In many ways, I’m the perfect audience for Bill Nye Saves the World, the new Netflix show from the former Boeing engineer and Science Guy. Like many Millennials, I grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. I still love informational science videos, especially those focused on debunking pseudoscience. I’m autistic, a group that’s regularly in the crosshairs of science denial like anti-vaxxers and alt-med quack “cures.” I live in Austin, not a hard place to find people who believe in juice cleanses or panic about GMOs. When the new show debuted last weekend, I was more than ready for Bill Nye to teach me science again, and to arm me with arguments against the science denialists in my life. Bill Nye’s show might not save the world, but it did promise to make my own life smarter and more fun.
My optimism grew as the show drew opposition from the worst people on the Internet. His episode on sexuality and gender took a brave stand for the fluidity of both spectra, drawing the ire of the alt-right and transphobic “radical feminists” alike. I had all the more reason to believe that Bill was still on my side. That is, until I saw disability bloggers weigh in on episode 12, “Designer Babies,” which claimed to take on scientific advances in fertility. This includes those designed to simply help more couples conceive, like in vitro fertilization (IVF), but also those for screening specific embryos: Genetic testing.
Genetic testing is an issue of particular importance to disabled people and allies, and anyone with a potential set of “undesirable” genes. Many of genetic testing’s earliest proponents explicitly wanted to weed out people of color, immigrants, the poor and the mentally and physically “unfit.” It was what we now call eugenics. I’m not someone who believes that because science, or any other institution, was once discriminatory that it is forever tainted. Still, science has to acknowledge and actively fix that past. In this case, that means including the people who have most reason to worry in the conversation about genetic testing: Disabled people. “Designer Babies” utterly fails to do that, joining the long list of otherwise “progressive” programs that seemingly forget about us.
Critics framed criticism of Bill Nye’s new show as a problem of not considering “social” elements of science. The problem is that “social” and “ethics” are also code words for something like “social mores,” meaning people’s personal, political or religious queasiness with unusual scientific advances. Scientists shouldn’t be stopped just because a particular political contingency doesn’t want to hear their conclusions. Disabled people ourselves have seen how political and private institutional preferences for cures get in the way of the scientific research we really need: How to improve our current lives. We need another framework to talk about this, that doesn’t conflate us with other arguments that are used to hurt us, too.
It’s that kind of “social” worry that Nye takes apart as a response to genetic testing: Religion-based worries about “playing God.” Baseless superstition shouldn’t get in the way of science that’s a net benefit for living, breathing people, and Nye’s episode offers plenty of examples of how this science has benefitted society: From same-sex parents, to parents struggling to conceive, to those with family histories of truly life-threatening disease. If his episode helps conservative families accept their IVF-conceived members, that’s wonderful, but it’s not the whole story. When disabled people worry about genetic testing, we’re neither superstitious nor baseless. And we’re worried about living, breathing humans: ourselves.
Nye mentions the “slippery slope” in the early part of the“Designer Babies” episode, dismissing the idea that genetic testing will lead to true “designer babies.” If you spend a lot of time in online skeptic communities, you might recognize “slippery slope” as a logical fallacy. As with most common fallacies, though, it’s a distortion of a perfectly valid argument. “Slippery slope” is only a fallacy when there’s nothing behind it but your imagination. Disabled people have plenty of evidence that the slippery slope of genetic testing is real. After all, we’re already there with pre-natal testing: in the United Kingdom, around 90% of fetuses that test positive for Down syndrome are aborted. This statistic only applies to the 2/3 of women there who opt for testing, but it is still an alarmingly high number if you believe disabled lives are valuable and worth living. The promise of future genetic testing for a wider range of disabilities such as autism, means more chance that it could result in a world with fewer disabled people.
It’s hard not to get nervous about this, hearing Bill Nye excitedly discuss treatments that would screen for “chromosomal abnormalities.” In the context of the episode, he’s talking about the kind that lead to automatic miscarriage, and screening them out makes it easier to conceive. Still, the most common type of “chromosomal abnormality” is Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome). It’s not a fallacy to imagine where that slippery slope leads. He also uses words like “undesirable,” an incredibly loaded term that brings to mind eugenics arguments. The show at least needs to be more careful about its framing. If they don’t want us to believe this testing is a slippery slope to a Gattaca-style dystopia, maybe don’t make it so easy.
Science has improved as it’s taken into account more and more genuine “social” concerns. Researchers who want to work with human subjects (even in those “soft” humanities fields, like my own) have to go through extra hoops for institutional and funding approval. Plenty of historically infamous psychological experiments, as this SciShow episode demonstrates, would never be considered acceptable under today’s standards. There are still plenty of problems with science and scientific research, and they have a long way to go. We still need to challenge the idea that “science” is a monolith, especially an unproblematic, pure one sheltered away from our larger societal bigotries. Yet there’s hope that even if “debunking” arguments are reluctant to do so, plenty of scientists can distinguish between the “social concerns” that affect real people and those that do not.
What it shows is that these conversations need to include more disabled people. We need to be included in the range of lives that are considered valuable, and worth considering when contemplating the ethical issues of genetic testing. It’s clear that Bill Nye and his crew know there are questions that need to be ironed out: Bill himself says they’re “worth seriously pondering before the technology is here and we’re caught off-guard.” His panel includes discussion of other socioeconomic issues, like expensive treatments leading to further class inequalities. The “man on the street” segments, and runway parade of IVF families, made a point to include diversity in race and sexual orientation. It makes it all the more glaring that disability is entirely left out of this conversation: the one on Nye’s line-up that needs disabled voices the most. It requires us.
There’s a larger question here of how much Bill Nye Saves the World will make a difference in the first place. I loved the episodes on vaccines and climate change, but I’m firmly on Bill’s side on those. I doubt the people who need to see them will find much to sway them. Even some of the less political “myth-busting” segments, like the one on alternative medicine, are dripping with pointless condescension in the panel segments. Bill is best when he sticks to the lab, using litmus tests to show how a vinegar-based Whole Foods “antacid” just doesn’t work, or his own monologues.
That puts an episode like “Designer Babies” in an important position. It’s less focused on swaying people to one specific position, and more on giving an overview of the issue, to help them come to their own informed opinion. It was a unique opportunity to showcase disability advocacy on one of the most pressing issues in our community. Bill Nye Saves the World failed this and, in doing so, failed its show title. You can’t save the world if you don’t include disabled people in it.