The bow-tied science communicator searches for a place in the political trench wars of 21st-century American democracy.
By Michael Schulson
Bill Nye. (Photo: Netflix)
The last time Bill Nye had a television show, climate change denialism was a fringe political concern and “anti-vaxxer” wasn’t even a word. Onscreen, Nye was like a cartoon character who’d been brought to life and given a lab coat: enthusiastic, hyperkinetic, with whooshing sound effects appended to his every twitch. For kids — even kids who didn’t like science much — it was hard to look away.
Bill Nye the Science Guy ended in 1998, after which Nye ascended to the pantheon of generational TV touchstones. The years went by. The Twin Towers fell. The Internet took off. Climate denialism became serious. The political process got even wackier. The Millennials grew up.
Most teachers get older while their students stay the same age. But Nye has followed his adoring cohort up to their next stage in life. His new Netflix original show, Bill Nye Saves the World, is targeted at the same people who watched him in the ’90s, as children. This is Bill Nye the Science Guy, adapted to the bitter realities of Millennial adulthood and/or postmodernity; a politically savvy science talk show for the age of alternative facts; The Daily Show with Bunsen burners.
In each themed episode of the old PBS show, Nye taught you how something worked: what it was, what it did, and why it was interesting.
For all the buoyancy, there’s a real sadness lurking here — a menacing hint of melting glaciers, pending measles outbreaks, and rank partisan hostility.
In the new Netflix show, Nye teaches you how something works — climate change, or vaccines, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He then spends the rest of the episode banging his head against the fact that so many people don’t believe him.
This makes for fine, if sometimes exasperating, TV. Bill Nye Saves the World, produced by the same people who brought us Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Project Runway, probably will not save the world. Still, it does pose some thorny questions. The key question for Nye seems to be: Why are so many people wrong about so much stuff? But the show’s deeper, more interesting puzzle is about Nye himself: What is the role for a high-energy, bow-tied science communicator here in the political trench wars of 21st-century American democracy?
In its current form, Nye’s show seems to have taken inspiration from The Daily Show and its constellation of late-night spin-offs. Like Jon Stewart, Nye couches moral seriousness in a slapstick package. He toggles between tones: intellectual, then goofy, then sober, then silly again. This approach can give a viewer moral whiplash, but, thanks especially to Stewart, it’s by now a familiar form.
On the show, Nye does science demonstrations in his on-set lab, in front of an audience. He delivers an occasional angry monologue (“Bill needs a minute”) and fields taped dispatches from a far-flung crew of hipper, younger correspondents. Nye also interviews a few guests on each episode, assembling them into what he calls, with dramatic pauses and obvious relish, his “Panel of Experts.”
Nye is a skilled interviewer, and the guests bring nuance to difficult questions. His producers don’t do him many favors — the editing of these panel discussions is jagged and distracting — but the conversation is often the highlight of the episode nonetheless.
As with any talk show, celebrity cameos are a regular feature. Tyler, The Creator made the theme song. The supermodel Karlie Kloss is an official correspondent for the show. San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence comes on to help illustrate the panspermia theory in a stunt involving a baseball, a model of Mars, lots of foam, and a few ejaculation jokes. EDM superstar Steve Aoki pulls on a lab coat to help Nye test an expensive natural remedy from Whole Foods (spoiler: it’s mostly vinegar). Rachel Bloom, of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fame, performs a manic song about the history of life on Earth accompanied by a dancing dinosaur.
For all the buoyancy, there’s a real sadness lurking here — a menacing hint of melting glaciers, pending measles outbreaks, and rank partisan hostility. “People will take to the Internet to call you a corporate whore!” Nye chirps during one episode, reflecting on the backlash to his announcement that he’s pro-GMO. The tone is Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy chipper, but that long face looks genuinely sad. We’re not on PBS anymore, kids.
There’s something strikingly earnest about Nye. He seems to believe that, if only the science were presented clearly enough, and accurately enough, and entertainingly enough, people would get on board and stop believing incorrect things, and science could sweep us all onward to new utopias. This earnestness is part of what makes Nye so effective a teacher, and so much fun to watch: He believes, so deeply, in the near-total power of science, and he wants to share that power with you.
This same earnestness, though, has been a liability for Nye in his role as a pundit and political advocate. The show’s expert panels are pretty sharp, but Nye’s own commentary on politics and science can generally be boiled down to an exasperated “Come on, people!” It’s a fine emotion to express, but it’s not especially interesting.
He seems to believe that, if only the science were presented clearly enough, and accurately enough, and entertainingly enough, people would get on board.
For all his skill as an educator, Nye has often struggled as a diplomat. He has an uncomfortable habit of suggesting that people whose views he sees as willfully unscientific might deserve some kind of legal penalty; he recently suggested that some climate deniers should be prosecuted and, in his 2014 book Undeniable, he wonders whether some anti-abortion advocates should face prosecution after making a sketchy argument that science offers slam-dunk support for the pro-choice position.
This myopic science-is-all view doesn’t always serve him well in debates either. As I argued at the time, Nye’s high-profile 2014 debate against creationist Ken Ham seemed to mostly give Ham, an otherwise fringe figure, a publicity boost. In that segment, as elsewhere, Nye seemed to miss the degree to which debates about creationism are also debates over authority and power, not just cold, hard facts.
A more recent run-in about climate change, with the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, left Nye stuttering through talking points and going on an unexplained, confusing tangent about leaks from President Donald Trump’s White House.
Of course, it’s probably a testament to Nye’s character that Carlson bothers to push him around. The very things that make someone a good teacher — a deep commitment to truth, and an instinct for seeing the best in people and drawing that out — are exactly the opposite of what makes someone like Carlson so good at partisan TV cross-talk; namely, a willingness to fudge the truth and an unerring instinct for other people’s weaknesses. A talk show of his own is a better format for Nye than cameos on other people’s: It showcases his pedagogical skill. And he’s clearly trying his damnedest to be more diplomatic (in the new show, there are no mentions of prosecuting dissenters, for example).
But it’s possible to recognize the extraordinary power of science while harboring skepticism that Nye’s vision of it, as a kind of all-encompassing superpowered instrument, is truly the future of scientific activism and general world-saving. The April 21st premiere date for Bill Nye Saves the World was clearly intended to coincide with Earth Day, but, since then, it’s come to correspond with an even more fitting event: the March for Science that’s taking place in Washington, and in locations around the world, on April 22nd.
Reading about the March’s vision and goals, and talking with coordinators of a big satellite march here in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, I’ve been struck by how much these organizers avoid framing their work in the language of science is right, and we need everyone to see that. Instead, they seem to be envisioning science almost as a kind of constituency, or as a democratic institution, ideally open to everyone from weekend enthusiasts to Ph.D.s, that needs to be supported, respected, and heard by people in power.
At its best, Nye’s wonderful, upbeat, science-for-all approach can feed right into that vision. This kind of slow democratic coalition-building does not, in general, make for great TV. In its own small way, though, it might have a better shot at saving the world.