Scientists on Twitter are introducing themselves to the famous TV host Bill Nye (of Bill Nye the Science Guy fame), using the hashtag #BillMeetScienceTwitter. Their aim is to spark more collaboration between science celebrities with massive Twitter followings, like Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the scientists doing their best to communicate their research to the public. And the effort may have worked: on Friday evening, Bill Nye said “greetings” right back.
The Twitter campaign was born out of frustration. It started when Melissa Marquez, a marine biologist, tweeted from a collective Twitter account hosted by a new scientist every week, called @biotweeps.
Bill Nye + Neil deGrasse Tyson = scientists w BIG following… but do they really engage with public or do they just preach?— Biotweeps - Melissa (@biotweeps) May 18, 2017
The question kicked off a conversation about whether these science celebrities could do more to acknowledge the limits of their expertise, or use their enviable platforms to incorporate the diverse voices of experts in the field. The gripe started a similar Twitter campaign back in February. That hashtag, #actuallivingscientist, was inspired by a survey that revealed most respondents couldn’t name an actual living scientist. Those who could, overwhelmingly named men — NDT and Nye among them. (NDT has a PhD in astrophysics, Nye has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering.)
“Just because you're a scientist doesn't make you an expert in all of science,” Dani Rabaiotti, a graduate student studying African wild dogs, told The Verge in a direct message on Twitter. In an email to The Verge, Dalton Ludwick, the entomology PhD student who coined the #BillMeetScienceTwitter hashtag, pointed out that considering “scientist” a general broad-scale title can cause problems when an astrophysicist, for example, opines on biology.
If there were ever a species for whom sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) March 11, 2016
As Rachel Feltman wrote for the Washington Post, this painful-sex tweet NDT sent out last year ignores the vast world of creatures that copulate in ways that cannot feel good — at least, as we humans understand the word. Ducks have terrifying nine-inch corkscrew penises. Male giant squids actually stab their partners when they mate. “If he had consulted a fellow scientist on Twitter, then he may have avoided such a blunder,” Ludwick says of the tweet. (Ludwick says he didn’t have a good reason for directing the hashtag at Nye, rather than deGrasse Tyson.)
But, maybe the problem was that these famous faces of science just didn’t know about the active science Twitter community. That’s why science Twitter felt it was time to introduce itself, and its very specific areas of expertise.
“This is a kind of ‘Hey, we are here, we are all different genders and races, and do all different kinds of science,’” Rabaiotti says. “[If] you need our expertise, just ask.”
Herpetologist David Steen agrees. “They kind of create this idea that it’s just them,” he says. If they were to amplify the voices and Twitter accounts of scientists to their millions of followers, “it’d completely change the science communication landscape,” Steen says. “Many of the scientists on Twitter are there to do science communication, and you can be the best science communicator in the world, [but] it won’t matter if nobody listens.”
Nye appears to have been listening. On Friday evening, less than 24 hours after the campaign started, he gave a nod to the hashtag. And then he began retweeting the scientists who had said hello.
I see you, Science Twitter. You are the aerodynamic laminar flow beneath my wings. #BIllMeetScienceTwitter— Bill Nye (@BillNye) May 20, 2017
Greetings Dr. David, You & I and those fishes have a common ancestor — how cool is that? Keep up the good work. https://t.co/16AzrEn4Fy— Bill Nye (@BillNye) May 20, 2017
Hormones passing non genetic traits? You my friend, may change the world. Thank you, thank you! https://t.co/CpCIOd7h0t— Bill Nye (@BillNye) May 20, 2017
Steen says that NDT and Nye do a great job, and he doesn’t begrudge them their success. “I admit that I would love to have that kind of platform,” Steen says. “I don’t necessarily think I’m jealous, but I definitely appreciate what they’ve been able to do.”
Ludwick acknowledges that having so many followers comes with its own stress. “Personally, I do not envy the large platform that Bill and Neil have,” he says. “With so many eyes on you at all times, any mistake is amplified.”
He adds that the hashtag isn’t intended as an attack on Nye or NDT. Instead, the point is to let them know that fellow scientists exist, they have a lot to say, and they’re a great source for accurate scientific information. Nye seems to have heard. So even if your name isn’t Bill or Neil, meet some Twitter scientists:
@EntoLudwick @drmikeographer @biotweeps Hi @BillNye I'm Dani and I study the effect of climate change on African wild dogs, and wrote a book on animal farts #BillMeetScienceTwitter pic.twitter.com/X3CMB60b3f— Dani Rabaiotti (@DaniRabaiotti) May 19, 2017
Update May 19th, 9:15PM ET: This story has been updated to include Bill Nye’s response to the #BillMeetScienceTwitter campaign.
Update May 22nd, 9:35AM ET: On May 21st, Neil deGrasse Tyson added this comment to our story:
If it matters to anyone, approximately half of the media requests I receive are to comment on science news that falls outside of my professional expertise — and I decline 100% of them. Most recently with CBS News about emergent gene editing CRISPR tools.
And even when the request falls within my expertise, I require network news (and other outlets with resources) to find the people whose research they are reporting on, and then, if still interested, return to me, where I am happy to tie a bow on the significance of the research to us all.
What happens occasionally is, after the interview covers the intended subject, I get asked about other subjects, where I am happy to comment to the extent of my knowledge. I have a stable of scientists who feed me some of the latest developments in their fields, knowing that I will occasionally find myself in situations where I’ll be asked to comment.
Further, my StarTalk Radio Show just spun off a branch of itself called StarTalk Allstars, which showcases science as brought to you by scientists who have boundless enthusiasm for bringing their field to the public, but most of whom did not have a platform to do so. Now in its second season, we are enthusiastic about this.
Additionally, I did not participate in the Science March because it was a ready-made platform for people you may not have heard of yet who have deeply important messages to convey. I will also be unfindable by the press during the Great American Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017 because, once again, it’s a ready made platform for others to shine — forcing the media to find the thousands of people they might not otherwise reach for, but who have the needed expertise to comment on the event. This includes amateur astronomy groups, local planetarium directors, community college science professors, etc.
Lastly, however delusional this may be to me, or may sound to you, I actually look forward to the day when there are so many science popularizers out there that I can just back away unnoticed, permanently leaving this space that I occupy.
I am, and have always been, a servant of the public’s interest in science.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City
p.s. As for the sex tweet, it should have said, "where both partners are in pain at the same time while having sex". That was my intended meaning. But the urge to criticize the post was so strong that this intent was never considered. Meanwhile, I have yet to learn of an example in the sexually reproducing world of animals for which this is true. I didn’t purse this in social media. Instead I used the critical commentary as a lesson for myself that for many people the urge to declare something is false exceeds the urge to explore how something can be true. I now word my Tweets in ways that leave no room for more than one interpretation. FYI: Same thing happened with my Helicopter Tweet, in which I declared that a plane with failed engines is a glider, while a helicopter with failed engines is a brick. Helicopter people were quick to criticize that if you shut off your engines, and the propellers are free to spin, you can execute a controlled descent, with the spinning blades providing some needed buoyancy. None of the critics considered the intended case where the blades stopped rotating altogether. -NDT