This is point of inquiry for Monday, November 7th, 2011.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Recently in New Orleans, I attended the first Psychon conference dedicated to scientific inquiry and critical thinking. There are many great speakers there like Lawrence Krauss and Phil Plait. But surely the most prominent guest was none other than Bill Nye, the science guy who was given the Committee for Skeptical Inquiries in Praise of Reason Award. The next day I caught up with Nye and I had the privilege of interviewing him for the show. Now, this is a guest who really needs no introduction, but supposing you want to hear one anyway, he hosted a little show called Bill Nye The Science Guy in the 90s. It was kind of famous kids kind of loved it. And since then, he’s been involved in many other endeavors and television programs to improve science, teaching and scientific understanding in our country. That includes his latest show on Planet Green. Stuff Happens. Bill Nye is an engineer, an inventor, an author, a comedian, a supporter of clean energy and above all, a skeptic.
Bill Nye, welcome to Point of Inquiry and also congratulations on receiving the Committee for Skeptical Inquiries 2011 in Praise of Reason award, its highest honor. Was pretty cool. I got choked up.
I got choked up in praise of reason that goes for me. It goes way back to Carl Sagan. And he goes back to Mark Twain or Samuel Clemens. It goes way back. This is really is quite an honor.
It’s also an honor to have you on point of inquiry, and you’re so good to be had your your acceptance speech. If I if I could just comment on it. Getting the award, kind of a bittersweet picture that you paint. On the one hand, you quoted Carl Sagan there. You know, he said when you love something in this case at Science, you want to tell the world. The other hand, you said some people don’t love it. Some people are unsettled by knowledge. How do we reach them or do we not even try?
Well, the point I sought to convey was that we as skeptics have to let our joy show that when you get get comfortable with the understanding that you will not know at all about the universe, then instead of tuning out and drive around with a bumper sticker that says God said it, I believe it and that settles it. You continue to seek the truth or seek repeatable phenomena in nature. And so if you. My argument is that if you if you stop seeking, if you stop exploring, if you stop working out, what does it say about you? I’m checking out. I don’t care. And those are not generally people that are going to make progress. And so what I want. The skeptical community to do is embrace what’s the word. People who have not taken it upon themselves to seek the light. So that we we have people that are critical thinkers.
This is a point I’m probably going to come back to. Do you think you can open them up in some areas of science, even if they’re, say, evolution deniers? You can still get them in other places.
Well, with regard to everybody, I think there’s very few people that really believe that. And I always I don’t want the word maybe it’s not a challenge, but you say, well, what what evidence? What what makes you think the the world is 6000 years old? I mean, it’s so complicated. There’s so many things you have to leave out to have the world be that young. It’s people generally you’ll go along with it. But I know what you mean. You don’t want to put people on the spot and so on. The big problem we have right now, and I’m not changing the subject, I’m talking critical thinking. The big problem we have right now is climate change. And we it’s the same thing you see. Well, why? Why don’t you think there’s climate change, really? And generally, people are at a loss.
Generally, you can challenge people’s credentials and say, well, he’s not really qualified climate scientists, but that’s not retirement. What makes you think all these reports about pollen counts in lakebed sediments, bubbles trapped in ice, the width of tree rings? What makes you think all that is not evidence.
And yet there’s people that will come up with anything. I watched some of your clips preparing for this interview on FOX with, you know, Jova Stati and these people. I mean, they can come up with come with anything. It’s kind of painful to watch. But I mean, the average person seeing that, they don’t know what the Bill O’Reilly doesn’t know what to think.
I mean, do you feel in a way, I guess he’ll be listening. But, you know, it’s like he’s kind of lost his edge. That is to say, I don’t think he believes what he used to believe.
And it shows. And I’m Bill O’Reilly. Welcome. Welcome. Take it easy. You you played a role, but come on over and help us solve this problem rather than.
Giving people the women diddles, which is this expression from my family, when you have so many things to do, you don’t do anything. We’ve got to we’ve got to focus people to address climate change.
