Bill Nye is doing science just fine

Let’s look at a painfully naïve understanding of science.

Science. The word denotes logic. Reason. Cold, hard facts. Measurable data and observable phenomena. Objectivity.

There is a germ of truth in that: scientists use reason, we hope, to interpret data, “facts”, to arrive at a conclusion, but it’s more complicated than that. Science is a process, not the “cold, hard facts” themselves, and it is a process that is supposed to place a check on the subjectivity of scientists. It’s odd, though, to see science reified to the point that we can assign human values like “objectivity” to it.

I’ll use a couple of examples to explain why that understanding of science is wrong.

This is a fist-sized rock. It’s real. You can measure its dimensions, weigh it, break down its chemical composition, determine its location in space and time. It is a “cold, hard fact”. But as far as science is concerned, it’s not very interesting, and wouldn’t warrant a museum exhibit or a paper being written about it.

Where it gets interesting is in the context of a theory or explanation. This is a rock found in association with a recently excavated mastodon skeleton. What provokes discussion is that it is proposed to have been a hammer used by hominins to help butcher the mastodon.

Is that a “cold, hard fact”?

It’s an explanation that is in dispute. Most anthropologists are dubious. Of course, if it’s just a random, eroded rock it becomes a pointless, unsurprising “fact”, because rocks are mundane and common; if it’s confirmed as a stone tool, it becomes a career-making discovery.

Here’s another “fact”. We have some “measurable data” on the age of the mastodon.

Since 1993, the team, including lead author Steven Holen, have repeatedly tried to date the mastodon fragments, using techniques like carbon-dating. They repeatedly failed. They only succeeded when they turned to uranium-thorium dating, which looks at the decay of two radioactive elements. That gave an age of 130,700 years, give or take 9,400 in either direction.

130,700±9,400. Sure sounds measured and specific and sciencey. It’s also a radical surprise — we don’t think people were living in North America 130,000 years ago! Most anthropologists still don’t. That number is in question.

“There are a small number of uranium-thorium dating specialists who think bone can be dated,” says John Hellstrom from the University of Melbourne—who isn’t one of them. “The problem is that uranium moves around in bone, which invalidates the dating unless you can use a mathematical model of that movement to compensate. That is exactly what the authors of this study have tried to do.” Coupled with other evidence about the surrounding rock layers, the bones are “likely to be something around the age the authors claim,” he says, “but I would not give these dates hard-evidence status. More correctly, they indicate the bones are most likely at least tens of thousands of years in age.”

So what is it? A hammer, or a stone? Is it 130,000 years old, or just something over 10,000 years old?

See, this is where we disagree on the meaning of science. Some want to say it’s about absolute truths, crystal-clear facts laid out in the grand Book of Nature. Some of us think instead about complexity and context, that we’re trying to use evidence to reduce uncertainty and converge on models that best explain reality. The scientific meaning of that rock will change as we gather more evidence, develop more tools for examining it in greater detail, look at other sites of similar age, and work to confirm or disconfirm the idea that it is an ancient hammer. Science will change its interpretation, because it is a process that constantly evaluates and re-evaluates the data, and gathers new data that requires modification of our understanding.

And we’re cool with that. That’s how it’s supposed to work. We don’t deal in absolutes.

I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that it’s an ancient hammer ten times older than any other artifacts we’ve found on the continent, and I’m OK with that. If more evidence emerges of people living in North America 100,000 years ago — which I wouldn’t bet on occurring — then I’m also OK with that. A good scientist should be a leaf on the wind.

Here’s another example of “measurable data and observable phenomena”: digit length ratios and gender. Women are supposed to have a shorter ring finger, relatively, than men, and subtle variations in the ratio of the length of the ring finger to the index finger are supposed to be indicative of everything from sexual orientation, to sperm count, to aggressiveness, to adult hormone concentrations.

I’ve seen people present that difference as a “cold, hard fact”, too. It’s not. It’s a smear of ratios, with only a rough statistical correlation, and no predictive power at all.

