indeed, the latest poll I have seen says that 57% of women are in favor of making abortion illegal in most circumstances, while only 40% are in favor of making it legal in most circumstances. It’s ironic that Bill Nye is demonstrating his own ignorance while calling others ignorant!

Towards the end of his video, Nye says the following:

But I really encourage you to look at the facts…

I absolutely agree. Where would you go to learn the facts? What about a textbook on embryology? In The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, we read:2

Human development begins at fertilization, when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, the zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell (capable of giving rise to any cell type) marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual. [emphasis in original]

Science, therefore, tells us that human life begins at conception. Of course, if Nye doesn’t like to get his information from textbooks, he could read what a world-renowned geneticist has to say on the subject. Dr. Jermoe L. LeJeune was the brilliant geneticist who first demonstrated a link between certain diseases and chromosomal abnormalities. While testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee, he said:3

To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.

I truly hope Bill Nye takes his own advice and learns the facts related to human life. If he does, he will find that a pro-choice position is simply inconsistent with the scientific evidence. See here and here for more scientific data related to this very important topic.

REFERENCES

1. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, K. Joseph Hurt, Matthew W. Guile, Jessica L. Bienstock, Harold E. Fox, Edward E. Wallach, The Johns Hopkins Manual of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Lippincot, Williams and Wilkins 2011, p. 438
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2. Keith L. Moore, T. V. N. Persaud, and Mark G. Torchia, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology 10th edition, Elsevier 2016, p. 11
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3. as quoted in Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, Baker, 1989, p. 149.
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21 Comments

  1. AB says:

    Could he have included (gross as it is) eggs that are used in testing, or are frozen?

    1. jlwile says:

      I don’t see how, AB. Artificial fertilization is incredibly rare compared to natural fertilization. If you include all human embryos ever used in any artificial processes, you still wouldn’t come close to the number of human embryos that are formed naturally.

  2. Chad Rainey says:

    He is just an actor and a bad one. Why is anyone taking him seriously? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e6h4zLC5U8

    1. jlwile says:

      That’s a clip from “Almost Live.” It was my first exposure to Bill Nye.

      1. Chad Rainey says:

        ha ha me as well!

  3. Just Me says:

    I had a very heated debate with a woman friend who accused me of this same thing: because I oppose abortion I want to criminalize any woman who has had a miscarriage or still birth. Furthermore, she accused me of getting all my information from pro-life web sources and haven’t done my own “non-partisan” research. It seems like she herself quotes Bill Nye!

  4. Julia says:

    There’s no way of knowing how many fertilized eggs never implant. My suspicion, because of my own personal experience, is that the number is higher than anyone is aware. However, there is no way to know. Still, in order for a woman to have hundreds more fertilized eggs spontaneously abort, she would have to be conceiving almost every cycle of her life.

    A spontaneous abortion and a medical abortion are different by definition. There isn’t any logic in trying to link acts of man with acts of nature.

  5. Thanks for your fine post, Dr. Wile! 🙂

    By the way:

    1. “Spontaneous abortions” is a very vague or at least broad category. It basically includes any miscarriage from conception to “viable gestational age” which in turn could mean a number of things and could theoretically change with better medical science and technology.

    2. The most important risk factor for spontaneous abortions is maternal age: age 20 (9%), age 30 (17%), age 35 (20%), age 40 (40%), and age 45 (80%) (Andersen et al, “Maternal age and fetal loss: population based register linkage study” in the British Medical Journal 2000, 320:1708).

  6. Benjamin A. Tagle says:

    Dr. Wile, I believe you are misreading Mr. Nye’s opening statement. Looking at the video, it does not appear that Mr. Nye is claiming that “a” woman can have many hundreds of spontaneous abortions. Rather he appears to be speaking in broader terms.

    Take the statistics that you provide. Starting with the low end of the statistic, let’s say that 30% of all conceptions abort spontaneously. Now, there are 7 billion people on earth give or take. Let’s say half are women (3 billion, conservatively), and that 1/3 of these are of reproductive age (1 billion). Finally, let’s say that 1/10 of these women (100 million) are in a sexual relationship. I’d say that we can both agree that this is a super-conservative estimate of the number of women in a situation where they can conceivably conceive (pardon the pun). 30% of 100 million is 30 million, which is certainly in the neighborhood of “many, many, many, many more hundreds” that Mr. Nye claims.
    While it is true that no single woman will spontaneously abort many hundreds of times over her lifetime, it is also true that Mr. Nye was not making this claim.

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for suggesting that, Benjamin. It is possible I am misreading his statement, but even if I am, the statement is still wrong. 30 million isn’t anywhere close to “many, many, many, many more hundreds.” In fact, “hundreds” is ten thousand times less than millions. Thus, if he meant to compare the total number of fertilized eggs to the total number of births, his statement should have been “many, many, many, many more hundreds of thousands.” Regardless of how you interpret his words, they indicate that he has no idea what the real numbers are.

