UndeNYEably Uninformed

This is the cover of Nye's error-filled book.
The cover of Nye’s error-filled book.
Bill Nye calls himself “The Science Guy,” but he sometimes acts in ways that can only be described as anti-science. For example, in a video he stated that creationism shouldn’t be taught to children. This, of course, is blatantly anti-science, because scientific progress is built on the competition of ideas. If you say that an idea shouldn’t be considered because you don’t like it, you are working against science, not for it. In addition, he narrated a video about global warming that contained a faked experiment! Faking experiments is definitely not pro-science! Nevertheless, Nye obviously loves science, which leads me to wonder why he sometimes acts against it.

After reading Nye’s book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, I think I understand. He simply doesn’t inform himself on scientific issues. As a result, he really doesn’t understand science and doesn’t understand why some of his actions are so anti-science. Consider, for example, what he writes about kids who are taught creationism:

Not only that, these kids will never feel the joy of discovery that science brings. (p.10)

This, of course, is demonstrably false. Had Nye bothered to inform himself about kids who are taught creationism, he would find that they often do better in science than their peers who were not taught creationism. In addition, he would have learned that many kids who were taught creationism are now studying science at the university level or are already professional scientists. I have several students, for example, who say that the reason they decided to become scientists was because of my creationist textbooks (see here and here, for example)!

Of course, the fact that Nye is utterly uninformed about creationism leads to all sorts of problems with his book, which I have detailed in the PDF document at the end of this review. What really surprised me, however, is that his book shows that he hasn’t really informed himself about the science related to evolution, either. As a result, much of what he says in the book is utterly false.

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Science and History Synchronized…Sort of

This painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael is called The School of Athens.  Plato and Aristotle are at the center.
This painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael is called The School of Athens.
Plato and Aristotle are at the center.

I have been writing an elementary science series that introduces science topics in roughly chronological order. Currently, two of the books are available, and the third is being printed as I type these words. The fourth is finished and is currently being reviewed by two science PhDs and one historian. I have just one more to write.

Now that I am near the end of the series, my publisher came up with a great idea. Since there are some excellent history courses that homeschoolers use at the elementary level, he suggested that I write a guide which synchronizes my elementary courses to them. That way, if a homeschooling family wants to, they can learn science and history side-by-side. I thought, “How hard can that be?” After all, my science is presented chronologically, and many of these history programs are presented chronologically. It should be easy to synchronize them, right?

Wrong! Science progressed slowly at first and then picked up steam as time went on. As a result, my courses speed through ancient history and the middle ages, slow down a bit in the renaissance, slow down even more in the Age of Reason, and will slow down even more after that. Understandably, this isn’t how most history courses are paced.

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Scientists Are Still Trying To Figure Out Gecko Feet

The underside of a gecko's foot as seen through glass (click for credit)
The underside of a gecko’s foot as seen through glass (click for credit)

Geckos are lizards that have an uncanny ability to crawl on virtually anything. They effortlessly climb up glass windows without slipping, and they can even crawl on a smooth surface when they are upside down! What gives them this incredible ability? A popular chemistry textbook explains it this way:1

…the gecko uses van der Waals forces to attach itself to surfaces and employs a special technique to disengage from that surface. Van der Waals forces exist between any two surfaces, but they are extremely weak unless relatively large areas of of the two surfaces come quite close together. The toe of a gecko is covered with fine hairs, each hair having over a thousand split ends. As the gecko walks across a surface, it presses these stalks of hairs against the surface. The intimate contact of a billion or so split ends of hairs with the surface results in a large, attractive force that holds the gecko fast. Just as easily, a gecko’s foot comes cleanly away. As the gecko walks, its foot naturally bends so the hairs at the back edge of its toes disengage, row after row, until the toe is free.

I have used this explanation myself when lecturing about van der Waals forces. It sounds like scientists have the gecko’s climbing ability all figured out, doesn’t it? Not surprisingly, however, the gecko’s climbing ability is even more complex than we imagined. As a result, scientists still haven’t completely figured it all out.

The best way to understand what I mean is to look at a bit of history. Back in 1904, German scientist H.R. Schmidt thought that perhaps the gecko employed electrical charges to stick to surfaces. After all, opposite charges attract one another, so if a gecko could induce its feet to develop one charge and the surface to develop the opposite charge, the resulting attractive force could hold the feet to the surface.

About three decades later, another German scientist, Wolfgang-Didrich Dellit, did a simple experiment to test that hypothesis. He shot X-rays at the air surrounding a gecko’s feet while it was on a smooth metal wall. Those X-rays should have ionized the air around the gecko’s feet and neutralized any charge on the wall’s surface. This would have negated any electrical force between the gecko’s feet and the wall, and the gecko should have fallen off the wall. However, after repeated attempts, he couldn’t get a gecko to even slip.2 As a result, scientists ruled out the possibility that electrical charges had anything to do with a gecko’s climbing ability.

