March 5th, 2014
Jerry Coyne has an article in The New Republic blaming Bill Nye for how his public debate with creationist Ken Ham has supposedly backfired by “subsidizing the enemy.” I’m not so sure. There is a bigger picture at work. Ask your neighbor Gerry Graff, at University of Illinois, Chicago, author of “Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education,” and “They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.” Look at Elizabeth Kolbert’s article this week in the New Yorker on how to succeed on the SAT exams. We are a society awash in information where argumentation is now essential to “advancing the narrative.” The dumb creationist park is collateral damage. What’s more important is building a major mass media voice for science like Bill Nye who can argue the cause of evolution at the highest level.
REALLY? Is the world that simple? Don’t you think there’s some larger scale to this problem?
Pick your poison. What would you rather have, a world with no silly creationist theme parks, or one big, loud, effective, widely heard, widely cited mass media voice for science. Actually, you don’t get to pick — you’re getting both.
Bill Nye the Science Guy “debated” creationist Ken Ham. Evolutionist Jerry Coyne tried to dissuade him from doing it by publishing an article in The New Republic titled, “Four questions about Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Evolution Debate.” I emailed Bill, citing the longstanding rule of thumb of Genie Scott (longtime director of the National Center for Science Education), suggesting he use the opportunity as “a teachable moment” by withdrawing from the debate the week before saying it’s a general rule that no one should “debate” a creationist. He replied that he had a strategy to carve up his opponent. The “debate” went off. It was a snoozefest, but did score plenty of media coverage, and as I discussed in it’s wake, the IMDB Pro Starmeter rankings (one rough but somewhat accurate metric for media popularity) shot up for both of them.
DECLARE DON’T WAFFLE
Well, I would suggest there’s a bigger picture at work, and I don’t see any evidence of Coyne framing his discussion in this light. We now live in a vastly argumentative society that is ruled by the dynamics of the “Attention Economy,” described by Richard Lanham. Loud voices are essential, and a loud voice is something the science world has lacked. A friend of mine, who is writing a book I’m certain will be a bestseller given the enormity of her publisher, got the basic note last year from her editor to be “more argumentative.” And just this week in The New Yorker Elizabeth Kolbert examines the SAT testing process. In citing Debbie Stier, author of, “The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT,” she says, “According to Stier, the key to scoring well on the essay is a clear thesis. “Declare, don’t waffle,” she counsels. Pick a position and then bang away at it, the way you might at a piñata, or a rabid dog.”
I remember clearly 2005 when the conflict over intelligent design got the subject of evolution on the cover of every magazine and talked about on every news show. The “enemy” are largely hapless, but they do serve as a foil to help present evolution as a culturally relevant topic rather than obscurantia of the science world (which is what is slid back into in the years since then). And that can result in science having the sort of major societal voice that is dreamed of by academics.
A VOICE IN THE CROWD
This was the problem with ClimateGate. The skeptics stole the emails, Fox News became their instant mouthpiece, but all the climate science crowd had was a bunch of humble bloggers who calmly said, “Give it time, you’ll see there’s nothing to this.” But within a couple days Jon Stewart was ridiculing the entire science community for their inability to answer the scandal.
I think if that happened today there’s a decent chance Bill Nye could hold a press conference and be the equal and opposite voice of Fox News. Who cares about the dumb creationist museum. There is a need for these singular voices of leadership for the science world, and the fact is, The New Republic is not an effective voice to counter-balance Fox News. Nor are the AAAS or NAS — they’ve shown that repeatedly with the attacks on evolution and climate. But Bill Nye is getting there.
I recommend everyone look at things in this larger context.