Bill Nye got his start in show business in a very strange way: by winning a Steve Martin look-alike contest. I find this interesting because Nye looks nothing like Steve Martin. According to people that knew Nye at the time, he won by imitating Martin’s characteristic physical flexibility, something that will be unsurprising to kids that grew up watching Bill Nye The Science Guy.
Since 1993, Bill Nye has been an internationally known science educator, and people of my generation grew up watching him bound around their television screens shouting about science. I confess that Bill Nye was never my guy, I was much more into Beakman’s World, but that’s not where my animosity towards Nye comes from. No, I have a much more reasoned dislike of Bill Nye for what he has done in the name of science education. I readily admit that Bill Nye The Science Guy turned a lot of kids on to science. Undoubtedly many kids that grew up with that show (people of my generation) went on to become scientists and engineers. A greater number simply came to appreciate and believe in science. These two objectives are what a science communicator strives for. In that regard Bill Nye has done truly great works, though many scientists (I’m not alone in my opinion, and I’ll prove as much later) feel he has long since crossed a line.
Before launching into my criticisms of Bill Nye I think it will be instructive to first offer a counter example. In my opinion, Neil deGrasse Tyson has done more for science popularism than anyone since Carl Sagan. (Sagan was a major influence on Tyson, the former actively trying to recruit the later for undergraduate studies at Cornell University. Oddly, Nye was a graduate of Cornell, though did not study under Sagan. He did, however, harass Sagan at an alumni event to get feedback on his pitch for the show that would eventually become Bill Nye The Science Guy. Sagan, like star stuff, is everywhere.) In these articles I have brandished the term “professional scientist,” meaning someone that makes their living doing science. I do this to enforce the idea that we can all be scientists, just like we can all be artists, but to make one’s living from a thing is an economic affirmation of the quality of work one does. I, for instance, am a professional scientist. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a professional scientist (and a much more accomplished one than me, I don’t hesitate to admit). Neil deGrasse Tyson had significant accomplishment within the scientific community long before he became a science popularist, holding a faculty position at Princeton. Let me assure you that they don’t just hand out faculty positions at Princeton – I checked. Since 1996 Tyson has been the director of the Hayden Planetarium, which is itself a well known institution. He has also published numerous academic research papers. I feel confident in my belief that if you are reading this article then you are familiar with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s science education work. My point is to say that Tyson not only talks the talk of science, he walks the walk.
Whereas Neil deGrasse Tyson is a professional scientist, Bill Nye is best described as a professional entertainer. Nye received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell and subsequently worked as an engineer at Boeing for several years. It was during his time at Boeing that he won that faithful look-alike contest. After that he started a career in stand-up comedy, and since quitting his Boeing job in 1986 has pursued entertainment as a profession.
I have no doubt that Nye has a genuine love for science and engineering. If Bill Nye had a profound affect on your love of science then I’m very happy for you. I don’t disparage anyone their preferred entertainment or their inspiration. One of my greatest inspirations for becoming a scientist was the movie Back to the Future, so I’m in no position to criticize anyone. My difficulty with Nye rests not on his iconic television show, but on how he has clutched to the limelight since.
Nye has spent much of his time since the end of his television show as the head of The Planetary Society, a non-governmental science advocacy group that supports the exploration and colonization of other planets. It was formed in 1980 by – you guessed it – Carl Sagan. Apart from being an advocate of space exploration, Nye has been a strong proponent of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing his personal carbon footprint. Remember that bit about climate change because it’s going to come back later.
As a science popularist, Nye has also been vocally opposed to the concept of Intelligent Design, which was invented as an insidious way for Biblical Creationists to stop evolution from being taught in public schools. Intelligent Design purports that life is so complex that only God could have created it; any evidence to the contrary is either misinterpreted by fallible man or was placed on Earth by God to test our faith. Essentially, Intelligent Design drapes itself with the appearance of science to trick the scientifically illiterate into believing that it is a legitimate scientific theory. Understandably, most scientists are not fans of Intelligent Design. There is a right way and a wrong way to deal with Creationists, and in 2014 Nye decided to throw himself full body into the wrong way.
The world’s most prominent proponent of Intelligent Design is Ken Ham, Christian fundamentalist and believer that the Earth is literally six thousand years old. Ham is president of Answers in Genesis, which (among many other things) operates the Creation Museum in Kentucky, a Christian “learning” center that counters concepts of evolution by showing dioramas of humans and dinosaurs coexisting. The significance of such a museum can not be overstated. Since opening in 2007, over two million people have paid for entry to the museum, and I can only imagine that many parents pointed their children to the dioramas professing them as proof that evolution was a lie.
Bill Nye’s fundamental feature is that he is an entertainer turned celebrity, and celebrities stop being celebrities when they are no longer in the public eye. I should also point out that Nye is not, nor has ever been, a geologist or evolutionary biologist. Despite the urging of the scientific community to the contrary, Bill Nye debated Ken Ham at the Creation Museum on February 4, 2014. Here was Bill Nye, the self professed “Science Guy” taking the arguments for evolution and a geologic Earth to the house of the world’s most prominent creationist. It was a spectacle watched by an estimated three million people online, and tickets for the live event sold out in minutes.
