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Word to Bill Nye: The message matters

Last Thursday night I packed into Memorial Auditorium along with 1,800 people, all gathered to be entertained by a bona fide science education superstar, the one and only Bill Nye, the science guy. I expected to be entertained and informed, and I was. I did not expect to be bitterly disappointed, but that also happened. Here’s the story.

Bill Nye, trained as both a scientist and stand up comedian, has honed his entertaining chops through his popular television show, spanning decades and racking up multiple Emmys. And he has an axe to grind. Here is his argument in a nutshell: Climate change is real, it is the biggest threat we face as a species, and it’s time to do something about it. Further, we CAN do something about it. He charged the crowd to “change the world!” After all, the “greatest generation” had mobilized to “change the world!” to win World War II, mobilizing from literal horsepower to mechanical horsepower within a few decades.

As an academic, I’d give him a mixed review. He constructed several arguments that night, some explicit (climate change is bad), some implicit (the roles of women and girls in math and science). Let’s review.

His slides should win awards somewhere — rarely does a powerpoint have such impact. His argument that climate change is real was solid and cited. But why hang the claim of stopping climate change on the trope of the greatest generation? As best I could tell, it was so he could share stories about his family. And that is where the disappointments started.

Bill Nye comes from an interesting and, apparently, entertaining family. The audience was treated to a picture of his grandfather, clad in a gas mask, riding a horse, also clad in a gas mask, during WWI. This was evidence of the literal horsepower used in that war. Fine. But then we met Bill’s parents, and according to him, the best thing his father did in life was to marry his mother. Because, among other things, she “was hot.” Apparently Bill knew this might cause a ripple of dissatisfaction among the audience members who think that reducing a human being (often a woman) to some measure of physical attractiveness is a problem, as evidenced by his argument that while it’s not okay to objectify women, she was his mother, after all. I’m not sure I follow that argument — does he have some ordained right to objectify the women in his family?

Maybe if he had stopped at that one remarkable set of comments things would have blown over. But he kept going. He talked about how his father served on remote Wake Island before and during WWII, and was able to save a lot of money because, among other things, “there were no girls on the island.” How the light on Mars is pretty close to the color of “women’s stockings” in the “upper left corner” of the display. Not that he wears women’s stockings. Though he’s a big supporter. (Subtext: You are weird if you are a man who wears women’s stockings.) There was a group photograph including his mother in uniform. She was a codebreaker on the Enigma project (you know, like in “The Imitation Game”). Nye exhorted the crowd to tell him who, in that picture, had the best legs. His mother. Which was important because his father, who served 44 months as a prisoner of war needed something to keep him going. Presumably it was the memory of Nye’s mother’s legs. Maybe that explains the whole stocking thing? Let’s pause for a moment of sincere gratitude for the military service of Nye’s family, including his mother, because that is a real and important thing, and I don’t want it lost in my own argument.

While “the family” is not sure his mother was actually good at math and science, they do know one thing: She was good at puzzles. And those of us who study mathematics know this is a powerful form of thinking and learning. But then Nye took even that away by making fun of how his parents constructed limericks, and badly. So now he’d demoted his mother from codebreaker on Enigma to “not good at math and science, but good at puzzles,” to “the puzzles were sometimes dumb.” But hey, he apparently has rights to denigrate his family, because, well, they’re his family.

At this point in the evening I was pretty convinced that Nye was hopelessly heteronormative (boys will be boys, and girls should be girls). I all but expected him to break into a chorus of  “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” At worst, he was actively sexist. So follow carefully what happened next, because this is part of the implicit messaging of the night.

When Nye refuted his mother being good at math and science, it was on the heels of his crowd-pleasing claim that “girls and women are good at math and science!” The audience roared with approval. Why? Because this was a novel idea? Because girls and women need defenders from inside the white-male-dominant world of math and science? Because that famous man was famous? I don’t know. What I do know is this: Girls and women and people of color are good at math and science, when they have access to and interest in pursuing those studies. And famous white male scientists, like the one pumping up the crowd over climate change, are often the culturally appointed gatekeepers, as evidenced by the crowd approval over his proclamation. This matters because implicit messages, like “math and science are the province of white men” are real, felt and acted upon by people of all gender and non-gender identification. Who takes up STEM studies and perseveres in related careers is a direct function of the culture of those fields.

Why do I care? Because, while Bill Nye is certainly using his powers for good in shouting out the state of climate change and the need for change, he is apparently oblivious to the collateral damage his lack of consciousness can have. Sure, you say, he’s an entertainer, and that’s what entertainers do. (I didn’t even bring up the CSI-Fruitvale joke — how much consideration was given to making Fruitvale the butt of a joke?) But here’s the thing: Bill Nye is a scientist, and he was invited to present an educational lecture to the community of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, a school with a mission for promoting diversity and equity. And on that latter count, he fell flat on his face.

— Jennifer Ruef

Contact Jennifer Ruef at jruef ‘at’ stanford.edu

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