Bill Nye’s Snake Oil

A few years ago, Bill Nye was using science to promote a new product:

You paid about $200 for the ionator which turned tap water into “ionized” water that was then supposed to be able to clean about anything while killing just about any bacteria.

Here’s Bill Nye’s 9 minute infomercial.  Note how sciencey it all is:

The YouTube page claimed, “Bill Nye the Science Guy explains the technology behind the Activeion ionator™ – which cleans & kills 99.9% of harmful bacteria using only tap water!”

Of course, real scientists quickly exposed it as a scam.  For example:

Ionized water produced by the Activeion Ionator system does not kill tough, aquatic bacteria that may contaminate the system. The use of this system may increase the risk of spreading resistant, potential harmful bacteria to the surfaces and into the air.

Activeion Cleaning Solutions went out of business.

As Dr. Stephen Lower, a chemist from Simon Fraser University, noted:

Here, in a nutshell, are a few basic facts that I believe anyone with a solid background in chemistry or physiology would concur with:

  • “Ionized water” is nothing more than sales fiction; the term is meaningless to chemists.

So Bill Nye the Science Guy was using science to sell snake oil.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Bill Nye, Science and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Bill Nye’s Snake Oil

  1. stcordova says:

    Whoa! Thank you! Nye has been a thorn in the side of creationists.

  2. TFBW says:

    News to me, and this isn’t exactly recent. Did any of his peers in scientism ever censure him for peddling such pseudoscience, or did it get politely and quietly ignored? A brief search suggests that Nye has had a thing or two to say about pseudoscience in the past (season #4, episode #9), which might be worth investigating further.

  3. Michael says:

    News to me, and this isn’t exactly recent. Did any of his peers in scientism ever censure him for peddling such pseudoscience, or did it get politely and quietly ignored?

    Couldn’t find an article where someone like James Randi or Jerry Coyne criticized Nye. I think it was supposed to have been quietly swept under the rug.

  4. Dhay says:

    My feelings when I watched, were of incongruity: it’s a product aimed at the adults who do the house cleaning and who have the disposable income to buy it, yet Bill Nye here acts like the typically over the top children’s entertainer — Britain’s ‘Mr Tumble’ comes to mind — so much so that I couldn’t rid myself of the suspicion that ‘custard pies’ would start flying.

    I’ve never seen him perform so have to ask: was this dreadful advert to adults like his shows; and conversely, were his shows this bad, or so obviously aimed at pre-teens?

  5. Dhay says:

    Bill Nye, the Science Impersonator.

  6. TFBW says:

    I’ve never watched an episode of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” before (was it syndicated anywhere outside North America?) but mere moments into his “pseudoscience” episode (link probably subject to breakage — just search for “bill nye pseudoscience” if needs be), we hear the cliché, “we have a saying in science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Evidently, he never thought that the “turn water into germicide” claim was all that extraordinary. Either that, or they hoaxed him with some extraordinary “proof”. Or perhaps he forgot to be sceptical because it all looked sufficiently scientific, and thus already proven.

    And yes, Dhay, watching a few moments of this will answer a great many of your questions, I think. I’m going to see if I can find any more rich nuggets of irony.

  7. TFBW says:

    Further into the show, we learn that it’s important to test claims, and that the results should be repeatable. And boy, does he repeat those talking points a lot: extraordinary claims, extraordinary proof, test, verify, repeat.

    If only he’d listened to his own advice.

    I get the feeling that he missed out on the fact that this product made extraordinary claims, because it looked like a mainstream science sort of thing, using recognised terminology, like “ionize”. If it had claimed to use psychic powers, or alien technology, or magic, he’d have been demanding extraordinary proof in a flash. Well, more likely he’d have been dismissing it as pseudoscience without further deliberation of any sort, but, um … I’ve gone off-narrative, haven’t I?

