Segments of this opinion interview transcript have been edited for clarification.
Gabe Levin: Hey, Cornell! I’m your host, Gabe Levin. This is Under the Sun, a new video podcast series from The Daily Sun where we host prominent alumni and ask for their expert views on topics in the media spotlight. Now, today’s themes are AI and disinformation. But before we get to that, I’d like to introduce my guest and ask him some questions about him and his time at Cornell. A personal hero of mine, Bill Nye is one of Cornell’s most beloved alumni. Throughout his incredible decades-long career as an acclaimed science communicator and outspoken climate activist, he’s inspired millions upon millions of young learners around the globe to be more curious about the world around them. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome my guest, Bill Nye.
Bill Nye: Greetings, Gabe.
Gabe Levin: Thanks for coming on the show.
Bill Nye: Thank you. Any questions on what we’ve covered so far?
Gabe Levin: No questions. Okay.
Bill Nye: That’s a joke, everybody. And I mention it because you said I’m getting people to be serious. True, but humor is important.
Gabe Levin: Humor is very important.
Bill Nye: Back to you.
Gabe Levin: Okay, so you’ve inspired so many young people. And I just want to know who or what inspired you to go into science communication?
Bill Nye: Oh, okay. That’s an excellent question. But I am so old. How old are you? I’m so old. I was at Cornell when Carl Sagan was teaching, and I took one class from him, and it changed my life. So Carl Sagan was an accomplished astronomer, predicted the composition of the Martian atmosphere and talked a lot about the greenhouse effect. And he used the phrase Comparative Planetology all the time, comparing Venus to Mars to Earth. But he was almost a poet. I mean, he spoke so eloquently. That really inspired me. But the other thing that happened: I went to engineering school while the U.S. was still a world leader in technology. But people were concerned. And a turning point for me was when I was out in the workforce in 1980 or so, people decided to stop teaching the metric system, to take solar panels off the roof of the White House and U.S. manufacturing produced both the Chevy Vega and the Ford Pinto. These are cars so bad. How bad were they? People just made jokes about them all the time. And an infamous notorious thing happened with the Ford Pinto, where apparently legal scholars at the Ford Motor Company decided it would be cheaper to pay lawsuits resulting from deaths caused by this car rather than fix the car. And the flaw was apparently the gas tank was too close to the exhaust pipe. So if the car got rear ended, gasoline got on the hot exhaust. People get killed in cars all the time. I mean, it’s our thing here in the States, but this was notorious and infamous. And so I got very concerned about U.S. manufacturing and the future, especially the abandoning of the metric system. That was still a thing with me, as you may know. And so I wanted to do something.
Gabe Levin: So that’s why you got into mechanical engineering?
Bill Nye: Well, I went into mechanical engineering because I like bicycles and airplanes. I mean, that’s it. You know, I’m a tinkerer. Apparently, my family has inherited some form of attention deficit. This is all the family myth right now. I go, Yeah, shiny objects. I’m on board.
Gabe Levin: Mine, too. So we’re on the same page there.
Bill Nye: So maybe everybody is, but bicycles and airplanes still charm me. And when I was back on campus just two weeks ago, what’s happening at the Sibley School of Mechanical Engineering is fantastic. The stuff these professors are doing right now is just great.
Gabe Levin: So, for lack of better words, you went to Cornell to figure out how things work as a mechanical engineer. And now circling back to Cornell, I wanted to ask you, what were maybe two or three of your favorite memories from your time here?
Bill Nye: Okay. So I went to Cornell because I got in. Okay. And apologies to everybody out there. I’m pretty sure it was a clerical error in the admissions department that led to this. I had a very good physics teacher in high school who encouraged me to take the AP exam, advanced placement when it was this new thing. Before disco, I took the AP exam, and it changed my life. So if I understand your question, I went into mechanical engineering because I like it. It’s applied physics. And you make things, which is really appealing to me. But while I was at Cornell, I had any number of extraordinary experiences, one of which was in Carl Sagan’s class. And this story came up again very recently when the Jet Propulsion Lab, which is part of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, got back in touch with the Voyager 2 spacecraft because it had gotten out of touch. So the summer after I graduated, summer of 1977, humankind launched these two spacecraft, which are still flying, and we’re still receiving signals from them. And these are the famous spacecraft that have the gold record on the side of the spacecraft.
