To Bill Nye, Fellow Ataxian

To Bill Nye, Fellow Ataxian February 9, 2017

…while Nye dreams of outer space, it’s his own DNA that worries him.

“My family has an affliction called ataxia,” he said. “My sister has it real bad. You walk like you’re drunk. And my sister has a walker. That’s how she goes everywhere. And apparently it’s not a strength thing. It has to do with your balance, which comes from your cerebellum.”

“But you don’t have symptoms of this?”

“Yeah, I do. Two years ago I noticed it.”

“For someone who sees this from a scientific viewpoint is this a bit scary for you?” asked Braver.

“If you’re not scared of this, I don’t know what you’re scared of.”

[from this CBS interview with Rita Braver]

I wasn’t interested in Bill Nye The Science Guy when it came on TV. Seems like that is an unforgivable trait among my generation of millennials.

It did have a catchy theme song though.
It did have a catchy theme song though.

After his show ended in 1998, Bill Nye seemed to disappear until Ken Ham invited him to a 2014 debate on evolution vs. creationism. (Did you know our very own Jonathan Ryan started the viral hashtag #hamonnye? #truestory) Since then, Nye has been seen as an archenemy of religion. Which is heartbreaking, since it implies that young-earth-creationist, science-denying Ken Ham is the standard-bearer for the faith.

I reject that. I sided more with Nye than with Ham in that debate, and not because I’m a flaky Christian, but because I’m a serious one.

Ham on Nye created a false dichotomy that the Catholic Church and most other mainline churches reject. Absolute faith versus absolute reason makes for an entertaining debate, undoubtedly; but to yoke yourself irrevocably to either side is naive, myopic and haughty.

For you, Mr. Ham, developing a worldview bigger than that of the ancient Biblical scribes is a good starting point. The Bible tells stories about our relationship with an unquantifiable God; it shouldn’t be confused with a science book. Idolizing the Bible is common among American Christians, but doing so asks us to abandon logic and reason. When Pat Robinson, a ringleader of American Christianity, tells you, another fundamentalist Christian, “Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves,” you may need to contemplate your life’s choices.

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Another colorful quote from Pat Robinson.

But Mr. Nye, though I side with you in this debate, I have an objection. You used the dichotomy of this debate – the accounts of the Bible versus scientific findings – to your advantage. Kudos for that. Belief in God should never (and could never, in my opinion) mean rejection of scientific findings despite all evidence. But God and science are not two opposite ends of the spectrum. When you depict the rational and the theological as enemies you draw an imaginary line in the sand. You’ve done to science what Jon Stewart did to politics: either you agree with us, or you’re an idiot. Which–given the intellectual history of Christianity–kinda makes you look uninformed.

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In the interview I quoted at the beginning of this post, Mr. Nye said that ataxia runs in his family, that his sister has a form of ataxia, and that he has also begun to show symptoms. I don’t know whether to offer my condolences or to pat him on the back and lightheartedly welcome him to the club. Ataxia is a grisly and inopportune reality, and it’s the genetic hand we’ve been dealt.

Mr. Nye, I think your ability to focus on scientific rationality is a strength for you; I greatly admire it. Most ataxians I know find rationality is a safe space to dwell when not much else makes sense and your body constantly betrays you. We ataxians are unable to trust ourselves; our brains tell us what we should be able to do, and our bodies fall short of that. It makes sense then that we should only trust experimentation that’s been proven scientifically. God knows that’s the safest route, especially for us ataxians.

But I’m still wrestling with God. And I don’t think that’s [only] because I am stupid.

If you ever want to have coffee let me know. Ataxia is a lonely road. We can talk about science and other stuff too. Because not all the other stuff is bullshit.

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P.S. Please consider  sponsoring me as I attempt to ride a recumbent trike in Dallas, TX, on April 1, to raise awareness and support research for the type of ataxia I have, Friedreich’s ataxia. All funds raised go towards the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA). Please click here to join the fight to cure FA!

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