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Oh Really? No. O’Reilly

by dave on February 6th, 2011

I suspect most of you have heard the latest absurdities from Bill O’Reilly. Just to get you caught up, last month Bill O’Reilly tried to discredit atheism with the following argument:

I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion. Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.

I’ll spare you the explanation of how the tides work, but suffice it to say, we do understand where they come from. The internet — and most especially Neil Tyson on The Colbert Report — laughed in O’Reilly’s ridiculous face. As Colbert put it, “”There must be a God because I don’t understand how things work.”

O’Reilly shot back by calling his critics “pinheads,” saying:

How’d the moon get there? Look. You pinheads who attacked me for this? You guys are just desperate. How’d the moon get there? How’d the sun get there? How’d it get there? Can you explain that to me? How come we have that and Mars doesn’t have it? And Venus doesn’t have it? Why not? How’d it get here?

I have enormous respect for people like Ethan Siegel (of the “Starts with a Bang” blog) who believe that O’Reilly, or others, might actually want to know the answers to these questions. Hell, I want to know the answers to these questions, which is why I started studying astrophysics in the first place.

But O’Reilly doesn’t.

Or at least the character he plays on TV doesn’t want to know, which is arguably much more pernicious. I am almost dead certain that Bill O’Reilly knows damn well what causes the tides (or did at one point and simply forgot), but he doesn’t care. He had a brain fart when he made the first comment about the tides, and rather than admit that it was a silly example, he acted like a five year-old in every conceivable way. At every step, he simply asked, “And where did that come from?”

But let’s forget about O’Reilly in particular, and instead address the “O’Reilly” character. As I said, I don’t think even he believes what he’s saying. He says these stupid things because there are people out there for whom his arguments resonate. And with respect to Siegel, Colbert, Tyson, and everybody else on the internet trying to answer “O’Reilly’s” argument directly, I say, “you’re answering the wrong question.”

There are several underlying assumptions hidden in his facile argument:

  1. Science doesn’t have all of the answers.
    On this, “O’Reilly” is absolutely right. He’s picked some silly examples, the tides and the moon and the galaxies, since we actually have a pretty damn good idea of where they come from. But if he were smarter, he’d be able to come up with examples that we really have a lousy handle on, like why the dark energy has the value that it does, or what dark matter really is. These are hard questions, and while we have some ideas, the fact remains that we can’t confidently claim to have all of the answers. But it’s pure crackpottery to believe that because we can’t currently explain everything that we explain nothing.

  2. The universe is conducive to life, and was thus obviously created for us.
    His comment about the tides and the number of moons and all of the rest of that seem predicated on the idea that somehow the earth is just right for us. Indeed, if it weren’t we wouldn’t be here having this conversation. But there’s a world of difference between the strong anthropic principle (in which the world was designed for our comfort) and the weak one which simply says that life will preferentially exist where life can exist, and intelligent life, doubly so. In looking at the immensely improbably posterior probability of finding us here, “O’Reilly” clearly doesn’t realize that he’s doing Bayesian statistics wrong.

  3. We can’t ever explain first causes.
    Finally, “O’Reilly” thinks he’s being profound when he points out that science hasn’t yet — indeed may never be able to — make any definitive statement about the first causes in the universe, or even the first causes in life on earth. Physics really only describes the universe shortly after the Planck time, just as evolutionary biology really only describes how life changes once it’s already gotten started. It’s a straw man to say that we’ve “failed” because we haven’t explained the ultimate origins. We admit we haven’t. Indeed, I think it possible that we’ll never know exactly what happened before the beginning. But this does not mean that the rest of our physical theories are worthless. It may have escaped “O’Reilly’s” notice, but theistic explanations have the same problem, but none of the predictive after the moment of creation.

In the end, I think the media did the right thing with this story. In making O’Reilly (and “O’Reilly”) a laughing stock, people will hopefully be ashamed to hold these sort of views. Because honestly, rational argument has clearly failed.

-Dave

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12 Comments
  1. Recently, I’ve come to think his arguments have a weak back.

  2. David Boyle permalink

    Dave, he (and the people he’s putting on his show for) would view everything you just said with contempt.

    American national dialogue is being held hostage to this staring contest between the people who are interested in rational debate, and the people who are, for want of a better term, anti-rational, and anti-intellectual.

    I would guess that maybe some people’s brains are just structured so that they can’t follow the steps of a causal model very well. I hear that whether you vote right or left has to do with the size of one’s amygdala, for example.

    So, I guess as an American, you kind of have to ask yourself how you feel about such people being enfranchised as voters.

    • dave permalink

      That’s why I’m so convinced that it is (for O’Reilly himself, at least) completely an act. He can sell it. I don’t think people _really_ like being thought of as ignorant, and so the louder and more vociferously people call O’Reilly out (and more coherently, ideally, than his guest did) the more embarrassed his viewers will be to be associated with him.

  3. Lynn permalink

    Oh, yeah? Well… Um… Where did this “O’Reilly” come from, then, huh?!? How do you explain that? He says stuff, people believe him. Never a miscommunication. Can you explain *that* to me? Huh?

    (No, really. Can you explain him to me? I honestly don’t get him.)

  4. Alex permalink

    I agree he is likely just saying these things to put on a show or appeal to a certain audience. I think O’Reilly knows his business – that being the entertainment industry, although I don’t find much entertainment value there.

    You would think that a person with true faith in any religion wouldn’t get on the defensive when presented with a scientific explanation of something. People get defensive when frightened, perhaps because they are worried that the facts might disprove their religion and the security they find in it.

    I’m not a religious person per se, but I fail to see how science could ever disprove a possible God. In fact, I would think certain religious people would only welcome scientific discovery and explanation as a test of their own faith.

    • Joz Jonlin permalink

      Alex,

      Although I don’t consider myself a religious person, by my own standards, I recognize that the majority of people would label me not just as religious, but perhaps even a religious nut. I’ve spent the majority of my adult (25+ years) in some form of ministry or another. Anyway, I agree with you regarding welcoming scientific discovery and explanation. What I don’t agree on is that it tests my faith. Perhaps I’m not asking the right questions, but as of yet, my faith has never been tested by technology or science. I’m probably one of the few who believe there is room for both science AND religion, and that the two are not mutually exclusive.

      Truthfully, from a purely intellectual viewpoint, the belief in any deity is pure unadulterated folly. Period. Most people have a difficult time grasping the size of something like our own solar system, as small as it is in the big picture. Throw the size of our galaxy in there and you lose even more people. Now, attempt to grasp the enormity of the entire universe as it’s been able to expand for more than 13.7 billion years. We’re talking about over 93 billion light years in diameter, and expanding. To top it off, that’s about all we can currently see. There might (probably) be even more than that out there, and it’s growing at an ever increasing rate. So, wrap your head around that and then try and tell yourself intellectually that a deity of some sort actually created all this and still watches over it. As I said, it’s pure folly.

  5. seston permalink

    Of course science does not have all the answers! That’s why we do research! Sheesh!

  6. Well, I say that Dave will find the answers when he dies.
    That seems to be the religious way.
    For us that are living, we continue to guess.
    I believe that GOD is a universal resonant frequency that exists throughout the universe.
    Or simply GOD is a wave.

  7. Sorry, I meant O’Reilly…

  8. Jose Behar MD permalink

    I happen to have spent 45 years in biological research and I am a strong believer in the value of science but I also understand its limits. Poor David Silverman he should read Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of Western civilization or perhaps Albert Einstein who clearly understood its limits which is what O’Reilly was referring to.
    What is even more sad that most people are educated by ignorant and biased comedians and “journalists”.

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