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Is Brian Dunning being too soft on Bill Nye?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 22, 2010

It appears that Bill Nye, the Science Guy, has thrown his weight in support of some product that supposedly “ionizes” water to endow it with amazing cleaning powers!  In his latest Skepticblog entry, Brian Dunning quickly dispenses with the nonsense claim, but then he goes into a sort of defense of Bill Nye; a defense that made me raise an eyebrow (emphasis mine)!

After some consideration, I think the way to react to this is probably not to criticize Bill personally. There are realities that we all have to live with in this world, and one of those is the need to earn a living. There is, unfortunately, little or no money in science journalism (or in critical thinking outreach), and if you check Bill’s IMDB page, you’ll see that not even he has been nearly as busy in recent years as we’d all hope. My guess is that Activeion made him a much-needed offer, and I think we’d be jumping to conclusions to say that he accepted it lightly or without reflection.

There’s an obvious benefit in being able to live to fight another day. The Activeion product is a bottle of water; it’s not going to hurt anyone except in their wallet. If you have to choose a snake-oil product to promote, this is as harmless as it gets. There is probably a number that Activeion could offer me and I’d have done the same thing Bill did. I’d reason that if I took that job, it could fund Skeptoid and my other projects for some time. It could pay my kids’ tuitions, and there’s value in that — there are certainly snake oil salespeople out there whose money I’d be glad to leverage to my own advantage under the right circumstances. I’m not saying I would, I’m not saying I wouldn’t; I’m saying I’d definitely weigh the pros and cons. Whether or not you agree with the choice Bill made, you at least owe him the benefit of the doubt and recognize that it’s neither a simple nor an easy decision.

I certainly HOPE, wholeheartedly that Brian Dunning would not, in fact, do the same and support something he believes to be woo, solely out of an economic interest. Since when does the need to earn a living justify supporting woo? Are we really assuming that the only way Bill Nye could put food on his table is by lending his scientific credibility to woo? I don’t accept that excuse, not for a single minute.

It seems Brian here is voicing the belief that “everyone has a price“. That may well be true, but then on what basis do we, the skeptics, go after the woo meisters who are milking people out of millions, if we’re saying that we’d probably do the same, for the right amount? Wouldn’t that makes us hypocrites? Shouldn’t we, at least naively, believe that we wouldn’t support woo, regardless of how much money is thrown are way? What kind of supporters of Science and critical thinking would we be, if we thougth that we’d throw them out the window the moment we can make a buck or two? Something tells me that the other Skepticblog authors will differ with Brian on this point.

Brian says he’s considered this issue, but I think he needs to go back to doing some more thinking. If this Activeion product really is nothing but water, and if Bill Nye is supporting a clearly unscientific product, then hell yes we should criticize Bill personally. We should criticize anyone who does that, regardless if it is Nye, Dunning or Randi himself! “I need money” is not a good excuse, nor does it get one off the hook, because guess what:  Trudeau needs money; Browne needs money, the BCA needs money. All are in the game for the money, and if we allow the need for money to be an excuse then just what in the hell are we, The Skeptics, doing?

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