On Friday, former television host and science advocate Bill Nye will speak at Northwestern. He is one of only a few Americans who could be described as a science celebrity, beloved by schoolchildren and nostalgic millennials alike. He has built a career on promoting science and critical thinking, from television appearances on climate change to books on evolution. But why are there so few science activists as successful as Nye? For Nye, science is not his career, but rather advocacy itself. This distinction is exactly why scientists themselves make for poor promoters of science.
Interestingly, Nye has very little scientific training. He has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, but does not have a PhD or any formal graduate training. There are likely undergraduate and graduate students currently at NU who have more scientific training than Nye.
But despite this apparent dearth of qualifications, Nye has accomplished a great deal for science, namely his television show “Bill Nye, the Science Guy,” a tour de force of science entertainment that aired for five years. Its very name triggers fond memories of primary science education, a rare chance for children to actually enjoy learning about biology, chemistry or physics. But its lasting success didn’t lie in kid-friendly format, its slapstick humor or its practical experimentation. It’s that Nye created a character that embodied all the best attributes of science, rather than any qualities of scientists themselves.
Bill Nye the Science Guy, the scientist-host of the show, has nothing in common with real research scientists, who spend most of their time wading through paperwork to apply for grants or performing repetitive and tedious experiments. Life in the laboratory is drab, monotonous and would make for poor television. Scientific knowledge, though, is fun and interactive, and Nye’s Science Guy really brings out that charm.
Perhaps that is why the best scientists, by their very nature, tend to make poor advocates. The top researchers delve deep into the nuances of their fields, which aids in their ability to make groundbreaking discoveries. But this narrow focus also tends to blind them to the scientific topics important in people’s daily lives.
It would be easy to demand scientists become better science activists. Federal funds for research have fallen over the past five years, and scientists have not been able to provide a clear, persistent and persuasive voice to either the governmental agencies that fund them and the public that supports them. Unfortunately, scientists just aren’t very good at this.
This illustrates why people like Nye are so important. Nye serves as an excellent role model for anyone interested in science advocacy. He has demonstrated an impressive fearlessness when confronting anti-science propaganda. I’ve written before on his recent creationism-evolution debate, where he was willing to place himself in a position hostile to science.
Furthermore, Nye is willing to change his mind as better science and evidence progresses. For the past few years, Nye has made it clear he would not support genetically modified organism (GMO) derived food. However, just last month, he described that after taking time with the scientists working to engineer safe and efficient GMO foods, he is prepared to amend his previous writing to support GMO crops. Although he is not a scientist, he is following exactly what the scientific method demands: a cold and brutal adherence to the best evidence. He is willing to do this even in the face of public criticism, both from having to admit his own fault and from anti-GMO groups. He proves science should not be dogmatic, and it should also not be vain.
Nye may be science’s best ally, but he should not be expected to singlehandedly represent America’s huge community of scientists. Someone needs to defend the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, which spend $7 billion and $30 billion on science each year, respectively. This is what keeps science alive in this country, but because these organizations lack any dedicated advocates, few Americans know what good their tax dollars do. If scientists are too busy with their work to communicate with the public, then they must rely on the skills of individuals like Nye.