I want to. I want to get back to clean energy, but actually just something something broader. You know, when it comes to the place of science in America, it’s a lot of people have this perception. Something has changed. You’re kind of a kid of the space age that inspires you. And so many others. You took classes with Carl Sagan, the man who channeled that enthusiasm in this incredible way. Is there anything like that that inspires people today? Sometimes we hear it’s clean energy. Sometimes we hear it’s, you know, this push to remain competitive with countries like China. But I don’t feel like it catches the same emotion.
I remind people you are seem to be somewhat younger than I am. That was the Cold War. That was a a in many ways, a desperate time. People were very much afraid of the former Soviet Union and its seeming ability to accomplish great things with very little with suit seemed like far fewer, fewer or less resources. And so people were were afraid. And you can visit Nike missile sites. You can see B, 52 bombers. You can see ballistic missile sites. And just look at the budget, the amount of money that was spent on creating these just world ending weapons. Let’s look at a Trident submarine. If it’s secedes from the United States, is the world’s third largest nuclear power earth or fourth largest nuclear power. This is astonishing deal. So going to the moon was part of that effort. And it was a great thing because John Kennedy declared this goal and we were really the country with the means to reach it. And so it was a race against ourselves. I was born in the US. That’s the way I perceive it. But as a result, we got all this fabulous technology. It’s great things. And we do these great science science missions to other worlds and other star systems with telescopes. And it’s changed what I call the way we view our place in space. And when you appreciate how insignificant you are with regard to creation or the universe or how we want to describe it, it’s humbling. But also it enriches your life because you you can imagine it all. You can understand it all. And that is something that previous generations never had. So that’s the upside of the Cold War. Now, is there anything like that today? Well, we all hope in my in my world, we all hope that people embrace climate change as this great challenge. It’s a challenge not only to save us from ourselves.
You know, as I say, there’s a there’s a sign in the hotel room here in New Orleans that says save the planet. The planets can be fine. Well, we want to do we want to save the planet for us. For us humans. And so that’s going to be a little different task than just letting the whole place change so much that we can’t live here. And then the other thing is a huge economic effect. And this is where for me, as a guy born in the US, our national pride really revs up. We in the U.S. feel that we should be the best in the world, that energy production, energy storage, energy distribution. And you want the highest possible quality of life for as many citizens as possible, if for no other reason, it makes your life safer.
Lions and tigers and bears are dangerous. Don’t get me wrong. But the thing to be afraid of is other people. When other people are desperate and want your food and treasure. They’re going to take it. So you want everybody’s quality of life to be high enough where they’re not so motivated.
And yet we are.
The problem is we’re politically divided over clean energy itself. I mean, you got the and controversy. It’s being used to bash all clean energy investment. You have Congress staging a fit over energy efficiency, claiming that incandescent light bulbs have been banned. And this is some affront, even though it’s it’s not true. An affront to American freedoms. I was proposing where I live in California, but that’s I got to say that scientific ignorance. You don’t want to ban incandescent bulbs. You want to ban the rate at which they consume energy, which is what we did. But but this this idea that even trying to push people towards greater efficiency in a market based way is some kind of political attack. That’s what we have to contend with. Well, and it’s for me.
So far it is generational. The people who deny climate change are. Really, generally, not exclusively. Generally older and I get it. If you are born in Oklahoma, like a certain senator, the world is set. There’s such wide open spaces in Oklahoma. You look left and right, north and south. There’s just nothing but space. And it’s literally unimaginable that humans could change the climate. If you live in Bangkok or not, well, to a lesser extent, Manhattan, it’s not so unbelievable.
You see how there’s you get seven billion people living on a small planet and stuff’s going to change.
There’s a movement afoot today. Just change gears a little bit. Scientists who want to communicate. And they they rect communicate to the public. They recognize a threatening media environment for science communication. No traditional science journalism is in decline. Media fragmentation means you don’t know what audience or even even talking to yet. They’re trying. And they look up to someone like you is really reached millions of people. What what advice would you give to a scientist who wants to do better connecting? Keep your answers short and you just. Yeah.
My advice would be you always listen to the first question. I’m not kidding. Really, pay attention to the first question, then you can take the conversation around to what you want to talk about and what what happens. And I think I know the media outlets you’re talking about. People start shouting, but you got to hang in there. And if you get invited on to if you’re a scientist with a certain point of view and you get invited onto a news program that has a history of a different point of view, go on there.
