Your Next Car Will Be Electric

Above is a picture of the first production Tesla Model 3. It’s not a hybrid; it’s 100% electric. No engine at all. It starts at $35,000, it can travel 215 miles on a single charge, and it looks great.

A few months ago, I purchased an electric car of my own – and I can tell you, once you go electric, you’ll never go back.

If you think electric cars are just souped-up golf carts driven by urban hippies, think again. Going electric is now a no-compromise choice, and it’s going mainstream faster than you think. Here’s why:

Range anxiety is no longer a thing. My electric car can go up to 300 miles on a single charge, which is about the same as a full tank of gas. And every night, it recharges in my garage, so I start every day with a “full tank.” You actually worry less about range in an electric car than you would in a gas-powered vehicle, where you periodically need to stop at a gas station. Even long road trips aren’t a problem – we traveled from Orlando to Miami and back a couple of weeks ago, and used conveniently placed “superchargers” to recharge (for free) in about a half hour while grabbing lunch a couple of times. But remember, it’s only those occasional road trips where you’ll even need to charge on the road – 300 miles of range is way more than enough for any daily driving needs.

It doesn’t really matter if you’re an environmentalist. Driving an electric car feels like you’re in the future, and it delivers a far superior driving experience than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Once you’ve driven an electric car, driving an ICE vehicle seems like driving an ancient relic from a more primitive time. While electric cars do use energy much more efficiently than ICE vehicles, you’ll find you want to drive them because they’re fun – not just because you want to save the planet. Although that’s kind of nice too.

Their performance kicks ass. My wife described the experience of flooring my electric vehicle as “it feels like you left your butt behind you and then it races to catch up with you.” Electric vehicles deliver torque instantly to your wheels – there is no engine that needs to burn your fuel, no transmission, no gearbox. This gives them 0-60 times that even supercars can’t beat. They also have very low centers of gravity (the battery packs make up the bottom of the chassis), making their handling impossible to beat as well.

No more gas stations. I hate gas stations. They’re usually disgusting, and you’re always taking a chance of your credit card getting skimmed at them. I don’t miss them. At all.

They’re quiet. If it’s a nice day and you don’t need the A/C fans going, an electric car makes no noise whatsoever. It’s creepy. And magical.

They’re reliable. There are only about a dozen moving parts in an electric vehicle. It’s an electric motor connected to wheels. No engine. No pistons. No transmission. No gears. No fuel lines. No carburetor. No spark plugs. No fuel injectors. No radiators. Basically, there’s almost nothing of consequence that can break. And the batteries are designed to last a very long time – at least 10 years, maybe more – we just don’t have enough data to really know yet. Longer than you’re likely to hold on to your car.

Zero maintenance. No need for oil changes, changing transmission fluid, changing air filters – because none of that exists in an electric vehicle. About all you’ll ever need to do is replace the tires and windshield wipers and wiper fluid.

They’re safe. The Tesla Model X was recently rated the safest SUV ever made. Having no engine means you can devote more space to crumple zones, and heavy battery packs give electric vehicles a very low center of gravity making them almost impossible to tip over. The battery packs themselves are protected by a thick layer of steel in order to protect them from impacts – and that layer of steel gives the car a smooth, impenetrable undercarriage.

They’re roomy. With no transmission and no engine, that leaves lots of space for storage and for people. There’s no hump going down the center of the interior where the transmission would go in a ICE vehicle. And instead of an engine, you get a “frunk” with extra storage space under the hood.

They’re future-proof. Given the simplicity of the hardware, most of your experience as a driver is driven by software – and that software can be updated over the air at any time. Every month my car’s self-driving capabilities and features get a little better, just through software updates applied while I sleep. In an electric vehicle, absolutely everything in the car is electric, and can be controlled by software. In a vehicle like this, the entire concept of “model year” goes out the window – your car will continue to evolve even after you’ve bought it.