  8. FZM says:

    I get the feeling that he missed out on the fact that this product made extraordinary claims, because it looked like a mainstream science sort of thing, using recognised terminology, like “ionize”. If it had claimed to use psychic powers, or alien technology, or magic, he’d have been demanding extraordinary proof in a flash. Well, more likely he’d have been dismissing it as pseudoscience without further deliberation of any sort, but, um … I’ve gone off-narrative, haven’t I?

    It’s interesting that this kind of things suggests that whether something is judged worthy of scientific consideration or not may be partly linked to linguistic or stylistic factors in the way it is presented. The empirical data, experiments and so on coming second, especially if there is some external factor (like financial inducement) in favour of some claim.

  9. Dhay says:

    FZM > It’s interesting that this kind of things suggests that whether something is judged worthy of scientific consideration or not may be partly linked to linguistic or stylistic factors in the way it is presented. The empirical data, experiments and so on coming second, especially if there is some external factor (like financial inducement) in favour of some claim.

    Here’s a discussion of a paper on how merely mentioning the word “neuroscience” distorts perceptions and judgements.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2015/03/11/defending-science-from-sam-harriss-attacks/#comment-8597

  10. TFBW says:

    @FZM: it seems to me that linguistic and stylistic factors play a key role in the sense that certain words and concepts are “shibboleths” — key indicators that the speaker comes from a certain school of thought. For Nye and other people besotted with science as a form of epistemic virtue in and of itself, the key contrast is “science” versus “superstition”. If a thing is described in terms of the vocabulary of science (and philosophical materialism), then it will be treated as more trustworthy and reliable, just because it has the right accent, so to speak. If it is described in terms of anything “supernatural” (for quite a broad definition of that term), then it will immediately be met with sceptical resistance. Most likely it will be dismissed as a load of mumbo-jumbo time-wasting nonsense on the spot, but the demand for “extraordinary proof” can always be brought to bear if needs be, and the bar of “extraordinary proof” can be raised arbitrarily high.

  11. TFBW says:

    There’s only so much time I’m going to spend investigating this, but I’ll share what I’ve found. The most prominent response to this little episode in sceptical circles was “Bill Nye Selling Out to the Man?” by Brian Dunning (a name I’m not familiar with). The article is reluctant to be hard on Bill, and eventually concedes that selling snake oil for a good cause (Bill is a good cause) is justifiable, so long as it’s harmless snake oil, and this stuff is water, which is harmless. That’s a fairly dubious rationalisation in my book, because false anti-bacterial claims are not harmless: you think you’re engaging in a certain level of sanitisation, but you aren’t. Whatever the case, it was a glancing blow with a feather duster, not a lashing.

    At least one response was written to that with the tone that Bill should be given the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this stuff works as advertised. For this commentator, the onus was on everyone else to demonstrate that the product does not work. I guess “extraordinary claims” are in the eye of the beholder: this person seemed to think that it was extraordinary that Bill would promote snake oil.

    A similar exchange took place at Physics Forums, where most of the initial comments opined that technobabble was in play. One party called DeDrum turned up and suggested that the onus was the other way around, a number of ad hominem type accusations flew around for a short while, then DeDrum was banned and the discussion ended. Not much to see here.

    One thing to note about the Physics Forums conversation, though, was that it links to another source at Bill’s own website. This link is also found buried in a Reddit page (IAM Bill Nye the Science Guy) — search for “activeion” on the page and expand the replies. The link in question is http://billnye.com/for-the-nanobubble-skeptics/ — but there’s no content there any more. I tried looking it up on the Internet Archive, of course, but it says, “Page cannot be displayed due to robots.txt.” So whatever it once said, it seems that Bill now prefers it to go down the memory hole.

    Comments at the Reddit page and Physics Forums suggest that it was Bill doing a little test on the product himself, and saying that it works. A comment on the Reddit page criticises him for not having a control in his test (i.e. comparing results with a plain tap-water spray). It’s very poor science to operate without a control in a case like this, but presumably the test demonstrated some effect (just not necessarily any greater effect than tap water).

