Bill Nye’s appearance on Dancing With The Stars is bad for science because it reinforces stereotypes against women and minorities …
That’s the thesis of Jennifer Welsh’s piece at Business Insider. I encourage you to read the whole thing before making a knee-jerk reaction to that statement, because she includes a lot of important data in her article that I agree with. It’s just that I don’t agree with her framing. Bill Nye is not the enemy here.
What do we mean when we say someone or something is a “negative stereotype”? The real danger there is not always the stereotype itself, but rather the stereotype threat, that a member of a group will self-reinforce the image implied by a stereotype. We know that this happens, and Welsh includes several good examples in her article. For instance, young girls do worse in math class when female teachers exhibit anxiety about the subject. Take away the “anxious math girl” image, and they perform equally with (or better than) boys. In essence, the risk is believing that because others view you as inadequate, you are in fact inadequate.
Yes, Bill Nye’s dance sequence on DWTS was nerdy. He played a bumbling, over-the-top character in a lab coat, equal parts comical and charming. In other words, he played Bill Nye, the same way that Bill Nye the person has always played “Bill Nye” the character. Why, when it worked so well as a teaching vehicle on The Bill Nye Show, does “Bill Nye” the character all of a sudden become a stereotype threat when he’s dancing in prime time?
Maybe it’s because he’s being played as the butt of a joke, like Welsh explains. Sure, he played into an old trope of “dork gets sexy person to like them and suddenly doesn’t look dorky anymore" (also seen in such films as She’s All That. She took off her glasses! She’s cool now!). But is that really the threat it’s made out to be? I think there’s a better case to be made that Bill Nye being on DWTS creates an image of a scientist as popular, likable and socially accepted, the very arc his dance routine followed. If we want to point fingers at media that uses awkward white nerds as the eternal butt of a joke in the supposed name of geek culture, look no further than The Big Bang Theory.
Bill Nye is an effective science teacher, one that I think genuinely made an impact for males, females, whites, POC, and others, because he spoke to his “students” as peers. That’s even in the mission statement for his show. His show was accessible to so many groups, I think thereby breaking down stereotype threats, not only because it spoke to its audience inclusively, but because it was truly accessible, as in you can watch this in every classroom in America with access to a TV. But maybe I can’t see past the good parts of Bill Nye the white guy scientist because I’m Joe Hanson the white guy scientist, and that’s a possibility I accept.
I think Welsh calls attention to an important issue, but sloppily. How we can change the public image of a scientist to affect the inclusion of women, POC and LGBTQ groups into the science sphere is some Serious Business™. See, yanking a dancing Bill Nye out of our hat shines the spotlight where it doesn’t need to be, obscuring the systemic problems that are truly at play here: How often-ill-prepared teachers interact with and encourage their students (or don’t), increasing access to quality science education across socioeconomic classes, removing social hurdles such as gender and race bias in faculty and entry-level hiring, providing same-sex benefits to university employees (like grad students and faculty) and erasing a woman’s seemingly-binary choice of starting a family or committing to a career in science, to name a few.
Maybe I’m just inclined to focus on the positive, to be optimistic about how a dancing Bill Nye can make a difference,or how Neil deGrasse Tyson will change the world in prime time next year. I think the problems that Welsh identifies are real, I just don’t think Nye’s the demon we’re looking for. Thoughts?