Compared to nearly every other industrialized country, our culture is abysmally illiterate in science. As I have pointed out in previous posts, we fall near the bottom of the developed nations in science literacy, among nations like Turkey with strong religious fundamentalist influences and a fraction of our spending on education. Many studies have shown that our science illiteracy begins partway through childhood, where kids go from excited about dinosaurs and astronomy and other topics when they begin school to way behind kids of other industrialized nations by the time they leave high school. A lot of different reasons have been suggested, but certainly we are fighting a rearguard action against a culture which values jocks and pop stars more than scientists or scholars. This is especially apparent in teen culture where science seems to move from “cool” to “nerdy” as soon as puberty kicks in. Then the social pressures seem to turn kids off, no matter how hard their high school science teachers work and try to keep their attention and interest.
In this bleak setting, one of the few bright lights has been “Bill Nye, the Science Guy.” Bill was the star of his own cutting-edge science show for kids which filmed over 100 episodes from 1993-1998. The show used MTV-influenced fast-cut editing and lots of dramatic sound effects and camera angles, some slapstick humor, and edgy music, to convey simple but interesting science messages. It was the appropriate vehicle for making science “cool” for kids with short attention spans, since they were exposed to many hours of music videos and fast-paced movies and TV. The show was a smash hit on public TV and elsewhere while it was on the air, and a whole generation (such as my eldest son’s peers) grew up with Bill Nye as their model of science, just as older generations grew up with “Magic School Bus” or Don Herbert’s “Mr. Wizard.” Bill himself played the character straight, wearing his trademark bow tie and light blue lab coat, although he showed a flair for slapstick comedy and sight gags as well. Bill is a mechanical engineer (trained at Cornell, he took classes from Carl Sagan) who worked for Boeing for a while before his interest in standup comedy led him to television, and eventually to his groundbreaking show. Sadly, when it went off the air in 1998 there has been no equally effective replacement show on TV. Most of the old episodes don’t seem to be widely aired any more, and only some of them are available on YouTube or on Amazon.com. Nye himself continues to make many appearances on TV and elsewhere, and has been involved in several science-based TV series for older audiences, but nothing has captured the excitement of his original show.
Even though the original show was frenetic and fast-paced, Bill himself is very relaxed and easygoing, and about as inoffensive as they come. He uses simple words and explanations, and is infinitely patient with ignorant TV reporters who ask him dumb questions about global warming, showing their complete ignorance of the basics of weather and climatology. (Naturally, Fox News has attacked him on numerous occasions for having the temerity to explain the consensus in the scientific community to their science-denying audience). When I have seen him live or appeared with him on stage, he strikes a balance between the deadpan comedian who loves to get a laugh, the amateur who is fascinated with science, and the expert who explains it. Without appearing arrogant or overbearing, he manages to talk about science clearly and simply and honestly in a way that convinces people much better than the rest of us science popularizers. If his mentor Carl Sagan was the face of science in an older generation, Bill is perhaps the most trusted face of science to much of American society today. In fact, his relaxed and inoffensive manner is so well known (both his public persona and what I’ve seen of him privately) that there have been numerous satires where Bill is “quoted” with a ranting statement full of profanities—and almost everyone realizes this is a parody on his squeaky-clean, low-key image.
Bill’s original series did not shy from talking about evolution or other controversial topics, but its audience was mostly kids. Most of the time Bill does not take the role of passionate proselytizer for the scientific community, although if asked about global warming or evolution, he will clearly explain the scientific evidence. Nevertheless, the anti-science forces in this society are stronger and more polarized than they were when his did his series in the 1990s. For example, when he gave a recent talk in Texas, some of the audience was offended not by his defense of global warming, but when he explained that moon did not have its own light but shone with light reflected from the sun—and several religious fundamentalists walked out in anger because the Bible talks about the “two great lights”. The original accounts report:
Nye was in town to participate in McLennan Community College’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He gave two lectures on such unfunny and adult topics as global warming, Mars exploration, and energy consumption.But nothing got people as riled as when he brought up Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”The lesser light, he pointed out, is not a light at all, but only a reflector. At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled “We believe in God!”
