Gentle Science Communication: Bill Nye vs David Attenborough

I’ve been promising this blog post on gentle science communication for months now, so apologies that it has taken me so long to get round to writing. I first thought of writing about this topic when I was in Toronto as part of my WCMT Fellowship (that reminds me, applications for WCMT Fellowships 2020 are now open, find out more here!). Anyway, yes, Toronto. I started my Fellowship work in Toronto at the beginning of January, and my initial aim was to find out how to make science communication more engaging.

The field of science communication research is vast, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of published, peer-reviewed studies that provide robust data on what works, what doesn‘t, and why. My Fellowship was different to that field of research because I was coming at it from a different angle; I approached this from an entirely practical perspective. To be blunt, I didn’t want to know why specific science communication techniques worked, what causes specific responses to communication methods. I wanted to know, in very simple steps, how I can improve the way I engage with people online. (Spoiler alert – blogging infrequently, irregularly and in rushed snippets of time is not as I have been over the last few months? That’s absolutely not the answer; do as I say not as I do and all…).

See the source imageOne of the biggest learning points I took away from that first week in Toronto was the importance of gentle science communication.

For me, there are two extremes to science communication; the shouty type where you are communicating a fact in an effort to tell ‘the truth’, and the more touchy feely, diffuse, hard-to-put-your-finger-on type where you are finding out scientific story or learning skill (e.g. critical thinking) but it’s not so immediately obvious.
This time last year I’d say I sat firmly in the middle of those two extremes. I got frustrated by people that were against vaccination and would find myself thinking things like, ‘but how on Earth can this person think like that, they’re intelligent!’, and the prospect of engaging with a flat-Earther or someone that ‘didn’t believe’ in climate change just seemed pointless.

Honestly I’m a bit embarrassed by that.

Now, my views on science communication lean much more toward the touchy feely, diffuse, hard-to-put-your-finger-on type. So why have my views changed so much?

As with anything, there are pros and cons to each of those two extremes, but after the conversations I had during my Fellowship, I’m not sure I’ll ever be involved in shouty science communication (yes, that’s a technical term) again.
Gentle science communication allows us to build an understanding environment, one where people are free to explain their anxieties, fears, and unease about a subject, and where the scientist or science communicator takes those concerns into account, respectfully engaging in dialogue that factors in uncertainties no matter whether they are scientifically accurate or not.

That might make complete and total sense when you read it – ‘of course we should be respectful and not belittle people’ I hear you cry! Unfortunately, that’s not always how things play out. A recent example of this comes from science celebrity Bill Nye. Now, I am not anti-Bill Nye; I’ve paid money to see him and written about that experience on this blog before, but I think it’s important that we are able to take a critical look at people that we admire.

A few weeks ago, Bill Nye appeared on US TV show Last Week Tonight, explaining that:

“By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees. What I’m saying is: The planet’s on fucking fire.”

For those of us who agree with Bill’s stance on climate change, this video might offer a quick laugh or a frustrated sigh in agreement.

What do you think it offers people that have different views on climate change? Personally, I think it has the potential to offend and insult those people, likely causing them to immediately disengage with any further communication efforts focussing on the science behind climate change.

See the source imageBill Nye is one of the most famous scientists alive today, and in my opinion, this brand of harsh science communication is doing more harm than it is good. The topic of climate change is contentious; there are those that believe it is either not happening, or a natural phenomenon that would be happening whether humans were on the planet or not.

On the other hand, millions of people agree that it is happening, and that is it caused by human-kind. I am in that group; I don’t eat meat, I always carry a re-useable water bottle and I try to limit the amount that I consume in terms of fast fashion and single use plastics. I believed in climate change before, but this clip from David Attenborough made me more conscious of the part that I am playing in the progressive warming of the planet.

So, why do I think David Attenborough’s approach is more effective than Bill Nye’s?

