Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan
I don’t remember how I came to know about this book; perhaps Amazon recommended it to me or I read about it in the Brain Pickings blog. Whatever the initial impetus was, however, I am very glad to have read this book. Levitan’s premise is that politicians engage in various rhetorical errors when discussing scientific topics. Whether those errors are intentional or accidental is difficult to determine with certainty, although some repeat offenders, like former Texas governor and current U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, have strong and obvious ties to oil and gas interests in their respective states.
The title of the book refers to a speech made by Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he was running for the presidency against incumbent Jimmy Carter. Reagan said, “I have flown twice over Mount St. Helens out on our West Coast. 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 ten years of automobile driving or things of that kind that people are so concerned about.” Levitan goes on to explain that the eruption of Mount St. Helens ultimately released about 1.5 million tons of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) into the atmosphere—a prodigious amount. But the output of the past ten years (at that time) of human activity—automobiles, power plants, and factories—was estimated to equal over 200 million tons from the United States alone. (Levitan, 2) Reagan’s “suspicion” was off by a mere 99.25%!
According to Levitan, Reagan’s speech ushered in an era of misrepresentation and misuse of scientific data for political purposes. By using various rhetorical devices, politicians have been able to bend scientific facts to non-scientific purposes. The types of rhetorical foul play Levitan describes include such common occurrences as oversimplification, cherry-picking, demonizing, ridicule, and fabrication. But he has also crafted some clever names for other common instances: “Blame the Blogger,” the “Certain Uncertainty,” the “Credit Snatch,” and “Lost in Translation,” among others. He provides a chapter on each of these rhetorical snares, with plenty of examples from recent political history, as well as the real scientific facts and explanations that correct these errors.
Levitan builds his cases with unimpeachable sources from the U.S. government and worldwide scientific organizations. His bibliography of sources and notes extends to 34 pages of small print. The author comes to this topic with solid credentials. He has been working as a freelance journalist covering scientific topics for the last ten years, and has been published in Scientific American, Slate, Discover, and the Guardian, among others. His focus in this book is not just about politicians playing fast and loose with scientific facts; he also discusses the policies that have resulted from these errors and the medical and environmental impacts they have had on society.
The main scientific issues that Levitan addresses are global warming, vaccinations, marijuana use, and abortion. He doesn’t try using the scientific data to promote his own political beliefs or agenda; instead, he demonstrates the ways in which scientific facts have been misrepresented in order to persuade voters and lawmakers toward erroneous conclusions and unwise policies. While other issues are represented, his main focus is upon climate change and the foolhardy policies that have been adopted over the last forty or so years because of the intentional misuse of scientific data, findings, and facts.
Like almost all scientists and others who are scientifically informed and aware, Levitan is alarmed by the evidence of global warming and the obvious role that human activity plays in advancing climate change. So political conservatives and climate change deniers will not enjoy this book (and would probably not choose to read it, anyway). But those who do read this book will come away with a deepened appreciation for the complexity of scientific inquiry and the difficulties of passing along that type of information to the general public. However, the book itself is not difficult to understand. Levitan has a knack for explaining the complexities and vagaries of scientific inquiry in a way that is easy to understand but is not over-simplified. He does not talk down to the scientifically ignorant, but instead patiently explains the types of data currently available, the procedures for collecting that data, and the principles of nature involved with the particular issues at hand.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who has been confused by proclamations made about scientific topics in the news media, as well as to anyone interested in public policy and rhetoric. I’m very glad that I took the time to read this book, and I feel sure that I will find it to be a useful reference tool in the future.