(PSSST! Bill Nye Fans? Honorary Degrees Aren’t Real Credentials…)


I detest  stupid debates. In college I watched a local TV debate in Boston between Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the infamous atheist, and a local Catholic wacko known as Mrs. Warren, who talked like Chico Marx, on the topic of the existence of God. I finally called into the fiasco as “Jehovah” and got through the screeners for the program, which was called “Cracker Barrel. I used a cardboard toilet paper tube to make my voice sound unworldly as I assured O’Hair that Jehovah approved of her challenging the faithful, and would not turn her into a pillar of salt. O’Hair and the host thought it was funny. Warren said she would pray for me.

The upcoming debate between TV’s “Science Guy” and Sarah Palin over climate change is a good bet to be even more stupid than that debate, and for some of the same reasons. Like that debate, there is zero chance that anybody who is silly enough to bother watching will have their minds changed by what transpires because they, like Palin and Nye, already have their minds made up and facts have little to do with their points of view. Like the “Cracker Barrel” debate, it will really be about faith, what the adversaries want to think is true, and who they prefer to believe. Do either Sarah Palin or Bill Nye know what the world’s climate will be like in 100 years? No. Can either say with certainty that any particular policy measures will or will not have a salutary effect on conditions a hundred years from now? No.

It’s a stupid debate.

Nevertheless, only Palin is being mocked for participating in it, because Sarah Palin could cure cancer and the news media would mock her. It’s ridiculous for her to presume to debate anyone about climate change, but what about the fool who thinks its worth anything to debate her, whether he “wins” or not? It’s like mocking a Labrador retriever for having the hubris to debate John Kerry on U.S. foreign policy. What’s Kerry’s excuse?

Palin immediately infuriated the news media by quipping that Nye was no more of a scientist than she was. This is Sarah’s genius: making blunt statements that are factually wrong, but have just enough truth in them to cause her deranged foes to dash themselves on the rocks of rationality trying to rebut her.  Nye may be more of a scientist than Palin, but that’s not saying a lot. For Nye at most is only a scientist in the broadest sense of the word. To say he is a scientist because he has a Bachelor of Science undergraduate degree is like saying I’m a doctor because I have a JD. Nye was an engineer. Is an engineer a scientist? The website “The Scientist” regards scientists and engineers as philosophical opposites, living in different cultures: “One prefers the unknown, the other can’t stand it.” That doesn’t sound like they are one and the same to me. Engineering is an applied science, a bit like ethics is applied philosophy. As an ethicist, do I call myself a philosopher? I do not.

Nye apparently invented a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor for the 747 when he worked at Boeing, and has three other patents, including one for a ballet shoe toe. Does that make him a scientist? Thomas Edison, the most prolific and famous of all inventors, made a point of insisting that inventors were not scientists, but problem-solvers for practical applications.  Nye’s primary field has been performing, though usually for education purposes, like, say, Elmo. He starred in training films at Boeing. Did he ever publish a peer reviewed paper on any scientific topic, like real scientists tend to do?

You guessed it.

Serious scientists typically don’t junk their field to do comedy sketches , which is what Nye did in his mid-thirties. He became a writer/actor on a local sketch comedy television show in Seattle, Washington, called “Almost Live!” One of his characters was “The Science Guy,” a parody of  1950’s TV icon “Mr. Wizard,” who would do humorous scientific demonstrations in six-minute segments. Another recurring role of Nye’s  on “Almost Live!” was as “Speedwalker,” a speedwalking Seattle superhero.

I bet Sarah Palin could have done that.

Then Nye stepped up the performing ladder to play the role of the nonspeaking assistant to Dr. Emmett Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd, just like in the movies) in the live-action educational segments of “Back to the Future: The Animated Series.” Call me a skeptic, but somehow I don’t see Watson and Crick doing this. (I also can’t see them competing on “Dancing With The Stars,” which is another Bill Nye resume item.) That gig with Doc Brown in turn led to Nye  hosting a hundred episodes of a children’s educational television program, Bill Nye the Science Guy, from 1993 to 1998. In the series he dressed like a scientist, but it was a costume.

All of this is not to impugn Nye’s intelligence or interest is science: I’m sure he’s a smart guy, and that he understands the rudiments of climate science better than, say, me. But he’s been an actor, talking about science to children from a script, for more than two decades, and appealing to his authority on a complex topic like climate change is celebrity worship in its most dangerous form.  His willingness to debate Sarah Palin is something no serious scientist would do, but exactly what a performer will do every time.