It’s and remember, it’s a process you’re not going to be on once or twice and change the world with your couple threes, quick, crisp sentences. Instead, you get Chip away. And I’m I’m real subscriber right now to this idea of 10000 hours. That was in Outliers by Malcolm McDowell, a Malcolm Gladwell.
She’s she’s that you have to do.
You have to have 10000 hours to be an expert. I like that idea that you have to if it’s not 10000, you have to put in more than one under the pressure of performance.
And this is a. People have talked about this just since the beginning of people. The show must go on and so on when you’re when it’s time to perform, when it’s time to skate your your long program or throw the discus in the finals or jump that last high jump, that’s you’re only able to do that if you’ve done all the other high jumps since you were in elementary school. What have you. So to all two scientists who want to communicate, listen to the first question. Keep especially your first answer short and accept that you have to put in hours that you’re not going to just nail it.
The first time you originally got into guyand to doing science communication on a mass scale through, as I understand, comedy. Is that right?
Well, kind of. Well, the word kind of for me in this growing up, my parents were both very funny. It seems to me as well as what funny looking.
So people like to be at ease. And so comedy is a great way to do that. It’s time honored.
So in that this people say, I’m not changing the subject. One of the criteria for working on the Bill Nye The Science Guy show in general, you had to have a sense of humor.
I mean, it’s just sort of something that was you don’t know let’s say it wasn’t on the checklist is something you looked for in people. So I it is true that I did stand up comedy, but I use the skills or the 10000 hours I put it in standup comedy to make what I believe was the kid’s show more entertaining. So let’s see. I didn’t start out doing comedy to do science. I was doing everything at once.
When I’m when I’m getting out of bed is, you know, in terms of I’m really interested in science communication. How we can help. Help. You should get a radio show. I know. I know. It’s it’s on the list. I think that you’ve got people like Alan Alda today going around training scientists and improv to loosen them up, to get them that take them out of their shells a little bit and see what the best science communication vehicles are on YouTube. It’s a it’s a bad project video. That’s a Lady Gaga parody that’s got three million views. I don’t know if you. No. Good. No, it’s Lady Gaga. It’s this is a grad student pretending to be Lady Gaga and singing. I’ve got a bad project. You know, someone dumped their research on me. I’m never going to. But it’s it was it was a big hit because it’s hilarious. So, I mean, is this maybe what what they’ve got to learn in order to say, gotta learn?
You know, I think most people have a sense of humor. So let it out. And the other thing is, right now, I think we have to take risks. And and I’m talking specifically about qualifying your uncertainty to such an extent. That you end up. Sound like you have nothing to say. Just take a chance. World’s getting warmer because of people there. OK. I said it. Some of my best friends are people. They’re not all bad, but they are accidentally changing the world. Let’s see, humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. That’s it. I’m sorry that we can’t do it. I’m not going to debate that. I mean, I’ll debate it, but I’ll have a very strong point of view. I guess I would say is when you go to make your answers short and understandable, you’re going to have to pick sides. And that’s not so bad.
I think I’ve seen research showing that the IPCC climate change language that they use, which is meant to convey a high degree of certainty, they say very likely at this point, very likely is actually when you win, an average person hears it. They think it’s less than absolute.
And the other examples they asked a guy in my recollection like this is where eyewitness accounts are no good. But he had sort of a Swiss accent or Deutsche or whatever. It would be his first language. And they asked him, is it now is this supercute? Is this atom smasher in CERN, the Large Hadron Collider? Is it going to cause can it clot cause a black hole in the in Switzerland that will consume the Earth in a matter of hours? And he said that’s very unlikely.
And by that he meant whatever the expression, 20 sigma to the left of anything that would go wrong. But because he didn’t say absolutely not. In parentheses, you nut case, you dingbat people, just as exactly as you said, seized on so you can complain, we can whine and complain that they whoever they are or the public.
Doesn’t understand the language of science. But that’s not how I look at it. I got to tell you, it’s you have to talk to people.
No, no black hole. Not going to happen in order to get a black hole you need.
