What Does Jonathan Chait Know about Science?

Jonathan Chait, responding to my post on politicians and science, is eager, as always, to claim the mantle of science/reason/empiricism for the Left. But he misses the point of my post (as he is professionally obliged to do). Chait writes: “Liberals (and, I’d argue, moderates, but I’ll just use the term “liberals” for syntactic clarity) care that a politician believes in climate change and evolution because they believe that elected officials should accept science.” But it is a rare politician indeed who is remotely qualified to accept or dispute any scientific question of any real significance. Politicians are here to consider political questions.

I have not argued that scientific knowledge does not matter. I have argued that the scientific opinions of people who do not know the first thing about science do not matter.

Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge. I’m generally skeptical of argument from credential, but there’s a time for it. For instance, a great number of scientists have a particular view of global warming. Richard Lindzen has reservations about that view. Professor Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist a full-on professor at MIT. Your average politician is not packing the gear to get in the middle of that fight. I’m not. Chait isn’t, either. Is Lindzen not a real scientist? Is he a kook? Is Jonathan Chait going to make that case? Given two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting, why exactly ought I to consult Jonathan Chait, or Jon Huntsman? Chait ought to think about seizing one of the many occasions for humility that come his way.

To reiterate: Chait et al. are not looking for scientific knowledge; they are looking for scientists to endorse their policy preferences. That is not the same thing.

Matt Yglesias jumps on the intentional-misunderstanding bandwagon here. (For the record, Matt, I don’t know what kind of intelligence I did or did not inherit from my parents; I’ve never met them. When one lacks the relevant knowledge to form an opinion . . . oh, never mind.)


And Kevin Drum weighs in with a great show of scientific rigor: “Well, I’m a pretty conventional liberal, and I’d say that intelligence is roughly 50% heritable . . . .” But, of course, it matters not one whit what Kevin Drum would say, since Kevin Drum knows not one thing about the subject. (Which is the point.) The current estimate, incidentally, is about 85 percent — Hey, it turns out wild guesses by uninformed amateurs are not scientifically sound. Who knew?

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