"That’s where I’ve failed as a scientist": Bill Nye opens up about the climate wars

"The Science Guy" tells Salon why fighting anti-science worldviews is so important

Published November 3, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

  (AP/John Davisson)
(AP/John Davisson)

In February, celebrated scientist Bill Nye engaged in a much-publicized debate with Christian celebrity Ken Ham about whether creationism was "viable" as a scientific theory. Polls found that Nye roundly won the debate.

Triumph in this debate, however, did not necessarily mean a win for science education. In the United States, there is still an uphill battle not only for funding and better teachers, but also to stem the proliferation of charter schools that cast doubt on evolution or flatly deny it. Nye's biggest worry, he says, is about children -- and specifically about their ability to compete and innovate in the future.

The debate with Ham eventually led Nye to pen his newest book, "Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation" (out tomorrow), which broadens, contextualizes and connects evolution to everyday life.

Salon spoke to Nye about everything from climate change and evolution, to Ken Ham and John Oliver. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. (Audio from the upcoming book is below.)

Why make your debate with Ham the focus of this book? Why address him so specifically, rather than just writing a general book about evolution.

I started out on the book as kind of a primer on the fundamentals of evolution, but the publisher felt very strongly that it should talk a lot about the debate, and she’s probably right. Ken Ham is remarkable in that he’s raised millions and millions of dollars for this worldview that is absurd, untenable and obviously wrong.

And as I said, it wouldn’t matter except for the students, except for kids in the Commonwealth of Kentucky being raised believing that the Earth is somehow 6,000 years old. It’s really serious business. Tens of thousands of potential problem-solvers, engineers, scientists of the future, who will be academically disabled by this diligent effort on the part of the Answers in Genesis people to indoctrinate kids into this pseudoscientific belief about the world’s natural history.

An issue in my own writing sometimes is, “Do I want to write about what this creationist said today, and say this isn’t correct, or do I want to just ignore him?” And it seems like you’ve taken the stance of, “This is too big to be ignore.” Do you wish that more scientists would take that stand?

The trouble with the nature of being a scientist is you don’t want to assert things or publish things or state things that aren’t absolutely correct. So, for example, if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put in a percentage: 97 percent. The denialists seize on the 3 percent and pretend that’s as significant as the 97 percent.

But my relationship to this is different. I’m not publishing a scientific paper. No one’s holding me to account if it turns out that it’s 330 million years instead of 325 million years ago. So it gives me a little more leeway in that regard, but it also makes it a lot more readable. So talking in approximation is very useful when you’re talking about 4 and a half billion years. The science is very clear in the case of climate change.

In the case of evolution, it just couldn’t be any more clear. Evolution is the fundamental idea of all life science. The people who have some ‘splaining to do, in my opinion, are the creationists. It’d be great if more scientists have been very vocal against this tremendously successful denialist movement, which is leaving the world a lot worse than we found it.

Do you ever worry that by speaking out against them, you’re getting more people to know about them who might not have known about them before?

That’s a big danger, and I’ve thought about it. The big danger by raising awareness of this guy is that you raise him a zillion more dollars, and that’s true. And there’s been a long argument that scientists or anybody should not give attention to creationists because it just raises awareness and energizes their political base and their financial base – and there’s a lot to that. But by drawing attention to them, especially, I think it raises awareness.

For example, [Answers in Genesis] did finally cross the clear line that may be their undoing, and it’s reasonable that my drawing attention to it raised awareness of it, and it caused trouble. And the line that they crossed was in their job application; you have to have your Christian testimony on the document, and you can’t be homosexual – you can’t be gay to work there. And my understanding is that you can do that if it’s a family business, if you’re Hobby Lobby or whatever it is, but you cannot do that and accept state tax dollars in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. That constitutional violation, or whatever, may be their undoing at last. This is leveraging the mortgage, using the mortgage of the creation museum to pay for this Ark Park [a replica of Noah's Ark being built by Answers in Genesis].

Right, and they were getting tax dollars for that, too.

Exactly. So online, on their website, the job application where it’s stated that you can’t be gay, and you had to state your religious preference, and you can’t do that under the Constitution. It may at last be their undoing. But my point is that these taxpayers in the Commonwealth of Kentucky are now more aware of this guy, but now they’re aware of his illegal or unconstitutional activity.

That’s very interesting.

Your journalistic colleagues in Kentucky, they can write this story and follow this guy around. They had a press conference a few months ago with members of the press there … it turns out one of the guys on either their board of directors or board of advisors … I’m not sure it’s in their bylaws, but he’s a judge in Grand County where they want to build this thing. So you can pretty easily call that a conflict of interest, or inappropriate, or the guy should recuse himself, or whatever the expression is.

