What’s really going on with “Bill Nye Saves the World?”

Bill Nye

I just finished watching all 13 episodes of Bill Nye Saves the World – in fact, I subscribed to Netflix just so I could watch it. I’ve long admired Bill Nye’s dedication to furthering science literacy. I mean, the guy’s 60 years old, and he’s everywhere – promoting The Planetary Society as its CEO, co-hosting StarTalk and StarTalk All-Stars, writing tons of books, and now he’s even got his own Netflix series. This guy is one of the great science evangelizers of our generation. He even took the time to talk to my daughters at a dinner following the launch of LightSail at Cape Canaveral, where he showed them how to take a proper selfie.

Now, you may have heard that “Bill Nye Saves the World” has created quite a bit of controversy and negative backlash. Especially on places like Reddit, where he’s being criticized for giving one-sided treatments to various issues. The data seems, at first blush, to back up this negative reaction – his rating on IMDb is just 3.3 out of 10.

Well, I used to be in charge of IMDb’s technology, so I can’t just let that go without digging deeper.

Having watched the entire series, I think it’s actually really good. Yes, there are a few spots where the editing could have been a little better – and a segment or two are indeed cringe-worthy. But I’m pretty sure that was the intended reaction – he wants to get people talking about this stuff.

Let’s break down that 3.3 rating on IMDb:

Hmm. You can see from the rating distribution a flood of one-star ratings is what’s driving his overall score.  Take those away, and most people actually loved it. It’s almost as if there’s, you know, some targeted campaign against this show or something.

Let’s drill down a bit deeper:

Well, that’s interesting. The vast majority of the votes are coming from men, who are rating it significantly lower than women. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given some strong statements Mr. Nye made in the show about things like educating women and encouraging their participation in the workforce, gender existing along a spectrum, and even that birth control for men needs more work. If you’re a misogynistic Internet troll, those are things that might raise your hackles.

Let’s compare the ratings breakdown between men and women:

This shows that 93% of the one-star ratings are coming from men.

So, the data suggests that Bill Nye Saves the World has simply become a target of some of the more extreme “alt-right” crowd, especially the men. In a way, perhaps it’s a good thing – it’s attracting more attention to his show, and getting people to talk about the issues it tackles.

However, I don’t really see this as a positive outcome. If you’re out to persuade people to make decisions based on data and science instead of political ideology, it’s not effective to just tell them that they’re wrong. That just makes people double down on their existing beliefs. I don’t think Bill Nye has really changed many minds with this show; he’s just made a lot of people even more entrenched within their echo chambers – although I’ll give those people credit for watching the show in the first place. That alone is evidence of some openness of the mind.

What you should do instead – and I’ve heard Bill Nye say this himself – is acknowledge the opposing viewpoint and demonstrate that you understand it. Then, engage in a dialog where you suss out why the other person believes the Earth is flat or whatever, and just get them talking about it without being judgmental or condescending. If you can reach a different conclusion together, then that’s how you can change a person’s mind. Or who knows, maybe yours is the mind that will be changed, after discussing the relevant evidence and facts! (Although, you’re not about to convince me that the Earth is flat.)

This show is, however, successful in energizing people like me who want to live in a world where facts are a thing, and where important social decisions are based on them.

Hang on while I go give Bill Nye a ten star rating.




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