A guide to all the ways politi­cians get sci­ence wrong

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Amanda Erick­son is a re­porter for The Wash­ing­ton Post’s World­views blog. RE­VIEW BY AMANDA ERICK­SON

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

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