Did Bill Nye’s New Show Save the World?

As a child of the 90’s, Bill Nye the Science Guy was one of my primary education sources growing up (alongside the The Magic School Bus franchise – including the books/tv series/computer games/monthly activity kits I subscribed to through the Scholastic Book Club – and my Kids Discover magazines). I am now making my living talking about science (a “science communicator” as it were), so I watched Nye’s new Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World as both the former child who still can picture the man slamming a metal sheet full of magnetic letters while saying “Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, Cytosine”, and as an adult who consumes others’ science communication in an attempt to improve my own work.

I have mixed feelings. From “meh” to “nuh uh”.

For the tl;dr crowd among you, I’ll summarize the problems I have, here:

  • Episodes are too short to engage in conversation with either the correspondents or the panel members to explore socially controversial topics (Either because they’re divisive or they come with too many questions that deserve acknowledgement). The pacing of Bill’s live presentation, in general, was not that great, which probably wasted as much time as the completely unnecessary comedy sketches. Each 30-minute episode would have greatly benefited from a tighter presentation and replacement of cheap novelty acts with more scientific discussion.
  • For the many episodes covering socially controversial topics, the overall presentation feels more like Bill is preaching to the choir, rather than using his platform to talk to people with differing opinions. Both he and some of his correspondents/panel members were very dismissive of those people; if he’s trying to get them on his side (which I genuinely doubt), it’s very anti-productive.
  • A lot of the humor fell flatter than a pancake for me – both the many, many random lines Bill threw around that he meant to be funny (Lots of time wasted by Bill waiting for the audience to respond), and the skits (including all of the musical numbers). But I did enjoy two of the correspondents – Nazeem Hussain and Joanna Hausmann – who are both comedians (The others are a model and two professional science communicators) and the one random skit starring Joel McHale as an asshole astronaut answering kids’ letters.

For a little more detail, read on…

First, the basic format of the show…

Episodes contain most/all of each of the following:

  • A pre-filmed correspondent segment, usually in another country, followed by a quick interview of said correspondent by Bill (some episodes have more than one of these)
  • Bill talking with a panel of 3 experts relating to the topic of the episode
  • Bill Nye “needing a minute” to go on a rant (the only segment with its own title card)
  • A science demo or something involving Bill + props to explain a scientific concept
  • A comedy sketch or musical number
  • A ‘celebrity’ guest

“You wouldn’t like [Bill] when [he’s] angry”, unless you already agree with him. And he assumes you do.

The first episode concerns climate change – a topic Bill Nye’s been focused on and extremely passionate about for the past 50 billion years or so. Like all of the episodes with divisive topics, it operates under the assumption that everyone in the audience believes as Nye and Company do – that people merely need to get out and vote to replace the climate change deniers in political office to quote unquote “save the world”. It makes no attempt to engage people who are sitting on the fence – e.g. people who readily accept the relationship between increased CO2 in the atmosphere and climate change, but don’t think human beings are responsible for the worst of it. The episode ends with Nye and Zack Braff yelling at the audience that they’re not going to shut up about climate change until something is done about it, which in theory isn’t unreasonable given how important a topic it is, but I can easily see many a person roll their eyes and groan because their position hasn’t been acknowledged.

Similarly, in Episode 9 (“The Sexual Spectrum”), Bill goes on a rant calling out conservatives to “Get over it” (“it” being the fact that people are living non cis/het lives) and spends none of the episode addressing why people hold on to the views that they do. This is likely intentional – I’m sure no one citing a religious reason for their beliefs is going to change their mind after watching any 30-minute episode of television, let alone one attacking them. The episode opened with a more straightforward (and non-attacking) discussion of the differences between sex, gender, attraction, and expression. Why the switch? Surely he didn’t expect anyone disagreeing with him to be any more receptive to the contents of the show after that. I can only conclude he assumed no one with those opinions was actually watching.

Questions to ponder: What is the point of preaching to the choir? Should Bill Nye be expected to try and reach out to those beyond his choir, and – if so – how and how often should he do so?

Like many “Skeptics”, Bill and Others are downright mean to people with other beliefs, including those that hold them out of ignorance

In Episode 2 (“Tune Your Quack-o-Meter”), the correspondent goes to a “sound healer” – a man you pay $148 to yell at your kidneys, and who claims his ‘treatments’ can cure Parkinson’s. The segment is only meant to you show you a ‘crazy dude’ peddling nonsense, and does not produce any useful conversation about the placebo effect or the risks of seeking out an ‘alternative’ therapy in lieu of tested medicine. The one panel member who attempted to claim science hasn’t found the answers to everything (and therefore who’s to say a currently-designated ‘alternative’ medicine won’t end up being modified into a ‘real’ treatment in the future) was vehemently shot down by the woman sitting beside him, who was also backed by Bill. Rather than ask why people seek out these alternative medicines and therapies, or debate if/when a placebo is an acceptable form of treatment – they basically forced the conclusion “we can’t measure it so it’s not real”.

