“I'm not a scientist, but…”

Jonathan Chait makes an interesting observation.

Asked by reporters yesterday if he accepts the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming, John Boehner demurred on the curious but increasingly familiar grounds that he is not a scientist. “Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” the House Speaker said. Boehner immediately turned the question to the killing of jobs that would result from any proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which he asserts with unwavering certainty. (On this question, Boehner is not held back by the fact that he is also not an economist.)

This particular demurral seems to be in vogue for the Grand Old Party. Florida governor Rick Scott (“I’m not a scientist”) and Senator Marco Rubio (“I’m not a scientist. I’m not qualified to make that decision.”) have both held up their lack of scientific training as a reason to withhold judgment on anthropogenic global warming.

Now I can't unhear it. Everywhere you go, you hear idiots proffering that disclaimer. Watch this video and you'll see:

Alice Roberts is clear and competent; Jeremy Paxson is abrasive to both sides (but really, "It's just a theory"? Come on); but John Lewis is a stammering twit. You'll notice it repeatedly. Every time he's called on an issue, he backs off. He's not a teacher, but; he's not an official of ACE, but; he's not a scientist, but. He's so busy making excuses for why he's not competent to be discussing any of the subjects brought before him that one has to wonder why the heck he was asked on the show.

It's the same with the politicians that Chait cites. Why are they so quick to say that they aren't qualified to discuss an issue, yet they seem to think they are qualified enough to disapprove of any resolution to address problems? Or in John Lewis's case, they're willing to say what lies children ought to be taught despite admitting to having no qualifications whatsoever to judge.

Chait's explanation:

“I’m not a scientist” allows Republicans to avoid conceding the legitimacy of climate science while also avoiding the political downside of openly branding themselves as haters of science. The beauty of the line is that it implicitly concedes that scientists possess real expertise, while simultaneously allowing you to ignore that expertise altogether.

I think that's true. But I also think there's more.

In today's media, taking a side is seen as a violation of neutrality. One thing they're doing by announcing that they're not scientists is declaring that they are an objective outsider…because as everyone knows, having extensive knowledge about a subject biases a person towards a particular best answer. Only the empty-headed fool can truly determine what is right. You'll also see this philosophy in practice in the current penchant for debates, where you're not supposed to decide the outcome by who most accurately reflects the truth, but by who makes the best case to a naive audience.

Another factor is that this is a dogwhistle. People like Chait or myself hear "I'm not a scientist," and what we think we hear is a cautious disavowal -- they are avoiding "openly branding themselves as haters of science". But spend some time talking to strong creationists or climate change denialists, and you will discover that hating science is not the problem we think it is. To them, "science" is all ideologically driven propaganda promoted by egg-headed welfare recipients -- all them scientists are getting rich off their fat gub'mint grants. So people like that hear "I'm not a scientist," and they hear a declaration that the speaker is on their side, not one of the lying elites.

In a world where the tribal lines are stark, there's a definite benefit to announcing that you are not one of them. And if you can do it in a coded way that doesn't immediately antagonize your opponents and let them know what you're doing, all the better.

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Paxman, not Paxson. But yes, being abrasive is his stock in trade ...

By Ben Harris (not verified) on 17 Jun 2014 #permalink

because as everyone knows, having extensive knowledge about a subject biases a person towards a particular best answer

"Reality has a well-known liberal bias." -- Stephen Colbert

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 17 Jun 2014 #permalink