This post originally appeared on Scientific American
Bill Nye, the nerdy supernova that fostered my childhood love of science, has recently gone viral in a video highly critical of the teaching of creationism to children. The video (seen below) has now been critiqued in a recent article on this site by a professional business communicator for its wording and presentation. The critique worries that Nye has done more harm than good: either he was preaching to the choir, or alienating the opposition. But Bill Nye is not a businessman.
Reading the critique and watching the video, I would have to agree that Nye uses some divisive language. For example, using the term “crazy” in regard to the creationist worldview is certainly polarizing. The problem with loaded terminology is that terms can naturally imply their opposites, as the critique points out. If the creationist view is “crazy,” then other positions are interpreted as sane, which would definitely cause a schism.
But here is where I think the research on communication disagrees with the critique. It cites “push” versus “pull” messaging (with Nye using “push” messaging) as a problem with Nye’s video (though see the comments there for alternative definition of those terms). The idea is that instead of “pushing” people towards the extremes, we should “pull” them into the conversation. Sounds reasonable, but the examples of “pull” offered has issues all their own:
He could say, “Scientific recent research shows us that we have evolved. I encourage you to explore this concept deeper. When you’re talking with your kids, I encourage you to allow them to discuss the issue with you and have a healthy dialogue.”
The business-like language here seems robotic and insincere, especially considering the candid nature of the video. Further suggestions have the same awkward feel:
I want to encourage you to explore the concept that there is some truth to the idea of evolution. I don’t necessarily want to convince you today that you have to stop believing in creationism, rather to invite you today to be open the idea that evolution does exist. I don’t want to change you today; I want to challenge you to explore this concept a little deeper.
The critique uses this patronizing language because, “you can’t change someone’s opinion by trying to force—push—them to change.” But sacrificing a more strongly worded message for an egg shell-traversing speech is operating under the misconception that people can never be “pushed” to change their minds.
In the communication literature, theories of human information processing consider the motivations that people have when encountering information1. One of these motivations, a defensive motivation, is a driver of information processing when a person’s beliefs or worldviews are challenged. This motivation is a desire to make judgments that are in accordance with one’s material interests or identity-entangled beliefs2. For example, if a creationist sees the video, he or she could be highly motivated to defend his or her beliefs by gathering information to support the creationist position. However, and this is where I think the business-like advice in the critique falters, a defensive motivation often entails looking systematically through both supporting and disconfirming information in order to make a judgment. If the motivation is strong, according to the models, a person is more likely to think deeply about a topic and to evaluate the evidence on both sides with more cognitive effort. Being challenged by a beloved science educator could then be a great galvanizing force to get those of the creationist persuasion to think deeply about their positions. This is all we can ask for, and still achieves an important goal.
However, it should be noted that when processing information, a defensive motivation is a double-edged sword. Yes, it can encourage a deep exploration of both sides of an issue, but because a person is looking to support their worldview or belief this exploration can be highly biased. Information that is unsupportive can be discredited outright, and the authority of one message source over another can be exaggerated3. Even so, instilling this defensive motivation gets Nye’s message across.
The critique also suggests that Nye should not try to “change” but “challenge” people. According to the theories mentioned above, this is exactly what Nye has done, and this was accomplished without the transparent platitudes of a distinctly business-like quality. Those who are not going to budge on this debate won’t. Using the fame and charm of “The Science Guy,” instead of a more polarizing figure like Richard Dawkins, for example, to confront an important scientific and political issue may just be an effective Trojan horse. Those who could potentially be swayed might now be asking questions and looking into the evidence on both sides, contrary to what the critique suggests.
I do not think that Nye’s intent was to convince people in a two and a half minute video that evolution is true. That would be a gargantuan task. Nye, as an adept communicator who has been thoroughly explaining various scientific topics for years (and to children no less), surely knows this. Yes, if Nye’s video was meant to be evidence for evolution, then it was off the mark. But it wasn’t. Nye was intimately stating his stance on the evolution/creationism debate. The viral-nature of the video is a testament to the fact that it did two simultaneously effective things: it roused a base of people who support the science, and challenged those who do not. Will there be those for whom the message does nothing? Will it offend some and put off others? Of course. But Nye succinctly challenged the creationist worldview in a way that should encourage a deep processing of the evidence for each position, and was not meant to convince anyone in one fell swoop. Nye is the proxy here. If he can promote a discussion about creationism and evolution in an exceedingly popular video, it is left up to us as science communicators to make sure that the opportunity does not go to waste.
1. Chen, S., Duckworth, K., & Chaiken, S. (1999). Motivated Heuristic and Systematic Processing. Psychological Inquiry, 10 (1), 44-49.
2. Chaiken, S., Giner-Sorolla, R., & Chen, S. (1996). Beyond accuracy: Defense and impression motives in heuristic and systematic information processing. In P. M. Gollwitzer, & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 553-578). New York: Guilford.
3. Liberman, A., & Chaiken, S. (1992). Defensive processing of personally relevant health messages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 669-679.