Bill Nye comes out swinging in the first season of Bill Nye Saves the World, his new Netflix series.
“We’re going to be talking about important, perhaps even controversial issues,” he promises. He then dives into a season of controversies, confronting misconceptions about climate change, anti-vaccination conspiracies, artificial intelligence, and more.
The new series’ structure and tone is heavily influenced by Nye’s connection to the modern skeptics movement, which can be a powerful tool for advancing science — and at some points in the six episodes of Bill Nye Saves the World that I watched for review, it is. At other points, however, Nye’s skepticism verges into meanness, and at one crucial point fails him all together.
The show’s skepticism drives it toward quality — to a point
Fans of the PBS classic Bill Nye, the Science Guy might be surprised at how different the new show is in tone. Unlike the kid-oriented PBS program, Bill Nye Saves the World is geared toward adult science fans with a penchant for whimsy; it’s filmed before a live studio audience and punctuated by drop-in cameos from celebrities like model Karlie Kloss, TV/food personality Alton Brown, geek-culture figurehead Wil Wheaton, and affable filmmaker Zach Braff.
Nye does include routine science demonstrations, from extracting DNA from a strawberry to using a toy baseball bat to explore a cosmic theory of life on earth, but they usually serve to illustrate passing points within larger arguments driven by his personal agenda as a scientist and skeptic.
Most people know Nye as a scientist, but he’s also appeared at skeptics conferences and on the popular podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, whose cohost Cara Santa Maria appears on one episode of Saves the World as a guest panelist. The new series’ head science writer is Phil Plait, an astronomer who’s also a major figure within the skeptics community. And Bill Nye Saves the World’s agenda is explicitly skeptical — that is, it’s geared toward debunking false assumptions about science, bad pseudoscience, medical quackery, and harmful non-scientific beliefs.
At its best, this approach is enlightening and empowering, rather than alienating. And Nye’s skepticism is undeniably at its best in an early episode addressing vaccinations. In just 26 minutes, Nye, Plait, and director Nick Murray structure a fantastic multi-pronged argument against antivaxxer rhetoric. Segments proceed through real-world examples, expert analysis, and one of Nye’s signature scientific demonstrations — a cool illustration of how a lack of vaccinations can cause viruses to spread through a population.
The vaccinations episode exhibits a notable degree of empathy for well-meaning parents, by bringing in a former anti-vaccination parent to discuss her experiences. But the show also stresses that the insularity of these parents, who are generally white and privileged, can bring harm to others in the community who have fewer socioeconomic resources to help them resist a viral outbreak. A cameo-filled skit that mocks rising global virus numbers (with a jeering swipe at antivaxxer Jenny McCarthy) falls flat, and Nye seems to still be finding his footing in the roundtable discussion, but these are the only bum moments in one of the show’s best episodes.
Still, Nye’s show is flawed in a manner that reflects the flaws of the skepticism movement.
Nye’s assumption that the audience is on his side can be alienating
A longstanding criticism of the skeptics community is that its members often profess mocking or condescending attitudes toward anyone who believes in things skeptics are opposed to — primarily religion, the paranormal, and pseudoscience. (In 2003, the movement formed an offshoot led by Richard Dawkins known as the “Brights” which was heavily criticized by other skeptics as playing into the perception that skeptics portray themselves as inherently superior to everyone else.)
This attitude is prevalent on Nye’s show, which frequently takes a scathing and dismissive tone toward non-scientific belief systems. At one point during a demonstration of Earth’s origins, Nye banishes from his diorama of early life on the planet a small model of Noah’s ark, declaring, “there’s no freaking Noah’s ark, I’m sorry,” as he tosses it aside. A skit in which Rachel Bloom portrays a loopy pseudoscience conspiracist falls flat, as do most of the show’s purely comedic segments, because within the show’s structure they often feel superimposed, unfocused, and frankly mean-spirited.
The most significant example of this occurs during an episode exploring public misunderstanding about genetically modified organisms. Correspondent Derek Muller, a celebrity YouTube vlogger known for his science show Veritasium, conducts man on the street interviews about GMOs with people attending a farmers’ market. Muller openly eyerolls and mocks the confused assumptions about GMOs he encounters from the public, and then joins Nye onstage for a follow-up segment making even more fun of them.
