OPINION PIECE

Be skeptical of influencers — including science communicators

A popular science communicator is being paid to promote fossil fuels. Let’s remember that smart people can still be bought.

Lisa Shepherd
ILLUMINATION
Published in
8 min readFeb 11, 2023

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Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Former MIT engineer Emily Calandrelli, also known as the Space Gal, is one of the most successful science communicators. She talks about scientific literacy and space exploration, writes children’s books, and has hosted two TV shows. Her online following is impressive too. On TikTok, Calandrelli’s energetic, fast-paced videos have earned her nearly 30 million likes and 1.2 million followers.

I wanted to highlight Calandrelli’s achievements before criticizing her. It’s important to size that we’re talking about a popular, intelligent, widely respected figure. If someone like me starts spreading misinformation, shame on me, but the damage is minimal. My audience is small and I’m not perceived as an expert, so I’m easy to ignore. If Calandrelli spreads misinformation, a lot of people are going to listen — especially since much of her content is aimed at a young audience.

Propane buses

Late last year, Calandrelli posted this TikTok:

Let’s unpack what Calandrelli is saying here. She’s right about the main issue — diesel buses are awful for the environment and for public health. Diesel emissions contain several dangerous pollutants, including soot, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Every year, exposure to diesel pollution from public transportation contributes to 3,700 heart attacks and 8,800 deaths. Although newer diesel engines cause our lungs less harm than they used to, many old engines are still on the roads — and yes, quite a few of them are powering school buses, exposing kids to toxic particulates twice a day.

Calandrelli quickly dismisses the option of electric buses, claiming they’re too expensive outside of wealthy school districts. It’s a valid point — to some extent. Electric school buses are four times more expensive to purchase than diesel buses. However, the price difference is mitigated in the long run by lower operating costs. Electricity is a cheap, predictably priced fuel, and the vehicles themselves are also typically easier to maintain due to their simple designs. When schemes like California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) are in play, electric buses can actually save school districts money.

But regardless of what you think of electric buses, I take issue with Calandrelli’s solution.

“Propane school buses are an affordable alternative that can also help you drastically reduce emissions,” she says.

Let’s make something clear — propane and electric buses are not on equal footing when it comes to reducing emissions.

It’s true that propane is a clean-burning fuel compared to diesel, primarily due to its lower carbon content. Converting a vehicle from using conventional fuels like diesel to propane could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 10%. But propane still fills your lungs with the same poisons as diesel — sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, nitrous oxide, particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

We also need to consider the production process. Propane is produced at petroleum refineries. Besides releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, these refineries also pump out pollutants like benzene. Long-term exposure to benzene can lead to blood disorders and increase the risk of leukemia. 6.1 million people in the U.S. live within three miles of a refinery, with low-income and minority populations being overrepresented.

If you’re concerned about public health, propane is not the way to go.

Calandrelli’s TikTok wasn’t a one-off. She’s also appeared on local TV station CW39 Houston, again extolling the virtues of propane school buses.

Why is Calandrelli so passionate about this particular issue — and why has she taken such a questionable stance?

The PERCs of fossil fuel

Recently, the New York Times got hold of some revealing internal documents from the Petroleum Education and Research Council (PERC). PERC, an organisation funded by propane providers, was found to have spent millions of dollars on “provocative anti-electrification messaging”. In 2023, PERC planned to spend $13 million on such messaging, with $600,000 of the budget being allotted to influencers.

You can see where this is going — Calandrelli is one of PERC’s paid influencers. Home improvement star Matt Blashaw, who frequently insists that we all ought to heat our homes with propane, is also on their payroll.

Where is PERC getting all this money? They collect a half-cent fee on every gallon of propane they sell. The fee is meant to be used for research and development, safety education and training. Instead, the NY Times has revealed that the largest portion of PERC’s budget is marketing and communications. PERC has received numerous warnings from the Government Accountability Office, yet nobody has actually intervened to change their spending.

It’s no surprise that the propane industry is panicking. Fossil fuels have a poor reputation in 2023. With temperatures climbing, just about every nation is aiming to slash greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that 90% of electricity could — and should — come from renewable sources by 2050.

PERC’s 2023 Integrated Marketing & Communications Plan lays out several risks for the organisation to address. These include potential bans on fossil fuels, the move towards electrification and critical responses to PERC’s messaging. The plan suggests combatting these threats by spreading messaging about “the environmental benefits of propane” and engaging influencers to act as “propane ambassadors”. Hence, Calandrelli’s insistence that propane buses are the way to go over electric buses.

The age of the influencer

PERC’s strategy makes sense in 2023. We’re moving away from trusting brands and organisations. People from younger generations in particular are more inclined to listen to individuals. That’s why so many businesses are advertising through non-conventional means, like partnering with influencers. A movie trailer might fail to excite you. But if your favourite media critic on YouTube starts gushing about how much they loved the film, you’re likely to consider giving it a try.

