“The Cherry Pick,” “Credit Snatch” And Other Political Rhetoric That Can Distort Science

17:02 minutes

Political talk can be difficult to untangle. When it comes to science, politicians can use that rhetoric to distort details, oversimplify findings or undermine scientific knowledge. Dave Levitan, author of the new book Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science, provides a guide for cutting through the rhetoric to understand the science and fact-check these political polemics.

Segment Guests

Dave Levitan

Dave Levitan is author of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017). He’s a science journalist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. How often, when asked about global warming or evolution, have you heard politicians claim–

MITT ROMNEY: I’m not a scientist.

MITCH MCCONNELL: I’m not a scientist.

BOBBY JINDAL: I was not an evolutionary biologist.

JOHN BOEHNER: I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.

IRA FLATOW: The good old I’m not a scientist line. That was Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Bobby Jindal, and John Boehner. On the surface, it sounds like they’re simply admitting that they don’t know. But my next guest says that line is just one of many tactics that politicians use to confuse and undermine science.

Strategies like they cherry pick, they butter up and undercut, and the credit snatch. They sound like episodes on the Big Bang Theory. But David Levitan says they are strategies in politician’s playbooks to discredit well-accepted science. Levitan is a science journalist, and author of the new book Not a Scientist, How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science.

Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID LEVITAN: Thanks very much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Well, so what’s wrong when the politicians say, I’m not a scientist? What does that phrase convey to you?

DAVID LEVITAN: Well, to me it just sounds like a bit of a dodge, that they’re admitting something which is obvious. I mean, most politicians are clearly not scientists. And they’re not economists, or experts in the Middle East, or anything else. But generally speaking, we trust politicians to seek out expert advice.

But in this case, because science is maybe a bit more obscure than some topics to some people, they use that line just as a way to sort of pretend like there’s no way of knowing something, or that the scientists themselves are sort of sitting off in the corner and shouldn’t be trusted. And then of course, they go right on and act on these things that they don’t know about anyway.

IRA FLATOW: Is there one phrase that you think of, over all the phrases in your book, that bothers you the most? One tactic they use?

DAVID LEVITAN: I would say– I mean, I go back and forth on this sometimes. They all bother me a little bit. The one that I call the ridicule and dismiss might bother me the most. This is a tactic where politicians will describe usually, basic scientific research in very silly-sounding terms. Which you can do with a whole lot of basic research, just because it is basic by nature. You’re studying things in mice, or in fruit flies, or any number of very small and insignificant-seeming model organisms in other fields.

But obviously, we use those types of studies to build on each other over many years and decades to arrive at very important findings. It just strikes me as so disingenuous to pretend these types of studies are useless, when in fact they are incredibly useful. So that might be the one that gets to me the most.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I remember once there was some research with a shrimp on a treadmill that no one wanted to talk about– or they all wanted to talk about.

DAVID LEVITAN: Yeah, yeah. I think that was one of the ones included in the Wastebook– Tom Coburn’s list of government waste or unnecessary spending, which some other politicians have taken up the mantle since he left Congress. But yeah, they pretend that things like a shrimp on a treadmill, it just sounds ridiculous. But when you describe it in sort of more thorough fashion, you can often start to see why something like that might be useful.

IRA FLATOW: You have a lot of catchy names for these categories. Let me bring up another one, the butter up and cut down.

DAVID LEVITAN: Yeah, butter up and undercut, yeah. That one is basically the idea that some sort of scientific topics are very hard to criticize outright. So things like cancer research, or NASA in particular is very popular. These are things that the public likes. So it’s harder for a politician to just outright criticize them.

So instead, they sort of use some misdirection. They’ll talk about how great NASA is. But in doing so, they’re actually setting the stage to try and cut its funding on certain things. I mean, as we’ve seen in recent years, and again this year, there have been sort of threats to cut NASA’s Earth science funding, which means studying climate change. But you can’t just say NASA does bad things, because people like NASA. So instead, you talk it up, you butter it up, and then try and sort of cut its legs off.

IRA FLATOW: And you cut the budget out.

DAVID LEVITAN: Right, exactly.

IRA FLATOW: It’s great, but let’s cut the budget anyhow. Our number, 844-724-8255. Talking with Dave Levitan, author of Not a Scientist– boy, have I heard that term so often– How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. What is the bottom line on all of that, Dave? Why are they doing it? Is this because it’s the only way they know how to take on science?

