Bill Nye’s first appearance on “Dancing With The Stars” was bad for science.
There, I said it.
Here’s the video if you haven’t seen it.
Nye wore a lab coat while he and his partner did the chachacha to the song “Weird Science,” while dancing through a set of life-sized beakers. Nye’s appearance on Dancing was so bad it has him facing elimination, after getting the lowest score in the bunch.
His dance did end with fans cheering his name, and he had the biggest social media buzz of any contestants.
But I think his over-the-top performance on “Dancing With The Stars” on Monday night was a disservice to the science community by reinforcing stereotypes that scientists are nerdy, old white men who can’t dance. These stereotypes are what keep women and minorities out of science.
Standing up to stereotypes
Don’t get me wrong I love Bill Nye — I’ve grown up with his show and I’ve even been lucky enough to meet him. I love how he’s been standing up to the creationist community and even dares to go on CNN.
My problem is that this was a major opportunity to teach America that scientists are normal people too. Nye may have just been playing himself — he has always acted dorky and over-the-top. But every bit of his performance was dictated by his science guy character. He didn’t need to do a science-themed dance — no other Star did a themed dance.
Keyshawn Johnson, also a contestant on this year’s season, didn’t do a football-themed dance. He didn’t wear a jersey or have goalposts on stage. Nye missed the opportunity to show the world that scientists are people too.
The fact is, Nye’s appearance on “Dancing With The Stars” is probably the only exposure to a scientist that many of the audience will have this year. Or for some, ever. A study by Research America in 2009 found that 65 % of Americans cannot name a living scientist, and another 18 % try but get it wrong.
That means 83% of Americans can’t name a living scientist.
What is a scientist?
Not all scientists wear glasses and bow-ties. Not all of them spend their entire day in the lab. Scientists aren’t all older white men like Nye.
Some scientists are even females and minorities. There is still a gender gap in the sciences, and by focusing on popularizing one white male example of a “scientist” and his beakers we are missing the true diversity of both the sciences and scientists.
In the media, we think of the characters on the “Big Bang Theory” when we think of scientists. These nerds, who are usually the butt of jokes that aren’t even funny, also reinforce these science stereotypes. A bone of contention in the nerd community, where many want to promote science to lay people, but hate that it’s always portrayed based on stereotypes.
A study just this year suggested that that stereotype is what’s holding women back from science, according to GeekWire:
New research out of the University of Washington, which found that women don’t choose careers in computer science because of the “nerd” stereotype in the media.
UW psychologist Sapna Cheryan ran two studies to find out if the lack of women in tech was due to their disinterest in the topic, or other reasons. First, she asked 254 non-computer science college students to describe CSE majors. They were perceived to be “incompatible with the female gender role, such as lacking interpersonal skills and being singularly focused on computers.”
After reading an article about a non-stereotypical computer science major, their interest in the topic increased significantly, as seen in the graph below:
If we want to encourage diversity in the sciences we have to get rid of these old-white-man scientist stereotypes. The portrayal of the scientist as an older white man puts women and minorities at a disadvantage.
Studies show that girls do just as well as boys in maths in the long term, as long as they are encouraged to stick with it. This difference has more to do with culture than ability, other studies suggest. The problem? Existing stereotypes drive women away.
A study from 2010 indicated that girls do worse in maths classes when faced with stereotypes. But, a second study in 2013 indicated that when these girls are empowered, the effect is dissipated.
We are making some progress, but it’s slow. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2000 showed that the number of doctorates awarded to females increased by 19% since 1966.
The majority of the science and engineering community is still white males, according to a 2010 National Science Foundation poll:
This won’t change until the media stops portraying the sciences as a boys club.
Get a better idea of what scientists look like at This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. The emerging diversity in scientists is important — different experiences, upbringings, and cultures bring different perspectives to how we study the world around us.
I hope Nye’s next dance (if he gets the chance) will eschew the beaker-play and show the world that scientists aren’t just nerds, and some can even dance. Maybe he will harken back his partying days of the 80s.
Perhaps we should send Neil deGrasse Tyson up to dance next. We know he can do it. Heck, we’ve even caught him moonwalking across the stage for Buzz Aldrin. Hopefully the upcoming Fox reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series will help get him into the popular spotlight.
Here’s the video of Nye’s dance for those who missed it:
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