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Nye’s Way or the Highway

Lee Phillips
September 19th, 2017

We nearly all feel the same unease, my scientist friends and I. At least those who live and work in the United States. Things seem to be going against us. It’s not supposed to be this way.

This unease is long standing, but has recently gotten much worse. The periodic handwringing about American education in science and mathematics is a grand tradition in our circles. We compare our children, in elementary school, in high school, to the Europeans, the Asians…how can our GDP be so impressive and our test scores so embarrassing? Is it something in the water? Is it TV? Should we actually consider paying our teachers a living wage?

At least, until recently, the public, and their politicians, were vaguely on our side. Maybe people weren’t sure what science was, but they were pretty sure they were for it — or at least not against it. After all, TV and cellphones come from science, don’t they? And we like those. Also, those space pictures are nice. And we’re certain that somebody needs to know some math, to keep the country’s checkbook balanced. Even if it’s not. The politicians kept the money flowing for the same reasons they always have, since Ancient Greece and probably before: an understanding of nature turns out to be useful in fighting wars.

But something has changed. We were used to at least a tacit acknowledgement of the importance our our enterprise, a general, grudging respect that made it easy to endure the smirks directed at “eggheads”. Some of us on the cutting edge of social adeptness even embraced the slurs, “owning” nerd and geek and wearing the stereotypes with giddy pride. On t-shirts, even.

Something has changed. I think climate science has a lot to do with it. People love you if they think you’re telling them that we are all on a lazy-river glide toward a “Star Trek” future. Once you start warning that Wall Street will be under water (I mean the actual street, and actual water) in their children’s lifetimes unless we made some hard choices very soon, the mood shifts. The buzz is deceased. People start tuning in to “Infowars”.

At least we can count on our policy makers to be roughly rational, though. Can’t we? There have always been the Proxmire types, willfully misunderstanding science for demagogic leverage. But the mass of the legislature understood that, despite those student test scores, somehow American science still led the world, and, if they wanted to keep it that way, they had better keep the funding agencies flush with cash. Laugh if you want, but Al Gore did shepherd the money flow that eventually got us the internet.

And these days? Recently, Congress decided to have a hearing about the climate. They wanted to be informed about the science. To do that, they invited four people to testify in front of the House science committee: two more-or-less discredited individuals, one useless equivocator, and one actual, working climate scientist. Among the highlights of this session was when the chairman of the committee casually dismissed a reference to the journal Science by claiming that it could be disregarded because it was biased. That’s Science: one of the top four or so most prestigious scientific publications in the world. On previous occasions, this Congress has strained to inform itself about the complexities of climate science by inviting buffoons such as Lord Christopher Monckton, who — OMG, just Google him.

When the chairman of the science committee dismisses science itself as being “biased”, we might begin to suspect that something actually has changed under our feet. Can you imagine this nonsense going on in the 1950s, during the Sputnik panic? Perhaps the difference is that nobody could credibly deny the existence of the shiny, bleeping Soviet satellite. Human-caused global warming, which is, or should be, our current Sputnik, is easy to deny. There are no beeps from space. Judith Curry, a (retired) professor after all, can point out that “the climate is always changing!”, as she did during her Congressional testimony, and that, to much of the current Congress and to the folks at home, as well, serves to rebut the entire corpus of modern climatology.

So much for the legislative branch of government. Add to that the thugocracy that’s infested the executive branch since the inauguration, the (to choose just one tiny thing) President’s claim, either horribly cynical or frighteningly delusional, that he’s about to bring back the coal jobs, and things are looking grim for science.

When you feel that everyone is against you, you develop a deep appreciation for your allies. Science is very lucky right now to enjoy the relentless, cheerful, and eloquent championship of such passionate popularizers as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. Their books and talks, their focus on inspiring and instructing young people, go a long way to counteract the social forces that seem to be newly energized against reality. I’d like to pause here to give them, and others of their kind, my deeply felt thanks.

And then there’s Bill Nye. I used to number Nye among the champions, and considered him a national treasure. Now I will try to explain why I’ve changed my mind.

