09/28/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

Could Bill Nye Have Done More to Keep Creationism out of the Classroom?

On a number of occasions over the past month, my frequent commentator John Kwok has chided me to be more like "Science Guy" Bill Nye in defending evolution and science in general against Creationists (Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children).

I agree with John that the evolution-Creationism debate and its political consequences are doing science a lot of harm, both in this country and abroad (South Korea has even banned evolution from its high school textbooks).

When a HuffPost blog was recently posted on Nye's August 23rd YouTube video, I decided it was worth evaluating Nye's effort, especially since it has had over 4.6 million viewers.

In the end, I concluded that Nye did less than he could have to use his very high profile help free science education from religion-based challenges. There were two kinds of problems with Nye's advocacy. One was stylistic, and the other was substantive.

The stylistic issue was well covered in a Scientific American blog posted September 2 by astrophysicist Marc Kuchner. He interviewed a corporate communications expert, Patrick Donadio, about the effectiveness of Nye's presentation.

While acknowledging Nye's considerable television skills, Donadio faulted him for his "pushing" content. By that, he meant that Nye should have tried to "pull" his audience towards his (the pro-evolution) position rather than push them with all his evidence.

Here's part of the interview where Donadio explains how "pull" is different from "push":

PD: He might have said, "I want to encourage you to explore the concept that there is some truth to the idea of evolution. I don't necessarily want to convince you today that you have to stop believing in creationism, rather to invite you today to be open the idea that evolution does exist. I don't want to change you today; I want to challenge you to explore this concept a little deeper." That's a pull, verses a push.

MK: I like that: "I don't want to change you, I want to challenge you".

PD: Also some of his premises are faulty. Like his suggestion that you can't be an engineer if you are a creationist. Well, I'm not sure that's true. Many of his points are not really going to help convince me if I'm on the other side, because I'm finding a lot of holes in his examples. So who is his real audience? What is his intent for this video? These are two important questions to answer as your craft your message.

Now for the substance. The stated goal of the talk was to ask people of faith to give up teaching their children about their beliefs. Nye claimed those lessons would make them less educated, and hence less useful, citizens for the future.

My problem with Nye's approach is that he himself explicitly brings religion into a discussion of science education. In my opinion, the basic goal of pro-science advocates should be to keep religion out of public school education, where it has no Constitutional (or practical) place. That was the immensely helpful conclusion of Judge John E. Jones III in the Dover, PA school board case.

Moreover, Nye actually explained very little about evolution itself. In a follow-up interview with CBS This Morning, he said:

My concern is you don't want people growing up not believing in radioactivity, not believing in geology and deep time. You don't want people in the United States growing up without the expectation that we can land spacecraft on Mars. You want people to believe in science, this process, this great idea that humans had to discover more about the universe and our place in it, our place in space. And I really want to emphasize, I'm not attacking anybody's religion, but science, if you go to a museum and you see fossil dinosaur bones, they came from somewhere, and we have by diligent investigation have determined that the earth is 4.54 billion years old.

His comments focus surprisingly little on biology and evolution, the real questions at the heart of the debate. Nye says far more about radioactivity, geology and exploring the universe.

By focusing on "deep time" questions, Nye targeted only a minority subset of evolution deniers and doubters, the "young earth" Creationists who believe in an earth less than 10,000 years old. To my thinking, it would have been far better for Nye to give real time, well documented examples of evolutionary change. Two examples of great practical importance jump to mind:

(1) Plant hybridization to produce cereal species for grain production, like wheat and Triticale, and

(2) Superbug multiple antibiotic resistance, which is a real threat to everybody's children.

Is it possible that Nye did not choose such observable and reproducible (hence irrefutable) examples of evolution in action because they do not occur by the orthodox Darwinian process of accumulating mutations over millions of years? I don't know the answer to this question. Maybe someone close to Nye can ask him and tell us.

I see a great value in discussing interspecific hybridization and molecular mechanisms of rapid evolutionary change on this blog. Such processes give us "right in front of our eyes" answers to Creationist challenges. They are far more convincing than invoking long unobservable periods of random change and natural selection or postulated instances of historical genetic drift.

So I have to reject John's oft-repeated claim that I am doing harm to the cause of science education. The most up-to-date evolution science is useful because we can demonstrate it in real time to Creationists and their children. That is by far the best way to change their thinking and reduce their influence on our schools.