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Bill Nye believes that science can make America great again

“It really is, for me, unpatriotic to deny science,” says the host of Netflix’s Bill Nye Saves the World.

Bill Nye Saves the World
Bill Nye Saves the World
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you don’t hear the words “Bill Nye” and automatically fill in, mentally, “the Science Guy” (ideally with the exact right tune and rhythm from his old theme song), then you probably weren’t alive during the 1990s, when Nye’s series (Bill Nye, the Science Guy, naturally) became a hit with kids, parents, and teachers throughout the country. A former engineer and stand-up comedian, Nye has an ability to blend introductions to scientific concepts with goofy humor that made him an intergenerational favorite.

Since that show left the air in 1998, Nye has become an evangelist for the joys of understanding the way the world works. Yet even as he’s worked to continue educating everybody about science, science has become more of a hot-button issue than ever before, leaving Nye in the middle of political debates over climate change.

Hence his new Netflix series, Bill Nye Saves the World, now in its second season. (Watch it on Netflix.) It’s a talk show, sort of, but it’s also a series filled with scientific demonstrations, reported segments, and comedy bits. It’s like a variety show where everything revolves around science somehow.

When Nye joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I wanted to talk about his new show, sure, but also about how his hopes for America’s embrace of science have shifted and changed over the years — especially recently. And what Nye believes is that celebrating science isn’t just necessary; it’s downright patriotic.

A portion of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Todd VanDerWerff

What’s the biggest intersection in the Venn diagram of being an engineer and making a TV show?

Bill Nye

You have to be organized. We’re here in Hollywood, where everybody is familiar with what we like to call “the industry.” And there’s a call sheet. Everybody shows up at a certain time. There’s many, many jobs. Everybody has a job. Everybody’s expected to do the job, and everybody wants to do the job.

And for me, as an engineer, you’ve gotta plan. You’ve got something you want to do, and you have an objective. This is to say, I wanted to get kids excited about science, so the United States would be the world leader in electric vehicles, transportation systems, stewardship of the environment. How do we accomplish that? You gotta have a plan! And because it’s a TV show, it has to be entertaining.

That’s different from a lot of engineering projects — however, good engineering invites right use, and so by that I mean, if you get in a car, you hope that the user, the driver, can figure out what every switch does. When a pilot’s sitting in the pilot’s seat, you hope he or she can figure out what to do based on other airplanes that he or she has flown. And in the same way, you hope that the viewer will want to keep watching, will want to use the product.

Todd VanDerWerff

I have a 6-year-old nephew who is obsessed with science. He gets one of those mail kits that has little experiments in it. ... But I think about how I was like that at his age, and I know so many people who were like that at his age, and then science stops being pure or fun or something like that. When and why do you think that happens?

Bill Nye

So the why is a huge question, but the when is pretty well understood. It’s sometime after you’re 10. We had very compelling research back in the day that 10 years old was about as old as you could be to get the so-called lifelong passion for science. And if it’s not 10, it’s 12. It ain’t 17. It’s certainly not 23.

Apparently, it has to do with teachers just having a zillion other things to do. And you don’t want everybody to be a scientist, and you certainly don’t want everybody to be an engineer. The fashion problems associated with that would be really troubling. I used to have jokes about how my pants didn’t reach the floor as an engineer. Now it’s a fashion, to not wear socks and have short pants. [Old man voice:] Sheesh. These kids today.

What we want to do is not have everybody be an engineer or scientist, but have everybody appreciate it, appreciate the great value of science. This is why right now it’s really so troubling and why we are doing the Bill Nye Saves the World show. This anti-science movement is so strong.

There are really people on the electric Internet running around, apparently, for real, seriously questioning whether or not the Earth is a ball. You’re freaking kidding me! What about the clothes you’re wearing? Everything you’re wearing was made in another country, with very few exceptions, because people are able to navigate the world’s oceans, because they figured out the Earth is a ball. And all the satellites and cell phones we have now are derived entirely from people plying the trackless ocean with sextants and confidence in their ability to sail, so this idea that the Earth could be flat is so weird.

The idea that this 300-year-old technology of vaccinations is not real. Are you crazy? What’s happened to us? The other day, it was pointed out that the largest radio telescope is being built in China. The US that I grew up in, the largest radio telescope was going to be US-controlled. It was built in Puerto Rico and is still there, at Arecibo. This idea that you can not embrace science and remain economically competitive will catch up with us very quickly.

2018 Winter TCA Tour - Day 14
Bill Nye appears at the 2018 Television Critics Association winter press tour.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

[For a long time], there was sort of this agreement [between the parties] that science was real and was something we should care about. That increasingly is in debate, I’d say, and you have become sort of accidentally a political figure.

Bill Nye

That’s right. That was not my intention. Hey, everybody! I’ll stop talking about climate change as soon as we do something about it.

Todd VanDerWerff

What has that journey been like for you, both as somebody within it but also as an observer of this country?

Bill Nye

It’s heartbreaking, in a way, but it also fills me with passion.

My parents were both veterans of World War II. The US Navy hired many, many very large construction companies, and my dad went to work for one of them to build up the nest egg, so he could marry the woman who became my mom. And he took a job on Wake Island. ... They were bombed on December 8. They fought back for a couple weeks, and they were eventually captured. He spent almost four years as a prisoner of war.

My mother was recruited to work on code-breaking for the US. She was a Navy lieutenant when she got all done with it. And so they were both veterans, and they were both very progressive in their political views, but they were patriots, I think because of this experience that everyone at that time shared. Everybody during World War II was doing something about World War II. I grew up with this patriotism.

When I see people denying science for what seem to be economic reasons — this is to say, “I’m in the oil business; I don’t want to stop selling oil, so I’m going to pretend that climate change isn’t happening” — it’s just heartbreaking.

It really is, for me, unpatriotic to deny science. What made the United States the world leader that it has been my whole life is our technology. So I was brought up with this patriotism that is based on science, based on the process that enables us to innovate. ... This denial of science is heartbreaking. I guess I said that 16 times, and I should say it 17.

For much more with Nye, including the story of how he went from engineer to entertainer (complete with clips of his early work on local Seattle TV!), his thoughts on the genius of Steve Martin, and his ideas on how to confront the backfire effect, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.