No, I’m not an expert. But at roughly the mass of six sons, six of our stars. So we don’t have that. So chill fact. We can’t even send neutrinos from Switzerland to Italy without getting the timing wrong, apparently.
You’ve also worked obviously a lot in the entertainment media industry and been involved in various Hollywood projects, some which are very science friendly or math friendly like numbers. Those was big fun. That was big fun.
You get in this in our environment, the skeptic crowd, all this some sort of Hollywood bashing a lot of the time. Do you think? But at the same time, they’ve turned more towards a science embrace and less tenure’s, it seems to me. Do you feel like the entertainment industry is a help or a hindrance to a scientifically literate America?
Well, let me say it. It’s that kind of doesn’t matter in the sense that the one thing the United States still exports is our culture. You go to it’s in China.
People were watching Starsky and Hutch. What the heck is that? So in other words, you can’t complain. It is my recommendation that, one, avoid complaining about the overarching term Hollywood.
Ideas and images that get across the point you want to make. It is unfortunate that people think you go out to an asteroid and blow it up.
But the stories that you can tell, like in the case of the show numbers are can be quite good. And so Hollywood is just part of our world. So you have to work with it. It’s not good or bad. So certainly what is good? My neighbors, even the ones.
Who how to say play. Pay lip service or you could argue, don’t really know what they’re doing and so on. There is there are more hybrid vehicles on my block than there are in some states in the United States. So. Getting this culture of trying to do the right thing is not bad. It’s not bad. And that is very much part of Hollywood. You look at your ad, not as old as I am, but you just look at the. The way television approaches race, especially. I’m not kidding, especially with regard to television commercials. Television commercials are cast now.
In what I would call a forward thinking way, in a way that my parents would have, I think would have been uncomfortable with, but we go, hey, that’s cool.
That’s where it ought to be. And so this is where the traditions of progressive thought or progressive policies that are associated with Hollywood and television production are really good. It’s good not to say that it’s it’s better than somebody else. It’s just inherently good. The images. That are portrayed on television commercials are really positive in many ways compared to my youth. It’s a progressive industry.
It’s its values are something that I put on Facebook. I’m interviewing you. What did everybody want to hear? They said, how, how how would Bill Nye fix science education? It’s a mess with all these moving parts. You know, you could creationist teachers not trained in their fields, not paid enough. No Child Left Behind teaching the test. Not enough critical thing. You hear all these complaints. Which ones can we even fix? Which ones do you think are the problem?
Well, no, I have not met dozens of teachers, science teachers.
I’ve not met hundreds of science. I’m not mad. I have met tens of thousands of science teachers.
I have not met one who really likes No Child Left Behind. Now, these are science teachers. But the idea is pretty good. We will have national standards based, if you will, on international standards and everybody will learn this stuff. What’s happened by accident? Nominally, well, intending people have made science very low priority, especially in the elementary grades, but low priority excluded. Not in there. And that is in no one’s best interests. You want to have science education from the get go. And the big thing is you have to accept that teaching is an art and you have to let these people do their thing. You have to let them engage children, people’s students in their own way. And by having too many constraints, too many standards, too many things they have to do, get done checklist, check off the checklist. They’re unable to convey their passion and get students excited about science. Now, first to admit it looks like teaching kindergarten is pretty straightforward and you shouldn’t need to be able to do astro dynamics or orbital mechanics to teach kindergarten. It’s quite reasonable, but there are a lot of people, I think, that I’ve met with Nobel Prizes who would be pretty bad kindergarten teachers. So it’s a different skill. But what you want to do with regard to science education, you want to raise the standard of living of teachers by paying them more. But then you have to expect more from them. And this is it’s not gonna be solved with the stroke of a pen or overnight. But No Child Left Behind is not a bad idea. It just has too many constraints on it. Teacher’s time. So we can fix that. And also, if I’m king of the forest and I’m not, we would have elementary science education starting in kindergarten. There would be required or allowed. And then the other big opportunity we have in the United States is algebra. Apparently, if you don’t learn algebra, you have trouble or you never accept abstract thought about a whole bunch of other things. And what I say about algebra, it’s not expensive to teach. And so what we have to do apparently is very straightforward. You get students working in algebra, in elementary school, putting symbols or letters to represent numbers start that very early. And then by the time you really have to do conventional Algebra one and Algebra two, you’re much more comfortable with it. So this is an adjustment we could easily make.
