Bill Nye demonstrates how not to persuade a creationist

Posted on Wednesday, August 29, 2012

There’s a video that’s been going around for the last couple of days in which Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) tries to explain to creationists why people who believe in divine creation instead of evolution shouldn’t pass this belief along to their kids. It’s been getting a lot of attention — 1.7 million views as of this writing — and praise for being a powerful example of effective scientific outreach communication.

Which kind of surprises me. Because after watching the video, I would use it as an example of how scientists and advocates for science should not communicate with the public.

Let me say first that I have a lot of respect for Bill Nye. There are few people in the world today who have done more to make science comprehensible to laypeople than he has. This post isn’t a slam on his work in general. But as a professional communicator myself, and one who used to work as an advocate for science-based policy, when I watched this specific video, I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, hard. His messaging here hits all the wrong notes.

The big problem

Before I get into specifics, let’s start with the overarching problem with the video, which is this: if you want to change somebody’s mind, you have to first establish to them that you’re someone they want to listen to. The way you do that is by approaching them with respect. And Nye comes across here as deeply disrespectful of creationists. He repeatedly dismisses their beliefs with a literal wave of the hand.

This is probably the biggest challenge in teaching scientists, and particularly evolutionists, how to communicate effectively with the public at large. To a scientist, the only worthy response to creationism is dismissal, because creationism has no scientific basis. It’s a rejection of science, of the idea that we can come to understand the universe through our senses and the evidence around us. So scientists tend to respond to it the way Nye does here, waving it off as superstition.

As a scientifically-oriented person myself, I understand this reaction. But for communicators it’s a mistake, because when you dismiss a person’s beliefs out of hand, what they see in you is arrogance. They see you as someone who’s so sure you’re right you don’t even need to consider their beliefs. And that immediately puts them on the defensivewhich slams the door shut on their willingness to consider your arguments.

Like I said, this is a big problem in science communication. It’s such a big problem that someone could write a whole book about it — and someone did: my friend Randy Olson, who’s a Harvard-trained marine biologist as well as a filmmaker.

A couple years back he wrote an excellent book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist! Talking Substance in an Age of Style, to help educate scientists about the basics of effective communication. In it, he wrote:

Just look at your typical villain. What’s the most common trait, for everyone from Hitler to Dr. Evil? It’s the arrogance of believing they are smarter and better than the rest of the world. It’s a repulsive trait — a guaranteed pathway to not being liked…

Being known as a tough critical thinker sounds like a good thing. And when you watch a group of top scientists get together and critically analyze a proposed idea, doing what they are best trained to do, it can be an impressive spectacle — like a group of competing alpha males pounding their chests and proclaiming dominance as they grind up what previously sounded so interesting.

But it’s a different story when you take that behavior out from behind closed doors. What is admired within the cloisters of academia can be horrifying when unleashed on the general public. And that’s because the masses thrive not on negativity and negation but on positivity and affirmation.

Don’t believe it? Just watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. What do you see, day after day? Stories of hope and joy, uplifting, inspirational, fulfilling…

Just look at the most popular movies. They’re mostly inspiring stories of hope. Not a lot of blockbusters that end with the hero plowing his truck into a school bus full of kids.

Now, with that in mind, put yourself in the shoes of a creationist and watch the video again. Is the message Nye is sending you positive or negative? It’s negative — overwhelmingly so. It’s about how the things you believe in aren’t just wrong, but so wrong that they are actively harmful to your children. And about how those children need to be shielded from you — like you’re a terrible disease – before you damage them beyond repair.

Does this sound like a message that people will receive and process with an open mind? Or does it sound like one that will immediately send them into a defensive crouch?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to believe in the things that they do. It doesn’t even mean you have to think the things they believe in are rational. What it does mean, though, is that you have to approach with honey instead of vinegar if you want them to be open to what you have to say.  And unfortunately, Nye’s tack here is the exact opposite.

Point by point

Moving beyond general issues of tone and presentation, consider some of the specific statements and arguments he makes in the video:

Denial of evolution is unique to the United States.

To Nye, this is a negative — evidence that we aren’t able to see what everyone else is seeing. But lots of Americans — especially conservative Americans, who would disproportionately tend to be creationists — have no problem with the idea that America is different from other nations. There’s even a name for this line of thinking: American exceptionalism.

If someone thinks America has been set apart by God from the rest of the world, why would it bother them that the French or the Japanese subscribe to something different than we do? That’s just more evidence that we’re better, smarter, more enlightened than they are. If you want to persuade somebody, your argument has to work within their personal frame of reference. If it doesn’t, all you’re going to do is confuse them.

People still move to the United States. And that’s largely because of the intellectual capital we have — the general understanding of science. When you have a portion of the population that doesn’t believe in [science], it holds everybody back.

