The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Bill O’Reilly Doubles Down on the Stupid: “How’d the Moon Get There?”

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 2, 2011

Recently, I’ve posted about how Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly displayed a great deal of scientific ignorance when he tried to argue that God exists because “we cannot explain the tides”.  Of course, scientists do know how the tides work (as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson states: it’s gravity from the Moon, duh); but rather than admit his error, Bill O’Reilly has decided to double down on the stupid.  Just watch this…

Once again, O’Reilly makes the all-too-common argument from ignorance, specifically the god-of-the-gaps argument. Of course, we actually do have scientific answers to many of the questions brought up by Mr. O’Reilly.  Let us examine some of his statements/claims…

1. “How’d the moon get there?”

Astrophysicists have some pretty good ideas for how the moon came to be.  Part of this is due to a basic understanding of physics & celestial mechanics, and part is due to our observation of moons and satellites of other objects.  There are a number of competing hypotheses for how, exactly, the moon formed and came to orbit the Earth, and while scientists haven’t yet come to complete consensus it seems the prevailing view is that of the giant impact hypothesis, whereby the Earth was hit early in its history (about 4 billion years ago) and a piece split off which then became our moon.  For O’Reilly to imply that scientists have no idea how the moon got there is ludicrous.

2. “Mars doesn’t have moons”

Actually, Mars does have moons… two of them, in fact.  They are called Phobos and Deimos.  FAIL.

3. “Where’d the sun come from?”

We actually have a fairly high degree of understanding of how our sun formed.  This is because we’ve not only developed very sophisticated physics models of various processes such as gravitational collapse and thermonuclear fusion, but we have actually seen other stars in various stages of their formation & evolution. In fact, there are photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope available on the Internet which show this clearly: check out some of these images of the formation of protostars and their associated planetary systems (called “proplyds”) from within the Orion Nebula…

4. “If we have life on Earth, how come it’s not on other planets?”

This statement assumes that there is no other life anywhere else in the entire universe, which – based upon the latest science of astrobiology – seems like it could be quite a stretch.  While we do not, as yet, have any definitive proof of extra-terrestrial life, I think that it is quite likely such life does exist.  It is most likely that this life would exist in the form of some kind of micro-organism, especially given what we’ve learned in recent decades concerning extremophile lifeforms which exist in very extreme environments.  The point is that O’Reilly is basing his statement on an assumption which is not informed by the latest science, merely his personal predisposition to see the Earth take some special place in the cosmos.

5. “Were we just lucky?”

I find this question, especially coupled with his statement above regarding life on Earth, to be very telling.  That’s because if one assumes that life exists only on Earth out of the entire universe, then by default wouldn’t you count yourself pretty lucky?  I would.  However, if we do end up discovering life elsewhere in the universe, would that make us any less “lucky” in O’Reilly’s view?

6.”There’s an order to the universe”

Yes, there is.  Scientists refer to this order as the laws of nature. Religious people like Mr. O’Reilly maintain that such order is due to God, as one could ask from where do the laws of nature originate?  Of course, one could also ask from where does God originate?  The fact that O’Reilly chooses to draw the line at one point and not another simply speaks to his bias as a religious believer.  This does not mean that, contrary to what is being implied in O’Reilly’s ham-fisted statements, one cannot believe in some kind of deity and also accept science.

7. “It takes more faith to not believe…”

Here O’Reilly seems to want to equate acceptance of scientific knowledge with atheism (as if there’s anything wrong with atheism).  As I stated above, religious belief does not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive with scientific knowledge.  In my view, this kind of argument is just a way to end the conversation, but it fails in a couple of very important ways:

1) This argument seems to disparage faith, which – ironically – is supposed to be the cornerstone of religious beliefs such as O’Reilly’s.  Aren’t religious beliefs supposed to encourage faith?  It seems that O’Reilly, by pursuing this line of argumentation, wants to have it both ways – he wants to have faith when it works for him, yet sneer at faith when he thinks it works against his opponents.

2) O’Reilly’s version of “faith” is just simple ignorance of the world around him, in my opinion.  This sort of thinking would not be taken seriously by any sort of well-educated theologian (such as Catholic theologians – O’Reilly is Catholic), much less by modern scientists.

Lastly, I’d like to comment on the core aspect of O’Reilly’s argument: his god-of-the-gaps argument.  If one were to truly accept this form of argumentation in a serious manner, that we can draw conclusions about what we know because of what we don’t know (yes, it’s a paradox), then one can invoke any kind of silly thing to fill in said gaps.  For example, why couldn’t we invoke ghosts, or leprechauns, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster?  You can see how quickly such thinking can be used to justify even the most ludicrous notions.

Something else which this thinking points out is that people like O’Reilly engage in moving the goalposts of their arguments when cornered and shown to be wrong.  If he wishes to base his religious belief on god-of-the-gaps arguments, then what happens when that gap of our knowledge is filled in?  The answer is that O’Reilly retreats and makes another stupid claim.  You can extend this kind of thinking in terms of an infinite regress, and as such it doesn’t actually address any questions – it simply becomes nothing more than a place-holder for our ignorance.  Some believers might take issue with that view of God.

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4 Responses to “Bill O’Reilly Doubles Down on the Stupid: “How’d the Moon Get There?””

  1. DataJack said

    As usual, Matt, excellent post. Hearing clowns like O’Reilly say such nonsense can be quite depressing because of his wide influence. I am glad we have folks like you and Phil to call him out on it.

  2. Elisha said

    Matt, I can’t even watch that blowhard anymore. I end up screaming and yelling at the TV.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jorge Correa, Cheryl Jones. Cheryl Jones said: Bill O'Reilly Doubles Down on the Stupid: “How'd the Moon Get … http://bit.ly/gF1s2J http://zigeek.com [...]

  4. Bill O’Reilly’s argument is that “the less we understand, the more we can attribute to God’s doing, so the stronger the case is for God”.

    The problem with O’Reilly’s argument is that he doesn’t get to draw the line in the sand: It is not up to O’Reilly to decide where we accept scientific explanations, and where we accept that Goddidit. It is up to the person who has the least understanding of science: That person can make the strongest case for God, because that person can point to the longest list of things that “science cannot explain”. Ergo, Goddidit.

    It is imperative to realize that it isn’t the one who makes the most rational argument that wins. It is the one who makes the most compelling one. And to those who already have set their minds on Goddidit, the more that can be ascribed to God will be the most compelling argument. That is why the strongest believers are found among those who understand the least.

    Of course, those who understand the least are also the ones who are the easiest to control. But people like Bill O’Reilly always have the best in mind for other people. We can trust people like Bill. He has absolutely no political agenda of any kind. No, siree…

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