Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.

Movie review: Merchants of Doubt (2014)

There must be a special place in hell for those that seek to influence public policy through lies and deceit.

Merchants of Doubt walks us through the tactics used by companies to prevent public policy that would derail profits or destroy industries. The process is likened to a magician who uses various methods to distract you from reality and show you a completely different reality for you to buy into. Similarly, those in the pay of companies that harm the environment or human health seek to manipulate people’s sense of reality and how the world works.

The documentary starts with the tobacco industry and the long fight to prove that smoking is dangerous. In 1978, Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine, came out against smoking…and ran headlong into pressure from money, political power, and as he put it, meanness. Thousands of pages of internal tobacco industry documentation were leaked, revealing research that the tobacco industry had been conducting for decades. The research showed how harmful smoking was.

For decades, tobacco industry advocates insisted that they knew of no harmful effects. And yet, according to their internal documents, in 1958 they knew that heavy smoking led to lung cancer; and in 1963 they knew that smoking caused heart disease and that nicotine was addictive.

What to do when you know your product causes harm? Hire a PR firm. In 1953, tobacco companies hired Hill and Knowlton who advised them to cast doubt on any claims of harm. This worked for 50 years.

Other industries—chemical, asbestos, oil, etc.—adopted this playbook with disastrous effects on human and environmental health. It is only after decades of concerted efforts by investigative journalists and scientists that science, data, and reality wins over the tactics of doubt and misrepresentation.

In the movie, two Chicago Tribune reporters, Sam Roe and Patricia Callahan, walk us through the fight against flame retardants and the tactics used by the companies that produced the flame retardants. Interestingly, the use of flame retardants owes its existence to cigarettes.

In the 1970s thousands were dying in fires caused by cigarettes, which continued to burn after they were set down. The tobacco industry refused to change their cigarettes to self-extinguish. Instead, they pointed to the “real” culprit: furniture. They argued that rather than change cigarettes, the world around cigarettes needed to be fire-proofed.

They distorted reports from fire scientists, who found that flame retardants do not help protect against fires. (Never mind the serious health effects of the high levels of flame retardants now in American bodies.) They planted their own spies in firefighter organizations. One organization unknowingly selected a tobacco lobbyist as their legislative representative. This was the start of the industry countering with their own people as “experts” to sow seeds of doubt.

The documentary next dives into the most pressing issue of our times—climate change—to illustrate the same tactics used: the use of doubt and the so-called experts. Scientists, who work with objective data, were not prepared. James Hansen, a climate scientist who spoke out in 1988 expressed this: “We just assumed that humanity would take sensible actions to avoid undesirable consequences.” They didn’t anticipate the power of money and ideology.

One scientist, Naomi Oreskes, started to realize something. The attacks against data were similar whether it was about smoking, acid rain, or the hole in the ozone layer. The same people were involved. This wasn’t a scientific debate about the data. She noticed too that it wasn’t necessarily about money or profits.

Two huge voices against climate change—Fred Singer and Fred Seitz—were scientists but not in the climate field. In other words, they did not have expertise in the field, but they passed themselves off as experts. Interestingly, both previously worked for tobacco companies. (And saw smoking as the fault of smokers, not the companies!)

Even more interesting, Oreskes discovered that these two fake climate experts were scientists from the Cold War who were vehemently anti-Communist. Their ideology pre-disposed them to violently reject anything that would require government intervention, which smacks of Communist control.

Whether the problem was tobacco, DDT, the ozone layer, or global warming, all require government intervention and regulation. And in their minds, regulation is a slippery slope to Communism. Government control of the economy was NOT acceptable to the Freds. They would do anything to prevent it, even allowing the destruction of the environment and human health.

This revelation actually informs the hordes of people who deny climate change or the human role in it (as well as the rise of libertarianism). Few people change their minds when presented with data. People are too attached to their ideologies.

Government intervention, regulation, control of the economy, and Communism are all linked, seemingly logical stepping stones from one to the other. Climate change requires government intervention and regulation, which climate change deniers see leading down a slippery slope towards Communism. Based on an ideology that is anti-government intervention (libertarianism, anti-Communism), climate change must be denied. Period. There is no room for acknowledgement, let alone discussion about it.

The documentary shows one man who was open to changing his position when he was confronted by the data. Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society, initially railed against climate change. And then he sat down and looked at the data. He raised the point that people belong to tribes and will stick to beliefs that do not jive with facts in order to remain in the tribe and keep their identity. The libertarians that he is a part of violently deny climate change at the panels he attends. For them to do otherwise would require them to accept government intervention and regulation, the core thing libertarians are opposed to.

The documentary also shows other tactics of deception that people use to sow doubt and to suggest that the debate about climate change is not settled among scientists. Organizations pop up that mirror legitimate scientific ones. Their documentation lays out “data” in the same way with the same design. The research from the legitimate experts and the fake ones are hard to tell apart. They hide behind numbers, claiming that tens of thousands of scientists signed a petition about climate change not being real, when in fact it was the signatures that were not legitimate.

And then there are the think tanks, which are really lobbying organizations that do not do research but push public policy positions based on ideology. The George C. Marshall Institute is a case in point, run by a CEO who, it was discovered after some digging, was a lobbyist.

