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In A New 'Anti-Science' Era, Bill Nye 'Saves The World' With Same Optimism

If you were a kid with a television in the mid-1990s, or you were raising one, Bill Nye probably needs no introduction. A theme song should do it. That's because Bill Nye the Science Guy was appointment-viewing for kids back then — the highlight of science class for grade school students.

Since his PBS show ended, he's become a vocal champion of the value of science. On Saturday, he led scientists and supporters of the science community during the March for Science. And now he is back — with a new soundtrack — in the same lab coat and bow tie. He's channeling the same love for showmanship and science, this time, into a new series out on Netflix on Friday: Bill Nye Saves the World.

In an interview with Michel Martin, Nye talks, with a tinge of sarcasm, about science as a political but not partisan issue, and why he's optimistic about the future of scientific research.

"I know, I know. A lot has changed. But one thing hasn't — the process of science. Are you with me? Are you excited?" he talks to the camera in the new series, bringing his famously interactive energy.

Interview Highlights

Who are you hoping will find this program?

Everyone in the world. No — we want everyone on earth to have a scientific view of the world. This is not to say that everyone should become a full-time professional scientist or researcher. But we want everyone to be literate enough with respect to science that he or she can make good judgments. As I say all the time — science is political. It's always been political, it's just not partisan. And I'm not splitting hairs here, these are two very different things. Our policies, what we do with our intellect and treasure, as a society, depends on science whether you're aware of it or not. What the Department of Agriculture does, what the military does, what National Aeronautics and Space Administration does — all depends on making decisions about how to allocate resources that we hope are informed by the process of science. ...

On whether he feels he's now playing defense given the current political context

Actually I would say I'm playing offense — it's funny you should say that to me, funny you should look at it that way — but we did these shows before the presidential election, so they are somehow more relevant than ever, I'll give you that. But no, not an NPR listener, no, you would never take technology for granted — no. When you look at your mobile phone, you immediately think about field effect transistors — of course you are! But some people do take it for granted. And, as Carl Sagan remarked, if you have a society that's increasingly dependent on technology, and a smaller and smaller fraction of that society understands how it all works, that is a formula for disaster.

On why he thinks less people understand "how it all works"

'Cause I failed! Because we have not emphasized science in our school system and we have elected people who are aggressively anti-science. There's a trend right now, which we hope to reverse, that what you believe is somehow every bit as valid as discoveries made through the process of science — and that is anti-science. The whole idea in science is to find things that are objectively true.

On his high-profile debate with Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, and whether debating people with "anti-science" ideas elevates them and their beliefs

Two things: Note that that debate has had 7 million views. Which indicates to me that somebody's interested in it — somebody that is being made aware of the counter arguments that wasn't before. And the second thing, what happened in Kentucky, I understand that Answers in Genesis raised a lot of money, had envelopes with my picture on them — "Bill Nye said the following horrible thing" — I paraphrase but only a little bit. The reason that he was able to do that, or the Answers in Genesis Ministry was able to do that was because of the like-minded people in government. And the thing that I'm working on now is, how can someone be confronted with the overwhelming evidence for the efficacy of vaccines, for example, the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change and still not accept it? How is this possible? And I believe right now the best hypothesis is what you would call in psychology, cognitive dissonance. Where you have a world view, you're presented with evidence that conflicts with your worldview, you either got to change your entire worldview which you've held for decades your whole life, or deny the evidence. And denying the evidence is easier. But I believe that if we stick with it, people will come around.

On how he feels about the future state of research

First of all, as I say to everybody, if you like to worry about things, you are living in a great time. But you've got to be optimistic people, you've got to think that you're going to solve these problems or you're not going to solve them. And we can do this people — it's cool! The future's going to be exciting!

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Liz Baker is a producer on NPR's National Desk based in Los Angeles, and is often on the road producing coverage of domestic breaking news stories.

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