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“I’m not a scientist”

Posted on March 31st, 2020

You may have noticed that we have few trained scientists occupying elected positions in the United States. In the 115th Congress (1), members include one chemist, one physicist and one microbiologist, all in the house. By comparison there are 218 attorneys (including 47 former prosecutors and 15 judges), 101 teachers, 26 farmers, 8 ordained ministers, 7 radio talk show hosts, 1 comedian and 1 rodeo announcer. There also are 14 physicians, 4 dentists and 3 veterinarians, all of whom would have had extensive scientific coursework, along with 8 engineers who were likely trained in the physical sciences.

Thomas Jefferson was the closest thing we’ve had to a scientist president, although this was more a result of his Renaissance-Man-polymath persona, rather than any formal training. Jefferson helped develop modern agriculture and also devised a rudimentary smallpox vaccine. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter were both trained engineers with extensive knowledge in geology (Hoover) and physics (Carter).

It’s worth pointing out that Angela Merkel (Germany) holds a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry, and that Margaret Thatcher (U.K.) was a research chemist for a time.

Reflecting back on the span of my life, it’s hard for me to imagine a credible scientist tolerating American politics the past 40 years. I say this because so much of politics, and even our culture itself, has rejected empiricism to varying degrees, depending on the time, place and subject. An empirical world view within the context of science emphasizes evidence, and holds that ideas must be tested against real-world observations (i.e., experiments). This is the foundation upon which the scientific method rests. Empiricism’s competing world view is rationalism, which holds that intuition, rather than observation, is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

It’s been in vogue for a while now for politicians to say “I’m not a scientist” when confronted on some issue relating to the natural world, implying it takes some special insight to understand or believe in science (this is wrong). I think what these folks are really saying is “I’m not an empiricist”, and by extension, “I’m not going to let evidence get in the way of decision-making.”

This discussion was out in the open the past couple of days, way out in the open. NYU law professor Richard Epstein recently wrote and posted a two-part position paper of sorts concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. To make a long story short, he developed his own model of the disease based on what he knew of litigating court cases, advising medical professionals on their expert testimony, and some knowledge of the AIDS epidemic. He asserted that the spread and the threat of the Coronavirus had been exaggerated. His stature as one of the most-cited legal academics in America reportedly enticed many in our federal government to embrace his model, which was constructed without input from physicians or epidemiologists.

Isaac Chotineer, a journalist for The New Yorker magazine, questioned the legitimacy of Epstein’s model and its conclusions in a contentious interview with him (2). At one point Epstein said “look, I’m not an empiricist”, apparently trying to separate himself from the vacuousness of the “I’m not a scientist” rhetoric. But in doing so, he admitted to something far worse, especially for an attorney: the evidence didn’t matter. This is where we find ourselves, 500 years after empiricism began the struggle of carrying civilization into the sunshine.

Galileo Galilei, portrait by Justus Sustermans

The first great empiricist, Galileo, reflected his early optimism in writing, “I do not doubt that in the course of time this new science will be improved by further observations (3)”. But it has been a struggle ever since. Galileo was continuously harangued by the reigning political power of his time, the Vatican. Ever the rebel, he constantly tried to push the envelope to see what he could get away with. His great sin was writing directly for the common person, ignoring Latin and instead using a colloquial style and the languages of the masses. Stillman Drake, an interpreter of Galileo’s writings, described his work thus: “The purely scientific material of his books was enlivened for the reader by the devastating sarcasm with which he was accustomed to puncture his pompous opponents (3)”. When faced with either renouncing his observations that the earth revolved around the sun, or torture, Galileo chose the former, while reportedly whispering under his breath at the end of his trial, “but it (the earth) moves.” Curiously, and in what is perhaps the strangest of ironies, the head of today’s Vatican, Pope Francis, holds a Master’s degree in chemistry, and has been predictably scorned by many of the reigning the political powers of our day for some of his positions on science.

Isaac Newton, portrait by Godfrey Kneller

We’ll never know if Isaac Newton learned from Galileo’s experience, but working only 50 years later, it seems as if he did. Newton took his science into the shadows, and was so averse to controversy that he didn’t even respond to challenges of his conclusions (3). Apparently, the work itself was the sole reward for Newton, and he wasn’t going to do anything that would jeopardize his license to conduct it.

