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'Bill Nye: Science Guy': The rocky road of a science advocate

PBS host Bill Nye takes on creationism and climate-change opponents in "Bill Nye: Science Guy."

Bill Nye in ‘Bill Nye: Science Guy.’
Bill Nye in ‘Bill Nye: Science Guy.’

In Bill Nye: Science Guy, one admirer calls Nye's eponymous youth-focused PBS science show a "game changer," but if the game is rational argument, there is little evidence in this meandering, unfocused movie that it has changed for the better.

In the film, Nye makes a few appearances alongside Ken Ham, a creation-theory advocate who, in Kentucky, has constructed a purported replica of Noah's Ark, an installation that he uses to teach children that the earth is 6,000 years old and that humans and dinosaurs walked the planet together, and not just in Jurassic Park.

Ham challenges the theory of evolution by dragging a child in front of Nye and demanding to know if Nye is willing to tell the girl she's an "animal." I found the exchange depressing, and by the look on Nye's face, so did he. Nye talks about the science of DNA and the fossil record, to no avail — the Noah's Ark amphitheater is a Ham crowd, and derisive laughs rain down. Their "debate" about evolution and creationism is like a Monty Python production of Inherit the Wind.

It's gets worse — later, Nye learns that Ham, on creationist social media, was able to cast Nye as an elitist bogeyman and use him as a lucrative fund-raising catalyst for the Noah's Ark installation.

This prompts some soul-searching on Nye's part — he admits to a desire to be famous, an ambition that has come at a cost to personal relationships, and perhaps to his goal of promoting science over his own brand (does that make him a scientific method actor?).

This halfhearted pivot into Nye's personal life feels rather arbitrary and abrupt, and contributes to the sense that the documentary is struggling to find a narrative spine. Still, as the movie explores Nye's family history, we do see just how intertwined the threads of thinking and emotion can be. This surfaces in different form later in the film, when Nye squares off against former AccuWeather meteorologist Joe Bastardi, a climate-change "contrarian" who doesn't believe it's possible for carbon dioxide to trap the earth's heat.

Nye visits Bastardi's home in Boalsburg, Pa., to try to convince him that man-made activity is heating the earth, a discussion that draws in Bastardi's son, who wishes to defend his father.

We don't learn much about climate change in these scenes, but we do see confirmation that blood is thicker than water, and that emotional and cultural factors in the climate science debate are as powerful as science itself.

Nye exhibits a Job-like patience through these exchanges, perhaps assisted by the copious pour of red wine Bastardi offers him. He brightens toward the end, when he and fellow researchers realize his dream — inherited from Carl Sagan — of launching a self-propelled solar sail into outer space.