It’d be hard to come up with a reasonable hypothesis that explains the trajectory of Bill Nye’s career. The 61-year-old started out in the aeronautics industry — he studied mechanical engineering at Cornell — before, via a series of personal and professional twists and turns, arriving at his beloved show Bill Nye the Science Guy, which aired on PBS from 1994 to 1999. Since that show went off the air, the children’s TV icon has become one of the country’s leading advocates for science literacy and, as Tucker Carlson can attest, a prominent and feisty public opponent of climate-change skeptics.
Hard as it may be to explain Nye’s career, it’s all too easy to think that someone with his passions might be disheartened by the current administration’s attack on science and disregard for climate change, but he’s doing what he can to provide a little optimism. To wit: his upcoming Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World. Each 30-minute episode of the show, which debuts April 21, explores a single scientific issue through Nye’s conversations with expert guests, field segments with correspondents (Karlie Kloss among them), and his signature scientific demonstrations.
Speaking on the phone from his apartment in Manhattan, Nye talked about the state of science in 2017, a (maybe not so) friendly wager he’s offering to Fox News pundit Carlson, and what makes him excited for the future.
Your show is called Bill Nye Saves the World. I don’t mean to be glib, but what do you actually think you can accomplish with it?
Change the world. That’s the goal. Our six-and-a-half hours of television are going to change the course of human history. We’re going to do that by promoting science literacy, showing people that the issues we’re discussing can be thought about from a scientific point of view, and by helping people to reach logical and well-reasoned conclusions about those same issues. And of course, it’ll be fun.
Do you think, broadly speaking, the public is particularly receptive to logical thinking these days?
No, actually. I think we’ll find that in 15 or 20 years the number of people who are scientifically literate or simply who respect science will increase. The evidence I have for this is three things: First, The Big Bang Theory is this hugely popular show. Being a nerd is being considered cool again and that show reflects it. Second: The number of people that used to watch my show, my goodness, it takes me aback. The third thing is that at some point the millennials will dominate the electoral map, and it’s been my experience that they have more respect for science than the generations just prior to them.
Not to be a wet blanket, but the idea that those three factors will converge and make American society more rational in its attitude toward science seems awfully contingent.
Time will tell, won’t it? Time will tell.
How do you think we arrived at a place as a country where people are so comfortable treating science as a debatable subject? Whether we’re talking about climate change or evolution, there’s this sense that people are okay dismissing the relevant science by saying, “I don’t believe in that.” It’s nuts.
If you like to worry about things, you’re living at a great time. I think that these anti-science people have been greatly influenced by the fossil-fuel industry and their lobbyists, and skepticism has bled from one issue to another. Climate change and evolution, for example, have become entwined regionally. It’s an extraordinary thing: If you’re a kid brought up by people who continually tell you the Earth is 6,000 years old — it’s extremely hard to change that mind. Nevertheless, we’re fighting the fight. That said, a certain conservative faction has worked very hard to introduce the idea that scientific uncertainty is the same thing as doubt about the whole issue.
That argument was the crux of Tucker Carlson’s debate with you on his show a little while back.
Tucker, what happened? You used to be such a happy guy. Now you’re so miserable! Carlson, what happened to you?
You must’ve known that he wasn’t going to be the most receptive audience for a discussion about climate change. Aren’t you worried that going on a show like his, where you’re almost guaranteed to get treated dismissively, is going to end up doing more harm than good to the issue of climate change?
Well, maybe I didn’t change anybody’s mind, but I think going on there and arguing with him is motivating or empowering to my colleagues and like-minded people — to fight the fight a little harder. It also raised attention to the problem, and the problem is this denial of the science of climate change. The evidence for it is overwhelming. The evidence for the efficacy of vaccines is overwhelming. The evidence that genetically modified food doesn’t hurt you in any way is overwhelming. And yet people still argue against those things. I don’t know — progress is a process. I believe we are moving forward.
Do you think someone like Tucker Carlson really and truly believes that climate-change science is as debatable as he makes it sound on TV? Or is he just in an ideological and political position that makes it necessary for him make that claim?
The speculation, on my part, is that it’s this thing you get in psychology called “cognitive dissonance” — when you’re shown evidence that you then reject because it conflicts with your worldview. You deny the evidence, and along with that, you accept the premise that the authorities providing the evidence — people like me — are worthy of being discredited. That’s why Tucker Carlson was saying things to me like, “Do you know anything about science?” What the hell are you talking about, Tucker? All I did was physics for years! Did he take courses in heat transfer and thermodynamics and fluid mechanics? I did!
There have been polls showing that people on the right identify climate change as being much less important than people on the left do. Is there a problem with the way the issue of climate change is framed? I could imagine it comes off like a bunch of coastal know-it-alls scolding the rest of the country about various industries or lifestyle choices.
