This piece is expanded from a previous article that I wrote, which can be found here:
10 Myths The Left Should Abandon: How to Bring Facts into the Conversation
In today’s heated political discussion, it’s easy to get lost in the rhetoric and the fake news. And to be fair, fake…
First Off — Who is Bill Nye, and What Are His Qualifications?
Bill Nye the “science” guy was a favorite of many school children growing up in the 1990’s. He had a hit TV series where he taught scientific concepts to millions of children, and for that he should be applauded, even by those who disagree with him politically.
So it’s not unreasonable that many people are under the mistaken impression that Bill Nye is a scientist. But is Bill Nye an actual “scientist” and what qualifications does one have in order to be considered a scientist?
Let’s start with his formal education. Bill Nye has a mechanical engineering degree, so he would have taken his fair share of physics courses, however, he has not done the work typically required to be considered a “scientist”.
Time and time again, I see Bill Nye brought on national TV to speak as an expert on scientific issues. And amazingly Bill Nye views himself as being qualified to come on such shows! But Bill Nye has no scientific credentials whatsoever, besides being a comedian in a lab coat, and has never contributed any research to the scientific community!
The below clip is a key example of what I am talking about.
Princeton scientist with decades of research experience: Here is what the science says.
CNN Anchor (turns to the actor who played a scientist on a children’s show 20 years ago): Bill, Bill, what do you think?
Bill Nye, Actor/Comedian: He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but take my word for it.
Some random person: Something something Trump something something
The entire thing was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. These people were dismissing an actual scientist in favor of an actor who once played a scientist on TV to protect their political ideologies.
What Qualifies Someone To Be Called A Scientist?
In order to earn the privilege of calling yourself a “scientist” one normally has to have an earned PhD (or at least a Master’s) in the natural sciences. But as one geneticist that I know told me, even after earning his PhD, he still felt hesitant using the word “scientist” to describe himself. To be able to call yourself a “scientist” is a very high honor, and not one that those in the scientific community use lightly.
[Author’s Note: In my original writing of this article, I failed to give credit to scientists who have their Master’s degrees who have done incredible work in the scientific community, and deserve that respect and recognition. And for that, I am deeply sorry. I thought about it, but then honestly failed to mention it, as it was not relevant to the case of Bill Nye. — That said, many of the replies insist that Bill Nye is a scientist, simply because he has spent a lot of time talking about science on TV, and trying to educate people, but this objection simply is not valid.]
I personally have two science degrees, an associate degree and a bachelor degree in biotechnology. (Don’t laugh, I am very proud of that associate degree, as my early college years were incredibly difficult.)
I have done research, in research labs, to further the cause of science. Yet even though I have my degree, and have done scientific research, I have not earned the coveted social privilege of calling myself a scientist, because I do not yet have my PhD.
In order to earn the honor of being called a scientist, by those of us in the scientific community, one usually has to have an earned PhD, or at least a Master’s in the natural sciences.
Of course, there are cases where someone can be described as a “scientist” even if they have no science degrees, such as in historical contexts. Many of the great scientists of past centuries had no scientific degree, in large part because they were the trail blazers. These were people who founded the modern sciences and contributed incredible insight into the natural world.
But keep in mind, that there was a time in history where most medical doctors never went to college. Someone living in a past century might be legitimately called “doctor”, even without a college education, but that would not be true today. Similarly, it would be exceedingly rare, and virtually unheard of for someone in the 21st Century to be legitimately called a “scientist” without an earned scientific PhD or a Master’s.
The one caveat to this would be that it is possible, although incredibly rare, that someone might teach themselves molecular biology through books, and lectures online, and come out with something like a cure for testicular cancer. In a case like that, someone has clearly earned the right to call themselves a scientist, having done an incredible amount of self-teaching, and an incredible amount of research, displaying knowledge and ability that could only be obtained by one with great understanding of molecular biology and related sciences.
So in very very rare instances, someone with incredible ability, and who has contributed incredible research might be considered a scientist by those of us in the scientific community, even without an earned PhD.
But how does this compare with Bill Nye? Does Bill Nye have any scientific degrees or scientific credentials?
The answer is simply no. However, that does not stop Bill Nye or CNN from pretending like he does.
Bill Nye’s “Honorary PhDs”
Not long ago, someone that I know called me on the phone to argue with me about Bill Nye’s qualifications. She kept insisting that Bill Nye IS a legitimate scientist because he has not one, but six honorary PhDs.
Originally this person told me that Bill Nye had six doctorates, and my face must have contorted in confusion listening to the phone, because no one — or at least no one that I know of — has six legitimate PhDs in science, let alone Bill Nye. Then a quick Google search revealed that these were honorary PhDs.
Once that little detail came out, things made sense.
I kept trying to explain to this person ad-nausium, that an honorary degree doesn’t mean anything. Honorary degrees are handed out like candy by universities, thanking people that they like for coming to a university to speak.
Honorary degrees, unlike degrees with honor, are handed out by universities to people that they like, and the person does not have to have ever done anything of significance. That’s why some universities (such as MIT, and the University of Virginia) don’t hand them out at all. They cheapen real degrees from people who have done actual work, and create confusion for those who don’t understand what an honorary degree is.
It’s unfortunate, because the original intent for an honorary PhD was to award people who did not have PhDs for contributing excellent work to a particular field. A possible example might be a computer engineer who figures out a new, faster, and better way to sequence DNA — This person would most likely be given at least one honorary PhD in molecular biology.