Dellit also tested other possible explanations, including that geckos used suction to hold to surfaces, and each was ruled out. Eventually, electron microscopes were used to analyze gecko feet. Once the toe hairs and their “split ends” were seen, the van der Waals forces explanation given by the chemistry text I quoted above was suggested. In the year 2000, a study in Nature confirmed the explanation. It directly measured the force of a single hair from a gecko’s foot, confirming that van der Waals forces were at play.3 As a result, van der Waals forces have been considered the complete explanation for a gecko’s remarkable climbing ability…until now.

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Counting To God: Another Atheist Who Became a Christian

Douglas Ell, MIT graduate and former atheist (click for credit)
Douglas Ell, MIT graduate and former atheist
(click for credit)
Douglas Ell graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with degrees in math and chemistry. He then went to the University of Maryland, where he earned a Master’s degree in theoretical mathematics. Not satisfied with only three degrees, he also went to law school and graduated magna cum laude. After that, he began his career as an attorney.

When he was a child, he went to church, but the older he got, the less he believed in God. By the time he was in high school, he wrote to his minister and stated that he no longer believed in God. His minister wrote back and gave him a book to read, but Ell never read it. By the time he got his law degree, he was a full-fledged atheist. In his new book, Counting To God, he describes what he believed at that point in his life:

It seemed you could explain just about everything with logic and science. It seemed God had no place in our modern world. I treated God like a joke. (p. 19)

In his early thirties, Ell had a son, and this caused him and his wife to start attending church. Ell treated it like a social club, but he did notice something: Many of the people in the church he attended (including the minister) had an inner peace that he could sense. He wanted that peace, but didn’t see how he could have it, because he didn’t believe what they believed.

In his mid-forties, a new career opportunity forced him to spend a lot of time on airplanes. As a result, he started reading about science, mathematics, and religion. The more he read, the more he saw a connection between the three. He eventually saw seven specific ways in which science and mathematics support the existence of God:

1. The evidence that the universe had a beginning
2. The apparent “fine tuning” of the universe
3. The complexity of life and our inability to discover a naturalistic explanation for its origin
4. The fantastic, futuristic technology that exists in all of life
5. The mounting evidence against neo-Darwinian evolution
6. The specialness of earth
7. The mathematical nature of the universe

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An Update On The Triceratops Fossil That Contained Soft Tissue

A triceratops skull (click for credit)
A triceratops skull (click for credit)
In March of 2013, I wrote about soft tissue that had been found in the fossilized remains of a Triceratops horridus, which is supposed to be about 65 million years old. One of the scientists who found the tissue and published a paper on it in the peer-reviewed literature1 (Mark Armitage) was subsequently fired from his position at California State University Northridge. He has sued the university, claiming that he was fired because of his religious views. This update isn’t about the lawsuit; I have no knowledge of how that is going. Instead, this update is about the fossil itself.

Samples from the fossil were sent to Dr. Alexander Cherkinsky at the University of Georgia’s Center for Applied Isotope Studies for dating via the carbon-14 dating method. Since the current half-life of carbon-14 is “only” about 5,700 years, there should be no detectable levels of it in the original parts of the fossil, if the fossil is millions of years old. However, Dr. Cherkinsky’s lab found very detectable levels of carbon-14. In fact, there was so much carbon-14 in the fossil that it was given a date of 41,010 ± 220 years.2 This is well within the accepted range of carbon-14 dating, and it is actually younger than other carbon-14 dates reported in the scientific literature.3

While this is an interesting result, it is not as interesting as I would like it to be. I wanted the soft tissue that was found in the fossil to be dated, but it was not. Instead, the fossil’s bioapatite (a mineral found in bone) was dated. According to a 2009 report in the journal Radiocarbon, bioapatite is actually preferable to soft tissue in many cases. As the report states:4

Contamination of the organic fraction in the process of the burial or during museum preservation treatment generally prohibits the use of the collagen fraction for dating. Our investigation has shown that the pretreatment of bone with diluted acetic acid following a proscribed technique allows the separation of the bioapatite fraction from diagenetic carbonates.

Please note that “diagenetic carbonates” refer to contaminants that occur during the fossilization process. The report then gives a method by which original bioapatite can be extracted from a fossil. Dr. Cherkinsky’s lab followed that procedure. Since the lab specifically reported a date for the fossil’s bioapatite, I have to assume that the investigators who actually did the preparation and dating think they were dating the fossil’s original bioapatite, not a mixture of bone and contaminants.

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