Bill Nye, the “not-so-science” Guy

When Bill Nye became the co-chair of the March for Science it brought on controversy due to his being a white male. That is really a shame. The real controversy should have been over the fact that Nye is not a scientist. He’s an entertainer with one earned degree, a B.S. in mechanical engineering. He tries to act like a scientist, but often fails miserably to pull it off.
As a scholar, I am used to non-academics butchering terms. I wince and then move on; I don’t have time to police others’ misuse of scientific language. Furthermore, I too speak ignorantly when I talk about things I do not know about, so I know I had better give others grace in that area. When a so-called advocate of the sciences does the butchering, though, those of us who are real scientists must speak out.

I’ll share just one example. Nye tried to use a scientific concept to critique opponents of global warming theory, arguing that they were suffering from cognitive dissonance. Instead he showed that he does not understand what cognitive dissonance means. It’s an impressive-sounding term and it’s often used to dismiss others’ beliefs, as Nye did on this occasion, but it has a real meaning, and it’s not what he thinks it is.
Here is a simple way to explain cognitive dissonance. When we have a deep belief that’s shown not to be true, we get uncomfortable. To deal with that discomfort we seek moral and social support so that we can continue to hold onto the belief we’ve invested ourselves in. Leon Festinger developed this theory in his classic book When Prophecies Fail, in which he found cognitive dissonance among an end-times cult. Festinger portrayed their discomfort after it became clear that the world did not come to an end as they expected; then he showed how they found relief from that discomfort: they concluded that their end-times beliefs had been right all along, but their sincere response to the prophecy had staved off worldwide disaster. This allowed them to avoid facing the painful fact that they’d actually been mistaken the whole time.
Festinger was clear that we could only assert cognitive dissonance when a belief is undeniably proved false. When the world didn’t end, people with this belief had to recognize that they were wrong.
Without undeniable proof, it just isn’t cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t meet the definition of the term.
This does not describe the global warming debate. Those who disagree with global warming theories have not seen undeniable proof that they are wrong. Furthermore — and I am not interested in the actual debate itself — it is impossible to absolutely prove or disprove the theory of global warming. We cannot prove whether human activity has had a devastating effect on the earth simply because we don’t have a world devoid of human activity to compare this one to.
Theories of global warming may well be true, but their opponents cannot be proved false in the same way we can show the end of the world cult was false. Therefore it is not appropriate to use cognitive dissonance to explain what is occurring in the global warming debate.
I know this because I, unlike Nye, am an actual scientist who is familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance. I have dozens of peer-reviewed publications. I know what it takes to accomplish work that is acceptable to other scholars. Real scholars are careful with their word choices; they understand the nuance of their subject matter. Real scientists try to use the most accurate words they have to describe reality. I do not see Nye as anything close to having the type of scientific mindset of an actual scholar.
It is ironic, since Nye is never shy about criticizing others’ lack of appreciation for science. But good science is done carefully. It is not a rush to judgment. Real scientists generally do not make the sort of pronouncements Nye sometimes makes because we are aware of the limits of our knowledge. Science is the constant striving to understand reality. We move closer to that understanding, but we never get there.
Someone who really cares about science would understand this. I can expect my students to make the common mistake of talking about “settled science.” I should not expect that from someone who wants to be the spokesman for science.
If Nye had said global warming debates were a matter of confirmation bias then I would say nothing. That is the proper concept I believe he is trying to tell us about. But he did not do his due diligence in finding the proper term for his argument. In fact, it is because of confirmation bias that scholars do their work for the scientific community and value dispassion toward results. We understand that confirmation bias is a problem for everyone. It is one reason why the scientific method emerged. Recognizing confirmation bias as a problem for critics of global warming would have been appropriate. Trying to group them together with an end times cult is not.
I can’t help wondering whether the March for Science is supposed to be about science or politics. Nye has maneuvered himself into a nice politicized position of being the “spokesperson” for science. His statements are not grounded in science, but they are useful for prosecuting certain political interests. If the organizers for the March for Science want to keep him as their spokesperson, they should not be surprised if many real scientists write the whole thing off not as promoting science, but as political propaganda instead.

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