This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
I’m aware of two occasions in which Bill Nye has misled the public. But the New York Times says he’s saving the rest of us from misinformation.
Eleven days ago, the New York Times ran a story headlined: “In an Age of Alternative Facts, Bill Nye’s New Show Brings Real Ones.” How charmingly naive. If you’re in a rush, and want to know about Nye’s misleading video as well as his misleading article in the very same New York Times, scroll down to the navy-coloured text below. But the longer story is entertaining.
The notion that some people are a source of real facts, while others are a source of fake/alternative facts, is currently being pushed hard by the mainstream media. Journalists have decided that a major part of their job is to tell the rest of us who to believe.
Their message isn’t that skepticism is always necessary, and that even smart people are often wrong. Rather, this is an attempt to divide the world into two categories – reliable individuals anointed by media outlets such as the Times, and everyone else.
The article says Nye is about to “launch a fact-filled show into a fact-challenged world.” The 13-episode Netflix series, set for release in April, is humorously titled Bill Nye Saves the World. The Times quotes a Netflix statement that declares:
Each episode will tackle a topic from a scientific point of view, dispelling myths, and refuting antiscientific claims that may be espoused by politicians, religious leaders or titans of industry.
Although published in the Times’ science section, the article is a celebrity puff piece. For example, reporter Jacey Fortin uncritically presents Nye’s vapid remarks about the climate debate:
“We in the climate science community didn’t politicize it. Other people did. People who want to preserve the fossil fuel industries, the extraction industries.”
Nye is a media personality and an engineer – not a climate scientist. So what’s this talk about “We in the climate science community”? That’s strike one.
Strike two is that climate activism is political activism. When Al Gore – a career politician – is your most prominent spokesperson, blaming the other side for politicizing the climate debate requires chutzpah.
Strike three is Nye’s unhelpful insinuation that fossil fuel companies are villains. All energy sources have limitations and shortcoming. At this point in history, fossil fuels make survival possible, and render human lives meaningful and productive. Fossil fuels transport us to work and to school. They get Nye from his primary residence in Los Angeles to his apartment in New York City. Disparaging people who harvest that energy on our behalf is counter-productive and ill-mannered.
But the media skew is actually much worse. Let’s start with the idea that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. When some people make mistakes they are pounced on, denounced, judged harshly, and permanently written off by journalists as those-with-evil-motives-who-can-never-be-trusted. Yet when the anointed commit similar errors, these errors aren’t noticed, reported, or remembered.
In other words, the press plays favourites. It employs flagrant double-standards, misleading the public via massive sins of omission. Which means that a great deal of what’s now being disseminated by respectable news organizations is actually soft propaganda. The journalists involved aren’t consciously producing propaganda. Instead, they’ve succumbed to groupthink. The worldview that dominates their media bubble has rendered them oblivious to any other reality.
I’ve conducted almost no research, yet I’m aware of two occasions in which Bill Nye has misled the public. You won’t read about that in the Times, however. There he’s portrayed as a superhero who, armed with ‘real facts,’ is saving the rest of us from heinous misinformation.
Bill Nye misleads the public – Exhibit #1
In 2011, Anthony Watts went to great lengths to replicate an experiment presented in a 5-minute video called Climate 101. Produced by the Climate Reality Project, which was founded by Al Gore, viewers were told they themselves could conduct this experiment – which allegedly demonstrates the greenhouse gas theory.
Watts argues persuasively that, rather than being a “true record of an experiment,” what appears on screen is fake. In his words, it is “a complete fabrication” – a “staged production from start to finish.” More than six years ago, Watts wrote on his blog:
If Mr. Gore’s team actually performed the experiment and has credible video documenting the success of his simple “high school physics” exercise, I suggest that in the interest of clarity, now is the time to make it available.
Watts is still waiting.
What does this have to do with Bill Nye, the Science Guy? He is the narrator of that video – a video in which fake footage is presented as real. Nye’s reputation as a scientific straight shooter is forever linked to it. (Watch it here, then read Watts’ detailed critique here. Posted in more than one place on YouTube, it has been viewed over half a million times.)
Bill Nye misleads the public – Exhibit #2
In 1999, Nye wrote an article about interactive science museums. It was published in the New York Times, under the headline “The Marks of a Good Exhibit? Few Words, Flying Sparks.” In that article, Nye made a ‘research shows’ statement that wasn’t true.
Nye asserted that science museums are “vital to our future.” His argument consisted of three main ideas:
But when journalist Daniel Greenberg contacted him by telephone the next day, Nye couldn’t cite any research in support of these ideas. Nye urged the journalist to get in touch with a third party at the National Science Foundation. But that individual wasn’t aware of any research, either.The notion that a scientifically literate populace produces a better society sounds like common sense. But Greenberg’s book, Science, Money, and Politics points out that even though the scientific community frequently makes such claims, there’s no evidence that this is the case.
Rather than sticking to hard facts, Nye misled the public. Like other people, he sometimes exaggerates, gets things wrong, or misremembers. At least once he has declared that ‘research shows’ when no such research actually existed. Yet the Times tells us he’s a wondrous antidote to the ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ swirling around the Donald Trump administration.
The obvious question is: Why has Nye’s fake video and fake scientific research not made it onto the media’s radar? Because, dear reader, Nye is fashionable and well-connected and moves in the right circles. He therefore receives nothing but non-stop positive press from one of the world’s most respected media brands.
In addition to this month’s article, in 2013 the Times dubbed Nye a Champion for Science. In 2015, it told us about his living quarters, in a piece titled “Where the Science Guy Loosens His Tie.” Last year, we got to read about “How Bill Nye, the Science Guy, Spends His Sundays.”
Fact-checking? Accountability for gaffes and missteps? The in-crowd gets judged by entirely different standards.