Saturday, June 24, 2017

Not a Scientist

According to Dave Levitan, author of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, it was Ronald Reagan who first used the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but...” and then proceed to make outrageously false statements that were easily disproved by scientific evidence. The plague of false statements has proliferated until now politicians, almost all of them Republicans, seem to feel obligated to tell lies and pretend that they are being scientific in doing so.

Politicians, like most other people, can be forgiven for not understanding science. It can sometimes be very complex. But what any reasonable non-scientist would do is to trust scientists to understand science. It is reasonable for politicians and others to demand to see some evidence, and I think scientists are obligated to provide evidence. I present evidence to my students and readers all the time. But once this is done, the non-scientists should at least acknowledge that the evidence has been presented. It would really, really, really bother me if I made a statement outside my field of expertise, only to discover that 99.9 percent of the experts disagreed with it. But this never seems to bother Republicans.

Levitan goes through lots of examples of Republican politicians lying and trying to cover it up with the appearance of scientific fact. He classifies the examples into a small set of patterns. I mention just six of them.

One of these patterns is cherry-picking. In global warming, a Republican can pick the warmest year in the 1980s and the coldest year in the 2000s and point out that the temperatures are not very different—deliberately ignoring the fact that all the other 1980s temperatures were cooler and all the other 2000s temperatures were warmer. It’s like finding a seven-foot-tall giantess and a four-foot tall male dwarf and saying that women are three feet taller than men.

Another pattern is to ignore the follow-up. For a while, the so-called Climategate scandal circulated around the conservative pseudo-media. When the news first came out, there was the possibility it might have been true. Subsequent investigations have shown, however, that there was no scandal at all. But Republicans still talk about it as if it is true.

Yet another pattern is to praise scientists and then, behind their backs, undermine them. Many Republican representatives have praised NASA then said that NASA’s climate data are false.

Yet another pattern is for the politicians to claim that if we do not know everything about a subject, then we know nothing about it. Republicans demand absolute certainty about every aspect of climate science—every ocean current, every glacier, every local slight variation of temperature—or else we can say nothing at all about climate science. This is, of course, hypocritical, because these same Republicans make statements about things regarding which uncertainty remains, in fact, they make stuff up without any evidence at all.

Yet another pattern is for Republicans to make fun of anything they do not understand. Following the lead of Sarah Palin, they love to make fun of biologists who study fruit flies. What Republicans deliberately ignore is that fruit flies have many of the same genes, and mutations in those genes, that we do. Biologists can study the effects of those mutations in fruit flies, which have two-week life cycles and regarding which there are no ethical concerns. There is an autism-related mutation in fruit flies. Fruit flies don’t get autism, but we can experimentally study the gene in them, which we could not do in humans.

The last category that Levitan considers is the straight falsehood, in which a politician just makes something up. His first example is Todd Akin saying that a woman’s body can spontaneously abort a fetus that resulted from rape, and that therefore abortion laws should not contain any exceptions for rape—since rape pregnancies simply do not occur. But I think Levitan missed something here. Todd Akin must have heard, somewhere in a biology class in which he was half asleep, about what biologists call the Bruce Effect. Some mammals, such as mice and monkeys, are, in fact, able to abort unwanted fetuses. In geladas, for example, when a female is taken over by a new dominant male, her body aborts fetuses that were fathered by a previous dominant male. This must have been what Akin was thinking about, only it does not happen in humans.

Of course, there are examples of Republicans just making stuff up. Mike Huckabee (who fancies himself a highly ethical Preacher of the Gospel) said that a single volcano can produce as much carbon dioxide as a hundred years of human activity. In actuality, the biggest recent volcano, Pinatubo, released 0.05 gigatons of carbon; but human activity releases 10 gigatons per year, that is, 1000 in a century. Huckabee’s numbers were off by a factor of twenty thousand. But, if you are a preacher, who’s counting?

Understandably, in the infinitely tortured world of Republican political thought, there are examples that may not fit into any of Levitan’s categories. One example that he did not (as I recall) mention comes from Michele Bachman (whom he did mention in a different connection.) She said, in 2006, that we should not worry about global warming, or any other environmental issue, because Jesus has already saved the world. You will notice that Bachman did not say, “Don’t worry about terrorism; Jesus already saved the world,” or, “Don’t worry about the economy, Jesus already saved the world.” She used—deliberately—a line of reasoning that she would not use in other contexts.

The only problem I have with Levitan’s book is that it is too timid. The Republican politicians he cites are not merely making mistakes, or bending the truth, or even merely lying. You can pretty much summarize the entire Republican position as, “I’m not a scientist, but I don’t need to be, because God has made my brain infallible and utterly incapable of error, so I can just make stuff up and God is obligated to make it true.” Republican politicians do not merely mangle science. They are blasphemers who consider the possibility that they may be wrong to be as unthinkable as God Himself being wrong. Of course, if Levitan had said this, the publisher would have rejected it. (Maybe Levitan tried and had to back down.)

Republicans have guns and consider themselves to be incapable of error even after thinking about something for only a few seconds. What could possibly go wrong?

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