Yesterday I attended the March for Science in Washington, DC. It was a good time, and I think it was a worthwhile event matched by numerous other marches worldwide. For those who followed the march’s organization on Twitter and in other media, one of the most visible controversies surrounded diversity and inclusion in the march. Some tweeters are still criticizing the involvement of Bill Nye as a major figurehead in the march. They don’t like him because he’s a white male and they’d rather see more non-white/non-male role models promoted as figureheads in the march. Or they don’t like him because he said something wrong about gender or race at some point. He said some wrong things about science too. He’s not even a “real” scientist. He’s an imperfect and overprivileged white man — he’s the status quo. Isn’t he the sort of thing that protests are against?
Diversity/inclusion in STEM is a complex subject, and I’m going to have to address it across several posts. For this post, I don’t have time to justify my background or expertise in the subject; I just want to talk about Bill Nye for a minute. I have two little girls, and I would love it if they take an interest in STEM. My oldest has already identified paleontology and entomology as potential careers (she’s also picked “snowman” so take that with a grain of salt). We’re lucky to live in a college town where she has met dozens of female STEM professionals. We have female STEM role models in the family. Check, check and check.
But role models only demonstrate possibilities to a kid. “I could be a blahblahlogist like so-and-so I guess.” The mere existence of a role model is not enough to inspire interest or to perceive that role as desirable. That’s because there’s a distinction between identity and efficacy. One day my daughter, age five, found Bill Nye’s show on Netflix and proceeded to binge watch it for weeks. That’s the missing piece of inspiration. Now she can get back to those role models with a little more context. Now she can maybe have conversations and ask questions. I have no doubt that a non-white/non-male celebrity could be what Bill Nye is, but for right here and right now, he’s a celebrity that people recognize, who has influenced kids across multiple generations to see science as more than nap-inspiring, and hopefully some of those kids are not just the status quo of white males. I just don’t think there is another science celebrity who has the kind of popular reach and recognition that he does. A successful popular movement needs to put celebrities out in front, or else it’s just a bunch of nerds rehearsing their complaints to each other.