Bill Nye Talks About The Need For Scientific Literacy In Today’s World


Throughout most of the 1990s, Bill Nye used his half-hour show Bill Nye The Science Guy to educate kids (and adults) about the wonders of basic science. In the years since then, Nye would appear as a talking head on cable news outlets as a staunch defender of facts, regularly asserting his views on the reality of climate change and the value of scientific education.

Earlier this year, a documentary on Nye, Bill Nye: Science Guy had its world premiere at SXSW. It chronicled Nye’s time in television, as well as his return to the spotlight, where he passionately defends the necessity of science in today’s world — despite facing constant opposition. We got the chance to talk to Nye — still sporting a bowtie at 10 o’clock in the morning — about how he hopes to use his popularity to help revitalize America’s interest in scientific literacy.

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Right now doesn’t seem like the best time to be a proponent of science.

Well, now the need is more serious than ever. So we’ll see what happens… but my understanding is Mr. [Steve] Bannon is very influential and he wants to dismantle the government from the inside. And one way to do that would be to undermine the organizations that are based on science like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. So I guess that tactic or strategy is so far working. That makes me want to re-double my effort to get people excited about science.

What was it that led us here?

I think people just kind of slacked off. After the success of the moon missions, people took it for granted that the United States would continue to innovate without inspiring people. [By] getting kids in the so-called pipeline, the consequence is you stop innovating and you create the Chevy Vega and the Ford Pinto. Remember, the metric system was being taught in schools and it was abandoned on one afternoon. And the trouble with that is that it limits the United States from being competitive internationally. And that’s the beginning of globalization, I guess. You’ve got to keep up. You can’t mine coal anymore. You’ve got to do something else. That’s just how it is, man.

The metric system is a good example of this, but there’s a whole culture now that seems to gleefully reject science.

Well, the idea that your belief is valid, your world view is valid no matter what evidence it bumps up against. We’ve got to overcome that. I don’t know if that’s sustainable. Can people just keep that up? We were making jokes about our beloved Kellyanne Conway.

Like the spying microwaves?

Technically, that’s not entirely wrong. And for you conspiracy buffs, this might be something for you to think about. There was a technology of beaming, these would be radar waves, off mirrors in conference rooms from across the street. And you could see or you can detect the vibration in the mirror and then therefore convert it to audio.

And this was Russian embassy stuff in the United States. I mean, hold it, it was United States embassy in Russia, and the Russian embassy in the US had all these things. So my mind is racing. Is that something she heard in a meeting? That the Russians used to use radar off mirrors to detect voices to convert to transcriptions?

Your show came about during a period when having scientific programming was a requirement, right?

Three hours a week was the requirement, and the way I remember it, Tipper Gore was really into this. So President Clinton had a meeting about education at the White House. I will say that this is the kind of thing that public broadcasting does all the time. When you owned a certain number of stations in a station group, you had to have three hours of educational programming. You may remember the logo or the icon is a spinning cube and it had EI, Education Information. You still see it now and then.

But stations didn’t have access to programs. [They said] we want you to provide three hours of programming, you’re a station group in Indiana, where do you get three hours of educational programming that meets Tipper Gore’s envisioned great idea? So it was at the right place at the right time. Magic School Bus was also right there, and Sesame Street, and then Barney. There was controversy about Barney, whether or not it was educational. And that just drove [Bill Nye The Science Guy producer] Jim McKenna crazy. Barney was making millions and millions of dollars and “Why aren’t we making millions?” I don’t know, man.

You still carved out a pretty solid legacy in that time.

Oh man, I say all the time, I don’t get it. I mean, I try to grasp it, I try to get my head around it, but it’s so much more influential than anybody thought it would be. I mean, we were in a warehouse, a brick warehouse in Seattle just sort of dinkin’ around.

I grew up with Mr. Wizard and it was very similar; a set built to look like this guy’s living room.

That was the charm of it.

It was the same with your show. It made it accessible when you can just sit there and have a conversation to the audience about the reality that science is everywhere.

That’s it. Science is everywhere. The world is our laboratory. And along that line, Mr. Wizard was doing elementary science demonstrations which we did on the Science Guy show, but when you’re a kid, the grownups are able to make the demonstration cooler than you could. We have Bunsen burners and we have spotlights and giant balloons and stuff. That’s cool. And so as we say in the National Science Teachers Association, we want science every day in every grade, and the irony or the troubling thing is, teaching elementary science is not expensive. It doesn’t take enormous investment. Some balloons.

Vinegar and baking soda.

I’m not kidding. And everybody who works at NASA, who works at Facebook writing software; everybody got inspired about science before they were 10. And we have very good research. Okay, it’s 11. But it ain’t 17, people. It ain’t 19 years old.

So Mr. Wizard provided that for us, right? And the Science Guy show provided that for people. They could get elementary science every day through public broadcasting and so if you want the United States to remain competitive, what you want to do is raise a generation of people who are scientifically literate.

Was there a specific moment that made you realize you needed to get back in the spotlight?

It was a process. Everybody kind of forgets these lesser shows I did that didn’t go anywhere, 100 Greatest Discoveries, 100 Greatest Inventions, Stuff Happens. What’s another one? Eyes of Nye. These are all, in my opinion, people who watched the Science Guy show and thought, ‘well that looks easy,’ but it’s not so easy. We just had some great people that just came together.

You do your recording with a phone?

I have a backup recorder, but I do use my phone.

That has transistor-transistor logic. Field effect transistors. It’s quantum mechanics in your hand. A light-emitting diode. That is just extraordinary. A hundred years ago, no such thing.

Even fifteen years ago, everything this phone does would have filled up a shopping cart.

This is not magic. This is science. To eschew it or ignore it or pretend it’s not important is very troubling. Freaking weird. It’s crazy.

For all these setbacks we’re facing, you still seem optimistic.

You have to be optimistic or you won’t get anything done. If you don’t think you can do something, you ain’t gonna do it. When you look at the engineering analysis of our energy needs, we can power the United States completely renewably right now if we just decide to do it. So people are sooner or later going to figure it out and we’re gonna do it.

So I recommend [to] everybody The Solutions Project. Iowa gets 25% of its electricity from the wind, Texas gets 10%. And that’s competing head-to-head with fossil fuels which are nominally subsidized. All the roads and right-of-ways that move all that oil around, standing military on the other side of the world protecting oilfields. The President made a remark “We should have taken the oil.” Well you wouldn’t need to have that conflict if you didn’t need the energy. So there’s huge opportunities. You’ve gotta be optimistic, people.

As of this writing, Bill Nye: Science Guy doesn’t have a theatrical release, but in the meantime, you can watch his new series, Bill Nye Saves The World, which is currently streaming on Netflix.