Column: Bill Nye on the terrifying ascendancy of American ‘dingbatitude’


From the Emmy-winning “science guy on” the PBS children’s television program to the lab-coat crusader who “saves the world” on Netflix, Bill Nye is a longtime science-is-entertaining educator, a onetime mechanical engineer and a perpetual science lover. He writes books at the publishing equivalent of the speed of light, and the latest, “Everything All at Once,” brought him to Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange events at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles, where he extolled science education for every kid in every classroom. The head of the Planetary Society wants to recruit nerds from all walks of life to join him in “radical curiosity,” and he nailed his flag to the mast over that deep divide in the world of scientists, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”?

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What are the qualifications of a nerd? What do you have to be?

You have got to be into something — you have to be passionate about something. I like tinkering, I’m a tinkerer. So I became a mechanical engineer. But I can imagine people are nerdy about all sorts of things and we want you to take that passion and do something great with it. Save the world!

This book covers a lot of territory. It goes to problem solving, and there’s the title, “Everything All at Once.” But you’re a fan of monotasking. Your license plate advances the cause of mono-tasking.

My license plate frame says “try monotasking.” Sure, you want to be driving and texting and eating an ice cream cone and faxing or whatever one does. But just try doing one thing at a time.

Nevertheless, you’ve got to keep the idea that we have a lot of problems to solve here as humankind on Earth. You know, you know humans now move more earth and rock than Mother Nature does. I mention that to point out that we have a responsibility. We are in charge now of the planet. So you can’t just solve one problem or another problem. We have to solve all the problems and we have to solve them all at once.

And so what I want: for everyone in the world to have access to clean water, reliably produced renewable electricity and access to the Internet or whatever the future of electronic information is called — worldwide information — and that will almost certainly involve space assets, low-altitude satellites handing the Internet signals from one to the other like a mobile phone call, but literally on a global scale. So let’s go! Get that done!

You probably saw the recent Pew poll that found that, two years ago, 54% of Republicans said colleges and universities have a positive impact. Now 58% say it’s negative. Even a number of Democrats —

Universities have a negative impact? Well, that’s not good news. So, OK — why are universities bad?

This poll finds that some people say they have a negative impact on “the way things are going.” And it seems to me that we are in retreat in some ways from having any regard for knowledge.

This is it — the so-called experts: What do they know? They’re experts, for crying out loud! One’s intuition about climate change is not as good as facts about climate change.

What keeps the United States competitive in the economic sphere is innovation, new ideas. And new ideas come from science.

It just sounds like people are scared. It just sounds like people are afraid. And the people who are afraid in general — with due respect, and I am now one of them — are older. Climate change deniers, by way of example, are older. It’s generational. So we’re just going to have to wait for those people to “age out,” as they say. “Age out” is a euphemism for “die.” But it’ll happen, I guarantee you — that’ll happen.

One of your book chapters is “everybody knows something you don’t.” But here’s a cartoon from “The New Yorker.” It’s a man standing on a plane with his hand in the air, and he’s yelling —

hand in the air, facing the passengers, most of whom have their hands up. And he says, “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly this plane?”

So is this what we’re up against?

Kind of. That’s pretty insightfully, ironically brilliant. Flying a plane is something that takes practice. You’d just as soon have experts that are good of that.

We love the practical impact of technology, we love the new iPhone, and yet we retreat from the abstract, like the idea of theory. In science “theory” is different from the way people regard it in real life.

That’s always been kind of a problem. The word “theory” is a special thing in science. Do you know what the special thing in science is? You can make a prediction. A theory is a system of thought that provides a prediction you can verify by observation and experiment. As the saying goes, the climate’s changing whether you believe it or not, and we’ve got to get to work on this.

I was born in the U.S., I went to engineering school in the U.S., I got my engineering license in the U.S., so I’m all about the U.S. And I want us to lead instead of not lead. And I don’t know how long you can sustain things if everybody hates you around the world.

Why do people like conspiracy theories? Is it because it’s easy?

Easy!! Wouldn’t it be nice if there were just 60 people screwing everything up? Just go find those 60 people and tell ’em to cut it out! But it’s a much bigger problem than that.

