Earth Day 2017 saw the biggest coordinated demonstrations of scientists across the world. Angered by the Trump administration’s war on science, over one million marched in over 600 cities, reaching places as remote as the south pole and a coral reef off of the Wake Atoll in the Pacific ocean. Engineer and science popularizer Bill Nye has become an unofficial spokesperson for this movement. First coming to fame as the host of the children’s science show Bill Nye the Science Guy, Nye has continued his career as a science advocate specializing in taking on climate change deniers. With science increasingly becoming a part of political discourse, Nye has launched a new TV show, this time for adults. First airing on Netflix the day before the March for Science, Nye is no longer here simply to entertainment us with the magic of science. He’s here to save the world.
The resulting show, Bill Nye Saves the World, is nonetheless quite entertaining. Since the beginning of his television career Nye has shown a gift for making science accessible to a mass audience. And he has a similar gift for bringing accessibility to the political issues surrounding science. As to Nye’s wider goal of saving the world, the show brings up an important question: is science, on its own, enough to bring positive change?
Bill Nye Saves the World is something of a scientific variety show. Nye performs scientific experiments in front of a live studio audience, interspersed with cartoons, musical numbers, and comedy routines. Field correspondents report on the scientific issues facing contemporary society while panels of experts get deeper into the science and its political ramifications. Every once in awhile, the sheer scale of the world’s political crisis breaks through, leading to a segment called “Bill Needs a Minute,” in which Nye drops all the fun and games to directly address the audience with an unfiltered, impassioned plea for change.
The show has provoked a predictable reaction from the right, angered by Nye’s warnings about the threat of climate change as well as his defense of LGBTQ rights. Nye has been accused of damaging scientific neutrality by bringing politics into it. And the fact that Nye’s scientific background is in engineering rather than research has been held up as proof that he isn’t a reliable source for information on science. But Nye’s willingness to let politics intrude into science is his strength. In this, Nye stands in the best tradition of scientist activists, such as Carl Sagan in the 1970s and 1980s, who were inspired by the mass movements around them and sought to use their scientific understanding and authority to inform people of what kind of world we live in and more importantly, how it could be different.
Climate Change at the Heart of the Matter
The show kicks off with his episode about climate change. Combatting climate change denial has been Nye’s cause célèbre as a science advocate. And climate change was one of the key driving issues behind the March for Science, with the Trump administration making serious attacks on climate science and climate scientists. Even after the March for Science, the issue hasn’t gone away, as seen by The New York Times hiring climate change denier Bret Stephens to its editorial board and justifying it by an appeal to “ideological diversity,” as well as by Trump’s dismissal of the federal advisory committee on climate change.
This centering of climate change also sets Bill Nye Saves the World apart from other attempts to convert science advocacy into entertainment. Before this, one of the biggest shows of its type came from the magicians Penn & Teller with their show Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. That show, ostensibly devoted to debunking pseudoscience, was marred by Penn & Teller’s attempts to pass off their right-wing libertarian politics as objective truth. Climate change became a particular sticking point when they tried to portray belief in climate change as comparable to creationism or UFO conspiracy theories. By opening so boldly on the issue of climate change, Nye is not only challenging Trump’s war on science, but also the failings of a previous generation of science advocacy.
The episode on LGBTQ issues is a highlight of the series. Naturally, Nye takes on the anti-science religious arguments made against LGBTQ rights. But he also critiques ideas like the biological determinist “gay gene” theory. This theory is often used to counter homophobic arguments, but has no scientific basis, and has been used to justify bi-erasure and transphobia within the LGBTQ movement. Nye points to a fuller spectrum of sex, gender, and sexuality. Rather than just two settings, Nye explains “it’s actually a lot sexier than that.”
That being said, a lot of the episodes do continue the Penn & Teller tradition of simply debunking pseudoscience. Nye takes on phony alternative medical treatments, conspiracy theories, and diet fads. Even then, Nye adds his own twist to things. This is where the variety show format works best. Nye does live experiments where he tests phony antacids against real antacids. His expert panel discusses the inner workings of the placebo effect. And he brings in non-scientist celebrity guests to give stand-up comedy routines mocking white new age quacks for co-opting Asian religious symbols to sell their snake-oil. Overall, that approach can be a lot more effective at combating pseudoscience than having right-wing magicians call you an idiot.
Where Does Science-Denial Come From?
For the most part, Nye unfortunately doesn’t delve into how pseudoscientific ideas gain support. One notable exception is in the episode about vaccines, where he interviews Kristen O’Meara, a former anti-vaxxer who became a pro-vaccine advocate after her unvaccinated children caught an easily preventable rotavirus. O’Meara explains that she felt the need to do independent research on vaccines because “I felt like I had the responsibility to do the very best that I possibly could for my kids.” When she brought up the anti-vaccine arguments to her pediatrician, he rolled his eyes and groaned rather than address her concerns. This convinced her that the pediatrician didn’t really care about her kids and made the anti-vax arguments seem more reasonable.
