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Bill Nye's Pot Episode Is an Irresponsible Mess

Jan 1, 2018

With great science comes great responsibility, a proposition that Bill Nye and his writing team continue to ignore in the season 2 premiere of Bill Nye Saves the World which focuses on marijuana.

The word (and sometimes the substance) cannabis is seemingly on everyone's tongue these days, which makes accurate reporting about it imperative. Within a few minutes of the episode starting, the following came out of Bill Nye's mouth: "[CBD, one of the two main chemicals in cannabis] may also be useful for boosting cancer treatments." And the segment in which correspondent Derek Muller flies to the Middle East to report on cannabis research is titled "How is Israel healing the world with marijuana."

Given my love of rationality, I rarely talk to my television set, understanding full well that it lacks in awareness. But I did shout a string of swear words at it while watching Bill Nye. Because, as someone who has talked about medicinal marijuana with Chris on our podcast and on the airwaves, I find it hard not to qualify Nye's approach as irresponsible.

I expect nature fetishists and conspiracy theorists to publicly embrace cannabis as a cure-all, but I require more from a science show. The tone of the episode could be summarized as follows: cannabis is a wonderful plant full of chemicals that can treat all sorts of diseases, but we're not allowed to study it because of Nixon. The show lacked nuance; it lacked a description of which medical conditions do benefit from cannabis use and which don't according to the best available scientific evidence; it basically lacked an adult outlook on a very complicated topic. Bill Nye seems more interested in letting his childish sense of wonder coat the glasses through which he looks at complex topics involving flawed science, emotional appeals, ethical arguments, and legislative hurdles.

I was not a fan of the show's first season and I voiced my thoughts back then. I suggested a number of improvements the show could make in its second season to move away from its cringy, disappointing and often patronizing nature. Of those, only one has been tweaked: the show is slightly longer. It allows for the panel discussion to take its time, which would be an improvement if the constitution of said panel were conducive to a great conversation. However, the show once again missteps by dropping serious scholars and legislators in with a celebrity (actor-director and pothead hero Kevin Smith), which results in a haphazard discussion that never progresses.

The additional time is also wasted with an Ultimate Frisbee skit pitting sober college students against drugged up (or pretending to be) comedians. Its predictability robs it of any comedic value, and it adds nothing scientifically. Yet another segment focuses on IT security, a topic to be covered in the next episode and which teaches us nothing. It features a scientist Bill Nye met on Twitter as he attempts to rehabilitate the #BillMeetScienceTwitter campaign which, last summer, wanted to bring attention to the fact that Nye's show features very few actual scientists and instead relies on the science educator as its sole scientific spotlight.

Indeed, Bill Nye Saves the World does a poor job of highlighting the importance of seeking credible experts to digest the science and ensure accuracy. Derek Muller, known for his highly popular YouTube channel Veritasium, returns as a correspondent for this episode and, while I admire his usual work and that important mixture of affability and clarity he displays, I have to question his choice. Why would you send a guy with a Bachelor's degree in engineering and a Ph.D. spent testing the efficacy of various kinds of physics videos to a pharmacological laboratory? He is neither a biologist, nor a pharmacist or medical doctor. Indeed, he spends the entire segment in awe of the Israeli's cannabis cultivation and we get a promotional video for the Tikun Olam company. I don't blame Muller for not asking pertinent biomedical questions; I blame the show for sending the wrong guy.

I couldn't help but compare this episode with a similar one done by Olivier Bernard on the French side for his show Les aventures du Pharmachien. It managed, in a little over half the running time of Nye's show, to be both educational and entertaining, funny and skeptical. And it looked at the body of evidence on the topic of medicinal marijuana, something Nye's show never bothered to report on.

I still don't know who Bill Nye's audience is anymore. His show is like a laptop covered in pro-science stickers, stuck playing America's Funniest Home Videos on a loop: superficially about science but ultimately hollow. Nye and his writers seem uninterested in explaining the scientific method and in summarizing the state of our knowledge. Instead, they bask in awkward gags, uneven discussions, and a philosophy that borders on scientism.

Nye's schtick is getting old and his portrayal of science may ultimately do more harm than good.