In A New 'Anti-Science' Era, Bill Nye 'Saves The World' With Same Optimism

Apr 22, 2017
Originally published on April 22, 2017 6:27 pm

If you were a kid with a television in the mid-1990s, or you were raising one, Bill Nye probably needs no introduction. A theme song should do it. That's because Bill Nye the Science Guy was appointment-viewing for kids back then — the highlight of science class for grade school students.

Since his PBS show ended, he's become a vocal champion of the value of science. On Saturday, he led scientists and supporters of the science community during the March for Science. And now he is back — with a new soundtrack — in the same lab coat and bow tie. He's channeling the same love for showmanship and science, this time, into a new series out on Netflix on Friday: Bill Nye Saves the World.

In an interview with Michel Martin, Nye talks, with a tinge of sarcasm, about science as a political but not partisan issue, and why he's optimistic about the future of scientific research.

"I know, I know. A lot has changed. But one thing hasn't — the process of science. Are you with me? Are you excited?" he talks to the camera in the new series, bringing his famously interactive energy.


Interview Highlights

Who are you hoping will find this program?

Everyone in the world. No — we want everyone on earth to have a scientific view of the world. This is not to say that everyone should become a full-time professional scientist or researcher. But we want everyone to be literate enough with respect to science that he or she can make good judgments. As I say all the time — science is political. It's always been political, it's just not partisan. And I'm not splitting hairs here, these are two very different things. Our policies, what we do with our intellect and treasure, as a society, depends on science whether you're aware of it or not. What the Department of Agriculture does, what the military does, what National Aeronautics and Space Administration does — all depends on making decisions about how to allocate resources that we hope are informed by the process of science. ...

On whether he feels he's now playing defense given the current political context

Actually I would say I'm playing offense — it's funny you should say that to me, funny you should look at it that way — but we did these shows before the presidential election, so they are somehow more relevant than ever, I'll give you that. But no, not an NPR listener, no, you would never take technology for granted — no. When you look at your mobile phone, you immediately think about field effect transistors — of course you are! But some people do take it for granted. And, as Carl Sagan remarked, if you have a society that's increasingly dependent on technology, and a smaller and smaller fraction of that society understands how it all works, that is a formula for disaster.

On why he thinks less people understand "how it all works"

'Cause I failed! Because we have not emphasized science in our school system and we have elected people who are aggressively anti-science. There's a trend right now, which we hope to reverse, that what you believe is somehow every bit as valid as discoveries made through the process of science — and that is anti-science. The whole idea in science is to find things that are objectively true.

On his high-profile debate with Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, and whether debating people with "anti-science" ideas elevates them and their beliefs

Two things: Note that that debate has had 7 million views. Which indicates to me that somebody's interested in it — somebody that is being made aware of the counter arguments that wasn't before. And the second thing, what happened in Kentucky, I understand that Answers in Genesis raised a lot of money, had envelopes with my picture on them — "Bill Nye said the following horrible thing" — I paraphrase but only a little bit. The reason that he was able to do that, or the Answers in Genesis Ministry was able to do that was because of the like-minded people in government. And the thing that I'm working on now is, how can someone be confronted with the overwhelming evidence for the efficacy of vaccines, for example, the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change and still not accept it? How is this possible? And I believe right now the best hypothesis is what you would call in psychology, cognitive dissonance. Where you have a world view, you're presented with evidence that conflicts with your worldview, you either got to change your entire worldview which you've held for decades your whole life, or deny the evidence. And denying the evidence is easier. But I believe that if we stick with it, people will come around.

On how he feels about the future state of research

First of all, as I say to everybody, if you like to worry about things, you are living in a great time. But you've got to be optimistic people, you've got to think that you're going to solve these problems or you're not going to solve them. And we can do this people — it's cool! The future's going to be exciting!

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MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: If you were a kid with a television in the mid-1990s or you were raising one, then our next guest probably needs no introduction. A theme song will do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILL NYE THE SCIENCE GUY THEME"

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bill Nye the Science Guy. Bill, Bill.

MARTIN: That's right. "Bill Nye the Science Guy" was appointment viewing for kids when his show aired on PBS from 1994 to 1999. Since then, he's become a vocal champion of the value of science. And now he is back in the same outfit, lab coat and bow tie and channeling the same love for showmanship and science into a new series on Netflix out this month. It's called "Bill Nye Saves The World."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILL NYE SAVES THE WORLD")

BILL NYE: We're going to be talking about important, perhaps, even controversial issues from scientific points of view. And we're going to make it a lot of fun along the way. I know, I know. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn't, the process of science. Are you with me?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yeah.

NYE: Are you excited?

(CHEERING)

MARTIN: And Bill Nye joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Bill Nye, thank you so much for joining us.

NYE: Oh, no. It is I who must thank you. And when you say I'm always in the same outfit, I want to point out that when I'm in the lab, I wear a lab coat. When I'm out downstage, as we say, I'm in a suit. And I wear a bow tie both places, and it also is my policy - so it's a thing with me - when I wear the bow tie, I also wear a shirt.

MARTIN: And you do wear pants, too, for those who are wondering.

