Friday, January 21, 2011

A Rising Tide Lifts all Boats . . . and also BLOWS BILL O’REILLY’S MIND

On January 4, 2011, on his television show The O’Reilly Factor, commentator Bill O’Reilly provided yet more evidence that one can be very successful, especially in television, without actually using one’s head.

O’Reilly’s guest for the evening—or at least for a short segment of it—was David Silverman, the head of an atheist organization that had bought space on a billboard in Huntsville, Alabama, that both invited residents to a regional meeting of atheists and described all religions as scams.1 The latter part struck O’Reilly—and, to be fair, probably plenty of others in Huntsville, and a large percentage of however many people watch The O’Reilly Factor—as rude and offensive.

Whether it was indeed rude—and whether O’Reilly’s rather inhospitable treatment of his guest was any more appropriate—could be the subject of a long, energetic, and almost certainly fruitless debate that doesn’t particularly interest us at the moment. Suffice it to say that regardless of one’s point of view, the discussion between Silverman and O’Reilly probably managed to find a way to irritate or offend just about everybody watching, one way or another, without actually solving or illuminating a thing.

However, more important to us than O’Reilly’s interest in polite behavior—or at least his interest in witnessing it, if not actually participating in it himself—is the example he used, over the course of the conversation, as evidence that religions aren’t scams. After prefacing a statement earlier in the show by admitting “I know I’m not the smartest guy in town,” he then—in an apparent giddy rush to prove himself right—offers, as evidence of God’s existence, the fact that “[The] tide goes in, [and the] tide goes out.” According to O’Reilly, the tides are proof that God exists because “You can’t explain that.”

Bill O’Reilly’s argument, rephrased for convenience, is that because we can’t explain tides, God exists. According to his reasoning, then, being able to explain the tides would be evidence that God doesn’t exist. It’s actually somewhat fortunate for O’Reilly—not to mention very fortunate for God—that his logic is shit.

O’Reilly’s argument here is a sort of variation on the Argument from Ignorance—he’s essentially saying that if he can’t explain something, then it can’t be explained. While the flaw in this line of reasoning should be fairly obvious, please allow us to illuminate them anyway by using the same argumentative framework O’Reilly uses on the following statement:

“Yo-yo goes down, yo-yo comes back up. You can’t explain that.”

Here’s how the O’Reilly method operates here (and why it fails):
  1. I don’t know how a yo-yo works. (This part, I’m sorry to say, is true.)
  2. Therefore, nobody knows how a yo-yo works—not even those who dedicate their lives to studying, designing, and constructing yo-yos, assuming people like this still exist. (This statement does not logically follow from the previous statement, and is also demonstrably false.)
  3. Therefore, yo-yos are magic. (This also isn’t true, and it also does not follow from the above statements.)
    Ancient yo-yoing is apparently for real. Who knew?

    The only thing that an argument from ignorance really has a chance at proving is—sorry, Bill—the “ignorance” part.2 And indeed, tides are actually very well understood and have been for centuries; moreover, they can be easily explained to, and by, folks with little scientific expertise:

    To put it simply rather than thoroughly, tides are caused by the gravitational pull of Earth’s moon and, to a lesser degree, the Sun. (While the Sun is far more massive than the Moon, it’s also some sixteen to eighteen miles farther away, and thus its influence on tides is diminished to about half of the Moon’s.3)

    The sun and the Moon both affect the Earth’s tides; higher tides result when
    the two pull in the same direction. All objects life-sized and to scale.

    All matter is affected by gravity,4 and therefore everything on Earth—not just the oceans, but also dirt, pandas, tractors, pirates, and even Cream of Wheat—is influenced by the Moon’s gravitational pull. It’s been estimated, perhaps even measured, that the tidal pull of the Moon moves the ground beneath our feet by around a centimeter. However, as the oceans are mostly liquid,5 and thus much more malleable than solids (examples of solids: continental plates, tractors), it’s in the oceans that the tides are most noticeable; in certain places such as the Bay of Fundy, the difference between high and low tide can be as much as 55 feet.6 If the entire Earth moved to the same degree that the seas do, tides would be much harder to observe—but they’d still be going on.

