If you haven’t yet seen, Netflix recently released a new original series starring millennial darling Bill Nye called Bill Nye Saves The World. Unlike the old PBS series my generation grew up watching in school, the new show is filmed in front of a studio audience and targeted towards grown-ups. In the introduction to the first episode Nye makes the goal of the series quite clear:
“As you’ve probably guessed, we’re not making a kid’s show. It’s for you grown-up kids all over the world. We’re going to be talking about important, perhaps even controversial issues, from scientific points of view.”
The timeliness of this series is no mistake. In the midst of growing debates over scientific issues like climate change propelled to the front of our political imagination by the recent election season and our new government’s out-of-control administration, trust in scientific institutions has eroded and citizens feel empowered to challenge the very existence of these important, “perhaps even controversial,” scientific issues.
The show itself is actually relatively politically neutral. While Nye takes aim at conservative science denial particularly in addressing the subjects of climate change, vaccines, and the sexual spectrum, he equally reproaches liberal science denial on the topics of alternative medicine, GMOs, and pseudoscience. He also tackles by a much larger ratio non-partisan topics in science: artificial intelligence, fad diets, designer babies, video games, and human overpopulation.
The underlying idea here is that the way to “save the world” from crises like climate change is to proliferate scientific information through the public in order to garner the sort of support that is necessary to implement practical solutions to these problems by, for example, translating those solutions into law.
There’s a pretty good case to be made for this strategy, at least in the realm of environmental politics and law. In the second lecture for his Yale Online course, attorney and Tweedy-Orway Professor of Environmental Health and Political Science John Wargo argues,
“My interpretation of the failures and successes of twentieth century environmental law is very much tied to how problems have been defined. And if you look back in history, you’ll see that problems that have become immediately apparent, have reached the press and a wide public have often been translated into law.”
He goes on to give a few small examples: the Cuyahoga river in Ohio used to frequently catch fire due to surface petroleum waste from nearby industrial plants, the response to which was changes in the Clean Water Act to reduce emissions from facilities into rivers. The Superfund law and changes to the Resource Conservation & Recovery and Toxic Substance Control Acts were implemented after a school that had been built on a site previously vacated by a corporation began to ooze hazardous and toxic waste from the ground.
But there are similar stories for some of the big landmarks in environmental politics and law of the last sixty years as well, much of which I will say here for convenience sake I have adopted from Wargo’s course materials. One example is vehicle emissions and state compliance with the Clean Air Act (exemptions from which, by the way, exist in many major cities in the United States such as Los Angeles).
Wargo’s own research into rising levels of asthma in school children showed that children’s exposure to particulate black carbon dramatically spiked twice a day: while riding a school bus. In particular he found that the cabin of an idling school bus would fill with particulate matter to more than twice the federally mandated standard. This information was picked up by Good Morning America and a story was run on the risk to children. Parents responded immediately and a variety of laws were implemented and scheduled to reduce children’s exposure to particulate matter from idling buses.
Also think about pesticides. In the mid-20th century a new class of chemicals were discovered that were effective and able to replace the use of toxic metals like Paris Green (an copper/arsenic compound). These were chlorinated hydrocarbons, the most of effective of which was found to be DDT.
DDT was very effective. It ended the typhus epidemic in Rome in a matter of weeks by essentially moving individual citizens through chemical shower sanitation stations to kill fleas. It was highly effective in controlling malaria. It was also discovered to be effective in eliminating the pests that threaten crops, and was adapted for use as an agricultural pesticide. Many people are alive that remember the spray trucks that would drive through neighborhoods dousing everything and everyone, with children playing behind the truck in the spray.
But in 1962 the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring changed everything, making the problem immediately apparent and disseminated across a wide public. She presented several years’ worth of research that illustrated the detrimental impact of biocides on the ecosystem and connected DDT to poisoning and cancer.
This movement inaugurated research that found DDT to mimic all the properties that made radioactive Strontium-90 fallout dangerous: it is carcinogenic, it persists in the environment for a long time, it builds up in food chains, it deposits itself in a particular part of the body (bones take up Strontium-90 in the absence of calcium, DDT binds to fat cells), and it can be transmitted via breast milk. One of the first acts of the EPA after its creation by the Nixon Administration in 1970 was to ban DDT and several other pesticides and significantly revise the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), with public support and with the sharp criticism and animosity of chemical corporations.
The history of legislation regulating the tobacco industry is another great example. Tobacco companies were responsible for some of the most effective marketing campaigns in history that addicted entire generations of people. Ads targeting men projected machismo and cool by depicting fighter pilots smoking with beautiful women; ads targeting women projected sexuality, strength, and independence and promoted them as an effective weight loss strategy.