This is a weak argument, because there are other reasons one could plausibly cite for why immigrants are attracted to the U.S. A conservative might say that one big one is our tradition of religious freedom. If you believe that, Nye’s flat assertion that no, it’s really science isn’t going to change your mind. Assertions without evidence are weak tools of persuasion.

Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, and all of biology. It’s very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates.

How many creationists out there do you think can relate to this analogy? How many of them have worked on geologic problems at the level where they need to take continental drift into account? Beyond a little high school and maybe college study, how many of them have worked in geology at all?

Analogies need to relate to things within the experience of the listener in order to be effective; if you compare your subject to something the listener has never heard of or doesn’t understand, you just send your message whooshing over their head.

Once in a while I get people who claim they don’t believe in evolution.

This is an example of the dismissiveness I mentioned above; he can’t bring himself to concede that they may actually believe the things they say they do, he’ll only grant that they “claim” to believe them. If your listener thinks you believe they’re not arguing in good faith, they will tune you out.

Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution. Here are these ancient dinosaur bones, or fossils; here is radioactivity; here are distant stars that are just like our star, but are at a different point in the lifecycle. The idea of deep time, of billions of years, explains so much of the world around us, if you try to ignore that, your worldview just becomes crazy — untenable, self-inconsistent.

Two problems here. First, the word “crazy” goes back to the problem of negativity. Second and more important, though, is that Nye’s argument here sails right past a critical point; not subscribing to evolution doesn’t make the creationist’s worldview complicated, because the creationist’s worldview is the simplest one possible:

“God did it.”

Dinosaur bones? “God put them there.”

Radioactivity? “God made it.”

Stars at different points in their lifecycles? “God made them that way.”

You can say that this is not a particularly rigorous model of how the universe works. But one thing you can’t say is that it’s internally inconsistent, because it’s very internally consistent. Everything is the way it is because God made it that way. If there appears to be a conflict between two things that God made, that’s because we mortals can’t understand His purposes. After all, He works in mysterious ways.

This is another example of what I was saying above about how persuasive arguments operate within the subject’s frame of reference.

And I say to the grown-ups: if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with what we’ve observed in the universe, that’s fine.

Nye’s “that’s fine” at the end of this statement is sardonic, which makes it off-putting. The listener knows from the phrasing of the rest of the sentence that Bill Nye doesn’t really think it’s fine for her to “live in a world that’s completely inconsistent with what we’ve observed in the universe.” In other words, he’s making fun of her. And making someone an object of mockery will tend to provoke a defensive reaction.

But don’t make your kids do it, because we need them.

It’s not hard to imagine that this sentence could, to a parent, sound kind of chilling. The nation needs your children to be raised correctly. If you don’t raise them correctly, you will be harming the nation. There is a weird undertone of “or else” to this argumentraise your kids right, or else society may have to step in and do what you won’t.

Would any parent be open to a message that was presented to them in those terms? Would you be open to it, if it were a creationist talking about how you need to start sending your kids to an evangelical church on Sundays, because “we need them”?

In another couple of centuries, that worldview, I’m sure, will be — just won’t exist.

This is the “ash heap of history” argument, and it illustrates another point that Olson makes in his book: just because something is true does not mean it’s persuasive.

A common trap that empirically-minded people tend to make in debate is to start throwing anything supporting their position that’s true into their argument. This is dangerous, because people react differently to different things, even if they are all equally true. So some things, while true, are best left out of your argument, for the simple reason that convincing the other party of their truth will cost you more than it’s worth.

I tend to agree with Nye that, barring enormous intellectual and societal changes, creationism will not be a widely subscribed-to belief system two or three centuries from now. But while I would look at that as a positive societal advance, to a creationist, it would be a disaster — a complete rejection of their entire belief system. It would mean creationists’ backs are up against the wall of extinction; and people with their backs to the wall tend to not be open to alternative viewpoints. If you’re trying to convince someone to subscribe to your alternative viewpoint, that’s the exact opposite of the position you want to put them in.

In conclusion

I like Bill Nye. On this matter, I agree with Bill Nye. But Bill Nye’s not going to change any creationist minds with this video.

To my scientifically-minded friends: we need to do better. We have to do better. If you’re an evolutionist and you’re not sure how we could do better, read Randy Olson’s book for some ideas.


This entry (and everything else on this blog) was written by Jason A. Lefkowitz. Did you like it? Subscribe to this blog's feed to get new stuff the moment it's posted. Want to read more like this? Hit the archives for more than ten years' worth of essays, or jump right to The Best of Just Well Mixed. Angry and wanting to know who to punch? Here's more information about me, including how to get in touch by email and various social networks.


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