Wednesday, March 15, 2017

This Nye's monologue is no "big think"

BigThink.com was founded in 2007 and Larry Summers and Peter Thiel were among the initial financial and intellectual investors in the project. I am confident that it used to interview many exceptionally intelligent people and they were talking about nontrivial topics and arguments. Five years ago, I mentioned an interview with Lisa Randall about string theory.



If you look at the recent videos at the BigThink YouTube channel, they look like rather lame pop scientific and pseudoscientific topics that you find everywhere on the Internet. You don't need a pedigree of famous founders for such a website.

The 4-minute monologue of Bill Nye is a great example of the intellectual deterioration of BigThink.com in recent years. The diatribe seems to be a response to a Fox News exchange between Tucker Carlson and Bill Nye. Recall that Carlson mainly wanted Nye to say to what extent the humans have driven climate change. Nye wasn't capable to say a damn thing that would be relevant in that 9-minute-long Fox News interview. He had weeks to "think big" about these matters and now, when he added a 4-minute monologue, he still failed to say anything that would be relevant or at least intelligent.




At the beginning, we learn that Tucker Carlson used to wear a nicer tie (I didn't understand what was wrong with the ties that Carlson has now) and he was more "affable". Does it mean that Carlson was never asking hard questions to guests who make far-reaching claims and propose ambitious plans? Since the 1980s (I didn't understand why Nye chose the 1980s), there was a polarization to two camps. Nye spends about a minute by explaining what it means to polarize things to two camps. For example, dear kids, you have males and females (progressive comrades will surely kindly remind Nye that there are at least 10 sexes). Or you have boys and girls (they are male and female, too, but it's too advanced stuff).

Most famously, you have fruit flies and dandelions. His unusual choice of these insects and these plants really suggest that he had to be drunk while he was recording the video.

And yes, there are competing camps behind sports teams. Great. The only problem is that we haven't learned a damn thing about the climate.




We don't learn a damn thing about the climate in the rest of the monologue, either. In that leftover, Nye only tells us that 97% of climate scientists are concerned with climate change and everyone should be. It's a reference to a would-be authority. Can we at least learn where he got the number 97%? Well, sort of. He tells us that 97 is a "number he picked because he likes it". That's nice and very Nye-style "scientific". I like the number 12 more than I like 97. But this numerological preference isn't the actual reason why I am going to pick the answer that people concerned with climate change are at most mediocre and/or corrupt scientists, and mostly clowns, complete charlatans, or brainwashed morons.

No sensible person should be concerned about the climate change.

Aside from the 97% cliché, we learn that he wanted to make a bet that 2016 would be the warmest year on record and he wants to bet $10,000 that 2010-2019 will be the hottest decade on record. Well, I think that the decade probably will be although I am far from being certain. But this implies nothing important and is no reason to worry. Sometimes temperatures go up, sometimes they go down. This holds for the comparison of the decades 2000-2009 and 2010-2019, too. The probabilities of both signs can't be too different from 50-50 because the short-term evolution of the temperatures isn't too far from a random walk. Moreover, over 70% of the decade 2010-2019 is already "known" and it indeed looks a bit warmer than the previous one, so it's not a "bold prediction" that the whole decade could indeed be a bit warmer.

Concerning the record-breaking single year 2016, well, if he based his bets on the satellite records, he would have lost the previous 17 similar annual bets (1999-2015) and he would win in 2016 only because of a statistically insignificant 0.02 °C difference between 1998 and 2016. At any rate, he would have lost $150,000 in those unwise bets.

He wants the mankind to waste tens of trillions of dollars in an upsized version of the same bet.

Incidentally, I would eagerly bet $10,000 that 2017 won't be the warmest year on record. Will Bill Nye accept this bet? I don't think so. Will I make a big deal out of the fact that someone doesn't accept a bet that I invented in order to be the likely winner? I won't because I am not a Nye-style demagogue.

Many Americans who were kids 20 years ago still associate Bill Nye with the "cool scientist" who must be smart. The confusing fact is that actors – pretty much by definition – are capable of pretending to be something that they are not. Bill Nye has co-created the Bill Nye the Science Guy show but he had several people – especially James McKenna and Erren Gottlieb – who did it with him. It was a team work with some fact-checking. And Nye and his colleagues could have chosen the topics they understood. For example, it is easier to mix two substances and impress children with an explosion than to perform an accurate analysis of the uncertainty of the climate sensitivity and its effect on temperatures up to the year 2100.

And as kids, we thought that many people were smart – even though decades later, we may see that those "smart people" were just pretty much average grownups.

Sheldon Cooper is an excellent example of a TV character who is much smarter than the scientist who stars as him. Sheldon's IQ is 187 and he really knows a lot and approaches most problems scientifically. What about Jim Parsons? Well, it's not quite the same. I recently saw Prof David Saltzberg, the UCLA astroparticle physicist and the science adviser of the TBBT show, as he visited Sheldon in his apartment.



Around 2:05 in the video above, Jim Parsons asked Saltzberg: What is this? Saltzberg said that the balls were made of plastic. "Is every physicist working with this?" Parsons asked, pointing his finger at the plastic model of the DNA molecule. "It's biology, not physics," Saltzberg patiently explained to his much famous colleague. Maybe it was staged but I still think that the real Jim Parsons is intellectually closer to the man talking to Saltzberg in this video than to Sheldon Cooper.

Sheldon Cooper is really, really smart. But Jim Parsons often seems as dumb as Sheldon's sister Missy, as a doorknob, or as Zack, the right man for Penny. ;-) Here I must point out that there are also several opposite examples. Mayim Bialik who stars as Sheldon's GF Amy is a PhD in pretty much the same field as on the show. Jewish genes (and intellectual traditions) make it simpler for her.

Well, the case of Bill Nye is more similar to Jim Parson's than to Mayim Bialik's. He may star as a scientist but someone else has to lead him. There should be an adult in the room – a favorite phrase of Larry Summers', a co-founder of BigThink.com. Larry and those who determine the content of BigThink.com, shouldn't you try to return to roots, make sure that there are some adults in the room, and encourage them to think big?

Thank you very much.

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