Critiquing the Critique of Bill Nye's Video

Marc Kuchner has an interesting post at Scientific American called Bill Nye’s “Don’t Teach Creationism…” Video Dissected by Business Communication Expert in which … well, you can guess what it is about from the title. To refresh your memory, here is Bill Nye’s video, which I had posted earlier on this blog. The video made my friend Marc cringe, who was “…pretty sure that the video would do nothing for those who don’t believe in evolution but turn them away.” This prompted Marc to ask Patric Donadio, an MBA and speaking coach to review it.

While I found several of Patric Donadio’s comments to be generally useful and appropriate, I think some things were being missed here by both Marc and Patrick.

I get that a video that demonstrates disrespect for creationists (and therefore, for certain religions, religious beliefs, or religious individuals) will turn some people away, but there are two reasons that this does not matter. 1) Those most likely to be turned away are least likely to be convinced by any given argument and 2) This is part of a larger trope which is really bad, widespread, and needs to be addressed; religious voices are allowed nearly unfettered criticism of pretty much anyone, but religious individuals and organizations maintain a strong and real privilege of immunity from critique. They obtain this immunity by the simple act of being offended and making sure everyone knows that. This strategy may not seem like a very effective one (try it for a while, it won’t work for you over the short term) but if a social institution does it for, oh, 800 years or so at every opportunity it tends to stick.

Putting it another way, no one should ever be concerned that people who are totally wrong about something … dangerously, offensively and obnoxiously wrong … are going to be offended when they are told they are wrong. That should never come into consideration even though it always does. That is undeserved but strongly entrenched privilege. We’ve had enough of that.

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. (I quickly add that Bill Nye is a very in your face kind of guy, owing mainly to the bow tie, I’m sure, and I often think “oh, I wish he had done that a little differently” when watching him.)

It may well be true that Bill Nye is only getting at a subset of the audience out there, or could change his approach in order to reach other people that an adjustment in approach with advice from marketing would allow, but since Nye is being very successful with an existing large audience why would we try to do that? Also, it may not be possible. If Nye took an entirely different approach, anti-science people could sully such a new production by bringing out Nye’s older work and reminding people that he is an unabashed pro-evolutionary scientist. I hate the expression I am about to use right now but it actually fits (for once): Bill Nye is what he is. Or, more exactly, Bill Nye already was what he is.

Patrick Donadio spends a certain amount of time analyzing the potential audiences a message like this may reach.

Let’s say there’s a continuum of beliefs around this issue. There are those people in the middle that you might be able to attract and of course, you have “either/ors” on sides of the continuum ; the creationists on one side and evolutionists on the other. The people in the middle have the potential for an “and/and” shift on this issue. You might be able to influence them. If we can move people from “either/or” to and/and, that would be a smaller move. This is a challenge sometimes for scientists, because many times scientists think in terms of black and white, “either/or”.

This discussion is expanded on by Marc, and the idea of quoting a religious person rather than Carl Sagan is discussed, as is the idea of focusing on those with a belief in both science and religion overlap or don’t conflict as much as other’s might (“they might consider that the science and their religious beliefs might be consistent and co-exist.”)

This issue has been addressed extensively, and there are important points that have been largely established as part of the overall conversation. Let me bullet point this for you:

  • There are multiple points of view and therefore multiple strategies must be considered.
  • Some strategies step on each other; an “in your face” strategy might turn off people who would have been convinced to “believe in” (bad term) evolution had they only met with the right argument first.
  • Antagonizing people who are unlikely to be convinced to change their minds about evolution might be bad (no sense in playing to the other guy’s base!) but it is not as bad as throwing science under the bus by playing to an appeasement strategy (allowing for a limited amount of supernatural cause to co-exist with the science).
  • Some of us think the “overton window” might be real. Nye is nowhere near the far end of the spectrum but movement outside the ideal range can move that window. Certainly, spending much effort on the side of the spectrum we would like to move opinion against is not good, should this magic window actually exist. This does not mean that Glen Back is not a dangerous ideologue, I quickly add.

Finally, here’s the problem with addressing a specific effort like Bill Nye’s. When looking at a single piece of work in isolation, it is almost necessary, certainly very tempting, to abide by the premise that there is a single framing or marketing technique that is most appropriate for the entire science/anti-science discussion. But there are several, and as a community I’m pretty sure we’ve mostly agreed that multiple strategies are needed. If we examine every potential efffort in isolation and try to sus out what the best possible approach is for that effort, all the different efforts are going to be modal, targeted to the middle, average, and like each other.

