Bill Nye, the Scientism Guy

Bill Nye Saves the World (Netflix)
The ‘U.S. bad, developing world good’ cliché is not based in science, no matter how many models and rappers say so on Nye’s show.

If you loved Bill Nye the Science Guy, do yourself a favor and don’t call up the kiddie entertainer’s new Netflix show Bill Nye Saves the World. Bitter, angry, shouty, conspiratorial, vulgar, wheedling, given to absurd hyperbole, and blithely eager to wreak punishment on his enemies, Nye comes across mentally as several milliliters short of a beaker. It’s as if Kermit the Frog somehow morphed into Michael Moore.

The new show (supposedly aimed at adults but still written at a grade-school level) uses occasional references to science to introduce simple political advocacy, broken up by bad jokes and interludes of actual screaming. This isn’t science but scientism, the invocation of science in areas where there are legitimate differences of values. “See, you, me we’re in this together,” Nye tells his audience at the outset of the first episode. “If we think together and work together, good things are gonna happen.” This might be a tempting thought to some — “Come, join our mob, happiness will ensue!” But groupthink isn’t science.

In the first few days after 13 episodes debuted on the streaming service, two unfortunate moments went disastrously viral. Guest star Rachel Bloom, the star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, appeared on episode nine to sing an ode to anal sex and transgenderism, with lyrics such as “Versatile love may have some butt stuff / It’s evolution, ain’t nothing new / There’s nothing taboo about a sex stew.” The segment was as off-base scientifically as it was creatively: Good luck explaining homosexuality in Darwinian terms.

An even more horrifying moment occurred in episode 13, which is devoted to the supposed problem of overpopulation. Nye featured Travis Rieder, of Johns Hopkins University, as a guest panelist ethicist. Rieder said that because people in poor countries (being poor) don’t consume much energy (even though overpopulation is a driver of climate change), we should direct our population-control efforts at the rich world, where the population isn’t growing, instead of at the poor world, where it is. This would, he reasoned, be the best way of reducing global energy demands.

Even though in Niger the average woman has seven children, Rieder said, “our two kids are way more problematic!” Congratulations, Travis Rieder’s children, your dad thinks your very existence regrettable. Next time you’re standing on a ledge, don’t let Dad sneak up behind you.

“So should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?” Nye asks. “I do think that we should at least consider it,” Rieder replies blandly. “‘At least consider it’ is, like, ‘Do it!’” Nye responds, a demonic glint in his eye. Another panelist, Dr. Nerys Benfield, director of family planning at Montefiore Medical Center, spots a whiff of eugenics here: “We’ve gone down that road before and who winds up being penalized? It’s poor women, minorities, disabled women. . . . So we really have not come at it from a place of justice necessarily in the past.”

Frightening as this portion of the show is, it immediately follows a segment that consists of an urgent call for government-guaranteed maternity leave in the United States — the opposite of penalizing people for having kids in the developed world. The U.S. is presented as an outlier on this matter by a correspondent who had traveled all the way to Bangalore, India, to celebrate India’s maternity-leave policy.

The consecutive segments are in such flat contradiction with each other’s politics that the only way to make sense of them is to find the common element: U.S. bad; developing world good. Never mind that India is one of the world’s worst countries in which to be a woman or that Niger is one of the worst places on earth. Being a global-minded progressive American today means neo-Rousseauian fantasies that things are much better in the world’s most impoverished places.

Being a global-minded progressive American today means neo-Rousseauian fantasies that things are much better in the world’s most impoverished places.

Nye’s chief obsession these days is climate change — the politics of it, not the science. After a ludicrous skit in which the Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss presents climate change as causing the imminent vanishing of coffee, chocolate, and fish (“Warming waters and ocean acidification are destroying all the fish supplies — like, all the fish,” she tells us), he lets loose with a rant about “climate-change deniers.” “These people,” he says, “have managed to get across the idea that somehow scientific uncertainty, plus or minus 2 or 3 percent, is the same as plus or minus 100 percent. It’s just wrong!” He pleads for the U.S. to be the world leader on the issue and says it could be done “if we were exporting the culture of ‘Climate change — serious business — we’re gonna get to work on this — we’re gonna have renewable energy — we’re gonna have clean water for everyone and access to electronic information for everyone in the world.’”

How did providing clean water and getting everyone hooked up to the Internet come into this picture? Never mind. The U.S. is, of course, already providing huge subsidies for renewables. A serious, sustained, nationwide effort to reduce greenhouse emissions is already long under way: U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are at their lowest point in a quarter of a century, and world emissions were flat last year. Thanks to a combination of regulatory punishment and market forces, especially the huge increase in U.S. natural-gas production via fracking and other methods, coal is rapidly being driven out of the U.S. economy.

None of this, alas, has much of an effect on global temperatures; nor will proposed fixes such as the Paris Climate Accord do much to alter the trajectory of global temperatures. So humanity will have to adapt to climate change, while people like Nye are ranting and raving and suggesting anyone who isn’t ranting and raving with equal fervor should face the same fate as Enron executives who went to jail. Climate change and what to do about it are frustratingly complicated matters, but the pleasure of identifying and castigating enemies is so simple that a child can understand it. I look forward to the day when Netflix presents Pee-Wee’s White-Privilege Playhouse.

— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.




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