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Playing Whac-a-Mole with Science Deniers

A Review of Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science by Dave Levitan.

“I’m not a scientist” is, according to Mike McKenna, a Republican consultant and strategist, “the dumbest talking point in the history of mankind.” Yet, as the science journalist Dave Levitan describes in the introduction to his book Not a Scientist, it emerged as a popular way for politicians to evade questions about science. (Examples are offered from Ronald Reagan, Marco Rubio, Rick Scott, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell.) And, Levitan adds, “even when they do try to dodge the question, they end up spewing misinformation and errors virtually at every step” (p. 5). His book, in fact, is less about the titular phrase and more about the spewage.

Not a Scientist is thus primarily devoted to discussing a baker’s dozen of rhetorical devices used by politicians to misrepresent science. Twelve are allotted their own chapters: the oversimplification, the cherry-pick, the butter-up and undercut, the demonizer, the blame the blogger, the ridicule and dismiss, the literal nitpick, the credit snatch, the certain uncertainty, the blind-eye to follow-up, the lost in translation, and the straight-up fabrication. (Surely a literal nitpick would involve actually removing the eggs of lice, but perhaps “the literalistic nitpick” seemed too pedantic a phrase.) The thirteenth, the conspicuous silence, is discussed in the conclusion.

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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE DANGER ARTICLES: Why We Should Be Concerned About Artificial Superintelligence; Is Artificial Intelligence an Existential Threat?; Artificial Intelligence: Simulation, Not Synthesis; The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization in America; Delusions of the Imagination: Debunking an Early 19th Century Medical Quack Device — The “Tractor”; Area 51: What is Really Going on There?; Is Race a Useful Concept?; The Three Shades of Atheism; COLUMNS: pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction; Are You An Unconscious Racist? REVIEWS of: Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas; How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality; Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science; Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and and Swindles in American History by Nate Hendley; Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff; Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Chemtrails