A guide to all the ways politicians get science wrong
Truths are all alike, but every lie is dishonest in its own way. That could be the mantra of “Not a Scientist,” by journalist Dave Levitan. Levitan has scoured the public record for politicians’ most egregious misstatements, misrepresentations and manglings of scientific fact. He fact-checks and classifies these “alternative facts,” many about climate change, and creates a taxonomy of untruths that may, he writes, help his readers suss out what’s right for themselves.
Among his categories: the “oversimplification” (when a politician says, for example, that 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record, obscuring the complicated science of assessing global temperature); the “cherry-pick” (Sen. James Inhofe gave a master class on this when he brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in 2015 to prove that climate change is a myth); and the “demonizer” (when, for instance, a public official blames a disease outbreak on illegal immigrants).
In each case, Levitan traces the lies back to the source. He points out that when Rep. Gary Palmer (Ala.) went on the radio in 2015 to say that the government was manipulating climate-change data, the argument in fact came from climate-change denier (and retired accountant) Paul Homewood. On his blog, Homewood offered no evidence to back up his incendiary claim of massive temperature tampering. Even so, that piece was picked up by Christopher Booker of the British newspaper the Telegraph and then shared hundreds of thousands of times. (Levitan calls this type of fib “blame the blogger.” )
The book offers a common-sense approach for catching misrepresentations. “When a politician makes what sounds like a very specific point — no warming for seventeen years, not sixteen or eighteen — be wary.” And: “Every measurement . . . [has] some margin for error. Pointing that out when it suits a political agenda isn’t an argument; it’s just a smokescreen.”
Levitan’s analysis is accurate and often interesting. But the book feels terribly light on the “why” — why are politicians so willing to mangle science? How do corporations and other special interests back them up? How did we become a country of scientific knownothings?
While the author spends a lot of time debunking myths around climate change, I wish he’d talked about how companies like ExxonMobil spent millions on phony science and research to create the confusion about global warming that so many people now feel, even in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus.
Instead, though, Levitan sticks to the facts. By doing so, he might miss the bigger picture.
NOT A SCIENTIST How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science By Dave Levitan Norton. 256 pp. $15.95 paperback