Gabe Levin: For the aliens!
Bill Nye: Yeah, aliens find this thing in interstellar space. How hard could it be? There’s clear instructions based on the resonant frequency of hydrogen atoms. And you know where it came from just by inferring the binary representation of the number of hydrogen atom cycles to distant pulsars. Just a piece of cake! Any alien can figure that out in just a few Earth minutes. But along with this, Carl Sagan said, you know, with all the other sounds we’re going to put on here, we want to put rock and roll, a rock and roll song. And he said, We’re going to put “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry. And understand that Chuck Berry was still very much in our consciousness. He was the first rock and roller, the guy who crossed over from blues to rock and roll, and this and that. No, no, no, Professor Sagan, No, not roll over Beethoven! That is in comedy writing we would call that a derivative bit. No, what you want is Johnny B. Goode. Johnny B. Goode, Professor Sagan! So that’s what’s on the record. I take full credit. No, there were a few dozen of us in class that day, and that was a cool little moment. Then, I just came from the 50th reunion of the Cornell Ultimate Team, what used to be called the ultimate frisbee team, and learning to play ultimate changed my life. I was graduated. I played with these guys who had gone to Columbia High School in New Jersey, Teaneck, New Jersey, where the game was formalized, the rules were printed, and I went to Seattle and I started the team. And Seattle still has, along with Jeff Jorgensen, a tremendous ultimate presence. A lot of ultimate is played there. And then I had a couple of experiences at Cornell that are just none of your business, just fantastic.
Gabe Levin: Okay. I won’t even get into that.
Bill Nye: Well, it largely had to do with women.
Gabe Levin: Okay. So then you talk a lot about, you know, Carl Sagan, your experiences with him and learning under him. But I also want to know, were there any classes in, you know, totally different subjects like the humanities that inspired you to become who you are today?
Bill Nye: Well, you know, everybody’s favorite phrase there for a few months was cognitive dissonance. Everybody was talking about cognitive dissonance. So and so must have cognitive dissonance. They were not using the phrase properly. I took psychology 102 or 2-o-something excuse me. And cognitive dissonance was spelled out, and we did experiments with cognitive dissonance. And it’s all good. So that’s something I learned at Cornell, in the humanities. I also took Shakespeare, and did okay. And that was remarkable to me. I mean, everybody talks about it, but the emotions, the kind of things people were doing in the 1600s weren’t that different from what they’re doing now. Humans being what we are. So those are a couple of courses that were just great. And I took some writing courses that I guess influenced me. I am a major advocate of the serial comma. People call it the Oxford comma. People call it the series comma.
Gabe Levin: Yeah, we don’t have that at The Cornell Daily Sun, and it drives me mad. But that’s a different thing altogether.
Bill Nye: Hold on! The Cornell Sun doesn’t use the serial comma? You wonder why we’re not rated number one.
Gabe Levin: I don’t know what we’re going to do. I mean, you heard it here first. My editors, listen to Bill Nye!
Bill Nye: So okay, I’ll tell you what. I’m so old. How old are you? I’m so old that when I was in eighth grade here in Washington, D.C., at Alice Deal junior high. Junior high is what it used to be called, and it still says junior high on the mantel, on the lintel over the doorway. But it’s now called middle school. I took print shop. I really did. And do you know this word? Kerning?
Gabe Levin: My mom would. (She was a print journalist.)
Bill Nye: No, no. You know it. It’s the spacing between letters on a printed line. Kerning. K-E-R-N, sounds like a Scandinavian word to me. Kerning. Do you know the word kerf? K-E-R-F, four-letter word?
