Bill Nye the Engineer Guy

So I used to really like and respect Bill Nye. Ok, it is not that I don’t like or respect him now, it is just that I have learned to be more critical of his opinions and statements. I also think he may have lost a little of his science education and perhaps replaced it with a bit of pandering to specific demographics who happen to already agree with things he is saying. I am sure I am going to get flack for this but hear me out. Take his new show “Bill Nye Saves the world”. I was super excited for it to come out. I made it about 9 episodes before I came to the conclusion that he may be more interested in scoring points with this group of people than in educating those who don’t already agree with him. 

Here is an example.

Episode 8 is entitled “This Diet is Bananas”. I was really looking forward to this episode because it was going to talk about the Paleo diet. Now I am not a nutritionist. None of my education or work experience is in the realm of diets or nutrition, so I am as ignorant as most anyone else in this area. The description I had heard of the Paleo diet seemed reasonable enough on casual glance, so I was looking forward to some actual science as to if it is or is not a good diet. I was very disappointed by Bill Nye’s opinion, (Which he has repeated on Star Talk, so I know it is not just the show writers or a producer decision). It is not that he thinks it is a bad diet that disappoints me, but his expressed reasoning.

He starts off with great questions; paleo avoids carbs from things like pasta, and paleo concentrates on eating a lot of protein, is this healthy? Unfortunately he follows them up with subpar answers. Or really, no answers at all. Instead of answers, he dresses Martin Starr from Silicon Valley up like a “Cave Person” to deliver jokes about cavemen. So this is what I learned, paleo diet is unhealthy and bad for you because:

  • Martin Starr dressed up like a “Cave Person” doesn’t look happy.
  • Sacrificing your daughter to the sun doesn’t make it not cold.
  • Martin Starr’s “Cave Person” character claims to be 13
  • “Cave People” don’t understand astronomy
  • There aren’t wolly mammoths
  • “Cave People” can’t tell the difference between berries that are and are not poisoness
  • “Cave People” sleep in the Dirt.

Maybe the Paleo diet isn’t healthy for you. I don’t know. What I do know, is that none of those reasons have anything to do with it one way or the other.

Now I could go on with this idea about pandering to certain demographics by continuing on to the episode about sexuality, but at least the beginning of that episode attempted to back up claims with science. Unfortunately it ended with mostly raunchy jokes and cartoons that were designed to appeal to people who already believe those things and alienate those who don’t. For the record, I have no issues with the concept of gender fluidity, and I thought the episode did a great job towards the beginning of explaining the differences between gender, sex, attraction and expression.

Outside of the Netflix show, I hear Bill Nye speak a lot because he crosses a lot of paths with my interests, both professionally and personally. I enjoy listening to the Star Talk podcast and I am a member of the Planetary Society which also has a podcast called Planetary Radio. Bill Nye is often on both of these shows, expressing his opinions. This is where I have really picked up a lot on how he thinks about things, and probably where the less critical of my criticism lies. Scratch that, the above part about the Netflix show was criticism, this part is just a difference of opinion.

While listening tonight, I finally figured out where our difference of opinion comes from. No matter what we call him (Bill Nye the Science Guy) at the end of the day, he is still an engineer. A Mechanical Engineer to be specific. He thinks like an engineer, and he approaches problems like an engineer. Now don’t get me wrong, engineers are important, and do a lot of great work, and we need them. Hell I am an engineer by employment if not education, and in some regard I also have the mindset of an engineer in many ways.
Engineers take scientific principles and use them to design usable things. They don’t design them the best way to do a job, they design them with a mindset of tradeoffs. How much will it cost? How easy is it to get this piece? How long will it take to build? Do people like that shape/color etc. All important when designing products for someone to eventually purchase or use or to meet a specific budget constraint etc. Engineering is all about balancing customer requirements with feasibility and cost. To put it more aptly, my undergraduate adviser used to say “Math is philosophy constrained by highly structured logic. Physics is math constrained by reality, and engineering is physics with the constraint of money.”
The issue however comes when you express an opinion on a scientific ideas from the stance of engineering, and I think this is the point of disagreement I have with him on several things.
For an example, he is very vocal about being against the idea of humans going to Mars to live. His reasoning is always “It’s really cold.”, “It’s hard to find water.”, “You can’t breath.”, “You have to live in a suit and a bubble”, etc.
Yes, those are all true. Those are all engineering challenges we face going to Mars today. However, Humans are not anything if not adaptable. To steal the motto of the US Army Corps of Engineers, “Essayons”. This literally means “Let us try”. When we set foot on Mars, we will have all of those issues to contend with, and it will be difficult. However, a hundred years after being on Mars, humans will have found better ways to adapt and work around those issues. Ways that may still be hard, but will be significantly better than solutions we come up with today. We won’t have a completely liveable Earth like planet mind you – terraforming is a several hundred thousand year process – once we figure one out how to do it to begin with, and of course, there are other issues to contend with, like why Mars doesn’t have a nice thick atmosphere to begin with. The point is, it will be easier in a hundred years from now than it is today. A thousand years on the planet? Who knows the marvels humans will have come up with to make life on Mars easier. There will come a day 5 billion years in the future, if not significantly beforehand, in which humans will have to make the decision to reach out and colonize the stars or die with Earth. We have to know how to colonize and live on other worlds, potentially more hostile to life than Earth before that happens. Besides, when have human beings as a species ever let the fact that something is hard stop them in their exploration of a new frontier? We are explorers in our hearts.

Then of course there is the idea of nuclear energy. Once again Bill Nye makes some great points, mostly focused around public opinion. Here is the thing though. Public opinion is driven by two factors. Media and Politics. Educate them both. Nuclear energy has some complications in today’s world that if we were to broadly implement them right now, today, would be difficult. But from a research perspective we have a lot of capability to improve both efficiency and safety, and ignoring that because it is too hard today is a mistake.

Lastly, and this is a direct call to Mr. Nye; please stop playing stupid about the EM Drive. You know damn well that people are referring to the RF resonant cavity thruster. The same drive that China claims to have created, and which many news sources claim NASA has been researching. If you don’t know if it works – say so. It’s ok to not know. However pretending you have no idea what people are talking about is just patronizing.

I’m not bagging on Bill Nye because I don’t like him, or because I am jealous, or a hater or a conservative republican (I’m not any of those things). I am bringing out these issues because I know he can do better. I am bringing them up because Bill Nye has a platform that millions of people pay attention to. Media and Politics are the primary reason we have an issue with science comprehension. We need to fix this issue, and it starts with science communicators, especially those with a large audience, being responsible for speaking the truth, showing the facts, and being careful to separate opinion from fact when communicating science. Most importantly though, they need to communicate science to those who need to hear it, not to those who already agree. Science supersedes ratings, and most importantly, politics.

Just my thoughts. Have your own? hit me up at Chris @ Dashofscience dot com.