That’s the danger of that quote at the top of this article. When you treat science as a collection of facts, you shut down questioning and exploring the complexity of reality — you short-circuit the process, which means you aren’t doing science any more. That doesn’t mean there are no truths in science — evolution is a fact, as is global climate change — but that those facts are more subtle and fluid than most people imagine, and all of them are provisional and subject to re-evaluation.

But there are even more errors at that link. The purpose of the article is to criticize Bill Nye’s new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, which is fine. There is much to criticize in it — I found it a bit superficial and with a style I find annoying, but the thing is…it’s a show intended to reach people other than already-confirmed science educators like me, so it’s fine that I’m not the target. It’s more than fine — I think diverse approaches are necessary, and applaud the blooming of a thousand flowers, which are not all old, white, and male.

But once again, this critic approaches it with his own flawed biases. He watched the show about “The Sexual Spectrum”, and was horrified.

The only “science” mentioned in the episode about sex comes during the first segment when we are informed about sex chromosomes and their function. If you are XX you are female, and if you are XY you are male. Most all of us learned this in school. But Nye is quick to point out that this binary way of looking at things is outdated. Some people have more than two sex chromosomes. Some have only one. Indeed, he instructs us, people don’t really fall into binary categories of male or female, but exist somewhere on a sexual spectrum with male at one end and female at the other.

That is a very revealing paragraph. What constitutes science, to him? Descriptions of chromosomes. He’s already narrowed the slit he views the world of science through to a remarkable degree, because at the very least his reductionist perspective should include endocrinology, and molecular biology, and cellular responses (I understand how many narrow scientists would exclude such things as psychology and sociology from the domain of science, but at least he’s got to understand that there’s more to sex than just chromosomes, right?).

But then he goes on to get the one allowed piece of science wrong!

If you are XX you are female, and if you are XY you are male.

Nope. Not always true. You could argue that if you’re XX, you won’t be able to produce sperm, and if you’re XY, you won’t be able to produce ova, and that if you’re aneuploid you probably won’t produce either. You can kinda sorta limit your understanding of sex to the gametic definition, but there are far too many circumstances where that is irrelevant.

Then it gets worse.

Nye mentions that there are abnormalities in the sex chromosomes in 1 in 400 pregnancies, which he calls “quite a lot.” Calling it a “spectrum” suggests that most of us would be neither XX or XY but something in between. Generally the extreme ends of the spectrum represent the minority with most people somewhere in the middle.

Yes, 1 in 400 is “quite a lot”. It means that at my university, there are probably about 4 students with a chromosomal abnormality of the sex chromosomes, and that’s probably a low estimate. You probably know people with this kind of variation, but the thing is, it usually doesn’t jump out at you as some easily visible phenotype. A surprising number of people show up at fertility clinics with problems in reproduction that only then are discovered to be due to a sex chromosome abnormality.

But here’s how that writer deals with the “cold, hard fact” that a significant number of people in our population have a variation in chromosome number: by trying to argue that the percentage is even lower, as if that matters, and trivializing the existence of the minority.

The fact that abnormalities occur does not negate the norm or render the idea of the norm meaningless. What is more telling, that 399 out of 400 children are born with typical XX or XY chromosomes or that 1 out of 400 is not?

So…what do you propose we do with that 1 out of 400? Ignore them? Pretend they don’t exist? Allow the self-righteous Norms to persecute them? They are real, they exist, they have just as much right to exist as someone with an XY chromosome pair. Their existence is also not a rebuke to the 399 out of 400. It just is. If you’re a scientist, accept that.

There’s another weird thing in his comments.

Generally the extreme ends of the spectrum represent the minority with most people somewhere in the middle.

He seems to have confused a bell curve with a spectrum. No, that is not true. If it were, since the middle of the visible light spectrum is about 570 nm, rainbows would be mostly yellow-green. That the human sex chromosome distribution is strongly bimodal with large peaks at XX and XY does not mean there cannot be a spectrum of intermediates. But then, his approach to refuting the idea of a spectrum of sexuality is to a) minimize the existence of known intermediates, and b) then pretend that they don’t count as a “spectrum”, because they don’t fit his predefined and incorrect understanding of what a spectrum is.