Unfortunately, Nye doesn’t probe any further on why people lose trust in science. While vaccines are safe and necessary, other aspects of the medical industry aren’t. There is a long history of pharmaceutical companies bribing doctors with fancy lunches to prescribe medications for things other their intended purposes, as when GlaxoSmithKline marketed their antidepressant Wellbutrin to doctors as a cure for weight gain and sexual dysfunction, calling it “the happy, horny, skinny drug.” This real concern about big pharma makes it easier for people to fall prey to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and phony alternative medicines. Similarly, the various diet fads that pop up are partly a response to a very real obesity epidemic – as well as beauty standards pushed on women to conform to and purchase dozens of products. This epidemic was aided by the sugar industry manipulating scientific studies in the 1960s to hide sugar’s relation to coronary heart disease.
Throughout the show, Nye never addresses these or any other examples where big business interferes in scientific research and damages its credibility. Nor does he deal with how that damaged credibility, when not addressed, can allow conspiracy theorists and snake-oil salesmen to gain support. This came up during the 2016 election, when there was a concerted effort from the Clinton campaign to portray any criticism of big pharma as secretly pandering to anti-vaxxers. Nye thankfully doesn’t repeat this nonsense, but he doesn’t challenge it either.
The biggest problems with the show come when Nye tries to defend science for science’s sake. All too often, Nye’s enthusiasm for science turns into an enthusiasm for the corporations who control the means to scientific research. He tries to rekindle interest in space exploration. But he does this by interviewing businessmen about their attempts to mine asteroids and set up expensive space tourism industries that only the super-rich can enjoy. He tries to get us excited about the wonders of artificial intelligence and machine learning, but doesn’t give much thought to the way governments and corporations can use the data they collect on people to erode civil liberties. Nye looks to the way science and technology can save the world if used right. But he glosses over the important social questions about making sure that science and technology actually are used that way.
Bill Nye, like many scientists, is being torn between two forces. Under capitalism, scientists are trained to see themselves as passive observers of nature. Political engagement is seen as ideological interference in the scientific process. Trump’s attacks on science have forced scientists like Nye into the streets, challenging that incorrect notion. But, even as Nye is forced to challenge that notion, he’s unwilling to abandon it altogether. This is the driving force behind the contradictions in both Nye’s show and the March for Science.
The System is the Problem
The very first episode, dealing with climate change, sees Nye at his angriest and most political. He flat out shouts “We spent decades warning you climate change is a problem! People like me appear on TV every day to talk about this issue! . . . I would love to shut up about climate change. Nobody likes talking about this topic.” That is a powerful indictment of capitalism. We have known of the dangers of climate change for decades, but even with that knowledge, capitalism is unwilling to do anything to solve it. And that points to the necessity of fundamental systemic change.
But Nye never goes that far. He explains the problem by declaring it’s “because the deniers, the climate change deniers have been so successful.” His solution is simply to “vote.” And he brings in celebrity guest Zach Braff to tell us to “stop electing anti-science politicians.” For Nye, like many scientists, the dedication to learning about nature and it’s laws imbibes a feeling that the problem rests on lack of understanding. This is not surprising. Many people feel that what’s needed are rational people with a better understanding of the problem and the moral backbone to apply the solution.
Climate change denial and anti-science politicians certainly aren’t helping matters. But part of what makes Nye’s original rant such a systemic indictment is that the destruction of the environment has continued even with pro-science politicians in power. Unlike Trump, Canada’s Justin Trudeau isn’t anti-science, but he’s ramped up the building of oil pipelines that vastly increase Canada’s carbon emissions. Anti-science views around climate change were largely cultivated by a layer of big business to justify capitalism’s environmentally destructive thirst for profits. But those anti-science views are only a symptom, and Nye treats them like the disease itself.
How to Save the World?
Whatever the limits of Nye’s show, he genuinely wants to save the world. He wants a world without war, inequality, poverty, oppression, and environmental destruction. And Nye is not alone, as the growing revolt against Trump has revealed. But to achieve such a world, we need to first recognize the role that for-profit production (i.e., big business and the politicians doing their bidding) plays in preventing it. Capitalism triumphed over feudalism in revolutions across Europe in the 18th and 19th century. It unleashed the power of modern science, leading to historic breakthroughs in understanding the Earth and the cosmos, as well as the development of technology and tools important to our everyday lives. Today, capitalism holds society back. It refuses to invest in renewable energy, refuses to invest in healthcare, and refuses to direct scientific research towards restoring ecological balance between humanity and nature.
Voting is not enough. The March for Science, when seen, not in isolation, but as part of the wider wave of resistance to Trump and the billionaire class, shows the way forward. Mass movements of scientists, of other workers, and of students have the power to end the rule of capitalism and build a socialist society. Under socialism, where the 99% have control over the resources and the means of production, we can democratically apply scientific understanding to liberate humanity, to plan to rapidly transition to renewables linked to a plan to deliver high standards of living to all in an ecologically balanced way. Saving the world is a tall order, much more than one can expect of a single individual, even one with a TV show. But it’s a laudable goal.