Gabe Levin: Like a kerfuffle?
Bill Nye: No. Maybe. But kerf is the material removed by the saw blade. And when you’re a carpenter or carpenting, you have to take into account the width of the saw blade. How much material is turned to dust: that’s the kerf. Anyway, kerning is analogous, the space between letters. So this was, you’d have a job case, the California job case. And all the letters were pieces of lead. They were molded lead. And you put them in the job case, this box you put the letters in. So having not to add a comma was literally a time saver. It’s one more doggone thing to deal with. And the comma is quite thin, easy to drop, easy to put in upside down, turning a comma into an apostrophe, essentially. And so leaving it out was of value. Now, that’s not an issue. It’s another keystroke on a keyboard. And I claim you lose meaning. Red, white, and blue is different from red, white and blue.
Gabe Levin: Well, I’m going to let my editors know. Hugo!
Bill Nye: It’s my strong opinion as an alumnus that we should embrace the series comma, or serial comma. And it’s in Strunk and White! For crying out loud peoples. It’s in the worship book of grammar from Cornell. You know, I wouldn’t have expressed it this way as a young person. Really? Really. It’s in Strunk and White. The series comma, serial comma, Oxford comma. My life’s been a waste. Back to you, Gabe.
Gabe Levin: Okay, so I think we’ve heard enough about the comma situation.
Bill Nye: I don’t think we’ve heard enough.
Gabe Levin: Well, we’ll leave the debate open. So you talk about ultimate frisbee. I know I tried out, and everybody on the team ran circles around me.
Bill Nye: Oh, that’s the thing. The modern players, you guys. You know, when I played, it was a bunch of nerds. Jon Cohn was extraordinary. Joe Reina could run really fast, these guys. Don Eibson, an excellent athlete. Jim Herrick, oh, my God. But you know, now it’s… You know a shooting guard in basketball? It’s seven of those people just running and running and running, sure-handed, whipping it back and forth. It’s cool. It’s what you’d expect. And we’ll see what happens with the game right now. The game has become so offensive oriented. We’ll see what happens. We may change the rules to give the defense a little bit more of an advantage. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: Well, shoutout to Cornell Ultimate. But what I want to know, I guess, other than ultimate, can you tell me about some of the other groups you were involved with on campus?
Bill Nye: Well, so many years later in life, I was admitted to the Key Club. But I claim our class, fall of ‘72, spring ‘73 was the first time we took everybody’s picture in mechanical engineering and put it on a poster, on a board where everybody could learn each others’ names more readily. And that was good. Margie Daly, an old friend of mine, took those pictures. She was in architecture, but she came over, she slummed over in mech-e and took the pictures. I claim that I spearheaded that. That’s a claim. It’s up to you. But the other thing, you know, I’m really proud of is the clock, the Nye clock. Do you know what I’m talking about here.
Gabe Levin: The Nye clock, on campus?
Bill Nye: On Rhodes Hall. You know about this. So everybody, if you take astronomy, maybe not 101 and 102, but if you stick with it long enough, sooner or later someone’s going to ask you about the motion of the Earth around the Sun, which turns out to be pretty subtle. There’s a lot of like extra little decimal places that you got to keep track of. And so if you know the time of year and the height of the Sun above the horizon, figuring out your latitude, it’s not easy, but it’s straightforward.
Gabe Levin: Not easy for me, at least!
Bill Nye: Figuring out your longitude, where you are east and west is very, very difficult without a clock. And so my father, maybe you heard this story, was a prisoner of war in World War II for four years. And he became very interested in sundials because they confiscated all their watches, the Japanese military. And so when I walked by Rhodes Hall for quite a while, there was no clock. It was a concrete circle. Just a blank, concrete circle looming over the athletic fields. And so it took me quite a number of years, but I petitioned to put a clock there. And the clock has a feature that lights up with sunlight, even on a cloudy day at solar noon, when the Sun is highest above the horizon, which is the moment when you’re on the trackless ocean, it’s the moment you wait for, looking at the Sun with a smoked glass, welder’s glass kind of thing. And then when you make it noon, then you can find your longitude and latitude. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: If I need to figure out my longitude, I should go right there to Rhodes Hall and look at that clock.