But first, let us sing his praises. I first became aware of Bill Nye and his activities through (mainly) YouTube videos of his appearances on various cable news programs. He would face off against comically stupid hosts and malicious, lying propagandists, calmly, but with great force and clarity, explaining why they were wrong and describing the consensus position of current science. He was accurate, correct, and never let the deceit or muddle-headedness of his opponents go unchallenged. He had a good sense of humor and seemed to be fearless. He never got rattled. Much of the time, the debate was about global warming, and Nye had solid responses to all of the standard denialist nonsense. It was natural to cheer him on, and think of him as one of our best advocates for science and reason.

About this time my children were assigned to watch a couple of Bill Nye videos — episodes from the ‘90s show that made him famous, “Bill Nye the Science Guy”. I watched the shows (preserved on YouTube, of course) with them. I wanted to like the “Science Guy” episodes, but I had mixed feelings about them. One, in particular, about buoyancy, left me with a bad aftertaste. Watching one of these shows is a little exhausting. There is a lot of noise, flashing lights, frenetic camera work, goofiness, bow ties, and relentless, grinding repetition. I know that Nye is trying to appeal to low-attention-span Children of the Screen, but really. One gets the impression that Nye feels that the ideas aren’t interesting enough on their own, and need to be packaged with a whole lot of flash to hold anyone’s attention. I think he should give the kids a little more credit.

But this is almost beside the point. It’s just the curmudgeon in me talking, and is not my real problem with Bill Nye’s approach to science education. I’ll stick with the buoyancy episode for my example. Nye drills the basic fact into the brains of the audience: the law of buoyancy that, according to legend, caused Archimedes to leap from his bath, shouting “Eureka!” when he finally worked it out. After you watch this show, you will definitely be able to recite the buoyancy law. He even has the children on the show make little boats and float them in tanks, thereby creating some kind of connection between the words of the law and things that actually float or sink. There are plenty of cool demos that drive the point home very effectively. If the folks at home are paying close attention, they may reach some understanding of the phenomenon that Archimedes racked his brain to come to grips with. They may be even able to do more than recite the answer, but understand it and be able to apply it.

But Nye’s approach makes this unlikely. He presents the law as an incantation to be memorized. There is nearly nothing here about how this fact of nature was discovered, about why it is true, nor about how to interrogate nature to discover other things like this. In other words, there is very little actual science here. Instead, there is an engineer’s application of rules — rules without mechanism, without an underlying model that gives them meaning and life. Science is not a list of facts and laws to laboriously memorize like the multiplication table. It is a method for avoiding self-deception and teasing nature’s secrets out of a complex tangle of phenomena. There is no science without false leads, faltering exploration, and mistakes in abundance. Nye’s attitude is fundamentally authoritarian. While it beats the drum of a correct statement of a scientific law, in a deeper sense it’s anti-science.

The lack of understanding has consequences within the video itself. While generally sound, it goes off the rails during a scene that has a little boy float an aluminum foil boat in a fish tank. He crumples the boat into a ball that sinks, and the scripted explanation for why this is seems to contradict the rule of buoyancy that the scene was supposed to demonstrate.

Once you’re clued in to the authoritarian nature of Nye’s approach to science, many of his other antics, that might otherwise seem like anomalies, start to fit in to a pattern.

Take another look at Nye’s battle against the climate “denialists.” Although Nye presents the current consensus correctly, his approach is dogmatic. Sometimes this is understandable, as a reaction to the provocation of the organized core of mitigation skepticism, which is cynically dishonest in the extreme. But sometimes this dogmatism reveals itself as something darker. Allies of climate-skeptic propagandist Marc Morano have circulated, with glee, a video of him conducting some kind of interview with Bill Nye. Morano brings up the topic, current at the time, of criminal prosecution contemplated by a group of climate activists against some of the organized skeptics and their corporate funders. Morano and friends have framed this, disingenuously, as an attack on free speech — as defenders of the scientific consensus threatening to use the courts to silence those who would dare to voice a minority opinion. The reality is that there is a powerful misinformation campaign, funded in part by energy companies, and involving some of the very same people who organized to misinform the public about the dangers of tobacco. The threat of legal action was a theoretical attack against this conspiracy, not against individual scientists who might hold an unconventional view. Chillingly, Nye, on video, rather than pointing any of this out, seems to accept Morano’s deceptive framing, and simply shrugs his shoulders, saying that we’ll just have to see how it plays out. He does not affirm what any scientist would affirm out of the deepest reflex: that the freedom to express any scientific opinion, no matter how sure we are that it is mistaken, must be inviolate. That the use of the courts to bully scientists with which we disagree is unthinkable. That academic freedom, and freedom of expression in general, is more important than merely being right. Saying that we’ll just have to “see what happens” is not an adequate response. That Nye allowed a third-rate huckster like Morano to frame him as an anti-free speech bully might have been a fluke — or it might have been what we should have expected from an actual authoritarian anti-free speech bully.