NYE: Yeah. Or you would say trousers, yeah - or slacks.

MARTIN: Yes.

NYE: Because the word pants in Britain means not exactly the same thing.

MARTIN: Oh, forgive me. I did not know that. OK. But we digress...

NYE: Well, not that we don't have our local - well, no, words are very important. It's how we describe ideas.

MARTIN: So who are you hoping will find this program? Do you think...

NYE: Everyone in the world. We want everyone on Earth to have a scientific view of the world. This is not to say that everybody should become a full time professional scientist or researcher, but we want everybody to be literate enough with respect to science that he or she can make good judgments about our policies.

And as I say all the time, science is political. It's always been political. It's just not partisan, and I'm not splitting hairs here. These are two very different things. Our policies, what we do with our intellect and treasure as a society depends on science, whether you are aware of it or not. What the Department of Agriculture does, what the military does, what National Aeronautics Space Administration does, all depends on making decisions about how to allocate resources that we hope are informed by the process of science.

MARTIN: One of the catchphrases that comes up in every episode - at least those that we've seen so far - is it's not magic. it's science. It seems a bit...

NYE: It's old Bill turn of phrase...

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, the other one was science rules - was the previous catchphrase. I do wonder do you feel that you're playing defense now given the political context that we are now in?

NYE: Actually, I would say I'm playing offense, and it's funny you - funny you should look at it that way, but we did these shows before the presidential election. So they are somehow more relevant than ever. I'll give you that. But people are - not an NPR listener, no, no, no - we would never take technology for granted. No.

When you look at your mobile phone, you immediately think about field effect transistors, I know. Of course, you are. But some people do take it for granted. And as Carl Sagan remarked, if you have a society that's increasingly dependent on technology and a smaller and smaller fraction of that society that understands how it all works, that is a formula for disaster.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that there is a smaller and smaller fraction of people who understand how it all works? Is it partly because there are many more things to know or why do you think that is?

NYE: Because I failed - because we have not emphasized science in our school system, and we have elected people who are aggressively anti-science. There's a trend right now which we hope to reverse that what you believe is somehow every bit as valid as discoveries made through the process of science and that is anti-science. The whole idea in science is to find things that are objectively true.

MARTIN: Well, you are addressing very directly a lot of anti-science ideas that have become - I guess I would use the word mainstream. But let me just play a bit from your episode on alternative medicine. Let's hear a clip.

NYE: Oh, yeah. Oh, good.

MARTIN: OK.

NYE: Yes. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILL NYE SAVES THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tell them how you really feel, Bill.

NYE: If you take a medicine that is unregulated, you don't really know whats in it. You could be doing yourself harm, and no one would be the wiser. All sorts of things are sold as dietary supplements that aren't tested that don't need to be tested, and it wouldn't matter except billions of dollars are spent on these things by people who are just hoping that this thing will do some magical thing.

MARTIN: You pull no punches. You were very clear about where you're coming from on this, but I'm wondering whether people who hold these views can hear you...

NYE: What?

MARTIN: ...When you're that direct.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. But you know what I'm saying. I mean, I think one of the things that people have appreciated about you since the previous show went off the air is that you haven't been shy about weighing in on issues, and you've been very willing to engage people on these issues, even when other people aren't. I mean, a lot of people have taken the position that people who have opposing views are just not - just you don't talk to them at all.

And you famously debated Ken Ham, the creationist. On the one hand, yes, he presented scientific evidence in fact to him. On the other hand, donations poured in to him after that. And it actually allowed him to finish that Noah's Ark Creationism Museum. And now you have some distance from it, can I just ask you to weigh in on that? There's a whole question right now about whether even debating these ideas elevates them.

NYE: Two things - secondly, note that that debate has had 7 million views which indicates to me that somebody is interested in it, somebody that is being made aware of the counter-arguments that wasn't before. And the second thing what happened in Kentucky - everybody - I understand that answers in Genesis raised a lot of money, had letters, envelopes with my picture on them - Bill Nye said the following horrible thing - I paraphrase, but only a little bit.

The reason that he was able to do that or the answers in Genesis ministry was able to do that is because of the like-minded people in government. And the thing that I'm working on now is how can somebody be confronted with the overwhelming evidence for the efficacy of vaccines, for example, the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change and still not accept it? How is this possible? And I believe right now the best hypothesis is what you would call in psychology cognitive dissonance, where you have a worldview, you're presented with evidence that conflicts with your worldview. You either got to change your entire world view, which you've held for decades your whole life or deny the evidence. And denying the evidence is easier. But I believe that if we stick with it, people will come around.

MARTIN: What is your state of mind about when you think about the future of scientific research? Are you hopeful? Are you pessimistic? Are you worried?

NYE: First of all, as I say to everybody, if you like to worry about things, you aren't living at a great time, but you've got to be optimistic people. You've got to think you're going to solve these problems or you're not going to solve them. And we can do this, people. It's cool. The future is going to be exciting.

MARTIN: Well, that's Bill Nye the Science Guy. His new show is "Bill Nye Saves The World." It is streaming on Netflix now. Mr. Bill Nye, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NYE: Thank you, Michel. Let's change the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.