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

Climate change is a topic that's politically charged rather than scientifically charged. Bill Nye offers tips for how those on the side of science can begin to have meaningful conversations with skeptics.

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.

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.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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