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OPINIONS

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

  • Thomas Baldwin

    I’m sure Bill Nye meant nothing by his comments about his mother, and meant everything about his comments on women in science. His mothers situation was predicated on a time when those “gatekeepers” were society itself. What’s important is how to change that for the better.

    Instead of focusing on the past, perhaps Bill Nye could remedy this by focusing on the present. I know so many wonderfully capable women in science, highlight them and it will inspire more girls to become women in science.

  • Chris

    The mental gymnastics necessary to turn a man who says “girls and women are good at math and science” into a sexist pig is absolutely absurd. Since when do we allow subtext to trump actual text? Clearly he is concerned about the gender gap in STEM fields and wants to let young girls know that they can be good at STEM subjects and not to be intimated by the male-dominated stereotype.

  • ArmandTamzarian

    Correction: Bill Nye might be a science promoter, but he is not a scientist.

  • Pingston

    Thank you. This is an excellent commentary and I can’t agree more. There is no room for sexism or any other actual ‘ism’ (I’m excluding imputed ‘isms’) in science and math, or any technical or social science subject matter. Nor is there room for it in business or politics, from either direction. We can weigh the merits of individuals as individuals, no matter their sex, upbringing, parentage or continental background. A real ‘meritocracy’ is blind, as justice is supposed to be and aspired to be (by all, we hope).

    When someone who has attained some level of celebrity in a serious field abuses his position to tell sexist or other ‘ist’ jokes and asides, no matter who the target, that person demeans self and message.

    I grew up in a home with two strong women, my mother and sister. Each was as likely to fix plumbing or stove or electrical glitch as a male in the household. I grew up knowing women were at least as capable as men on everything that didn’t require brute strength or weight. It is why feminism surprised me in the 1960s; the scenarios described were foreign to me, but ultimately better explained the world. My mother worked in the war effort in a munitions factory, my aunt riveted wings for Spitfires; nothing they did post-War made me believe they were under-qualified to have filled those roles. I would never make the sexist jokes attributed to Nye in paying tribute to them and their skills and abilities. He is younger than I am, and should know better.

    I could also go after his Chicken Little claims about anthropogenic global warming, but won’t here. His judgement has already been shown to be more than suspect. No need to pile on.

  • Clare Dreyfus

    Hi Chris,

    This argument does not satisfy me. That is like saying that someone who says “all races are equal” (which most people do today) cannot have biases that manifest in microaggressions that have real negative effects on minorities. Sure, it’s better than when we once said that separate was equal. But it is still not good enough. I believe that is the point of this article: saying women are good at math is not good enough, given what you called the “subtext.”

  • Renaud Jim Besse

    I was afraid to see comments like the one Chris left up here, and your answer is very precise and excellent. I just wanted to point this out 🙂

    But this article obviously makes me sad.

  • Candid One

    His undergrad base is in ME. An undergrad degree in most of today’s science or engineering programs aren’t more or less “scientific” than the other. What he’s done with his life can be viewed as at least as science-based a someone else who spends a lifetime in a cubicle, at a microscope, or in a wet lab.

  • Candid One

    Not to virtually disagree with your assessment of the Science Guy, but the given is that he’s a baby boomer. There’s nothing about his career or his general past that suggests merit as a feminist. How is it that he’s not going to “represent”…as he’s done? The upside is that he’s not Donald Trump (is there an “up” to him?). It’s not unimportant that this kind of blowback is resulting from earnest expectations but the man is from a world that college age cohorts will never know. Indict him if you must, but the dialectic is not be overwhelmed by his lack of pertinent virtue. Your final paragraph is where his listeners should register after his presentation…with a grain of MSG.

  • J-Dub

    Chris is partly right insofar as the mental gymnastics of subtext. However, you are right that in general he is a sexist pig. It has been proven many times over that Bill Nye is an a–hole to most people in public. This is a fact that can be researched, found on reddit, you name it. It is also a fact that if one among the crowd seeking his autograph or picture is a good looking woman then his tone does a complete 180. It’s very sad.

    I must also add that Bill Nye has never been through the professional rigor to become a scientist and has never published anything professional and peer-reviewed. He is not a scientist, not even remotely. He has no masters degree and he has no Ph.D. There may be some correlation there to his behavior or lack of professionalism but I’m not sure so I’ll leave it at that.