Bill Nye – Changing The World With Science Education

April 21, 2006

Bill Nye is one of America’s leading popularizers of the scientific outlook. As a scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor, he hosted Bill Nye The Science Guy, which earned 28 Emmys during its six year run. He is the author of a number of children’s books about science and regularly lectures at Cornell University as part of the Frank H.T. Rhodes Visiting Professorship. He is also a Fellow of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. His acclaimed new show The Eyes of Nye currently airs on PBS stations across the United States.

In this discussion with DJ Grothe, Bill Nye talks about the importance of science literacy, and how science best equips us to face the pressing challenges that threaten our future.

Also in this episode, Point of Inquiry contributer Lauren Becker asks Have You Been Saved? (this Earth Day).

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 21st, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood and 11 cities around the world. Each week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most basic assumptions our society focusing on three research areas. First, there’s pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, we look at secularism. Religion and science and how they intersect. We do this by drawing on the Center for Inquiries relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I talk with Bill Nye, who introduced a whole generation of students to science and the wonders of science. And I talk with him about the implications of science for some of the most important problems facing our world today. But first point of inquiry contributor Lauren Becker asks, Have you been saved? It’s Earth Day. 

Have you been saved? 

As an atheist, I’m never really quite sure how to respond to this. From what is the answer that usually comes to mind? As an environmentalist, however, I’ve learned this question takes on an entirely different meaning. This Saturday, April 22nd, is the thirty sixth anniversary of Earth Day. This worldwide event, along with Monday Night Football, Apollo 13 and me, it turns out, was born in 1970. A U.S. senator from Wisconsin named Gaylard Nelson decided to organize a kind of environmental protest, an attempt, in his words, to shake up the political establishment and force the issue onto the national agenda. Earth Day became the first in a new series of campaigns to save the whales, save the trees, or just plain save the Earth. Since then, we’ve made some good progress. But after three decades of hard work, we seem to have reached an impasse and many areas we’re actually losing ground. The problem, I think, isn’t the movement. I think it’s the message all this time. We haven’t really been honest with ourselves or the public, and it’s allowed us to make some bad decisions. Now, if we hope to succeed, we have to admit the truth. The environmental movement is not about saving the earth. First of all, just listen to that phrase. Save the Earth. Who are we kidding? The Earth is an enormous mass of inorganic material 8000 miles thick with just the thinnest margin of life clinging to its surface. It’s a giant rock. It’s been here for five billion years and it will be here another five billion years whether we recycle those bottles or not. The Earth doesn’t need our saving. It doesn’t even know we exist. Far from saving it, we could do everything in our power to try to destroy it. And 10 million years later, it would still be here. A big rock orbiting a much bigger star with no evidence that we ever existed. Now, the environmental movement isn’t about saving the earth. It’s not about saving the whales, the trees, the baby seals, the coral reefs, the wild salmon, the spotted owl or even the air and water. What we so desperately need to understand, what we must internalize until it’s part of our very being, part of our every action and decision. Is this the environmental movement is about saving the humans. It’s about saving us. You, me and our kids. We humans like to think that we are special and unique, set apart from the world and in charge of its stewardship. But we can no longer afford such fantastic dreams. It might be fun to feel like some sort of magnanimous benefactor doing our part to save the poor little planet. But this is a disastrous, mis underestimating of the situation. In truth, we aren’t special creations and we are most certainly not set apart. We are animals, barely different from the other mammals of the world. We are made of the earth of the same elements that make the trees, the whales, the spotted owl. And we rely on that same air and water that they do like them. We do the best we can to make do with our surroundings to survive long enough to produce offspring. Problem is, we’ve gotten so good at producing those offspring. We’ve accidentally created the perfect conditions to kill them. They’re over six billion people on the planet right now. If present trends continue, that will double to 12 billion in the next 40 years. How old are you? Will you still be around in 40 years? Try to imagine 12 billion people. Now, of course, you’re thinking that could never happen. And you’re right. There is no way the living systems of the earth can support 12 billion human beings. Phew. But if it’s nice to think we won’t have to share the world with 12 billion of our cousins, it would be better served if we remember exactly what ultimately will save us from such overcrowding. It’s called famine, drought, disease, pestilence and war. It’s a veritable hell of biblical proportions. But these disasters would not be the result of a jealous God. They would be the result of ignorant animals too consumed with consumption to realize they were killing their own children. It’s more pleasant to think we’re being generous and giving of ourselves to save the Earth. That thing separate from us but an entirely misses the point and dooms us to failure. The Earth is not dependent on our generosity. Have you forgotten? It’s a rock. It needs nothing from us without it. However, we are nothing. We need to save the earth. We need to save the forests and the oceans and the air. But it’s time to stop messing around. Earth Day isn’t about philanthropy. We don’t save these things for their sake. We save them for ours. We must work to save ourselves. So the next time someone asks you, have you been saved? Think a little deeper. Think like an environmentalist and respond. I’m doing everything I can. Then get to work. Happy Human Day, everyone. 

