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September 26, 2017

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Can Bill Nye — or any other science guy — really save the world?

Netflix's new talk show, "Bill Nye Saves the World," debuted the night before people around the world joined together to demonstrate and March for Science. Many have lauded the timing and relevance of the show, featuring the famous "Science Guy" as its host, because it aims to myth-bust and debunk anti-scientific claims in an alternative-fact era.

But are more facts really the kryptonite that will rein in what some suggest is a rapidly spreading "anti-science" sentiment in the U.S.?

"With the right science and good writing," Nye hopes, "we'll do our best to enlighten and entertain our audience. And perhaps we'll change the world a little." In an ideal world, a show like this might attract a broad and diverse audience with varying levels of science interest and background. By entertaining a wide range of viewers, the thinking goes, the show could effectively dismantle enduring beliefs that are at odds with scientific evidence. Significant parts of the public still aren't on board with the scientific consensus on climate change and the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods, for instance.

But what deserves to be successful isn't always what ends up winning hearts and minds in the real world. In fact, empirical data we collected suggest that the viewership of such shows — even heavily publicized and celebrity-endorsed ones — is small and made up of people who are already highly educated, knowledgeable about science and receptive to scientific evidence.

'Cosmos' Illustrates the Issue

The 2014 reboot of Carl Sagan's popular 1980 series "Cosmos," starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is just one recent example. Tyson's show, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," aired prime time on Fox and the National Geographic channel, received several Emmy nominations and was considered a critical success in which "Tyson managed to educate and excite viewers of all ages across the globe."

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