In 1980, when Ronald Reagan compared the CO2 levels of Mount St. Helen’s to those produced from automobiles, his words were as follows:
“I’m not a scientist, and I don’t know the figures, but I have a suspicion that that one little mountain out there has probably released more sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere of the world than has been released in the past 10 years of automobile driving…”
Science journalist David Levitan now has called out Reagan and other politicians who mischaracterize science in his book, “Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent and Utterly Mangle Science.”
This debut work breaks down the errors politicians make when it comes to science and how those errors affect the public. Controversial topics, such as vaccinations, abortion, and of course, climate change, appear in the book.
“Those [controversial] issues are pretty important for the public to have a good understanding of them,” Levitan said in a recent phone interview. “It’s important for the public to just be aware of what the science tells us rather than just what the correspondents on cable news tells us. They’re not exactly speaking from a position of authority there.”
In 2015, after years as a freelance science journalist, Levitan landed a position at Factcheck.org as the site’s first ever, full-time science writer.
“My job was to basically call out politicians who got science wrong and to explain why they were wrong,” said Levitan, who will drop Midtown Scholar Bookstore for a reading and signing on Aug. 26. “I got a lot of people mad at me for telling them that they were wrong. My particular corner of the site tended to focus on one side of the aisle because one side of the aisle gets science wrong more often.”
Over that course of time, Levitan started to detect similar patterns in mischaracterizing scientific issues.
“The times that I would see politicians getting science wrong, I would see them doing it in very similar ways,” he said. “It would be similar rhetoric, similar word choices, the same methods of getting science wrong.”
He began to collect those methods and track those patterns, eventually gathering enough data to create “Not a Scientist.”
Each chapter analyzes recurring errors politicians make when it comes to science. Some of the errors include “Lost in Translation,” a type of political game of telephone in which information is lost and changed as it’s passed from one person to another, and “Straight-up Fabrication,” which, well, speaks for itself.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where they got [the information],” Levitan said. “Sometimes, you can trace it back to certain sources—sort of think tanks that would put out position papers, or something that a certain institute said. Or they’re just sort of talking points that have been recycled over and over, and the origin almost doesn’t matter. The more times that you repeat them, the more they sound like they should be true.”
According to Levitan, politicians choose not to consult scientists for the benefit of their reputation.
“They have an ideological position or a policy position they are trying to defend, but they know, on some level, the science won’t back them up,” he said.
The book’s forward message begins by disappointing readers’ hopes of seeing Donald Trump’s name between the pages. Levitan started writing “Not a Scientist” before Trump even won the Republican nomination. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely off the hook.
“Do not let his absence from these pages fool you: what the new president does not know about science could fill a book on its own,” Levitan writes in his forward.
One bit of optimism prevails. Levitan believes that the public’s science knowledge is increasing, even if it’s not to the extent he’d like.
“My impression is that the public is getting a little better with things like that, but obviously not to the extent that there is sort of a penalty for politicians who continue to ignore the science,” he said. “So, I would say it’s sort of a middle ground. There is evidence that people are getting better informed, but I’m not sure it has the desired effect just yet.”
The long-term solution, said Levitan, is STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.
“Having people better appreciate how science is done, the methods behind it, and basically the idea that you should demand evidence in claims that people make,” he said. “If we improve the overall scientific literacy in the public, then we reduce the possibility politicians can get away with this stuff.”