Free cigarettes were given out at concerts and sent in K-rations to G.I.s in World War II. Hollywood producers were given subsidies for featuring smoking in films and actors were encouraged to smoke onstage. Ashtrays were at the end-caps of grocery store aisles and people smoked on airplanes. It was a ubiquitous feature of modern life. By 1965, when the first studies on smoking rates were conducted, nearly half of all adults were found to be smoking tobacco products.
But in 1964, the Surgeon General’s famous report entitled Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States was released. For the first time smoking was officially recognized to be linked to a dramatically increased chance of early mortality and associated with chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, lung cancer, and birth complications.
Information on the rate of smoking in the public began to be routinely collected, illustrating large decreases in smoking rates every decade since. By 1970 the Public Health Smoking Act had been passed that required the famous cautionary label be placed on tobacco products featuring the Surgeon General’s warning. Cigarette commercials on TV and radio were completely blacked out by 1971. By the 1980s states that previously had age restrictions on the purchase of tobacco raised them, and states (with the exception of southern states many of whom held out well into the 1990s) that did not have age-restrictions introduced them. The adult smoking rate in 2014 was down to 16.4% according to the CDC.
This strategy of disseminating information through the public does not always work toward the goal of implementing common sense laws to solve the problems scientists discover. As the recent election illustrated, the biggest obstacles arise when the science involved crosses some kind of moral axis or introduces a threat to jobs or industry, such as coal and tobacco.
For example, the tobacco industry still exists and still predominantly targets youth. Tobacco companies funnel money into Republican politicians like Mike Pence to adopt decidedly pro-tobacco policies. His website mikepence.com now redirects to donaldjtrump.com, but using the Way Back Machine in the Internet Archive we can see that in 2001 he made a statement on his website adapted from an op-ed he wrote that said in no uncertain terms,
“Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
Pesticide regulation is also incredibly slow-moving. Even despite the immensely popular reception of Silent Spring, it was still 10 years before DDT and other chemicals were banned. Carson, her publisher Houghton-Mifflin, and The New Yorker were all threatened with lawsuits by chemical companies such as DuPont and Velsicol, and the US Secretary of Agriculture reportedly wrote in a letter to Eisenhower that because Carson was unmarried despite being attractive “she was probably a Communist.” Today preemption protects most chemical compounds against injury suits brought to their manufacturers.
The danger of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing was to the Presidential election of 1956 what climate change was to the election of 2016. Vice President Adlai Stevenson was running against incumbent Dwight Eisenhower and in a last ditch effort to clinch the election he revealed the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) secret withholding of data regarding the risks to human health posed by radionuclides in the environment as a result of nuclear testing. His statement was backed by 13 Yale scientists. He still lost. These documents were vastly declassified in the 1990s by the Clinton Administration when the public became aware for the first time how serious the AEC cover-up really had been.
My point is that something else is necessary to save the world. Spreading scientific information doesn’t work anymore, especially not to a portion of the public that is decidedly averse to scientific and academic institutions they believe are too liberal. This is where we are on climate change and renewable energy. People fear the loss of jobs in coal, or wrongfully promote so-called “clean coal,” with very little understanding either of the real tangible symptoms of climate change or the scientific explanations behind them.
Research by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School illustrates how this happens. When people with differing cultural values (read: political persuasions) are given the resume of a fake expert in one of three fields (climate change, gun control, and the sequestration of nuclear waste), they disproportionately accept or deny the person’s expertise and qualifications solely based on their pre-existing beliefs on the subject. Conservatives presented with the fake resume of an expert on climate change, for example, rated the person as a “trustworthy and knowledgeable expert” only 23% of the time compared with 88% for liberal-minded participants.
I can’t claim to have a solution, but I can encourage all of us to open our minds and detach our biases from debates we know nothing about. We can open our minds to the possibilities that science presents and consider them on their own merits, even when they run contrary to deeply held moral convictions. We can do our proper diligence in researching topics before rejecting or counter-arguing them out of hand — not just by consuming media, but critically consuming media from a variety of sources that extend beyond news outlets and websites that pander to our already-existing political persuasions.
We’re fortunate in many parts of the country to live in a climate change bubble. It’s easy to deny what we hear scientists saying when we don’t live in Venice, for example, which is slowly sinking from rising sea levels, or in the Caribbean, where a Colombian ship captain told me that in the last ten years he has seen 40 islands in the San Blas sink into the rising ocean.
Knowledge takes work, but if you want the right to debate the effectiveness of environmental regulations, nuclear regulations for example, you should be responsible for knowing the origin and history of the first nuclear regulation laws in the United States. If you want to debate the effectiveness of a minimum wage, you should know the story of the first minimum wage laws and the economic climate in which they appeared. If you want to dismiss climate change, you should know the science and the story. If we can do that, maybe we won’t need Bill Nye. If we can do that, we can save the world ourselves.
Pictured are VIP observers to a 1951 nuclear test outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, photographed by George Yoshitake. The New York Times has published a slideshow of his work.
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