Kentucky being what it is, so far, they’ve managed to get away with it. But I was just in Kentucky at Western Kentucky University last week and generally in a college town like that people are embarrassed. The Kentuckians are embarrassed by this guy and the creation museum. The Mammoth Cave is in Kentucky, I think it’s 220 million years old, limestone layer after limestone layer after limestone layer and the irony is they built the creation museum on top of it. They use the word "museum" but it has no artifacts, and such. If you go to the American Museum of Natural History, you’ll see some dinosaur bones, you know, but the creation museum is all animatronic.

Since we’re sort of on the topic of politics, there’s a lot of science denialism in politics, from climate change to Ebola panic and anti-vaccination. Do you think there are any steps that can be taken without the consensus of politicians? I mean, we can’t even get people who are running for president to admit that climate change is a thing. Is there anything that can be done, in your opinion?

The fossil fuel industry has worked very hard, and hired some of the same people as the cigarette industry hired, to introduce the idea that scientific uncertainty is the same as doubt about the whole thing. I think we’re reaching a tipping point. People are fed up with it. I was in Alaska yesterday and I did a show the night before last, and people there, in Anchorage, are very concerned about climate change. They denied it for a long time, [but] there are fewer and fewer deniers now. The mudflats are encroaching, the glaciers are receding, the shoreline, the permafrost is falling away and everybody can see it.

The Antarctic ice sheet is growing, but the Arctic ice sheet is shrinking about twice as fast as the Antarctic is growing. And the shrinking ice in Alaska is apparent to everybody. Everyone can see it, so they’re worried about it. I like to think that we’re reaching a tipping point in the next five years or so. The Republican Party, the conservatives in the U.S. will freely admit that the Luntz Memo was meant to introduce doubt – doubt is our friend, doubt is how we’re going to address environmental issues -- and that system is funded by the fossil fuel industry.

A lot of times when people talk about evolution, they will say, “Oh, well, it’s just a theory.”

Well, that’s where I’ve failed as a scientist and as a leader. The word “theory” – just to parse words – means something that’s not the same as a hypothesis. And you can split words on that, but evolution is the main idea in all of life science. The main thing. You can call it a theory, a hypothesis, an understanding, but no matter what anybody calls it, it is the main idea, very much analogous to plate tectonics in geology.

You’re just not going to get the right answer without it. That’s something you can believe in or not believe in and it still exists. People make this analogy all the time: Do you believe in gravity? On some level, nobody knows where gravity comes from, there’s some deep physics way of looking at the universe, but on the other hand, everybody knows that there’s gravity. I like the teaching of John Oliver, who’s really good, where he says you can’t get an opinion out of a fact. If 59 percent of the U.S. public doesn’t accept climate change, that just means that 59 percent of the public is wrong about something.

You’ve been on top of this issue for so long. And you’ve become, in a way, sort of a spokesperson for discussing climate change. Was that something that just sort of happened? Or was this the topic that you wanted to champion?

I, as a citizen of the Earth, am very concerned about this. And I’m a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists advisory board. So these issues are very understandable. There’s two things that we should all be concerned about. The first one is climate change. Climate change will disrupt life for many, many, many people. Life is going to be miserable for billions of people, and the sooner we get to work on it the better.

The other thing, which has everything to do with my business now, is that we don’t want the Earth to get hit with an asteroid – I’m not kidding. It’s a very serious thing, it killed the ancient dinosaurs or finished them off, and we don’t want that. We don’t want any preventable natural disasters.

The third thing is, in this example, Ebola. I don’t know how much of the book you remember, but as a large animal on Earth, your enemy is not going to be other large animals. It’s not going to be lions and tigers and bears. Your enemy is germs and parasites, and so … Ebola’s just … boy. Couldn’t be a clearer example. These are all issues that have to be addressed with time.

You are a well-known science educator. I watched your show growing up. What do you think the biggest issues facing science education are today? In your time as a science educator, have things gotten better or worse?

Things have gotten generally worse. First of all, No Child Left Behind really disrupted science education. It seemed like a good idea to have these minimum standards for everyone to meet, but science education was not on it. And now this Core curriculum thing ...

Just on religious grounds, people don’t want the public school system to teach their children about evolution. A lot of people start charter schools so that they can avoid participating in the mainstream.

The other problem is, once again, elementary science education. People who decide to be journalists, or science educators, they decide it before they’re 10 years old. Your elementary education exerts enormous influence on the rest of your life. And that’s where, in my opinion, we need to invest. And this is an easy problem to solve, if everybody agreed that it was worth solving – hire more science educators by paying them. But when you have people that feel that government is inherently bad, that anybody can teach school, you end up with a situation where the United States will not be able to compete in the world, because what the United States brings to the party nowadays is innovation.

The United States does not manufacture things the way it once did. We hire that out, you hire out your textile production and your farm machinery, bulldozers, road-grading equipment. It’s all made elsewhere. What the U.S. provides, though, is iPhones and Microsoft. In order to have continual education, you have to have science education, and you have to have successful elementary science education, and to have that you have to invest in it. This is obvious to everybody, and that people don’t want to hear about it is troubling.