It’s not just alternative medicine – if you hold any beliefs in the value of anything from the paleo diet, to astrology/tarot/ghosts/etc., to the existence of Noah’s Ark, get ready to be unapologetically insulted. And in certain cases the mean-spirited jabs were completely unnecessary – a particularly egregious one involves the ‘celebrity’ guest calling his drawing (done with a VR program) “debating a Creationist” and revealing the character has a very small brain; this takes place in an episode about gaming and VR – absolutely nothing to do with a debate about the existence of God or the timeline of the universe. I have no problem with the show pointing out when science has legitimately disproved a topic (e.g. as being a placebo, or a manifestation of confirmation bias). I encourage them saying “there’s no scientific evidence that ghosts exist (And here’s how we can explain evidence that people claim is for ghosts existing)”, but definitely not calling someone stupid for believing ghosts exist. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind by telling them you think they’re a “moron” (Yes, this word was actually used in the episode on diet). I really hope you don’t think you can.

The episode on GMOs contains a correspondent section that paints a completely negative picture of the interviewed farmers market people expressing qualms about GMOs. Their concerns and fears (some more unrealistic than others…”They could turn us all into mutant zombies”, anyone?) play out underneath a “scary” sound track – the segment basically picking the ‘best’ quotes and mocking the interviewees for their ignorance. Not good science communication – to either those being interviewed or anyone watching in the studio/at home (“Let’s all laugh at the ignorant fools!”) – if you ask me.

The only exception came in the episode on vaccinations. They had a woman on the panel who used to be an “antivaxxer” and she got to explain why she was one, and I felt no air of judgement from anyone else at the table. However, to open the panel Bill did say, “I don’t need to know but I wanna know – why do parents choose to not get their kids vaccinated?” I say to Bill (and any science communicator who would invariably find themselves in a position to talk about the necessity of vaccinations) that you do need to know; how else can you expect to effectively have a conversation with them to bring them over to your side, if you don’t know their concerns?

In general, presenting facts that conflict with someone’s beliefs often causes them to dig their heels in (A response psychologists dub the “backfire effect” – here’s a study that observed it in action). This is especially true of so-called ‘controversial’ scientific subjects, like Nye’s beloved climate change – studies (1, 2) by Dan Kahan have shown that scientific literacy actually increases polarization in opinion (Those that initially disagreed with the scientific consensus could correctly identify what that consensus is, but now disagreed with it even more so). If merely sharing facts with an audience member holding a different belief likely isn’t going to get them to change their mind, insulting their intelligence certainly isn’t.

Choppily edited and short panel discussions left a lot of questions unacknowledged or poorly explained

Due to having a 3-panel team (plus Bill lobbing questions) each episode, with less than 10 minutes to share amongst them, often one person gets cut out of the conversation (see: the woman on Episode 1’s panel, who wasn’t a scientist and barely talked at all) or a topic one tries to bring up gets dropped (see: the man on Episode 1’s panel who tried to promote nuclear energy, but Bill basically just told him “no one wants that” and moved on; also see: a woman on the “designer babies” panel (Ep. 12) who brought up the discussion topic of what genetic conditions should be allowed to be edited – that is, she brought up the topic of ableism (without naming it) – and Bill listed off the one disease that runs in his family and ended the segment).

The GMOs panel had a representative from Monsanto (who received boos from a few audience members upon being introduced) whom Bill asked why everyone hates the company; his vague explanation was taken at face value and no one who actually had problems with the company was allowed to cross-examine. People’s concerns about GMOs are not strictly relegated to the science inside of them, so Bill really dropped the ball with not letting this be a discussion in the episode.

Obviously, with only a half-hour show – especially one talking about something socially divisive – there’d never be enough time to give everything its due, but the panels often left me wanting. Many of them were perfectly acceptable, and maybe it’s a good thing that most of them sparked ideas for discussion that an audience member could go and have with another one (e.g. options for policy), but the show – other than giving the name and place of employment of the panel members – doesn’t provide any information on where you can go to learn more.

So, no. Bill Nye definitely did not save the world with his new Netflix series. Not with that format and that tone.

I didn’t dislike everything, of course. Most of the correspondent segments were adequate, and I found a few quite interesting. But if given the option, I’d re-watch Bill Nye’s original series meant for children over this new one meant for adults in a heartbeat. And I have a pretty fast heartbeat.

bntsg

For a better take on scientific controversies, I’d recommend the podcast Science Vs hosted by Wendy Zukerman. She’s already covered some of topics Bill did: GMOs, Climate Change, Ghosts (briefly, in the pseudoscience episode), but has also looked at things like Fracking, Hypnosis, Antidepressants, and Immigration.

For a show that follows a nearly identical format (correspondents, interviews, live experiments) about cool science that I enjoyed way more, there’s Dara O’Briain’s Science Club, which is on the UK’s Netflix.

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