Bill Nye is enjoying a cultural rebirth on the scale of Red Scare-paranoia or feistier-than-meets-the-eye Golden Girl Betty White. And, what’s more, Nye recently took home the 2010 Humanist of the Year Award, granted to him by the American Humanist Association, for (among other things) educating children about dinosaurs, genetically modified food, and quicksand. It’s no wonder–being The Science Guy and all–that Nye is one of the world’s most outspoken, bow tie-clad boosters of the pursuit of knowledge.
In the acceptance speech for his Humanist award (reprinted in the November-December issue of The Humanist), Nye talks about how, when he was young, scientists lacked a solid explanation for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. His curiosity about their abrupt extinction was his scientific awakening, and he’s been questioning the way things work ever since:
I often wonder what else it is that we’re just completely missing that will integrate all sorts of our current scientific ideas. But we don’t have to know the whole answer right now. What I like to call the PB&J–the passion, beauty, and joy–is in the pursuit of it, right? That’s what we love about science. It is, absolutely, to me, the best idea humans have had. Science. I’ll even say science is the best idea we’ve had so far. It could change, right? Got a better idea? Bring it on.
“But then, my friends, with our brains we can imagine all of this,” concluded Nye. “It is with our brains that we can know our place in the universe. We can know our place in space, and that does not suck. That is worthy of respect. That is what’s so great. That is what’s so wonderful about humans.”
Unflappable faith in Science-as-an-institution, like Nye’s, is the topic Tikkun recently devoted an entire issue of its magazine to criticizing. “Scientism is the belief that nothing is real and nothing can be known in the world except that which can be observed and measured,” writes Tikkun’s editor Michael Lerner in his essay “A Spiritual Approach to Evolution.”
A person who adopts a scientistic perspective believes that science can in principle answer every question that can be answered. Any claim about the world that cannot be validated, at least in principle, or at least falsified on the basis of empirical data or measurement is dismissed as meaningless.
Although he generally supports science, Lerner takes issue with scientism for its wholesale, potentially hypocritical dismissal of spiritual interpretations of the Universe’s inner-workings. Scientism, Lerner writes,
is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other religious system. Consider its central religious belief: “That which is real and can be known is that which can be verified or falsified by empirical observation.” The claim sounds tough-minded and rational, but what scientific experiment could you perform to prove that it is either true or false? The fact is that there is no such test. By its own criterion, scientism is as meaningless as any other metaphysical claim.
The November-December issue of Tikkun has many other thought-provoking essays on the uncomfortable intersection of spirituality and science.