Bill Nye: Yeah. The longitude is pretty well spelled out now. It’s on your phone!
Gabe Levin: If I’m ever in a bind, I’ll keep that in mind.
Bill Nye: Well, we all count on it. Look, you guys, everybody counts on clocks. Another course I took that was very influential — I had suppressed this memory — was the History of Engineering. Bart Conta taught that, the same guy who taught thermodynamics. And clocks have way more effect on society than the wheel. If you live where trees fall over, inventing the wheel is not that hard. Like, if trees fall over and you put stuff on top of the tree, you’re going to be able to invent a wheel. If you have fallen trees (he uses a bottle to demonstrate) — oh, yeah, that’s pretty good — you can come up with a wheel. But inventing the clock is really difficult. But everything here depends on our ability to reckon time with this extraordinary precision. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: Okay, so we’ve talked about clocks. Let’s get a little bit more high tech.
Bill Nye: More high tech than clocks, modern clocks! Oh, my goodness. We keep track of time to 11 decimal places. Yes. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: So I wanted to ask you, starting with our first topic today, about the future of AI. I wanted to ask you what you think the future of AI and other technologies will look like when today’s college students are your age?
Bill Nye: Oh, boy. You know, making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.
Gabe Levin: It’s easier about the past.
Bill Nye: Yeah. Yeah, well, that’s what, you know, I’m not changing the subject. That’s what happened. One of the crew here, everybody, Olivier (our videographer) is wearing a Washington Nationals hat. But what’s changed in baseball is the ability to keep track of all these extraordinary statistics. And it started with what he called predicting the past. Like, could you come up with mathematical models of baseball so robust that you could predict the outcome of the World Series based on statistics earlier in the seasons, in years, years, years past? It’s quite an idea. So anyway, what I think’s going to happen with artificial intelligence, it reminds me of calculators. There was an uproar long about — well, I guess it was after I was graduated from college — schools are allowing children to use calculators. Ah! [People were] running in circles, screaming. And so what happened then? Teachers, educators designed tests where you had to be able to use a calculator. That was a skill. You know, you have to learn to type. You have to be able to use a calculator. Hey, I’m not changing the subject. Can you write cursive?
Gabe Levin: I’m terrible. My handwriting is normally terrible. I can’t even write cursive.
Bill Nye: Yeah, it’s just you don’t need to. Yeah, the world’s changed. Anyway, so what I think will happen is papers — there’ll be a few years, maybe just two or three years, where your papers that you’ll submit in Arts & Sciences will be somewhat generated by artificial intelligence, but then professors will develop software to look for repeated usages of phrases or words and stuff because, you know, plagiarism was detected for centuries by diligent copy editors who just recognized phrases, recognized sentences. And it’s very reasonable to me that you’ll be able to, somebody will be able to write software to look for the use of — they’ll be able to write artificial intelligence that looks for artificial intelligence. I think we’re just living through a transition. But it seems to me that using software systems that learn or that change as they are used is just going to be part of the future. Now, as a mechanical engineer, my specialty, the thing that enabled me to get a job out in the workplace, was control systems. This is the thermostat. How do you control the temperature in an oven? I worked at Boeing on wing load alleviation. How do you get the ailerons to release, to reduce the load on the wings during turbulence? Auto throttle. How do you get the plane to be able to go around without turning over when there’s a problem? And so control systems, the best ones, learn. The best ones get better and better as they’re used. And I think that we’re just all going to come to accept it. But this idea that artificial intelligence will end life as we know it — that I’m very skeptical of. I’ve been to Africa. I’ve met kids who had never seen a magnet. They don’t have electricity in their life. I’m not sure their world is going to be transformed especially quickly by artificial intelligence. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: There’s even one government professor who’s banning essays. He’s not assigning any more essays because he’s worried that somehow they’ll all be corrupted or tainted by Chat-GPT.