Have you ever watched a political debate? One side brings hand picked “facts” that support their arguments, to which their opponent provides their own “facts.” A winner is always declared, but in reality neither side is victorious unless they make their opponent look like an idiot. Unsurprisingly, many in the scientific community felt that Bill Nye won the debate; of course they did, because Bill Nye parroted scientific conclusions from fields he had never worked in. The fact that he was correct does not mean that he won. In my opinion Ken Ham won easily. Of all the people that would attend a creationism versus evolution debate at the Creation Museum in Kentucky for $25 a seat, how many do you think weren’t devout creationists? Bill Nye essentially walked onto the Republican National Convention stage and began a passionate argument in favor of socialism.
By the contractual terms of the debate, Answers in Genesis is legally permitted to sell DVDs of the debate, which they still do on their website for $19.99 plus shipping. Ken Ham has publicly stated that the debate generated so much positive publicity for the Creation Museum that they were able to use it as a fundraising vehicle to begin construction of Ark Encounter, a christian fundamentalist theme park. So here we have Bill Nye’s reckless pursuit of the limelight in the name of science education leading to the construction of a family oriented theme park whose sole ideological purpose is to turn children away from science. It is sad that a man who turned so many children towards science is now partly responsible for turning so many towards creationism. Nye is unapologetic, appearing several times since on various television programs with Ken Ham for further debates.
The Ken Ham debate is indicative of Nye’s science education style. Something that professional scientists learn early on is to question everything, because only when we question can we learn and perhaps overturn old theories with new ones. Nye has never learned this lesson, and his style of “educating” science unbelievers is to essentially call them stupid. In one YouTube video Nye righteously declares “You can’t ignore facts!” (comically after viciously defending his own scientific qualifications by spouting a lot of non sequitur references to various climate change indicators). The problem is that people can deny facts. People deny facts every day, that’s a key feature of humans. Telling is not understanding, but Nye doesn’t realize that because he has always believed everything he was told was science. According to him, anything that isn’t science is only believed by the ignorant. Of course, Nye only believes science because it was told to him by an elevated elite, the same way creationists believe their ministers. The fact that Nye doesn’t recognize this parallel is why he is so antagonistic to so many people.
I’m not alone in my criticism. It feels like a lot of the time the scientific community would just like for Bill Nye to go away. As evidence I submit an editorial in Scientific American authored by “500 Women Scientists,” a group that advocates for a more inclusive professional scientific community that counts over 20,000 people as members. The article appeared on January 30, 2018 with the title “Bill Nye Does Not Speak for Us and He Does Not Speak for Science.” All Nye had to do to deserve such a biting indictment was to side with an anti-science climate change denier.
For the first time in American history, the appointment of a NASA administrator is politically contentious. Normally the President selects a scientist or government official with administrative experience to lead the organization, or simply asks their predecessor’s appointee to stay on. Generally, the Congress doesn’t much care who runs NASA, as long as they stay within budget and nobody dies. But President Trump nominated Republican Representative Jim Bridenstine to head the agency, and even some Republicans have questioned his credentials. Much like Trump’s (successful) appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency – a man who spent much of his life taking the EPA to court – Bridenstine is not a fan of so-called “science.” Not only does Bridenstine lack any scientific or engineering qualifications, he is a notorious climate change denier. Since NASA is one of the main government organizations monitoring climate change that’s a bit of an issue when Congress considers his appointment. Since Bridenstine’s nomination NASA has been without a director, his nomination being held up by Congress while President Trump refuses to name a replacement candidate.
So for the second time in his career, Bill Nye played right into the hands of a science denier when he accepted Representative Bridenstine’s invitation to be his guest of honor at President Trump’s first State of the Union address. The State of the Union is a massive political spectacle, where every member of Congress brings a civilian guest to highlight their support or opposition to the President’s agenda. (For instance, that year many Democrats brought Dreamers from their home states to oppose Trump’s mass deportation force.) By sitting beside Bridenstine at the State of the Union, Nye used his celebrity to endorse Bridenstine’s anti-climate change stance. Of course, Nye didn’t feel that way, and in a statement said “My attendance tomorrow should not be interpreted as an endorsement of this administration, or of Congressman Bridenstine’s nomination, or seen as an acceptance of the recent attacks on science and the scientific community.” Then why even go? Nye has been critical of Trump’s embrace of science denial, yet he’s the guest of one of Trump’s proposed political appointees? The reason is simple: because Bill Nye needs the limelight. I’m sure all that press only helped his new Netflix show Bill Nye Saves the World. (I’m not even touching the egotism of that title. You’re smart enough to see it for yourself.)
The piece in Scientific American is fantastic, and I encourage you to read it. I can’t help but drop this excerpt here to enforce my own opinion of “The Science Guy.”
Further, from his position of privilege and public popularity, Bill Nye is acting on the scientific community’s behalf, but without our approval. No amount of funding for space exploration can undo the damage the Trump administration is causing to public health and welfare by censoring science. No number of shiny new satellites can undo the racist policies that make our Dreamer colleagues live in fear and prevent immigrants from pursuing scientific careers in the United States. And no new mission to the Moon can make our LGBTQ colleagues feel welcome at an agency run by someone who votes against their civil rights.
Science communicators are important, but when they become more celebrity than scientist their thirst for money and attention can result in extensive damage to the scientific community. Bill Nye stands before the world as a self proclaimed representative of science, and those of us who care more about discovery than notoriety pay the price for his egotism.
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