Can Bill Nye – or any other science show – really save the world?

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Will Bill Nye’s new show find a wider audience than Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ‘Cosmos’ did?
Vince Bucci/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
Heather Akin, University of Pennsylvania; Bruce W. Hardy, Temple University; Dietram A. Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dominique Brossard, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Netflix’s new talk show, “Bill Nye Saves the World,” debuted the night before people around the world joined together to demonstrate and March for Science. Many have lauded the timing and relevance of the show, featuring the famous “Science Guy” as its host, because it aims to myth-bust and debunk anti-scientific claims in an alternative-fact era. The Conversation

But are more facts really the kryptonite that will rein in what some suggest is a rapidly spreading “anti-science” sentiment in the U.S.?

“With the right science and good writing,” Nye hopes, “we’ll do our best to enlighten and entertain our audience. And, perhaps we’ll change the world a little.” In an ideal world, a show like this might attract a broad and diverse audience with varying levels of science interest and background. By entertaining a wide range of viewers, the thinking goes, the show could effectively dismantle enduring beliefs that are at odds with scientific evidence. Significant parts of the public still aren’t on board with the scientific consensus on climate change and the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods, for instance.

But what deserves to be successful isn’t always what ends up winning hearts and minds in the real world. In fact, empirical data we collected suggest that the viewership of such shows – even heavily publicized and celebrity-endorsed ones – is small and made up of people who are already highly educated, knowledgeable about science and receptive to scientific evidence.

‘Cosmos’‘ pedigree and publicity seemed like they would translate to success….
Frank Micelotta/Invision for FOX/AP Images

‘Cosmos’ illustrates the issue

The 2014 reboot of Carl Sagan’s popular 1980 series “Cosmos,” starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is just one recent example. Tyson’s show, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” aired prime time on Fox and the National Geographic channel, received several Emmy nominations and was considered a critical success in which “Tyson managed to educate and excite viewers of all ages across the globe.”

However, Tyson’s efforts to reach a broad audience and preach beyond the proverbial choir fell short. Nielsen ratings indicate the new version of “Cosmos” reached 1.3 percent of television households, which doesn’t compare well even to other science shows and educational programming. PBS’ “NOVA,” for instance, typically reaches about 3 percent of households (around four million viewers a week), and PBS’ other prime time programming usually gets higher Nielsen ratings than “Cosmos” had. “Cosmos” lagged even further behind science entertainment shows like “NCIS,” which reached 11.2 percent of households, and “The Big Bang Theory,” which reached 10.8 percent of households during the same week “Cosmos” aired its first episode.

In 2014, we conducted a representative national survey in a collaboration among the University of Wisconsin, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and Temple University. We found that 76.1 percent of Americans did not watch any episodes of “Cosmos,” 7.1 percent said they watched one episode, and only 2.4 percent said they watched all 13 episodes.

And there were really no surprises about who tuned in. Respondents who saw at least one episode were 40 percent more likely to be male, 35 percent more likely to claim interest in science, and significantly more knowledgeable about science than those who didn’t watch. Less affluent audiences were less likely to watch at least one episode, as were those who were highly religious. Even those who expressed above-average interest in science watched only 1.5 “Cosmos” episodes on average.

What science programming will capture the imaginations of those who aren’t already into science?
Watching image via

Success is out there?

Engaging scientific programming could still be an antidote to waning public interest in science, especially where formal science education is falling short. But it is revealing that “Cosmos” – a heavily marketed, big-budget show backed by Fox Networks and “Family Guy” creator Seth McFarlane – did not reach the audience who need quality science information the most. “Bill Nye Saves the World” might not either. Its streaming numbers are not yet available.

Today’s fragmented and partisan media environment fosters selective exposure and motivated reasoning – that is, viewers typically tune in to programming that confirms their existing worldview. There are few opportunities or incentives for audiences to engage with scientific evidence in the media. All of this can propagate misleading claims and deter audiences from accepting the conclusions of sound science. And adoption of misinformation and alternative facts is not a partisan problem. Policy debates questioning or ignoring scientific consensus on vaccines, climate change and GMOs have cut across different political camps.

None of this is meant to downplay the huge potential of entertainment media to reach diverse audiences beyond the proverbial choir. We know from decades of research that our mental images of science and its impact on society are shaped heavily by (sometimes stereotypical) portrayals of science and scientists in shows like “The Big Bang Theory” or “Orphan Black.”

But successful scientific entertainment programming needs to accomplish two goals: First, draw in a diverse audience well beyond those already interested in science; second, present scientific issues in a way that unites audiences around shared values rather than further polarizing by presenting science in ways that seems at odds with specific political or religious worldviews.