Those of you out here who want to deny humans landing on the moon, if you’re into that — look at the amount of paper NASA generated. You couldn’t afford to fake that much paper! I’m not kidding, you guys. It’d be prohibitively expensive. There’s warehouses full of documents, of specifications and drawings and engineering drawings and so on — just that alone would overwhelm you as a faker.

Buzz Aldrin [the Apollo 11 astronaut and the second human to set foot on the moon] punched out a man who called him a liar and a coward for saying he had landed on the moon.

Oh, he was fed up with that guy.

Have you ever been tempted?

Oh no! No no! [laughs]. Oh no, Mr. Carlson. I don’t know if you saw that, me and Mr. [Fox TV host Tucker] Carlson. It was …

We have the situation where people are acting against their own self-interest, and that thing about universities and colleges that you mentioned is probably part of that. What keeps the United States competitive in the economic sphere is innovation, new ideas.

And new ideas come from science, and they come from basic research and they come in sometimes from universities and colleges. You say “the Department of Defense” — well, they get their innovators from universities.

It’s not that we want everyone to be a scientist — and believe me, we do not want everyone to be an engineer, no. The fashion crisis alone would be troubling.

No, you just want people who support it. You want a voting populace that supports innovation, attorneys who protect intellectual property, venture capitalists who make it possible, people who sweep the floors in the buildings where the innovators are innovating – you want everybody to support the tradition of new ideas.

I grew up in the Space Age. I’m of a certain age. People presumed that NASA could do anything. And still NASA is the best brand the United States has; you travel anywhere in the world, people hate the U.S. but they respect the space program. And the space program is so well-respected that many countries have a space program. Vietnam has a space program. South Africa. Mexico is revving up. Britain is re-revving its space program, because people know what it does for your society.

There’s this optimism, and you solve problems that have never been solved before, and you make discoveries that influence the way everybody feels about living in the cosmos. So it’s of great value. And NASA is still the largest space agency in the world, larger than most other space agencies combined.

Where did our official enthusiasm for science go?

For me it was in the 1980s. People started taking it for granted. And — of course, everybody loved him — it was Mr. Reagan, or the people around him who were very influential, in taking solar panels off the roof of the White House, curtailing the efforts to teach schoolchildren the metric system — this was all kind of a throwback time for me.

So you ask, when did it start to go to heck? It was along about that era when this presumption that making money was the best thing that you could do; that was like the greatest achievement of anybody, was to make money. You know, I don’t mind it, but it’s not all I’m into.

The classic opponent of knowledge is ignorance. But now there seems to be a willful pushback — people in positions of power or authority who ought to know better. There was a Republican state senator in Kentucky at a hearing on manmade climate change in 2014 who said, “I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that.”

By the way, if you go to Mars, it’s really cold, OK?

And Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is a proponent of the notion that vaccines can cause autism.

That we can understand nature as well as we do is an amazing thing, and worthy of respect. And it’s hard not to be critical of people who want to be ignorant, but I don’t think it can last. I don’t think the celebration of “dingbatitude” can stick with us because we’ll get out-competed by the non-dingbats. People will want to look to non-dingbats to innovate and keep the United States competitive.

As much fun as it sounds, coal mining isn’t really that great of a job. I was in West Virginia a year and a half ago and people are fed up with the coal industry. They’re tired of it. And that’s going to catch up with our leaders sooner or later.

There are a lot of things that sound reasonable that aren’t. And autism with the vaccination is really the classic. The symptoms of autism are diagnosed at about the same age that certain vaccines are administered. It looks like cause and effect. But that is not provably medically.

And for all the anti-vaxxers out there [in the theater audience], you have to get vaccinated. I don’t care about you. If you go ahead and get sick and die, knock yourself out. The reason I insist you get vaccinated is to protect me from you. Me! You get sick, the virus, the bacteria, mutates inside of you. You are the petri dish of death for the rest of us. Vaccines were discovered in the 17-freaking-hundreds, people. It’s not some new freaking thing! So we push back against that.

