Netflix and Bill Nye Are Saving Science—30 Minutes at a Time

With Netflix’s ascendancy and the way it’s changing viewing habits, “Bill Nye Saves the World” may be a huge opportunity for science education.
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Each half-hour episode of Bill Nye Saves The World focuses on one subject—the first, thankfully, is climate change.

Photo courtesy of Eddy Chen / Netflix.

Whether or not Bill Nye actually saves the world, he’s established a beachhead with his new Netflix series.

This week, the EPA is dismissing half of its Board of Scientific Counselors.

If I believed in the paranormal, I’d say the timing of Bill Nye Saves The World was spooky: Its 13 episodes dropped on April 21, smack amid the worldwide March for Science and the People’s Climate March—both massive reactions to the Trump administration’s war on science.

Not merely spooky, though. More like timely, urgently necessary, and mostly well-done.

If not hyperbolic, the title of the show is an especially tall order given the present, well, climate: President Trump is a climate change denier (he famously called it a hoax invented by the Chinese) and appointed a climate change denier and longtime foe of the Environmental Protection Agency to run it—and the agency’s site has since disappeared its climate change page. This week, the EPA is dismissing half of its Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises it on whether the research it does has sufficient rigor and integrity. The Department of Interior suspended more than 200 research advisory panels. And not to mention Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos, an education secretary bent on the destruction of public education.

And the Trump administration has been rolling back environmental protections while the president has signaled that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. All with the support of a now more openly theocratic Republican Party.

That’s not all that makes Nye seem like Don Quixote in a lab coat.

The corporate news media has treated subjects such as climate change and evolution as debates.

Abdicating its duty to phony neutrality, the corporate news media has treated subjects such as climate change and evolution as debates when they’re nothing of the sort in the scientific community. (Try to name any other subject in which 97 percent of its experts agree and deniers aren’t ridiculed as fringe cranks and liars.) And it’s an article of faith in the tremendously influential sphere of conservative talk radio—which now seems to be nearly all talk radio—that climate change is liberal hogwash.

So yeah, get right on that saving of the world.

Nye got his TV start with Seattle’s Almost Live sketch comedy show in the mid-’80s, followed by the Emmy-winning kids’ series Bill Nye The Science Guy. In recent years, he and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been a tireless tag team defending science and reason against an endless gauntlet of science illiterates and shills in a variety of cable TV lion’s dens.

With Netflix’s ascendancy and the way it’s changing viewing habits, BNSTW may be Nye’s biggest vehicle for science education. “It’s for you grownup kids all over the world,” Nye says in the premiere. Further confirmation came in the form of a song, “My Sex Junk,” performed by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom in “The Sexual Spectrum” episode—and the predictable conservative blowback to it.

Each half-hour episode focuses on one subject—the first, thankfully, is climate change. Other water-cooler topics include pseudoscience, artificial intelligence, GMOs, and vaccinations.

Nye packs a lot into that half hour—maybe too much.

Nye packs a lot into that half hour—maybe too much. They often start with him performing a science demonstration that wouldn’t look out of place in a high school classroom that was adequately funded. In the opener, he shows how heat makes liquid—including the ocean—expand.

Then Nye sends one of his teams of appealing young correspondents (some with actual scientific backgrounds) to another part of the world: Venice, to see how the ancient city’s coping with rising water; India, for a report on polio vaccinations; and Seoul, to see how K-pop is changing gender behavior among young South Koreans. The sit-downs with the correspondents after their short clips, along with the live audience and Nye’s frequent exhortations to the audience, give BNSTW more than a little ’70s Real People vibe.

Then Nye leads a panel discussion along the lines of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, but lighter on celebrity guests and heavier (and dryer) on actual experts. These segments are so choppily edited from longer discussions that the conversational flow is trashed in the scant few minutes they last, and some guests barely get to squeeze in a sentence. In a talk about fad diets, the panel simply dismisses the Paleo diet and the blood type diet without explanation.

The last several minutes of the show recruit celebrity guests, ranging from the cringe-inducingly lame (actor Zach Braff speaking up from the audience and joining Nye onstage) to the inspired (UFC fighter Randy Couture in costume as a giant tardigrade).

You may be doing your part to save the world, just by watching.

Packing so many segments into each episode means they don’t deal with subjects in as much depth as they really should to decisively put ’em to bed. When John Oliver finishes a 15-minute bit on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, I need a cigarette and want to post it everywhere as a public service.

As a lifelong watcher of science shows from the original Cosmos to James Burke’s Connections to the obscure Mechanical Universe from Caltech (they’re on YouTube), I’d hoped for more than a half-hour science variety show.

Nye’s right-wing trolls—er, critics—would repeat their most frequent talking point: He’s not a real scientist because he’s got an engineering degree.

Rejoinder 1: Engineering is a science, and even with straight A’s in undergraduate history of science courses, I’d sit on the floor and weep if someone asked me to solve an engineering problem. So would most of Nye’s trolls—er, detractors.

Rejoinder 2: Was your high school science teacher a scientist with a Ph.D.?

Nye is America’s science teacher—underscored by his habit of addressing the audience as “People!”—not its Richard Feynman. And we urgently need more people to understand science by way of unapologetic science advocates. As of 2014, 1 in 4 Americans didn’t know the Earth revolves around the sun, which makes them even easier for a science-denying administration to hoodwink.

But Nye tells his audience, “We can do this!”

Netflix doesn’t participate in Nielsen ratings, but BNSTW has been trending since its debut. Trending means it’s popular, which in turn means more shows like it will get made. Which also means you may be doing your part to save the world, just by watching.