Bill Nye: Right now, that’s a reasonable fear. I don’t know enough about it to know how reasonable.
Gabe Levin: What would be your advice to educators and professors?
Bill Nye: Oh, make people like you write the essay in class, presumably in sort of mixed print cursive handwriting.
Gabe Levin: It’s a better idea, in my opinion, than just banning them outright.
Bill Nye: Banning essays altogether, in a history class!
Gabe Levin: That’s what he did! In a government class.
Bill Nye: What do you do? Is it multiple choice?
Gabe Levin: I think he’s administering these tests. And it’s a whole, you know, controversy.
Bill Nye: Well, what’s good about this is, it is making people think about testing or academic competence in new ways. And that’s good. That’s probably good. By the way, you guys, we’re not going to declare artificial intelligence off. It’s not going to happen. I mean, you get in your car and it has auto throttle, and it has cruise control. Modern cruise controls just work better than 20 years ago because they learn. And so now they’re going to be hooked to the lidar and microwave radar keeping track of the car in front of you. It’s all going to be coordinated. People, we’re not going to get rid of artificial intelligence. We have to manage it. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: Now, you’ve been on the picket line this summer where AI is a top concern, and a lot of writers and artists at Cornell are worried that AI will essentially dash their professional dreams. What ways do you see AI disrupting various industries in ways both good and bad? How do you think students can adapt to those changes?
Bill Nye: First of all, I don’t know. Second, the old joke: you got to live it or live with it. You’re going to have to live with it. I mean, artificial intelligence is here. You can compare jokes written by Chat-GPT with your own jokes to see if you can keep up. And if you can’t, then maybe do something else. Just thinking of talking about comedy writing. So the answer is, I don’t know. We’ll see. But it’s not going away, I’ll tell you that.
Gabe Levin: All right. Well, a related kind of follow-up question to that. AI is starting to crop up in every discipline. And I think it’s an important question to ask: how can students, I guess, better develop the AI literacy needed to survive in the future, or just understand the science rather than work against it or fear it?
Bill Nye: Well, I guess work with it, try it. Write your paper then write your paper in Chat-GPT and see if you like it. I mean, I’m shooting from the hip, not an expert on this. But when it comes to — I’ll give you an example; you guys, I was not an especially good student. Now, senior year when I took astronomy, I got on the dean’s list, but I had some academic problems. And one thing I remember is, I memorized how to do this certain bit of mathematics. I took a 300 level course in mathematics for engineers, and you get into something called Green’s function and convolution integrals, where the limits of the integral in calculus aren’t just numbers, but they’re functions. So the function gets convolved into… Okay, so it used uppercase theta, which you don’t write that often. You write theta a lot, but uppercase theta not so much. And then there were some Js and some… Anyway, I had memorized this, and the professor cleverly interchanged the use of these Greek letters, and I blew it. I just fell on my face on that test. And so it’s an example of, to me — I’m projecting — it’s an example of thinking you can get through by memorizing it without fully understanding it. And so since then, I did mess around with Green’s function and I can definitely do convolution integrals now, but I couldn’t at that time and it was because of my lack of fundamental understanding. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: So your advice is for students to play around and experiment with different softwares?
Bill Nye: That’s my advice. Yes. Try it. Try writing it, and then try having software write it, and see what you think. And keep in mind that your colleagues might be trying the same trick, and then a professor may hire somebody who works for free, a.k.a. a grad student, to write software to look for those patterns. Wah! Hoist with your own petard, as we would say in Shakespeare. Yes.
