'Hey Bill Nye, How Do I Engage Skeptics in Meaningful Climate Change Discussion?'

Television Host and Science Educator

Danny Miller is at odds with many of his friends; they don’t believe in climate change, but he does. It’s a predicament Bill Nye can lend some guidance on; science skeptics and climate change deniers have been one of his longest uphill battles in the public sphere.

So what is Nye’s advice for having meaningful discussions with climate change deniers and perhaps even bringing them slowly around to see reason? Nye admits that public figures who deny climate change have been alarmingly successful at casting doubt over the credibility of science so, as a starting point, it’s important to choose your language carefully. The word 'theory' has lost its integrity in recent years – it seems like anyone these days can have a theory. “I have a theory it’s raining outside,” Nye jokes, with a hint of sadness. So understanding and relaying the real definition of the word to people you don’t see eye to eye with can be a crucial tool.

Most people hear the word “theory” and assume it’s an idea or statement in need of proof. A scientist hears the word “theory” and recognizes it as certifiable fact because it’s been proven. A hypothesis is one thing, that’s the first step towards an idea becoming a theory. When a hypothesis is proven, then it is a theory. So climate change theory isn’t a wishy washy idea people can choose to believe in or not; it’s backed by data, and is a concrete concept.

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

  • Transcript


Danny Miller: Hello Bill. My name is Danny Miller. Politically I tend to be conservative. I believe that anthropogenic global warming is real and that the Big Bang Theory and evolution are perfectly valid theories. Obviously this puts me at odds with most people in my demographic and I find that conversations with my peers on these topics usually develop into arguments on some other random subject entirely. My question to you is why are these topics so politically charged in the matters of science and not politics and how do I engage into meaningful conversation? Thank you for answering.

Bill Nye: Danny. Danny. Danny. You have touched on a subject that I find
fascinating and I've spent a lot of time on myself so I'm really glad you asked this. But when it comes to anthropogenic global climate change, or human caused global climate change, it's politicized because of the fossil fuel industry. And I've spent a lot of time with this, I've asked myself as a native of the United States. I have an engineering agree in the United States; I've got my license and I practice - I'm an engineer in the United States. Why is the United States not of the world leader in addressing climate change? Why isn't the United States the world leader in renewable energies, better water purification or desalinization techniques? Better ways to provide the Internet to everyone on earth? Why isn't of the U.S. leading?

And I am satisfied it's because of the success of the denial community or the deniers. They have managed to introduce the idea that scientific uncertainty, plus or minus two percent about whatever it might be, is the same as plus or minus a hundred percent. There's doubt about the whole thing and that's wrong. So what to do about it? What I always remind myself, and the example I learned from or claim I learned from was what we traditionally call skeptical thought or skeptical point of view or clinical thinking, when you tell somebody who reads her or his horoscope everyday that horoscopes are false, that there is no scientific evidence people have tried over and over to validate horoscopes and there is no connection between what is written on those pages and what happens in your life, none. And even the whole idea of the full moon that there are more hospital visits on a full moon is false. You can show it; it's not complicated. There are no more hospital visits on a full moon than other times. Okay. The first time someone you're having a conversation with hears these things he or she is troubled and reacts, might push you away. But what you do, in my opinion, is you chip away at it. The first time the person hears this that the fossil fuel industry cherry picks data, the fossil fuel industry as thrown a lot of money at conservative members of U.S. Congress in order to support their political campaigns if they will support, for example, no changes in the way coal is mined, for example.

The first time they hear it they reject it. But if you just chip away at it after a while I think you can convince people, bring them around to your point of view. And the other thing just important I think will help focus your discussions is the word theory. The word theory is a word we throw around all the time. I have a theory it's raining outside. But in science a theory is a special thing and it's not complicated, it means you can make a prediction. If you have a theory of evolution you can make predictions about living things in nature based on your theory. You can make predictions about climate change based on measuring atmospheric gases and making computer models that jive or work together well with evidence in geology or in ancient rocks. If you have a theory of time, we were talking recently about relativity, you can make predictions based on the theory and the productions will be true.

So when you are having these discussions with people just see what it is, see if they have a way with their point of view that enables them to make predictions. So talking some more about me, as you may know I bet two renowned or notorious climate change deniers, I bet them each $20,000 and neither of them will take the bet. I was willing to put $40,000 of my own money on the table that 2016 will be among the top ten hottest years ever recorded, the decade 2010/2020 will be the hottest decade ever recorded and neither one of these guys, neither Marc Morano or Joe Bastardi would take those bets because they know, in my opinion, they know better. And so their beliefs or what they claim, more accurately what they claim their beliefs are about the earth's climate system really don't make any predictions about it. And so just ask your friends how they feel about making a prediction based on their theories.

And to give you an example, this is just kind of fun but annoying, there's a species of mosquito now in the London underground, in the subway of London that generally cannot mate with mosquitoes at the surface. These mosquitoes molestus live in the underground in the subway tubes because there's so much to eat there, that is to say you and me. And apparently they really started making this migration late in the 1800s but the mosquitoes got very successful during World War II when these subway stations were used as bomb shelters and the people would be down there at night and these insects have lived down there without the need to go upstairs for decades and so they're now genetically diversion enough from their ancestors that they can't mate with them successfully. And evolution can make predictions like that. Other theories about a deity that waived his or her hand and created all these insects or other species cannot make any such predictions. They would have made no such prediction about an emergent species in the London subway and so on and so on. So see if you can focus your discussions with your friends on predictions and the place to start, don't want to get into a big thing about it but that's what a theory is in science is it makes predictions. Good luck. Keep us posted. Let us know how it comes out. Thanks for calling. Thanks for video recording. Carry on.