The Politics of Ignorance: A Review of Not a Scientist

What do Trump nominees Sam Clovis and Jim Bridenstine have in common? Neither are scientists. Clovis (withdrawn) was Trump’s first choice for chief scientist at the USDA and Bridenstine his pick for NASA—even though neither are qualified for these positions. (Bridenstine has a record of denying science.)

In fact, out of 43 Trump nominees in science-related positions, close to 60 percent do not have master-level degrees in related fields.

None of this, however, should be surprising.

For years, the political world has repeatedly been fractured by those who accept the overwhelming science behind things like climate change and those who do not. And frequently, one phrase makes an appearance right before a politician subverts the body of evidence: “I’m not a scientist.”

Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science
by Dave Levitan
W.W. Norton, 2017
256 pages (paperback)
Source: Forever Books Available: Amazon

In Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, science journalist Dave Levitan explores the many ways politicians undermine scientific authority.

Levitan begins with a quote from Ronald Reagan during his campaign against Jimmy Carter. His use of “I’m not a scientist” paved the way for decades of similar appeals by politicians.

“I have flown twice over Mount St. Helens out on our West Coast,” said Reagan. “I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I just have a suspicion that that one little mountain out there has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.”

“It’s true,” says Levitan. Reagan “was not, in fact, a scientist.” This did not, however, stop the future president from throwing out careless conclusions.

Levitan notes that Reagan was way off in his numbers. The EPA, he writes, estimated that “the volcano spewed as much as 2,000 tons of SO2 per day on average” but that “all human sources in the United States produced about 81,000 tons per day. Globally, at the time, the total would have been over 300,000 tons of sulfur dioxide from human sources each day.”

Additionally, he notes, automobiles are not the real problem when it comes to SO2; power plants and factories are the biggest culprits. In fact, he adds, “Ten years’ worth of SO2 emissions” from Reagan’s “things of that kind that people are so concerned about” was actually “equal to more than 200 million tons from the United States alone.”

While examples like these abound, Not a Scientist is not written as a catalog of lies from politicians, but rather as a guide for identifying the logical errors and misinformation that frequents political rhetoric. Each chapter engages type of error or deception, such as “The Oversimplification,” “The Cherry-Pick,” “The Butter-up and Undercut,” or “The Demonizer.” Levitan engages various scientific issues throughout, like the cut-off for abortion, climate change, or vaccinations.

Oversimplifications “break down,” says Levitan, “when you start to ask for and examine the evidence behind a scientific claim,” because it is there that “you often see science doesn’t quite cooperate with political sound bites.”

“Science,” writes Levitan, “is often far muddier than a politician is willing to admit.”

And as for cherry-picking?

You may remember Ted Cruz’s appeal in 2015 to the “warming hiatus” of climate change. There was said to be a slowing in the rate of warming “from late 1990s through the early mid-2000s,” which Cruz said proved “there has been no significant warming whatsoever for 17 years.”

But, as Levitan notes in Not a Scientist, the evidence actually indicated at the time that “it was a reduction in the rate of warming, not in warming itself.” He sees Cruz as engaging in cherry picking—even ignoring new studies that called the entire idea of a so-called warming hiatus into question.

“In a way,” says Levitan, “you can admire the thoroughness with which Senator Cruz crafted his talking point. He not only CHERRY-PICKED a starting year that enabled him to claim there has been no warming; he even CHERRY-PICKED the set of temperature records to armor himself against less-than-perfectly-informed criticism.”

The “not a scientist” politician abuses, misuses, and undermines knowing that the average voter will either not have the background to pick-up on the bamboozling or will eagerly embrace any position that feeds the collective confirmation bias.

Levitan’s work exposes this political—and largely Republican—hawking of anti-science and pseudoscience, and its effect on scientific authority. He enables the reader to think through the malignant political culture that is sacrificing a better future for personal gain. And additionally, he challenges every reader of every stripe to look beyond the sound-bites or appeals to partisan science, and to the evidence itself.

Not a Scientist is a good, quick read worth the time of anyone who treasures the facts over partisanship.