A few weeks ago, there was a big firestorm of controversy on the internet over Bill Nye’s YouTube video “Creationism is not appropriate for children.” Part of series called “The Big Think” featuring other prominent scientists and skeptics like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Penn Jilette, and others, it is shot with just a talking head on a stark white background. In his classic low-key, understated manner, Bill casually points out that evolution is the central concept of biological sciences, that rejection of evolution is analogous to not accepting plate tectonics, that it makes the world make sense and explains the complexity that is otherwise unexplainable. He finishes by point out that adults may want to cling their own beliefs, but we need to have children who are properly educated in science because they are our future. And in his final statement, he suggests that the creationist myth may disappear in a few more generations (as it already has in most industrialized nations in Europe and Asia). Most of us who saw the video on line said “AMEN!” because the message needs to reach a wider audience, and Bill is one who has credibility across the entire U.S. population. In Bill’s words:
And I say to the grownups if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s entirely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it, because we need them; we need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future… we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems. It’s just really a hard thing, a really hard thing.
Naturally, the hyperactive creationist community today viewed that video (but not the others by Tyson and Kaku, which also tread on biblical literacy) as a challenge. Australian creationist Ken Ham of the “Answers in Genesis” ministry (which built the atrocious “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky) launched his own video response. Naturally, he puts down Bill Nye as being a mere engineer and not a real scientist (never mind that Ham has no scientific training whatsoever). He also tries to undermine Bill’s credibility by calling him a “humanist” (since he’s received well-deserved awards from humanist organizations), even though Bill has not made as many statements about the religious implications of science as people like Tyson, Penn, or Dawkins. Then he pulls a Gish and argues that since Nye was once a Boeing engineer, he should know that nature looks designed (a version of Gish’s favorite “707 in the junkyard” argument, which I debunked in an earlier post). The rest of the video is based on the phony distinction creationists make between “observational science” (which they accept, since you can watch it in real time and can’t deny it) and “historical science” (which they deny). No real philosopher of science regards this distinction as meaningful in any way since all scientists use a mixture of historical inference and real-time observations to make scientific discoveries as testable hypotheses. Only creationists keep raising it again and again as a way to denigrate “historical science” and allow their mythology to be substituted for it. If such a definition were actually valid in science, nearly all of science we perform today would be impossible. This includes not just evolution and geology, which have lots of historical components, but also astronomy (viewing events of the past whose light is just reaching us), and most of chemistry and physics at the submicroscopic level, which cannot be directly observed but must be inferred from its behavior and making assumptions that the laws of nature apply at every scale, and in the past as they do today.
If Ham’s attack on Nye weren’t pointless and ineffectual enough, Ham then posted videos from some of his AIG “scientists” who have sold their souls to fundamentalism. Each video proves that although the speaker may have had some advanced science training, they went in with fundamentalist blinders, and cannot see or understand most of the research in their field that clearly points to evolution. Their claims come from the standard creationist playbook (e.g., the claim that there is no mechanism for genetic complexity, which has been shot down many times; quote-mining something out of context). All of their arguments have been debunked many times, yet they persist in making them. Even though these people may have legitimate doctorates in science, they only demonstrate that if you go into science with religious blinders, you’ll miss the forest for the trees. One of them, David Menton, argues that creationism is widespread in other cultures—and then points to the Muslim world, which most American creationists tend to hate, with their dismissal of other religions, particularly Islam! Most of the rest of the cultures he mentions are equally scientifically backward, while Bill is rightly pointing out that the developed nations we compete with (found in western and northern Europe, plus industrialized Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China) have almost no influence of creationism.
Perhaps the ultimate measure of who is more credible and respected can be seen in the relative popularity of the videos. Bill’s video went viral, passed among the many users who were science-literate on the blogosphere and Facebook; as of this writing has over 4.4 million views and growing. The two AIG videos got only 80,000-120,000 hits in over two weeks—pretty pathetic. This may not be a true measure of their influence, since the internet and YouTube tend to be populated by more media-savvy, science-conscious people. By contrast, as Matt Taibbi showed in his deliciously sarcastic book The Great Derangement, fundamentalists live in highly closed communities where they get most of their information from their ministers and their peers and avoid the media (even Fox News), and definitely do not expose themselves to books or videos which might tempt them with the idea of science or evolution. Neverthless, the ratio of 4.4 million to about 100,000 is quite revealing.
But the success of Bill’s video reminds of us another sad fact: since “Science Guy” left the air, there has been no comparable show to take its place and reach the attention of the current generation of kids. A lot of our biggest popularizers of science, from Don Herbert to Carl Sagan to Stephen Jay Gould, are no longer with us. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is working on a new version of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (written by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and co-produced by Seth McFarlane of “Family Guy” and “Ted” fame), but that reaches a mostly grownup audience. Where are the TV science shows for kids? Bill still has his popularity and his talent. Why doesn’t some producer revive “Science Guy” in some new format that will appeal to today’s kids? It’s a grand opportunity that is being missed, and our kids (and our cultural science literacy) are that much poorer for it.