Science educator and communicator Bill Nye has recently appeared in a video arguing the reasons why creationism should not be taught to children, and what it does to your worldview. You can watch the video below:
The video subsequently went viral (3.8 million views so far), and sparked a discussion about Nye’s message in the video as to whether or not it was an effective way to communicate his position. I have curated the articles that have (so far) added to the debate so that you can quickly get up to speed if you would like to join in.
The first critique appeared in Scientific American where a “business communication expert” took Nye to task for his language. Here’s an excerpt:
Instead of pushing people towards the sides [of the issue], I would try to pull them into the conversation. I might ask some rhetorical questions to get them to think about why they feel the way they do. Instead Bill is pushing out information, for example “if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it.”
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.”
Almost simultaneously, biological anthropologist Greg laden and I posted critiques to this business-like approach.
Here is an excerpt from Greg’s post on ScienceBlogs:
I get the very strong impression that the marketing expert has never heard of Bill Nye before, which is probably a good thing because Donadio is at either by default or intentionally attempting to put aside Nye’s celebratie to look at the video and the presentation for what it is, to provide a more useful critique. But, doing so also ignores an important element. Bill is a personality who has a wide audience who like him because of who he is. Instead of a textbook critique of how Bill does in front of a camera, a critique that look at this as a video of a wildly popular figure and actually try to understand from, learn from, that video what it is that is working, because Bill Nye is working.
Which mirrors my post at Scientific American:
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.
These posts sparked a lively discussion in the comment sections of all three posts, and I suggest you join in if interested. The next day, three additional posts were put up. There was another one from Greg Laden, adding points to his first post:
Much of the conversation about this topic asks how we can most effectively speak to people who have this or that belief. But I don’t think that is the appropriate question. The appropriate question is how do we make “acceptance of evolution” something that is normal and desirable and not embarrassing to profess, and at the same time “belief in creationism” something that IS embarrassing to profess, and better left unspoken.
Another was from UrbanAstro.com, which took a look at the original critique by the business communicator using other science communicators, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, as perspective:
The point that I’m trying to make is that you have to know your audience. Mr. Donadio’s assessment of Mr. Nye’s performance in the Creationism video was valid for a video without any context of who produced it, who it is intended for, etc. And that’s really the funniest thing in this whole matter – Mr. Donadio expounds on Mr. Nye’s (in)ability to access a particular audience without actually asking who that intended audience was!
Fellow JREF fellow and skeptic Dr. Steven Novella weighed in on the original business critique and my subsequent Scientific American post, siding with the science:
I too find corporate speakers to be robotic and insincere. They tend to have a very salesman-like personality that rubs me the wrong way. Their speech is peppered with pseudo-jargon that gives the impression they have a body of specific knowledge, but when you scratch you find that it’s mostly personal experience and opinion. I find there is some good common sense in there, but it’s smothered in superficial easy answers and even pseudoscience. I find it similar to the self-help industry – largely self- promotional and evidence-free.
Marc Kuchner then responded directly to my critique by challenging those who think Nye’s video may have been effective to make a video as successful as something the anti-smoking groups could produce:
I’d like to take a moment and respond to some of the comments I heard, and throw out a challenge to the more eager evolution advocates. I believe that if you intend to mount an effective campaign against vocal creationists, the only option is modern marketing. If you support a direct verbal attack on the ideals of the young-Earth movement, as Kyle Hill clearly does, I would like to challenge you to film an anti-creationist video with the marketing punch of the top anti-smoking videos, like this one, above.
My response to the whole matter will be going up on Scientific American soon, looking at how the science of persuasion might be able to help change a worldview.
Brandt Hardin (@DREGstudios) said:
Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.
Marc Kuchner (@marckuchner) said:
Donadio’s critique of Bill Nye was just meant as an illustration of basic communication principles, not a complete assessment of the state of the creationism issue. So I agree with you and other commenters that my article glosses over many important details of the various relevant debates.
Nonetheless, I have found that the business world has a wealth of tools to offer scientists that we’ve been ignoring–to our great detriment. I believe it’s time to hold our breath, jump in and learn these tricks, lest they continued to be used against us by the opponents of science.
I laid out my own suggestion for how to make belief in creationism ”something that IS embarrassing to profess” in a new article at http://www.marketingforscientists.com.
I’d love to hear what you think of it!
Kyle Hill said:
I agree with you that scientists need better tactics engaging with the public. My disagreement was with what your interviewee specifically said. I just wanted something a bit more empirical than something I’d hear at a workshop (however useful it might be).
I plan on responding to your article in full in the coming weeks, and I’ll get on that video ;)
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