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Bill Nye Saves the World

May 8, 2017

There is a particular flavour of disappointment that slowly builds up in some tongue-like brain region when someone we look up to in our own field fails publicly. It's one of those concepts that have a word in German but that seem to be missing in English, like Schadenfreude.

I pinned hopes on Bill Nye because, as a nobody in the field of science communication, I want him to succeed. He has name recognition, he has an audience, he has a massive budget. While he may not be able to save the world, he has the potential to change minds on a scale I can only dream of for myself.

I watched all 13 episodes of Bill Nye Saves the World, a show allegedly aimed at adults.

I do not loathe the series, to be clear. Some of it works. There are lab demonstrations, such as the acidification of the oceans, that are clean, simple, and effective. Some of the panel discussions were quite interesting, though almost always cut short.

And the best episode for me, by far, was the one on vaccination. It showed contemporary images of people affected by a vaccine-preventable disease, thereby eschewing the use of old black-and-white photographs which may not be affecting enough for people on the fence. The panel discussion included a mother who used to be antivaccination but who came around, thereby providing the audience with a relatable person who can understand the fears and anxieties of new parents. And the episode concluded with a visually striking rendering of herd immunity.

But a science show, especially one that often explores loaded topics, needs two main components: a healthy amount of science and an understanding of human psychology. And the reason why I'm tasting this nameless tang of disappointment is that Bill Nye Saves the World comes up short on both.

Science is a weapon against authoritarianism; so why does the show so often seem to rely on simply stating, "That's what the science says"? Instead of explaining how scientists reached a consensus, Nye regularly uses thinly veiled arguments from authority. Science says... so belief must follow. A particularly egregious example is the episode entitled "The Sexual Spectrum", which spends little-to-no time attempting to explain the science of sex and gender and simply makes a series of progressive declarations and goads the audience to get on with the program.

Human psychology--specifically research done on denialism and risk perception--should be informing a show bold enough to address an emotionally charged topic like genetically engineered food. Regardless of one's opinion on Monsanto, it seems self-defeating to have a representative from that demonized company on a panel if one's goal is to convince a worried public that all is right with GMOs. The entire episode can be too easily dismissed by opponents as having been "bought by Monsanto".

Likewise, when was the last time you changed your mind after having been called stupid? Yet the panel discussion on pseudoscience in the episode "Malarkey!" quickly descended into mockery on the part of Nye, targeting an astrologer on the panel who did not even claim his reading of the stars was scientific. Fellow panelist Tim Caulfield's attempt at building a bridge was cut short by Nye's derision, which I can safely assume only ended up reinforcing the stereotype of the skeptic as a close-minded prick in the minds of believers.

The multiple attempts by the host at being "Cool Uncle Bill" as well as the uneven pacing of most episodes did nothing to alleviate my frustrations. Given the controversy surrounding GMOs, it is baffling to me that almost 5 minutes out of a 28-minute running time were devoted to extracting DNA from strawberries. And the show occasionally delved into bizarre identity politics, such as the cringe-worthy "Dear White People" monologue.

Clearly, the show has not been embraced by everyone. I have seen my own concerns echoed elsewhere on the Internet, but I must also correct a disingenuous argument which has gained traction.  Some of the harshest critics of the show have pointed out that Bill Nye is not a scientist; he has a Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, so how is he competent to tackle topics such as GMOs and climate change? Bill Nye, however, is not credited as a writer or even a producer on his own show, though he was part of the writers' room. In fact, the head science writer on Bill Nye Saves the World is Phil Plait, an astronomer, skeptic, and former author of the blog Bad Astronomy (he now blogs at Syfy Wire). If you're going to be critical of the science content of the show, pointing out that Bill Nye is an engineer is just a non sequitur.

I have never worked on a television show, but I can imagine the challenges and complexities of reining in such a massive beast. With such a short running time and a modular design, however, the show is destined to be superficial. As we often say, it takes a gargantuan amount of time and energy to debunk a cognitively appealing lie. The structure of Bill Nye Saves the World is simply incapable of delving deeply into controversial issues like artificial intelligence and climate change.

If a second season is in the cards, here are some changes that, in my opinion, would improve the show.

Double the running time. A 30-minute show, especially one as modular as Bill Nye Saves the World, has a hard time digging below the surface. A 60-minute version of the series would allow for more satisfying panel discussions, longer chats with the correspondents, and a more efficient use of their travel budget (did they really send Derek Muller to South Korea for a 3-minute segment?)

Drop the live audience. The talk show format just doesn't work.

Don't be patronizing. As difficult as it is, convincing people on the fence requires empathy and understanding. The show's head science writer, Phil Plait, made the point eloquently in a talk entitled "Don't Be a Dick". Yet "being a dick" seemed to have been Bill Nye's motto throughout the show. If you're going to have pseudoscientists and believers in nonsense on your panel, merely using them for target practice not only does not help, it actually backfires. You end up giving scientists and skeptics a bad reputation. And merely stating that this is what the science says on an issue doesn't cut it. Show us the scientific method. Show us the evidence. Show us how the consensus was built. A dismissive tone when faced with concerns makes science look like scientism, which it isn't.

Know your audience. I kept scratching my head trying to figure out if Bill Nye was addressing children or adults. If you want to make a show for adults, look at the Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted Cosmos to see how it's done. If you want to make a show for kids, then the panel discussions have got to go. But choose.

I still have that bitter aftertaste in my mouth, that nameless flavour of disappointment from watching Bill Nye Saves the World. Maybe the second season will improve. But it just goes to show that all the financial resources in the world can't create a great science show.

It begins with the approach, and the production team behind Bill Nye needs to go back to the drawing board on that one.