    In order to affect the tides, an object must be extremely massive.

    So at the risk of patting ourselves a tad too hard on the back, we believe the above is a decent if very basic explanation of what causes the tides, and astute readers will note that the question of God’s existence7 is no more or less settled than it was two or three paragraphs earlier. We believe it’s perfectly clear that we haven’t offered any opinion whatsoever on the existence or non-existence of God, and simply hope that—whatever your opinion of God, organized religion, atheism, science, or The O’Reilly Factor—it’s clear to everyone that both God and religion are very fortunate that Bill O’Reilly is not their best or only defender.

    Please check back soon; in a future installment we hope to reveal the fiendish sorcery responsible for elevators.

    1. If you haven’t yet clicked on the link above and are wondering, this is not hyperbole on our part. The word used on the billboard was indeed “scams.”
    2. One has to wonder if O’Reilly is concerned about whether a high enough tide might tip Guam over.
    3. All figures made up on the spot.
    4. We’re pretty sure about this, although we have a hunch it gets disproved in at least one or two Star Trek episodes.
    5. The ice caps, being ice, are solid, but they don’t amount to much, especially lately. Cream of Wheat, on the other hand, somehow appears to be simultaneously liquid and solid—go ahead and try to explain that, atheists!
    6. We have no idea how big a distance this is, but we suspect it’s at least five or six times larger than a centimeter. 
    7. We are aware that for many of our readers (not to mention our billions of non-readers), God’s existence is not in question. To be fair, though, to plenty of other folks, God’s non-existence isn’t in question either. So we’re just going to leave it exactly as we wrote it in order to irritate everybody equally.

    The following is the relevant segment from The O’Reilly Factor. The host’s comments about the tide occur a little after 1:48.


    1. Did you need proof that O'Reilly was a complete idiot? I guess if you did this should seal the deal.

    2. I can not explain this article, because of this, no one else can and because of that, God exists.

    3. I am nearly 100% convinced at this point that O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Beck, et al. are not actually conservatives at all, but are a cunning liberal ploy designed to infiltrate modern conservativism and detonate a massive retardbomb at its center, allowing them to sit back and watch the GOP to destroy itself in an orgy of stupid soundbites and ill-informed nonsense from those purported to be the party's mouthpieces. Success is imminent, if not already achieved.

      I personally know and have civil relations with numerous conservative-minded folk, and despite what one might expect, none of them are anywhere near as brainless as are the people who seem to be doing the talking for them these days. Is this false perception the result of a brilliant, Dem-led anti-PR campaign? Like when you showed up to high school that one morning, the Friday before the game against your school's Big Rival, and you saw that your school had been vandalized! TP in the trees! "Your School Sucks! Your Rival Rules!" written on the walls! Trash cans overturned in broad daylight! Those bastards!!! And so you all showed up in full throat for the Big Game and just routed the shit out of them, but then next week as you and your classmates basked in your righteous victory, you heard rumors that the people who trashed your school were your own classmates just trying to get everybody riled up, and you decide right then and there to never trust anybody ever again.

      Well, not exactly like that, no. I guess when I sit back and think about it, I'm still a lot more upset about being tricked into caring about the Big Game than I am at O'Reilly making the GOP look like a bunch of idiots, because hey, they let him do it, so maybe they're just as stupid as he makes them look.

    4. Well said, Mr. Guy.

      For fun, another interpretation of O'Reilly's comments would be:
      - "You can't explian that" because you're mortal.
      - God created the tides.
      - Therefore God could explain the tides.

      Then, the logical extension is:
      - If you can explain them, you must be God.

      No surprise, then, that some people believe in science like a religion.