These lobbyists and so-called experts flood op eds and news programs. Journalists fall for their scam, presenting them as legitimate counters to scientists who present data showing that climate change is happening. We too fall for them, never looking for their credentials.

One such fake expert, Marc Morano, was happily interviewed for this documentary. For decades he worked to attack scientists. Not the science. Not the data. The scientists themselves.

The conversation about climate change had now moved very far from being a debate about the data. The conversation had moved very far from being the sowing of doubt about the data. Like with magic, they were seeking to distract and keep people from looking at the science. The point was to switch your focus to something else.

And that’s when talk about freedom entered the conversation on climate change. Freedom is so fundamental to being an American, it easily gets people up in arms (quite literally in the US). Acknowledging climate change is seen as an attack on freedom, an attack on the American way of life. If climate change is true, then I have to change how I live my life. My freedoms are being attacked.

Merchants of Doubt is an incredibly powerful and important film. The deception used to prevent public policy that would improve lives and health is sickening. The documentary shows the use of fake news before the term came into our current lexicon. It reveals the ways that we are deceived in hopes that we wake up.

In the past we have come to our senses after decades and decades of fighting by scientists and investigative journalists to bring the truth to light. But as one person stated, in terms of climate change, we don’t have decades and decades to wait. We may lose this battle, too busy distracted by fake experts, the supposed threat to our freedoms, and the ideological horror of government regulation.

Book review: Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations

I must admit. I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book. I had read part of a previous book by Friedman but stopped because it was such a downer. Friedman was/is a cheerleader of globalization. Not that I am anti-globalization, but globalization has had a lot of negative effects that I am not a big fan of.

His latest book is on the acceleration of change, another uncomfortable topic. Friedman successfully argues that three forces are contributing to this acceleration: the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change), and Moore’s Law (technology). As much as we might want this acceleration to slow down, it won’t and will in fact continue to speed up.

The anxiety and anger that we as a society feel is due to our inability to adapt quickly enough. Too many are being left behind and the rest are barely trending water. We need to recreate our educational systems and government services to help us adapt and support us when we can’t.

The solution is not to try to stop or slow down the accelerations. In fact, trying to do so would make things worse. Friedman uses the analogy of white river rafting. Dropping your oar in the water in an attempt to slow down only destabilizes you. Any expert rafter would advise paddling your way through the strong currents.

Thank You For Being Late is divided into roughly three sections: a history of developments that led to the accelerations, adaptations that we as individuals and societies need to make, and a case study of a society where the adaptations worked.

I enjoyed the first section, the history of developments that led to the accelerations, especially the part that dealt with technology. Friedman has a gift of weaving together disparate bits into a coherent whole. He shows how 2007 was a turning point, a coalescing point where innovations came together to bring massive accelerations.

He argues that the key to thriving in the age of acceleration requires openness—in trade, finance, immigration. Those who learn once (in college, vocational program, etc.) and attempt to live off of that knowledge for the rest of their lives are quickly being left behind. Lifelong learning is the key to adaptation and keeping up with the flow of change. We need to invest in infrastructure—physical, digital, and human.

Which societies and people thrive in the age of acceleration? Those who are open to flows of trade, information, finance, culture, and education. We need to open up rather than close ourselves off. We need to be open to other people, other cultures, other perspectives, and other experiences.

Friedman discusses climate change, the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we keep ignoring. Soon it will push us out of the Holocene epoch, the period in earth’s history when conditions are perfect for human life.

Next Friedman discusses things to be done. Three social contracts need to change—workers/employers, students/educational institutions, and citizens/government.

He looks at the skills that are needed. Self-motivation and lifelong learning is key. Jobs with the highest pay are reserved for those who can leverage technology. The three Rs are no longer sufficient. We need the four Cs: creativity, collaboration, communication, coding. People must have “strong fundamentals in writing, reading, coding, and math; creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; grit, self-motivation, and lifelong learning habits; entrepreneurship and improvisation.” (page 212)

Instability and disorder are increasing in the world. Refugees are fleeing areas of disorder for countries of order, which threatens to destablize these countries. Instead of closing borders to immigration, we need to prevent the need for immigration in the first place.

Problems in areas of the globe in disorder are due to climate change and population growth. Extended droughts and desertification lead to political instability and people leaving in search of food and employment. People in desperate situations turn to extremism. Our battle with terrorism will never end as long as there are areas of disorder in the world fed by climate change, political instability, and population growth.

Friedman presents some concrete solutions to the situation of anger and anxiety over these accelerations in the US. He goes beyond political parties and positions to come up with solutions to help the US thrive in the age of acceleration. His list provides food for thought. Some items in the list seem to ignore implications and consequences. Others do not seem legally possible or realistic. Still others do not seem like good ideas.

Next, he talks about anchoring people in strong families and healthy communities And then he discusses the Minnesota of his youth and how it had strong families and healthy communities. The implication is that this type of community and political environment is possible and would mitigate the forces of acceleration.

I felt that by the end, I was reading a different book. It started with explanations of the accelerations and concluded with an idealized description of the past. I am not sure how much better (if any) I feel after reading this book. I continue to feel like the proverbial hamster on the wheel that never stops, frantically trying to keep up with the changes, to keep myself relevant to the Market, to keep developing skills. The take away for me is that I need to keep doing what I am doing…but just do it faster.