While “Cosmos” failed to attract a diverse audience eager to be introduced to the wonders of the universe (and science), there’s still value in the science community and entertainment industry collaboratively developing these kinds of television programs. In order to be successful, however, these collaborations must draw on insights from social science research to maximize the reach of novel diverse formats, communication strategies and media outlets. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Science and Entertainment Exchange, for instance, tries to connect the entertainment industry and the nation’s best scientists in order to combine the reach of entertainment media’s engaging storytelling with the most accurate portrayal of science.

And social science research suggests that complex information can reach audiences via the most unlikely of places, including the satirical fake news program “The Colbert Report.” In fact, a University of Pennsylvania study showed that a series of “Colbert Report” episodes about Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups during the 2012 presidential election did a better job educating viewers than did mainstream programming in traditional news formats.

Social science can help us learn from our mistakes and better understand how to connect with hard-to-reach audiences via new formats and outlets. None of these shows by themselves will save the world. But if done right, they each might get us closer, one empirical step at a time.

Heather Akin, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania; Bruce W. Hardy, Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication, Temple University; Dietram A. Scheufele, Professor of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dominique Brossard, Professor and Chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

100 Days of @realDonaldTrump Tweets: Trump’s War on News

Bruce W. Hardy, Connor L. D. Phillips, & Heather L. Lamarre
Temple University


Trump’s 100 day Twitter war on news

“Fake news” and “failing nytimes” were the two most tweeted phrases by @realDonaldTrump in his first hundred days of his presidency. With 28.5 million followers in tow, the President of the United States has steadily relied on his personal @realDonaldTrump Twitter account to wage a war on mainstream news media. As the Tweeter-in Chief, @realDonaldTrump redefines the rules for political social media messaging and the President’s relationship with news media. Here, in the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University, we conducted a computational text-mining and sentiment analysis of @realDonaldTrump tweets since January 20th, 2017 and uncovered some interesting patterns by the Tweeter-in-Chief in his first 100 days in office.

Before we get to @realDonaldTrump’s war on news, we need to detail some basic descriptive information about the President’s Twitter behavior. Using data collected by the Trump Twitter Archive, our analyses start with the first @realDonaldTrump tweet posted the morning of Inauguration Day (January 20, 2017) and end with the last tweet Trump posted on his 100th day as President, April 29th, 2017. In this time and excluding retweets, @realDonaldTrump tweeted 491 times, which averages to a little under 5 tweets a day – a rate far exceeding his predecessor’s use of the social media service. President Trump tweets a lot.

The first @realDonaldTrump tweet used in our analysis:

The last @realDonaldTrump tweet used in our analysis:

His favorite word to tweet is “great.” Taking out common English words such as “the,” “and,” “a,” “now,” and “today,” Figure 1 plots the most frequent words that appear in the @realDonaldTrump’s timeline. The word “great” was tweeted 86 times, doubling the second most frequent term, “fake,” which was tweeted 41 times by the President.

Figure 1: Most frequent words on @realDonaldTump’s timeline: First 100 days as President

@realDonaldTrump’s favorite pairings of words come as no surprise (Figure 2). “Fake news” was tweeted 32 times and “failing nytimes” comes in second, being tweeted 16 times. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” was tweeted 11 times in his first 100 days.

Figure 2: Most frequent bi-grams on @realDonalTrump’s timeline: First 100 days as President

@realDonaldTrump’s War On News

Alicia Parlapiano and Larry Buchanan at The New York Times put together a thorough catalogue of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets in his first 100 days as President and note a constant attempt to discredit the media. By using word association techniques and sentiment analysis, we were able to dig deeper and see how @realDonaldTrump’s attack on mainstream media translates into a deliberate and targeted war on news.

Associations among frequent words used by @realDonaldTrump illustrate how much this war on news dominates his social media messaging. Figure 3 plots the network of frequent words based on their associations with each other within tweets on @realDonaldTrump’s timeline. The thicker the line, the larger the correlation. “Fake” and “news” are correlated at 0.82, “fake” and “cnn” are correlated at 0.47, and “failing” and “nytimes” are highly correlated at 0.87. We have also highlighted other associations from frequents word found in @realDonaldTrump’s tweets.

Figure 3: Associations among frequent words used on @realDonalTrump’s timeline: First 100 days as President

Trump’s war on news was the dominant topic of tweets right from the beginning of his presidency. Figure 4 shows some of the topics @realDonaldTrump tweeted about in his first 100 days as President. We filtered the tweets based on specific keywords and manually checked that every tweet was topically relevant. We created a density plot to see how the topics compared to each other and how they shifted over time. @realDonaldTrump ramped up his support of the failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare in March, eventually peaking as April arrived. While @realDonaldTrump’s message of job creation and border security remained somewhat consistent, the war on news was his highest priority.