They’re getting cheaper. The Tesla Model 3 starts at $35K, which is making electric vehicles a real mainstream choice. And as other manufacturers jump on the bandwagon, the cost of batteries will continue to fall, making them even cheaper. Volvo has announced that it will stop producing ICE vehicles in 2019, France has already banned ICE vehicles starting in 2040, and BMW is rumored to be working on electric versions of its entire lineup of models. Every major car manufacturer has some sort of electric vehicle program in place, because they see the writing on the wall.

Also, can your car do this?

So, even if you think global warming is a hoax and we should burn all of the oil, it doesn’t matter. Electric cars provide a far superior experience for their owners, and that alone will continue to drive their adoption. And as more people buy them, economies of scale will make them cheaper and cheaper, until they’re just a no-brainer choice for everyone. Sorry about that, oil industry – electric vehicles are here to stay this time.

Image Credit: Tesla

Are We Living in a Simulation?

In a recent episode of StarTalk, Neil DeGrasse Tyson made some surprisingly strong statements about the hypothesis that we’re all living in a simulation. My first reaction was that Dr. Tyson has finally lost it.

But he’s in good company – Elon Musk firmly believes this as well:

Now, one could argue that Mr. Musk lost it a long time ago (read this great biography and decide for yourself) – but you can’t argue with his, or Dr. Tyson’s results. These are smart people, and if they both give this idea serious consideration, perhaps we should as well.

The argument goes something like this: in 40 years we’ve gone from Pong to creating virtual-reality video games. In another 40 years, we will probably have games that are indistinguishable from reality. And as artificial intelligence advances, it’s entirely plausible that a short time later we will be capable of creating simulated brains that experience a simulated universe that is indistinguishable from reality. Extrapolating further, and assuming there is more than one “base reality” advanced civilization out there in the real world, it’s much more likely that we’re part of a simulated universe than in part of a real one.

This is not a new idea; questions about the nature of our existence go back to Plato. But even this latest interpretation goes back to 2003, in a paper by philospher Nick Bostrom called “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” The argument is that we may be part of an “ancestor simulation” created by an advanced version of humanity seeking to understand itself, by simulating all of its prior existence. If you crunch the numbers, you find that a planet-sized supercomputer should be able to fully simulate every human brain that ever existed many, many times every second – and presumably, constructing sensory inputs to those brains for some shared virtual environment is a cakewalk in comparison. Given that we seem to be on track to develop such capability, it’s much more likely we are simulations than the real thing. And when you consider we may not be the only intelligent species in the universe, the odds get even worse that we’re real.

This would also provide a neat explanation for some scientific curiosities we’ve actually observed. There’s evidence that our 3-dimensional universe is really a holographic projection from a 2-D reality. There is real, observational evidence of this. It also explains the existence of the Planck length and Planck time – discrete values of time and space below which you cannot go smaller. Sounds an awful lot like pixels and video frames in a computer game! It also explains a lot of the weirdness found in quantum mechanics, where particles have no “real” state until they are observed. If you were making an ancestor simulation, why would you bother simulating the infinite tracts of the universe that your ancestors never interacted with at all? And it also explains the “Fermi paradox” – by some lines of reasoning, we really should have encountered extraterrestrial intelligence already. Perhaps the simulation we live within is only interested in human minds.

But, there are some real problems with the simulation hypothesis. Dr. Matt Dowd of PBS Space Time was Dr. Tyson’s guest on the StarTalk episode I mentioned, and he’s posted a great analysis of it here:

The main problem is that the simulation hypothesis is non-falsifiable. There is no experiment that you can even dream up that would prove that we’re not in a simulation. This is true of most conspiracy theories – you can’t prove the moon landing wasn’t faked, you can’t prove I’m not an evil alien lizard establishing a new world order, and you can’t prove the Earth isn’t flat and part of some elaborate cover-up of its flatness. In general, you can’t disprove a negative – so being unable to disprove something is most definitively not evidence in support of it.