This is where I think we need leadership, somebody to say, “Everybody, we can no longer get our energy from coal.” But, you know, I was in a family with an academic tradition of achievement; I grew up in the East. It doesn’t make me a bad person or a condescending coastal elite if I say we as a country can’t be mining coal anymore. I want the United States to lead in the discovery of new technology! Nobody wants to be mining coal in the future. Look, my cousins are in the explosives business. They sell a lot of explosives to coal mining. I understand that and I love them and so on, but I don’t think you want to be in the coal-mining business 50 years from now. We need innovation. Let’s be part of the future, not part of the past. Let’s put wind turbines up in Iowa. You can’t outsource those to Mexico.
Is there anything about Trump’s administration, and here I’m thinking specifically of Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, that leads you to believe the government will support the kind of innovation you’re hoping for?
I’m going to wait to see on Scott Pruitt. I want to engage you on this question, but I think maybe you’re politicizing something that doesn’t need to be politicized. I mean, the EPA was created by Richard Nixon. The EPA and the National Parks were set aside by conservatives. With respect to Scott Pruitt, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bureaucracy just sort shrugs its shoulders at his directives and says “we’re going to be here long after you’re gone. We’re going to carry on doing what we were doing.”
That reminds me of the saying, “The function of an institution is to perpetuate the institution.”
That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about laws.
I’m agreeing with you that the EPA is entrenched; I was just suggesting that big, bureaucratic institutions are by their nature tough for one man, or one administration, to change.
Yeah, except I think this specific institution’s primary function is to analyze the environment and recommend regulations that will improve quality of life for a safer, healthier world. There’s a great many people that I’ve met at the Environmental Protection Agency who don’t consider their job to be keeping their job. Their job is to protect the environment.
To go back to an idea you raised earlier, that millennials embrace scientific thinking more than the older generations: So is the long-term plan for promoting science literacy simply to wait for a sweeping generational power shift? Is there anything we can do to move that process along more quickly?
I’d ask you, the hard-hitting reporter, but instead I’ll remind everybody that I am so old. I’m so old I remember when Nixon resigned and he was replaced with another conservative, but the EPA just kept going. Changes can be affected way sooner than waiting for a generational transfer of power. But you have to be optimistic or you’re not going to get anything done. Sooner or later, everybody will realize the wisdom in protecting the environment. Everybody will see the economic benefit of not having to import fossil fuels. I was just in Congressman Bridenstine’s office in the First District in Oklahoma. He’s very proud that his state gets 20 percent of their electricity from the wind — and this is in the heart of the energy sector.
What was the meeting with Bridenstine about? He’s a Republican who doesn’t think human activity contributes to climate change. He doesn’t believe there should be public-survey questions about greenhouse gases. Is the conversation you’re having with him about getting him to understand climate change?
Well, we were there to talk about space policy. My claim is that space exploration brings out the best in us, and NASA is the very best brand the U.S. has around the world. There is no other aspect of the United States or organization that’s part of the U.S. government that is more respected than NASA. So talking about that is why we were in Congressman Bridenstine’s office: He’s sponsoring a bill to use space assets or perhaps new balloon technology to monitor extreme weather. He told us his goal is to have no one die from extreme weather in Oklahoma. So I will let you, the hard-hitting reporter, determine if Congressman Bridenstine is sponsoring that bill because he’s concerned about extreme weather or for some other reason. I think it’s important to him. I believe an issue like that is where there’s a convergence of people on the right and left. Note, too, that Congressman Bridenstine is in an overwhelmingly Republican district. In regard to climate change, he’s playing the hand he’s dealt.
The rhetorical move that some pundits and politicians, like Bridenstine, make now where they say they believe in some aspect of climate-change-related science, like the link between extreme weather and global warming, but deny another seems new to me. It’s like, Tucker Carlson might admit that the global temperature is rising, but not that humans have anything to do with it. It’s just this empty nod towards credibility.
I know just what you mean. I’ll bet Tucker Carlson $10,000 that the next decade will be the hottest decade on record. I will do that right here. I’m putting my cash on the barrelhead. It’s easy money, Tucker. And I chose $10,000, by the way, because that’s the amount Mitt Romney chose in his famous bet with Rick Perry. Rick Perry’s an interesting example: Steven Bannon wants to destroy the government, so he and the current administration has sought people, like Betsy DeVos, like Rick Perry, who are singularly unqualified to hold their current cabinet positions. But Rick Perry showed up at the Department of Energy and realized what’s involved, that he’s in over his head, and now he’s going to let the thing run the way it was being run. But in contrast, Mr. Scott Pruitt — it’s not that he’s unqualified, it’s that he thinks the EPA shouldn’t exist. Anyway, I think we’ve got to be optimistic and think this Bannon idea of tearing the government down will not work.
In terms of our shared scientific future, what are you most optimistic that we’ll be able to accomplish?
There’s no single thing. As we increase science literacy, we will address climate change, we will find clean water, and renewably reproduce electricity, and provide access to electronic information for everyone. I think when the U.S. government gets back on an environmental track, we will change the world. We can make this a better world. We can do this. C’mon everybody, let’s go!
This interview has been edited and condensed.