Do you think it’s fair when we hear I forget what the international testing agency is, that compact ranks all the countries in science that you there’s three or four of them. And we always end up way behind like the Scandinavian countries, which with much smaller populations. We’ve got this totally decentralized system. I don’t know if it’s even a fair comparison, but the U.S. ranks 18th. There’s something we always want to third. Well, is it? Yeah, well, I mean, that’s something in that area, right? It isn’t one. So is that telling us anything?
Well, it is to me. It means we’re not reaching everybody because there still is an upper stratum of achievers. And so, I mean, Cheevers, in science and math, you. Right now, the iPhone is only going to be invented in the US right now. Now, in 20 years only if that’s still true. Right. But what we have to do is engage everybody in the population. This is where the skeptic movement or whatever we call ourselves, skeptical thinkers are up against it. Where you have people want to teach creationism instead of science. But the longest journey begins with a single step. So you can glamorize science by saying if you want to be a captain of industry, be an engineer, which is actually pretty accurate. Most in most industries are run by the CEOs or whatever or engineering. But also, you have to accept that we have enormous immigrant population. They come from cultures that don’t have academic achievement as one of their traditions. So it’s a long process, but it’s good to notice that we’re twenty third and want to hustle. Now, are we going to have a Sputnik moment? As the president called for a year and a half ago? I hope so. But I think it’s gonna be as. But next decade. So. I remember I didn’t I wasn’t in school really when Sputnik flew, but I lived through the hype that it created.
And so it’s not as. It’s not as succinct. There isn’t this turning point that we had with Sputnik. But as the policymakers age and are replaced by younger people, I think you will see. I’m very hopeful we will see an emphasis on science education and changing the world.
Well, let’s talk a little about your your show. Stuff happens. You’re focused now on an energy conservation in our daily lives. And the problem here is the thing that people nag about a little bit is, you know, individuals can make some difference.
But the scale of the problem is so vast. You know, Al Gore got flack for saying the end of Inconvenient Truth. Turn off your light switch. It felt kind of insignificant.
Well, if it wasn’t, you know, and that’s what people say about magazines, recycling paper or water bottles, which are ubiquitous. But I remind everybody the hardest thing to understand about.
The environment or which includes climate change or global warming living record, is that every single thing everyone ever does anywhere affects everyone in the whole world.
And this is a very hard idea. But the reason is that we all share the air. There is only one atmosphere.
And so whatever you do in Papua New Guinea shows up affecting people in Manhattan and the other way around. It’s quite a step in thought. So it all adds up. This doesn’t mean that everybody, as I say, when when I was I was young environmentalist, traditional environmentalists wanted to do less, wants you to drive less, use less potable water, yet wear dirty clothes and don’t eat. That would be great. Don’t eat. Beth. Yeah, but that turns out not to be popular.
People in the developing world want the same standard of living of people in the developed world. So what we have to do is find ways to do more with less.
Turning out the lights is not insignificant. It’s and also it forms this mythic thing, the habit of mind, the habit of mind, where you’re thinking about climate change all the time. But if you’re if you’re a listener and you’re in the U.S. or Canada and to a lesser extent Mexico, the single biggest decision you make as a consumer is your car. Now, if you live in a place where you don’t have a car like Manhattan. Well, more power to you. Pun intended, but turn out the lights because these things all add up. And what we want to do is have a future where things are less inefficient, especially in transportation. This is where we we use half of our energy just driving around. That’s just come on. We got to be able to do better than that.
What’s one message that you you feel really resonates? Get someone to change your lifestyle in terms of their energy?
Well, the big thing is money, you know, is I have as a Hollywood guy, bleeding heart, liberal, progressive. I have four kilowatts of solar power on my garage, which I have of old house. And so the garage is separate. But anyway, I, I’d have more solar panels, but my neighbor’s house shades the yard. So I’ve thought about decapitating her house when she’s out of town or something. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission. But that I haven’t taken that step anyway. I’ll just tell everybody. It is really nice to get an electric bill that is 10 bucks for 60 days. Two months is 10 bucks. That’s not bad. So now in California, you can one can get an electric car. I drive a Nissan Leaf and it’s a great little car.