In that vein, right now we are in this start-up boom. Everybody’s designing an app, or you have thousands of people lining up to buy a new iPhone. Do you ever worry that science and innovation and technology are gearing too much toward the small ideas and not the bigger, Earth-saving, asteroid-stopping ideas? Is there a way to maybe make the sort of science that NASA does into something really cool and worth investing in?

That’s why I support and I work hard on space exploration. In space exploration we really do think about the big ideas. We solve problems that have never been solved before, and we try to change the world. So the Planetary Society works on advanced space science and exploration, and that’s where we’re making some amazing discoveries to change the world.

When I go to universities nowadays and ask people what they want to do, everybody wants to work at SpaceX – space exploration – because it’s exciting.

I’m glad that people appreciate iPhones. They are amazing, and it has absolutely changed the world. We all take that for granted, people get caught up in the details that are important -- but they’re not, if I may, the big point. That is to say, parents complain about their kids texting all the time, and they blame technology, but technology came from people. And a lot of people don’t know this, but you can turn your phone off. Those are cultural things, and I think they’ll blow over. If you had an appreciation for how many millions of transistors, and what’s called a transistor-transistor logic, TTL, that enables this thing to store all this information and do all this remarkable stuff, people would have respect, I think. And it could lead to something new and cool. That we can get phones to tell us which side of the street we’re standing on, and that that information comes from outer space.

Space exploration affects everybody all the time: weather reports, the military uses our space assets all the time. By advocating space exploration you get these remarkable insights, this remarkable technology. You wouldn’t have the Internet without space. So what we hope in the future is to look for signs of life on another world, on Mars or Europa, the moon of Jupiter that has twice as much seawater as the Earth; it would change the world. It would change the way everybody feels about everything, the same way as learning the Earth goes around the sun and not the sun around the Earth. So, the big picture of space exploration, I think that’s a big part of our future. NASA is the best brand the United States has, and it’s barely 0.4 percent of the budget. You ask people how big is the NASA budget, people think it’s 10 percent. It’s amazing, the disconnection.

I wanted to ask you if you think you’ll ever go back on television as Bill Nye the Science Guy?

Oh yeah, I’ve got a meeting tomorrow about it. I don’t want to get involved in another show where the network could have anybody hosting – like if you ever saw these shows ‘The Hundred Greatest Discoveries." I worked hard to get involved, especially the Discovery Channel shows, the Greatest Discoveries and Greatest inventions; anybody could have been the host of those shows. Any television professionals. It wasn’t unique to me; it wasn’t an extension of me.

If you watch the Jimmy Fallon show, it’s an extension of Jimmy Fallon; Jon Stewart’s an extension of Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert. If you don’t do that, first of all the show’s not as interesting, but the other thing is that it’s not as much fun. And I don’t think it’s as effective, whatever you’re trying to get across, you’re not as good at it. So another meeting yet again tomorrow; I’ve had so many meetings in the last few months.

I just wanted to tell you that the chapter “Evolution is why we don’t believe in Evolution” was really beautiful and made me think about how our brains -- compared to animals' -- allow us to think deeply about life and worry about death.

I know, it sucks, we end up with these big brains and then we realize we’re gonna die – dammit!

I was glad you put that in there.

It is an irony. I’ve spoken to my dogs about it and they don’t seem to be as worried about it as we are. I mean they don’t say that much back.

You haven’t learned "dog" yet? You need learn to speak “dog” better …

I mean, we communicate, I start talking about New Yorker cartoons and the New York Times editorial page and I don’t think they’re really as concerned about it as I am.

Their poor brains.

They’re more concerned about food.

Speaking of food: your book's GMO chapter. I studied food politics, so I was really glad to see that in there. Do you ever worry that a bug or a fungus is going to come and, say, wipe out all the strawberries?

Strawberry clones are all genetic mutation; it happens all the time. The cloning of strawberries and grapes is done intra-species, but the thing that I cannot help but wonder about is if you take the genes from one species and put it in a very, very distantly other species, the virus from the soil put into the corn and the soybeans, and the genes from the arctic fish put into the tomato. That’s what I wonder about because you never know what’s going to happen. You can’t know what’s going to happen.

The other thing is just that we have more food than we eat right now, and we have the strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. So it’s not clear that we need to be genetically modifying food. Especially when it comes to farming it for tax dollars. If we grow enormous monocultures of a genetically modified crop, that is suddenly or surprisingly susceptible to some new virus or insect, then we could wipe out enormous acreage accidentally, in a way that probably would not happen if we did not introduce this monocultural farming system. I think these are solvable problems. The farm bill is revisable.

If it’s passable is another thing ...

Well, we’ll work on it.

By Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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