Evolution on the O'Reilly Factor
Bill O'Reilly decided to weigh in on matters evolutionary yesterday. The opening segment of his show dealt with whether ID should be introduced in science classes. To his credit, O'Reilly had a real scientist representing the evolution side: Bilogist Michael Grant of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
O'Reilly, of course, is famous for combining maximum arrogance with maximum ignorance. The fact that he knows nothing at all about biology does not stop him from making pronouncements with the utmost confidence.
The transcript of the segment does not seem to be available online, so I am doing this from memory.
The interview started off badly and got worse (oh, so much worse) from there. O'Reilly threw out his opening gambit, which was something about how some people look at the complexity of nature and see evidence for design, and why shouldn't this be mentioned in science classes. He threw in some gratuitous references to the Big Bang and whatnot, indicating that like most right-wing commentators he was thinking of evolution as some sort of metaphysical theory of everything as opposed to a humble finding of biology about the development of life once it appears. Sigh. This was actually the most intelligent thing O'Reilly said during the entire segment.
Grant replied calmly that the science classroom is not the appropriate place for such talk and that biology classes should deal with biology, not theology.
At this point, the interview was still taking place on planet Earth. It wasn't long, however, before O'Reilly sent things careening off into The Twilight Zone. He said something like “Now evolutionary science is incomplete, is that correct?”
Grant, no doubt sensing a trap but thinking he was still on planet Earth, replied that all science was incomplete of course.
But O'Reilly was ready for that one. “That isn't true!” he snarled. “Let me give you an example. There are twenty-four hours in a day. Okay. That's settled science. There are four seasons in a year.” Zing! He went on from there about how evolution wasn't like that.
I'm not very good at reading faces, but I'm pretty sure Grant couldn't quite believe he had actually heard something so stupid. He was probably longing for a really intelligent question, like “Will this be on the test?”
Of course, what O'Reilly was trying to say was that there are facts in life and there are theories, and evolution is definitely the latter. I won't rehash here all the ways in which that idea is misguided.
There was some more crosstalk during which O'Reilly made a bit of a slip. I think Grant had said something about science dealing with the natural world and confining itself to naturalistic explanations that can be verified by amassing data. Somewhere in here O'Reilly remarked that “I'm not talking about teaching the Bible. I'm not talking about Genesis or all that Adam and Eve no-” and then cut himself off before he could finish the word “nonsense.” He would have received some interesting e-mail had he completed the sentence.
Throughout the segment it was unclear what, exactly, O'Reilly wanted. It sounded like he would have been happy if every science teacher simply stated at some point in their lesson that some people look at the complexity of nature and conclude that there must have been a designer. At the beginning of the segment he defined Intelligent Design as simply the idea that there is some sort of supernatural intelligence at work in the universe. He never specifically endorsed irreducible complexity or anything like that.
I wonder how he would have felt about a statement that some people look at the progress of science over the centuries and conclude that there is no designer.
Anyway, O'Reilly was saving his best for last. His final salvo was the following bizarre question, “Has anyone successfully cloned a human being?” Grant replied that to he best of his knowledge nobody had. O'Reilly pounced. “So you're saying that since no one has done it yet it's not science! Are you saying you can't talk about cloning in a biology class?” Set and match.
At this point Grant tumbled to the fact that what he no doubt thought would be a serious conversation about high school science curricula was in reality just a chance for O'Reilly to preen for his viewers. Grant started to reply that there is plenty of good science behind cloning and that it would be an appropriate topic for science classes. I'm sure he would have added “You know nothing at all about science you freakin' moron. Stop pretending that you are anything other than a right-wing hack!” had O'Reilly not cut him off at this point.
Somehow O'Reilly got it into his head that he had caught Grant in some sort of contradiction and he started blathering that according to Grant's own definition of science they shouldn't talk about cloning. Since Grant had said nothing of the sort, he seemed puzzled as to how to respond.
Anyway, it was time to wrap up the segment. O'Reilly went into full lecture mode, and said something about how scientists need to be more open-minded and allow the possibility that God is behind it all. Grant came back with a quote from Dembski that made explicit that the ID crowd has considerably more in mind that making some vague reference to a designer. This at leaset got O'Reilly to repeat that he didn't want Christianity taught in the schools.
Anyway, there's a lesson in this for other scientists who are invited to appear on one of these chat shows. People need to realize that these shows do not exist to disseminate information or clarify difficult issues. They exist for the sole purpose of aggrandizing their hosts. To most of O'Reilly's viewers it didn't matter that the things he was saying made no sense at all. All they saw was the hero O'Reilly standing to up to the overeducated, anti-religious, arrogant pinhead scientist. Anti-intellectualism has always been popular in America. Thanks to cable news, it now gets hours of air time every night.