Gabe Levin: So we’ve talked about, you know, some, I guess, tentative predictions about the future of technology. But now I want to talk about something particularly concerning to me as a student journalist, and that’s the rampant disinformation we’re seeing online. Even at Cornell, you know, I notice a lot of students are really critically misinformed about the issues that matter in science from the climate crisis to vaccines. So my question to you is, how can we get young people to start using scientific reasoning and their critical thinking skills?
Bill Nye: You’ve hit the nail on the head. If we could teach one thing from kindergarten through your post-doctoral thesis. I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it again. It used to be called — when I was a kid, maybe it was called logic, or it was called logical reasoning or something, but you hit the nail on the head. It’s called critical thinking, which is a fine skill, a fine phrase, rather. Critical thinking. And for me, critical thinking means developing the ability to evaluate evidence. When someone says to you, Wearing a mask is ineffective against COVID, let us learn to evaluate the evidence for and against that. I think you’ll find in that example the evidence for wearing masks is overwhelming. And then the classic example where you can start is, I have an extraordinary claim: The Earth is round. There are people in our society today, the world’s most technically, certainly the most influential culture in the world, who think that the world, the Earth, rather, might be flat. Like, dude, Are you high? No, the Earth is not flat. But it looks flat. It absolutely does look flat. But then you learn to evaluate the evidence for it being round. And so along that line, vaccines. What’s the other one? You mentioned climate change.
Gabe Levin: Yeah.
Bill Nye: Apparently the same software that is set up to amplify or enhance your shopping experience — when you look for one color sweater it gives you another sweater in a similar color or something. That same software has amplified racism and anti-vaxxing and [false claims that] the Earth might be flat. And so we have to learn to evaluate evidence. It’s easy to say but difficult to do. But the people that I got associated with many years ago are what I like to call formal skeptics. You know Richard Dawkins?
Gabe Levin: Yeah.
Bill Nye: And James Randi, The Amazing Randi. James Randi, for example, is a magician, was a magician. He died very recently. He was a magician. And the same skills he used to develop magic tricks enabled him and his colleagues to be better at debunking claims than formal scientists. Like, it’s not so easy. You know, when people are trained in looking for charlatans, they’re good at finding them. And I mention this because we need to evaluate evidence all the time. I mean, evaluate claims all the time. One place to start, everybody, is this idea of a claim. So if you have a claim that vaccines cause heart attacks, you can evaluate that claim. You can look at the statistics or actuarial data associated with that and find your way. If somebody says, I’ve done my own research online. Okay? How good was that research? Evaluate that research.
Gabe Levin: Probably not peer reviewed.
Bill Nye: Well, and then peer reviewed is an important thing. Go to the peers, you know.
Gabe Levin: Shoutout to the peers!
Bill Nye: Shoutout to the peers! But in the case of climate change, just to remind everybody, the evidence is overwhelming. And this is where you all are going to change the world, and by that I mean Cornell students right now are going to change the world. People of my vintage are going to age out, also known as die. And then you guys are going to be running the show, and you’re not going to put up with this stuff. I mean, as Mike Mann, the lead author on the hockey stick graph… Do you know what I’m talking about?
Gabe Levin: The hockey stick graph?
Bill Nye: Yeah, the world has been this warm for millennia. Now it’s getting warm like this. And he grew up in the Boston area. I guess he was around hockey and thought it looks like a hockey stick. The graph looks like a hockey stick.
Gabe Levin: It’s a very northeastern way of putting it.
Bill Nye: Well, I mean, if you put a hockey stick on the graph, okay, it’s hockey stick-esque. No offense to French scholars. But the evidence for climate change is overwhelming. And what has happened is the fossil fuel industry has worked very, very hard to introduce the idea that scientific uncertainty plus or minus 2 percent is the same as plus or minus 100 percent. And that’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong. And so you all are going to have to fight back on that. And you will, because as Mike Mann said, If this summer doesn’t convince you, what do we need to do? Fires in Louisiana where it rains all the time. What? There are fires! Forest fires in northwest territories of Canada, the Arctic. There’s fires! Whoa. And the smoke is in Washington, D.C. Like you guys, this is it, man. This is it. And as Michael Mann points out, it’s not going to be a tipping point as such. Climate change is just going to make things hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter. More and more climate refugees. More and more instability. And I’ll tell you, if this Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, the AMOC — if that stops, what we used to call the Gulf Stream writ large. Now, people distinguish between the surface Gulf Stream and the overturning circulation. But if that stops, man, that’s going to be a drag. So you guys are going to fix this. Let’s go. Let’s Git-R-Done!
