David Shiffman, a University of Miami Ph.D. Student, has an article up on Slate about the “I’m not a scientist” line, and it’s very much worth reading.
As you’re most likely aware, “I’m not a scientist” is something politicians often say when they’re asked for their positions on topics like climate change, evolution, etc. They use the line so frequently, it’s practically become a punchline:
Calling it a “dangerous cop-out,” Shiffman makes the case that it is simply a “cowardly” and “exasperating evasion” from the very people who devote their lives to attaining positions that enable them to address such pressing matters.
In practice, it’s an excuse that only ever seems to be applied when a politician either holds a demonstrably false belief and fears ridicule or the loss of votes for expressing it, or is afraid that espousing a factually accurate belief would hurt them. (For instance, see Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal‘s refusal to comment on whether or not he accepts evolution, despite being a biology major who wants his kids to learn evolution.)
The politicians who try to sidestep difficult topics with this line are almost never suggesting that we actually listen to the experts — the scientists who overwhelmingly tell us that evolution happened, climate change is real, etc. They’re simply avoiding the question or prefacing some denial of fact with an “I’m not a scientist, but…”
And this absurdity is not, Shiffman points out, found in other areas in which politicians are equally ignorant. For example, he asks,
Do [these politicians] 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.
The same people who can’t admit to the scientific consensus on life’s origins because they’re not scientists have no problem commenting on (and limiting) women’s healthcare despite not being physicians.
Unfortunately, this seems to now be the go-to line for every politician who wants to open the door to “alternatives” to evolution or get around climate data. Shiffman suggests this stems from 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…
I think he’s on the right track with this. Even among those Creationists, for instance, who attempt a façade of sciencey-ness, this is painfully obvious. It doesn’t matter what facts you might have to contradict Creationist wishful thinking; it just doesn’t “make sense.” How could men come from monkeys if there are still monkeys around? And if life evolved from the ocean, did mankind have gills before we came out of the sea? If the banana happened by chance, how come it has a convenient pull tab and is perfectly suited to the human hand? And if a tree falls in the woods, but no one’s there to hear it, did dinosaurs really turn into birds?
Okay, the last one’s not real. But the others are all questions or types of questions that Creationists pose with disturbing regularity. To Shiffman’s point, these appeals to “common sense” as being more informative and reliable than in-depth study and research are the fuel that feeds the “I’m not a scientist” fire. Because the answer is never about the individual’s lack of knowledge — otherwise, they would simply cede the argument to the experts). It’s nothing more than a cover to embrace scientifically unsound belief.