I am very car executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We publish what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. The March April issue is now on the bookshelves and can be ordered online at w w w syk up. That’s CSICOP dot org. Or about calling our toll free number one 800 six three four one six one zero. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. I’m so sure that you love this magazine. They don’t want you to have a complementary issue. To see what we’re all about. To get your sample, copy the Skeptical Inquirer. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. You mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you and you can begin enjoying skeptical inquire. Thank you. 

Many of our listeners may be familiar with our next guest. Bill Nye, formerly Bill Nye, The Science Guy, a show that won 28 Emmys, is famous for his contagious passion for science that’s made him a TV star and one of America’s leading popularizers of the scientific outlook. His new show, focusing on the wonderful world of science, called The Eyes of Nye, can be seen nationwide. Nye is a fellow of psychopomp, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the paranormal and a longtime advocate of the public understanding of science. He’s the author of many books on science for children, some of which can be found at a discount on our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Bill, welcome to the show. 

I’m so glad to be here. 

Bill, let’s begin by asking you, why should people learn about science in the first place? 

It’s how we understand the world. And if you are like me and I know I have talked about the future, we have global climate change. We have six billion people going on, 10 billion people, four billion people living on what’s proving to be a very small planet. 

We have acquired immune deficiency syndrome. We have malaria moving north and south. 

We got a problem. And these are all science problems. Then we’re speaking English. I’m in the United States. If you’re a bit of a patriot as a citizen of the United States, or you would be concerned about global competition from China, India. So science is the key to all of these problems at the heart of all of this. So science is more important than ever. 

So your interest in the implications of science for some society’s most pressing problems, your earlier shows seemed to be just about the fascination, the beauty of science. Your earlier show, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, which introduced a whole generation of children to science and why it was fun and interesting. Your shows were not only heavy on science having a robust science content, but they were really funny and entertaining. Before we get into the more pressing concerns that you just mentioned, I’m curious about a couple other things. How did you end up making science, which is sometimes seem to be stuffy and only for people in lab coats and comedy? How did you make those things go so well together for children? 

What I say is science and humor are both human endeavor. 

So of course, he would combine them. What’s funnier than lighting the Fuze and nothing happens? 

Laugh I’m just thinking about it. 

So to me and was very natural for boys. I’ve loved science since I was a little kid. My parents, my older brother and sister are both very funny. And we were brought up with humor. Humor is part of your everyday life. So what if you’re going to make a TV show that’s going to be entertaining? 

My family, one would pretty much presume when you were studying at Cornell originally, you took an astronomy course from Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan was concerned as a scientist in many of the things about which you mentioned a question ago, the implications of science for some of the world’s most pressing problems. What kind of influence did that course with Carl Sagan have on your career? 

Well, astronomers, and especially Carl, have what I like to call a planetary point of view. And he emphasized that a lot. He was one of the pioneers of the concept of nuclear winter where human activity could change the climate of an entire planet. And this is, to me, Khosro, is the idea of climate change and global people call it global warming. Ice caused global warming to happen. 

Eating is dangerous, hot burning, cooking irreversible. So this is this planetary perspective, which is an astronomer’s perspective. I really I really do. I got it. 

In your new show, you’ve moved more seriously into science, advocacy and science popularization. This new show, The Eyes of Nye, seems a bit different than the show you did for children’s education. You’re planning on tackling more grown up and controversial subjects such as, as you mentioned, global warming. But you’ve also treated addiction cloning. I’m wondering, are you also going to look at other issues like alien abduction and stigmata, faith, healing, even what science may say about science and religion or some of the other really pressing questions of the day? 

Yes, we did do a show on pseudoscience, and the science fair would include big like if we had a skeptic on this cold reading, dead palm reading, tarot cards and horoscopes. And people believe that they thought body was. Capability. But then he would say at the end of the interview, I don’t. And this is very important for all of us to understand. Oh, you do. To get to or to believe in something that’s scientifically not true. I remind everybody that science is a human endeavor. It’s not it’s not something no pun intended. Alien to the human experience, the same human that might for him or herself into believing in a psychic is capable of understanding the process of science. Critical thinking, discipline, inquiry. So this is great work that I think needs to be done as far as religious go. Believe is really a matter of faith. You want to believe in something? Knock yourself out. But we can’t go putting a religious faith based view of the origin of the planet Earth and the origin of life on Earth in place of scientific knowledge and science. But it’s not I mean, it’s really easy to dismiss. It’s not science, but it isn’t. It’s got nothing to do with that. Awesome. So we just need to keep them separate. 