When you were a Boeing engineer, did you ever expect you’d have to engage politically to defend science?

I know! What the heck is that? I’m not the guy denying climate change. You guys started it. I didn’t want be political. You made it political — clowns. You know, climate change is something we should all be very concerned about, and we should get to work on it as soon as we can. It’s really an extraordinary time. That’s why I wrote the book, to get people excited about the process and how can use our nerdiness to improve things for everyone.

[Regarding carbon dioxide as the principle culprit in climate change], if there were no carbon dioxide, the Earth would be about 30 degrees Celsius colder. This room right now is about 20, 21 degrees Celsius. We all know liquid water would be frozen. That’s the difference caused by carbon dioxide.

The amazing thing to me is the amount of carbon dioxide is tiny. It’s .04 percent of the earth’s atmosphere. It’s 400 parts per million. When I was your age, it was 300 parts per million. It’s gone up by a third in just three decades.

It’s extraordinary. It’s never gone that fast ever in the earth’s history that we can tell from the geologic record. So this is what’s causing climate change, that carbon dioxide going from what used to be 280 parts per million around the year 1750.

1750 is a year we like to choose because it’s when the really usable successful steam engine was invented. It’s never had this much carbon dioxide get into the atmosphere this fast. And that’s why the earth is warming so fast. And it’s our responsibility. Humans did this.

We’ve talked about how “theory” is used differently by lay people and scientists. You also talk about skepticism, which people think is a kind of denial, which it isn’t.

So, skepticism. I think the word is used or interpreted wrongly in two ways. The first one: Skepticism is not the same as cynicism. Being skeptical — that is to say not accepting a claim, especially an extraordinary claim, without evaluating it — is not the same as dismissing the claim outright because you’re cynical.

The other thing is, skepticism is what we call critical thinking. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong. Skepticism and scientific inquiry is often based on a claim. You make a statement and you evaluate it to see whether or not it’s true, and you set up a test, an experiment, to see whether or not it’s true.

That is a process that is a result of not taking something at face value. For example, Macy’s has a holiday motto, “believe.” Get into the fantasy of angels and Tinkerbell people and so on.

But you don’t want to believe for belief’s sake. You want to believe in something for good reason.

And people say that science is like a religion because you have faith in it.

In science we have faith in things because they’re based on experiment and observations that are verifiable. It’s not the same as having faith for faith’s sake. However, what we do have in science and skeptical thought is the belief that the universe or nature is knowable. Every time we come up against something that seems to be unknowable in science, we keep pushing to find out that it is knowable.

Organized religion has had conflicts with science back to Galileo, and before. Are they mutually exclusive?

First of all, there would be no conflict between religion and science. If you have faith in a higher power, good. The amount of support people get from their religions is extraordinary, the community. But the Earth is not 6,000 years old. If your religion makes you critical of me, if it makes you insist that the Earth is 6,000 years old despite the overwhelming evidence it is much older than that, then you have a problem with your religion. It’s not my problem. Well, it actually has become my problem. I’ve made it my problem because of young people. You don’t want to teach young people that the earth is 6,000 years old.

This whole thing about states should have the rights to teach this and that — you guys, it’s just a smokescreen for states that don’t want to teach evolution. Evolution is the main idea of all biology. It’s like not teaching plate tectonics in geology. It’s like not teaching gravity.

People get a lot out of their religion. Science is not out there to take religions down. At least I’m not. But there are provable facts by means of science, or the the scientific method. If your religion conflicts with the provable facts, it’s not science’s problem. You have beliefs that are incompatible with the observable universe.

There’s one issue that has over the decades tended to split the science and nerd community, and I’m going to put it to you to find out which side of this you are on. So, which is it — Team “Star Wars,” or Team “Star Trek”?

I’m of a certain age. I grew up with “Star Trek,” so I’m going with “Star Trek.”

The other thing I will say objectively as viewer of both — “Star Trek” is an optimistic view of the future through science. “Star Wars” is a family story about royalty and conflict in the palace, and also it has magic or religion in it — it has a force which travels across galaxies faster than light, unexplained.

For me, “Star Trek” is my thing.

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