Journalist Dave Levitan’s NOT A SCIENTIST: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (Norton 2017) addresses a dozen or so kinds of mistakes that are typically behind any politician’s use of the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but…”, and illustrates each kind of mistake with two or three very-detailed examples – too detailed, perhaps, unless we take that to be the point of the book, his defense of these mistakes as mistakes. Thus there are 33 pages of notes, mostly citations, for just over 200 pages of text.

With some books it’s useful to formulate a question or two going in, if only not to lose track of what you think the book is about, in effect challenging the author to follow through on the promise of the title and subtitle. Here I had two basic questions. Are the kinds of mistakes here accidental (the way people commit logical fallacies without realizing it) or deliberate? And second, is this mostly about Republicans?

Answer to the first: author claims he doesn’t try to attribute motives to most of these, but in most cases possible motivations are obvious: maintain the status quo, protect the interests of big business, promote xenophobic or religious agendas.

Answer to the second: yes.

The topic here dovetails with the previously read book about experts, as well as the ideas of intuitive physics, that ‘common sense’ trumps anything science might reveal. The categories of mistakes here, of course, align to the various logical fallacies and mental biases we’ve read about in other books. But there’s a good dose of mendacity here too. In fact, this mendacity, which the author notes goes back decades, at least to Reagan, is a principal reason I’ve never had any respect for most Republican politicians, or those who support them.



There’s not a lot about Trump in this book, because it was mostly finished before his election. Also, “his errors on scientific 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” (p. x.4) In contrast to the categories of errors discussed in this book, his brand is FIREHOSE.


It began with Reagan in 1980, claiming “I’m not a scientist but…” and then opining that the sulfur dioxide from a volcano surely contributes more to the problem of acid rain that all the pollution from cars, etc. These days we hear similar claims from Rubio, Scott, Boehner, and McConnell. This book largely doesn’t try to attribute motives to these various mistaken claims. And yes, the “vast bulk” of them are from Republicans.

Ch1, Oversimplification

Examples: claims that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks, when in fact various studies are nowhere near so specific; evidence ranges up to 23 or 27 weeks. Beware any such claim that can’t cite evidence.

Another: Christie on marijuana, stating flatly that it’s a gateway drug. Evidence is mixed and more complex; correlation is not causation, etc.

Obama: claiming that 2014 was the warmest year on record, when actually the reports claimed only a high probability that 2014 was the warmest. (This seems nitpicky, as if author felt compelled to include a Democratic sin or two, and this was the best, or worst, he could come up with.) A small matter perhaps, but any mis-statement gives critics an edge. (Thus his defense.)

Ch2, The Cherry-Pick

Inhofe and his snowball in congress, as if the one example of a cold day in DC somehow invalidated all the claims about climate change. This is anecdotal evidence. [ Or maybe, I wonder, Inhofe is just not very smart and thinks he really made a point; otherwise he thinks his audience is not very smart. ]

Author coins term TOADS to refer to climate skeptics/deniers to mean Those who Oppose Action/Deniers/Skeptics.

In fact, climate shift predict that record-setting high temps will outpace record-setting low temps by 20 to 1 by the middle of the century.

Cruz made a claim about there being a 17-year hiatus of rising temps, based on satellite data. This was a deliberate misrepresentation: satellite data are less reliable; other data don’t show the hiatus; and the specific claim (not 18 years or 20 years) is cherry-picking. (And the U of Alabama scientists who provide the satellite data are tied to climate change denial.)

And Palin citing one glacier that’s growing, not shrinking. In fact, many others are shrinking, and it’s understood why rising temps might cause some to grow: because shifting patterns of rainfall and snow might land on certain glaciers.

Ch3, The Butter-Up and Undercut

Cruz: praises NASA in congress before mentioning he wants to cut their budget for climate research. He was wrong in his claim that NASA’s mission didn’t involve the atmosphere—it’s right there in its founding statement. And he implied that the budget was somehow limited, that spending on climate research somehow deprived spending on space science. Further, the launch sites in Florida are in fact endangered by rising sea levels. And he was wrong to imply that space science is somehow ‘harder’ than atmospheric science.

Avian flus: GW Bush and the NIH, claiming funds to fight avian flus while in fact cutting the NIH budget over the years.

Ch4, The Demonizer

Mo Brooks claiming that illegal immigrants bring diseases, such as measles—fear-mongering. He also suggested that children from these other countries were less well-protected from disease that Americans. In fact, ironically, many of those countries have better vaccination rates—because Americans are still scared by the debunked Wakefield study supposedly linking vaccines to autism (or opposed to vaccines for other vacuous reasons). Such bad info remains on the internet for people to find…

Ben Carson made similar claims, as does Trump to defend his wall.

This is an old technique. Pat Buchanan made similar claims about immigrants and exotic diseases; but the data show incidental actual cases.

And OK senator Don Nickles wanted to limit HIV-positive immigrants, in the 90s. These sentiments to back to the Immigration Act of 1917, with its long list of maladies (idiots, imbeciles, etc.) that foreigners were supposedly prone to.

Ch5, The Blame the Blogger

There are good and bad internet sites, of course. Some politicians are not shy about citing dubious sources.

AL congressman Gary Palmer made a claim about manipulated climate data…based on a blog post by a hobbyist with no expertise in anything; yet somehow the Telegraph picked up the story and called it “the biggest science scandal ever.” It wasn’t; it was about homogenization of data from various sources, like having four thermometers in your kitchen and adjusting the data from the one sitting in the sun.