DAVID LEVITAN: I mean, that’s a great question. And to be honest, I try to avoid assigning intent to most of the errors I talk about in the book, just because it’s a bit tough to say this person is lying, they’re outright lying about something. But I do think that you can trace a lot of these things to sort of, money in politics, and special interest groups.

And you know, climate change plays a big role in the book. And obviously, the fossil fuel industry has a very vested interest in continuing to make people a little more confused about science. And as long as that’s true, it’s going to be hard to avoid some of these things.

IRA FLATOW: Let me bring up one that makes me pull my hair out. In your book you call it the straight up fabrication. I want to read a section. You say “this is arguably the most depressing of the areas covered here, politicians simply relying on the idea that the loudest voice is often considered the most correct, whether or not their point is defensible or fact-based.” I mean, fabrication, just making something up– how do you fight that?

DAVID LEVITAN: That’s a great question. I think sometimes some of the examples I cover are so ridiculous that it’s actually not that hard to fight. Generally, the public will respond in sort of dramatic fashion when some of these very egregious examples come up. One of them I talk about is Todd Akin’s mention of legitimate rape, which was just sort of a horrifying episode, but which the public really did respond to very quickly. And the media did respond very quickly as well.

Some of the other ones though, can be a little tougher. When a politician just sort of makes something up, they don’t cite a source. They don’t actually explain the science behind it. They’re just kind of making something up. It can be really hard if you’re not an expert in that field to really sort of cut through what they’re talking about.

I don’t have a great answer for sort of what you can do, other than sort of stay skeptical, I guess. If something sounds ridiculous, it probably is. And you can look it up, and try and figure it out.

IRA FLATOW: And even now, they’re resorting to discrediting the respected journals, like Science magazine. How do you answer that?

DAVID LEVITAN: Right, that’s another tough one. Yeah, in the House Science Committee’s hearing a little while ago, Lamar Smith said that Science magazine was not an objective journal. Which is really just kind of shocking to hear from a politician. I’m not sure how to combat it, other than just to keep telling him he’s wrong. A journal like that has such a long history of objective scientific pursuits that it’s hard to just say anything other than well no, it is objective.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any training? I mean, do politicians get formal training in how to obfuscate and say these things?

DAVID LEVITAN: No, I don’t think they do. I think there’s a lot of repetition involved. I think they’ve– just with the title of the book, you can see, with Not a Scientist. I mean, it’s not like someone told them all to say this. It just they all sort of started saying it, and realized it seemed to work for a little while. So they all sort of repeated it.

And I think to a lot of times, politicians will go with what works, right? As long as you seem to be getting your message out to the people you feel you need to get your message out to, you why stop, I guess.

IRA FLATOW: Do you find this works on both sides of the aisle? Do and politicians from all the parties say the same things?

DAVID LEVITAN: There are definitely some examples that cross party lines. And there are certainly people on both sides of the aisle that have made errors in scientific topics. I try to, in the book, to stay away from partisan statements.

But it’s very hard to deny that one party has largely abandoned scientific rigor and evidence in the last couple of decades. So I don’t pretend that I’d go half and half on the examples there. But the techniques, the rhetoric, the devices they use could be used by anybody, and have been used by anybody. If you go back far enough, some of these topics have crossed the aisle sort of, in who is getting it wrong or getting it right. And there’s nothing to say that it couldn’t change in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, to Newark, New Jersey. Hi, Dan, welcome to Science Friday.

DAN: Hi, I am a scientist, a lover of science, want every kid to have math. I really am totally on your side about environment. But I just think there’s a certain arrogance that borders on insolence with which you guys respond.

And you don’t realize that these guys are setting you up. So by the way you respond, you antagonize the people who otherwise are just listening. And I think that especially you– because I listen to you every Friday– have to come up and understand the humility and the real concern that people have. Because if you–

IRA FLATOW: Do have an instance? Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?

DAN: Yes. Instances where there is a division between a massive economic displacement and a partial environmental issue involving animals or whatever. I don’t want to give you any particular case, but–

IRA FLATOW: I’m asking for some evidence. I need some evidence. We deal in evidence-based stuff, you know?

DAN: And I’m asking you for introspection. Because we are now in a position where if we lose, there’s nobody else to save the future for our kids.

IRA FLATOW: I understand. I understand what you’re saying. But I’d like to respond to an instance.

