‘Not a Scientist’ explores many ways politicians evade science, climate change


Over the turbulent past couple of years, many Americans have become more politically aware. No matter which party you back, the challenges to balance of power in the United State of America has been complicated by a lack of facts.

Science has essentially been neglected or even tossed aside by the Trump administration. The book Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent and Utterly Mangle Science, author Dave Levitan attempts to identify the many ways in which politicians have abused or ignored science. The book was  quite humorous and a quick read. 

“Science doesn’t sit by itself, alone in a lab coat, pondering the mysteries of the universe with little outside influence or consequence. When politicians mistake scientific issues, it can have ripples on our everyday lives,” he wrote.

Levitan nails the climate change deniers with their own brands of deception. The book hits so-called conservatives and Tea Party acolytes like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, James Inhofe, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Mo Brooks, and presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Even the technique of a failed politician like Todd Akin (the “legitimate rape” infamy) was debunked. Levitan also nitpicked President Barack Obama as well, though the majority of the low lights came from climate-deniers on the Republican side of politics.

The book was completed before the end of Obama’s term and before Donald Trump was elected to the White House, but Levitan acknowledges the dangers of a Trump administration in the book’s foreward. “What the new president does not know about science could fill a book on its own….In short, his errors on science topics are so blatant, so crude, so lacking in even the most basic understanding of physics or biology or chemistry or any other discipline that debunking them often requires essentially no effort at all….With such anti-science attitudes now residing at the very top echelons of government, the tools presented here have arguably become more important.” It has proven to be even worse than expected, with Trump’s cabinet filled with science deniers.

“It is a remarkably common refrain: every time a major snowstorm hits, or a cold snap freezes New York or Chicago for a few days, the deniers jump on their soapboxes and crow that global warming [or climate change] can’t possibly be happening.” Levitan coined a new term for this, he called it “TOADS” — Those who Oppose Action/Deniers/Skeptics.

Levitan analyzes 12 main ways that politicians evade science. I’ll use his words without giving away the many examples from politicians he uses throughout the book:

  1. “The oversimplification can cheapen the magnificent complexity of science in pursuit of the perfect sound bite….This technique has some very real impacts….Don’t be seduced by simplified versions of science; they may sound convincing, but odds are they’re not entirely true.”
  2. The cherry pick. “When a politician cites a singular example as a means of refuting a larger trend, take note; this is the hallmark of bad science. As yourself if that one counterexample really refutes the entire idea, or if there’s more to the science than our leader might say.”
  3. “The butter-up and undercut is among the more than nefarious of the errors and rhetorical devices explored in this book. It carries an unmistakable air of intent: politicians have to try to use this technique, have to understand that they are walking a tightrope balanced between positive public opinion and negative action. By fixing our attention away from where the sneaky stuff is going on, they apply a magician’s showmanship to the act of undermining scientific progress — and ugly bit of sleight of hand.
  4. The demonizer. “An easy tactic for politicians to use….if a politician warns that allowing foreigners in will spread a certain disease, doubt the claim….The devil isn’t in the immigrant; it’s in the details.”
  5. “The blame the blogger is in some ways a free pass for politicians to lie; if they are just quoting someone else’s claim, can you really blame them? We should blame them…they should be held to a higher standard when it comes to science” than some person on the internet with a random blog that may be full of misinformation.
  6. The ridicule and dismiss. “The tactic of obscuring the importance of a scientific issue…through sarcasm and quick quips may garner some applause at a stump speech, but it also actively erodes the public’s understanding of and appreciation for science.”
  7. “To fight back against the literal nitpick look carefully at word choice. If it sounds like a politician is focusing on a bit too closely on one specific aspect, ask yourself: Who threw the baseball [that broke the window]?”
  8. “The underlying lesson behind the credit snatch is one we’ve already seen: correlation does not equal causation. The simple act of being in office when something improves or happens does not mean that a particular politician’s presence made it happen… When a politician claims credit for a big, long-term trend, do a quick search on what has caused that trend; you just might uncover some credit thievery.”
  9. “Politicians break out the certain uncertainty only when it suits them. A lack of knowledge is simply a way to support the ideology. A hallmark of the certain uncertainly is when you hear a politician use this technique –calling for more research before action is taken, or claiming that the science is unsettled — look at the background for that claim. Does the politician support certain special interests where focusing on uncertainty would help push his or her views?”
  10. The blind eye to follow up. “Any politician can ignore the latest studies and continue spreading out-of-date information. It will take diligent, informed citizens to see it through. Don’t let politicians pick and choose which advancements and developments to embrace and which to ignore. If you pay careful attention to their claims and the ideologies and platforms that underlie them, you can help keep science moving forward.”
  11. The lost in translation. “Politicians can obviously call out what they consider to be government overreach, but it doesn’t help anybody if they details become mangled beyond anything remotely resembling the facts of the case….When it comes to legal issues that have a basis in science…it becomes both easier for the elected officials to misrepresent the truth and more important to avoid doing so.”
  12. “Look out for the straight-up fabrication, as hard as it can be to spot. If something sounds ridiculous, unleash your inner skeptic. And for the less ridiculous, more reasonable-sounding claims on issues… the only antidote is to look for reputable sources and do your own homework. The politicians are hoping you won’t; try to disappoint them. Then there is conspicuous silence. Politicians just simply don’t mention an issue.”

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