It’s that Guy! An Interview with 2010 Humanist of the Year Bill Nye Part Two

Bill Nye, best known for his fast-taking, high-energy “Bill Nye the Science Guy” TV persona, is on a mission to reach young people through every available medium. Following his hotly contested debate with creationist Ken Ham in February, Nye teamed up with Discover editor Corey Powell and pounded out a book in defense of evolutionary theory. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, published by St. Martin’s Press, has just been released. Our Science and Religion Correspondent Clay Farris Naff caught up with Nye in New York for a telephone interview and found that neither his energy nor his humor have flagged since the iconic television show ended.

Read part two below and read part one here.  Some of the recent studies on science denial back up the observation that you can’t change people’s minds just with facts. If people don’t like the implications of a scientific theory, they just deny its validity. Apart from personal stories have you found strategies that can help pry open minds closed by dogma?

Bill Nye: Well, trying to meet people where they are. I try to speak plainly and be sympathetic to the idea of religions where people gather in community. They get a sense of people looking out for each other. My claim is that we have a tendency to look out for each other whether or not there is a religion involved. Do you know of an instance where a young person has changed their mind?

Nye: Oh yeah. I did a book signing at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York. It’s a huge store, a place where people like Hillary Clinton sign their books. A dozen, maybe two dozen people came up and said they were brought up in a conservative [religious] household and they had left it behind. Not that I want people to leave their churches as a result of my book. But it is nice that people are thinking and reaching a reasonable conclusion.  Some people have succeeded in changing minds within their churches, which must be a hopeful sign.

Nye: Yeah, the pope just said evolution is a real thing. By the way—in your opinion, would the pope have said that without the debate and all this stuff going on? Seems coincidental… [laughing] That would be speculative. At any rate, I do think you’re a tremendous influence for good and I hope you’ll keep it up. Are you now going to return to the other big area of science denial?

Nye: Yeah I’ll get back to the other book. The other book is called, probably, Unsustainable: How We Will Do More with Less. In other words, right now we need one and a half more earths if everybody lived the way we live in the developed world. We can’t do that, so we need to do a little better.  Are you optimistic that with the rise of what we might call virtual goods that it will be possible for people to be satiated without continually consuming more material goods?

Nye: There are two ways to be rich: to have more or need less. It’s estimated that we squander about 30 percent of our energy leaving the lights on, the refrigerator door open, and so on. Then there is the enormous amount of food that we expend huge amounts of energy to raise and then throw away.

So that right there— 30 percent—we could get for free. And then, for example, if solar panels were 50 percent or 85 percent efficient rather than 15 percent efficient it would change the world. Add a smart grid with nanotube transmission lines, electric vehicles, and we change everything.

I think about my grandfather.  He went into World War I on a horse. He put a gas mask on himself and he put a gas mask on his horse. But twenty-five years later nobody who was serious about conducting a war did anything like that … with a freaking horse! In other words, everything changed. In just two decades everything changed. And we could do the same here.  And the pace of change has only picked up since then. For better or worse it’s likely to be radically different in just a few decades.

Nye: So what we need is to get people trained not just to look things up but to look for the best information. In other words, they don’t have the trouble that I had going to the library and looking everything up on library cards and writing it down. The thing about that information from the library is that it was generally reliable. If the Encyclopaedia Britannica told you the population of Ghana, it was probably pretty close. But nowadays you need to sift through an enormous amount of information that is of lower quality. Doesn’t that suggest that we really need to overhaul education? Instead of trying to shovel a lot of facts into people, equip them with critical thinking skills?

NYE: From an evolutionary standpoint you can’t just wipe everything out and start over, and I don’t think you can do it in the school system either. I don’t know if you read that far in the book, but I ask, “What if you’re trying to make a grocery cart or a hand truck into a bicycle. Every time you modify the hand truck, it has to work. The wheels have to go from side by side to front to back and the seat post would have to extend out of one of the other vertical members. There’s a lot going on there. Nature’s pretty ingenious at finding pathways…

Nye: So are people! With that in mind, do you feel we want to add more critical skills to the curriculum?

Nye: Well that’s what we want, but here’s the problem with No Child Left Behind and now Common Core: science, especially in the elementary grades, is not being allotted any time or enough time. This is a formula for disaster! Books and personal appearances are certainly important, but you made your biggest impact through television. Is that something you might think of returning to?

Nye: I’d love to get back to television. I’ve had offers but they just weren’t that compelling. Well, we’d love to see you there so I hope the right opportunity comes together. What a pleasure it’s been to talk with you. Is there anything you wanted to say that I haven’t asked about?

Nye:  Everybody should buy a carton of my book. There are twenty books in a carton. So, everybody get out there and get yourself one!

Read part one of this interview here.