But the simulation hypothesis is even worse. Not only can you not disprove it, you can’t prove it either! It is entirely a philosophical exercise, and that’s all it ever can be – unless the basement-dwelling gamer who created us decides to suddenly reveal himself. Perhaps the simulation hypothesis can also explain religion!

Beyond that, there are other problems. Even Nick Bostrom, creator of the “ancestor simulation” hypothesis, is on record of believing there’s less than a 50% chance of it being true. That’s because there are at least two equally plausible explanations:

  • Advanced civilizations just aren’t interested enough in simulating their ancestors to bother with it.
  • No civilization survives long enough to create an ancestor simulation.

I find the former argument pretty compelling. Why would anyone expend the resources to build a planet-sized computer just to simulate their ancestors?

So for now, the simulation hypothesis is certainly a great topic for interesting conversations – but it can’t be more than that. Besides, if we were to discover that we are simulations – our dungeon-master might decide to pull our plug! Let’s hope our universe doesn’t wink out of existence once I hit the “publish” button here.

Image credit: iStock.com / cobalt

China’s Killing It Lately

Take note, if you want to “Make America Great Again” – China’s been killing it lately in science and technology.

This week a Chinese satellite shattered the record for quantum entanglement, by entangling photons between the ground and a satellite 500km above the Earth with a total distance of 1200km. This is Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” where two particles can be “entangled” in such a way that the state of one particle will instantly affect a measurement of the second particle’s state, no matter how far apart they are in space. There are practical limitations that prevent this from being used for faster-than-light communication, but it does provide a means for a perfect encryption scheme for secure communications over large distances. By demonstrating this in space, China has opened up the eventual possibility of a global, perfectly secure Internet of their own. Applying this system to encryption is in fact their next step, followed by experiments in long-distance quantum teleportation.

China also launched their own space-based X-Ray telescope this week. It will search the Universe for black holes and neutron stars, aiding our understanding of these strange objects. Here’s the kicker – this X-Ray observatory satellite is just the last in a series of four science missions launched by China over the past 18 months. It was built together with a dark matter probe, some microgravity experiments, and the quantum entanglement satellite described above.

China is also gearing up to build a world-class terrestrial telescope of their own, a 12-meter optical and infrared telescope slated to go online in the 2020’s. And you may have heard that following a successful robotic moon landing last year and deployment of their own robotic Lunar rover, China is now planning to land humans on the Moon by 2036.

Meanwhile, although NASA likes to talk about going to Mars, they have no mandate at all from our Congress to go anywhere – nor any concrete plans to do so. They’re sort of working in that direction just because nobody’s told them to do anything different. Meanwhile, private companies such as SpaceX and other countries such as the UAE are unveiling their own Mars plans.

So, if you’re worried about America losing its “greatness” as a world leader in science and technology – you should be. And you should ask yourself if the policies and budgets Americans are supporting are consistent with changing this trend. They’re not – and countries like China are seizing on the opportunity. Why not use this increased competition as an opportunity in itself? Given a mandate and sufficient funding, NASA could partner with its private-sector partners (including SpaceX) to do something truly grand, inspiring, and – dare I say it – great.

Image credit: iStock.com/XtockImages

Rethinking The Geekery’s Strategy

I started Frank’s Geekery with the mission of spreading excitement and interest about science in a scalable way. I’ve taken a shotgun approach to finding out what works:

  • Video podcasts (vlogs)
  • Audio podcasts
  • Blogs
  • Facebook / Twitter

3 weeks in, there’s enough data to make a call here.

The good news is that social media posts seem to be doing pretty well.

But despite some paid promotions and constantly improving quality, viewership of the weekly video podcasts have been trending down instead of up. Audio podcasts have fared a little better, but are also trending in the wrong direction. I think it’s clear that I should leave podcasting and YouTube to the professionals – there are already several highly successful podcasters and YouTubers promoting science, with audiences of millions. These people have full-time staffs and experienced presenters. Instead of trying augment or compete with them, the right thing to do is support them instead.