  7. David MacMillan says:

    I think you may have missed a word…or, more accurately, assumed a word was there when it wasn’t.

    Nye didn’t say that there were many, many, many, many more hundreds of times more eggs that are fertilized than become humans. He said that many^4 more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans, period. He’s not quoting a ratio; he’s quoting a difference.

    There may be something we missed, either in post-production or in the trimming-down of the lines themselves. The original line was probably something like, “There are almost three hundred thousand people born every day. But there are many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs fertilized each day than become people.” In other words, it’s close to 50% (within the range of research) but the edge ultimately goes to miscarriages/missed implantation.

    Either way, his point stands. There are 100 million births each year and roughly 22 billion ovulations each year. If just 1% of those ovulations results in the fertilization of the ova, then there were billions upon billions more fertilized eggs than there were live births over the course of human history…particularly considering the effects of modern medicine.

    And that ought to be challenging if you really believe that every fertilization event represents the complete inception of a new human person. Because it means that there are billions upon billions more human persons who weren’t born than who were.

    1. jlwile says:

      This has been explored in a previous comment, David, and either way you interpret it, Nye is demonstrating his ignorance of the science. As I said before, if he is not talking about the ratio of fertilized eggs to live births, then his statement should have been “many, many, many, many more hundreds of thousands.” Either way, he is simply dead wrong. You can make up hypothetical quotes to try to excuse the error, but as stated, it is clearly an error.

      Of course, there is no reason to assume that 1% of ovulations result in fertilizations. As discussed in the paper, we have good estimates for the number of fertilizations that don’t lead to live births, and it might be up to 50%. Thus, as mentioned in the article, there might be up to as many spontaneous abortions as there are live births.

      And, of course, his point doesn’t stand, because he uses that incorrect statement to claim that women who spontaneously abort should be punished, if we are saying a fertilized egg represents a person. That is a nonsensical claim, as discussed in the article.

      Finally, even supposing that your incorrect approximation is somehow correct, it presents no challenge to the scientific fact that a fertilized egg represents a person. It just shows how dire the effects of the Fall are!

      1. David MacMillan says:

        There’s no need to denounce someone as ignorant of science simply because they make a potentially unclear statement. Now, Nye DOES bill himself as a science educator, so perhaps we should give him a hard time for poor communication, but there’s no need to jump to the conclusion that he is ignorant or unintelligent.

        There are quite a few different ways of comparing the number of conceived embryos to the number of live births. You can take the ratio of total fertilizations to live births (between 4:3 and 2:1), or you can take the ratio of failed fertilizations to live births (between 1:3 and 1:1), or you can take the difference of total fertilizations and live births over an arbitrary time period (between 80,000 and 340,000 each day). All of these are equally valid ways of representing the values involved, and it would seem that the last approach is probably what Nye was employing.

        A lot of people probably don’t realize that at least 80,000 embryos spontaneously abort (or fail to implant) every single day. While this might not have any impact on some people’s approach view of whether an embryo is a realized human person or simply a potential human person, it might make other people stop and think. Which is what Nye was apparently wanting.

        And, sadly, it’s not terribly off-base for Nye to raise the issue of consequences for spontaneous abortion. If every single one of those ~100 million embryos each year represents a human being with full legal rights, then one might imagine that we SHOULD be opening inquiries. Was it REALLY accidental/spontaneous? Did she know she was pregnant? Did she have a few drinks the night before? Maybe it’s not murder, but can we still get her for manslaughter or negligent homicide? These are actually pretty legitimate questions.

        1. jlwile says:

          I am not denouncing Bill Nye as ignorant because of a “potentially unclear statement.” It is a clearly false statement, and it adds to the list of ignorant statements he has made on a wide variety of scientific topics, as detailed in the links at the beginning of this post.

          Nye doesn’t mention anything about a time period in his statement, which is why the most likely thing he means is a ratio between total fertilizations and live births. If you are comparing something over a time frame, anyone with even a small amount of scientific knowledge would understand it is important to mention what the time frame is! Once again, then, his statement is simply wrong, no matter how you attempt to help him out of it.

          I agree that it is not off-base to raise the issue of consequences for spontaneous abortion, because since science clearly tells us that a fertilized egg is a human being, we should exercise the utmost care in protecting children who have not yet been born. However, the key is that the mother needs to know that she is pregnant. In the vast majority of spontaneous abortion cases, that isn’t true. We don’t prosecute anyone for situations over which they have no control. Nye doesn’t make that distinction. Once again, a very ignorant way to discuss the issue.

        2. David MacMillan says:

          Not to get too far off-base, but this would seem to suggest that in cases where a woman DOES know she is pregnant, she must be charged with child endangerment for engaging in any activities that raise the risk of miscarriage or fetal harm, and must be charged with negligent homicide if she engages in such activities prior to a miscarriage.