Ah, but such a stake does the left-wing media have in climate change cant prevailing that FactCheck.org  felt it had to defend its champion’s honor from Palin’s trademark trolling. Thus it offered a shameless (but illustrative, the next time anyone wants to show how partisan and biased even the best of the fact checking services are). The FactCheck challenge: show that Bill Nye is “more of a scientist” than Sarah Palin.

It’s an interesting issue, though not worth thinking about for more than a few minutes, since there are sock drawers to organize and spit bubbles to blow. If Nye isn’t a scientist, then he can’t be more of one than Sarah Palin, an iguana, or a pet rock. Maybe he was a scientist, if we are loose with our definitions, but his paychecks have been in the fields of performing and teaching. Are science teachers scientists? Are actors who play scientists scientists? Are actors who play scientists and are recruited by non-scientists to present themselves as authorities on science because the average rube thinks actors are what they play scientists?

Fascinating questions all.

In order to scrape up justifications for ascribing to an engineer-turned-actor turned spokesperson for the climate change lobby authority he really doesn’t have, FactCheck stoops this low: it writes that Nye “has six honorary doctorate degrees, including Ph.D.s in science from Goucher College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” FactCheck does recognize that Sarah Palin could have all of these same honorary degrees and that it wouldn’t enhance her scientific expertise one iota, right? It does know that honorary degrees are PR stunts by universities, and that celebrities of all stripes receive them for being famous, and that all they mean is “We like you, we really like you!”…right?  If it does know this, why is FactCheck.org pretending that these faux degrees make Nye more of a scientist?

The whole FactCheck fact check is puffery and dubious advocacy; it needs a fact check. It calls Nye a “Cornell professor;” in fact, Nye’s alma mater gave him a bogus professorship to participate in a series of science-lite events one week a year because it will glean some publicity. It says that Nye has written two books on science; yes, and Bill O’Reilly writes history books. This is called “cashing in on fame and name recognition,” not serious science, and the fact that a performer known as “The Science Guy” puts his name on some pop science books because a publisher thinks they will sell to his fans just proves that Nye has a nose for profit. Like Palin.

OK, let’s stipulate that Bill Nye is sort of a scientist, but not one whose opinion on climate change should be especially persuasive, and that this makes him, by a whisker, more of a scientist than Sarah Palin, who is sort of a political figure. They are both essentially professional celebrities who command more attention than they deserve.

And it’s still a stupid debate.


Pointer: Newsbusters

Sources: Cornell, FactCheck, The Scientist, The Federalist


18 thoughts on “(PSSST! Bill Nye Fans? Honorary Degrees Aren’t Real Credentials…)

  1. So much for FactCheck.

    The impression I’m getting, in spite of the title call-out to his fans, is that Nye is either calling himself a scientist per his resume, using FactCheck as a reference or, by not calling attention to the misrepresentation himself, is guilty by association.

    Either way, I’m devastated. Back to the Future is one of my favorite animated documentaries.

  2. Are science teachers scientists?

    Not if they have tenure. Then they just get grad students to teach their classes while they’re off scienceing the hell out of stuff.

  3. “an actor [or Harvard legacy former pol], talking about science to children from a script, for more than two decades”

    Pretty well describes most of the sky is falling global warming fanatics, including of course, Senator Snort, er Vice President Gore.

    So “The Science Guy” subtitle derives from his parodying Mr. Wizard? And now he’s considered a serious science person? Amazing.

  4. Why can’t an actor debate as a scientist? After all, actors who play medical doctors on television get to testify in front of congressional committees about medical issues. See Jack Klugman.

    • And that’s a stupid thing for Congress to do, as well. Actors who play a part related to a field does not make them a sufficient authority on the topic to address Congress. In fact, it’s celebrity worship that is really a bit more dangerous than a pointless debate because, as marvelous an actor as Jack Klugman was, Congress should never base any legislation it does or doesn’t pass on the testimony of a person who is not a doctor, but plays one on TV.

  5. I loved Mr. Wizard! He induced me to love science – until I actually had to learn it in school, for a grade. For a while there, science was just too hard.

  6. I’m a scientist (wildlife ecology) and I work for a utility company that is chock filled with engineers (physical, chemical, hydrologic). Never shall the twain meet.

    Totally different disciplines. Both highly technical, yes. Both requiring logical training, yes. Both requiring understanding and memorization of tons of specialized data, yes. However, the data and the ultimate use of the data is completely different.

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