“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.


  1. says

    There’s a very easy fix for that…Change : “I’m not a scientist but…” to : “I’m not a scientist SO I’ll let scientits inform us policymakers as to the best course of action…

  2. ginckgo says

    I think for most people who deny some topic or theory of science (be it evolution or AGW or vaccination) it’s not that they believe science or scientists are all ideologically driven – they will loudly proclaim that they accept all the other science unreservedly. It just happens that this one topic is perceived to negatively impact on their world view. Which is why most creationists and AGW deniers are on the ‘right’ leaning ideology, while anti-vaccinationists and anti-GMOs are on the ‘left’.
    I personally do not know very few people who do not have at least one science topic where they ideologically disagree with the consensus, while being intelligent, science accepting, good people in all others. Heck, several respected scientists are like that, like Bob Carter, whom I have personally worked with on sedimentology and palaeontology – but his quasi-libertarian leanings make him a rabid global warming denier. Same for Ian Plimer, though he’s openly cynical about why he promotes AGW denial to his friends.

  3. says

    It’s a way to avoid the responsibility of making a hard decision that might somehow affect their electability by the extreme right wing. It’s all bullshit, and it’s being used in much more than just “I’m not a scientist.”

    Right-wingers are using it as “I’m not a doctor” when addressing forced-birther decisions.

    They’re using it as “I’m not an economist” when addressing unemployment and wage issues.

    They know their positions aren’t right. They know they’re wrong. They just want to keep their cushy government job and not actually have to make any decisions.

  4. Anri says

    I suspect it’s not only in-group/out-group tribalism, it’s a signal of “I’m not going to try to baffle you with jargon – I’m plain spoken and won’t condescend. I won’t make you feel stupid, you’re safe listening to me.”

    Because everyone knows that’s what makes scientists happy – probably the reason they became scientists in the first place: to feel smarter than everyone else in the room and get back for all that stolen lunch money.

    But, hey, I dunno, I’m not a social scientist…

  5. twas brillig (stevem) says

    “I’m not a X, but…”, is just bafflegab for “This is MY opinion, not those scumbag X’s opinion, MINE”.
    And Boehner has gone the extra step to, “I’m no scientist, and I don’t give a F~ what those scientists. I say do it it MY way, not THEIR way.”
    my armchair psychologist is pounding me over and over; seeing Dunning-Kruger everywhere. I see all over people saying stuff about ~stuff while saying they know more than the experts about that ~stuff. E.G. “I’m no quantum mechanic, but I’ll tell you exactly how those Q. Mechanistos got it all wrong.”
    ;-( — I fear I suffer from D-K myself: I’m no psychologist yet I keep diagnosing psychology. I just have to keep saying that I’m wrong, to avoid D-K symptomosis. ;-(

  6. faustus says

    Once again John Lennox’s book is mentioned by these half-wits. I’ve gone through the chapters on evolution; it’s nothing but the usual lies and quote-mines, I am astonished that there is no thorough takedown of his arguments online.

  7. mikeyb says

    The “I’m not a scientist,” is worse that an excuse. Read a book, do a few internet searches, one could become informed on the basics in just a few hours. Also, you have a congressional staffer you could hire to gather the facts. If you can hold hearings on something as bogus as Bengazi, you can surely hold hearings to explain the science of climate change, or look at the tons of hearings that have already occurred. But we all know this is a lie anyway. The real climate denialism is about accepting Koch and related petro dollars, to enable cheap profits without having to deal with the global externalities. This is all BS. Shame on the media for not pointing this out more forcefully.

  8. marko says

    I thought exactly the same thing watching that Paxman interview, if you’re not qualified to comment on anything, why the hell are you there? It’s a real shame, Alice Roberts is normally engaging and intelligent, but Paxman was just railroading the whole thing on both sides, he has become a ridiculous parody of himself and completely destroyed any chance of a discussion actually taking place.

  9. twas brillig (stevem) says

    “It’s just a theory.”
    You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
    –Inigo Montoya.
    Watching that interview (?? talkshow, actually) , I too was totally appalled at Lewis’s bluster (about “How vs Why”). Paxman asks Lewis if Lewis believes the Bible is literally correct about 6 day Creation, and Lewis just spouts, “I am not a Scientist. You’re asking a Faith question (how dare you).” And how they try to justify teaching fantasy, conflating it with all the “controversy” about certain aspects of evolution theory… And then Paxman’s final words, “It’s just a theory…” [implying: no reason the gov should force independent/non-funded schools to conform (to teaching facts, not fantasy AS fact)]

  10. playonwords says

    And the look on the ACE mans face when Paxo uses the word “metaphysical” – stunned mullet came to mind.

