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Philosophy, sociology and religion

Philosophy, sociology and religion

How to stop the science saboteurs

15 Jun 2017
Taken from the June 2017 issue of Physics World

Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent and Utterly Mangle Science
Dave Levitan
2017 W W Norton & Company 272pp £12.99pb

The state we are in

Politicians have long misused, misquoted and misinterpreted science to suit their agenda. From Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the US, first uttering the infamous words “I’m not a scientist and I don’t know the figures, but I have a suspicion…” in the 1980s, to today’s catchphrase of “alternative facts”, scientific results are often used and abused. In the current political climate, you may find that author and science journalist Dave Levitan’s Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent and Utterly Mangle Science, attracts you with the same compulsion that pulls moths towards flames.

The book’s friendly yellow cover promises “an eye-opening tour of the political tricks that subvert scientific progress”. Although Levitan mostly focuses on politics in the US, you will find the ploys he describes are universal. Some will horrify you with their familiarity and relevance – Reagan’s quote above, taken from a speech that concerned acid rain, is a case in point. His suspicion that “one little mountain out there [Mount St Helens] has probably released more sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving” disregarded facts and scientific research in one cavalier swoop. As Levitan points out, “simply saying you’re not an expert is not an introduction for trying to act like one”. When a president rates gut feeling higher than evidence, confidence in science is eroded, scientists are marginalized and populism grows. At this point you may be uncomfortably reminded of then UK secretary of state for justice Michael Gove’s infamous comment that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, in the run-up to last year’s referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

Levitan begins by categorizing the many rhetorical tricks that politicians use to spread misinformation about science. Some are subtle – oversimplifying a concept and getting it wrong, cherry-picking a fact and ignoring the bigger picture, or even ignoring more recent data and findings. Some tricks are more insidious: sourcing blogs or reports of dubious provenance instead of peer-reviewed science; ridiculing, dismissing or ignoring scientific research; wilfully misinterpreting the notion of uncertainty. Global warming seems a particular target. We read about a US senator producing snowballs in the Senate, claiming their mere existence as proof that global warming can’t exist. Another senator deliberately interprets climate data out of context to tell “global warming alarmists…the satellite data show it ain’t happening”. Another deploys their own version of statistics to argue against measures to combat climate change.

But certain other tricks are outrageous. In an “impressive example of fearmongering”, Levitan describes how Alabama congressman Mo Brooks declared that “our kids just aren’t prepared for a lot of the diseases that come in and are borne by illegal aliens”. Most countries in central and southern America have higher vaccination rates than the US, but that didn’t stop Brooks spotting the potential political capital to be gained by criticizing immigrants. Levitan draws a link between misrepresentation of scientific evidence, a fear of immigrants and the diseases they carry, and policies that exploit this fear such as current US president Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

If you’re not somewhat depressed by this point in the book, you haven’t met the trick of straight-up fabrication and “the unverifiable story” that crops up in anti-vaccination debates in order to sway public opinion. You might dismiss Trump as an uninformed source (“a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever. Got very, very sick, now is autistic”), but it’s more troubling to read of Senator Rand Paul (“an actual doctor”) stating “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” There is no scientific basis for these statements.

With fake news and alternative facts seemingly everywhere, it is vital that this type of political manipulation be recognized. Luckily, Levitan is on hand to help identify and combat these tricks. Each illustration of shady political practice is accompanied by the relevant science to place it in context. Each chapter ends with advice on how to recognize a rhetorical technique and combat it. You might think this isn’t rocket science, but some techniques are remarkably sly and subtle, and require homework to prepare for them, and a good overview of the relevant literature to refute them.

You may read much of this book with your head in your hands, praying for the future of humanity, but don’t worry. Levitan is an entertaining guide whose language is lively (“if this isn’t enough wrongness for you, it gets worse”), liberally sprinkled with italics for even more emphasis, and often a little leading (“let’s claim a new term – climate TOADS – Those who Oppose Action/Deniers/Skeptics”). There are limitations to his treatment however. Levitan does not analyse political motivations to misuse science or examine the wider use of these techniques in debate. He also does not consider the depressing idea that there may be deeper anti-science trends in society.

There is also not enough space for Levitan to fully describe some of the complex areas of scientific research used as examples (although he backs up his statements with an extensive set of notes) – it’s just not that sort of book. Instead, it is a snappy catalogue of a selection of ways in which science is misused for political gain. Levitan states at the start that this is the “unfortunate reality” of American political life, rather than a political bias. Whether it is or not, the lessons are valid everywhere and it won’t take you long to think of examples in UK political life.

If it amazes you that Levitan manages to remain so upbeat and positive through the book, read his more measured and urgent foreword. Trump’s election, after the book was written, is a “terrifying state of affairs”, and his misuses of science would form part of the collection “if only he were better at making them”. Levitan writes that our best antidote to “misinformation, deception and backwardness” is vigilance. Read this book. It’s not just timely, it could save your future.

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