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Hey Bill Nye! If There Is a God, Should We Obey It?

Science Guy Bill Nye is thrown a deep religious hypothetical: If there is a god that is truly good, intelligent and all-knowing, should we submit to its governance?

Cameron: Hi Bill. My name’s Cameron and I am a junior at Libertyville High School in Washington. And I was just wondering on this hypothetical question if there was a completely intelligent all-knowing entity whether it was human or otherwise that if it existed and it was our leader if we should be completely subservient and submit to its governance if it really truly had our best interest at heart.

Bill Nye: This super entity that we should serve I don’t know. I see for me there’s no evidence of a super entity with a plan for everybody’s life. And this goes way back. Charles Darwin wrote about this, speculated about this. And another way to express it if there is a super entity running things why is everything so screwed up? And there reasons seems to be that humans are all interacting, all trying to get food, shelter and raise their kids and there’s conflict among us. It’s just the way humans are. And so if there is a super entity I would prefer that she or he was just a little more organized, just took care of things a little better. And the thing to be careful of in my opinion is when people you meet are sure that they have a super entity that’s telling them what to do that affects you. That is to say when they tell you you can’t do this or you can’t do that because the super entity of mine is telling me that I should tell you that you can’t do that. That’s when there’s conflict. And I presume you’re in Washington state and you know Washington state is way in the west of North America.

A lot of the people that came from Europe came here to get away from certain religions which by modern standards were received as strife in wars around the world were pretty tame. The religious expectations were not that onerous. Yet they were onerous enough to make people leave. Don’t tell me what to do kind of thing. So I’m open minded but as we say you can’t prove a negative. And by that I mean if you say or if someone says well can you prove that there is no super entity. You can’t. Because whatever proof you’d offer as that there’s no super entity the other side would say well that’s just what the super entity wants you to think. Super entity is hiding from you. Super entity is making it so you can’t find super entity. Anyway that’s arguing in a circle. You’ll never be able to resolve that. So whether or not you should serve the super entity is up to you. But I strongly encourage you to look for evidence of the super entity before you get caught up in trying to serve it, him or her. It’s a fantastic question. You’re asking a deep question. But for me understanding nature and the world around us and how I should interact with our fellow humans I get a lot more satisfying answers from the process of science than I do from people claiming to have a super entity that’s going to tell me or us what to do.

And the troubling thing in science pretty quickly you figure out that you can’t figure it all out. That there are unknowns. There are things that you just do not know. And for some people that’s really troubling. But for people like me it’s empowering because we have a process. The process that we call science that enables us to learn about nature. And the example that everybody’s all excited about right now everywhere I go is are there other universes? Are there multiverses? Universes beyond our universe. And the big argument for the existence of these multiverses is that there isn’t any real good way to exclude them. There’s no way to make sure that they don’t exist. So maybe they do. And that’s cool and exciting. And by the way you were alive when people discovered dark matter. Apparently there’s five times as much dark matter as there is regular matter and do you know why? Nobody knows why but in your lifetime maybe discoveries will be made that will tell us about dark matter and dark energy. In my grandfather’s lifetime there was no such thing as relativity. People didn’t know about relativity. Yet if you have a smartphone and it tells you which side of the street you’re on that information comes from spacecraft in orbit around the Earth that have to be adjusted for both special relativity, the speed of the spacecraft relative to the Earth’s surface and general relativity, the effect that the Earth’s gravity has on clocks, on time.

The speed of time as I like to say. So who knows what discoveries will be made soon. And the thing I’m saying here is that science carries with it this uncertainty. We don’t know it all. We accept that we don’t know it all but we have a process for trying to find out. And that to me is elegant and beautiful. Carry on.

While Pastafarians picture their deity as a benevolent wobbling lump of spaghetti, most people think of God – whoever or whatever he/she/it may be – as a super-intelligent being, omniscient in all things. That is, if they do think of God at all, which is crucial to the question of serving a higher deity. Even Charles Darwin speculated about the existence of a super-being. These large questions have always been there. And increasingly those who dare to examine faith end up wondering why, if there is an omniscient overlord of Earth, are there tornadoes, and earthquakes? If there is something looking after the whole of mankind, why are there mass deaths? So before we can even ask if we should unquestioningly serve an intelligent super-being, Bill Nye suggests we look for proof of that being. Nye can hardly play ball with the hypothetical because, for him, there is no evidence of a super entity. He suggestions caution when faced with people who are sure that there is an entity who has told them how they should not only live their life, but how you should live yours. As the saying goes, follow those who seek the truth; flee from those who claim to have found it.

It is perfectly normal to question religion and be open to its many incarnations. Even Thomas Jefferson, a deist, had his own personal copy of the Quran that he used to teach himself Arabic, widening his own perspective of the universe. A questioning of the established religion is what pushed the Pilgrims to set off for America in the first place. We all do it our own way. And some don’t do it at all. Even with multiple vantage points of higher beings, from Christianity to Islam, Hinduism to Judaism, so many questions are left unanswered or shrouded by statements about the mystery of faith, and whether that mystery is God's intention or plan. There's no moving forward in a circular argument like that.

The Hubble Telescope has shown us a great many things up in outer space, but no evidence of a heaven, nor guiding light of an omniscient being. So one person might say, "There is no evidence of a heaven." Someone else can reply, "Just because there is no evidence doesn’t mean heaven doesn’t exist."

Bill Nye is aware that so much in the realm of science also remains unanswered. But there is at least a method to find out. Every day, there are new evidence-based discoveries that step closer to explaining our world and the universe(s) beyond it. That scientific process is what provides meaning for Nye, and just looking at the progress of science in his lifetime is an affirmation that science can move you closer to truth than the pursuit of any deity, the story of which has not changed or revealed anything for millennia. Whether or not a person should serve the super-being is entirely up to them, but Nye urges a person to look for evidence of a super-entity before they consider serving one.

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

Image: USGS - public domain
Strange Maps
  • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
  • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
  • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
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Spiders lace webs in toxins to paralyze prey

Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.

Luciano Marra from São Paulo, Brasil - Aranha de Teia (Nephila clavipes), CC BY-SA 2.0
Surprising Science
  • A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
  • The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
  • Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.
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