Gabe Levin: But what will it take to convince people short of actual catastrophe? Is there a way to, you know, make people aware who don’t believe in climate change, like my crazy uncle, for example?
Bill Nye: Well, crazy uncle is an issue, but the crazy uncle is going to age out, so vote, you guys. And so I used to say the most significant election, presidential election in my lifetime was 2000. Everybody is talking about courts right now, but the Supreme Court was charged with deciding an election and they did what they could. They decided the election in a way that turned out to be very unfavorable for Earth, at least for humankind’s ability to live on Earth. If Al Gore had become president — and people love to hate Al Gore, oh, my God. I mean, they hate me, and that’s great. But people love to hate Al Gore. But if he had become president, the world would be quite different. The U.S., the world’s most influential culture, would have done something about climate change. It may not have been much, but it would have done something rather than nothing. And you can argue about other decisions that were made by that administration that you might question. I took foreign policy from Wally LaFeber, and I did something else really stupid. Oh, man. Cornellians, do not do what I did. Oh, man, I digress. But gosh, I blew the final in a rookie mistake fashion. All right, but that’s neither here nor there. So you guys are going to change the world by voting. And so this election, 2024 is the most important election in human history. No way. You’re exaggerating. You don’t know anything. But, no, I’m telling you. If the U.S. doesn’t lead the world in addressing climate change, climate change is going to be an enormous problem for everybody, for 8 billion going on 9 billion people. 2024 is the most significant election ever. So vote. Take the climate into account when you vote. Don’t make me come over there! People, this is it. And also what happened in 2000, we had a very well-intending third-party candidate, Ralph Nader, who did a lot of good things. He invented Consumer Reports, which was this democratic way of evaluating, for example, the Ford Pinto. And people say he got overwrought with the Chevy Corvair car. And be that as it may, the introduction of Consumer Reports is a good thing, but that taking 1 percent, 1.2 percent of the vote away from the guy who was concerned about climate change changed the world in a very unfavorable way. Do not go for that, people. When you have roses, what else do you have? Red buds. What do we have on campus? We have dandelions. There’s only boy dandelions and girl dandelions. There’s no in-between. There’s no third-party dandelion. And so we have I mean, in the World Cup, you end up with two teams. In the U.S. Open, you end up with two players, and so we have a two-party system, I believe, for the same natural forces. It’s binary. It’s just how it is. Everything else aside, when it comes to voting in 2024, vote with the climate in mind. Back to you, Gabe.
Gabe Levin: Yeah, I was watching the Republican presidential debate, and I saw Vivek Ramaswamy say climate change is a hoax.
Bill Nye: Yeah. Does he really? Does he just say things or does he mean that?
Gabe Levin: He has a science education from an Ivy League university, and he’s the nearest one to my age. So, I mean, that’s worrying me about the future, a lot.
Bill Nye: Yeah. So, you guys, this may end my career. This would be another thing that ends my career. But research that guy. I didn’t bring his name up. You brought his name up. But he sold his company the day before the Food and Drug Administration made his product unsellable. Coincidence? You decide.
Gabe Levin: It was an Alzheimer’s drug. I think it was.