So now my electric bill will be forty dollars for 60 days as much cheaper than gasoline. And what we need to do then is come up with ways to produce electricity in a clean fashion. But this, once again, the longest journey. So you get started on this. And then we will replace our infrastructure as Dave Freeman, who is the. Head of California power for a long time used to talk.
I guess he still does talk about the swimming pool. OK. I don’t have some hate swimming pools. You how can you such knows you’re evil?
Okay, big, big pot of water and it’s dirty. You can either dump out all the water and refill the pool or the pot, or you can over the course of years and decades, slowly clean the water and replace it with clean, filter out the dirty water and replace it with clean water. And if you do that for enough years or decades, eventually the pool or the pot will be absolutely clean. So when people remark, well, this is turning out the lights, which is insignificant, you know, it all adds up. We’ll start running clean water in the pool and draining out the dirty water.
Thinking about it economically, what’s one thing? I mean, I always think that if you just had on your wall, you know, what looked like what you see at the gas station where the dollar just goes up and up and up. But it’s the power. And you can actually see, like I turn the light. Oh, there’s my products are coming. I mean, market. And that would I think that would make a difference.
So those products are coming to market. And here’s an example. There’s two really popular ones in the electric vehicle community and so on. But they can’t accept these two things, can’t accept the power going back on the grid. This is to say, my solar panels put energy back onto the electric grid.
And these two products, like they can’t accept that. Whouley, Frigo. So we’ll fix that. That’s that’s a small thing. It’s a nice, happy little engineering problem.
And then I’ll just tell you guys, if you don’t live in California, in the Bay Area, in San Francisco, Northern California, they have these kooky little lights. And they go blue when you’re not using much power, but they go orange in red. When the grid is using a lot of energy. So when you use energy at that time, your electric rate will be much higher. So you can use this light to inform your decision about how much energy use.
Yeah, we would love that. Where people are scientifically literate enough to know what a what is and what our or a jewel Jill Ueli and realize how much energy they’re using. You know, it’s a sobering thought.
World class bicyclists like Lance Armstrong, something like that, just at the height of his or her powers can barely keep an electric hair dryer running. That is to say it, 100 percent conversion of a guy crank in a little over a horsepower can barely keep a hairdryer running. And we just run hairdryers all day. And so that is an opportunity to do more with less. We’re gonna figure this out. Well, the optimistic people.
I’m glad that you you exude optimism, really, and I think that that’s what a lot of people listening to show really want and don’t have. I mean, they look around and, you know, maybe they’re they’re seeing only the bad, but they they’re struggling with the sense that this is your audience. Yeah. Come on, everybody. It’s going to be fine. Yeah. I mean, I want to ask you sort of as a closing question, what where do you see the hope? I think all people need. I think they see irrationality everywhere. I think they see things get. They see things seeming to get worse. And the science literacy front and the attacks on science front.
I mean, what do you going to give up?
No. Check out. No, look, if you’re going to check out, drive your car if you’re leaving.
No. What’s the alternative you had? We have to show the world, as Carl Sagan said, when you’re in love, you want to tell the world. So we just try it. You guys try saving energy because you’ll save money. That’s what really motivates people. And. Everybody you meet. Show Sean how much fun you’re having with science and you. What people do is they confuse skepticism with cynicism and cynicism is really can’t change anything. Everything sucks. There’s no point taming skepticism as well. I’m not so sure. So. I guess if you’re not optimistic, what are you? If you’re not going to contribute the solution, what are you doing? And if I guarantee you if you’d contribute to the solution. Or changes for the better in the human condition, you’ll feel better. Really try it. You’ll feel better. Sneck good. Thanks, Chris.
It is good. And on that note, Bill Nye, it’s been a real pleasure to have you on point of inquiry. It’s been great. Thank you. Let’s change the world.
I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about this show. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org.
What of inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and amrs New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Walen. This show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney.