Movie review: Bill Nye: The Science Guy (2017)

I missed out on the Science Guy. He was slightly after my time. I knew of him. Heard about him. But didn’t really know him. He hosted a science show aimed at kids. That was about all I knew.

Bill Nye: The Science Guy showed up on the Heartland Film Festival roster a couple years ago but unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my movie-viewing schedule. And then it appeared on Netflix. Finally! I was going to be introduced to Bill Nye.

This documentary covers quite a lot, jumping back and forth to discuss different points of his life. It doesn’t feel like a typical documentary or biography. Bill isn’t interviewed as much as he is followed. Others who worked closely with him, old friends, and even profession colleagues like Neil deGrasse Tyson are filmed with him and interviewed separately.

The movie touches on his famous persona and even dives into psychological reasons behind starting his famous show on science aimed at kids. After the TV show ended, he disappeared for a while. But he couldn’t stay out of the limelight—at least according to a psychological profile of him.

The movie also delves into family relations, discussing his parents and siblings. (His mother, it turns out, was a code breaker for the Navy during World War II!) Although his relations are a vehicle to understand the man, they are also a teaching opportunity. A rare disorder runs in his family: ataxia. His father suffered from it. His brother and sister with whom he is close both suffer from it. The movie follows them through medical evaluations about the progress of the disease. Bill is fortunate to have not inherited the disease. Possibly passing on the disease is one reason he did not have children.

After a hiatus, Bill re-entered public view as a science advocate, taking on the wave of anti-science that has been building into a crescendo over the last couple decades. After spending years getting kids excited by science, Bill was bewildered and disheartened by the movement against science. His mission in the 1990s was to inspire the younger generation to get into STEM. And yet now all the progress he helped make was crumbling away. Now the younger generation was being indoctrinated by adults opposed to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Bill took the dangerous step of engaging with big anti-scientists. Other scientists shy away from interacting with those who challenge anything science-related, but not Bill. The movie shows him going head-to-head with climate change deniers such as Joe Bastardi and then evolution deniers such as Ken Ham. Audiences attend his debates with them. And camera crews film him touring the Creation Museum and the Ark at the invitation of a big evolution denier. Of course, the outcome isn’t a triumph over the deniers. But Bill cannot seem to stop trying. And frankly, we wouldn’t want him to.

The movie clearly shows that he is a hero to kids of the 1990s who grew up watching him and learning science from him. Everywhere Bill goes for talks people take pictures of him and selfies with him. Young women scream and gush as though he is a rock star from across the Atlantic. (That actually was kind of cool. People who are gaga for a science instructor.)

Bill was attacked by the anti-science people for his lack of credentials (never mind their lack of credentials). He is not a scientist, they rant. He only has a degree in mechanical engineering (and studied with Carl Sagan). Yes, he admits, that is why I talk to the experts in different fields.

The movie shows Bill flying to Greenland to visit scientists at the ice core project. We learn what the scientists are doing, why, and what it all means. (The movie educates us about Bill Nye AND science at the same time. How cool is that.)

He does rub shoulders with the gods of the science world. He was a student of Carl Sagan and a friend of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson actually recommended Nye to head the institute (The Planetary Society) that Sagan started before he died. The movie shows a demonstration of the institute’s project, which was a dream of Sagan’s: a solar sail. (Sagan actually took a model on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1978. Nye is now overseeing the launch of these solar sails.)

And I’m thinking, wait, solar sails? The use of sunlight to power a spacecraft? How come I haven’t heard of them before? (So I researched them. In 2015, LightSail 1 completed a shakedown cruise—basically a test run where it deployed its solar sails in space. In August 2019, LightSail 2 completed a “controlled sail flight in Earth orbit”.)

The movie is a great introduction to Bill Nye—his most famous role on TV, his crusade as a science advocate and denier debater, and his latest incarnation as head of a science nonprofit. But the documentary isn’t necessarily a lovefest. It looks at the human aspects of the Science Guy, his love of the limelight, his human foibles, and the effectiveness of engaging the science deniers.

The wave of science deniers—whether it is about climate change or evolution—is a disturbing trend. Currently there is a weird dichotomy in society: an emphasis on STEM as the way to future and others who turn their backs on science. Since the 1990s, too many people have spoken out as so-called experts to sow doubt around science and scientific issues. (For a good documentary on the rise of these so-called experts doing damage to the public understanding of critical issues, see Merchants of Doubt.)

The science community has largely stayed silent in the face of those rejecting science. To engage with them rarely brings positive results; for some reason science has moved into the realm of religion for people, something you believe in rather than a training that you use to understand the world. Bill Nye is one who has been passionate about educating others about science and combatting the science deniers. Sadly, the latter feels like a losing battle. The former though could ultimately cause science to win the war.