  11. David Marjanović says

    I find it funny how “I’m not a racist, but” and “I’m not a scientist, but” mean opposite things… yet are probably often used by the same people!

  12. moarscienceplz says

    This is a perfect shibboleth to discern good journalists from hacks. Every time an interviewee tries to use these weasel-words, the obvious followup is to ask, “So, does that mean that you accept the overwhelming consensus of actual scientists who DO accept AGW?” If the journalist does not ask this second question, she/he should be immediately pulled from all assignments and sent back for remedial J-school training.

  13. marko says

    The annoying thing about Paxman here is he clearly knows that Alice Roberts is absolutely correct. He is being abrasive because being abrasive is his schtick, not because it is useful to nail someone down to a point and stop them squirming around questions.

  14. says

    By the same fallacious reasoning, then, old Orange Skin wouldn’t go to the ER if he were in a car accident since he’s “not an ER doc”. Or, in his case, a Hepatologist….

  15. eveningchaos says

    I have heard Gary Goodyear, the Science Minister under Harper’s cabinet make similar statements about his beliefs on young earth creationism. When asked pointedly about the theory of evolution and whether he believes in it’s validity…

    “I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

    What an idiot! This is a guy who dropped out of the University of Waterloo studying Biomechanics and Psychology only to graduate cum laude from Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College. This is the person our PM thinks is best qualified to make decisions about science and education. I can’t wait for the next federal election.

  16. screechymonkey says


    while anti-vaccinationists and anti-GMOs are on the ‘left’.

    Not true in the case of anti-vax folks, by the way. I know that’s the stereotype, and it’s responsible for certain “pockets” of lost herd immunity in particular left-wing enclaves, but polling data shows that anti-vax beliefs are just as prevalent on the right. See here, for example.

  17. mesh says

    By treating science as something only accessible by eggheads it furthers anti-science talking points by reducing questions of fact and evidence to nothing more than expert versus expert.

    Gosh, science is so complicated and confusing, and it’s changing, always changing – how is little old me supposed to weigh on the evolution debate when experts on one side think they have a strong case for evolution while experts on the other such as Dr. Ken Ham and Dr. Michael Behe think otherwise? I’ll just leave the experts to settle things, and in the meantime I’ll fight for both to receive equal screen time for fairness sake so people can decide for themselves.

    It don’t think it’s the fact that all science is considered to be ideological by nature – it’s the belief that objectivity is only obtainable by the experts, and that in the case of controversy and dissent the non-experts can never be sure who to trust. This allows demagogues to muddy straightforward issues by appealing to maverick scientists to foster illusions of academic uncertainty. In some cases, even theologians or pseudoscientists may be invoked as “experts” on par with scientists.

  18. kayden says

    John Lewis should just own his beliefs, even if they’re unscientific. He comes off as waffling. Since he’s not a scientist, he should defer to scientists when it comes to evolution.

  19. mickll says

    I’m much more irritated in Paxton in all of this.

    Paxton enables idiots like Lewis to feel that they have some legitimacy by brain farting their nonsense into the debate by shouting to the general public that THEORY really means GUESS and we’re all entitled to those, right guys? (wink wink).

  20. kreativekaos says

    Although I thought Lewis was simplistic and vague (as usual for a creationist), I didn’t quite think he was a ‘stammering twit’. Additionally, Ms. Roberts didn’t bowl me over with argumentative strength and clarity either. And the moderator seemed to be doing his job of putting both sides on the spot.

    What irritates the hell out of me is the almost ubiquitous weakness on the part of those arguing the science side of the debate, as it concerns that ‘hot potato’ word…theory. Rarely does the rational/scientific side of the debate snap like a bear trap on that point, emphasizing the importance of the strict scientific definition of the word theory, thereby keeping the debate and arguments clean and concise, rather than letting the word get bandied about loosely, usually leaving the audience with the mistaken impression that the word theory means something along the lines of an educated guess.

  21. inquiringlaurence says

    “I’m not a scientist” is the cop-out that lets you seem neutral and modest, but then, if you’re a conservative Republican, you then go right to denying climate change and outright opposing any efforts to stop greenhouse gas emission, because jobs. Maybe Jesus too, for some reason.

  22. twas brillig (stevem) says

    A: “I am not a scientist…”
    B: [interrupts] “Yes. So?”
    A: [resuming] “…(but) I’ll tell you more truthiness, than any of those sky-en-tists.”
    B: [laughs]
    A: [continues, disregarding the laughing] blah, blah, blah, blah!