Bill Nye Says Science Can Survive Trump, But Don't Use His Approach

The Science Guy doesn't seem to be converting anybody.

Flickr / Obama White House

Bill Nye, a longtime science popularizer and educator, says that confronting science deniers with cold, hard facts can help science survive these strange times, but the fact remains that the power of anti-science beliefs is alive and well. President Donald Trump calls climate change a Chinese hoax, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which is meant to protect the nation against hazards like industrial chemicals and the effects of a warming climate, is now headed by chemical industry insiders and climate change deniers.

But on Friday, Nye said he remains optimistic that science can survive the Trump administration.

Nye’s film Bill Nye: Science Guy has premiered in select theaters, and in anticipation of the film, he spoke with TIME about how he thinks we can still save science. In the film, the Science Guy goes toe-to-toe with science deniers like creationist Ken Ham in an effort to combat what he sees as the triumph of personal belief over rigorous and legitimate scientific inquiry.

“My biggest concern is that this idea that one’s own opinion is given the same weight as what’s scientifically understood,” Nye told TIME. “We want to be able to get people to evaluate evidence and think critically about events and phenomena they see in nature.”

Bill Nye says that science will survive the Trump administration, but it's not clear whether his approach will work.

Getty Images / Michael Loccisano

There’s a fatal problem with his stance: Nye is speaking a different language than the people he’s trying to convince. No matter how often he owns flat-Earthers, he still has a long way to go if he wants to convince his opponents.

Framing them as “opponents” may be one of the biggest obstacles to reaching an understanding. Derek Muller, a science communicator and special correspondent on Bill Nye Saves the World, says that framing scientific issues as partisan issues creates a gulf between people.

“How do we convince people about science? The research shows that people get into these tribes, and facts might not matter,” Muller told Inverse in April. “How do we change minds if what we’re really trying to change is identity?”

While Nye does not generally engage in partisan rhetoric when he discusses science and tries to convert nonbelievers, the idea that people will eventually be convinced as he presents them with sufficient evidence doesn’t seem to be bearing out. As Inverse has previously discussed in the context of conspiracy theories like flat-Eartherism and moon landing trutherism, science often fails to convince believers because they fundamentally don’t trust science. And where can you go with that?

When it comes to Nye’s confrontations with people like Ken Ham, whose Creation Museum in Kentucky erroneously depicts humans alongside dinosaurs, conspiracy theories aren’t at play, but religion is. And religion is similarly impossible to debunk.

Bill Nye, the science guy that he is, doesn’t seem like he’s capable to move past this idea that science will eventually convince people. In this way, Nye unwittingly engages in the same tribalism that Muller says will never bring about mutual understanding. After all, how can Nye find common ground when he believes he’s got the right answer and others have the wrong answer?

Perhaps he hopes we can just wait it out, depending on partisan politics to run its cycle, at which point more pro-science leaders will come into power. Then he won’t have to convince anybody.

“As what I hope is the last gasp of the anti-science movement, we have this extraordinary administration with extraordinary people heading up the Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency,” Nye told TIME. “But that’s going to pass.”

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