If you’re like me, and most other human beings, you’ve been a longtime fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy. With his wonderfully entertaining personality, he’s always been able to interest nearly anyone with some fascinating little snippet of science. His influence on the world has been an overwhelmingly positive one. He gets people excited about what’s real in our world, something that has trickle-down benefits through many aspects of our lives.
So it was with a bit of surprise that I first saw some notes on Twitter that he is now promoting a product based on, shall we say, “interesting” principles. He is the spokesman for Activeion, a cleaning product that is a spray bottle of ordinary water, with some impressive-looking electronics in the not-surprisingly-transparent spray top. It claims to “ionize” the water, thus endowing it with magically powerful cleaning ability. I saw one Twitter post that aptly described it as “homeopathy for dirt”. Bill hosts a promotional video on their site, and spews a stream of scientific-sounding words, most of which don’t mean a damned thing to anyone who understands chemistry, but that sound amazing and impressive to an innocent layperson — the oldest sales trick in the book for snake-oil products. Dazzle them with sciencey words! Here’s Activeion’s explanation of how it works:
A water cell applies a slight electrical charge to the tap water.
The charged water passes through an ion exchange membrane, creating an oxygen-rich mixture of positive and negative nano-bubbles.
Gotta love the “nano-bubbles”. Are you impressed yet? Ask a chemist what a “nano-bubble” is.
The ionized water now attracts dirt like a magnet and lifts it from the surface, enabling it to be easily wiped away.
There’s an excellent web site, Aqua Scams, run by Dr. Stephen Lower, a chemist from Simon Fraser University. I cited it pretty extensively when I did my Skeptoid episode about fraudulent “water ionizing” filters. One of Aqua Scams’ money quotes:
“Ionized water” is nothing more than sales fiction; the term is meaningless to chemists.
Are you ready for Activeion’s pricing? The cheapest version is $169.00 per bottle, and the fanciest version is $329.00 per bottle. Yes, per bottle. Yes, it’s water. Yes, you’re right to fall down on the floor laughing.
So, not surprisingly, Twitter was all a-twitter with people lamenting the loss of Bill Nye, their favorite science spokesman, now selling out and going over to the dark side. People are saying he can no longer be trusted. People are expressing genuine sadness, after having loved him so much for so many years.
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 should stress that I don’t know Bill Nye, I don’t know anything about the guy personally (except that I’ve always enjoyed his work), so I could well be way off the mark here. This is based only on my own observation and assumptions. But I do know something of the junk science promoted by Activeion, and can offer you a recommendation based on solid chemistry that you should save your money. Let’s hope Bill got his money up front, and do him the favor of letting this episode fade into obscurity as quickly as possible.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Skeptologist Partners, the Skeptics Society, aliens, Bigfoot, or ionized water.