I’m already a Patreon supporter of Veritasium and StarTalk, and have contributed not only money but content as well. So, instead of spending hours every week producing podcasts that are struggling to find an audience, the mission of Frank’s Geekery is far better served by using that time to make more money, and donating that money toward the production of more and better content from the people who already have an audience.

For example, Veritasium just released this amazing video on YouTube using equipment that his Patreon supporters funded:

So, the Frank’s Geekery podcasts are coming to an end. Instead, I’ll support the people who have the time, energy, and talent to do a much better job than I could.

However – the blog here shall remain, and I’ll continue to use this as a place to post my own commentary going forward. I’ll continue to post on the Frank’s Geekery Twitter and Facebook accounts, although you’ll see more links to existing articles than original content. Again, the epiphany is this: the most scalable way for me to promote science literacy is by making more money, and helping to fund people who are already promoting science literacy at a large scale. As a self-employed individual, my time really is money – and the money I can make with a few hours of time can fund a bigger impact than I could by using those hours to produce my own content.

Anyhow – a bit of a stream of consciousness there, but I wanted to explain my line of thinking. If the Frank’s Geekery social media channels build up a large enough following, it may make sense to revisit creating podcasts. But for now, the focus will be on helping out the existing evangelizers of science however I can.

Image credit: iStock.com / DimaSobko

The Moon Landing was Faked.

Not really.

You may think it’s a fringe idea that the entire moon landing in 1969 was faked in a movie studio, despite the fact that it was televised live, you can go talk to Buzz Aldrin about it right now, you can go see moon rocks and an actual Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center today if you want to, and countless people watched Saturn V rockets launch first-hand who are still around. Believe me, if you’ve seen a large rocket launch (I have,) it’s not something you can forget, and it’s not something you can fake. And getting something that large to escape Earth’s gravity is the hard part.

Yet a 1999 Gallup poll showed that about 6% of Americans believe the moon landing was faked – and the evidence is the numbers have increased greatly since then, as more people have been born after it happened. A poll from last July showed that 52% of British people surveyed believe the moon landings didn’t happen – and it’s the 25-34 year olds where most of this support exists. This same poll also showed that 64% believe dinosaurs never existed. I take solace in the fact that this study had a relatively small sample size of about 1,000 people, but it’s still deeply disturbing.

Here’s the thing with conspiracy theories – you can’t disprove a negative. For example, you can’t prove that I’m not an evil shape-shifting alien lizard who is part of this whole moon landing conspiracy. Yet, 4% of Americans believe exactly that (see question #13). Or maybe you’re part of the 28% who believe Elites like me are part of some evil group planning to create a New World Order (question #4). You can’t prove we’re not!

The polarization of society and “fake news” isn’t helping, either. The surge of moon landing hoax support is coming from the InfoWars website, which I won’t reward with a link. The founder of InfoWars has been promoting the idea that maybe we did go to the moon eventually, but that first landing was staged. InfoWars, if you don’t know, is a leading “alternative” news source. But calling them “fake news” is ineffective, because they’ve trained their readers to believe that real journalism is the “fake news” and they’re the only ones who have access to the Truth.

It also plays into the temptation to not believe anything you haven’t seen with your own eyes – although somehow Deities get a pass on this test. By that logic, Donald Trump doesn’t exist, since I’ve never seen him myself. Hmm….

No! Let’s not go there.

The important question that’s relevant to Frank’s Geekery is what to do about this. Unfortunately, these sorts of worldviews are often so deeply entrenched I don’t think reasoning will get you anywhere. I think there are only a couple of approaches here:

Bring your favorite moon landing hoax believer to meet Buzz Aldrin and watch Buzz beat some sense into him.

