When Bill Nye drops the F-bomb on TV, it's like our favorite teacher swearing on the last day of school: It's cool but the end of childhood innocence.
On Sunday, Bill Nye appeared on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to clarify that, yes, climate change is a destructive crisis, and we're all to blame. Writer Yashar Ali shared the clip on Twitter and expressed the same mixture of nostalgia, shame, and joy felt by everyone who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy (RIP 1998). He posted, "Just seeing this @BillNye video and I am thoroughly deceased."
Nye, a passionate activist for climate change awareness, appeared in a parody of his beloved children's show's experiments. Equipped with a lab coat, protective goggles, a desk globe, and his signature bow tie, Nye begins by saying, "By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees." Then, with the help of a handy blow torch, he sets the globe on fire. "What I'm saying is the planet's on fucking fire," he says and gestures to three random flame retardants on his desk. "There are a lot of things we could do to put it out—are any of them free? No, of course not. Nothing's free, you idiots. Grow the fuck up. You're not children anymore. I didn't mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were 12. But you're adults now, and this is actually a crisis, got it? Safety glasses off, motherfuckers."
The clip is part of John Oliver's break-down of the Green New Deal, the economic plan proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward J. Markey to combat climate change by curbing carbon emissions. The plan's divisiveness, as well as its failure to pass through the Senate in March, makes Bill Nye's appearance a jarring and much-needed touchstone to spread awareness about climate change. Because he's Bill Nye, "The Science Guy"—How could we not trust him?
The Psychology of TV "Experts"
In fact, American culture has put celebrity scientists on a strange pedestal—even ones of dubious credibility. On daytime TV, The Dr. Oz Show features Mehmet Oz giving bogus medical advice and promoting trendy pseudoscience (the show's currently in its 10th season). Similarly, Phillip McGraw's talk show Dr. Phil is in its 17th season, and features outlandish family dramas and extreme oddities of human behavior (Dr. Phil also interviews murderers in his free time). The list goes on, from exploitative reality TV series like Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew to the celebrity talk show The Doctors. As long as someone calls himself "Dr.," has a strong personality, and very white teeth, he can play a believable scientist on TV.
Of course, anyone with a talk show is interested in self-promotion. When it comes to scientists, we trust their "expert" opinions by virtue of the fact that they have that public platform. Are they credible, experienced professionals? Who cares? They're on TV!
Partly, our brains are wired to trust images—particularly images that suggest authority. Marketing analyst Michael Schein points out, "The human brain has to sort through a near infinite amount of information. As a result, it uses shortcuts—or heuristic—to help it make judgments." So we assume a character in a lab coat knows how to make cool things explode, and everyone who wears a stethoscope probably knows multiple words for "heart trouble." But our innate trust of images can overpower our logic and even our knowledge of facts.
Perhaps the pinnacle example is "America's Doctor," Dr. Oz. While Oz is, in fact, a board-certified cardiothoracic surgeon and a professor at Columbia University, he's also been denounced by the established medical community as a self-promotional witch doctor who "has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine." In 2015, a group of prominent physicians wrote a letter to Columbia calling for Oz to be fired (the open letter was signed by 1,300 other doctors). They specify that he uses his show to promote unproven and unscientific cure-alls for the sake of earning companies profit. In fact, when evaluated by practicing physicians in a study, half of his recommendations were found to be unsupported or in direct contradiction to established medical knowledge. His bogus claims (for example, he said green coffee beans are "a magic weight-loss cure for every body type") have "misled and endangered" the American public throughout his career, according to the physicians' letter.
Oz was even called to testify before the Senate to address his promotions of dangerous weight loss pills. He admitted to knowingly recommending remedies that have no basis in science, saying, "I recognize that oftentimes they don't have the scientific muster to present as fact."
Yet, the public doesn't seem to care. Not only has Oz maintained his position at Columbia, The Dr. Oz Show won a Daytime Emmy in 2018. Schein states, "To your brain's unconscious, trustworthy medical professionals wear scrubs. Mehmet Oz wears scrubs. So Mehmet Oz must be a trustworthy medical professional." Despite being condemned by practicing physicians as "a quack and a fake and a charlatan," Oz is telegenic, charismatic, and well-spoken. He's a reality TV star who wears scrubs; the implied prestige means America wants to trust him.
Okay, but Is Bill Nye a Real Scientist?
To return to one of our favorite 90s TV hosts, Bill Nye has received similar critiques of not being a "real scientist," particularly after his Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World premiered in 2017. Marketed as a variety show, the series relies on Nye's name recognition as an entertainer rather than an expert: "Emmy-winning host Bill Nye brings experts and famous guests to his lab for a talk show exploring scientific issues that touch our lives."
But as he told Stephen Colbert in 2017, "I'm a mechanical engineer, it's physics, for four years it's physics, I took six semesters of calculus, is that enough?" For some, it's not. While Nye has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University, the fact that he also pursued a career in stand-up comedy while working for Boeing (and inventing something called "a hydraulic resonance suppressor tube" for 747 airplanes) strikes some people as anti-scientific. So does the fact that he invented the bow-tied "science guy" persona to fulfill both his ambitions at once.
Overall, critiques target his simplified presentations of complex data and blasé treatment of evidence, prioritizing calls to action to address how science impacts society over hard studies. Hence, we got to see him drop F-bombs on Last Week Tonight. But while more seriously regarded experts like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted documentary series rather than talk shows, they and Nye entered mainstream pop culture by making science accessible: entertaining, even.
While many of TV's favorite "scientists" are no better than reality TV stars, the point of experts in entertainment is to make science an accessible, public good. So we might have to live with Dr. Oz's bogus claims on the air for another 10 years, and Dr. Phil may not be a mortal who will ever succumb to death. But Bill Nye had a reason for yelling at America to "grow the fuck up" instead of discussing statistics: we're adults who can critically think for ourselves. If we develop lazy thinking habits, passively absorbing anything we see on TV, then, you know, the world might catch fire right under our noses. Safety glasses off, motherfuckers.
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