I heard recently that your favorite subject used to be. Am I right? Physics. But now it’s evolutionary biology. Why the change? 

Well, one thing led to another. I was brought up with brought up with quite the and airplane and the United States space program. And I love physics. But with that that discovery associated with evolution or making that making it clear that evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life and all biology physicists would give their eye teeth to have a theory of everything. So in biology, we kind of do. Evolution is the theory of everything. It explains so much of the way animals and plants, microorganisms interact and so much, frankly, of the human experience of why we feel the way we do. That. 

Are you finding that your appreciation of an advocacy for the scientific outlook when it comes to the theory of evolution, let’s say, is that more controversial for you? Is that harder for you to find an audience for it? Does it get people’s ires up more or it’s not hard to find an audience? 

People love to argue about it. But yeah, I’ve had people express. And in general, it’s people who have a fundamentalist view of religion. Specifically, the fundamentalist view of the Old Testament in the Bible, as written in English, are upset or concerned when point out that the Earth is more than 6000 years old. Now we know and we almost all are we living thing on Earth, almost certainly has a single common ancestor. Some people are upset by that. I’m excited and charmed and full of wonder and reverence and other people take it as a personal attack. We’ve got to we as a society have to work this out. But I can be a long time before I accept the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible as written in English, as a substitute for, for example, radiometric dating of ancient rock. 

I heard a story of your recent talk, a talk you gave in Waco, Texas, where there were I think I heard there were protests because among other things, he made the statement that the moon reflects the light of the sun. But according to the Bible, the moon emits its own light. One woman reportedly walked out of your talks saying that the Bible contradicted that notion that the Bible, she believed, said the moon emits its own light. She walked out. She was upset. How do you react to things like that? 

Well, one person walked out. There weren’t really protests. And the story is more like that. 

I showed a quotation from the Bible as written in modern English. Where in the book of Genesis first 16. Right. The first page of the Bible. There’s a discussion there. And they point out whoever wrote it pointed out that God made one light to shine by day and the other lesser light to shine at night. 

Then he made all the stars also. That’s what I want to say. 

My question for the audience is, is a person who wrote that really know that the sun is the summer nurture thing giving off its own light. And the moon is the moon is lit by that same sun. It doesn’t look like the Bible. Whoever wrote the Bible has had that fundamental knowledge. Looks like he or she thought they both glowed and there’s no more to it. 

Furthermore, he also made all the stars. Oh, yeah. Billions and billions of stars. Most of the universe is dismissed in the Bible. 

In three or four English words like, wow, I thought of it as if I may. Irreverent. 

It’s not funny. Not very compelling. It strikes me as written by somebody who was not moved by the beauty and wonder of universe. And so somebody some woman got upset with that. I don’t think, with all due respect, what I was thinking about. 

So I’m not trying to read into what you’re saying, but it appears that you’re talking about there being a possible conflict between the scientific outlook and a fundamentalist view. And then, Aaron, just kind of a literalist way of looking at a holy text. 

Yeah, well, the word holy I mean, another human idea. I mean, if you want me to believe that the Earth is 6000 years old, based on the English words on the first page of the Bible. I’m not going to do it. I not go along with it. 

I think you’re squandering your intellect and to put it in traditional terms. You’re wasting your God given ability to think if you want to put it that way. So this would all be fine. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t have global heating. If the world hawks are going to end for many, many humans, unless we take a scientifically literate view and take scientifically informed step to save the planet for our own species, you know, the Earth’s going to be fine. No matter what humans do, the earth will be here. I want to save the Earth or me. I want it so humans can live here and to go around ignoring all that we have learned through the centuries of scientific inquiry and try to substitute for the literal interpretation of the Bible driven English. I mean, with all due respect, I’ve got no time for. I mean, you’re your problem. 

So this is so I pointed it out, when you look at America and the overwhelming number of people who believe that the Earth is 6000 years old and that the Bible is written and holy writ by one God in six thousand years handed down. You know, I don’t want to turn this into a debate between science and religion, but it sounds like some of the claims you’re making are very, very unpopular. Have you had any of that unpopular response with your position? 

No, really. I mean, most people are very supportive. And for example, in Waco, Texas, in the Bible Belt, so-called, there’s a lot of fundamentalist or more fundamentalist than you would find in many other places in the world. But it’s also a college town. So people were very supportive, very thoughtful. 