– Shock and awe him with an abundance of physical evidence and debunking of the various hoax theories.

Since the former is of questionable legality, let’s go with the latter.

Let’s start by debunking all the “evidence” that the landing was faked:

The fluttering flag with no atmopshere! There was a wire inserted at the top of the flag to keep it taut, the “fluttering” resulted as the wire was adjusted.

But the radiation! They’d all be dead! No, the astronauts passed through the Van Allen radiation belt in about 4 hours, and received no more radiation than you get in a chest X-ray.

But shadows are going in different directions! That’s because they were on a hill, and the contours of the terrain caused the shadows to look that way. Without any atmosphere, there is no skylight on the moon, so you don’t have the usual visual cues you’d have on Earth about the shape of the terrain.

Film couldn’t survive on the moon! Yeah, it gets really hot on the moon when it’s in direct sunlight. But they landed during lunar dawn and dusk to avoid that problem.

How can you leave footprints on a moon with no water in the soil? Go dump some dry talcum powder on the table and walk your fingers through it, and get back to me.

Why don’t you see stars in the sky in the photographs? Go outside on a clear night, and take a photo of something illuminated by a spotlight (much like the sun on the moon.) The short exposure needed to capture the foreground isn’t enough to capture the stars.

There are countless examples of “evidence” from the moon landing conspiracy folks beyond these – but a quick trip to Wikipedia is all you need to debunk them.

Furthermore, around 400,000 people were involved in the Apollo program. That’s an awful lot of people to successfully keep a secret for this long, isn’t it?

Plus, there’s plenty of physical evidence of the moon landing. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took photos of the landing sites just to shut everyone up (but they’re still going.) They even imaged every US Flag planted that’s still standing. (Unfortunately, the Apollo 11 flag was blown down by liftoff exhaust according to Buzz Aldrin, fueling the conspiracy theorists who believe that only that mission was faked.)

Maybe you trust the Mythbusters more than me. Go watch their episode on the moon landing, which they’ve made freely available just to shut everyone up. Or are Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman also shape-shifting lizard aliens?

At the end of the day, you can’t disprove a negative. But there is no valid evidence for the positive assertion that any moon landing, including Apollo 11, was faked. What you can do is educate yourself about the moon landing conspiracy theories so you can discuss them when the occasion arises, and hopefully bring someone around that you know.

Image credit: NASA/Neil Armstrong

Science is a Liberal Conspiracy

Not really.

We continue this week’s theme of science denial and skepticism with a look at “fake news,” and the politicizing of science.

A friend sent me a link to this gem of an article at viralground.com: THE ALIEN MEGA STRUCTURE HAS STARTED SENDING STRANGE SIGNALS. AGAIN!

Whatever. We covered this last week – there’s no evidence that it’s an alien megastructure. It’s just something we can’t explain yet. Sensational tabloid-style news like this has been around since the printing press.

But, there are two things in this article that really stick in my craw.

First is the big pull-quote that declares, in large italic letters,

“this could be the discovery of something HUGE, and something which the Elite cannot deny!”

Part of me likes the thought that scientists are part of some elite conspiracy that have all the secrets of the universe, but are keeping it to themselves just to retain their own power. There’s a definite evil super-villian vibe there that’s a little bit appealing.

But no. This isn’t a good thing.

Let me set the record straight – if scientists did find evidence of an alien mega-structure, they would love nothing more than to tell the world about it! The truth is that even if SETI finds a verifiable signal, there is no International protocol to consult with politicians, leaders, or any secret societies before announcing anything. The most recent interesting signal, which could not be verified by others, was widely reported. Nothing’s being hidden – scientists are driven by seeking the truth.

But what’s really troubling is the implication that scientists are part of “the Elite” – that evil tribe of people who live in cities who think they’re smarter than everyone else. Or at least, that’s how half of the country views them.

