What ‘I’m Not a Scientist’ Means

‘Hey, look at me not doing science over here.’ via zimbio.com

This has the look of a talking point or deliberate Republican strategy: “I’m not a scientist.” Think Progress runs down a roll-call of seven conservative politicians who have dismissed the climate-change question with some variation on the phrase.

The statements have all come in response to queries on the speaker’s belief in human-caused climate change. And the responses all boil down to something like this: “I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I just know about the economic effects of climate change policies.”

To which I’d say, “Are you an economist, then?” But, more seriously: This isn’t about self-proclaimed ignorance, exactly. This is about placing different values on different types of knowledge. These politicians, in their coded language, are saying that economics matters but (non-economic) science does not. To them, the science of climate change is not WORTH knowing. The science of profits and taxation (though, they couch it rather disingenuously, of course, as “jobs”) IS worth knowing.

Debates about whether or not humans are causing climate change can only be of importance to those eggheads who got Ph.D.’s in subjects that do not bring in much money. It’s a niche topic. It’s geekdom. John Boehner and his brethren have no time for it. You can imagine John Boehner giving a similar response were you to ask him if Batman could take Wolverine.

“I don’t know. I’m not a comic book fan. I’ll leave that debate to the geeks.”

John Boehner is not a scientist. Of course he is not. I imagine he would be a shitty one if he tried. John Boehner did not get a doctorate in international relations, either. But he has opinions on what the United States should do in Syria. John Boehner is not an artist. But he has opinions on (cutting) arts funding. John Boehner is not a geologist. But he has opinions on fracking. (It’s super great!)

That’s all a long way of saying this: John Boehner is a national politician. He is expected to gain at least a rudimentary understanding of a great many topics — because he will be voting on a great many topics. (In fact, all of us, as citizens of a democracy, are “expected” to do this. But, I mean, ha! Like we’re going to do that.) His constituents expect him to figure out the shit he doesn’t know, if it affects them.

Boehner’s statement that he is not a scientist, and therefore doesn’t know anything about climate change, signals that he doesn’t think climate change affects his constituents. Or, at least, he doesn’t think THEY think it does. If they did, you can bet he’d educate himself. It’s not like politicians have no opportunities to learn. Scientists are practically begging to teach them:

Climate scientists themselves have derided the tactic of of claiming ignorance on whether climate change exists, particularly from politicians, who are frequently presented with information curated by scientists to explain what’s going on with the climate. The National Climate Assessment, for example, was written by scientists and other experts specifically so that members of Congress could understand climate change and how it affects the country.”

It’s not just ignorance, it’s willful ignorance. “I’m not a scientist [and I refuse to learn anything about science],” is how the full quote should run. Journalists, please add the bracketed piece to your stories. Just for completeness.

Boehner knows that he won’t be punished for such obdurate ignorance. In fact, he will be celebrated. It reminds me of how George W. Bush proudly and famously had never left the country before he swaggered into the Oval Office. The rest of the world did not really matter, and therefore he would not bother himself with it. In certain segments of the country, this was worthy of admiration. Let the sissy French care about international politics. We’re Americans.

And so with science: Let the eggheads debate these silly issues. We’re Americans.

I don’t know John Boehner, obviously. But I imagine he and many of these politicians do realize that most scientists describe climate change as a huge problem. And they know that we as a country and a species will pay the price for not taking action. But they are pragmatists, and selfish. They know that the culture of their backers, anti-science populism among the voters and profits obsession among the donors, slots climate change in the ‘enemy’ column. And science along with it. And, to be blunt, these politicians want to get re-elected.

“Jobs” (and, in private, quarterly profits) play better than long-term species survival.

Before seeing this Think Progress listicle, I wasn’t too familiar with the “I’m not a scientist” tactic. (Though, admittedly, I’ve somewhat tuned out of politics for my own sanity lately.) It seems like a new one to me. The (somehow still-there) optimist in me says that this is a sign that even opponents of climate-change policies now must admit that the scientific evidence is overwhelming. The drumbeat of findings and international reports is too loud to ignore anymore with, “Well, the science is still out.” Now it’s, “I don’t know. I’m not a science.”

In other words, “Well, we know what the science says. But, science? Whatever.”

That’s, I guess, progress, people.

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