Thursday, June 22, 2017

Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan [Book Review]

Today's book review is of Dave Levitan's Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, published in April 2017. 

I tag this is an important book that everyone should read, while recognizing that the people who need it most will refuse to do so. The main title is derived from the oft-heard refrain from Republican politicians in the year or so leading up to the recent presidential campaign: "I am not a scientist." Invariably this meaningless throwaway line was followed by some statement that was both false and already refuted by the science.

Each chapter of the book introduces one of a series of what the author calls mistakes, misrepresentations, and errors. [I would call them tactics] They include the "oversimplification," "cherry-pick," "butter-up and cut," "demonizer," "blame the blogger," and so forth. Some of these will sound familiar and others not, but all are common tactics used by politicians to mislead the public and give cover for fellow science-denier legislators. The examples he uses will be recognizable by most people who watch or read the news.

The "oversimplification," for example, is done by boiling down a complicated science into a simple statement that appears to be true and definitive (though is likely to be neither). The example he gives is when several Republican politicians argued "the scientific evidence is clear" that unborn babies at 20 weeks feel pain. In fact, there is essentially no scientific evidence supporting this argument (and much evidence to refute it), but by stating something as settled fact that isn't settled fact they are able to push their anti-abortion agenda.

On the flip-side of this is the "certain uncertainty" tactic. Republican politicians often claim that since we don't every single detail of man-made climate change (e.g., how many feet the seas will rise by 2030 or the temperature by 2050) then we should not take action. Politicians who don't want to take action on climate change demand absolute certainty to avoid responsibility; politicians who do want to take action to block funding for women's reproductive choices claim as certainty conclusions that are in no way certain. In both cases, politicians are selectively choosing a tactic that misrepresents the science for their political gain.

There are two aspects of the book that I believe keep it from reaching the entirety of its potential. First, the format of each chapter is to introduce examples from politicians mouths to illustrate the tactic being discussed. This is a good start, but then Levitan spends considerable time documenting the research that debunks that particular politician's statement. I agree that explaining the reality is necessary to show the fallacies, faults, and fallaciousness of the statements, but in my opinion these discussions go on way too long. The author is a respected journalist and does an excellent job digging out the background behind the statements, but I wish he had covered the material more concisely so that he could provide more examples and more insights into how to recognize these tactics. No casual viewer or listener of these political statements is going to do investigative reporting to know that the statements are false. The public needs to be able to recognize in real time when politicians are misleading them.

The second aspect is that Levitan works hard to avoid calling a lie a lie. Many of the tactics he describes as errors and misrepresentations are intentional. The carefully constructed "literal nitpick" of James Inhofe, for example, is done intentionally to misinform the public so that they won't call him out on the science denial that negatively impacts his constituents (but greatly helps his campaign donors, and future donations to his coffers).

[See this article on The Dake Page for more discussion of this James Inhofe example]

Considering the critiques above, I think the book falls short of what it potentially could have accomplished. That aside, I also highly recommend that everyone read it. The tactics that Levitan discusses are used repeatedly by politicians - mostly, but not exclusively, Republicans - and the general public MUST be aware of how science deniers intentionally misrepresent the science. Why the capital letters "MUST?" Because denial of science, and the resulting abdication of responsibility to take policy action to address it, endangers each and every American (not to mention everyone else on Earth, and Earth itself).