Nye has a new show. I’ve seen exactly one episode, again via YouTube. I saw it because of the ferocious internet response it generated, which served to inform me that Nye did in fact have a new show, this time on Netflix. The centerpiece of the episode, entitled “The Sexual Spectrum,” was a music video, which was the subject of the internet reaction. If the internet was to be believed, this was the worst music video in the history of music or videos. Conservatives were appalled, because it celebrated some very un-conservative acceptance of nontraditional gender thingies. People who were non-traditionally gendered hated it as well, because it made them out to be circus freaks defined by their sexual activities and desires, rather than human beings. People with taste hated it because it was simply the most hideous thing they had ever seen. And this was after everyone had already seen Donald Trump in golf clothes.

I had to take a look. The “music video” turned out to be a live performance by a band of chanting, gyrating folks photographed with frenetic camerawork in the style of Nye’s previous science show. During the performance, the camera occasionally cut to Nye at a bank of turntables and knobs, pretending to be busy doing something very hip in furtherance of the spectacle.

I’ll pass over a detailed aesthetic critique in favor of a summary of the main idea. The performers advocated a kind of pan-sexual, spectrum-of-genders world view. But not because that was the world that they preferred. They, and Nye, insist that this is a reflection of the truths revealed by science. That to deny or question any iota of their new orthodoxy is not merely to be an oppressor, but to deny science itself.

Nye has taken the next step — and it would not have occurred to me that this was the next step until Nye had taken it. Now that he has, it seems, retrospectively, inevitable. Having gone down the authoritarian road of science as revealed doctrine, and become an advocate of science’s results denuded of the spirit of science, Nye is now bending his regrettable ideas of scientific truth in order to provide spurious support for the social policies and behaviors that he likes. Worse, he’s making up scientific conclusions, and using these fictions to intimidate those who might disagree. Talk about human sexuality in a way the Nye doesn’t like, and you’re not just in disagreement with him and his new friends – you’re ignorant, just like a climate or vaccine denialist. And if your departure from Nye’s preferred way of speaking about gender stuff becomes too irksome, perhaps the courts can be employed to remind you of the dangers of misinforming the public.

This is all so bad that it’s hard to decide which of the major things wrong with it is the worst. Let’s start with Nye’s claims about science. He’s either convinced, or is pretending to be convinced, that science has advanced to the point where it can make reliable statements about all — or some — or any — aspects of sexual behavior: gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. Of course, this is just silly. The notorious replication failure in “science”, that has caused so much hand-wringing recently, was actually confined almost entirely to social psychology and related fields (there are related problems in medical research, too). While there is much fascinating research in these areas, they are still mired, if not dominated, by self-deception and methodological error. The recent spectacular failure of an applied manifestation of these sciences, election prediction, should be suggestive. There is no science of human behavior, in anything like the form in which we can claim to possess a science of the climate, with all its complexities and uncertainties, not to mention established sciences with results we can rely upon, like physics or chemistry. No matter what you think about the details, I think this is uncontestable: we are far, probably decades away, from anything like the kind of scientific understanding that would support, or deny, or comment on in any way, the view of human sexuality that Nye claims to be established scientific truth.