This comes through especially in the comment about the concept that you can’t be an engineer and be a creationist.

Bill Nye is well aware of the well documented and researched fact that engineers and certain other hard sciences (chemistry, for example) is the part of the landscape of professionals that harbors the most creationists. The fact is you can’t be an engineer (really) and truly believe creationism. Creationist doctrine claims that certain things engineers should know can’t happen do. For example, the speed of light is not really known, radioactive isotopes do not decay as science says they do, and that hydrology and geology do not work as engineers and geologists think they do. Nye is absolutely correct; a real engineer can not be a real creationist and visa versa.

Nye is speaking here to those engineers using their own terms and putting the question to them, subtly: “Do you want to be a moron or not?” This is the kind of subtly in the discussion that a communication expert coming in and applying marketing expertise is not going to know about unless they have already researched the discussion extensively. I hope Patrick does that and comes back with some even more useful advice.

Added: See also Bill Nye is Not a Businessman

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I'm not a huge fan of that particular video by Nye, but I had put it down to poor editing in an attempt to "punch-up" the message. I wonder if MBA guy knows that Bill Nye is the Science Guy? I've never heard him called Bill Nye the Accommodationist Guy...

Well written and well thought out, Greg. I agree completely.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Greg. I am delighted that Patrick and I piqued your interest!

You bring up an important consideration: perhaps Bill Nye's intention was never to influence creationists directly. Perhaps he was, instead, aiming to energize his base of supporters. That certainly can be part of a winning campaign strategy. And it's a goal I would say that Nye has accomplished, perhaps with less aplomb than Patrick might have asked for, but with infectious vigor, nonetheless.

My only wish, in that case, would be that Nye had somehow been able to restrict his energizing speech to only us scientifically-minded people, rather than allowing our ultimate target audience--the people in the middle of the debate--glimpse our anger, and potentially feel unwelcome to the discussion.

Do you think that would have been possible for Nye to achieve without dulling his message?


By Marc Kuchner (not verified) on 02 Sep 2012 #permalink

I don't think there are very many good ways to direct a message to a specific audience. I had all sorts of trouble when I recently had a panel conversation in front of an audience I knew pretty well as part of an ongoing set of discussions that I was pretty comfortable with ... the conversation got put on YouTube and a bunch of people who probably didn't like me anyway took various things I said and mad a huge Internet Fight over it. I eventually settled that discussion with a bit of a slapdown post in which I had to explain that both my detractors and defenders had lost sight of my original point . It was a bit messy .

I do actually think that Bill Nye's audience was not the base, though. I think he was talking to casual creationists who happen to have a science and engineering link.

Greg, what's a casual creationist? Maybe you mean a religious person?

I think you are right that it is hard these days to direct a message to a particular audience. Thankfully, the open nature of modern communication has not stifled all interesting voices--like yours.


By Marc Kuchner (not verified) on 02 Sep 2012 #permalink

Just a person who does not engage in the debate or discussion at all but if asked will indicate a belief in some kind of creationism. In other words, almost everybody.

Great post Greg. Sorry Marc, your marketing "expert" doesn't get it! The numbers speak for themselves. 3.7 million views in about 10 days - that's a great success by most social media measures for a serious video (not one involving cute animals doing weird things). Following his marketing advice would make the video much less edgy, and hell of a lot less likely to become a meme.

Mark- I don't get an angry vibe off Bill in his video. He's obviously frustrated that so many people in this country willfully ignore evidence of the real world, and that they're dragging the rest of us down with them. That doesn't make him angry, just concerned. Neil Tyson explaining that if you can't recognize evidence you're useless in a lab isn't an angry statement either- just a real one with an expression of frustration. It's sad to see people with functioning brains that could be used to help people instead use them to propagate bronze-age beliefs that have been conclusively disproven time & again.

The tone may have been the reason why it's such a hit, but it's also the reason why the video doesn't do anything to advance the discussion. It's an obvious 'pump up the following' piece, and it's had that effect on BOTH sides. He's merely succeeded in further entrenching everyone involved. I'm a huge fan of Bill Nye, but this video was largely worthless.