Now that we have gone through a list of common logical fallacies, I thought it would be helpful to apply them to a real-world example. And when I think of great examples of logical fallacies in action, the first thing that comes to mind is a video that Bill Nye, The Science Guy did several years ago on the topic of abortion and women’s reproductive rights.
Now, a warning. This is a very contentious issue with passionate people on both sides. And my purpose in this article isn’t to make the case one way or another. That deserves a whole other series of articles. My point in this article is to focus on how Bill makes his case, to think critically about how he makes his points, and highlight the flaws in his argument as a learning tool. So, don’t get lost in the specific topic at hand. Focus more on spotting the fallacies and how to respond to them.
Who Is Bill Nye, The Science Guy?
If you grew up in the 90s or 2000s then you’re familiar with Bill Nye. He is a science educator who became popular on PBS and in classrooms for his fun, quirky, energetic method of explaining scientific concepts. Bill’s old videos are great and do a wonderful job at describing how the world around us works – particularly in the physical sciences. From what I understand, Bill has a degree in mechanical engineering and parlayed that into a career as a science educator.
Maintain a Balanced View Of Authority
I mention Bill’s academic credentials for 2 reasons. Firstly, just because you have a degree and are really intelligent (which Bill is. He’s a really smart guy) doesn’t mean you are an expert in all areas. Especially in science. It’s such a large discipline that you can’t POSSIBLY speak into all areas.
Secondly, just because Bill doesn’t have any academic credentials in embryology doesn’t mean we should dismiss his arguments, either. It’s quite possible this is an area Bill has taken a personal interest in and done a lot of self-study. So, he might know a lot about embryology despite having no formal education or experience. I certainly fall into this category. I’ve received no formal training on anything I write or speak about here. But, I read a lot, I study topics a lot. So, I feel I know a bit about the topics I cover despite never going to college for it.
My point is that we should neither give Bill too much credit because he is “the Science Guy” nor should we close our ears to what he has to say because he isn’t “the Embryology Guy”. We are going to take his arguments as they are and address them on their own.
Now, let’s have a look at the video he put out. For context, this video was released in 2015 during a time when Congress was debating whether or not taxpayer money should be used to fund Planned Parenthood, the United States’ top abortion provider. Now, I know this is an emotional topic. But, try to watch it with a clear mind. Try to summarize Bill’s main points so that you have what he is saying clearly. Watch it all the way through and then we’ll discuss it.
The Appeal To Authority Fallacy
After watching the video all the way through, it’s hard not to hear Bill saying “c’mon everyone. I’m The Science Guy! You gotta trust me on this”. So, Bill wants to base his entire argument on science. And, the reason we should listen to him is he knows a lot about science.
The problem is Bill gets his science wrong from his very first statement. The first thing he says is that many more eggs are fertilized than become humans. If we were having a conversation with Bill, a great first question would be “what do you mean by ‘become human'”?
Bill seems to think we become human later on down the line at some point. But, this is just wrong. Once a sperm and an ova join together, you don’t have a fertilized egg; you have a zygote. And, according to embryology textbooks like Langman’s Medical Embryology
“The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”[Langman, Jan. Medical Embryology. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1975, p. 3]
So, according to the science of embryology, you don’t have a fertilized egg when the sperm and egg come together, you immediately have a new human being.
At about the 1-minute mark, Bill says that people who think that a fertilized egg is the same as a human being “have a deep lack of understanding” and “literally don’t know what you are talking about”. Which is ironic, because it’s Bill who gets the science of embryology completely wrong.
Strawman #1: Who Are You Going To Sue?
Bill then tosses out an odd statement asking who people are going to sue if the fertilized egg (as he calls it) doesn’t attach to the uterine wall. He’s now moved from his scientific discussion to a legal matter. Now, when he asks his question, it sounds pretty ridiculous. One might think “what a silly thing. To sue a mother or father because the egg didn’t attach”. And you’d be right. Here’s the problem though – nobody thinks that. This is a straw man. Bill has propped up an easily dismissable claim that incorrectly represents the Pro-Life movement as a way to show how silly their line of thinking is. The logical fallacy in play here is that they don’t think what he says they think.
Bill also shows another logical blunder when he equates the zygote not attaching with someone making the decision to abort the baby. In the first case, you have a natural process occurring and in the other, you have free will agents deciding to interrupt the natural process. This is why there is a legal distinction between things like natural causes, self-defense, involuntary manslaughter, and first-degree murder. In all of these cases, someone dies. But, the intent of the person responsible matters as to the legal charges.
Genetic Fallacy #1: Men of European Descent, Stay Out
At 1:15 Bill switches to policy issues with women’s rights. He says we should leave the abortion debate to women. He later states that the laws were made by men of European descent. This is a classic example of the genetic fallacy – when the truth of something is attacked based on how it came to be known rather than on the truthfulness of the thing itself. If something is true or false, it doesn’t matter how someone came to know it was true or false. In this case, the gender of the person making the claim has nothing to do with whether abortion is wrong or not. It either is or it isn’t.
The ploy here is to say that because men cannot get pregnant, they should not speak into issues regarding policy on pregnancy. In particular European men, apparently. OK. What if the men were African? Or what if the policymakers were women and deemed that abortion should be legal? If Bill thinks that men of European descent should not pass laws regarding women’s reproductive rights then does he think we should repeal Roe v. Wade? It was a court of white males that deemed it legal after all. And finally, if men of European descent should stay out of it then why should we listen to Bill Nye? He’s a male of European descent.