He ends similarly with his biased interpretation of the purpose of sex.

Surprisingly, for someone who supposedly champions reason, not once in this episode did Nye even raise the question What is sex for? Why are human beings sexual? There is no mention of children; no mention of marriage; no mention of love. No mention, in fact, of any sort of consequences for our sexual behavior. Bill Nye speaks in this episode of how things are “in the real world” but one gets the impression that he hasn’t lived there in quite some time.

Well, gosh. If he’s going to reduce sex to his narrow “scientific” interpretation of “cold, hard facts”, why is he bringing up love and marriage? Yeast have sex, you know, but they tend not to bother with religious rituals, and I rather doubt that love is involved.

If Nye had brought up the topic of the purpose of human sex, I’m sure it would have been even more offensive to a Catholic minister.

Sex is for reproduction.

Sex is for pair-bonding.

Sex is for fun.

Sex is for sale.

Sex is for political alliances.

Sex is for entertainment.

Sex is for demonstrating submission.

Sex is for conformity.

Sex is for psychological release.

Sex is for trading for favors.

Sex is for religious celebrations.

Sex is for dominance displays.

Sex is for consolation.

Sex is for whatever you feel like.

I’ve noticed that the “real world” seems to have a lot of people and behaviors who aren’t exactly like me and mine. That doesn’t offend me at all. I think I’d rather encourage everyone to be themselves and be happy, than to arbitrarily decide to be like me and be miserable (I’m happy as I am, but wouldn’t expect others to be).

Likewise, you don’t have to like Bill Nye’s new show. I’m neither into gay sex or Bill Nye Saves the World, and that’s just fine. If it opens up a better perspective on science than too many self-identified “science” advocates have, then more power to it.


  1. magistramarla says

    I’m so pleased that my 4 yr old granddaughter watches and loves Bill Nye. Bill is and always has been great at capturing the imaginations of young children and getting them interested in science in a fun and exciting way. We can all hope that my granddaughter’s generation is even more open and accepting of science and other people than her 18 yr old brother’s generation.
    BTW, he grew up loving Bill Nye, too.

  2. daulnay says

    For most organisms, isn’t sexual reproduction a mechanism to sift out deleterious mutations?

  3. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    Used to love Bill Nye on Almost Live–he was especially good in the recurring series Ineffectual Middle Management Suck-Ups. Occasionally they would do a Bill Nye the Science Guy sketch–usually involving explosions. Then I blinked and he was President of the Planetary Society. Still don’t quite know how anyone outside the Seattle area ever heard of him….

  4. says

    To address the opening question of the essay, that rock is obviously a fossilized loaf of rustic artisanal rye bread. Now we know (through science!)that the so-called Paleo diet is wrong. Paleo humans loved mammoth on rye, psuedo-scientific healthy eating gurus should be touting the modern version of our ancestral diet: pastrami on rye.

  5. says

    #5: Yes. And early North America was first colonized by dwarfs, and we haven’t yet recognized their contributions to prehistory because a) we keep failing to notice that those petrified specimens are not petrified at all, but the original raw materials, and b) most of their relics are buried deep in mines.

  6. cartomancer says

    Hey, you forgot sex as a means of lowering one’s self esteem and sex as a catalyst for abject epidemiological terror!

  7. GiantPanda says

    Generally the extreme ends of the spectrum represent the minority with most people somewhere in the middle.

    So that’s why most people are ambidextrous. Oh, wait…

  8. sebloom says

    I hate Bill Nye’s new show…especially the bad jokes. I hate the loudly screaming audience better suited to a “Late Show” and that hokey fist bump with his reporters. But I’m an old man who listens to Mozart and Haydn, not Bruno Mars or Lady Gaga. If he succeeds in informing non-scientists about what real science is, then good for him.

