Bill Nye (who started his illustrious TV career on a Seattle produced show called Almost Live) has a new television series that is broadcast on PBS stations through American Public Television (PBS won’t distribute his show; it wasn’t serious enough for them, whatever). If you’re like me and feel that the scientific method has been taken to the woodshed one too many times lately, then you need to watch this show. And tell everyone you know to watch it as well. If the two episodes I saw are representative of the series, then reasoned discussion of scientific issues on American television is not dead.
The focus of the two episodes I saw were Cloning and Race. Now I’m not scientifically trained, but even still it was not difficult for me to understand the scientific concepts Nye presented in an engaging, informative manner.
Remember when John Edwards, during the ’04 presidential campaign, discussed how stem cell research could lead to medical advances that could soon result in people like Christopher Reeve being able to walk. Remember how he was roundly derided in many press venues for making such a statement.
Bill Nye showed how John Edwards was telling the truth. Nye visited a research lab that was employing therapeutic cloning to grow nerve cells. A scientist explained how stem cells were grown following extraction from a fertilized human ovum. Nye went on a pretty lengthy riff about the moral debate around this issue then posed a series of thought provoking questions about the morality of letting a live person suffer when we have the knowledge and ability to help them. While Nye was discussing the political environment these questions were being debated in, he did something that was very impressive to me: he said “You can go to this website to keep track of federal legislation about stem cell research.” A banner at the bottom of the page gave the web address for the Library of Congress’s legislative information page(http://thomas.loc.gov/).
Warning: this is the ugly part. The scientist Nye was interviewing then showed a videotape of a lab rat that had “sustained a spinal cord injury.” I’ll leave it to you to figure out how that happened. The rat was unable to move its lower extremities and was dragging itself around its cage by its front legs. After being treated with stem cells, the rat soon regained its ability to move its lower extremities and was walking (stiffly, but still walking) around its pen. This may have been one of the best juxtapositions of science and political activism I have ever seen on television.
This episode focused on answering a central question: is there a biological difference between the races? With geneticists, Nye explored the fundamentals of DNA and differences between the appearances of what is known as racial groups. First, Nye explored the origins of humanity to explain why some people have darker skin than others. Humanity originated in areas close to the equator. Exposure to high levels of ultraviolet radiation required a high concentration of melanin in the skin for protection of the skin. As humans moved to areas away from the equator, they were exposed to lower and lower levels of UV. The concentration of melanin in their skin then decreased so that enough UV rays could penetrate the lowest levels of the dermis. Humans need some UV exposure to produce vitamin D. Without vitamin D, people have difficulty metabolizing calcium and thus suffer from rickets and other debilitating conditions. So humans developed lighter skin color as an evolutionary response to decreased UV exposure. Not because some deity determined that light skinned people were superior!
Then Nye, with genetic researchers, examined the profile of his own DNA. Scientists use DNA markers, which are the oldest components of our DNA to establish genetic origin. Nye’s DNA bore resemblance to the DNA of residents of Northern Africa. So Nye, a white guy, has the same genetic sequence as a North African person. So boom! Any rational basis for saying an African person is fundamentally different from a Caucasian person was completely blown out of the water in less than 30 minutes. And it was fun to watch!
I’m not a scientist, but I have an appreciation for the scientific method. Anything that can restore rational discourse related to scientific matters in the public forum deserves our support. Because our current faith based presidency is dooming us.
Nye was recently interviewed in the Seattle Times. From what he said, I’d swear he was a reader of blogs like this:
I like to regard myself as someone who’s capable of critical thought, that is to say who can evaluate claims. When I go to Dinosaur National Monument and look at the hillside there that’s under a pavilion built by the Woodrow Wilson administration, when I look at the dinosaur bones accumulated there, I cannot accept the idea that the Earth is 10,000 years old and that we were put here just as we are. That is not reasonable to me. That this divine being or something put these things here to test me? Created all of radio chemistry — that is the potassium argon dating of volcanic soil — created all this just to fool me? … I believe that [people who believe these things] haven’t been well enough educated in the process of science and the generally accepted — for lack of a better term — truths about the universe, about nature.
Respectfully crossposted at DailyKos