There is no end to the truly regrettable moments in “Bill Nye Saves the World,” Netflix’s attempt to rebottle the ’90s-era lightning of a nebbishy but dapper science guy for a new generation. But one stands out. Rachel Bloom, decked out in avante garde ’80s pop gear, sings a cringeworthy song about the spectrum of sexuality called “My Sex Junk.” You can watch it if you like, but I can’t say I recommend it.
I’m a huge fan of Bloom. “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the CW rom-com musical series she created and stars in, is spectacularly funny, largely thanks to her note-perfect performance. I’m also a fan of Nye, or, at least, I was a fan as a 10-year-old, which makes me the target market for his new Netflix series. But this is television, and in television, two positives can sometimes make a negative.
From Nye’s new show to April’s March for Science, science is enjoying a much-needed moment in the cultural zeitgeist, but it’s in danger of the same pratfalls that have hamstrung another subculture with which it has more in common than its stewards might care to admit: the religious one.
Religious entertainment could teach science a thing or two about the danger of pandering to pop culture.
Both science and faith try to use pop culture to get you to buy into a certain set of beliefs without boring you out of your skull. Both can safely assume a fair number of skeptics in their audiences, and both are trying to convince you that — contrary to what you may have heard — the subject in question is both cool and relevant.
Take American evangelicalism’s numerous failures in trying to be cool and relevant. In the ’90s, a cottage industry offered Bible-ified takes on pop culture. Like Nirvana? Try DC Talk. Into ’N Sync? Well, have you ever heard of Plus One? And why wear an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt when you could wear Breadcrumb and Fish?
That industry isn’t dead by any stretch, but it has faded as it became increasingly clear that wherever else faith’s natural habitat may be, it’s not in the entertainment industry. The whiz-bang pyrotechnics and giddy razzle-dazzle of mainstream pop culture simply don’t lend themselves to faith, which thrives best in contemplation and reflection.
Science, in the meantime, thrives in study. It is, as Carl Sagan put it, “a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” But you wouldn’t know that from the hugely popular I F—ing Love Science site, whose Facebook page boasts 25 million likes. It may love science, but that love manifests itself as neither a body of knowledge nor a way of thinking so much as a collection of clicky memes and headlines of questionable scientific relevance (“Deer Caught Gnawing on Human Remains”).
Likewise, Nye’s fellow celebrity science whiz Neil deGrasse Tyson is far too often reduced to generating headlines. His reliably sour fact checks of science in movies (he recently weighed in on “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2,” a movie that features, among other things, a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) has earned him a reputation as a buzzkill. That, too, is reminiscent of some of the evangelical subculture at its most patronizing, butting in to tut-tut movies and music that step out of line with its worldview. Faith and culture will always necessarily be in conversation, but does anyone out there really need Focus on the Family’s analysis of the spiritual elements in “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter”?
This is doubly unfortunate, because Tyson is a man of obvious intelligence and charm, and his “Cosmos” reboot was as good as Nye’s series is bad. There is no reason that such a naturally gifted communicator should waste his considerable talents on being the fun police for a superhero space romp. Doing so degrades his scientific brilliance to the same realm as the worst elements of the Christian subculture: turning a fascinating, mind-expanding tool for understanding reality into nothing more than a wet blanket.
Science, like religion, provides a profoundly beautiful prism through which to help interpret the world. It is organized knowledge that, in its truest essence, uses what we know about the universe to help us grasp at those things that we don’t. And science, like religion, has seen better days in America. Dangerous, anti-intellectual bile about the “myth” of climate change and the “danger” of vaccines is being thrown around at the highest levels of government. Some solid science would go a long way toward fixing these and other disquieting trends coursing through the country.
In dark times, it’s easy to take any tiny win as progress, even something as dubious as a few extra retweets. The temptation to cater to the social media masses is understandably huge. Gotta keep the lights on, and all that.
But you need only look so far as religion to see just where such tricks will take you. The infantilization of religious discourse has elevated its worst elements, making heroes of people not fit to clean the boots of the likes of Augustine, Flannery O’Connor and Martin Luther King Jr. Science’s current moment isn’t immune to such a fate. It may already be succumbing to it.
But all isn’t lost. For all its mainstream embarrassments, rigorous, insightful conversations around religion are happening, albeit in smaller pockets, away from the spotlight. Science, obviously, continues to thrive in institutions of higher learning, where the discoveries being made have as much to do with the I F—ing Love Science crowd as a model rocket does with NASA. If the people who truly love science want to make sure the current surge gains real momentum, they’ll want to highlight that discourse over the shallow alternatives. After all, as scientists and their fans know better than anyone, success often lies in replication.