But while it might be understandable to be a bit amused at the public’s lack of knowledge about GMOs, any justification for Nye’s condescension as a skeptic is obliterated by what comes next.
Skepticism fails Nye and his audience in a segment on Monsanto
Immediately after Muller’s segment, Nye leads a roundtable discussion about GMOs, which features Robert Fraley, chief technical officer of Monsanto.
Nye recently reversed his entire stance on GMOs following a visit to Monsanto, and it quickly becomes evident that Fraley is there not just to defend GMOs, but Monsanto itself. Nye dramatically introduces Fraley as a representative of the company, and laughs, “they hate you!” when the audience responds with booing. At one point during the panel, Nye asks, “Why does everybody hate Monsanto?” and allows Fraley to provide a vague and virtually unchallenged answer. “We’re a good company,” Fraley says, a comment that goes surprisingly untouched given that the calling card of skepticism is viewing blanket statements like these with a critical eye.
Nye could easily have used the audience’s reaction to acknowledge the fact that many members of the public have an extremely negative perception of the 116-year-old company’s products and business practices, and explained why, before focusing on some of the positive work Monsanto currently does with GMOs. Instead he nods to the public’s distrust, then dismisses it without any real explanation of the company’s history.
He does briefly bring up that Monsanto produced Agent Orange, but fails to explain what it was: a chemical defoliant used strategically during the Vietnam War that decimated the environment, exposed millions of US soldiers to cancer-causing toxins, and caused hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children to be born with birth defects. Instead, he lobs a softball question at Fraley in which they both treat Monsanto’s production of Agent Orange as an unfortunate accident from a bygone historical moment — when in fact, Agent Orange continues to impact both the country and Vietnam veterans to this day. Nye also sort-of brings up Roundup’s role in decimating the Monarch butterfly population, yet neglects to mention that Monsanto is the company that makes Roundup.
Giving Monsanto a platform to defend itself without substantial background or counterargument flies in the face of Nye’s proclaimed mission to explain science to the masses, and overshadows the other perfectly rational points he and the panelists make about the benefits of GMOs in general. The Monsanto segment represents a major misstep for Saves the World — and an ironic one, given that just moments before, Nye subtly mocks members of the public for swallowing misinformation about GMOs, joking about angry mobs coming after Frankenstein, and asking Muller about “the level of sophistication at the farmer’s market.”
Some of the puzzling aspects of this Monsanto segment could be attributed to Nye’s inexperience as a talk show host: He’s just not used to making his points clear in panel discussions yet, and the editing in the roundtable segments is often choppy, which can leave the discussions feeling frustratedly truncated and hard to follow. For example, Fraley’s answer about Monsanto’s role in Vietnam seems to have been edited, or Nye possibly cut him off for time.
But Nye also appears to be displaying an open bias in a way that undermines the very scientific objectivity he’s trying to promote. That’s why this segment is so striking: Its tone and framing are antithetical to the deep critical thinking Nye urges throughout the rest of the show.
When Nye finds his stride, the science speaks for itself
Bill Nye Saves the World gives us a glimpse of better things to come in its second episode, which is devoted to debunking various kinds of alternative medicine — one of the skeptical movement’s biggest crusades.
In this episode, Nye seems confident and in control of the panel discussions, the jokes feel free-flowing, and a segment in which a “sound therapist” screams at the kidneys of a befuddled correspondent in order to cleanse her torso of toxins feels far less like sheer mockery. Nye even brings an alternative medicine proponent into the panel, which further humanizes the other side of his debate.
And when comedian and series writer Prashanth Venkataramanujam rants about white people appropriating Asian culture to sell “woo,” the show’s humor is suddenly sharp and relevant. It all concludes in a fantastic science experiment illustrating the ineffectiveness of a high-end alternative heartburn treatment that leaves you feeling pretty great about science.
This episode promises good things for the show over the course of its 13-episode run, which is now available in full on Netflix. Another Monsanto moment could undo Nye’s attempt at saving the world; but if Nye can step away from, or at least acknowledge, his personal biases, and allow pure science and objective reporting to power his skeptical agenda, then he’ll be in position to deliver an entertaining and effective show — at a moment when the world needs science, and skepticism, more than ever.
Bill Nye Saves the World is streaming on Netflix.