Remember those rainy days in elementary school? Sitting in your assigned desk and staring at the clock, counting down the minutes until lunch. Suddenly, the door swings open and an assistant teacher wheels in the TV cart. The classroom instantly fills with excited chatter. The mood lifts. Your teacher, exhausted from hours of trying to hold your attention and fill your brain with things you don’t want to learn, sits back in her swivel chair and sips her coffee. Cue the upbeat music and chanting. It’s a Bill Nye day.
If you went to elementary school in the ’90s or early 2000s, you most likely feel nostalgic right now. To our generation, Bill Nye is a hero. He taught science in a way that didn’t make you feel like you were being forced to learn information that would never apply to your life. His experiments were fun, accessible and easy to understand. Although the underlying scientific principles were often complex and highly theoretical, he would present them in a way that made sense within the context of everyday life. Whether it was holding a recently used comb near water to see how it would bend away from the negative charge, dropping a watermelon off a parking garage roof to demonstrate gravity or blowing bubbles into a jar of sea water to demonstrate ocean acidification, Bill Nye brought science — the subject often feared the most by elementary school kids — into the realm of possibility.
Fast forward 20 years, and the same charismatic man whose presence once graced our classrooms is still at it, using his geeky charm and knowledge to infatuate the world with a love for science. The problem is, the world is a lot harder to influence than a group of second graders. In his new film, Bill Nye: Science Guy, Nye goes head-to-head with climate change deniers, creationists and a whole host of anti-science personalities to try and persuade them that the world is in trouble because of humanity’s own doing. The rivalry most central to the film is between Nye and creationist and anti-evolutionist Ken Ham.
An Australian Christian fundamentalist and author of several books, Ham is probably most famous — or perhaps infamous — for being the president of the “Creation Museum,” an interactive museum in Petersburg, Kentucky that teaches the history of the world as told in the Bible. Some of the museum’s prominent features include cavemen in tropical dioramas living alongside dinosaurs, Lucy, the beloved Australopithecus afarensis pictured as a gorilla, and countless other exhibits that bolster the claim that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that evolution is a myth.
The heated rivalry between Nye and Ham culminated in a famous debate that took place at the Creation Museum on Feb. 4, 2014, which went on for approximately two and a half hours. Each participant gave a 30-minute introduction arguing why his belief is a viable explanation for how life originated. Back and forth they went, Nye passionately presenting his evidence and Ham calmly countering it with quotes from the Bible. When the debate was over, there was no clear winner. Both argued fervently that his own position was the only correct one, and neither would budge. As presented in the film, the Twitter storm that followed overwhelmingly supported Nye as the clear winner, but those who said otherwise were already in support of the creationist view.
So, what did this accomplish? As it turned out, according to the film, the debate functioned as a publicity stunt for the Creation Museum, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales in the following months. Nye didn’t lose face by engaging in the debate, but he also most likely didn’t “convert” anyone who wasn’t already in support of him — seemingly his motivation for taking part in the debate in the first place. Herein lies the question: can someone who so effectively communicated science to kids do the same for adults?
In recent years, when he’s not debating deniers of climate change or evolution, Nye has appeared on numerous news channels, made guest appearances on TV shows and YouTube channels, and even had his own Netflix Original series. While he’s become slightly more grave-faced and has a new sense of urgency in his voice, he still uses the same tactics of demonstrating scientific principles through fun experiments, guest appearances and a youthful screen presence. While to some this may seem like the wrong way to go about instilling a love of science in adults, Nye’s fanbase has continued to grow over the past few years, and he remains the science celebrity he was several decades ago.
Prof. Norman Porticella, communications, who specializes in teaching science communication courses, says Bill Nye is “an excellent science communicator who varies his style according to whether he’s trying to teach kids or adults and according to the topic he’s addressing. I’ve seen him run the spectrum from wacky fun to dead serious and always with relevant accessible language.” There is truly no individual, save perhaps Neil Degrasse Tyson or Cornell’s own Carl Sagan, who has risen to such great heights thanks to his or her ability to communicate science.
In a way, Bill Nye was one of the earliest pioneers of science communication, a field that today is becoming a popular subject of study among undergraduates and graduates alike. At Cornell, Porticella is one of several professors who teach courses that aim to instruct students on the proper way to disseminate scientific principles in an accessible way. He is even developing the Tompkins County Science Hub to strengthen connections between the local community and its many science engagement opportunities.
“Many of the world’s most pressing challenges depend on how we think about and use science. Teaching the next generation of scientists how to inform the public and how to build interest and trust — with a constructive dose of skepticism — is critical to supporting an engaged and informed society,” he said. “It’s important for scientists to understand who they are communicating with and to be aware of the larger context in which their work will play a role.”
At the end of Bill Nye: Science Guy, after a disheartening segment in which Nye attempts to sway the opinion of meteorologist, bodybuilder and climate-change denier Joe Bastardi to no avail, Nye is shown appearing as a guest-star on several science-themed YouTube channels. Recently, YouTube has become an accredited and widely utilized educational tool home to thousands of channels that are dedicated to amateur instruction on a variety of academic topics. Some of the more well-known channels in this category include Khan Academy, Crash Course and AsapScience. While these channels utilize more advanced graphics and animations, their style of compact, accessible and fun-filled communication of scientific principles is reminiscent of the early days of Bill Nye’s beloved show.
But will they change the world? Will climate change deniers watch an episode of Physics Girl and suddenly change their mind? Likely not. What they do accomplish, as Nye says in one of the last scenes of the documentary, is keep the conversation going. Science is always growing and expanding, much like the universe itself, and it is kept alive and relevant by being discussed and debated. What Nye and YouTubers are continuing to do, whether they are successful or not, is keep science in the discussion. Ham will likely never change his opinion no matter how many scientific facts, statistics or figures are thrown at him. What will change, however, is the ability of scientists — both professional and amateur — to disseminate this information to the public and let the people decide for themselves.