Bill Nye has committed to what is shaping up to be the highest profile “debate” of evolution versus creationism since the Scopes Monkey Trial of nearly a century ago. He will be debating Ken Ham, the colorful Director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Some major science voices have already recommended he not do it. But I think it’s a textbook case of the need to talk substance in an age of style. It’s a chance to put a popular, well liked face to the entire topic of evolution (plus if he has a single message at this point it’s his Youtube video that says creationism is not good for your kids which has over 6 million views). I support his doing it.
DATA! Feast your eyes on this, science fans. This is from the “pro” version of the Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB). Bill Nye hit a high of 989 a couple years ago. That’s impressive. And powerful. There is no higher profile voice for evolution right now (for comparison, see below, Neal deG. Tyson and Richard Dawkins have almost never even broken 10,000). Plus … they loved him on “Dancing with the Stars” meaning he has that magical, elusive thing that politicians would kill for called “likeability”!
TO DEBATE OR NOT TO DEBATE, THAT IS THE ETERNAL QUESTION
Through my two movies (Dodos and Sizzle) I got involved with both of the major science “debates” of evolution and global warming over the past decade. For the climate world I recommended in 2010 and again in 2013 that nobody debate climate skeptic Marc Morano (who was in Sizzle). One of the sources I cited for that was Genie Scott, long time Director of the National Center for Science Education and about the most important defender of evolution in this country. For a long time she has had a blanket policy of “don’t debate.”
Now Bill Nye, the highest profile voice for science in this country, has decided to defend evolution in a debate on February 4 at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
Let me start by deferring to Gerald Graff, whom I interviewed in Flock of Dodos. He wrote two books that I cite frequently these days — “Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education,” and “They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing” I really think people should read his two books before they weigh in on this debating issue. The latter book has sold over a million copies and is now used in college courses across the country for the teaching of argumentation.
His point with “Beyond the Culture Wars” is that everyone learns best when there is a source of conflict (like a debate) to help focus attention. I wholeheartedly agree with this. (And guess where else conflict is essential — in the telling of stories).
More to the point, look at how much broad media coverage evolution has received over the past 20 years. A decade ago the conflict and debate around the teaching of intelligent design put it on the cover of every major magazine and helped propel my movie on to Showtime. Now all the mass media attention to evolution has died down.
Yes, I know some scientists find the mass media to be a lot of distracting noise, but we did more than a couple hundred large screenings of Flock of Dodos and I’m sure several hundred thousand people saw the movie through Showtime and Netflix. This is how you educate the masses — through debate and conflict. Bill Nye understands this.
SO WHICH TEAM IS MY FAVORITE CELEBRITY ON?
I have spent more than 20 years hanging around Hollywood, often involved in celebrity events for everything from the oceans to hunger relief to disaster relief in Haiti to just good old fashioned parties in the Hollywood Hills that rage until sunrise (where people like Vince Vaughn or Winona Ryder show up drunk, ah, the good old days of film school). I also grew up in Kansas and have lots of friends and family there still, whom I visit several times a year.
This may just be my naive take, but I think most people away from the coasts don’t really care that much what celebrities have to say specifically about an issue, they just want to know, “Which team is my favorite celebrity on?”
Gun control? Just tell me which team George Clooney is on. Affordable Care? Just tell me which team Jay Z is on. Immigration Reform? Just tell me which team Jennifer Lawrence is on.
SO WHO IS ON THE EVOLUTION TEAM?
Pretty much nobody for celebrities. Sorry. I mean that in relative terms. There are armies of celebs on the environmental team. I’ve turned out bunches of them for PSA’s and events in Hollywood. It’s a piece of cake. Same for hunger, disease, and everything else that physically improves people’s lives in obvious ways. But evolution is not the same.
We had one major TV actor who helped us with our Shifting Baselines campaign — the star of a top ten TV show and a great guy. My assistant Ty had several interesting and substantive chats with him. So I got ready to make a pitch to him about doing a pro-evolution PSA around the time of Dodos, then we spotted an interview where he talked in depth about his “spirituality” and closeness to God. Which ended that line of thought.
And that’s the deal. Most celebs are very “spiritual,” as are the bulk of their fans. Evolution is perceived as non-spiritual. Yes, I know lots of evolutionists are religious, but we’re not talking about reality here, only perception (that’s all that matters in the media world). It just is. And so there are very, very few celebrities willing to step forward in its defense. I’ve talked with Genie Scott about this numerous times. It’s a challenge. Yes, there’s a few (like Seth MacFarlane who is awesome about it). But only a very few. It’s not like other issues.
BILL NYE HAS THE ELUSIVE LIKEABILITY FACTOR, SO USE IT
I was surprised to see his appearance on “Dancing With The Stars” last fall didn’t shoot him up above 1,000 on the Starmeter (see above). Regardless, he scored a ton of media exposure and most importantly, the fans LOVED him. No other scientist has that sort of mass adoration at the moment. Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson will get it with his upcoming “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey” series (for which Seth MacFarlane is an executive producer). Richard Dawkins can forget about it with his recent endorsement of “mild pedophelia” (doesn’t matter if he doesn’t really endorse it, he or his publicist allowed the perception to arise in the media).
More importantly, what this event is about is the subtitle of my first book, “Talking Substance in an Age of Style.” The general public doesn’t really want to hear the details of how evolution works. They just want the STYLE component — in two ways: which team are my celebs on, AND what are the spokespeople for each side like — SPECIFICALLY do I LIKE and TRUST the guy who is speaking for evolution?
And don’t take my word on this — as always, I defer to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, who told the National Academy of Sciences your voice needs to be “trusted and liked.”
Some angry and dismissive evolution professor (of the sort that debated an intelligent designer in the Seattle Town Hall a decade ago that I mentioned in my book) is not going to do squat for the evolution cause.
Bill Nye is not angry, not dismissive, not arrogant, and is perceived as fun, friendly and trustworthy.
Yes, the academics will probably find some moments to chop him up over whether he talks about the proper selection coefficients when it comes to allopatric speciation, but the general public … they could care a less.
This is a high profile event BECAUSE Bill is doing it. It will get lots of media attention. Despite many pro-science folks on blogs saying they would not give their $25 for a ticket, the event supposedly sold out in 2 minutes.
It’s time for the media to start cranking up the “New Millenial Scopes Trial” angle on it. There will be very little “teaching” that takes place with it. But there will be plenty of “imagemaking” for the entire subject of evolution.
The best thing that could happen is that Nye gets under the skin of Ken Ham, causing him to have a few unlikeable moments. That will go much further than any effort to “go for the jugular” (sheesh, that was the line a whole bunch of academics said they wished I had done with “Flock of Dodos” — as if there has EVER been a jugular for the creationists) by supposedly “out-arguing” the creationist.
Bill Nye is broadly popular. He’s already won the “debate.”
TYSON AND DAWKINS: NOT IN THE SAME LEAGUE WITH NYE
Here’s the Starmeter plots for these two guys who are probably the next highest profile entertainment voices for science. They both hover in the 10,000 to 20,000 range while Bill Nye is firmly better than 10,000.