What Bill Nye Should Have Said

July 7, 2012
By | 3 Comments

The gist of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, as I understand it, is to dramatize Jon Stewart’s takedown of Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson on CNN’s Crossfire. The febrile whining claptrap passing for public discourse in the U.S. these days, Stewart famously charged his shocked hosts, was at least partially caused by cable news networks on which febrile whining claptrap passes for political commentary and sometimes masquerades as news. Sorkin’s solution is to call for a new, in-your-face style of journalism that will speak truth to power and will avoid the stagnant discursive pool that is—everybody now, in your best Jon Stewart voice—hurting America. And thus shall Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy be transformed from a passive milquetoast news reader into an active macho news creator. And thus shall Edward R. Murrow be reanimated, and thus shall America be saved. Or something like that. I’ve only seen the pilot. I’ll leave it to political communication researchers to argue the viability of Sorkin’s vision and I will leave it to television critics to judge its execution, but there is at least one aspect of the news for which Sorkin’s vision is wrong-headed: science journalism. Case in point: this recent exchange between CNN’s Carol Costello and television personality Bill Nye, standing in for science-with-a-capital-S. (He is The Science Guy, after all.)

In the clip, Costello points out that Nye has recently become The Controversial Science Guy for his statements on climate change. Costello, with a wry smile that suggests she’s about to make trouble, asks Nye about the political ramifications of his statements and asks him to “defend” himself. Nye notes the multitude of weather-related records broken in recent years, including the tragic fires that have consumed Colorado in the last two weeks. Costello then interrupts him, presumably to hold his feet to the (wild)fire, countering that experts have suggested that mismanagement of Colorado forests might be to blame. (Of course, there isn’t a single cause for the forest fires in Colorado. It’s not an either/or situation. I suppose one could also blame forest fires on the unfortunate fact that forests are made out of firewood). Costello’s problem isn’t her strange inability to entertain the idea of multiple contributing factors, however. It’s that she is obligated to keep the conversation going by any means necessary, a way to make minutes go by until the next commercial break. And in the case of Costello, the ultimate goal—having something to talk about—is cloaked in what appears to be the style of journalism that would make Aaron Sorkin proud: confronting a public figure (in this case, the bowtied cheerleader for science education) with some “uncomfortable facts.”

What Costello is actually doing, however, is fueling what rhetorician Leah Ceccarelli has called a “manufactroversy,” which she explains as:

  • A manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute.
  • An effort that is often accompanied by imagined conspiracy theory and major marketing dollars involving fraud, deception and polemic rhetoric.

Ceccarelli is largely talking about the religious opposition to evolutionary biology and the opposition to climate science that has emerged from the GOP, fueled by deep-pocketed, oil-stained donors with a huge financial stake in the debate. It is worth pointing out, however, that cable news networks are not merely one medium by which such manufactroversies grow and spread, but they also stand to benefit from their perpetuation. Manufactroversies, like all controversies, give the talking heads something to talk about. All of this talking, however, hasn’t stopped the planet from warming. In fact, it may have made the situation worse. As the infamous 2003 Frank Luntz memo outlining the GOP’s communication strategy on the environment made abundantly clear, the best way to do nothing about climate change is to debate the science and keep the conversation going as long as humanly possible.

Debate is good. Deliberation is good. Conversations—even long, heated ones—are the heart and soul of public life and the essence of political action. The problem with Carol Costello and other purveyors of manufactroversies is not that they are engaging in debate about climate change. The problem is that they’re debating the wrong thing. Agents, even unwitting ones, of the manufactroversy over climate change are like magicians, in that they excel in the art of misdirection: they stall the debate on what ancient rhetoricians would call the stasis of conjecture (what is) rather than the stasis of policy (what we should do). Arguing about what we should do is what politics does best, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. To paraphrase Arendt again, Between Past and Future this time, arguing about facts is what politics does worst.

“Let’s talk about the political aspects of this,” Costello demands of the avuncular Science Guy, who admirably attempts to defend himself and the Science for which he speaks. But what Bill Nye should have said was, “Thanks, Carol, but let’s not. There are people who are suffering from heat exhaustion right now on the East Coast. Crops are failing. The ocean is rising. Let’s not debate why. Let’s talk about something else. The planet is getting hotter. Let’s talk about what we should do.”

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3 Responses to “ What Bill Nye Should Have Said ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on July 8, 2012 at 9:48 PM

    I would love to have heard that too, Jenell. I think so much of the problem lies in a feckless, ignorant press corps. Because I’d sure Costello wouldn’t be able to have that discussion you suggest he should call for. She’s a pro at digging for dirt and controversy, but wouldn’t know how to ask a smart question about science that she probably hasn’t studied since Grade 6. Indeed, that’s the irony of her talking to Bill Nye about this — Bill Nye may know how to talk to Grade 6′s about science, but he knows his science, whereas Costello — like all too many of her colleagues — thinks she needs to talk at a Grade 6 level, but doesn’t know what the heck she’s talking about.

  2. Taylor Cole Miller on July 9, 2012 at 1:24 AM

    What a great article; I particularly enjoyed this line, “I suppose one could also blame forest fires on the unfortunate fact that forests are made out of firewood.”

    I was happy that a course in environmental conservation was the only science class I could take to fulfill my last credit on my bachelor’s degree years ago … on the first day we learned exactly what this article suggests: We’re arguing about the wrong thing!

    As our professor explained, no legitimate scientist is saying that climate change isn’t happening – the world’s weather is completely changing. The true argument is how it’s happening. Our media cycles have become so good at confusing the hell out of people, though they don’t know that they’re arguing the wrong thing! To this day my family will swear to me that global warming and climate change are myths, likely produced by my liberal professors. I’m lookin’ at you, Dr. Gray!

  3. Juliosus on July 16, 2012 at 2:19 PM

    I seem to be on a one-man fight on this, but perhaps you can use your platform to help.

    I was surprised at Carol Costello’s comment, and decided to do a little research before the flurry of articles decrying her comments appeared. There’s an article on the Conservative-leaning (it seems, at least) site Wizbang entitled “Conservatives Beating Bill Nye the Global Warming Guy, But Obama to the Rescue.” The article indicates that both Costello and Nye were in agreement about the politicization and their concern that skeptics were winning. Her comment calling him “Kooky” and asking him to defend himself is her playing devil’s advocate. The clip on YouTube and on CNN is incredibly misleading, and I get the feeling there was more to this exchange before the edit.

    CNN’s transcript (http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1207/02/cnr.02.html) doesn’t even list the transcript of the conversation before midway through the video. Are they TRYING to create a stink and get Costello fired?

    I agree with many of your opinions, but I’m not convinced Costello should be the villain here.