Figure 4: Frequency of topics referenced on @realDonaldTrump’s timeline: First 100 days as President

@realDonaldTrump’s Overall Positive Sentiment?

Even with the war on news, @realDonaldTrump uses more positive words than negative words. A sentiment analysis using Bing Liu’s sentiment lexicon shows that on average, @realDonaldTrump’s tweets are slightly positive, producing a sentiment score of 0.26 (see Figure 5). As we show below, his reliance on the word “great” is mostly responsible for the overall positive sentiment score.

Figure 5: Distribution of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets by sentiment score


Corresponding with @realDonaldTrump’s war with news that peaked in the beginning of February (see Figure 4 above),  his sentiment became negative during this time (see Figure 5) because of words like “fake” and “failing” were being tweeted a lot by @realDonaldTrump during this time. However, the President has been consistently positive on Twitter since the last week in February.

Figure  6: Sentiment of @realDonaldTrump tweets across time

An analysis by Danielle Kurtzleben and David Eads at NPR using VADER shows a similar trend of overall sentiment across time but does not account for the fact that most of the positive sentiment of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets comes from the word “great,” which he tweeted 86 times. The second most frequent “positive” word is “honor,” which @realDonaldTrump tweeted 15 times. Frequent negative sentiment words tweeted by the President are “fake” (41 times), “bad” (21 times), and “failing” (19 times). Figure 7 reports the most frequent positive and negative words.

Figure 7: Most frequent positive and negative words used in @realDonaldTrump’s tweets

What does all of this mean?

It is telling that although @realDonaldTrump’s inauguration day tweet is optimistic and forward thinking, he ended his first 100 days of tweets by reinforcing his continued attack on mainstream media by ascribing the label “fake” and “failing” to them. President Trump has continued the digital messaging strategy he employed as candidate Trump, which has effectively branded him as our Tweeter-in-Chief.

Perhaps more interesting is that @realDonaldTrump’s war on news tells the story of a President that is less about left and right and more about winners and losers, which is consistent with the way he campaigned and The Apprentice. This works in Trump’s favor: he has declared a war on news while proclaiming himself the unequivocal winner. And those in the mainstream media – like CNN and The New York Times – are situated as the losers. Trump uses Twitter to simultaneously reinforce his slogan “Make America Great Again” and to target his perceived enemies, meaning he is able to rally support by taking his message directly to his followers.

Twitter is now part of President Trump’s brand, offering the White House (WH) a digital megaphone for reaching the masses without gatekeepers. However, Trump has gone one step further than previous Presidents who have attempted to circumvent the WH press core. He isn’t just advocating his agenda through radio addresses, fire-side chats, or late-night TV appearances. Rather, President Trump is arguing against trusting the political news establishment. It seems that it’s not enough for him to win the debate, others must lose it.

However, the court of public opinion is a fickle thing, and over the last few decades has splintered into partisan factions. Trump supporters herald @realDonaldTrump’s attempt to pushback on the media’s coverage of his Presidency as evidence of his bulwark against a partisan press. Yet, his detractors see it as a dangerous play that can shake the foundations of our democracy. The question then becomes whether @realDonaldTrump tweets are persuasive messages that erode trust in our news media, or if they only serve to rally his base and signal that he is winning the partisan press war.

Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether this Twitter war on news makes America great again. In a time of highly contentious partisanship coupled with low trust in government, does low trust in a free press serve our democracy or serve to fracture it even more? Because @realDonaldTrump appears focused on winners and losers, it seems that there is no deal to be made with press outlets perceived to be public enemy number one.

Rather, @realDonaldTrump positions CNN and The New York Times as what’s wrong with America and his Presidency as what’s right about America. In a scenario where the press and the incumbent President are at war, the real loser is democracy. A healthy democracy requires trust in both government and a free press. If either is losing, America is losing. Can @realDonaldTrump really make America great again if we all have to pick sides between trusting our leaders and trusting our media?


Methodology and R

All analyses we done using R and RStudio. The corresponding R scripts can be found here.


Launching CPS

Communication, Politics, & Science (CPS) is a new communication research blog created by a team of researchers from the Lew Klein College of Media & Communication at Temple University. We use emerging digital research tools in conjunction with established scientific methods and advanced statistical analyses to study phenomena at the intersection of communication, politics, and science.

We are excited to launch with an inaugural post on text-mining and sentiment analysis of the first 100 days of @realDonaldTrump tweets as President.