        3. jlwile says:

          Do we currently charge people who allow their children to become obese with negligent homicide when the children die of an obesity-related illness? I know you can’t defend Nye with science, but I won’t let you misdirect the conversation with absurdities. What we should do is accept the scientific fact that a fertilized egg is the beginning of human life and, as a result, protect that innocent life as much as we protect the innocent lives of children who were allowed to live long enough to be born.

        4. David MacMillan says:

          “Do we currently charge people who allow their children to become obese with [negligence]?”

          This may come as a shock, but…yes. We do. And for good reason: there is ample scientific evidence that obesity is highly preventable, and allowing your child to develop an extremely dangerous and entirely preventable health condition is indeed gross negligence and child endangerment.

          It’s not an absurdity at all. Either you believe that embryos have identical legal rights to newborns, or you don’t. In the former case, any actions taken by a mother which could endanger a fetus should be treated as neglect and endangerment, and every single known miscarriage should be treated with the exact same legal response as instances of SIDS. After all, that’s essentially what happens in countries where abortion is illegal.

          And Nye isn’t, technically, wrong. You’re the person who taught me how significant figures work, after all…and while “many, many, many, many hundreds” may be a poor way of describing 80,000/day or 30 million/yr, it’s still technically correct.

        5. jlwile says:

          In your rush to defend the indefensible, David, you might have missed a couple of salient points in the article you linked:

          1) There was no death in the article. I asked, “Do we currently charge people who allow their children to become obese with negligent homicide when the children die of an obesity-related illness?” Since there is no death in the article, this doesn’t address my question at all.

          2) The article specifically says, “it is important to stress that intervention at this level is very rare and will only occur where other attempts to protect the child have been unsuccessful.” Now, I would think that even the most heartless individual would agree that if doctors have tried to protect an unborn child but the mother continues to endanger the child, some intervention should take place. Are you saying that if a doctor examines a fetus, determines a problem, and then later on sees that the mother seems to be exacerbating the problem, nothing should be done? I certainly hope not!

          Also, please note what I specifically said in my response to you: “What we should do is accept the scientific fact that a fertilized egg is the beginning of human life and, as a result, protect that innocent life as much as we protect the innocent lives of children who were allowed to live long enough to be born.” Thus, I have no problem with a known pregnancy that results in miscarriage being treated like a SIDS case. I would once again point out, however, that in your rush to defend the indefensible, you linked a story that has nothing to do with SIDS. It is the same story you linked in a previous response.

          And yes, Nye is wrong, no matter how you look at it. I might have taught you significant figures, but you didn’t seem to learn them. The zeroes in 80,000 are not significant. Thus, 80,000 + 900 = 80,000, because many, many, many, many hundreds is insignificant compared to 80,000. So significant figures clearly tell us that “many, many, many, many hundreds” is an absolutely incorrect way to describe 80,000, much less 30,000,000!

          Also, since we are discussing high school chemistry, I might remind you of one other thing you should have learned in that class (and junior high school physical science, for that matter). The unit is just as important as the number. If Nye had wanted to discuss the number of fertilizations per day compared to the number of live births per day, he should have listed his unit (per day). In the same way, If he had wanted to discuss the number of fertilizations per year compared to the number of live births per year, he should have listed his unit (per year). Even a high school student knows that. This is, of course, why I assumed Nye was talking about the ratio of fertilizations per live birth. If you take the ratio, the time unit cancels, and it therefore should not be listed. In other words, I assumed Nye was speaking scientifically. Of course, based on his track record, I should have known better!

          But even if he meant “per day,” he is wrong for two reasons: (1) significant figures tell us that many, many, many, many hundreds is insignificant compared to 80,000 and (2) He didn’t list his unit, which means on a high school chemistry test, his answer would be counted as wrong. Do you really want to continue to defend that kind of ignorance of basic science?

      2. David MacMillan says:

        P.S.

        Before you laugh such questions off, consider that there are countries in the world RIGHT NOW where pregnant women are forced to choose between death and potential imprisonment if they need life-saving medical treatment which could conceivably cause a spontaneous abortion like the Dominican Republic.

        If embryos (implanted or not) are fully human persons deserving equal protection under the law, then any pregnant woman who takes actions which could potentially increase the risk of miscarriage or fetal harm (smoking, drinking alcohol, exercising strenuously, overeating, undereating, consuming deli meat, etc.) ought to be charged with child endangerment, and every mother who miscarries after engaging in such activities ought to be charged with negligent homicide.

  8. Tim says:

    I take issue with one of your last statements, Dr. Wile. I don’t see how any kind of (literally) pro-choice argument is incompatible with science or even a pro-life stance. It is up to the woman to decide whether or not to keep her baby. I think the right choice is to keep the baby at any cost, but it isn’t my choice to make. It’s time to stop calling pro-abortion “pro-choice.”

    1. jlwile says:

      I tend to agree with you, Tim. However, I try to give the people with whom I disagree the courtesy of using their own words when I reference their position.