This is a real problem – when science becomes an “us versus them” thing like this, it spurs anti-intellectual movements and a distrust in science as a whole. Sure, science has its share of problems – but good scientists acknowledge them and are trying to fix them. But left unchecked, trends like this are how dark ages begin.

It is on the shoulders of scientists and technologists to try and break free of this “elite” classification. I recently watched an interview with John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, who thinks a lot about the politicization of science. His advice was for every scientist or technologist to “tithe” 10% of their time to talking about science and technology with others. That’s why I created Frank’s Geekery. Just get out there, and show people – regardless of the tribe they identify with – that scientists are people too, and generally have good intentions.

I also help organize a local star party every month for the same purpose. If you own a telescope, this is a great way to get the people in your neighborhood excited about science, instead of fearing it. I’ve had people from all walks of life see the moon or the planets for the first time through my telescope, and I could tell it changed them in a way. Many of them couldn’t even identify the moon in the sky before they stumbled across this group of nerds with telescopes in a city park. Local outreach such as this is a great way to start.

The second big problem is the whole “fake news” aspect of this article. In particular, they misrepresent Michio Kaku’s interview on the subject. “He also believes that has to be proof of an advanced Alien civilization!” the article declares. But although Dr. Kaku is sometimes inclined toward the sensational, he’s still a real scientist and would make no such claim. All you have to do is follow the link in the article to his actual interview and read it, to see that all he says is that it can’t be ruled out.

I don’t know how to combat blatant misreporting in an era where anybody, including me, can publish news on the Internet and make it look real. Until people develop critical reasoning skills and are willing to research the more sensational claims they see, that’s a tough one. But again, getting out and talking to the community about the known facts and misconceptions, is a start. If enough of us do it, it will make a difference.

(Image licensed from iStock.com/intueri)

The Earth is Flat.

credit: istock.com/Mike_Kiev

Not really.

But there are people who really believe this still. What do you do when confronted with one?

Let’s talk about Matt, the flat-earther, just so we have a name. Matt rhymes with flat. No offense if you’re named Matt.

What you don’t do is say “ha ha Matt you’re a moron. Everyone knows that’s wrong.” If you really want to educate Matt, you need to come at it from a place of understanding and respect. A flat-earther is just the end result of our hyper-polarized society taken to its extreme. You can blame cable news, echo chambers in social media, income inequality, urbanization, religious fundamentalism – whatever. But Matt is just making a reasonable conclusion given the information he’s exposed to. Matt isn’t necessarily dumb. He’s just following his tribal instincts, and the tribe he has fallen into subscribes to the “scientists, like most coastal elites, are the enemy” camp.

If you attack these beliefs head-on, then you’re just putting yourself into the “other” tribe, and you can expect a defensive reaction as a result. We like to think humans are special, but in many ways we’re still animals driven by these sorts of instinctive urges. Protect the tribe, find food, have sex. That’s pretty much what we’re made for. And be honest, you think of Matt as part of an enemy tribe at some level yourself.

So here’s what you do:

  • Demonstrate you understand Matt’s position
  • Find common ground
  • Explore that common ground to find the right conclusion together

Here’s what a conversation could go like:

Matt: The Earth is flat, you know. This round-Earth stuff is all a liberal conspiracy to justify wasting money on space stuff.

You: Yeah, I’ve been hearing more and more people say that on the Internet. It’s kind of interesting. What sort of evidence have you heard about it?

Matt: Well, all you have to do is go in a plane and look out the window! Looks pretty flat to me.

You: So, you’d expect to see some curvature at really high altitudes, right?

Matt: Yeah, and you just don’t! I mean WTF man.

You: You know, I’ve looked out the windows of planes before too, and wondered why the horizon doesn’t look more curved too. If you look really close you can kind of see it, I think. But that got me wondering why there’s a horizon at all.

Matt: I guess it’s just how far you can see with smog and stuff.

