Bill Nye Show

Bill Nye Saves the World: a Hot Take

After a week of seeing my Facebooks all abuzz about it, I sat down and checked out an episode of Bill Nye Saves the World, excited to learn some science.  The episode I watched was the one on GMOs, because it’s a topic where I feel unresolved on the pros and cons and could stand to learn more facts so that I can develop a more informed opinion.

My hot take after sitting through that episode is that the main draws of this show are:

  • Nostalgia.
  • Hearing things you agree with.
  • Making fun of dumb people.

The episode opened with what promised to be a practical science demo — extracting DNA from strawberries.  Sounds interesting, right?  It turned out to be about five minutes of mashing things together with a lot of awkward dead air that was occasionally filled by even more awkward schtick; it reminded me of a public access cooking show.  The awkwardness wasn’t what bothered me so much as the fact that I didn’t learn a damn thing.  Bill never explained why salt and soap and water would specifically extract DNA from the other parts of a mashed up strawberry.  He didn’t offer any principles we could use to determine that the process had worked and that the goop he got at the end was DNA, as opposed to cellulose, or pectin, or coagulated soap.  He didn’t take the (alleged) DNA goop and do anything useful with it that you could only do with DNA.  He may as well have said he was extracting homeopathic essence from the strawberries for all the good the exercise did toward explaining the science behind GMOs.

Despite that rocky start, I got my hopes up a bit when Bill started talking about how his attitude toward GMOs had shifted over the years — he had initially had concerns about their potential environmental impact, but then he learned new evidence and changed his mind.  Cool, I thought, I have those same concerns, I’m looking forward to having them allayed by evidence.  How did Bill allay them?  By cutting to a correspondent at a farmer’s market who videoed people saying dumb things about GMOs.  (This is known as a “guilt by association” argument.)

After that, cut back to the studio to make fun of the people in the video just in case we didn’t understand that we were supposed to be laughing at them because they’re dumb.  After that, round table discussion that includes a Monsanto spokesman who draws booing from the studio audience but is never asked to defend any of the business practices that inspired the booing.

The episode ended with Bill putting way too much effort into a joke about how people might like GMOs better if we called them OMGs.  That is a thing that happened on a show that I started watching with the expectation that I would learn things.

tl;dr: I was unimpressed.

Sam Stafford
Sam started out as a child, devouring golden age science fiction from his father’s bookshelf, tinkering with BASIC on those Apple IIs they used to have in grade school, and playing D&D during lunch periods. As a Cal EECS graduate, he now makes his living by coaxing emergent behaviors from complex systems, and divides his spare time between baking, botany, dancing, games, and the pursuit of the perfect cocktail.

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