Bill Nye let me down


I was stoked to sit down and start the first season of my favorite childhood show now grown up “Bill Nye Saves the World.” I grew up on Bill Nye and The Magic School Bus, and I have been so excited to see Netflix bring new life to them. I liked Bill’s clever way of explaining scientific principles, how he had a lab apparently run entirely by children, and his invitation to try to do science yourself (Don’t take my word for it!) And who can forget the 50s black and white TV screen with the mom yelling “My tectonic plates!” after her son refuses to eat his crusts?

But I became a little nervous when I saw the topic of the first episode: global warming. I personally am concerned about the environment, and I know that we can do better in caring for it. But I also know that global warming is a complex and nuanced topic, that there are many questions that aren’t answered, that it involves policy and research, and that there are many levels of skeptics concerning global warming. Would Bill Nye treat it with the level of respect that such a topic deserves?

Bill Nye starts out with a fun little experiment demonstrating that the density of water decreases as it increases in temperature. He lights up a bunsen burner beneath a volumentric flask, and you can see the meniscus rise as liquid gets hotter. He then compares the world’s oceans to this simple experiment– the oceans are like a thermometer. They rise when they get hotter.

He then includes a humorous clip with a man trying to get a meal, first some sushi, then a coffee, but every time he almost gets it, a panda face appears, and his order disappears. A woman then explains how rising sea levels or acid acidification resulted in wiping out that product.

Bill Nye also includes a three-panel discussion of implementing renewable energy sources. The first, a civil engineer, makes the sweeping claim that we have the capability right now to replace all non-renewable sources of energy with wind, solar, etc, with little to no increase in the cost of energy. He claims to have come up with a plan for each of the fifty states. The second panelist doesn’t believe that such a plan is feasible, even quixotic, and proposes that nuclear power is better option because we already use it to over 30% of our energy in the US. Bill Nye and the engineer both shut this man down (painting him as ignorant) by explaining that most people think cooling towers are ugly and no one is going to want more of them, and that it would take billions of dollars to build more of them. What they conveniently leave out is: aren’t people just as concerned about ugly wind mill farms, and solar panel fields? And I haven’t don’t have a cost comparison either, but I’m pretty sure that building all those renewable energy sources will cost a pretty penny as well. The final panelist, a non-scientist advocating for science solutions, just asks the question, what can we as non-scientists do to address these issues? Bill Nye immediately answers: vote!

Bill Nye wraps up the episode with another cute little experiment. He blows into a vial of water with a pH indicator. Originally the solution is green, but as he blows into it and CO2 dissolves into it, the color changes demonstrating a lowered pH. Again, a fun experiment, but it doesn’t answer any questions.

Finally, Bill Nye has the audience make a pledge: “I will stop talking about climate change, when we actually do something about it.”

Ultimately, Bill Nye’s show is on the level of confirming your own pre-existing opinions. If you do consider climate change to be the problem of our times, then yes, you will go away feeling like Bill Nye scored one against the climate change deniers. If you don’t agree that climate change is a vital concern, or even if you think that perhaps there are more questions to be answered, Bill Nye pretty much invalidates those, like he did when he shut down the guy advocating for nuclear power. Bill didn’t seek to initiate conversations, but instead tried to use science to quiet dissenting opinions.

He failed to dig deeper into real questions that I think would have been valuable to address on such a show, and perhaps would invite a wider variety of viewers. Questions like, how big of an impact do humans have on climate change? Are there examples of drastic climate change in the past without human intervention (think the Ice Age), and could that be a factor as well? What technologies do we have now that are renewable? What hurdles are we still encountering in such technologies? Are other options like natural gas and nuclear feasible as well, and are those technologies worth developing? Instead, most of the show was filled with opinions with little facts to back them up and cute experiments so he could use his lab bench.

Now, he does only have a thirty minute show. But I think he should use that 30 minutes to convince instead of shut down. None of the show served to provide convincing evidence to someone who is skeptical of climate change– his cute experiments with volumetric flasks aren’t evidence. I think Bill could even be detracting from healthy dialogue. By setting himself up as a scientific prophet/martyr, many who disagree will become more entrenched in their opinions, and many who do agree will likely not do much more than they are currently doing. I’m worried as I look at some of the more topic that Bill will tackle in the future: overpopulation, designer babies, and the sexual spectrum.

By clearly aligning with liberal opinions and devaluing any alternative opinions, Bill Nye will do more to create tensions than resolve them, and that he could be ultimately doing science a disfavor by making her seem biased.

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