Hey Bill Nye! If Scientific Discoveries Are Dangerous, Should They Be Censored?

There is censorship in science, admits Bill Nye – but not nearly as much as there should be.

Taylor Packard: Hey Bill Nye it's Taylor Packard. I was wondering what you think about the censorship of scientific discoveries if the discovery could be used in a hurtful way. If there were censorship how should the censorship process be designed and what groups should be involved in determining what the public does and does not get to know? Thanks so much.

Bill Nye: Taylor. Taylor. Taylor. We in the scientific community have this process, we have this censorship process in the sense that we have what's called peer review. This is where somebody comes up with a scientific claim or belief or test result, experimental result, other people read it, read the paper, study his or her results and see if there's any validity to them. And then if there is that paper or that information gets published. So there is in a sense scientific censorship in a sense. If someone makes an extraordinary claim that's silly or can provably wrong there are systems in place to point out that this thing is not true and ignore it, it didn't work, it's not relevant.

However, we're living in a time when there's virtually no censorship. Everything ends up on the World Wide Web. Information is available to everybody. So the real challenge is not censorship, it's what I would call critical thinking or self-censorship where you need the ability, we all need the ability to read all this information or be exposed to all his information and decide whether or not it's true. As we record this right now late in the year 2016 there's a spate or a fad or a trend of news sources which aren't real. We here at Big Think like to think we're super real. This is it. This is the place to tune in. But there's a big trend right now to create false news, things that look like real news that aren't. The journalistic traditions, which are consistent with the peer review process in science, are being overwhelmed or overrun by the ability of anyone to put anything he or she wants on the electric Internet.

So it is up to you Taylor to learn to sort this stuff out. Now, along this line if you're talking about secrecy, secrecy is a big deal in the military. I had security clearance very briefly and you just take it really seriously because you think the security of your native country is at stake. And along this line the real places you need security are no longer really satellite photos and the top speed of certain aircraft or how long a submarine can remain submerged, those aren't the secrets that are concerning us now, it's what's on the Internet, what information is stored electronically, the Department of Defense or the European Space Agency or what have you. That's the information that needs to be secured now and when you say sensor I heard you refer to who's going to adjudicate it or who's going to be at the top, who's going to make the decisions. And those traditions of secrecy I think, in the military anyway, will be there for a long time. But the real problem is the lack of censorship. All this information is everywhere so we need to find ways to sort it out because there's no stopping it.

When you try to retract something that's been published electronically it's very difficult. What we need is people to notice that whatever was clearly false that was published was clearly false. That is a great question and it's one for your generation Taylor. Use your critical thinking skills. Evaluate evidence. Don't believe everything you read or see. On the other hand, there are some things that you can read that are true. Atomic number of rubidium is one of my favorites. It's 37. You can look it up. Thank you.

There are certainly some science labs and military research projects that are for classified eyes only, says Bill Nye, but in his view the more pressing issue regarding science and censorship is the proliferation of exaggerated and twisted science studies, and outright pseudoscience on the internet. It's a topic particularly relevant in the wake of heightened fake news awareness. We ordinary citizens may never crack the code of the secret projects government scientists may or may not be working on, but we can get busy educating ourselves and fine-tuning our critical thinking skills so we aren't led astray by false stories.


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

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
  • Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
Keep reading Show less

What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.