You: Yeah, that can totally happen. But when it’s perfectly clear, you see a very crisp horizon line in the distance, and new cities and scenery will appear over it as you travel. Makes you think, yeah?

Matt: Uh… hm. Can’t really explain that one.

You: And the higher you go, the farther away the horizon is. Here, let me grab this really conveniently-placed beach ball I have here and demonstrate how that works, without sounding condescending in the process.

Matt: Huh. But what about that guy who took a carpenter’s level on a plane and saw that it never moved as the plane flew “around” the Earth? That proves the Earth is flat!

You: I know! If the Earth were flat that’s totally what you’d expect to see.

Matt: Yeah! Get me another beer.

You: I saw that video too, and it made me think. We agree gravity exists, right?

Matt: Well duh.

You: Gravity as we understand it pulls toward the center of mass of large objects like the Earth, right?

Matt: Sure, I think my physics teacher said that once.

You: So if you have a round Earth, its center of mass is in the center of the Earth – so gravity always pulls “down”, and keeps the level straight, no matter where on Earth you are. But here’s the kicker – in a flat Earth, the center of mass is in the center of the disc or wherever. Where exactly is the edge of the Earth?

Matt: California. They’re all gonna fall off into space in the next big earthquake. Those libtard snowflakes deserve it.

You: OK, so gravity would be pulling people in California toward the center of mass of the flat Earth, which I guess would be in Africa somewhere. They’d all be falling sideways, right? In fact, that level on the plane really would change as you moved if the Earth were flat – it’s completely opposite of what you’d expect. Mind blown! Boom!

Matt: Well how do we know gravity works that way? Maybe it just pulls in the same direction no matter what.

You: Hm. I have to admit that would explain it.

Matt: Yeah! Get me another beer.

You: But gravity also explains things like how the planets move really well. I mean, if you watch the sky over time, you can see the planets move differently from the stars because they’re orbiting the solar system’s center of mass in the sun. Hang on while I get my conveniently placed telescope; oh look, it happens to be a crystal-clear, dark night. OK, take a look at that star just over that tree. Remember where it was.

Matt: OK

You: OK, have a look at Jupiter here. Damn, right?

Matt: That sure is purty!

You: You can even see the great red spot!

Matt: Oh yeah! Nice. I know you’re gonna say “look Jupiter is round” – but maybe it’s just a flat circle facing us! How would we know?

You: Hold that thought. Hey look, that star we looked at earlier has moved higher in the sky.

Matt: Yeah it did. Well maybe the stars just spin around us. That seems like the simplest explanation. What do you people call that? Occam’s razor or something?

You: Yeah, but it just doesn’t explain why planets like Jupiter move differently. The Earth would have to be center of everything for that to work. But if the Earth were round and spinning, that’s also a pretty simple explanation for why the stars move in the sky at night. Here, look at Jupiter again.

Matt: Yup, it’s still purty.

You: In the half hour that has somehow elapsed since we last looked at it, you can see its spot has moved a little. That’s because Jupiter spins pretty fast, once every 9 and a half hours.

Matt: Maybe it’s just moving across a flat disc.

You: But when it falls off the “edge”, it’ll come back at the other edge 4 hours later. Every. Time.

Matt: Hm. OK, maybe Jupiter is round. Still doesn’t prove Earth is.

You: And what about all those photos taken of the Earth from space?

Matt: Yeah, well we all know the moon landing didn’t happen, so those photos are fake.

You: We’ll get into that one later. But it’s not just the moon landing – you can look at pictures from the ISS and clearly see the curvature, pictures from satellites we launched – I mean, it would have to be a pretty huge conspiracy if they were hiding that the Earth is flat. You just have to get high enough (not that kind of high) to see it, since the Earth is really really big.

Matt: Ah fine. Maybe you’re right. Get me another beer.

You: It’s on me! Oh look, the International Space Station, which is orbiting the round Earth, just passed overhead. If that’s a conspiracy, it’s a pretty elaborate one. What were you saying about Occam’s Razor?