  9. bobmunck says

    “measurable data and observable phenomena”

    A personal meme that has always served me well is that all numbers are fuzzy. A great deal of what most scientists spend their time doing is determining the depth and characteristics of that fuzz.

    For example, you mention the number 130,700±9,400, giving both the number and the depth of fuzz on it. Note, however, that that’s not the whole story; it gives only the margin of error on that measure of uranium-thorium dating but doesn’t mention that the use of that method in these circumstances is also fuzzy. (That latter kind of fuzz is basically binary — yes or no.)

    I guess my point is that our “cold, hard facts” aren’t really hard, because the numbers behind them are covered with layers of fuzz. What is hard is explaining this to someone who is anti-science and literal-minded.

  10. stillacrazycanuck says

    I wonder if the problems that some people seem to have with the provisional and incomplete explanations of natural phenomena often afforded by science is in part due to the contrast between the scientific approach and the certainties of revealed (religious) knowledge. If one’s approach to ideas was influenced, in one’s early years, by accepting dogma, then the notion that ‘knowledge’ is only provisionally true, and may change in unexpected ways, and the new ‘knowledge’ be only provisional itself could be unsettling.

    Thus some people will want to restrict ‘science’ or ‘scientific fact’ to matters thought to be irrefutable. In the immortal words of the trumpian one: ‘sad’.

  11. brucej says

    Fundamentally the “Cold Hard Facts” kind of thinking isn’t really about science at all. They mean “Cold Hard Rules”; the authoritarian mindset demands that they have these. This is what bleeds into their perception of what science is, what culture is, and the whole messy multiple shades of every thing in between.

    They much put everything in their world into it’s own tight little box, and anything that doesn’t fit must be pounded into the box they demand it fits in.

    And the kind of brain that perceives marriage as a ‘scientific fact’ is kind of alien to me…

  12. robro says

    PZ — Thanks for the coverage and insights on the San Diego story. Interested to see how it plays out.

    The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge @ #3— “Still don’t quite know how anyone outside the Seattle area ever heard of him….” Maybe it was the long running “Bill Nye the Science Guy” show that ran on PBS from 1993-1998?

    PZ @ #6 — “…early North America was first colonized by dwarfs…”. I thought it was elves, with Frodo and Bilbo Baggins.

    sebloom @ #11 — It’s his style. The “Science Guy” show was loud and frenetic, and not particularly my favorite offering on PBS. My kid loved it, though.

  13. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Good stuff, PZ. I particularly liked your list of sexual purposes/motivations.

    @Maxwell, #5:

    that rock is obviously a fossilized loaf of rustic artisanal rye bread.

    But… that would mean the rock has to be at least 6 days old!

    @The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge:

    My fellow Reverend! So good to see you! Have you been posting lately and I just haven’t noticed, or had you been away a bit?

  14. Tualha says

    There are many things about Mr. Newsome and his blog that I find offensive, but the worst is this:

    Father of six.

    No doubt he believes the Lord will provide for all seven billion of the people trying to coexist on one small planet. Those of us who live in the real world, though, know how irresponsible he’s being.

  15. colinday says


    Aside from uniformity, there is the issue of continuity. How many chromosomal/gonadal possibilities are there? To use your rainbow example, a sexual spectrum would have the usual red and violet, and then what?

    Perhaps distribution would have been a better term?

  16. Tualha says

    Science will change its interpretation, because it is a process that constantly evaluates and re-evaluates the data, and gathers new data that requires modification of our understanding.

    Well, yes. Sadly, though, not all scientists appreciate this. I’m reminded of a young physics grad student I was speaking with, fifteen-odd years ago, about a modified version of the theory of general relativity that predicts black holes do not exist. As Cramer points out in the linked article, we do not in fact know that black holes exist. Rather, we have certain observations, which appear to be caused by black holes when interpreted in the light of current theory, but might well be something else under a different theory.

