Bill Nye always made me laugh as a kid. He stoked the fires of my curiosity and spurred me to a lifelong love of science. When I taught high school biology, most weeks included some Bill Nye clips in my classroom. I used to laugh along with my students. We would all chant “Bill, Bill,” as the theme song started.
Something has changed. After I binged on his new Netflix series, Bill Nye seemed a little less like the science guy and more like the condescending guy.
Mr. Nye says that he is back to save the world—with science! His new show is corny and his gags are every bit as goofy as they were in the ’90s. But now they are weighed down by a condescending attitude. And while Mr. Nye’s takes on divisive topics like contraception and designer babies will have culture warriors grabbing their pitchforks, that is not the most troubling part of this show.
Mr. Nye is not wrong about the science involved in the political and social issues he is tackling. Climate change is real and it is getting worse. The strain the human population is putting on sensitive ecosystems is beyond debate. Science continues to discover fascinating complexity in human sexuality and piles of evidence show us that vaccines save vulnerable lives. But too often Mr. Nye’s humor and wit seem meant to prove that people who disagree with him just need to understand the science more clearly.
Too often Mr. Nye’s humor and wit seem meant to prove that people who disagree with him just need to understand the science more clearly.
Consider this telling moment from Episode 5. While trying to explain the origins of life, Mr. Nye finds a replica of Noah’s Ark mixed in with all the other props that he is using to make his point. His manic behavior helps keep the discussion moving, and I found myself remembering why I love him so much. But when he notices the ark he asks if the producers are playing a joke on him. Then without any reflection, he whisks it off the table and says: “There’s no freaking Noah’s Ark. I’m sorry, people; it did not happen.”
Well, yeah Bill, there is plenty of scientific evidence that the flood did not happen as it is written in Genesis. Creationism should annoy us as much as scientism. But Mr. Nye’s fleeting moment with Noah’s Ark points to the core of the problem with his new show. He doesn’t allow his normally insatiable imagination to consider that Noah’s Ark—or the religious point of view more broadly—have any place in a discussion about saving the world. He will not let his imagination (or his audience) explore the possibilities because that ark has been, figuratively and literally, shoved under the table.
Too many leaders in the scientific community—and Bill Nye surely now is one of them—are dismissive of other domains of knowledge. While science has done, and will continue to do, great things for us all, it is folly to act as though it is the only realm of knowledge worthy of time and attention, or as though the scientific method is the only method with any power to unite us and employ our creative energies to save the world.
As Michael Rozier, S.J., pointed out in a previous discussion of vaccines (a topic covered in Episode 7 of Nye’s series), we make decisions for a wide range of reasons, and when people make conclusions contrary to good science, hitting them over the head with more and more scientific explanations is not going to move the needle. We need to understand why people reject good science. Condescension and snarky dismissal are not going to change hearts. I agree with Mr. Nye that conversion therapy for gays is ridiculous, but a short cartoon lampooning the “science of feelings” in Episode 9 is not going to convince anyone who disagrees with him on this subject.
But changing the hearts of adults—whether climate change deniers or creationists—is going to require more
In his previous incarnation, Mr. Nye tended to stay squarely in the domain of science. His new show is all grown up and so are all of us who were kids in the ’90s. No more playing in the lab; we have to tackle adult topics: climate change, sexuality, artificial intelligence, G.M.O.s, the ever-growing human population. When I was young Mr. Nye touched my heart and got me excited about science. But changing the hearts of adults—whether climate change deniers or creationists—is going to require more than getting a 13-year-old to fall in love with lab work. If we are going to get anywhere on the important issues Mr. Nye is raising, we cannot ignore sociology, philosophy and, yes, the wisdom to be found in religious traditions.
There is still hope. Recently, Mr. Nye, famously dismissive of philosophy, told Olivia Goldhill of The Atlantic that her article and the avalanche of criticism against his philosophical ignorance lead him to explore epistemology. With this recent development, perhaps Season 2 will feature the Science Guy stripped of his condescension and humbled, I hope, by an appreciation for other important realms of knowledge.