If that is one side of a very tarnished coin, the other side is no more attractive. If you can squint past the self-righteousness, aggressive affront to taste, and baseless claims upon science, part of the message pushed by the band of enthusiasts on Nye’s stage can be construed as a plea for tolerance and kindness. We should keep in mind that the lack of scientific understanding cuts both ways. If it can’t support Nye’s particular dogma of gender fluidity, neither can it be recruited in the service of “traditional,” rigid gender identities. We really have little choice but to acknowledge our very incomplete understanding, and seek guidance where we can. Above all we should be guided by our sense of decency, and whatever happens to serve as our source of morality. But here’s the thing about moral values and decent standards of behavior: they are supposed to be constant guides, rather than contingent truths, as are the truths of science. If Nye insists on tying the attitudes that we “ought” to hold to what we happen to think “is” the truth about human behavior, he must be willing to alter, repeatedly and rapidly, the “ought” to confirm to the changing and contingent nature of the “is”. This is, of course, very wrong, and in Nye’s case, self-defeating. Our treatment of our fellow humans must be based on something more constant than our fluctuating ideas about the causes of human behavior. Nye’s bullying, self-righteous program does violence not only to the spirit of science, but is ethically precarious, as well.

There was an amusing moment at the end of the music video portion of the program. Nye approaches the performers, exuding an unctuous air of approval. He addresses the leader, affirming that they had made the correct, Nye-approved statement: “That’s exactly the right message, Rachel. Nice job.” He moves in to make his congratulations more intimate. There’s a spot of awkwardness. Then the old man gives hearty handshakes to the performers who appear to be male, and full hugs to those who appear to be female. How hard it is to change our ways!

As I hinted, I’m not the only one complaining about this nuclear-scale disaster. But while much of the angst refers to Nye having somehow gone bad, jumped the shark, and so on, I see this as a logical continuation of a well-established trend. In fact, it was this one disastrous entry in Nye’s catalogue that set the authoritarian nature of his public career in stark enough relief that it finally became obvious just what it was that had been bothering me about both Bill Nye’s gladiatorial appearances and his educational programs.

I’m involved in a bit of science outreach, in a small way, through my writing and by helping to organize science programs at a local planetarium. I know that there is plenty of science love out there, but it seems to be concentrated in the very young and the rather old. The young, as many have noticed, are natural scientists. Their unstoppable curiosity leaves them with no choice: they love science. The old folks have lived through change, and that’s enough. Their medicine cabinets are stuffed with wonders, keeping them ticking, that didn’t exist when they were young themselves. This is even true of my middle-aged self: repeatedly sidelined by asthma up through college, the disease barely affects me now, because of medical research undertaken during my lifetime. Between these two demographics are people in their wage-earning decades; and here you will find a significant minority indifferent to the wonders of nature and our heroic struggle to understand it, or with an active hostility born of the suspicion that reality might indeed have a liberal bias.

Somehow, we have to do better. We have to give the young folks enough to work with so that they don’t become like their parents. I’m not one of those who nag scientists, claiming that they have a responsibility to communicate the importance of what they do to the public. That’s easy to say, but it’s part of my daily routine now, and I know how difficult and time-consuming it is. In some ways it’s harder than actual research. So if a scientist has a knack for it, and is motivated to carve out the time to actually do it, wonderful. Otherwise, leave them alone. We can’t all be Neil Tyson.

Listen to the way fundamentalists talk about evolution. They don’t dispute the science. They don’t know what science is. They see evolution as another religion, a false religion like Islam (if they’re Christians) or Christianity (if they’re Muslims) that’s competing with their faith. That’s why they like to talk about “Darwinism:” Darwin is the false prophet of a creed inspired by Satan.

Listening to Bill Nye is likely to reinforce this worldview. His dogmatic, intolerant pronouncements harden the hearts of the fundamentalists against the gentle queries of reason; he provides the windmill that they can tilt against. This battle is God’s work, and fighting it is evidence of their virtue. They get no points for learning what science really is: not competing scriptural claims, but a tool for organizing the world of the senses – and something that apparently need not compete with their metaphysics at all, at least if Dr. Francis Collins can serve as an example.

This is what we have failed to do. Getting people to memorize the buoyancy law is easy. Getting them to understand how magisterially difficult it is to first apprehend these truths, the sublime and gargantuan cultural inheritance that is our science, and, above all, that they are free to overturn any part of it by coming up with something better — this should be our goal. Bill Nye is not helping.

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