February 11th, 2014
Bill Nye did just what he needed to do. The science world should set aside its relentless powers of negation for once and simply support his efforts to become a broad, positive voice for all things science. To all the bloggers who said he “lost” the “debate” — you’re being overly-literal minded (i.e. “such” scientists). It’s that myopia that handicaps the broader communication of science in the U.S.
A STARMETER STAR IS BORN. Bill Nye’s IMDB Pro Starmeter rank is around 7,000, which is pretty good. Alan Alda is at about 1200, which is even better, but a lot of that is probably just from reruns of “Mash.” The science world needs a trusted and liked voice for the public. Bill Nye offers this.
HE “WON” THE “DEBATE”
Not sure if you watched the “debate” last Wednesday night between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” versus the Creationist Wonder from Down Under, Ken Ham at his Creation Museum in Kentucky. Let me begin my assessment of it by addressing whether Bill Nye managed to “go for the jugular.”
Here’s the first thing you need to know: there is no jugular. I say this because I made a pro-evolution documentary, “Flock of Dodos,” that aired on Showtime in 2007, for which more than one prominent academic scientist said they found my film disappointing because I failed to, “go for the jugular.”
So there’s the first source of problems in this idea of “debating creationism.” There is no jugular. The contest is apples versus oranges.
In fact, let me tell you the best quote I never managed to squeeze into my movie. It was from Bill Wagnon, a Kansas School Board member and professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, who said the frustrating thing about the two sides of this issue is that they want to engage in battle, but can’t find a common battleground. He said it reminded him of 19th century Europe where the British navy wanted to fight Napolean’s army, but they couldn’t figure out where to meet.
Which means there simply is no such thing as a “jugular” to go for, any more than a human could hope to slash the jugular vein of a ghost.
Last Wednesday night pretty much neither side was listening, and it’s not clear there’s much of a “battleground” audience to be played for in the first place. Since 1982 the Gallup organization has been tracking the three main segments of the population who believe: A) God made it all, B) God helped, C) there is no God. The proportions are amazingly stable over time with a little over 40% for the first two groups, and a slowly growing number of people in group C, going from about 10 percent back then to roughly 15% today.
Bottom line — it’s a pretty stable pattern over time. And it makes you realize the stakes are non-existent for any given “debate” between evolution and creationism. You might as well have a football player challenger a ping pong player to chess. It just isn’t a competition.
However, there is a completely different perspective for this event, which is not substance but style. If you accept that we live in a society today where it matters far less what people hear than how often they hear it, you begin to grasp the power and importance of simply “having a voice” out in the mainstream media.
Towards that end, Bill Nye is beating Ken Ham by about 160,000 popularity points. That’s the difference right now in their ratings on the IMDB Pro “Starmeter,” which is the index Hollywood people use to figure out “who’s hot” in the media world.
In those terms, Bill Nye is indeed hot, and getting hotter. And no one in the science world can touch him at the moment. His current Starmeter rank is 7,074. His closest science competitors are probably Neil deGrasse Tyson (roughly 16,000) and Richard Dawkins (around 44,000).
Guess what that translates into—who do you think the current “go to” guy for climate debates on CNN and elsewhere is—it’s the guy with the best Starmeter rank. Of course Bill has been scorched more than once by trying to tangle with climate skeptic media machine Marc Morano, but for the most part, when you’re a minor media figure, exposure is exposure.
And in the meanwhile, what about Ken Ham — the fellow many scientists were terrified Nye was assisting by helping him get recognition for his event. His Starmeter rank is a paltry 170,000. Nobody’s going to be giving him his own TV show any time soon.
So the bottom line for the great “debate” is that it merely further stokes the media fire of Bill Nye. Is that a good thing?
Let me defer to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. A couple years ago the National Academy of Science featured him as the keynote speaker of their “Science of Science Communication” symposium. In his big speech, instead of telling them to do a better job of presenting more data (be more cerebral), he went the other direction, saying
“Because of emotional coherence, the source of the message is extremely important, the source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted, and if the scientific establishment is not trusted, then the amount of evidence really is going to have very little purchase on what is going to happen.”
If you take a look at the commentary around Bill Nye’s appearance last fall on Dancing with the Stars, what you find is that the audience loved him. And given the generally good image of scientists in our society, you can assume they would trust him as well.
The science world desperately needs a popular spokesperson. I could critique Nye’s specific style and even substance of the “debate” in great detail (i.e. the entire thing bored me in less than a minute), but that’s not what matters right now. He is pro-science, he’s smart enough, he has a rising star, and if the science world is smart, for once they will set aside their inexorable desire to negate ruthlessly and simply help him push that Starmeter score as high as possible.
It’s about leadership in the media world, which is a topic that science is utterly clueless about. Bill Nye presents an opportunity for a much-needed voice at a crucial time for science. Towards that end, he was the clear winner Wednesday night.