If you want to make money from online content creation, you’ve got to take sponsorships. Most of us know to be suspicious when influencers promote products. We know that YouTuber probably doesn’t play the mobile game they’re promoting; we know that Instagrammer isn’t that impressed by the free shirt they’ve been sent. But when you think of influencers, you don’t typically think of people who make science videos, like Calandrelli. And when you think of the products they promote, you don’t typically think of fossil fuels.

Self-driving cars

Calandrelli isn’t the first creator of educational content to have taken a controversial sponsorship. Let’s consider science YouTuber Derek Muller, better known as Veritasium. A year ago, Muller uploaded a video titled Why You Should Want Driverless Cars on Roads Now, in which he rides around in a fully autonomous vehicle and explains why machines make safer drivers than humans. The video is sponsored by autonomous vehicle company Waymo — something Muller, unlike Calandrelli, is at least upfront about.

Muller gives a glowing review of Waymo’s technology. Safety concerns are raised only to be comprehensively rebutted. As an anxious driver who’d love an autonomous vehicle, it’s hard for me not to be won over.

Yet you have to wonder how many of Muller’s words are his own and how many have been prescribed by Waymo. As video essayist Tom Nicholas puts it:

The choices surrounding what information to include in this particular video are not being made with reference to what will leave viewers with the most rounded understanding of autonomous vehicles, but instead, with reference to Waymo’s current PR goals.

I’m not going to get too deep into whether Muller’s arguments are correct and machines really do make safer drivers than humans. I will, however, mention that much goes unsaid in Waymo’s promotional content, including this video. Self-driving cars just aren’t as smart as Waymo wants you to think. The routes used in their tests are predetermined, with the roads being 3D-scanned beforehand so the car can determine its position at all times. The cars can’t drive routes they’ve never seen before — a fact that Muller glosses over. I’d encourage you to watch Tom Nicholas’s video if you’re interested in a deeper analysis.

The point I’m really trying to make is that the opinions Muller expresses in the Waymo video don’t matter, because he’s not allowed to engage his critical thinking skills. If he did have doubts about the safety of Waymo’s technology, he wouldn’t be allowed to raise them.

Muller has built his brand on being reliable and transparent. Even the name Veritasium means “truth”. But the Waymo video isn’t trustworthy educational content — it’s a PR team’s attempt to buy the trust Muller has earned with his audience.

The virtues of science

Recently I’ve been reading Stuart Ritchie’s (excellent) book Science Fictions, in which he posits that the perceived virtue of science leaves it vulnerable to corruption. We assume peer-reviewed studies are objective and unbiased, leading to a sense of complacency that prevents us from recognising their flaws.

Imagine a scientist. Imagine how their mind works; imagine what drives them. You’ll probably picture quite an honourable figure — someone rational, someone whose primary goal is to expand the limits of human knowledge.

I don’t mean to disparage scientists. I only mean to point out that they are human. They can be irrational, they can be biased, they can compromise their principles for selfish reasons. Just look at Andrew Wakefield’s infamous paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism. It was a shockingly flawed piece of research that based its conclusions on a sample size of just 12 children, some of whom didn’t even have autism. Yet the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, received widespread media coverage and led to a dip in vaccination rates.

Science’s reputation of rationality and morality can extend to science communicators, too. You don’t expect your average influencer to have particularly noble goals. You understand that occasionally, they might promote something they don’t think is that great to pay the bills. The science presenters of the internet, on the other hand, might seem like people who just want to make the world a wiser place.

But online personalities who build their brand around science need to make money too. They, like other influencers, may sometimes stretch the truth in the name of advertising — even if that means compromising the scientific integrity of their content.

Photo by Aman Pal on Unsplash

Do I believe that creators of educational content should never accept sponsorships? No. I don’t think we live in a world where that’s a reasonable request.

But there’s a difference between a creator taking a 30-second break to plug, say, HelloFresh, and a creator putting together a whole video in their usual style to argue for whatever opinion best suits a certain industry.

You might scoff at the idea of someone getting their science knowledge from TikTok or YouTube. But realistically, not everyone has the time or expertise to research every scientific topic in depth for themselves. For the average person, reading a scientific paper is hard enough, let alone working out how sound its methodology and conclusions are.

Sometimes it makes sense to trust the opinions of a perceived expert. A lot of people just have a middling interest in science and technology. It’s better for them to engage with the latest research through edutainment than not at all.

Online educational content can be hugely entertaining and informative, and I’d encourage you to keep following the creators you enjoy. Just be aware that there are situations in which their usual credibility may not apply. Industries have tried to buy their opinions before, and they’ll do it again.

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Lisa Shepherd
ILLUMINATION

Science writer with a passion for all things biology.