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The most common tricks politicians use to muddle inconvenient science

“I think my primary message would be learn to appreciate evidence.”

Boston Globe / Getty Images

On Saturday, thousands of people will march on Washington in support of science. And they’ll do so for very good reasons: Science, under the Trump administration, is under assault. As Vox’s Brian Resnick noted recently, the Trump administration has proposed cutting around $7 billion from science programs, including stifling research funding for the EPA and the National Institutes of Health.

In this interview, I talk to Dave Levitan, author of the new book Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. A how-to guide for spotting nonsense, Levitan’s book highlights the rhetorical tricks and logical errors politicians use when they distort science for political purposes. Here, we discuss the ideological roots of science denialism and why it’s so important for citizens to demand evidence in support of policy claims.

Sean Illing

Your book is about spotting the common rhetorical tricks that politicians use when they’re distorting science for political purposes. Can you cite a couple of examples?

Dave Levitan

The whole idea for the book came about when I started seeing patterns. Cherry-picking data is probably the most familiar. The tendency to draw on a single data point in support of some broader argument, like Sen. James Inhofe did with the famous snowball on the Senate floor. Or taking a very specific subset of data, like Ted Cruz did when he claimed there hasn’t been any global warming for 17 years. That might be the most commonly seen one where you really just pick and choose exactly which study and data point, which subset or source to use, and then conveniently draw on that when it aligns with your political narrative.

Another really common one is where they claim that because there is still some degree of uncertainty around whatever the subject happens to be, then that means we shouldn't do anything about it. Climate change is a great one for that, but it dates back much farther. Conservatives used the same tactics for delaying action on acid rain in the ’80s, for example. President Reagan would say, "Well, we still have to study this and figure out what's going on. There's not enough data to do anything."

First of all, they were wrong. There was plenty of data. We knew exactly how to deal with acid rain and ended up fixing it pretty well. So that one comes up a lot, the idea that because there's any degree of uncertainty that we shouldn't do anything, which is of course ridiculous because every scientific measure ever taken has a degree of uncertainty and always will.

Sean Illing

These sorts of stall tactics are effective, in part, because they’re not really frontal attacks on the science. The goal is to muddy the waters, to throw enough doubt into people's mind so that they can't or won't object to actions that run counter to the science.

Dave Levitan

Yeah, I think that's right. Politicians like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are exceptions to this inasmuch as they quite explicitly deny the scientific consensus. But, generally speaking, it’s rare to see people take what is accepted science and try to claim that the opposite is true.

Sean Illing

In a 2014 interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Mitch McConnell was asked if he agreed with the 97 percent of climate scientists who say that humans are contributing to global warming. His response was familiar: “We can debate this forever … I’m not a scientist. I’m interested in protecting Kentucky’s economy.”

The “I’m not a scientist” line has become all-too-common, and it’s the basis of your book title. Why is this refrain bullshit in your view?

Dave Levitan

The basic reason is it's absurd for politicians to have to tell us what they're not an expert in. They don't say I'm not an economist. They don't say I don't have a degree in Middle Eastern studies or civil engineering, yet they're still perfectly willing to opine on these issues. So it's sort of a bizarre subset that they think it's a reasonable thing to say.

Science is easier to paint as this unknowable, mysterious thing when it's just another field that most politicians are not experts in. But they're not experts in most fields. Most of them are lawyers. So it’s disingenuous to hide behind this “not a scientist” cover when it comes to, say, climate change and then decide to take policy positions anyway.

It's really just a dodge that's specific to science and to me highlights the sort of disdain for expertise that we see sometimes from politicians.

Sean Illing

You say it’s a disdain for expertise, but I don’t think so. Isn’t this really about ideology? People are fine with experts so long as they arrive at desired conclusions.

Dave Levitan

Perhaps. Part of the problem is that science feels distant, something that’s done in labs behind closed doors somewhere else. It’s just harder to approach.

Sean Illing

I think you’re running away from my question here. I’ll put it another way: Is there any doubt that Republican climate skeptics would happily embrace the science if 97 percent of researchers concluded that climate change is a liberal phantasm?

Dave Levitan

Oh, for sure. If the science somehow flipped and all scientists came to another conclusion that this wasn't actually true, it's overblown, we're fine, then of course they would flip their position.

Sean Illing

I get that this isn’t a partisan book, but you really go out of your way to avoid the obvious conclusion, which is that this is overwhelmingly a Republican problem. It’s not exclusive to Republicans, but the vast majority of examples you cite come from Republicans. Why not acknowledge that?

Dave Levitan

The point of the book is more the rhetorical techniques rather than the why behind it. I wanted to be able to provide a tool for seeing through political speech even though right now this is largely a Republican problem.

I'm also trying to be somewhat charitable. Science is tough and people do misunderstand the details, so it's hard to call it all lies. While I totally acknowledge that it might be frustrating, I'd say it might be a little more useful to just try to see what they’re actually doing, rather than try to understand why they’re doing it.

Sean Illing

Can you cite an example of a prominent Democrat playing rhetorical games with science?

Dave Levitan

It's tough. The Democrats do appear in the book a few times, but their errors tend to be very minor and subtle and not generally deceptive. It's tough to find an example of left-wing politicians flatly lying about science. I think GMOs is probably the only one and I can't think of a specific statement off the top of my head, but there have certainly been Democrats who get the science on that very wrong.

I don’t claim in the book that is exclusively a Republican problem, but it’s damn close.

Sean Illing

As you know, there’s going to be a big march for science rally in Washington this weekend. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Dave Levitan

I think it's great. The idea that scientists should somehow stay out of the politics has never made sense to me. We don't ask other fields to stay out of politics. Just because a scientific truth is true no matter who says it, doesn't mean those people shouldn't say it or advocate on behalf of it.

So yeah, I think it's a great idea for scientists to get more involved. I’m not sure what will become of it, though. Hopefully, we get an increase in public discussion of the most pressing issues in question, like climate change or NIH funding. We shouldn’t cede these conversations to loud, anti-science voices.

There are people who actually know what they’re talking about — we should hear from them as much as possible.

Sean Illing

What can individual citizens do to guard against the distortions and tricks you write about in this book?

Dave Levitan

I think my primary message would be learn to appreciate evidence. I really wish that your average reader of news would keep in mind that evidence is important and just because someone said something doesn't make it true. That’s true for people on the right or left, for scientists themselves, and for everyone. People have to back up their claims with evidence.

If individual citizens have this in mind at all times, I think they’d do a better job of spotting bullshit and lies. Make sure that people show their work, that their policy pronouncements are backed up with reliable data.

This is not a difficult thing to do, but it matters.