I’m not a scientist excuse: Politicians don’t need to be experts to make good decisions.

People Who Say “I’m Not a Scientist” Shouldn’t Be Politicians, Either

People Who Say “I’m Not a Scientist” Shouldn’t Be Politicians, Either

The state of the universe.
Oct. 22 2014 11:23 AM

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is a Dangerous Cop-Out

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Joe Raedle/Getty Images, and Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock.
From left, Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, and Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock.

The evidence for global climate change is overwhelming. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists, along with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and more than 30 professional scientific research societies, agree that climate change is happening because of human actions and that it will be an increasingly serious problem if we don’t stop it. It is reasonable for politicians to debate the best way to solve this problem, but whether it is a problem should not be up for discussion anymore. However, in response to questions about climate change, political candidates, including high-profile politicians such as Senate Minority (for now) Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are frequently saying: “I’m not a scientist.”

When politicians say “I’m not a scientist,” it is an exasperating evasion. It’s a cowardly way to avoid answering basic and important policy questions. This response raises lots of other important questions about their decision-making processes. 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.


American populist rhetoric has always had a dark side of anti-intellectualism, the belief that the common sense of the average man on the street is equal to or greater than the expert knowledge of people who spend years studying a particular question, and that has been on full display in recent years. Who can understand what those weird, other-worldly scientists are talking about, anyway? Somebody needs to “stand up to the experts.” Despite what any politician says, the overwhelming evidence supports the scientific consensus that climate change is happening because of human activity and that we should take action to stop it because it will be a significant threat—a position the U.S. military agrees with.

I actually am a scientist (a marine biologist), but you don’t need to be an expert on anything to pay attention when 97 percent of people who are experts in that subject agree that something is a problem and that we should do something about it. You don’t need to be a fully trained expert in the sciences to make decisions that involve science (which is good, because less than 4 percent of the representatives in Congress have any kind of scientific training, even broadly defined).

“ ‘I’m not a scientist’ is a cheap cop-out that is becoming all too common, not just on climate change but on issues like fracking and evolution, too. Politicians of both major political parties are trotting out the ‘I’m not a scientist’ remark to avoid stating where they stand on policy,” says Michael Halpern, the manager of strategy and innovation for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is also not a scientist, but that’s not stopping him from attacking National Science Foundation–funded scientific research. Smith has been publicly mocking grants to study topics that he doesn’t personally see the value in studying, proposing laws that would change peer review at the NSF to value studies with purported economic benefits, and attacking NSF officials in congressional hearings. Smith seems to be trying to look tough on government spending, and appealing to anti-intellectualism is an easy strategy. However, the total budget of the NSF is less than a quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget, and only the top 5 percent of proposals are funded. All research proposals submitted to NSF go through a rigorous system of peer review with experts in the field anonymously evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each, often with suggestions for how to improve the research in the future. Peer review is a critical part of free scientific inquiry, and the fact that an anti-intellectual politician doesn’t personally see the value in a particular study should be irrelevant to whether that study is funded.

The ranking Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee says she is baffled by Smith’s public attacks on the peer review process. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has correctly pointed out that there is no evidence whatsoever of waste or fraud associated with the NSF grants that Smith is investigating, that Smith seems to be targeting NSF-funded projects that he thinks sound silly based on his limited understanding of their purposes, and that such unprecedented attacks from a high-ranking government official can have a chilling effect on the free scientific inquiry that has helped make the United States an economic powerhouse.

You don’t need to be a scientist to recognize that climate change is a problem, but you do need to be a scientist to appropriately participate in peer review. Politicians who get this backward, as well as those who disrupt the process of scientific research or willfully ignore the conclusions of that research, should be voted out of power.