Bill Nye on embracing scientific reasoning: 'We would be done with this pandemic'
"People are scared," says the science guy, who's teaching a new MasterClass. "And that's where knowledge is of great value -- that's how you can overcome fear."
Monisha RavisettiFormer Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments.
Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry.
When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Say the name Bill Nye, someone might yell "the science guy," and a nearby millennial will unlock a memory. They're sitting in a classroom as their teacher rolls out a cart holding an outdated television. The lights dim, the room cools. They're buckled up for what feels like the apex of all science videos.
An unforgettable theme song, "Bill, Bill, Bill…" starts ringing in their ears. Wearing a snazzy bow tie, the former mechanical engineer appears on screen with a gooey experiment to explain how science permeates everything.
But since childhood, kids who grew up on the show -- myself included -- haven't all had time to think about volcanoes, comets and electric currents. We're too busy worrying about taxes, deadlines and politics.
But in a new MasterClass, over 13 lessons, Nye shares a timely reminder: Science is still everywhere.
"Look around the room where you are," he said over the phone in the same enthusiastic tone of Bill Nye, the Science Guy episodes. "Every shape you can see came out of somebody's head. Somebody thought of that." That someone, he says, was likely an engineer trained in science.
To Nye, science isn't just awesome, it offers a way to look at the world. "It's about philosophy," Nye said in a much more serious tone. "It's about a way of thinking."
The beginning will meet the end
If there's one thing I've learned from Nye, it's that the scientific method isn't just for science.
The format goes something like this: You notice a phenomenon, come up with a hypothesis for why it's happening, design an experiment to test that hypothesis, run the experiment and see how the results stack up. Then you start over to strengthen your evidence.
"I've asked people, 'When you paint a wall, does the paint get dry from the top before the bottom or does it dry from the bottom up?' People say to me, well, which is it? And I say, try it. Don't take my word for it, try it. You can know this."
After several trials, if your hypothesis turns out to be wrong, you can make a new one. Being wrong isn't a bad thing, Nye insists, but a productive step toward truth -- and the beginning of any process is key to fostering a better outcome.
"We all want to hurry; we all want to just get started," he said of anyone painting the walls of a room. "But I claim there's great value in figuring out how much paint you're going to need, what color it's really going to be, what size and style of brush you're going to need and taking all the time to cover the furniture and the floor and everything else before you start painting."
When it comes to scientific topics, scientists perform this method with infinitesimally great detail over many, many years. As such, Nye distinguishes between matters we should personally study from the bottom up and those we must trust experts on.
A worldwide spotlight on science
At the crux of public discussions right now are two undeniably scientific topics: the global pandemic and the climate crisis. But in an era of misinformation, those discussions don't always align with scientific truth.
"We have an enormous number of people here, in the world's most technically advanced society, who don't want to get vaccinated because they believe that their online research is every bit as valid as scientific research conducted by medical professionals," Nye said, calling it his "mission in life" to help people filter past false information on the internet.
To date, over 5 million people worldwide have died of COVID-19, but according to Our World In Data, only 57% of the global population has received at least one dose of the life-saving vaccine. Among other things, the low number is the result of hesitancy and insufficient supply, particularly to low-income nations.
"We would be done with this pandemic if our society had embraced the importance of it and not only gotten vaccinated, but exported vaccines to the developing world so that we wouldn't have the omicron variant, by way of example," Nye said.
He emphasized that right now is a terrific time to place value in the work of scientists. "People are scared," he said. "And that's where knowledge is of great value -- that's how you can overcome fear."
Climate change, on the other hand, grows more concerning by the day. Having already heavily impacted developing regions like Bangladesh and threatening large swaths of richer countries like the US, it's responsible for an increase in forest fires, cyclones, droughts, animal extinction and several other forms of devastation.
In a nod to 2006 documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, which follows Al Gore's quest to educate the public about climate change, Nye suggests representatives express a limited reaction because it's just too "inconvenient" to stop burning coal, for instance, even though science shows coal burning could contribute to the erosion of Earth's atmosphere.
Still, Nye exuded a familiar air of optimism, paralleling the mood of his MasterClass lessons. "The world is slowly changing," he said, "and I'm excited about the future because young people are not going to keep this up."
Science still rules
Enjoying the measuring, Nye says, is just as important as distilling a conclusion; a grand understanding of basic science can aid us on smaller scales, even serendipitously.
"We each have ancestors that took the risk of going over the hill into the unknown valley, just to see what was over there -- and made some extraordinary discovery," he said.
Nye calls the cost of endeavors like space exploration "tiny" compared with the benefits they'll one day afford us. Whether it be finding life on another world, which he believes will change our world, or something relatively simpler, "basic research is almost priceless."
"There's a hexagonal storm on the north pole of Saturn -- a six-sided storm," Nye pointed out. "You know why it has six sides and it's at the north pole of Saturn? Nobody knows. But once that's figured out, I guarantee you it will inform our understanding of weather on Earth."
One reservation he has is with the concept of creating a civilization on Mars, calling it "much harder than it looks -- there's no air, there's no food." In particular, he compares a settlement on the red planet to living in Antarctica. Though humans have sailed all over the world for centuries, he said, no one has set up camp to live long-term in Antarctica.
"I'm open-minded, but Mars is really cold. I just don't think you want to settle. Having a science base where they're going outside in their spacesuits looking for stuff, that I am on board with."
In line with his dreams of a lunar base, Nye's love and curiosity for science is as potent as it was when I watched his show in science class. However, though he peppered his statements with fascinating facts -- like how cool it is that our Zoom call is powered by a multitude of transistors -- he acknowledged that over time, "you get fatigued."
"You've got to get to work, you've got to meet the writing deadline, you've got to go to the grocery store ... you don't take time to absorb and remain curious. But I would say if that's really what's happening, fight that."