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Politics & Current Affairs

Bill Nye is a scientist, because you’re not your college major

Nye has spent almost his whole career teaching kids, but he’s hated by right-wing ideologues for spreading the word of science.
Bill Nye arrives at the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Bill Nye is routinely criticized for not being a scientist. Despite being a professional science educator for most of his adult life, much of the criticism hurled at Nye on Twitter and elsewhere boils down to saying he isn’t like other scientists. He hosts a show on Netflix instead of publishing in scientific journals, he wasn’t a biochem major, etc., etc., etc.

For many, what they major in college becomes who they are. Someone who studies law may begin to see themselves as part of a tribe of legal scholars, or someone who studies science may begin to see themselves as one of the defenders of the scientific method. This is how humans work. We create categories and subgroups for ourselves, often to feel a sense of belonging or to feel special. However, there are often flaws in this logic.

What you major in college does not define you. Furthermore, what others choose to focus on in college does not permanently define them. We often see people say someone like Bill Nye is not actually a scientist because he studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University. Besides the fact that mechanical engineering requires a lot of science, including studying physics at a high level for four years, he graduated from university over 40 years ago. He’s certainly done a lot to learn about and utilize science since then.

Bill Nye is the CEO of the Planetary Society, where with help from others he was able to launch a solar sail they designed into space. That is an accomplishment many scientists could only dream of. In order to host his original TV program, Bill Nye the Science Guy or his recent Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World, he’s also done much research on scientific problems and worked closely with scientists from different fields so he can educate the public. All of that said, it is fair to say Nye is not a published research scientist in any certain wing of science, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a scientist, and it’s arguably elitist and misguided to say so.

“There’s scientist with a small S and scientists with a big S, right?” Dr. Pedro Noguera, an education professor at UCLA, told me. “We want people to identify with fields, whether it be science or art, but at the same time we want to acknowledge expertise and people who have put lots of years of study and research into a field.”

And Noguera has that exactly right. To say Nye is a scientist is not to say he’s the same as someone who’s been studying samples of the atmosphere or the Earth’s crust for 30 years, but it is to say he works in science and is knowledgeable about science from his many years of work. If you were to say “Bill Nye is not a climate scientist,” for example, then that would be entirely fair. People like Nye rely on specialized scientists who make the most crucial discoveries, but that doesn’t mean they don’t grasp the essential lessons of those scientific endeavors.

Many who want to discredit Nye attempt to do so for political reasons. For example, they don’t like that he separates gender from sex, which is obviously connected to his liberal ideology but also an opinion held by many scientists. “The socio-sexual anarchy wrought by the transgender zeitgeist is perhaps the most interesting of all, if not also the most horrifying,” a Federalist contributor wrote in an article criticizing Bill Nye. “Over time Nye’s aspirations have grown considerably, to the point he’s become a megalomaniac,” a Maven article reads. These people are frothing at their mouths because Bill Nye is liberal and loved by liberals.

That said, there are some who I think rightly criticize Nye for at times being one-sided in how he represents scientific issues or for publicly discussing important issues in an imperfect manner. A National Post article points out that Nye sometimes becomes dogmatic when he discusses certain scientific issues and is used as an expert on an issue on television when a research scientist might be preferable. This criticism is usually connected to Nye discussing climate change, and as a fan, I know he’s so passionate about it that he can go off the deep end. He literally wants to help “save the world,” as his Netflix show’s title states.

That said, this does not mean Nye is not a small-s scientist. I’ve seen notable research scientists go on television and be one-sided or express scientific opinions many would dispute. A lot of science isn’t settled, and scientists have opinions. Nye is just an easy target. Should he be the main representative of the scientific community? Certainly not. However, I find him to be a good mascot for science education and a knowledgeable person.

Outside of the Nye debate, there are many examples of people trying to discredit someone based on their experience in college. People often say Noam Chomsky is no political expert because he studied, researched and teaches linguistics, despite the fact he’s been a political activist and an intense student of politics and history for half a century. You see these kinds of criticisms all over the place. It’s as if many people who went to college can’t imagine possibly understanding a subject without having studied it at school many years ago, which is even odder and absurd in the information age.

On a personal note, I’ve been working as a journalist for nearly a decade. I did not go to journalism school, but I started at the bottom of the industry and worked my way up. I did much research to learn how to properly do journalism and learned a lot while working as a journalist. I think any professional editor will tell you that most journalism students are nearly useless straight out of journalism school, which is true in many fields because we learn most from being directly involved in the actual work.

Furthermore, it would seem not enough weight is given to the importance of outside perspectives in any field. Many studies have found that often times the best ideas come from people who are coming from a perspective that is different than most who are involved in a certain area of research or debate.

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“Sometimes people who are outside of a field come from a different perspective and have different questions that people who are inside the field take for granted or don’t consider,” Noguera said. “So sometimes the outsider’s perspective can be helpful.”

Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to figure out a problem those who have been staring at it for years could not solve. We need those experienced problem solvers, but they can sometimes benefit from outsider minds.

All of this is to say that we don’t need to judge a person’s expertise entirely based on their college degree. College is a small part of someone’s life compared to the many years that follow, and we live in a time when almost everyone constantly has a massive wealth of information at the tips of their fingers. Bill Nye may not be a microbiologist and Noam Chomsky may not be a constitutional scholar, but that doesn’t mean those people don’t have a deep understanding of the topics they regularly discuss. Life should be a constant stream of new information. To end your education at school is to spend your life in decay.