‘The Science Guy’ Brings Quirky Intelligence to Lisner Auditorium

Popular educator Bill Nye advocates for critical thought, scientific process.

Bill Nye
(Rob Stewart/GW Today)
November 20, 2014


In spite of Wednesday’s frigid weather, the line from Lisner Auditorium stretched around the block. The mostly cheerful ticketholders—singing his theme song and carrying copies of his book to be signed—were there to see a rock star of a very particular kind.

In front of a packed and enthusiastic house at Lisner Auditorium, Emmy Award-winning science educator Bill Nye joined National Public Radio science correspondent Joe Palca for a funny, frank and engaging discussion about the state of critical thought in America, presented by the Smithsonian Associates. A book signing followed the conversation.

Many in the audience were once viewers of Mr. Nye’s show, “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” which ran on public broadcasting networks from 1993 to 1998 and is still used by many educators as a teaching aid.

Nattily clad in a suit and his trademark bow tie, Mr. Nye brought to Lisner the same earnest charm that made him such a popular figure during the audience’s childhood—but now he addressed them as adults.

He had come to Lisner to discuss his new book, “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation,” but the free-ranging discussion spanned topics from stem cell research to genetically modified food.

The issues were “all of a piece,” said Mr. Nye, who in February held a public debate against Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. All were symptomatic of what he sees as an alarming tendency in American culture to undervalue reason.

“For example, in the case of [Mr. Ham’s organization] Answers in Genesis, they are strident that climate change is not a problem. That’s part of their package,” he said. “And that’s, you know, wrong.”

During the debate, Mr. Nye said, he was struck by the unflinching obstinacy of his opponent, who insisted that the Earth was 6,000 years old. When he asked whether there was anything he could say that would shift Mr. Ham’s position, Mr. Ham memorably replied, “No.”

“Imagine you’re in court, and that guy’s on the jury,” Mr. Nye said in wonder. “ ‘Do you want to hear the evidence?’ ‘No, I’m good.’ Wow!”

Mr. Nye said he has a deep respect for faith in itself. “We all believe in something we have no evidence for. And that’s fine, as long as we keep it separate from the processes of science and critical thinking.”

It’s not Mr. Ham and his contemporaries, however, who trouble Mr. Nye most, but the children who are “indoctrinated” by public-school curricula that include Creationism as a viable scientific model.

“It’s not in anybody’s best interest to raise a generation of science students who can’t reason and have no critical thinking skills,” he said.

Though his current work has focused on Creationism, Mr. Nye said his chief preoccupation is climate change, which he believes seems “far off” and may be “too easy to set aside.”

But denying climate change, he said, is a mind-boggling position to take, especially in view of the fact that those in a practical position to consider the future—engineers, architects and the military—are already preparing for the inevitable reality of its effects.

“I want everybody to talk to your friends about climate change,” Mr. Nye said, pointing out that the recent blizzard in Buffalo, N.Y., seemed to be consistent with climate change models. “The more we talk about it, the more it might enter the public conversation in a way that enables us to vote in a more enlightened fashion.”

Mr. Nye also answered questions from the audience, including which animals he would bring back from extinction (Steller’s sea cow and the dodo bird, although he admitted that “If you had a Tyrannosaurus, that would be really cool”) and what scientific advances he hoped to see in his lifetime (a better battery for clean energy storage and a way to desalinate water, among others).

Although Mr. Nye is CEO of the Planetary Society, which advances space science and exploration, he said a manned mission to Mars was not among his priorities.

“What do we want to do there?” he asked skeptically, adding that although bringing back evidence of life on Mars or probing the seas of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, would be colossal scientific achievements, these didn’t require long-term human settlement. “If you really think it’s cool to go to Mars and be a pioneer, just go to Antarctica.”

When asked what his role was as an educator and humorist, Mr. Nye replied with a showman’s goofiness, but also with real sincerity.

“I am working as hard as I can to—dare I say it—change the world,” he said.