Bill Nye: Decide if that’s a coincidence. Also, you guys, we’re Cornellians, where any person can find instruction in any study from the get-go. Women were admitted in 1856, people [sic., 1872]. You have twice as many brains. I am all for the Ivy League. Okay. I’m a product of it. It’s all good. But Josh Hawley? Ron DeSantis? These guys are products of the Ivy League? Really? Of treating everybody fairly and thinking deep thoughts? Really! I’m open minded, of course, and this is why people hate me. But I don’t hate you all. Just being from the Ivy League does not guarantee that you can think for a living. Back to you.
Gabe Levin: Yeah, I completely concur with that. Now, one thing we have to talk about when we’re talking about scientific inquiry, when we’re talking about evaluating different ideas, ideas that may even come into conflict with our own beliefs or sometimes the truth, that’s, you know, a core First Amendment type of value.
Bill Nye: Well, see, everybody, the First Amendment. Now, look, I’m a mechanical engineer. As everybody likes to say on television now, I’m not a lawyer. You’re not allowed to have free speech with malice. You’re not allowed to say, to yell fire in a theater if you’re trying to get people trampled. You’re not allowed to do that. Like, free speech has a limit.
Gabe Levin: But the thing about free speech is it still permits people, unfortunately, to lie or say things that aren’t exactly factual.
Bill Nye: Exactly factual?
Gabe Levin: Exactly factual! Well, now they’re saying there are alternative facts, which is a whole separate thing.
Bill Nye: That was, you guys. That was an extraordinary moment. That never used to happen. And that is the downside of the software that created social media, that somehow this amplifies this idea…
Gabe Levin: This craziness!
Bill Nye: It wasn’t intended, I don’t think, by the software writers, but this turns out to be something you got to fight.
Gabe Levin: But I think a big thing is learning how to talk about these issues with people who have differing beliefs and maybe even, you know, coming to some sort of consensus about what reality actually is. I know a lot of Cornellians, you know, whenever a controversial speaker comes to campus, they shout them down. They say your words are violence…
Bill Nye: Oh, go listen, you guys. Go listen. You know, have protest signs. Just don’t shout.
Gabe Levin: So what would you tell people, you know, about engaging with the other side in whatever that issue might be?
Bill Nye: Well, you got to listen. But vote. That’s what I say all the time. Vote with whatever you might call it, reasonable laws in mind, and a fundamental understanding of the problem of climate change. Have that in mind when you vote. Really, it is extraordinary. You guys know these people and, you know, people love to criticize them. I understand the mixed feelings about the founding fathers and whoever influenced them. But this idea is really something. So you’re going to have a king, right? This is in 1786, 1776 it started. No, we’re not going to have a king! Well, you’re going to have a queen? Nope, no queen. What? That’ll never work. What are you guys? Are you crazy? But it turned out to be that the US Constitution has proven to be a model for a lot of lowercase l liberal democracies around the world. And so it’s a lot of good ideas, everybody, let’s embrace them. But built in, built into artificial intelligence, into the US Constitution is change. Change is built in. And it’s just remarkable and important to realize that depending on how you reckon it, almost half, 40% of the US Constitution is different than it was in 1786. These amendments have been written. Change is built in. And so you all are going to change things. So let’s go. Let’s Git-R-Done.
Gabe Levin: Let’s get on it!
Bill Nye: Your Cornell degree will be worth more two days after you graduate than it is the day you graduate. Your Cornell degree will serve you through life. It is an amazing institution. Yes, it’s exclusive, inherently. And, yes, it has flaws, of course. But it is a remarkable place, and I’m very proud to have been graduated from there. It was the greatest gift, and I thank my parents every day for that. Just amazing, amazing. So carry on, Gabe.
Gabe Levin: Well, it’s been a pleasure having you! And I think we’ll draw the interview to a close. But I just wanted to thank you again for coming on.
Bill Nye ’77 is a graduate of the Sibley School of Mechanical Engineering. He is currently the CEO of The Planetary Society.
Gabriel Levin is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His column Almost Fit to Print spans issues in science, social justice and politics. He is the host of Under The Sun, a Cornell Daily Sun opinion podcast. He can be reached at [email protected].
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