Why Was Bill Nye at the Trump’s State of the Union?

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Yesterday Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address. This video is not about that address because I didn’t watch it. I had a glass of wine and played video games, which seemed like a better use of my time compared to watching an actual fascist tell cutesey inspirational stories about cops stealing babies from pregnant drug addicts and other anecdotes about living in a country that has once again been made “great.”

But I do want to talk about a few of the attendees at the State of the Union: Jim Bridenstine, Oklahoma Republican representative and Trump’s nominee for NASA Administrator, and his guest, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nye has been pretty outspoken about his politics, which don’t particularly seem to line up with those of Bridenstine or Trump, to put it mildly. So it’s a shock to see him in the crowd, especially considering that he wasn’t there as any kind of protest. For instance, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus attended but they all wore kente cloths in honor of the “shithole” countries that Trump criticized a few weeks ago.

But that’s not why Nye was there. In a series of Tweets, he described his belief that space science should be bipartisan and a way of bringing people together despite their political differences. That’s a nice sentiment and I sympathize with the tough decision he had to make on whether or not to attend the event. Unfortunately, whether or not science should be bipartisan has no effect on whether it is bipartisan. Now more than ever, science is as partisan as kindness to immigrants, not sexually harassing women, and providing healthcare to everyone who needs it. You know, all things that shouldn’t be partisan. As an aside, it’s also all things that Jesus would have been down with, but that’s neither here nor there.

Conservatives have been attacking science for centuries, and Trump has only made it more obvious and more critical. Trump’s administration has silenced scientific progress more than 100 times in the past year according to Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. There are over 200 positions at the Environmental Protection Agency that have yet to be filled. Hell, Trump hired a man who has sued the EPA to run the EPA. He thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax and says so every chance he gets. And now Trump has nominated the first ever Congressional representative to run NASA, a position usually held by someone with a science or engineering background. Bill Nye showing up as that representative’s date to the State of the Union isn’t going to make this administration more science-friendly — if anything, it made Nye into yet another prop for Trump to point to to show that he’s doing a good job. I mean, if Bill Nye the Science Guy showed up to see the State of the Union, Trump can’t be all that bad on science, right?

Because Trump is all about optics — he cares deeply about how many celebrities like him, and how many people show up or watch his events. And what better science celebrity than Bill Nye to lend credibility to Trump’s policies?

I’m not the only one who felt that Nye made a mistake taking that invite. The organization 500 Women Scientists wrote a scathing piece in Scientific American ripping into Nye for supporting Bridenstine and Trump. They point out that as a representative, Bridenstine introduced legislation to remove earth sciences from NASA’s mission statement. Bridenstine has since promised to not interfere with NASA’s stated mission, but his feelings on it are so crystal clear that one can’t help but be skeptical that he’s really going to stay hands off when the organization he runs is studying something he doesn’t believe in.

500 Women Scientists also point out that science is done by humans, and those humans at NASA are now being expected to work for Bridenstine, a man who has campaigned to ban same sex marriage, prevent immigration, and destroy the Department of Education. All of these things affect scientists negatively, because scientists are gay, they are immigrants, they require schooling — all of these issues are interlaced. And Nye, by agreeing to be Bridenstine’s arm candy, is tacitly saying that he values going to the moon (and perhaps his own fame) more than he values the progressive politics that help good people do good science.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. I disagree with the implication that progressives have a monopoly on ethics and morality. Or that there are no conservatives, libertarians, or republicans in the Science community. Or that it is wrong for Bill Nye to accept an invite to the SOU by a sitting representative who may be heading-up NASA in the near future. Or that ‘500 Women Scientists’ speak for actual 500 women scientists, or for anyone outside of the board of that organization. Or that making Science, and not just the opinions of individual scientists, partisan is a good thing – it’s one thing for pushing back on political encroachment into the scientific realm (like politicians claiming there is no evidence for climate change and then forcing that view on researches), it’s another to make it seem like Science has a stance on divisive cultural or political issues – like immigration policy, or gay marriage or social spending.

    I guess I disagree with everything.

  2. I agree with Bill Nye that science should be bipartisan, and I agree with Rebecca that it isn’t that way presently. I’m not convinced his actions here will do any good, but I understand what he’s trying to do, and whether he’s successful or not (I’m guessing not, at least not right now), his attempt doesn’t need to be attacked by anyone. Maybe if things are going to change regarding the perception of science, then we may need to see a lot more attempts to communicate and less to alienate.

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