How to Stop Falling for the “I’m Not a Scientist” Trap

This is a rhetorical tactic that denialists have been using for decades. There are better responses than deifying scientists.

Danielle Pletka on Meet the Press
Danielle Pletka on Meet the Press on Sunday.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan defended car emissions by comparing them favorably to the recent eruption of Mount St. Helens. “I’m not a scientist,” he said, “but I just 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 last 10 years of automobile driving.” It wasn’t true (Americans’ many cars released more sulfur dioxide over the past decade than that one eruption), but it was one of the first examples of a dreadful turn of phrase—“I’m not a scientist”—that has haunted our discourse ever since, as chronicled by Dave Levitan in his book, Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science. It is most frequently deployed as a sort of disclaimer that then allows the speaker to go on to spew completely false information without consequence.

It happened again over the weekend, when Meet the Press hosted the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka to talk about the Trump administration’s Black Friday climate change report. “I’m not a scientist,” she said, and then followed that up with a bunch of nonsense about global cooling. The outraged response was swift and immediate: Why was this person asked on Meet the Press to talk about science when she clearly knows nothing about it? Why didn’t more TV networks interview real scientists about the report? Or, as one Twitter user put it:

This reaction underscores one particular frustration of the Trump era: In order to defend everything we hold dear, we often find ourselves mindlessly cheerleading science without thinking too hard. But fighting the TV appearance of this “not a scientist” by demanding that more scientists talk about climate in the public sphere—while implying, as many did, that they are the only ones who can—only makes things worse.

We should be smart enough by now to know the “I’m not a scientist” trick for what it is. For one thing, it props up the fallacy that the existence of climate change is still up for debate. Another effect of the right’s use of “not a scientist” is to put up a wall separating the project of science from the rest of human knowledge. Levitan calls the phrase “a bit of down-home hucksterism designed to marginalize those eggheads over there who actually are scientists as somehow out of touch or silly.” Take Mitch McConnell’s use of it in 2014: “I’m not a scientist. I am interested in protecting Kentucky’s economy, I’m interested in having low cost electricity,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer’s editorial board. In this formulation, a “scientist” couldn’t be interested in protecting Kentucky’s economy—leave that to the people who live in the real world, like McConnell. (This idea, that science doesn’t help the economy, would be a huge surprise to many scientists, but I digress.)

This attempt to separate scientist from human is a trap. If we, the opponents of McConnell, presume that only scientists can understand climate change, and therefore only scientists should be asked to talk about it publicly, the next step is the idea that scientists should be the ones to make the decisions about what we’re going to do to fight it. “By this logic only scientists can make policy and governance decisions involving science,” historian of science Audra Wolfe wrote on Twitter, in responding to Dan Rather’s well-meaning tweet on the topic. “That’s technocracy, not a democracy.”

It’s been a while since the left spoke so reverently of science’s righteousness. At another point of national crisis, during the worst part of the Depression, a group at Columbia University’s Department of Industrial Engineering proposed that rigorous planning, as directed by engineers and technicians, would be the answer to the country’s economic woes. Howard Scott, an engineer, was the director of the group, which called itself Technocracy. The increased productive capability of American industry had put men out of work, and it was up to science to fix this problem, Scott argued. The group analyzed the workings of all civilization, proclaiming that everything about American life could be broken down in terms of units of energy and that the economy should be reconfigured based on their analysis. Put technocrats in control, Scott said, and things would be running smoothly once again.

Contemporary onlookers, despite being steeped in a culture that lionized engineers and planners, found the idea a bit terrifying. The plans that the technocrats advanced, which involved giving out “energy certificates” to replace money and creating a new financial system to “provide an automatic balance between production and consumption,” were outlandish, Wayne Weishaar wrote in an ultimately critical 1933 essay called “Technocracy: An Appraisal.” It felt, to Weishaar and to many others then and later, alienating and inherently anti-democratic: “[The engineers] have withheld details, saying that they are interested only in presenting them later to technicians and engineers, ‘the only ones who can comprehend it.’ ”

Of course, this vision of “technocracy” never came to pass in the United States. Since the Vietnam era, liberals have maintained a certain wariness toward the idea that pure science, untempered by democratic input from the rest of us, can solve all our problems. It’s only more recently, when Trump has scrambled our brains so effectively, that we seem to have fallen back on the old idea that science is perfectly virtuous.

We shouldn’t let Trump and the right trick us into building up this fake division between science and the rest of the world. Some politicians on the left seem to have understood this. Charlie Crist said in 2014, while campaigning against Rick Scott, who used the “not a scientist” defense in responding to questions about climate change, “I’m not a scientist either, but I can use my brain and I can talk to one.” That same year, Barack Obama said something similar to the League of Conservation Voters, acknowledging his lack of scientific training and then referring to the science adviser and other scientists in his administration he could speak with if he had questions.

Trump, ever the picture of narcissism, told the Washington Post that he doesn’t believe in climate change because he’s too smart: “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself—we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers,” he said. He also waited longer than any president in recent history to appoint his own science adviser, who still hasn’t been confirmed. Even once that adviser is in place, who’s to say Trump will consult him? As Slate’s Brian Palmer put it back in 2016, when he argued that this president should simply go without a science adviser, “There’s no scientist alive who can fix the underlying problem, because the problem is Trump himself”—particularly, his arrogance.

You don’t have to be a “scientist” to care about processes that are best explained by science. You don’t have to be trained to talk about science with a curious and honest mind. You don’t even have to be a scientist to “do” science. The amateur insect collectors Brooke Jarvis writes about in her recent New York Times story on the “insect apocalypse” are citizen scientists, and their work has been crucial to piecing together what’s going on with declines in insect populations. “Amateurs have long provided much of the patchy knowledge we have about nature,” Jarvis writes about a long tradition of citizen science that’s benefited entomology and ornithology in particular. “As technologically advanced as we are, the natural world is still a very big and complex place, and the best way to learn what’s going on is for a lot of people to spend a lot of time observing it.”

I know nobody railing against Meet the Press’ choices intended to make things worse. But we’d do better to accept that the people who deploy “I’m not a scientist” are trafficking in denialism. No amount of science-from-the-mouth-of-a-scientist is going to dissuade them, so we might as well move on. According to an April survey, 70 percent of Americans agree that climate change is happening. If we are going to come up with large-scale solutions to this obvious problem, they’ll be political and scientific. We’ll need scientists to advise us and to participate, but we’ll also need plenty of nonscientists to help make a plan to move forward.