Bill Nye was recently featured in an apparently controversial video titled, “Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children.” In this video, he detailed how believing in Creationism inherently distorts one’s world view and makes it difficult to do things like pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineer, Math) careers, a path that he would like to see more children pursue being necessary for a viable future society. Mr. Nye’s video resulted in two intriguing responses by bloggers Marc Kuchner of ScientificAmerican.com and Gerg Laden of Scienceblogs.com. The first was an interview conducted by Mr. Kuchner with business communication expert, Patric Donadio, to find out what this person thought of how Mr. Nye delivered his content. This prompted Greg Laden to respond with a blog post on the same website titled, “Critiquing the Critique of Bill NYE’s Video” (caps not mine). It is my assertion that Mr. Donadio and Mr. Laden both missed the mark in their assessments of Mr. Nye’s video, not necessarily because their statements were inherently nonfactual, but rather because they did not take the initial necessary step of asking the right questions. Neither Mr. Donadio nor Mr. Laden asked to whom was Mr. Nye speaking. That in turn is also directly related to the question of who actually made the video. This being the case, let’s look into those questions before we assess the intended function of the video and how successful Mr. Nye was at accomplishing that goal.
One second into the video, two words faded in over Mr. Nye’s left shoulder (viewer’s right shoulder): “Big Think.” At first, I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by this. Was it just saying that his words were big ideas? If annotations for the Youtube-embedded video are turned on, a clickable message pops up saying, “Subscribe to Big Think.” Now we’re getting somewhere. “Big Think” was not just words strung together as a phrase – it was a thing. When the video ends (depending on where you’re watching it and what options the person who posted it used), the user might see a link to Big Think or other Big Think videos. The switch from quotes to italics was intentional, for at this point I was seeing that Big Think was an entity, yet whether it was a blog, company, not-for-profit, I had no idea. By going to their YouTube channel I could see that they had produced many videos which showcased numerous notable personalities from a variety of fields such as Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Howard Dean. An “About”blurb on their YouTube channel says they are, “[a] knowledge forum featuring the ideas, lessons, stories and advice of leading experts from around the world.” Further digging led me to their home page, where there’s… well, there’s a lot. Articles of scientific findings. “Big Ideas” from around the web. Stories about innovation. Seeing videos covering such topics as letting the Bush-tax cuts expire, searching for life on Mars, and the Big Bang, a picture began to coalesce in my mind’s eye of who the intended viewers of this material were. All of this information leads me to believe that the intended audience of this video most certainly was not people who disagree with Mr. Nye on these matters, as it is doubtful that they would go to this website or YouTube channel in the first place.
So if Mr. Nye is not speaking to those who disagree with him, and therefore not really trying change anyone’s mind, to whom is he speaking? What is his intention with this diatribe? – a word I don’t think is unfair given some of the language used. And did it function as intended? To be produced by Big Think and shown on their pages is indicative that Mr. Nye is – ahem – preaching to the choir. Mr. Kuchner lamented:
When I watched the video myself, I cringed. I was pretty sure that the video would do nothing for those who don’t believe in evolution but turn them away. (1)
Don’t worry, Mr. Kuchner, it wasn’t for them. Because of this, Mr. Nye can be more passionate, more militant, more emotive – we (as I consider myself part of his audience) already agree with him. In Mr. Donadio’s opinion:
I would be careful of the language you choose. He said, “…your world view just becomes crazy…” Even though he didn’t call me crazy or call you crazy, people may start to think, “What, are you saying I’m crazy because I don’t believe in evolution?” So I would say, be careful of the language you use, especially if it might insult the listener. (1)
If the video was heard by the intended listener, he/she would not be offended. We watch and think, “Hell yeah, right on, Bill!” It reads a bit more as a battle cry, a rounding up of the troops, a stirring of our inner passions. Now, whether such type of talk is productive for having the opposing sides of this “debate” engage in meaningful dialogue or not is an argument for another day. What we are concerned about right now is the issue of who Mr. Nye’s intended audience is and how the video functions for them.
However, as off the mark as the assessment of the video was by Mr. Kuchner and Mr. Donadio, Mr. Laden’s defense of the video was equally ill-informed. Mr. Laden wrote:
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? (2)
If the function of the video was, as I previously put forth, to speak to people already in agreement with him, Mr. Laden’s point is irrelevant. His intended audience is his audience, not some outside group to whom he is trying to appeal. If he was speaking to those who do not share his beliefs, then Mr. Laden is essentially suggesting that Mr. Nye continue in his Mr. Nye-like fashion in which case his words would fall on deaf ears – a losing strategy. Mr. Laden is arguing – defending, really – from a point that science is right, everyone else is wrong, and we don’t have to acquiesce in the face of (willful) ignorance, and that religion should not get a free pass from criticism just by virtue of being religion. That’s all well and good, but again, irrelevant. If Mr. Nye was speaking to his crowd, the point is moot; if not, then he would be showing contempt for his audience – another losing strategy. Also, Mr. Laden writes that Mr. Nye is at one point speaking to engineers directly:
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… 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?” (2)
Except that Mr. Nye is not subtle when he actually says that their “world view just becomes crazy…” If Mr. Nye were indeed speaking directly to these people, Mr. Donadio would be correct in saying that one must be careful of the language one uses at the risk of insulting the listener.
The issue of trying to convey an intention versus how it actually functions is something that, as a music teacher in a public school, I am confronted with often. The arts are often under attack as unnecessary, especially in these trying times of increased reliance on test scores, more frequent assessments, etc. Of course, we music teachers/musicians know the value of what we do and of our subject. The way that we will talk about this matter, however, will directly be affected by to whom we are speaking. When we talk to each other, we may commiserate, get fiery and passionate, or celebrate the love, fun and the enjoyment that music brings to our lives. When we’re talking to administrations and policy-makers, we will be measured in our responses and point out the statistics that relate to students involved in musical ensembles – higher attendance rates, excelling in other academic areas, etc. We will invite them to concerts, musicals, classrooms, to sing with the kids, hit the drum, whatever. Like Mr. Donadio implied, it would not serve us music educators well to belittle the administration by calling them idiots for not getting the value of music in our schools.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is brilliant in all matters of communication. In an interview that took place on a podcast of Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Dr. Tyson detailed at great length the way he will research an audience or his interviewer to best understand how to get information across and make it accessible, whether it be the vocabulary, body movement, or vocal inflections used. One of my favorite bits is when he talks about figuring out the timing of Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, as to figure out how much time he has to get an idea across before Mr. Stewart chimes in with a joke – a point, Dr. Tyson notes, he’s seen frustrate countless interviewees who didn’t understand this matter. Watch how Mr. Tyson speaks in a CNN interview or on the Daily Show/Colbert Report, and compare it to how he interacts with a completely animal – being on the “Our Future in Space” panel at TAM 2011.
The point that I’m trying to make is that you have to know your audience. Mr. Donadio’s assessment of Mr. Nye’s performance in the Creationism video was valid for a video without any context of who produced it, who it is intended for, etc. And that’s really the funniest thing in this whole matter – Mr. Donadio expounds on Mr. Nye’s (in)ability to access a particular audience without actually asking who that intended audience was!
(1) Bill Nye’s “Don’t Teach Creationism…” Video Dissected by Business Communication Expert, Marc Kuchner; http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/09/02/bill-nyes-dont-teach-creationism-video-dissected-by-business-communication-expert/
(2) Critiquing the Critique of Bill NYE’s Video, Greg Laden; http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2012/09/02/critiquing-the-critique-of-bill-nyes-video/