No, Bill Nye was not booed off stage in Waco

A currently popular Internet rumor is that Bill Nye the Science Guy was “recently” (or in 2009, or sometime) “booed off the stage” in Waco Texas for mentioning that the Moon does not generate its own light but merely reflects the light of the Sun. As the story goes, his observation outraged the devout residents of Waco because they thought it contradicted the Bible.

In fact, this is a rehash of a story from 2006 that was overblown at the time. A very few religious persons in the audience apparently did take issue with Nye’s remark, but more likely because they thought Nye was misrepresenting the Bible than because they believed that the Moon generates its own light. The biblical text in question, Genesis 1:16, reads, “God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night — and the stars.” (New Revised Standard Version; other translations can be read here. This is said to have happened on the fourth day of Creation, which raises the obvious question of how there could already have been light, and an evening and a morning, on the first day, but that’s a separate matter.)

Nye’s point, I think, was that read completely literally, this verse of Genesis might be taken to imply that the Moon creates its own light rather than reflecting the light of the Sun as is actually the case, so it’s probably not a good idea to rely on a literal reading of the Bible as one’s source of scientific facts.

Of course, one could also say that the error isn’t in the text itself but rather in the meaning Nye ascribed to it. It’s not so unreasonable to call the Moon a “light” in the sky even though it isn’t the same sort of light source as the Sun. (For example, a glass-covered opening in a roof can be called a “skylight” even though it merely admits light and isn’t a source of it. I say this as someone who once spent several minutes at the end of a day looking for the switch to turn off the skylights in a building I was working in.) So it’s not surprising that someone who believes in the Bible might think that Nye was misrepresenting what it said in order to attack it.

Even so, according both to Nye and to the newspaper reporter whose story was the original basis for the rumor, no one, not even those who objected to Nye’s comment, booed or shouted, let alone raised such a ruckus as to drive Nye off the stage. Those who disapproved expressed their disapproval quietly. In fact, Nye received a standing ovation at the end of his talk.

For a more detailed description of what really happened, see this piece by a blogger who admits he originally got it wrong himself and this more succinct account referencing Nye’s own version of events.

Update (2015 May 10): The first link in the previous paragraph no longer works, and a search of the relevant website produces no alternative link. It appears that older posts such as this one by the blogger in question (Dylan Otto Krider) are unfortunately no longer available. However, there are references to what he wrote, along with additional information on this topic, in the discussion at this link.

(Updated 2015 May 6 for clarity, style, spelling, and to add the relevant Bible passage.)

(Updated 2015 June 22 to admit that back in the 1980s I was dumb enough to try to turn off a skylight. Whether I’ve improved since then is a matter of opinion.)

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