SXSW Film Review: Bill Nye: Science Guy

TV science-maker is called into battle against willed ignorance

One more dismal judgment of our benighted times is that a genial TV popularizer of the scientific method has in recent years become also an embattled defender of basic human knowledge. Bill Nye defies our public ignorance.

That’s the through line of Bill Nye: Science Guy, the thorough, affable documentary by science documentarians Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado. The film is mostly as congenial as its subject, but it also explores Nye’s personal and familial background – touching on his occasional disputes with collaborators, his happy/unhappy childhood, and the congenital illness of his siblings that has clouded his career and deterred him from fatherhood.

Predictably, the center of the film are his public disputes with anti-evolutionists, climate-change deniers, and the general suspicion of scientific knowledge that has become all too common in American culture and political life. Donald Trump has a brief cameo; at the premiere showing Sunday evening, the filmmakers acknowledged that the tone of the film had darkened since they began, although that had more to do with political events than any editing decision.

A lengthy sequence recounts his formal debates and ongoing arguments with Ken Ham, an evangelical hustler who has made a fortune flogging pseudo-biblical flim-flam, including a theme-park Noah’s Ark that cons credulous Christian parents and their innocent children to accept willful ignorance. Another Nye opponent is Joe Bastardi, a meteorologist (and bodybuilder) who is less delusional than Ham and at least willing to listen to reason, but who remains a useful tool for right-wing pundits and politicians longing to dismiss the abundant evidence of anthropogenic global warming.

Interestingly, the film includes criticism from scientists and others who fear Nye’s public advocacy (and celebrity) have only served to give stature and wider dissemination to the fundamentalist Ham and libertarian Bastardi. Nye counters that dishonesty and ignorance must not go unchallenged – in our web-determined era, it’s difficult to know who’s right.

Oddly enough, the most cogent defense of science in the film is not Nye’s. A climatologist harvesting ice cores in frozen Greenland – hard evidence of global warming – says he’s often asked if he “believes” in climate change. “You choose to believe or not believe in God – I believe in God. But climate change is simply a fact – these gases in the air warm the climate. That’s what they do.”

The moment recalls the Science Guy’s famous “gravity” episode, when he threw a watermelon, a computer, a TV, and various other objects off a roof, watching them crash to smithereens below. It wouldn’t have occurred to anybody at the time to ask, do you “believe” in gravity? Global warming, alas, doesn’t demand or require anyone’s belief.

Bill Nye: Science Guy

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere
Tuesday, March 14, 5:30pm, Alamo Lamar E
Wednesday, March 15, 11am, Stateside

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