Bill Nye needs to stop debating climate change

The TV "Science Guy" does his cause, and all of us, no good with his cheesy antics

Published March 10, 2014 6:35PM (EDT)

  (AP/John Davisson)
(AP/John Davisson)

At first blush, it seems like a net positive that Bill Nye is putting his big public profile to work as an advocate for wider awareness of climate change. There he is, debating prominent creationist Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, or going toe-to-toe with Rep. Marsha Blackburn on "Meet the Press."

The only problem is that climate change is not, in the actual scientific community, a debate. And Bill Nye, for many years a showman more than an actual scientist, is ceding far too much ground in his quest to get airtime.

Nye, for those who were not or did not have young children in the 1990s, was the host of PBS's "Bill Nye the Science Guy," a show that brought to kids the fundamentals of science, aiming to make it fun. Nye has been an engineer, but his career has been frankly more pegged to showmanship than to expertise. His C.V. lists three Ph.Ds -- all honorary -- as well as a Bachelor of Science. He appeared on the most recent season of "Dancing with the Stars," during which he "did the robot" to Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." And at South by Southwest over the weekend, Nye appeared to promote Craig Ferguson's new show "I F-ing Love Science," a program that promises to exist at the intersection where scientific thought meets thoughts about how weird and fun science is.

The TV personality certainly knows more about science than the layman, or than his debate opponents. But the fact that he's allowed himself to be presented as one side in a debate over whether climate change is real, a notion that the scientific community has overwhelmingly decided, speaks to a lack of rigor and, frankly, irresponsibility. Nye is culpable in presenting the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change as an entertaining, wacky debate between two personalities; frankly, when he's up against a U.S. Congressman, he seems like the less serious party. And by showing up at the Creation Museum, Nye has already lost: It's the sort of visit that would cause a scientist to lose face, which is probably why a practicing scientist didn't go.

It's not his fault, per se, that he carries baggage that makes him less likely to be taken seriously: Nye brings with him everywhere he goes memories of his stint as a children's entertainer. It's great grist for a sustained career in entertainment -- exactly the sort of thing serious discussions about climate change should not be. Nye's motives are clear and good. He has a gift for distilling information and presenting it to the public, as he did for so long on PBS. But climate change isn't a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano. It is, unfortunately, an issue that media outlets like NBC News have, in the name of objectivity, decided to frame as a matter open to discussion. That alone is bad. That the representative of the scientific community is easily dismissed as just another media-hungry performer -- "Dancing with the Stars" is, at this point, a punchline if not the entire joke -- by his ideological opponents is horrific.

Nye faces a similar problem that did Al Gore; in publishing several books and appearing in the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," Gore was too-easily framed as hungry for media love, for a second career, and, potentially, for a return to electoral politics. (That's what suffuses the erroneous but common belief that Gore, the subject of his documentary rather than its director, "won an Oscar," the notion that he was in it for the applause of left-coast liberals.)

It's a problem without a clear solution -- those best-positioned to educate the public are those who are already famous, and who summarily have baggage and familiar foibles. It's hard to imagine a person becoming a celebrity on the back of climate change advocacy, a figure who would lend to the non-debate the gravity it needs while getting the attention of the public. But a good first step would be for Nye to start rejecting invitations to debate and, if he's serious about a new role as an advocate, to back away from Craig Ferguson shows about "the randomness of science" (or shows about ballroom dancing, for that matter) for fear of diluting his message. Bill Nye is a gifted entertainer who has spent a career speaking to small children. If anyone could innovate a way to make the message of climate change compelling to the vast American public without resorting to wacky gimmicks or to made-for-TV bickering, it's him. Come back from South by Southwest, Bill.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Bill Nye Bill Nye The Science Guy Climate Change Global Warming