Matt: You can stop now.

Now in reality, Matt would probably have tried to change the subject quite early on in this conversation in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. People don’t like having their worldviews challenged – and this is quite literally a world view! But if I can imagine a successful conversion of a flat-Earther, I think it would go something like that. Many of them actually have an open mind; the fact that they’re willing to accept a theory like “the Earth is flat” demonstrates they have the skepticism and ability to embrace new ideas that make a good scientist. It’s just a matter of using those qualities in the right way.

(Image licensed from iStock.com/Mike Kiev)

What’s really going on with “Bill Nye Saves the World?”

Bill Nye

I just finished watching all 13 episodes of Bill Nye Saves the World – in fact, I subscribed to Netflix just so I could watch it. I’ve long admired Bill Nye’s dedication to furthering science literacy. I mean, the guy’s 60 years old, and he’s everywhere – promoting The Planetary Society as its CEO, co-hosting StarTalk and StarTalk All-Stars, writing tons of books, and now he’s even got his own Netflix series. This guy is one of the great science evangelizers of our generation. He even took the time to talk to my daughters at a dinner following the launch of LightSail at Cape Canaveral, where he showed them how to take a proper selfie.

Now, you may have heard that “Bill Nye Saves the World” has created quite a bit of controversy and negative backlash. Especially on places like Reddit, where he’s being criticized for giving one-sided treatments to various issues. The data seems, at first blush, to back up this negative reaction – his rating on IMDb is just 3.3 out of 10.

Well, I used to be in charge of IMDb’s technology, so I can’t just let that go without digging deeper.

Having watched the entire series, I think it’s actually really good. Yes, there are a few spots where the editing could have been a little better – and a segment or two are indeed cringe-worthy. But I’m pretty sure that was the intended reaction – he wants to get people talking about this stuff.

Let’s break down that 3.3 rating on IMDb:

Hmm. You can see from the rating distribution a flood of one-star ratings is what’s driving his overall score.  Take those away, and most people actually loved it. It’s almost as if there’s, you know, some targeted campaign against this show or something.

Let’s drill down a bit deeper:

Well, that’s interesting. The vast majority of the votes are coming from men, who are rating it significantly lower than women. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given some strong statements Mr. Nye made in the show about things like educating women and encouraging their participation in the workforce, gender existing along a spectrum, and even that birth control for men needs more work. If you’re a misogynistic Internet troll, those are things that might raise your hackles.

Let’s compare the ratings breakdown between men and women:

This shows that 93% of the one-star ratings are coming from men.

So, the data suggests that Bill Nye Saves the World has simply become a target of some of the more extreme “alt-right” crowd, especially the men. In a way, perhaps it’s a good thing – it’s attracting more attention to his show, and getting people to talk about the issues it tackles.

However, I don’t really see this as a positive outcome. If you’re out to persuade people to make decisions based on data and science instead of political ideology, it’s not effective to just tell them that they’re wrong. That just makes people double down on their existing beliefs. I don’t think Bill Nye has really changed many minds with this show; he’s just made a lot of people even more entrenched within their echo chambers – although I’ll give those people credit for watching the show in the first place. That alone is evidence of some openness of the mind.

What you should do instead – and I’ve heard Bill Nye say this himself – is acknowledge the opposing viewpoint and demonstrate that you understand it. Then, engage in a dialog where you suss out why the other person believes the Earth is flat or whatever, and just get them talking about it without being judgmental or condescending. If you can reach a different conclusion together, then that’s how you can change a person’s mind. Or who knows, maybe yours is the mind that will be changed, after discussing the relevant evidence and facts! (Although, you’re not about to convince me that the Earth is flat.)

This show is, however, successful in energizing people like me who want to live in a world where facts are a thing, and where important social decisions are based on them.

Hang on while I go give Bill Nye a ten star rating.

 

 

 

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