Why the “I’m not a scientist” excuse is like a glass of tea

Re. politicians who say “I’m not a scientist” re. climate: if you really think you don’t know, stop standing in the way of those who do.

Like many who care about climate change, I’ve noted with a mixture of disbelief and anger the latest trick by Republican politicians: they don’t explicitly deny climate change but attempt a kind of agnosticism. The line is to say, with great modesty, “I’m not a scientist” and therefore can’t be confident that anything needs to be done. (Meanwhile, though “I’m not an economist,” I’m sure that any proposed action would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.)

David Shiffman’s short Slate article on this is great. In particular, there’s this:

… Do they have opinions on how to best maintain our nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels—or do they not because they’re not civil engineers? Do they refuse to talk about agriculture policy on the grounds that they’re not farmers? How do they think we should be addressing the threat of ISIS? They wouldn’t know, of course; they’re not military generals.

No one would ever say these things, because they’re ridiculous. Being a policymaker in a country as large and complex as the United States requires making decisions on a variety of important subjects outside of your primary area of expertise. Voters wouldn’t tolerate this “I’m not a scientist” excuse if applied to any other discipline, yet politicians appear to be using this line successfully to distance themselves from experts crucial for solving many of our country’s most important problems.

I’d only add that the analogy is not quite exact. After all, the politicians saying “I’m not a scientist” aren’t actually refusing to take a stance on climate policy. They’re adducing their mock ignorance as reason to take a very firm position: against taking action to solve the problem that all the real science reveals to be urgent.

It all reminds me of one of my favorite Jewish jokes. Two men in the old country are relaxing over glasses of tea.

Yakov: You know, life is like a glass of tea.

Yitzhak: Like a glass of tea? Why?

Yakov: Why? How should I know why? What do I look like, a philosopher?

If politicians think they lack the expertise to opine on science, fine. But then they would be well advised to defer to the damn scientists instead of standing in their way.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

2 thoughts on “Why the “I’m not a scientist” excuse is like a glass of tea”

  1. But does this line actually work? It's fairly new on the scene and it seems so apt for ridicule I wonder if it'll catch on.

  2. I'm actually fine with the line, as lone as it's followed by, "so I'm going to accept the consensus scientific view on the issue."

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