Bill O'Reilly: tidal bore

Contributed by
Jan 31, 2011

Look, I know. Bill O'Reilly is a far-right ideologue who couldn't grasp reality with a hundred meters of velcro and a ton of Crazy glue. He's mean-spirited, loud, and wrong, wrong, wrong. Debunking him is like debunking the Tooth Fairy; so easy and obvious that it's almost mean on my part to do it.

Yet here we are.

By now the entire planet has heard O'Reilly's bizarre litany about tides, and how he claims they prove the existence of God. As he has said on many an occasion, "tide goes in, tide goes out, never a miscommunication." By this he means that the harmony of nature, the amazing interconnection between things, clearly argues for God.

The problem is, he's wrong. Twice, actually. First because he's making the "God of the Gaps" fallacy: if something can't be explained, then God must have done it. That's pretty silly, since of course the far more likely explanation is simply that O'Reilly can't explain it. That doesn't mean I can't! And in the case of tides, I can explain them, as can my friend Neil Tyson, and pretty much every other astronomer on Earth.

The thing is, either O'Reilly cannot learn, or he hopes his audience won't. Because on his YouTube channel -- yes, O'Reilly has a YouTube channel, I believe that's the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse -- he not only makes this same claim again, he digs himself deeper:

Wow. I guess O'Reilly hasn't discovered Google. Or any astronomy textbook written in the past thirty years. Because we know how the Moon got there (a Mars-sized planet struck the Earth a glancing blow about 100 million years after it formed, splashing debris into orbit which coalesced to form the Moon). And we know how the Sun got there (a small region of a vast cloud of gas and dust collapsed under its own gravity, compressed in the center, ignited nuclear fusion, and Our Star was born).

It gets worse. He asks why we have a Moon, and Mars doesn't. Pssst, Bill: Mars has two moons. Venus doesn't have a moon, but if our theory is correct about how we got our Moon then it was a singular, unusual event, so it's not surprising Venus doesn't have one.

Now it's possible that Bill is being metaphoric; he doesn't literally mean the Moon, or tides, or anything like that: he means rules and order in general. We have the laws of physics, and we don't know why those exist the way they do.

That's true enough, and an interesting field of exploration. But to jump to say, "God did it" is a losing bet. They used to say that about thunder. They used to say that about people getting sick. They used to say that about, oh, why the Moon and Sun are in the sky, and why we have tides. Say.

But now we understand those things. We understand them because we're curious, we humans, and we developed a method of understanding the Universe. It's called science. And it went a long way to showing us why thunder happens, why people get sick, and why the Moon and Sun formed, and how their mass and gravity warp space-time around us. There are gaps in our understanding, but one of the big points of science is to narrow those gaps.

Saying "God did it" is not an answer. It's an evasion. O'Reilly (and so many ideologues like him) wants his ignorance to be canonized, but ignorance is not a goal. It's an opportunity to learn more.

Look: I seriously and strongly feel that everyone has the right to believe what they want, and to find comfort in it if they need it. But you can't let that belief narrow your view of the Universe to where it's simply easier to avoid what you don't understand. That's what O'Reilly has done -- or is urging his listeners to do -- and he's missing out. Nature is subtle, and amazing, and layered, and complex, and interconnected on levels we're only just now starting to suspect. That's where the true mystery lies.

As long as we're curious, and keep our eyes and minds open, we'll be able to explore the Universe, and we'll never run out of things to question and explain.

Tip o' the self-gravitating disk to reddit.

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