    When our young physicist heard that the proposed theory ruled out black holes, however, he merely laughed, proclaiming “Then it’s wrong!” Period, full stop. I vaguely recall trying to argue with him and getting nowhere.

    I thought it was sad then, and I still do. I hope he’s grown wiser since then.

  17. says

    #18, colinday: I have no idea what your point is. You seem to be trying to shoehorn a metaphor into a narrower version that is private to your understanding, which is a pointless exercise.

  18. jrkrideau says

    ‘the cold hard facts’

    This immediately shows that the writer does not understand science. For years I have had the impression that a good scientist can waffle with the best. Heck the scientist should out-waffle a politician any day.

    The Scientist:

    “It appears, our results, tentative conclusions, our best estimate, more research is needed, and so on, are the language of science.”

    The “it is 100% certain” is a red flag warning of fraud or total incomprehension of the subject,

  19. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    @ Caine # 9:

    That was my point. Almost Live was strictly a local show. They did some good stuff back in the day–after they got rid of the talk-show part (and Ross Shafer) and cut back to a half-hour….

    “A half-hour comedy show that critics everywhere are calling: ‘A half-hour comedy show!’ “

  20. The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge says

    Crip Dyke @ 16:

    Thanks for remembering me! I’ve been posting hardly anywhere for a long time, and scarcely lurked anywhere since the election. Despair will do that to you.

    I’m trying to get my brain at least idling a little bit now, so I’ll probably be around. Nice to hear from you!

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Interesting. I remember a video of PZ Myers, one of his Skepticon lectures perhaps, where PZ Myers disagreed with others when they said that evolution might be proved wrong. PZ Myers came out quite stridently for the position that evolution is a “cold hard fact” (paraphrase) that will never be proven wrong.

    I haven’t seen the show yet, but I appreciate what Bill Bye is trying to do. It’s a difficult balance, and I hope that Bill Nye is walking it right. On the one hand, you really do need to emphasize that the theory of evolution is on extremely solid ground, so much so that it’s almost absurd to imagine it being overturned, just like the generic theory of gravity, or the generic theory of atoms. Sure, it’s almost inevitable that some changes will be made, adjustments, but it’s extremely unlikely to overturn the whole picture for these theories.

    That is the line that you must walk, to emphasize quite strongly that “no, the science is in, we’re damn sure” while also holding to the principles which are “everything in science is tentative, and everything can be overturned with sufficient evidence”. I like to use the example “I’m damn sure that this hammer will fall in normal household conditions when I release it, which I’m about to do, but maybe it won’t. I could be wrong. I’m highly confident that I’m not.”

    I agree with other posters that it’s an alien way of thinking for many conservatives who deal in absolutes. It’s a communication problem. We need to communicate that we’re damn sure about many things, but also that our degrees of certainty are based on evidence, and always subject to change if you can show that we’re wrong with reason and evidence.

  22. says

    Had to log in just to comment (which I normally almost *never* do lol). I love your post PZ, and I wholeheartedly agree! I saw some click bait-y article from the federalist about how “‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye’s View Of Humanity Is Repulsive”. I *love* how narrowly they see the world and how widely they want their own viewpoints imposed on everyone else. Conservatism seems to promote this mindset quite a bit from what I’ve seen. For example, I did a google search for “why is the federalist going after bill nye?” and first ran across a plethora of super-right-wing sites effusing how much of a monster bill nye is, it was rather sad.

    But the plus side was I ran across your blog! I love how very well you break it down and correct the misinformation they’re bandying about. Thank you for what you do, PZ!!!

  23. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal: Nope. You got it wrong. My point was not that our current conception of evolution is infallible, but that the counterargument, that there was a Creator, was so vague and ill-formed that there was no hope of addressing it — it was totally unscientific. What you find instead is that God is an infinitely expandable concept, which makes it useless.

    Evolution, on the other hand, is quite specific with a specific and testable body of evidence in support. The idea might be replaced someday, but any New Evolution would have to somehow encompass all the existing evidence. You don’t get to pretend that the fist-sized rock never existed — you have to develop a better theory to explain the current evidence.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    … measurable data …

    So after that, you know how many notebook pages/MB of instrument readings/wev ya got.

