Recently the president of the American Atheists, David Silverman, appeared on the O’Reilly Factor. Silverman was invited on the show to discuss the billboards sponsored by the American Atheists. To some, as O’Reilly is quick to point out, the messages proclaimed on the billboards can be interpreted as offensive. Before going further, I want to be clear that this posting is not about the American Atheist agenda. It’s about Bill O’Reilly’s disappointedly poor understanding of Astro 101 science, which we can see in his interview of Silverman.
So Bill O’Reilly’s argument for God appears to be simple enough, “The tide goes in, the tide goes out. Never a miscommunication.” I’m not completely sure what O’Reilly is trying to say here, especially the part about the ‘miscommunication’. If I had to conjecture I would say that he’s trying to argue that natural phenomena, such as tides, are directly the work of God. This is really one of the classical arguments for God (think Greek and Roman gods, for example). Where O’Reilly fails miserably is in his selection of which phenomena he attributes to God.
The cause of the tides is well understood and has been for hundreds of years thanks to Newton himself. They’re the result of the gravitational pull from the Moon acting on the Earth. More specifically, the ocean tides happen because the gravitational attraction between two objects depends on their separation. The closer two objects are, the stronger the gravitational attraction between them. This means that the Moon pulls harder on the near side of the Earth in comparison to the center of the Earth. Likewise the center of the Earth experiences a greater attraction to the Moon than the far side of the Earth. The difference in gravitational attractions is what is referred to as tidal force. The tidal force ultimately manifests itself as a rise in the Earth’s liquid oceans. (For a more in depth description, check out Tides, the Earth, the Moon, and why our days are getting longer.) For those thinking on a higher level, yes, the Sun likewise produces tides, but at roughly half the extent the Moon does.
So back to O’Reilly. He picks a natural occurrence that is explained by science. In fact, it’s a level of science that’s taught in most any Astro 101 course, or even more likely, in a middle school earth science class. If O’Reilly was just a little bit more educated he would have asked a deeper question like, why does Newton’s gravitational constant have the value it does? Now there’s a question not necessarily outside the realm of science, but one that’s not readily addressed with our current state of knowledge.
Regardless, it’s clear that O’Reilly lacks an understanding of the tides. What’s worst is that he challenges Silverman to explain the tides, as if an understanding of such a concept is beyond the understanding of the human mind. O’Reilly repeatedly states, “You can’t explain that.” This is where I fly off the handles.
The point of science is to construct self-consistent models that allows us to explain past observations and to make testable predictions about the future. Tides fall well within this scope. We have a model for the cause of the tides. We can predict times for future high and low tides. We can even observe tidal effects on distant worlds. It is science! But for O’Reilly he seems content to assume an explanation for the tides that appeals to a supernatural being. Moreover, he appears to even think that it cannot be explained otherwise.
What annoys the pooh out of me is that he has no apparent interest in learning about science. His religious beliefs are preventing an understanding of Nature. So what’s the harm in this? Isn’t he entitled to his own beliefs? Consider the recent story about congressman John Shimkus. According to Shimkus, “The planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah.” Here we have a person in political power that has a direct voice in environmental policies that may or may not lead us on a destructive path, and yet he’s outright discounting science for his own religious beliefs.
Obviously these individuals have placed a personal belief in one particular religion so high that they’re willing to discount a rational explanation based in science. To these individuals I say, Nature is going to do whatever it wants to do. We can either construct useful models in an attempt to understand how Nature works, or we can take the O’Reilly/Shimkus approach of blindly assuming the unknowable workings of a supreme being. One approach allows for progress in information sharing, extending life expectancies, knowledge about our place in the Universe, etc, etc, etc. The other approach … well I’m not sure what they expect out of it.
Of course, O’Reilly’s comments have led to many WTF’s moments on the web and on television. One of the best comes from Steven Colbert on The Colbert Report (Bill O’Reilly Proves God’s Existence – Neil deGrasse Tyson).
As usual Colbert makes insightful and whimsical remarks. His summary of O’Reilly’s argument for the existence for God is just perfect, “There must be a God because I don’t know how things work.” Most importantly, The Colbert Report attempts to educate the public about how the tides really work by having a well known astrophysicists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, describe their cause. For that I thank the show.
By the way Bill O’Reilly, here’s another argument for God, as suggested by the American Atheists, Inc Facebook page, “Food goes in… poop comes out. No miscommunication! You can’t explain that!!!”