On the downward slide into national irrelevancy, Sarah Palin has just about used up what little political capital she has left. Endorsing Donald Trump will do that to a person. But the once-governor of Alaska—who still possesses an endearing kind of boondock charm—is still somewhat useful, insofar as she is excellent at mocking the Left in a way that tends to drive the Left nuts.
Case in point: her recent declaration that former television star Bill Nye “the Science Guy” is, in fact, “not a scientist.”
In a very real and important sense, this is true. But before we get to that, it’s worth reflecting on the fairly absurd reaction this has generated throughout a wide swath of the media. CNN, CBS, Time, U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo, the New York Daily News, Us Weekly—each of these outlets reported on Palin’s remarks as if it were actual news instead of just a throwaway line from a fading political star. The debacle was trending on social media, and many people rushed to poor Nye’s aid. Mic provided the answer to the burning question on everybody’s lips: Is Bill Nye a real scientist? “He is,” says Mic.
Our media cannot reliably and competently investigate the wholesale butchery and auctioning of unborn human beings or the criminal activity of one of the Democratic candidates for president, but they can sure jump on top of Sarah Palin’s remarks about a washed-up 1990s Saturday morning TV star.
Palin Recognizes TV Personalities When She Sees Them
That being said, Palin’s remarks were, by any reasonable standard, accurate: Nye is not in fact a “real scientist,” insofar as he doesn’t really do things that real scientists are supposed to do. He is instead a kind of grotesque caricature of what a scientist should be: he’s a professional lab-coat wearer, a fellow who is more interested in talking about science instead of actually doing it.
It does not appear that Nye has published a single paper in a peer-reviewed journal of any kind; his chief scientific exploits of the past 20 years or so appear to be tinkering with sundials and making public speaking appearances to talk about how great science is. His most recent high-profile contribution to “science” was to publicly debate a creationist over whether the Earth is 6,000 years old—a functionally useless endeavor, though I’m sure it made for a great Twitter hashtag.
Jonas Salk was a scientist, and he cured polio. Nye is a “scientist” and he can’t even get his ham-fisted pro-abortion advocacy right on the first take.
Scientism Is Not Science
The sad truth of it is this: Nye is not the kind of scientist we need, but he is the kind of “scientist” we deserve. His armchair pop-culture science advocacy dovetails nicely with our current scientific moment, which, as William Wilson points out at First Things, is mostly in shambles: our culture is obsessed with flashy, boldfaced “scientific” discoveries so much so that, as Wilson puts it, “so much of [science] simply isn’t.” Nye fits perfectly in an era in which the public’s working definition of science is more or less “the word that I say whenever I feel as if I’m losing an argument.”
This is not science; it is scientism. And Nye is not really a scientist; he’s a scientismist. He is a boring echo in a chamber full of them.
Palin was right. In a moment of almost-too-perfect frivolity and vanity, Nye took the bait, signaling he’d be happy to debate Palin at some point in the future. Debate her about what, and to what end? It doesn’t really matter that much. The point of such a debate wouldn’t be to advance any kind of practical scientific knowledge, it would be to posture on a stage in front of a bunch of sneering millennials who can’t go two sentences without uttering the words “science” or “facts.” So much the worse for real, actual science, and for our public discourse.
Nonetheless, in one respect, at least, Nye himself has driven the point home: if you have the time in your schedule to “debate” the former mayor of Wasilla, you’re probably not much of a scientist at all.