See the source imageFirst and foremost it’s about emotional impact. Both Bill Nye and David Attenborough were presumably hoping that their communication methods would encourage people to make changes their behaviour. The former used anger and frustration, the latter opted for emotion, visuals and gentle words. David Attenborough caused me to change my behaviour because I was able to see myself in the nets and straws that overwhelmed the sea in front of him. Bill Nye on the other hand, made me pity the people that I already disagree with. Swearing and belittling an audience with an opposing view to you is going to alienate them, rather than encourage them to listen to you. This shouty approach is not one-time screw up that can be remedied by another interaction later on, dismissing someone’s views (whether scientifically correct or not) is likely to make them think twice about engaging with a scientist in the future; it’s a screw-up that could have negative long-term consequences.

As scientists, it’s important that we learn from those that are doing science communication respectfully. Please, think twice before you make a joke about someone’s views on science; it’s the fault of generations of scientists before us (and likely a few that are still alive and well today) that members of the public are basing their opinions on factually inaccurate information, and it’s up to us to do better.

This piece published in Scientific American is also worth a look – even the scientists that we look up to can be problematic. It’s important that we acknowledge that and aim to do better.


I’m sure there are professional science communicators that are reading this thinking that I am naïve, and they’d be correct – I was hugely naïve before embarking on my Fellowship. Now I’m a bit less naïve, and I’m working to share my own little journey in a gentle and understanding environment. I’m not perfect; I’m learning, and I hope that sharing my thoughts on topics like this can help people learn from me just as I learned from others.

 

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An Evening With Bill Nye – Portland, Oregon

Last night I went to see Bill Nye Live in Portland. If you were at school in the 1990s, you probably recognise that name from the TV show ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ – it ran between 1993 and 1998 saved many, many science teachers from terrible hangovers as Bill took over teaching for a lesson.

Now, Bill Nye is not only a science educator – he’s the CEO of the Planetary Society, he provided consultancy on scientific matters to Barrack Obama when he was in office (ahh, the good old days..), he’s written multiple books, and he’s even been on Dancing with the Stars. Most relevant to last night’s event is that’s he’s a board member of the Mount St. Helens Institute, a non-profit aiming to ‘advance understanding and stewardship of the Earth through science, education, and exploration of volcanic landscapes’.

Ticket sales for ‘Bill Nye Live: An Evening of Seismic Importance’ were in support of the Mount St Helens Institute, and on the 38th anniversary of its eruption, Bill Nye and the Institute aimed to educate and entertain on the topic of climate change, the effects of the 1998 eruption, and how we can all work together to, quite literally, save the world.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the event in terms of the level of seriousness in the way the content was presented – Bill Nye has always been funny, but this topic is serious, especially given that it was in honour of the 38th anniversary of the Mount St Helens eruption. 57 people died as a result of the eruption, so I was a bit weary of Bill’s jokey side.

To be honest, there were parts of Bill’s presentation that did make me feel a bit uncomfortable. I agreed with just about everything that he said, but the way that he repeatedly described the eruption as ‘amazing’, whilst only mentioning the victims of it once or twice, and in quite derogatory ways (Harry Truman was one resident who refused to leave despite being told to evacuate the Mount St Helens site; he was killed by the pyroclastic flow that overtook his lodge and buried the site under 150ft of volcanic debris), didn’t sit well with me. I get that he was playing things up for the audience, but Mount St Helens is less than 2 hours away, and given that the eruption was only 38 years ago, it’s feasible that people can remember the devastation that it caused; it seemed insensitive.

Mount St Helens before and after the 1980 eruption.

That said, overall I thought the event was really well done. The audience was very mixed – lots of families with very young children, large groups of adults and older couples wanting to learn more about the volcano, so I thought the way Bill managed to communicate such complicated science was brilliant. I’m not a geologist, and haven’t studied volcanoes since I was about 12 (I think it was in a Geography class with a teacher I didn’t like..), and I followed the graphs and statistics that were presented pretty easily. There was a young boy sat next to me who seemed to follow along easily enough too, and as we got up to leave I heard him say to his Mum, ‘how do you be a geologist then?’ which was a heart-warming end to the evening.

Find out more about the Mount St Helens Institute here, and watch Bill Nye’s latest Netflix series ‘Bill Nye Saves the World’ here.