DAN: –the point that I get the chance to present the problem, and you can introspect about it and ask yourself. Because I didn’t go through all your programs before getting on the phone today. But if that’s what I have to do, I will in writing. But it would be nice if you guys start asking yourselves–


IRA FLATOW: We had to drop that call. Let’s move on. Dave, what do you say to somebody like that?

DAVID LEVITAN: Well, it’s an interesting question, I suppose. He had a colorful way of addressing it, I suppose. But I think there’s certainly some value to all of us thinking about the way we communicate, and especially on scientific topics, which can be very complicated, and for anyone who isn’t particularly aware of them, can be confusing. So that’s fair to certainly ask the question, are we communicating well enough? Or are we just assuming people should know things?

In terms of responding to political attacks on science, I think the idea that we should– there’s a little bit of both sidesism there, right? That you should let the attack stand, because you don’t want to be mean to the people who agree. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to me when something like destroying the climate is at stake.

IRA FLATOW: Well, he raised one kernel of a point. And that is what is the media’s role in all of this? Are they complicit in the problem if there’s no push back, or the soundbites are so small and they’re allowed to stand?

I mean, shouldn’t the media– I mean, one of the arguments I’ve had over the years with my colleagues who are political reporters is that they never follow up a politician’s phraseology with show me the evidence. They can say anything they want, basically, and no one– now they have started doing it a little bit. But no one says what’s the evidence present? I mean, science journals are always asking for evidence.

DAVID LEVITAN: Yeah, no, I think that’s a great point. And it’s incredibly important to require evidence for any claim from any political party, from any politician, elected official, et cetera. The media has to be the one, I think, as the sort first line of defense to say well, OK, you said that. But if there’s no evidence for it, then what are we supposed to do with that?

But I guess I do think that the media has gotten a little bit better about that in recent years. I think there is a sort of a general trend toward requiring evidence, when evidence should be so easy to provide in the age of any study is available in 10 seconds on Google.

IRA FLATOW: I know that a science adviser has not yet been named in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. It has no director. Will this contribute to these issues?

DAVID LEVITAN: Yeah, that’s a good question. It really seems like quite a contrast from that office, OSTP, under President Obama, when Dr. John Holdren was the science advisor and the director to now, when there’s just no one there, really. I think in terms of it contributing to the issue, it really depends how this administration uses that office. I think there are differences across administrations. Sometimes, a science adviser can play a really vocal role, and can really sort of guide the administration’s policies, and guide how science is treated at the highest levels of government. Other times, not so much.

So it really depends who is installed there. Obviously, we don’t know who, if anyone, will end up there. Some of the names that have been floated have been a little bit scary to certain people in the scientific community, I would say. But I don’t think we’ll know until they actually start filling out those positions.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday, from PRI, Public Radio International. Sorry if a little epithet may have slipped through earlier. We tried to hit the button as fast as we could. But sometimes they get out.

The science of a lot of things can be very complicated. And oversimplification is one of the things you talk about. And by having to make it into little soundbites so that it actually gets picked up. Is there a better way that politicians could talk about these topics?

DAVID LEVITAN: Yeah. I think it’s a tough question, because obviously, there is some benefit to boiling things down into usable quotes, and usable, teachable moments. I mean, I’m not indicting the entire idea of explaining things quickly and simply. But if you take a very complicated topic, and just spout a soundbite that does not have evidence behind it, then you’re really sort of doing everyone a disservice, I think.

I mean, you can’t require that every politician, every time they give a speech, or every time they send out a tweet, that they have paragraph after paragraph of nuanced discussion. But I think it would help if a politician has decided he’s going to make a certain thing an issue, then offer up some evidence on a campaign website, or a congressional website, or whatever the case may be, just providing the most context possible in whatever form that takes would be useful, rather than just one sentence and then done.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And any last thoughts on where we go from here with all of this?

DAVID LEVITAN: Well, you know I think it can feel like a sort of depressing moment in terms of science to some people I know. And I guess I would encourage people to look at the bright side. There’s a science march happening next weekend.

And there’s movement to bring scientists into government, which I think is a great idea. I think there is a impressive mobilization toward just an appreciation for scientific rigor, and evidence, and empiricism, and things that really would improve the political discourse if they sort of entered into that realm a little more. So it sounds like a bad time, but maybe it’s not quite as bad as we think.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, David. David Levitan, author of Not a Scientist, How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. So thanks for being with us today. We’re going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we’re headed to Mars, or a simulation of it in Hawaii. Stay with us.

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