Genetic Fallacy #2 & #3: The 5000 Year Old Book
A few seconds later, Bill says that we shouldn’t base our laws on our interpretation of a 5000 year-old book – meaning the Bible. First off, the Bible isn’t 5000 years old, it’s more like 3500 if you include the Old Testament. Second, Bill commits two genetic fallacies at once – one regarding the age of an idea and the second regarding the source of the idea. How old an idea is has nothing to do with whether it is true or not. Bill couldn’t do science at all if he was worried about how old ideas are. Many of the foundational principles he does science with are from over 2000 years ago. Should he abandon them?
Also, the source of a statement doesn’t matter either as to whether the statement itself is true or false. There are lots of books I disagree with that may make statements I do agree with. But, I can’t discount the claim simply based on who said it or where it was written.
Straw Man #2: Sex Always Produces Babies
In order to show how silly the Bible is, Bill props up another straw man regarding the Bible and sex. He seems to think that people who read the Bible think that every time a couple has sex, a baby is produced. Clearly, this isn’t the case in the real world. The thing is, nobody who has ever read the Bible thinks that every time you have sex, a baby is produced. It’s another straw man. He propped up a silly, incorrect idea representing the Biblical view of sex, showed how ridiculous it is, and easily defeated it.
Self Defeating Statement
At the 2:20 mark, Bill tells the viewers that “you can’t tell people what to do”. The thing is, Bill has gone on for 2 minutes and 20 seconds at this point telling us what we ought to do.
More Bad Logic and Rhetoric
There were a lot of other statements Bill made in this video that aren’t necessarily logical fallacies but are clear examples that he hasn’t thought through what he is saying very well. One of the bigger problems he has is continually using science as the basis of ethical decisions. Bill puts forth science frequently as his reasoning for the things he is saying. But, you can’t get rights from science. This is a philosophical and ethical claim. Science can’t tell you what you ought to do. Its job is to give you information on how the material world works. Science deals with descriptive things, not prescriptive things.
Nobody Likes Abortion
At 2:18, Bill says something interesting that betrays him a little bit. He says “look, nobody likes abortion”. Oh? Why not? Why don’t people like abortion? By making this statement, Bill admits that he knows the act of abortion is wrong. Otherwise, why shouldn’t we like abortion? If abortion isn’t wrong, why should there be any restrictions on it? By making that statement Bill tells us that he knows exactly what is in the mother’s womb – despite what he said earlier – and the act of taking that human being’s life is wrong.
More Important Things To Deal With
Next, at 2:40 Bill tells us that “we have so many more important things to be dealing with”. And he tells us again that we don’t understand what is important because we have our science wrong. But, the importance of issues is an ethical concern. Science can’t tell us what issues are more important; it can only tell us how something happens.
Science Is Great!
At 2:52 Bill goes into this weird rant about all the great things science has done. This is the appeal to authority fallacy again – science gave you all these great things so trust science. And we should trust him because he is “the Science Guy” after all. This appeal is completely irrelevant. What about the scientists who think abortion is wrong? There are plenty of them out there. If Bill were to say that they have their science wrong, then that would dismiss his appeal to authority in holding up science as the Ultimate Knowledge Giver because he would be telling us that sometimes, scientists are wrong. And we should evaluate their science as wrong. Which is just what we should be doing with what Bill is saying.
Finally, Bill tosses in this weird part about practices he feels have been ineffective at leading to healthier societies. I’m not sure why he used the phrase “healthier societies”. I know he was responding to some of the policy discussions Congress was having at the time regarding funding Planned Parenthood, so maybe he is responding to something someone said there. But, he’s been talking about abortion this whole time. So, we’re going to take the phrase as it relates to abortion.
Bill tells us that abstinence has been ineffective, although he never tells us why. It’s also false. No intercourse means no pregnancy and therefore no abortion. Then he says that closing abortion clinics and not giving access to birth control has not been effective, either. The problem with this statement is lumping abortion and birth control together. Abortion is an extreme version of birth control, but most birth control (contraception) works by preventing the pregnancy from happening in the first place; not by killing the unborn baby after it has been conceived. This is an important distinction because nobody is making the case that contraception should be denied.
Bill Nye is Not The Embryology, Philosophy, or Policy Guy
In the end, Bill’s case fails for two main reasons. And both of them have to do with his propping up science as the authority here. The first is that you can’t get an “ought” from science. Science gives us vast amounts of information about the world around us. But, it can’t tell you what you should do with that information. Science can tell us what happens when a sperm and an ova come together. But, it can’t tell us about rights. It can’t tell us what we ought to do with the thing that gets created. Those are ethical and philosophical judgments.
The second reason his argument fails is his science is wrong. Most embryology textbooks say that the result of a sperm and an ova joining is a new human life. Bill never really tells us when he thinks human life begins, but it’s not that.
Bill props up science as the ultimate knowledge-giver. The problem is Bill makes claims in the areas of embryology, philosophy, and law and shows that he is out of his depth here because he gets them all wrong. This clearly doesn’t mean he can’t hold educated and informed opinions on these issues. But, we certainly shouldn’t trust him JUST because he’s “The Science Guy”.
Now You Try It!
Our purpose here wasn’t to make the case one way or another about abortion. The goal was to take a statement someone has made and give examples of the logical fallacies we have been talking about. You should now be able to listen more critically to what people say and calmly think through the case they make. Even the people you agree with. And especially yourself.
Very good article – well done Dave. I think you have an unintended error though in the sentence “Science deals with prescriptive things, not descriptive things.” You meant to say it the other way around, right?
Thanks, Michael! That error was unintentional and I corrected it