How to spot when politicians are misrepresenting science

Unthinkable: Cherry-picking facts and nitpicking are common political ploys

Dublin’s  March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd last. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Dublin’s March for Science on Earth Day, April 22nd last. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw


Powerful politicians in electoral democracies have always bent the truth but US president Donald Trump is perhaps unique in turning it into a balloon animal. His speeches are performances as he whips out his own “facts”, mangles evidence and declares: Voilà, a new reality!

Trump’s primary weapon of choice is what science writer Dave Levitan calls “The Straight-up Fabrication”. Whether he is accusing the Chinese of inventing global warming or claiming vaccines cause autism, “his errors on scientific topics are so blatant, so crude, so lacking in even the most basic understanding of physics or biology or chemistry or any other discipline that debunking them often requires essentially no effort at all,” Levitan writes.

Not all of Trump’s utterances fall into this category, however. As tens of thousands of people took part in “March for Science” protests last month, the US president tweeted: “I am committed to keeping our air and water clean but always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection.”

Trump here deploys a classic deflection technique – described by Levitan as “The Oversimplification” – equating all economic growth with environmentally sustainable and socially responsible economic growth.

In his book Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (W.W. Norton & Co), Levitan identifies 10 other common ploys used by those in power to obfuscate or mislead. These include “The Cherry Pick”, “The Butter-up and Undercut” and the “The Literal Nitpick” – something akin to the Catholic practice of “mental reservation”. It’s a timely reference work – a kind of citizens’ guide to identifying public untruths – but Levitan warns “anti-science” does not begin and end with Trump.

The Philadelphia-based author has taken to documenting examples of political illogicality on Twitter with the hashtag #NotAScientist, explaining: “Vigilance is the only antidote against a flood of misinformation, deception, and backwardness.”

You identify 12 strategies politicians use to counteract science. Which is most commonly used?

Dave Levitan: “There are a few that tend to come up more than the others. One of those probably sounds quite familiar to most: the ‘Cherry Pick’. This is a favourite tactic because it can be tough to spot sometimes, and can require a fairly detailed rebuttal.

“For example: ‘There has been no global warming for 17 years,’ was an oft-repeated refrain, referencing the so-called ‘hiatus’ in climate change. That very specific number, 17 – rather than 16 or 18, say – should set off alarm bells, since for something like warming we should be looking for the longest possible trend rather than some tiny subset of data. And by choosing that number, politicians were playing with data to make a strong warming trend look like a flatter line.

“Any time such specifics are thrown out by a politician, it’s good to think twice. Another commonly deployed tactic is the ‘Credit Snatch’, especially when politicians are up for election. They will cite some grand achievement or other relating to a scientific topic, but neglect to mention the complicated context that may have led to that achievement.”

How does one counteract ‘The Straight-up Fabrication’?

“This can be tough at times, since if a politician simply makes something up and offers no particular support or evidence, determining its degree of truth is hard. But the bright spot here is that often, ‘Straight-up Fabrications’ are truly absurd - claims that even those of us without strong scientific training or knowledge of the field in question can see through almost immediately.

“When these come up, I’d say the most important thing is for all of us – the media, other politicians, citizens – to call them out as loudly and urgently as possible. There needs to be some sort of price to pay when elected officials stretch the truth to such extremes, and we all play a role in exacting that price.”

nother tactic is focusing on ‘The Certain Uncertainty’, or stalling on making a decision until all the information is in. As a rule, though, isn’t it prudent to advance cautiously on policy matters?

“Yes, absolutely – and this is why the ‘Certain Uncertainty’ is an effective tactic for politicians to use. ‘Look before you leap’ is, often, a completely reasonable and defensible position to take. The problem arises when politicians advise such a careful approach when the science in question is far from uncertain.

“Obviously, climate change is the big one here – how many times have we heard a politician say something like ‘the science is unsettled’ or ‘the exact amount we contribute is unclear,’ before telling us we should wait until those uncertainties are eliminated before acting?

“But in this case, among others, that’s a complete absurdity – when it comes to climate change, we have more than enough precise, confirmed knowledge on the topic to know that we should have been working to cut our emissions dramatically for years now.

“The point to remember is that every measurement ever taken has some degree of uncertainty, some amount of plus-minus around it. If we waited for absolute, 100-per cent perfect knowledge, we would never achieve anything. But politicians continually throw a wrench in those works by hyping uncertainties, without explaining how those uncertainties are inherent to scientific endeavours in general.

“It might be good to remember an alternative approach in these situations: the precautionary principle. Even if we don’t know every last detail about a topic, but there is a general consensus that taking action will reduce the potential for harm, maybe we don’t need all those details before acting.”

It seems scientists and politicians will always be in conflict as they pursue different goals. What might bring them closer together?

“Yes, depressing as it may be, there likely won’t come a time when suddenly the worlds of science and politics line up perfectly. There will always be special interest groups, and industries, and money in politics that will make it worthwhile for some politicians to try and sneak bad science past the public.

“I think the best antidote to this issue is, unfortunately something of a long-term process: increasing scientific literacy. Pushing for better Stem [science, technology, engineering, maths] education, and just generally increasing the appreciation for science in kids and in all levels of education, will eventually create a society where there is a much higher political price to pay for anti-science attitudes.

“But, again, that isn’t something that can happen overnight. Something that can happen overnight is that scientists themselves can run for office. This is a movement that is starting to take off in the US, where groups have sprung up to help train people with science and technology expertise how to get into public office, at levels ranging from local school boards and town councils all the way up to the federal government.

“Not only would this have an immediate effect on specific policies emanating from government – in that scientific expertise will help better inform how the government approaches everything from healthcare to climate research but it would also, again, simply make the political environment more friendly to science and less forgiving of anti-science . . . which would be a good start.”

Ask a sage:

Question: Why do liars get elected?

Niccolo Machiavelli replies: “Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions.”

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