Saving the World, One Silly Dance at a Time

I think I get Bill Nye’s plan.

Currently he’s caping around Netflix, promising to “save the world.” One of the two episodes I watched was on nutrition, and it was unceasingly awful. Over and over again, he hammered home the point that fad diets were useless: problem is, he didn’t explain why. He didn’t bring up the shady practices and lousy science, he didn’t give a lecture on human physiology; he did burn food with a blowtorch, interview a cave person, and host a deliberately awkward school play over nutrition. His “expert panel” consisted of a comedian, a personal trainer, and a psychologist. As someone who prefers the process and facts, I was left deeply unsatisfied. How exactly was this saving the world?

In this paper, we report the results of two rounds of experiments investigating the extent to which corrective information embedded in realistic news reports succeeds in reducing prominent misperceptions about contemporary politics. In each of the four experiments, which were conducted in fall 2005 and spring 2006, ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.[1]

Enter the Backfire Effect. I’m not yet convinced it exists, thanks to the current replication crisis, but I do know it is widely believed in the skeptic circles Nye is familiar with. Let’s say it does exist; how then do we dispel myths?

A common explanation for the Backfire Effect is competing arguments.[2] The idea is that when someone hears a refutation of a myth they hold dear, they work hard to swat it down. In doing so, they bring up their prior knowledge and remind themselves of its strength. Weighing the (supposedly) defused refutation and the (supposedly) iron-clad evidence for the myth in their minds, people chalk in more evidence in favor of the myth. In hindsight, they’ll remember the evidence in favor of the myth rather than the evidence opposed.

If true, then one approach is to avoid bringing evidence against the myth, as that will cause people to work less to refute it and thus dredge up less counter-argument. Never bring up evidence in favor of it either, as you’ll remind people it exists. In fact, why bring up evidence at all when you can use peer pressure and mockery to exploit our social tendencies? Another two approaches are repetition and entertainment; make sure people remember your talking points, instead of the evidence against them.

Bill Nye did all of that.

He’s not trying to engage people like me, who already know fad diets are bogus, he’s trying to convince the people who think fad diets are legit. By tackling the harder problem he is indeed trying to save the world, by carefully refuting the myths people hold. This is not science or the discovery of novel truths, it’s the spread of those truths to the masses and the battle against misinformation.

Alas, some people didn’t get the memo. Like Jerry Coyne.

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Bill Nye, regarding him as a buffoon who will engage in any shenanigans that keep him in the public eye and help him retain the fame he desires—fame accrued as “The Science Guy”.

Spoken like someone who’s never read Bill Nye’s CV. I’m sure the current CEO of The Planetary Society, who’s designed sundials for Mars landers and took Obama to the Florida Everglades to discuss climate change and education, is consumed by a need for fame.

Well, Nye has a new show humbly called “Bill Nye Saves the World“, which apparently still has the goal of promoting science. Here’s a new video from the show. Featuring comedian and actor Rachel Bloom singing “My vagina has its own voice,” it’s an arrant travesty.

Or a memorable way to drive home the point that how you have sex doesn’t matter, nor what body parts you use or how they’re shaped. One that will be shared far and wide by people who argue the contrary, who seem genuinely frightened of what Nye is saying.

Now this may be social justice stuff, but it ain’t science …

Social justice is the promotion of a fair and just society. It is universal health care, progressive taxation, international trade policy, and discounted tuition. It is eliminating discrimination based on sex or race. If you consider mass misinformation as a social injustice, then yes, educating people on the best science is a form of social justice, but that’s a more tenuous form than guaranteed minimum income programs.

And yes, studying sex is science. Coyne himself agrees on this.

I think the size dimorphism of humans is more likely a result of male “battling” for dominance and access to females than simply female preference for large males, though of course both factors can be involved. […]

I also adduced four other bits of evidence predicted by the sexual selection hypothesis, which you can see at my earlier post. Those predictions were made before the data were collected, and they were confirmed.

