This month’s episode of the Physics World podcast is about the ways in which politicians misuse and misrepresent science, often for political agendas. Our regular host Andrew Glester meets Dave Levitan, author of the recent book Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. The title is a reference to the infamous 1980 quote from Ronald Reagan “I’m not a scientist, but…” Reagan, who became the 40th US president in 1981, went on to make the factually incorrect claim that a single volcano releases more sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere than a decade’s worth of man-made emissions.
Today, in our “post-truth” era, these sorts of statements have become commonplace. A type of politics has entered the mainstream that rejects the claims of “experts” and pitches itself against what it perceives as the intellectual and political elite. This sometimes includes scientists and the scientific consensus on issues such as climate change. One factor in the rise of this brand of populist politics is a perceived failure of professionals to predict significant events such as the global economic crash and high-profile election results. Levitan – who used to write for FactCheck.org – discusses the types of tactics deployed by populist politicians in relation to science, and he emphasizes that his book is not exclusively an attack on the Republican Party.
Of course, these issues don’t just affect the US. The podcast also features the British scientists Tara Shears and Alice Roberts, who share their concerns about the current lack of evidence-based debate in the UK. This was particularly apparent during the campaign ahead of the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership status in the European Union, in which spurious claims were made on both sides of the argument. One of the defining statements of the campaign came from vote-leave campaigner Michael Gove who said “The people of this country have had enough of experts from organizations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” In the Physics World podcast, Glester and his contributors explore how and why this sort of sentiment can hold such wide appeal among voters.
You can also read Tara Shears’ review of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science.