“I’m Not a Scientist, but…” When it Comes to the Science, Who Should Be Making the Decisions?

The climate science community gained an interesting ally when, on June 18th, Pope Francis issued an encyclical entitled “Laudato Si”, outlining the catastrophic effects of climate change on the planet and its inhabitants. As the leader of an organization with an estimated following of over one billion faithful, the Pope has some serious clout in the form of the bully pulpit, even if the Vatican does not officially participate in the legislation.

Some took umbrage at the Pope’s remarks. GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said that “…we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.” (The Pope actually does have a degree in chemistry, but I digress).

Around the time of the 2014 midterms, Jon Stewart ran a wonderful piece on the use of “I’m not a scientist.” This phrase, and others like it, have become a favorite tactic among politicians for making statements about topics such as climate change or vaccination, and then dodging responsibility for those remarks. This makes me wonder why we are putting such people in charge of making important legislative decisions about these topics; this is hardly “leaving science to the scientists”. Of course it would be ludicrous to expect our politicians to be experts on every piece of legislation that comes to the floor; that’s the reason for congressional hearings and expert witnesses. But “I’m not a scientist” is pure laziness; it pleads insufficient foreknowledge to formulate an opinion on the subject up for debate. And when the experts do weigh in, these “not-scientists” suddenly seem to have all the necessary “facts” at their disposal to dispute the information presented to them. Case in point: Senator Jim Inhofe and his snowball rant.

Honestly, I would love it if science were left to the scientists, if rising ocean levels and measles outbreaks and evolution were facts and not politicized talking points. Sadly, many non-scientists control the purse strings when it comes to deciding the relative importance of scientific research. Controversy surrounding funding for the National Science Foundation and the NASA Earth Science Division have both made the news in 2015, with the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology introducing bills that would reduce funding for fields such as social science—which encompasses psychology, economics, political science, and many other disciplines—and “controversial” areas such as climate science. (Committee chair Representative Lamar Smith has a rather tenuous relationship with scientific fact; he dismissed the IPCC report as “biased” despite only reading the summary). Yes, wasteful spending is a legitimate concern that we elect our politicians to address. But science does not always mean knowing the answers, and as funding is shifted towards outcome-oriented research, we run the risk of strangling innovation and understanding. The wrong results can sometimes change the world— google “accidental scientific discoveries” and you’ll find things like penicillin, plastic, X-rays, even nuclear fission!

Full disclosure: I speak as a grad student who has to deal with grant proposals. I speak as a former NASA intern who keeps hearing about budget cuts, just when NASA is doing amazing things with high-resolution climate models and data sets. I speak as a climate scientist who recently got into a passive-aggressive internet discussion with an individual who kept trying to get me to admit that climate models that are “wrong” because they don’t exactly mirror real-world data. I know that I have a certain biased perspective in this debate and that I will probably never be able to comprehend the arguments coming from the other side. But I also speak as someone whose livelihood is at the mercy of people who remain willfully ignorant of topics that I have devoted years of my life to studying.

So I say to those who begin any sentence with the phrase “I’m not a scientist…”

I am. So let me do my job!


Marielle is a semi-perpetual student in the midst of obtaining a PhD in Atmospheric Science. In her spare time, she is a compulsive tinkerer, dabbler, and craftster.

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