Svante Arrhenius. Photo credit: Photogravure Meisenbach Riffarth & Co. Leipzig. – Zeitschrift für Physikalische Chemie, Band 69, 1909

So this is not to say that as empiricists, scientists are always right. You can’t be great or even very good in science unless you do something new, and as Einstein said, a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. There’s a reason it’s called trial and error. The greats were wrong all the time about a lot of stuff, Einstein, Darwin and yes, Galileo. Another example is Nobel-laureate Svante Arrhenius, the first notable scientist to predict that burning of fossil fuels would warm the earth. Arrhenius developed a series of calculations around 1896 that estimated a rise in global temperatures associated with increasing atmospheric CO2 levels that were pretty much right, but he was also wildly wrong (unfortunately) by predicting it would take 3000 years to double atmospheric CO2 concentrations (4). I doubt Arrhenius ever said “the climate is always changing,” but who knows.

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Why has our politics been so reluctant to embrace science, and more importantly, empiricism? Well, I think the answer is obvious. To quote Ian Boyd, Professor of Biology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, “Vested interests do not want their political, social, and financial currency debased by being confronted by the real world (5).” I think we see this day after day after maddening day, at all levels of our government, and right here in Iowa. I mainly write about water quality, and I can tell you it is not hard to find elected and institutional leaders making claims about our water that are unanchored by empiricism.

It’s fair to argue the costs, benefits and consequences of pursuing policy based on empirical observation. It’s also courageous. What’s not fair, and what’s definitely not courageous, is to pretend to do so while doing otherwise. In fact, this is dangerous, and it has brought us to a point where we think if we repeat a falsehood enough, and hope with all our might that it is true, that “poof a miracle will happen” and it will be true. Science needs to respond to this not by whispering “but it moves”, but rather by shouting it from the mountaintop.

Although exceptions are out there, it’s my opinion that most professional scientists have not only shied away from Galileo’s vision of speaking directly and candidly to the public in ways they can understand, we’ve all but repudiated it as an obligation to society. Newton, not Galileo, is our model; the work, and having a license to do it, is the reward. It’s painfully obvious that this has helped our politicians retreat from empiricism. As large numbers of us are employed in the public sector, we’ve been compelled to make our deals with the devils, or else go find some other way to earn a living.

It should not and cannot be the job of science to call out every petty lie told by our politicians. As I understand it, that job belongs to the free press. What belongs to science, I believe, is the obligation to tenaciously defend the empirical foundation upon which modern society was constructed, because it’s pretty clear that our body politic is not up to the job.

  1. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44762.pdf.
  2. https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-contrarian-coronavirus-theory-that-informed-the-trump-administration
  3. Drake, S., 1957. Discoveries and opinions of Galileo. New York: Doubleday.
  4. Anderson, T.R., Hawkins, E. and Jones, P.D., 2016. CO2, the greenhouse effect and global warming: from the pioneering work of Arrhenius and Callendar to today’s Earth System Models. Endeavour, 40(3), pp.178-187.
  5. Boyd, I.L., 2019. Scientists and politics? https://science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6463/281.full.
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7 Responses

  1. Cornelia Butler Flora says:

    This is excellent. Empiricism is the basis for science — both bio-physical and social. But it is so much easier to create a world where no one is obligated to make evidence-based decisions.

  2. Dennis Goemaat says:

    It’s ironic that the “I’m not a scientist” politicians are dismissive of science presented to them over the years, but are now relying on science to find answers to the Covid-19 pandemic. We hear daily on press conferences that “we’re looking at the data and letting it tell us what to do.” There’s lots of data about Iowa’s water quality, climate change, and others that have been dismissed over and over again. I guess it’s “believe what you want to believe” in the world of politics.

  3. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    Very timely eloquent essay. By coincidence, this quote from an infectious disease expert appeared in an AP story two days ago. “Mexico, politically, does not value scientific evidence. Why? Because it takes decision-making away from the politicians.”

    A lot of good scientific evidence has been ignored by a lot of Iowa officials over the past four decades. But in terms of immediate serious peril, Iowa’s current no-lockdown situation may be the worst example yet. Are some kind of secret calculations being used to justify this policy, and if so, what are they?

  4. Larry Stone says:

    Timely, and too true! Needs to be shouted from the mountain tops! We’ve become a society of egotists. We believe only what WE believe.
    Thanks, Chris!

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