    That’s about as much as I can dig up with the time I have. One more link, though, since it came up. The original Skepticblog article to which I linked was dated April 2010; fast-forward to September 2012, and Donald Prothero is posting at the same site, gushing about “Bill Nye, Our Science Guy”. The Activeion thing isn’t mentioned at all — except by a couple of comments expressing the opinion that the sceptic community was a bit soft on Bill for the “magic water” thing. And, sure enough, at least one comment still leaps to his defence for the same sorts of reasons as before.

    So, while a significant portion of the sceptical community were doubtful of the factual claims, the reaction to Bill doesn’t seem to have risen above “uneasy but grudging acceptance” in severity.

    Thanks, Mike, for fishing it back out of the memory hole for a while.

  12. Michael says:

    Thanks, Mike, for fishing it back out of the memory hole for a while.

    Thanks for that analysis. So aside from some minor scoffing at a few obscure skeptic forums/blogs, no one else criticized the Science Guy.

  13. TFBW says:

    Not that I can find. Maybe I’ll try digging a little deeper into search results later, but I don’t expect to find any significant statements beyond the first page of search results, given the slim pickings which turned up there.

  14. TFBW says:

    I think I’ve found Hemant “The Friendly Atheist” Mehta’s reaction to this incident: he ignored it completely, then went fan-boy when Bill was awarded 2010 Humanist of the Year (less than two months after Brian Dunning’s “selling out” article). There’s loads of Nye-related stuff at Patheos generally, but nothing about Activeion that I can find.

  15. TFBW says:

    Further findings — or lack thereof:

    Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True” blog: many mentions of Bill Nye, none refer to Activeion.

    Larry Moran’s “Sandwalk” blog: several mentions of Bill Nye, none refer to Activeion.

    PZ Myers “Pharyngula” blog: I performed a site-wide search of freethoughtblogs.com and scienceblogs.com (both of which have been host to Myers), and both have many hits for Bill Nye, but none at all for “activeion” or “ionator”. Broadening the search to a non-exact match on the terms “ionized” and “water” (along with exact match on “bill nye”), I manage to locate ONE article on a blog called “Respectful Insolence” (the primary theme of which seems to be disdain for alternate medicine and anti-vaxers) which is not about Bill Nye, but about an unrelated “water woo” product called “Kangen Water”. A couple of reader comments, buried way down at the bottom, lament the fact that Bill Nye is also peddling a “water woo” product. That’s it — that’s all the relevant content I found in the sum total of blogs on those two sites.

    I’m starting to think that Brian Dunning deserves some kind of award for actually saying something. He was fairly soft on Bill, sure, but every other sceptical blogger out there turned a blind eye to the whole affair, as far as I can tell.

    Have I missed any obvious potential sources?

  16. Dhay says:

    Here’s from Scott Adams’ blog, from a post entitled “Tucker Carlson Induces Cognitive Dissonance in Bill Nye the Science Guy over Climate Change”:

    … Tucker wanted some details. How much difference do humans make? After all, Nye had said this was settled science. Tucker just wanted to know what that settled science said.

    Nye didn’t know. And by not knowing that simple answer about the percentage of human contribution to warming – the only issue that really mattered to the topic – he proved in public that his opinions on science are not based on facts or knowledge. …

    http://blog.dilbert.com/post/157823678756/tucker-carlson-induces-cognitive-dissonance-in

    Looks like Bill Nye is still willing to bluff and bullshit.

  17. TFBW says:

    I think that Bill Nye often mistakes “settled science” for “that set of assertions which goes unchallenged among his like-minded associates who are scientists,” which is going to include a lot of mere opinion. I appreciate that Scott Adams drew attention to Bill’s own case of cognitive dissonance here, particularly as Bill opened that presentation by explaining away the entirety of “climate change denialism” as cognitive dissonance in action.

    For the record, Scott Adams’ blog contains several references to Bill Nye, mostly in the context of either Donald Trump or Ken Ham, but does not mention the Activeion thing. I think he’d consider that a missed opportunity, under the circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s