Fie on Nye? Was the Science Community Right to Censure the Science Guy?

February 15, 2018

It turns out that un-clapping Democrats were not the only ones accused of treasonous acts involving Trump’s first State of the Union (SOTU) performance. Bill Nye “, The Science Guy,” was roundly condemned by colleagues in the science community and progressive political activists for having consorted with an enemy of science. The enemy in question was Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Trump’s nominee to head NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency). The aid given was Nye’s accepting the Congressman’s invitation to attend the speech.

500 Women Scientists writing in Scientific American explained their accusation of Nye thus:

…by attending the SOTU as Rep. Bridenstine’s guest, Nye has tacitly endorsed those very policies and put his own personal brand over the interests of the scientific community at large. Rep. Bridenstine is a controversial nominee who refuses to state that climate change is driven by human activity, and even introduced legislation to remove Earth sciences from NASA’s scientific mission.

As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency. And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.

Tim Fernholz provided his take on why Nye’s choice of company could be construed as an endorsement (tacit or otherwise) of yet one more Trump nominee who’s likely to take an ax to the agency he is being asked to lead:

…a hard-right Oklahoma congressman since 2013, Jim Bridenstine has demanded that then-president Obama apologize for funding research into how humans alter the climate. He misrepresented data collected by the EPA and NASA documenting the warming of the earth’s atmosphere over time. And he wrote a law that would have ended the space agency’s important role in earth science, collecting climate data with satellites.

Nye has stated publicly that his accepting the invitation should not be…seen as an acceptance of the recent attacks [by the Administration] on science and the scientific community. The Science Guy’s motive in all of this seems entirely honorable. Rather than a knee to the groin, Nye was patting the nominee on the back for having somewhat softened his views on climate. Like other Trump nominees, Bridenstine acknowledged during his confirmation hearing that the change is real and human activities are a contributing cause of global warming.

Hardly a purgative reversal of his past positions on climate change, Nye thought Bridenstine’s admission sufficient to warrant a bit of positive reinforcement. It is unclear whether the Congressman will find work at NASA. His nomination has engendered a fair amount of opposition from both sides of the aisle.

Surprisingly, an Obama administration veteran of the Office of Science and Technology is relatively bullish on the appointment mainly because it could be a lot worse and he [Bridenstine] does seem to have a passion for these issues. Note, Larson is saying this about a man who in 2013 made a speech on the House floor in which he demanded President Obama apologize for spending too much money on climate change research.

Sadly, given the job performance of EPA Administrator Pruitt, Secretary of the Interior Zinke, Secretary of Energy Perry, and Director of the Budget Mulvaney we can be confident that worse is indeed possible. Clearly, Congressman Bridenstine is unlikely ever to win a Green Tie Award from the League of Conservation Voters.

However, Bridenstine’s suitability to lead NASA is not really the issue here, or at least it shouldn’t be. The problem in all of this—as I see it—is the shade thrown on Nye for having accepted the Congressman’s invitation to witness Trump’s speech.

Should you think the pushback on Nye is just a bit of caviling by a few in the climate defense community, you might want to rethink the thought. In addition to the statement of the 500 Women Scientists, dozens more articles, and a ton of tweets, a petition with some 37,000 signatures was posted on the web by Climate Hawks Vote and Demand Progress that read:

President Donald Trump is a bigoted climate denier. So is Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Trump’s embattled nominee for NASA Administrator. So why is Bill Nye “very pleased” to be Bridenstine’s guest at Trump’s first State of the Union address?

Bill, please be the Science Guy, not the Bigoted Climate Denial Guy. Cancel your plans to attend Trump’s State of the Union as Rep. Bridenstine’s guest. (emphasis added)

Personally, I don’t have a problem with how The Donald was described nor even the Congressman. The truth is what it is. But—The Science Guy deserves better. Nye’s work as an educator, a supporter of the sciences and an environmental advocate is well-established.

The Guy’s commitment and diligent work are beyond question. So why should he have to defend himself and the Planetary Society for having accepted Bridenstine’s invitation? In fact, why should anyone have to defend themselves for reaching out to a political opponent for an opportunity to state his or her case and possibly change a mind?

The loss of civility and the hardening of positions is a big part of the reason why nothing gets done in Washington anymore.

I know from personal experience that you can stand next to Ted Cruz without becoming Ted Cruz.

I view the attack on Nye through a similar lens. How can we ever hope to put stable and effective climate policies in place, if every time someone reaches across the divide seeking some common ground they’re vilified for it?

Now that Nye has been photographed with Bridenstine, he’s persona non grata with the clean energy and climate communities? Politics at the extremes get us what we’ve got—a mix of Congressional gridlock and the constant writing and erasing of executive orders. Hyper-partisanship between the parties is bad enough, internalizing such un-civil wars is the surest way I know to fail.

What was it Lincoln said about being divided?

Teaser photo credit: originally posted to Flickr as Bill Nye

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American politics, climate change communications, science