And I’m not going to back down from what I believe or not going to back down from one goal to change the world by promoting scientific literacy on account of a few people who don’t want to think for themselves or or kind of a few people who want to interpret the Bible as written in English, literally in place of science. That’s not acceptable. I mean, I defy any of these people to go to a place like Dinosaur National Monument and look at the hillside full of dinosaur fossil bones and tell me that the Earth is 6000 years old. 

I don’t think they’ve ever done it. I just I it’s not. You could tell you wouldn’t be thinking for yourself if you went there and tried to stick to that gun. 

What is one topic in science or that science has something to say about that we should all be very worried about. In other words, you seem kind of radicalized by science. The implications of science for some of the most important questions facing us. What’s something we should all be very worried about right now? 

Well, global climate change, global heating, it will change the world in ways that are very, very hard to recover. 

We have six billion people going on, seven, eight, 10, 50 people. We will see if everybody were to live the way we live. For example, we will need two more earth. We can’t get those earth. They’re not available. So we have to change the way we live. And I would much rather do it in a controlled fashion where we live less inefficient. We get along better rather than having catastrophes that starve people to death by the billion, rather not go that way. This expression, radical by science, think a radical at all. The most scientists I just because of the popularity of the old show, I’m able to speak my mind in a public forum. But it’s my point of view compared with other science. With all due. No big deal. 

In fact, it’s pretty consensus, wouldn’t you say, among most scientists. 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is the thing about the weird religious fundamentalism that we have. What was once the world’s most technologically advanced society. 

Most, not most all sciences share my point of view or I share the point of view of all sciences. 

There’s this weird thing now where people are interpreting or interpreting this debate as a parent issue, but somehow it wouldn’t be fair to religious people to teach science and science. That’s what I teach fundamentalism as the Bible written in English, in place of science. That’s not acceptable. I don’t want to teach fundamentalism written in English, in philosophy class, or study it in a prepared version, but very appropriate should be done. But my point of view is not really radical. Just that we are getting this polarization. And I would claim that the polarization is brought on by the fundamentalists as a way to get more people to their cause. Used to pick one of the other during the. 

But surely you’re more activist about it than a lot of scientists. A lot of scientists, maybe because they lack your fame, your your public face. They’re just busy doing their own things and they’re not speaking out. Would you be so bold as to call on other scientists to be more vocal about these sorts of issues? 

Well, whenever scientists are called on, I think they’re very vocal. 

But there’s a weird thing in the last few months where the current federal administration is. Pressing, for example, the use of the expression climate change, they’re surprised they’re editing, they’re censoring what professional scientists are saying. Federal government people work for the federal government. Very appropriate. In no one’s best interest, it will. There I said it was all. Now, bear in mind that I don’t have a full time research job. Am I’m a performer. A television personality. And that’s how I make my living. So I make my living being on television, whereas other scientists make their living doing science. It seems like I’m higher profile, but I don’t think I’m any more passionate than most science. Oh, scientists you speak with are very passionate, very concerned about the current state of scientific perception of science among the U.S. public. 

Let me ask you lastly, do you think that science or the public understanding and appreciation of science, is it winning ground or losing ground? I guess what I’m asking is, do you see much light at the end of the tunnel or is it just, you know, are the Armageddon tests right? Is the world going to hell in a handbasket? 

Well, things are getting worse. And to people who want to reject science, don’t want to embrace it. Just a reminder, you should have your kid pursue it because the future is going to be for scientists. And if no other reason, China, you will without saying it out loud, Feria, lest we reinvigorate our scientists to do this. Not as controversial. Everybody knows that. Just like, you know, you don’t try to do anything about it. So this is my method. We have to see I can change the world. 

Right now, we’re losing ground. So we’ll see. 

This administration continues to be so fraught with problems. Maybe they’ll lose credibility and people will get back on a scientific path. That is certainly what I’m working toward. We are trying to change. 

Bill Nye, thank you very much for being on the show. Thank you. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Paranormal Goes Primetime Vatican hosted conference on Intelligent Design, More clinics to offer alternative medicine. Christian Fundamentalism Drives U.S. Extremism. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. What one adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community. Who could have imagined that reality would need defenders? The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you are just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w that center for inquiry dot net. We host regional and international conferences, offer college courses and conduct nationwide campus outreach on our Web site. You’ll also find information regarding our new representation at the United Nations and important national media appearances. We could not pursue these projects without your support. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one. Or visiting w w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to expand our reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for a discussion with Dr. Eugenie Scott about science and religion and about the current I.D. vs. evolution controversies to get involved with an online conversation about today’s discussion I had with Bill Nye. Go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry or or by visiting our Web site at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award. Michael Quailing contributors today include Barry Carr, Lauren Becker and Sara Jordan. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.