Santorum, challenging the claim that 97% of climate scientists agreed that rising temps are caused by humans, based a site called Fabius Maximus by a group of retirees, not climate scientists, who chewed a set of data about probabilities and certainties to try to undermine the 97%. Santorum misrepresented their analysis.

Cruz and others have cited 1970s articles about global cooling, as if the scientists can’t make up their minds. But there were only two popular magazine articles about it, and the author of the Newsweek article has distanced himself from those claims. Climate science has progressed since 1975.

Then there are the covert videos that purported to depict Planned Parenthood as profiting from fetal tissue – Fiorina, Rand Paul, Rick Perry all promoted this, though that practice is not illegal, and the videos were highly edited. Fiorina’s characterization of the videos in a 2016 was an outright lie, describing a scene that never existed. (Nevertheless, the controversy triggered a shooting attack on a PP clinic a couple months later.)

Ch6, The Ridicule and Dismiss

Huckabee, challenging Obama, that a beheading (the threat of ISIS et al) was greater than that of a sunburn (climate change), which completely mischaracterizes the nature of climate change.

Tom Coburn and his ‘WasteBook’, cited by Rand Paul to ridicule studies on fruit flies – when in fact fruit flies have been used for decades to make advances in biology that later apply to human treatments.

Goes back to Proxmire (a Democrat from Wisconsin) with his ‘Golden Fleece’ awards.

Ch7, The Literal Nitpick

A claim made with careful wording to imply more than the specific case cited. Inhofe’s claim about fracking, technically correct on a specific point, but used to fight back against regulations against the entire process of drilling oil and gas wells, p119.

Another: the DEA’s claim (in the Obama administration) that marijuana was in no way medicinal, implying that smoking it is the issue, when actual research focuses on the active ingredients, which do, it seems, have medical benefits.

Ch8, The Credit Snatch

Politicians who try to take credit for things that happened ‘on their watch’—even though they’re the result of policies set forth by their predecessors. [[ 2018: Trump taking credit for the economy, currently. ]]

Rick Perry taking credit for environmental gains that were the effects of policies from 1990, and the fact that Texas has a lot of wind. In fact, Perry brings lawsuits against EPA, and prays daily against the EPA, 131t.

Christie, 2015, resisting cap and trade policies but taking credit for solar power use – an effect such ‘market-based solutions.’

Bush in 2008, bragging about his environmental record that was actually the result of technological progress and actions by states.

Ch9, The Certain Uncertainty

Again, usually about climate change, politicians who claim that nothing should be done because we don’t yet understand the problem fully. (They didn’t stop jumping to conclusions in the case about fetal pain.) “We don’t know everything; therefore we should do nothing” p150.3; author compares this to a doctor refusing any cancer treatment until cancer is fully understood.

Bush in 2000: need a “full accounting” “before we react”

Jeb Bush in 2015: “it’s convoluted” and to say science is decided is “just arrogant”

In fact, much evidence is very clear.

Rubio in 2015: he *can* be certain that taking actions against climate change “would have a devastating impact on our economy” – whereas, in fact, the cost of taking no actions will have far higher costs; he’s simply wrong.

Reagan made similar arguments about acid rain in the ‘80s.

In 2007 a Texas rep argued against the HPV vaccine as an “experiment” on young girls; whereas in fact it was well tested. You get the impression these arguments aren’t about science, but about ideology that prefers business or abstinence.

Ch10, The Blind Eye to Follow-Up

Politicians who cite outdated or debunked studies, when they should know better. Science does march on: in 1949 lobotomies seemed reasonable, but no one would cite those studies today.

Obama cited the benefits of the study to map the genome, but should have cited a later study that gave more conservative returns. (Too many details!)

Climategate: a misinterpretation of emails that was studied and found without controversy, yet still cited as some kind of scandal, by Palmer, Inhofe, to intentionally mislead.

And Frankenfish, a FMO salmon, opposed by two Alaska senators not so much for health concerns as for the threat to the wild salmon industry; actually there had been 2 decades of studies showing them safe, and as farmed fish, there was no competition.

Ch11, The Lost in Translation

Santorum misrepresented, or flatly misunderstood, statistics about the risks of mercury in fish by claiming the study targeted pregnant women who consumed six pounds of fish per week. It didn’t, but Santorum was against mercury standards. The chain of confusion goes back to a Wall Street Journal piece based on two CATO Institute studies that got conflated.

And Rand Paul ridiculing an EPA case in 2015 in which a Mississippi man was sent to jail for “putting dirt on his own land.” In fact, he had filled in wetlands and built housing, which was dangerous because septic systems are unreliable and leak in swampy areas.

Ch12, The Straight-Up Fabrication

Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape.”

Ben Carson’s claim that straight men go into jail and come out gay, that therefore being gay is a choice. No evidence.

Huckabee claiming that one volcano blast contributes more to global warming that 100 years of human activity. Not by a million percent. (And anyway, volcano blasts tend to cool temps, not raise them.)

Michelle Bachman, 2011, with an anecdote about how an MMR vaccine caused mental retardation; similar anecdotal claims by Rand Paul, and Trump.

Conclusion, The Conspicuous Silence

A bonus error is this, as when President Reagan said nothing about HIV and AIDS for some six years after the crisis began.

Things have changed slightly; in 2012 Obama and Romney each answered, in print, questions about science policy. And then in 2015 Obama said in a speech, “Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities…” and so on. Which perhaps might shame everyone else from using the “not a scientist” defense to mislead or misunderstand.

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Politics, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply