Bill Nye, one of the patron saints of modern science, has been in the news many times over the last few years. These days, the former television star can be seen speaking across the country about the dangers of climate change and the follies of those who deny scientific consensus.
But the lanky, bowtie-clad scientist also caused many scholars to scratch their heads recently after speaking out against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Originally against GMOs—and companies like Monsanto, who many accuse of being, at best, morally ambiguous—Bill Nye said in an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher that his position on the subject has evolved.
“I went to Monsanto and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there,” Nye said on the program. “I have revised my outlook, and I’m very excited about telling the world. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
Nye was on the program to promote his book, Undeniable, which he said he’d have to revise following his latest findings.
Before we continue, let’s get the big disclaimer out of the way: we have no idea if Bill Nye took money from Monsanto to change his opinion. There’s so far no reason to think he did, and because I’d like to regard my childhood heroes as incorruptible, that’s what I will continue to assume until the Internet does its due diligence and tells me otherwise.
Is Nye Yet Another ‘Flip-Flopper’?
Though we all have a tendency to change opinions on different topics over time, we get especially curious (and sometimes mad) when those in the public spotlight do the same.
Just look at President Obama’s stance on gay marriage. As a candidate in 2008, Obama said he would not support same-sex marriage and would protect the sanctity of the traditional institution. Fast-forward four years later to 2012—the first time a majority of the American public supported same-sex marriage—and Obama had changed his tune. The Right will tell you that Obama is a flip-flopper and probably a traitor, while the Left will simply tell you that his opinion had “evolved” in the years since his candidacy.
The reason we get so angry when politicians flip-flop is because it’s easy to assume they’re saying whatever will get them (re)elected. It might seem less common for a prominent scientist to change his mind on a high-profile issue, but that’s only because most of us make the mistake of assuming that science is immutable and slow to change. The truth is, even our most gifted thinkers change their minds sometimes.
The Motives of a Scientist
These days, it’s insanely easy for politicos to become unhealthily cynical. If that’s your prerogative, you might imagine that Nye was lured to Monsanto’s defense by portly white men with vast wads of cash, as other scientists have been known to do in the climate change “debate.”
However, though Nye is undeniably in the limelight, he is not a politician. He’s a scientist, and every scientist knows that theories and ideas will change over time as new evidence and information is introduced.
Here’s what all the Monsanto-directed fuss is about: The company is the world’s biggest producer of genetically modified seeds. Simply speaking, rather than letting nature determine which plants live, which die off, and which mutate and evolve, scientists have begun to practice a process known as “artificial selection.” This is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on whom you ask:
- GMO supporters say that the genetically modified seeds can be used to grow plants and vegetables that are more resistant to disease. On top of that, these kinds of crops can produce bigger yields—something that’s certainly important in a world with an ever-growing population where many go to sleep hungry each night. Proponents of GMOs also say that food can be engineered to look better, taste better, and have a better texture—while at the same time reducing their costs.
- GMO deniers say that plants evolve over thousands of years, and reducing 10,000 years of natural processes into a compact period of time can produce variables that might adversely affect us. What’s more, those against GMOs say that they’re bad for the environment and aren’t regulated enough to be safe.
In a perfect world, there would be endless amounts of delicious food for everyone; unfortunately, we live in a world governed by scarcity. Since that’s the case, there needs to be some sort of solution for trying to end the world’s hunger problems—and maybe GMOs are it, according to the science Nye’s seen.
Nye has built his career over the span of decades, which makes me hesitant to believe that he’d make a proverbial deal with the devil, selling out his fanbase for his own personal profit, as men of lesser moral fiber have done. While there are certainly ups and downs to GMOs, perhaps Nye has finally concluded that the positives outweighs the potential problems.
In any case, it’s refreshing to see someone change his mind and not be ashamed about it—even if it took him a long time to do so. Scientists—like any other humans—are neither omnipotent nor infallible. They, too, change their minds, and it’s okay to do it. And that might be the biggest lesson here.
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