The Peak – Has Bill Nye sold out?

My article in the Peak that was published last Monday is finally online. My credit is missing right now, but hopefully it gets added…

This article is in response to Brian Dunning’s 22 April piece “Bill Nye selling out to the man?

The question being asked right now by many self-professed skeptics is: Has Bill Nye sold out? This comes after news arose that acclaimed science educator, Bill Nye, has endorsed a new water-based cleaning product called ActiveIon.

The invention claims to ionize ordinary tap water, which allows it to stick to dirt particles better than ordinary water. After a simple spray, dirt and grime can be wiped away leaving no more streaks than spraying with normal water. The company heavily touts their product’s environmentally-conscience credentials since it uses no chemicals.

Their new spokesperson is Bill Nye, who gained fame in the 1990s from his TV series, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Later, he starred in the single season of the show The Eyes of Nye, where he critically examined claims surrounding topics ranging from nuclear energy to pseudoscience to the evolution of sex. He is also a fellow of the committee for skeptical inquiry, which represents many skeptics.

Meanwhile, many skeptics have long been unconvinced by purveyors of products similar to ActiveIon’s cleaner, especially when one considers that it sells for over $150 per (refillable) bottle. Snake-oil salesmen for years have been claiming that ionized water can be used to do everything from increasing your energy to defeating cancer. So, it is unsurprising that many skeptics would take great exception to Nye’s ostensible turn to the dark side.

On SkepticBlog, Brian Dunning claims that Nye may be down on his luck and potentially took the sponsorship to bring in some much needed cash. In the comments, others suggest he may have been tricked into buying into this product for its green credentials.

Yet, only a small number of skeptics on the site actually propose that the product ought to be tested before it, and Nye, get tossed into the dustbin of credulity. One would think that the proper skeptical response to such a moderate claim would be to actually look for some evidence.

So what testable claims are being made here and what evidence is there to back them up?

From the ActiveIon website, they claim to electrically charge the water before running it through an “ion exchange membrane,” which creates “an oxygen-rich mixture of positive and negative nanobubbles.” Finally, the ionized water is attracted to dirt particles, which are then easily wiped away.

Despite the seemingly flagrant misuse of the prefix nano, a cursory literature search turns up nearly 2,000 articles describing nanobubbles in different forms. In one study at Penn State University, electrolyzed water was shown to create nanobubbles of ozone; the ozone is then able to sterilize food in a similar process to how chlorine in pools kills bacteria. These processes, like the ActiveIon sprayer, only result in ionized water for a short period of time, but it is potentially long enough to be used as a simple cleaning agent.

Several other studies also examine using electrolyzed water for cleaning during semiconductor processing. A few of the reports even show drastic improvements over traditional strong acid methods. This corroborates the claims by ActiveIon, which lists a study by the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Toxic Use Reduction Institute Lab, that demonstrates its efficacy.

At first sight, this product seems to operate solely on pseudoscientific buzzwords and yet is being endorsed by an icon of the scientific method. However, with some digging, there appears to be less magic and some potentially legitimate evidence that the device may in fact work. It seems many of the self-professed skeptics are a bit more cynical than they would let on.

In this case, it seems more than reasonable to grant Bill Nye the benefit of the doubt in endorsing this product. Were the man to truly be in dire financial straits, he could very easily return to his work as a mechanical engineer. Despite the recession, his experience at NASA ought to count for something.

It is important for all skeptics out there to beware the temptations of cynicism. While this product likely is not all that it is cracked up to, few products are, it is at least supported by several related studies and independent confirmation. Being able to clean surfaces with water is not exactly an extraordinary claim, so treating it like a childish superstition is merely close-minded and arrogant.

2 thoughts on “The Peak – Has Bill Nye sold out?”

  1. The thing is, who wants to spend more than $150 to test a device that probably doesn’t work any better than ordinary water?

    The City of Edmonton recently started using the sprayers, so there may be an opportunity to test it on their dime, if we can find someone who can do cell cultures. I propose the following single-blind test: 2*n pairwise-identical surfaces are labeled, 2*n matching petri dishes of growth medium are labeled, of and a coin flip determines which will be cleaned with the ActiveIon. The other will be cleaned by the same person, using the same method, but with an ordinary sprayer (using the same source water – if the ActiveIon requires distilled water, then the ordinary sprayer will be filled with the same). The coin flips will be recorded. Then the surfaces will be swabbed and cultured by a different person. The surfaces could also be evaluated for streaks. Then, the growth plates will be evaluated, and finally, the results will be correlated to which surface was cleaned with which product.

    People who own an ActiveIon sprayer may be reluctant to have it tested, to avoid looking the fool, and may even have been warned about skeptics, so it may not be easy to do this test.

    1. I agree, good test idea. I didn’t mean to suggest that this product may even come close to being a good deal. It only could if it cleaned better than chemical – including “organic” or “green” chemical – products for a period of time such that the long term cost of those chemicals is greater than the initial investment in the magic squirt gun.

      My main point of this article was to call out bad skeptics who jumped on Nye for endorsing what initially seemed like a completely bogus product, which may only be a somewhat bogus product.

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