The practice of handing out such degrees has been criticized by many, because now we live in a world where universities commonly award PhDs to someone who has done no work in the field, simply for showing up to speak at an event, or for donating money to a university.
Oprah Winfrey, for example, has four honorary doctorates.
This is why an “honorary degree” doesn’t mean anything. With an earned PhD, a student has often slaved away for five or six years in a molecular biology lab trying to find a genetic variable in rats that might help lead to a better understanding of why humans get lung cancer. But with an “honorary PhD” one merely has to be a comedian in a lab coat who enjoyed the filet mignon on his flight across the country one afternoon.
Again, don’t get me wrong here, I mean no disrespect to Oprah… but I do mean to disrespect Bill Nye, a man who goes on TV pretending to be a scientist even though he has no clue what he’s talking about, and millions of Liberals believe whatever nonsense falls out of his mouth, over people who have actual science degrees, and over actual scientists.
I pointed all of this out to said person that I mentioned before, but she kept insisting that in science an honorary PhD actually means something different (it doesn’t).
So, let’s take a look at the six honorary doctorates that Bill Nye has, and how he obtained them.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — Speaker
As far as I can tell, Bill Nye was awarded his “PhD” here simply for showing up at the event to speak. The university website gives no details other than that. No papers had to be published in scientific journals, and no pesky dissertation had to be written. He simply had to show up, and talk to students who earned actual PhDs.
Johns Hopkins University — Speaker
Same as RPI, Bill Nye has never written a scientific paper, or done any research that would qualify him as a “scientist” or earn him a doctorate.
Willamette University — According to the university website, Nye was awarded an honorary doctorate for his science TV shows. The website also notes his work in engineering. But again, nothing here that would qualify him as an actual scientist.
Rutgers University — Bill Nye was paid $35,000 to speak at Rutgers, and he was also given an honorary doctorate for showing up. During the speech, Bill Nye attacked man-made Global Warming/Climate Change skeptics. This is not surprising considering that Bill Nye has attacked actual scientists many times before simply for not agreeing with his preconceived ideas.
Lehigh University — Honorary doctorate in pedagogy. Pedagogy is not exactly science, it’s the art of teaching ideas to students in different ways so that they can learn the concepts. While I will criticize Bill Nye for falsely representing himself as a scientist, and while I will point out that his presentations are often false and misleading, there is a lot of room for praise here, and an honorary degree in pedagogy is definitely appropriate.
Millions of kids watched Bill Nye the science guy growing up, and became interested in science as a result. Personally, I was a fan of the other popular 90’s kid’s show, The Magic School bus, as well as the books. (Fo-shizzle-my-Frizzle)
Despite my criticism, when Bill Nye is teaching about topics that don’t deal with his preconceived political and social ideas, he does an amazing job, and shines like a superstar!
As someone with a passion for science, and for teaching, if I could reach the number of people that Bill Nye has, and get that many people interested in science, I would be very grateful for my life!
But being a comedian in a lab coat, even one with an educational TV show, does not a scientist make.
Simon Fraser University — Again, Bill Nye was given this award for his educational work, not because of any notable scientific contribution. The article on the SFU website does not specify whether Bill Nye spoke at the event, however that detail is not really important.
So, again, beating a dead horse that some people still will not get, Bill Nye is not a scientist, and has not done the work to earn the privilege of calling himself a scientist. He’s as much a scientist as Rachel Dolezal is an African American.
Bill Nye’s Work for NASA
But…but… Bill Nye did work for NASA!
Yes, Bill Nye has done work for NASA, but so has the person working in their cafeteria, that does not make them a scientist. While it is true that Bill Nye has done work for places such as NASA, his contribution was as an engineer, not a scientist.
What’s the difference? I personally went to a school that was big on engineering. Mechanical Engineering was probably the largest program there with hundreds and hundreds of students at least. My program, Biotechnology and Molecular Bioscience, was substantially smaller, with a few dozen students, and a number of closely related programs, such as Bioinformatics, and good old standard Biology.
While an engineer will use physics and calculus to design machines, it’s the job of the scientist to study the natural world. Both fields are extremely technical, and Bill Nye undoubtedly had to take a lot of physics courses, but that still does not make him a scientist.
If Bill Nye wants to go on TV explaining how a motor works, then great! If Bill Nye wants to go on a kids show and explain the mating habits of the black widow spider, then great! But Bill Nye is not a biologist, or a climate scientist. That does not mean that he cannot have an opinion, but he is not an expert in these areas.
Disturbingly, what we have is Bill Nye going on TV, dismissing actual scientists, and arrogantly accusing actual scientists of not understanding what they are talking about, simply because they don’t buy into Bill Nye’s nonsense.
Over the past few years, Bill Nye has become a political activist, and out of nowhere became popular once again. While many people are under the mistaken impression that Bill Nye is a scientist, he does not have any scientific credentials. His six honorary doctorates were given to him for his work on educational TV shows, and for showing up as a guest speaker, not for any actual scientific research that he’s done.
Unfortunately millions of people do not understand what a scientist is, and will undoubtedly continue to take everything that Bill Nye says as if it were coming from a scientific authority, and not just a comedian with a popular TV show.
Further Reading: Priceonomics-Why Do Colleges Give Out “Honorary” Degrees?
Thank you for reading!
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