    What do you do then? No point in calling up the Guinness Book people, unless you’re NASA.

  25. Andrew Dalke says

    #4 and #18, colinday: no, spectra do not need to have a uniform distribution. Nor they need to have a continuous distribution, nor do they have to be restricted to a single dimension like a rainbow.

    The term “spectrum” is used for both continuous and discrete distributions. The theoretical model of a black body has a continuous spectra whose energy distribution is described by the Planck’s law (see Wikipedia for details). On the other hand, a low-pressure sodium lamp is nearly monochromatic, with two spectral lines at 589.0 and 589.6 nm, and very little energy elsewhere in the light spectrum. Emissions spectra can be very jagged; the location of the peaks and their relative intensities give clues to the composition of the object emitting that light.

    Nor is spectra limited to one dimension, as for example, two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

  26. chrislawson says

    Tualha@19 — I’m reminded of Max Planck, who much like your young physicist, was an ultra-conservative thinker. He tried to understand black-box radiation using classical assumptions…until his own experiments showed it to be impossible and led him to invent the concept of quanta. Even then he didn’t really believe in quanta as “real” but as a useful mathematical formulation that would one day be overturned by a better system that reconciled his experimental data with classical physics. It took another decade of accumulating evidence and Einstein’s personal argumentation to convince him otherwise.

    I guess I’m saying there’s still hope for your young physicist. Even conservative thinkers can be revolutionary if they allow themselves to be.

  27. unclefrogy says

    I wonder if the problems that some people seem to have with the provisional and incomplete explanations of natural phenomena often afforded by science is in part due to the contrast between the scientific approach and the certainties of revealed (religious) knowledge. If one’s approach to ideas was influenced, in one’s early years, by accepting dogma, then the notion that ‘knowledge’ is only provisionally true, and may change in unexpected ways, and the new ‘knowledge’ be only provisional itself could be unsettling

    I would put the other way around. I think it is the need for certainty the desire to have unchanging answers that makes people cling to their favorite dogma. That need comes from fear and the overwhelming mystery of our existence which ends in death. Questions are threatening. It is easy to just ignore anything that does not fit the simple story they tell themselves for more frightening to question everything and face the terror of time with open an mind
    uncle frogy

  28. says

    Maxwell D’Mon and PZ @ 5 & 6
    “…that rock is obviously a fossilized loaf of rustic artisanal rye bread….”
    “Yes. And early North America was first colonized by dwarfs…”

    In which case, as Dwarf bread it could be any age from freshly baked on down to, well any time in the past. See T. Pratchett var. cit.

  29. numerobis says

    What is more telling, that 399 out of 400 children are born with typical XX or XY chromosomes or that 1 out of 400 is not?

    The exception is far more telling. It tells you that the world is more complicated than you thought.

    When you are able to detect an exception to what was once thought a cold hard fact, and you can prove the exception is real, you’ve advanced science.

  30. says

    Yesterday at work a coworker was complaining about the show. Mind you, this fellow is a walking example of the Dunning Kruger Effect, a ‘know it all’ who is generally ignorant, but he made a good point.

    I haven’t watched the show, I have little interest in science dumbed down for the masses, but apparently Nye had an episode about GMO’s and brought in someone from Monsanto to talk about how they are not evil. I agree that GMO’s in and of themselves are not necessarily harmful, and that the anti-GMO crowd uses the same errors in thinking as other science denialist groups…

    But Monsanto is guilty of some very nefarious corporate tactics and should not be brought in as the subject matter experts when you seek to change minds about the science behind GMO’s. That’s like bringing in the Bogey Man himself to tell you that the Bogey Man doesn’t exist; extremely poor optics there and bad decision by Nye.

    The take away by this coworker and a couple others who watched the episode was that “Monsanto probably paid for the episode themselves.” so nothing in it was of value.