Why Bill Nye Won’t Save the World

I like Bill Nye. I watched his show with my kid. He’s great. I wish he would call me up and we could go eat french fries together. But he won’t save the world, for two main reasons.

On his new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, Nye repeats the same errors about creationism that he has always made. At heart, Nye seems to believe that the main trouble with America is its lack of knowledge about science, our “science illiteracy.” Nye plans to save the world by clearly explaining real science. It won’t work.

On episode five, for example, Nye gives a quick description of the long history of our planet. He even goes out of his way to ridicule the notion of Noah’s ark. Where did life on this planet come from? We don’t know, Nye clarifies, but possibly it blasted in from Mars.

This sort of approach will have only a negative impact on our continuing creation/evolution squabbles. It will do nothing to bring good mainstream science to the creationist multitudes. Its only effect will be to cement them (most of them, at least) even more firmly in their dissident notion of young-earth creationism.

Why will Nye’s approach be so counter-productive? Not only because it is so hokey and strained. As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the main problem comes from two common and related mistakes.

First, Nye falls prey again to the lamentable missionary supposition. Like many science wonks, Nye assumes that the truth—the scientific truth—is so powerful that mere exposure to it will convince people of its truth.

The notion is so remarkably naïve that it is difficult to know where to start. Consider the similar case of vaccinations. If people are simply unaware of the existence and benefits of vaccinations, then providing information will help. Especially if we do it in a fun, entertaining way. But if people already believe that vaccinations are dangerous, and, more important, if they believe that vaccine-promoters will be targeting them with fun, entertaining falsehoods, designed to confuse and beguile them…then we need a different approach.

Creationism, especially in its American young-earth variant, is not merely an absence of knowledge about evolution. Creationism is not a deficit. Creationism is an alternate, dissenting social system, complete with its own schools, textbooks, museums, conventions, TV shows, and celebrities.

And that brings us to the second, related problem with Nye’s approach. Not only is his show not spreading knowledge, it is actually building resistance. Like a lot of science pundits, Nye heightens the religious stakes by talking about “saving the world.” Instead of presenting this as a question of cool-headed deliberation and policy discussion, Nye’s apocalyptic attitude reinforces religious resistance.

In other words, by talking in all-or-nothing terms, Nye gives credence to religious dissenters who insist that religious people have to choose between their religion and mainstream science.

What should he do instead? He should not water down his I-F*$%&@9-Love-Science message. He should not imply that different views are all equal. He should not truckle to religious sensibilities by suggesting that all scientific ideas—even creation-science ones—have the same merit.

But he should learn more about creationism and American creationists. If he did so, he’d find out that there are plenty of creationists out there who also love science. Real, mainstream science. He should establish working alliances with those creationists to marginalize radical notions about creation and evolution. He does not need to endorse any particular view. All he needs to do is point viewers to religious people who agree with him.

Otherwise, he won’t save the world.

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5 Comments

  1. Jonathan Calhoun

     /  May 12, 2017

    I don’t think creationists are the target audience for the show though Adam. I think based on watching it, the show seems to be more geared towards people who are on the fence, or kids who are being raised by creationist families. As I am sure you point out in your research Adam, trying to change the minds of creationist adults is nigh impossible because they become so entrenched in their irrationality and paranoia, that it becomes quicksand. But it’s in educating the youth that maybe the world can be ‘saved’ according to this model.

    Reply
    • @Jonathan — You are correct, and he is very effective in this way, with those audiences.

      @Adam — why do you think Nye is wrong to marginalize creationists in general rather than the ones you consider most extreme? Creationism in any form is a type of fundamentalism that arrives at conclusions through means the both of which are utterly at odds with not just science but all modern critical thought. Their unifying purpose is to resist “naturalism” or “materialism” in favor of a typically under-examined premodern ontology that makes hierarchies of inequality, domination, and submission normative. As nice and reasonable as groups like Biologos may seem, they still serve these most reactionary agendas and offer a fig leaf of legitimacy to churches and colleges that officially discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation (and in practice gender and race) because their modern anti-modernist “faith” is really an anti-egalitarian political ideology. As this has become again a major crisis, appeasement and “moderation” should be apparent as failed strategies.

      Reply
  2. Adam, you are so right when you refer to creationism as an “alternate, dissenting social system.” When we speak to groups about Righting America at the Creation Museum we always have people in the audience who suggest — a la Bill Nye — that the way to convert creationists to mainstream science is to give them more facts and more logic and more science. But Ken Ham et al. have constructed and are constructing a nearly-impermeable young Earth creationist subculture, with its own facts, logic, and science.

    Reply
    • The US has always been full of “choose your own reality” groups. That is what cultures and subcultures substantially are. Radicalized, reactionary or revolutionary subcultures have also gained traction in the past under similar conditions: economic austerity and deprivation; clashing ethnic populations fighting for diminishing power and wealth; elites and established authorities unable to maintain order or credible veneer of legitimacy leading to increasing authoritarian repressions; access to cheap mass media; obsession with violence, death, and apocalypse — everyone believes their world is at its end. None of this is new.

      Reply
  3. William Bell

     /  May 12, 2017

    It won’t reach the committed creationist, but there is a growing tendency to role over to what scientists say in our culture unthinkingly, even on topics far afield from science. Sometimes preaching to the choir is a valid rhetorical strategy.

    Reply

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