That’s got all the basic trappings of science: hypotheses, evidence, and a methodology for combining the two. Next, we have to establish if the scientific consensus is that sex is a spectrum instead of a binary.

The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that. […]

Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs [differences of sex development], and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs. “Biologically, it’s a spectrum,” says [Eric] Vilain, [a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles].[3]

The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.[4]

Sex determination exists on a spectrum, with genitals, chromosomes, gonads, and hormones all playing a role. Most fit into the male or female category, but about one in a hundred may fall in between.[5]

Easy peasy. Even Adam Savage is aware that science promotes a sex spectrum. But Coyne offers up a weak counter-argument against the scientific consensus.

… not even if you construe it as promoting a “spectrum of sexuality,” which is misleading because most people bunch at either end of the “spectrum.”

Riiiiiiight, so we should ditch the idea of a spectrum because people don’t fall along it in a uniform fashion. Does this mean I can declare all prime numbers to be odd? Most of them are, after all. Or maybe we should dispense with the visual spectrum, since our eyes tend to lump colours into discrete categories?

As always, I wonder what Coyne thinks of people who don’t fall into the binary. Are they “defects” in need of “correction?” Should we trim the clitoris of a newborn baby if it is longer than we feel comfortable with? Should a baby with a micropenis have it lengthened? I know Coyne is vocal over the mutilation of genitals for religious reasons, so I’m curious if he’s fine with “correcting” them for social ones.

On April 18, 2006, when M was 16 months old, Dr. Ian Aaronson operated on him at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He reduced M’s penis to look more like a clitoris, cut up his scrotum to form labia, and removed his internal testicle tissue. Two other specialists also treated M: Dr. Yaw Appiagyei-Dankah, who worked at MUSC, and Dr. James Amrhein from Greenville Hospital.

In a letter to M’s pediatrician, Dr. Amrhein wrote that initially, M’s condition was “confusing.” He had been identified as a boy at birth because of his “rather large” penis. Routine blood tests showed his testosterone levels were extremely elevated. However, he had a small vaginal opening beneath his penis and both ovarian and testicular tissue. “Surgical correction” was necessary, the doctors noted in medical records. [6]

Let’s do the math: roughly 1 in 2,000 children are born with an ambiguous sex. Surgical “correction” has been a common response since the 1950’s. Between 1960 and 2009, about 175 million Americans were born. If all those figures are accurate, roughly 87,000 Americans had their genitals “corrected” by doctors to fit into the binary.

Now, we have no way of getting accurate numbers here. No-one tracks the number of intersex children born (how can we, when we can’t even define “intersex?”), doctors rarely if ever publicly discussed the practice (so as to preserve the social taboo), and they usually told parents to never discuss these surgeries with their kids (and sometimes never informed the parents at all). But even with the fuzzy math it’s obvious that our society’s binary view of sex carries a terrible cost.

Try telling that to Coyne, though.

I’m not sure what this is doing on a science show. It’s not even funny, […]

Defend this travesty if you want, but I’ll never admit it promotes anything but ideology.

The irony is that Coyne is fine with the science of sex within the context of Evolutionary Psychology, he’s fine with social justice when it comes to separation of church and state, and he’s fine with eliminating unnecessary surgeries prompted by religion. Shift the context slightly and suddenly these topics are “ideologies” that he can safely ignore, even if the variations are well grounded in science and of benefit to everyone.

Lighten up, Coyne, and try talking to a vagina. You might learn something from the experience.

[1] Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. “When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32.2 (2010): 303-330.

[2] Trevors, Gregory J., et al. “Identity and epistemic emotions during knowledge revision: A potential account for the backfire effect.” Discourse Processes 53.5-6 (2016): 339-370.
[3] Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined.” Nature 518, no. 7539 (February 18, 2015): 288–91. doi:10.1038/518288a.
[4] Ian Steadman. “Sex Isn’t Chromosomes: The Story of a Century of Misconceptions about X & Y.” New Statesman, February 23, 2015.