Who wants to be really depressed?
I know … I know—not a glorious way to kick off the 338th Quaz Q&A. But if I’m being honest, this week’s offering is an ode to, well, how preposterously fucked humanity seems to be. How we ignore serious issues. How we don’t care about the planet. How we only see what’s directly in front of us.
Dave Levitan is author of “Not A Scientist: How politicians mistake, misrepresent and utterly mangle science,” and while the book is fascinating and engrossing and eye-opening and meticulous, it’s also brutally honest. A science journalist with a Masters degree in journalism from NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, Dave knows his stuff.
So … hey.
Awareness is power.
Be empowered—with the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Dave, you have a book out titled, “Not A Scientist: How politicians mistake, misrepresent and utterly mangle science.” But it seems to me this isn’t a matter of mistaking or mangling—but a precise, selective decision to only use scientific data when it supports a POV. For example, when we’re told a hurricane is coming in four days, well, a hurricane is coming in four days. The governor of Florida doesn’t doubt or deny it—he acts on the info. But climate change? What’s climate change? So … am I misreading this?
DAVE LEVITAN: I made a pretty careful decision to not try and tease out intent in the book, at least when possible. Some of the errors or — if I’m being honest — lies on science are impossible to use without meaning to, and I try and note that in a few spots. But the goal was to try and provide people who may not be super well versed in science with some ammunition to spot when politicians are taking some liberties with science — if we’re being charitable, there could be times when this is unintentional. After all, science is complicated, and being able to spot the errors is a pretty good first step toward trying to fix them by pressuring elected officials or just voting them out.
But okay, yes: I’m not trying to pretend that there’s this entire cadre of politicians out there who have somehow missed every science class ever offered, and every reasonable newspaper and magazine article ever published. Clearly, there’s a whole lot of incentive to try and mislead us on a lot of issues, climate change being chief among them. The problem, in my mind, is a matter of timing, and matter of money. Climate change is, as the NYT’s Andy Revkin has called it, a “slow-drip problem.” Its effects take years, decades, centuries to fully come into focus, and it is easy for a bad-faith actor to claim the TODAY issue — the hurricane, the drought, the heat wave, whatever — is unrelated. It’s not, of course. But scientists are careful about attribution, and politicians don’t have to be. Combine all that with the money issue, which we’re seeing play out in real time with the health care debate, and you’ve got a horrific perfect storm. They don’t deny the hurricane is coming in four days because the correlation is too clear: the storm is the thing that killed people, or tore rooftops off houses. They deny climate change because the linear relationships aren’t that clear, and the money is telling them to make use of that lack of clarity.
J.P.: Here’s something, along those lines, I don’t get: So many climate change deniers are parents, grandparents. And I get that they’re receiving loads of money from people who want as little regulation as possible. But why don’t political leaders—right and left—think first about humanity? About their family members’ futures?
DL: This is pretty much the $64,000 question, right? I have thought a TON about this, and, in most ways, it’s utterly baffling. My bit of armchair psychologizing comes to this: it is TOO BIG of an issue for people to think clearly. If you’re, say, Senator James Inhofe, or Rep. Lamar Smith, and you spent a couple of decades basically doing the fossil fuel companies’ bidding and denying the avalanche of evidence in front of you, how could you turn back from that and just renounce your past? “I admit, I tried to destroy the world, and I am sorry” is not a position that I imagine many people could easily take.
So, instead, they just read the denier talking points and internalize them. It doesn’t really matter that the science itself is just overwhelmingly against them — there will always be some conspiracy theorist out there who can offer up a semi-believable sounding bromide. It’s much more comforting to continue believing it’s all a hoax than the possibility that you really have helped doom your children and grandchildren. Why confront your own existential culpability when alternatives abound?
J.P.: You’re a science journalist. Serious question: Are we just, simply, fucked? As a planet? As a species?
D.L.: Short answer: yes.
Longer answer: I mean shit, the planet isn’t fucked. Like, the big hunk of rock itself. It’s big and old and doesn’t give a shit what we do, really. It will die when a bigger hunk of rock hits it or the sun explodes in five billion years. The species? That’s tougher.
I think on a relatively short time scale — say, 50 to 250 years — the human race is in for a dramatic reckoning. No matter what we do about the climate, there is a certain amount of catastrophic change now baked into the system, and it will be truly devastating. We can debate the details — and scientists continue to do so, on specific amounts and speeds of sea level rise, and so on — but there is no escaping it, I’d say. This is very much in the doom-and-gloom realm that a lot of science journalists say we should avoid, but I think the geopolitical effects of the changing climate are among the most under-discussed aspect to all this — the world is about to shit itself and start flinging that shit around catastrophically, would be a dramatically unscientific way to put it. Some would disagree with me, sure, but I don’t see a great next-couple-centuries for humanity, if I’m being honest.
What’s interesting is that there are all these other humans-are-fucked aspects that I think climate change just kind of overwhelms. Like plastics in the oceans — you read anything about that and the veil just kind of falls away and it all seems hopeless, and yet that is nearly irrelevant compared to what warming is going to do.
I would like to say I’m sorry to everyone who now feels like jumping off a bridge.
J.P.: Last year you wrote a really fascinating piece for undark.org headlined PLANNING FOR THE END. And it asked the question: Should certain low-lying island nations evacuate, what with the inevitable rising seas? And I’m wondering, do you see the necessary panic? Like, do the people of Kiribati know how screwed they are? Do government officials? And are their fates now inevitable? Like Krypton, is their home doomed to vanish?
DL: Well, I’m not really sure about the people who live in those countries, but my guess is there is some degree of panic among them. I mean, when entire towns in the Solomon Islands have already picked up and moved to escape rising seas, it’s hard to imagine that the average citizen isn’t pretty well versed on the issue. The governments definitely know — they are consistently some of the loudest voices at any international climate negotiation or meeting, and have been advocating on the issue for decades now.
What’s odd, though, is that in the course of reporting for that story I didn’t find all that many actual plans in place. Kiribati buying land in Fiji is the only solid one really, though a few countries have some language in various documents about forced evacuations. The consensus among experts was that it would likely take a catastrophe — a huge storm that hits during a king tide, or something — that finally forces their hand. On the one hand, I totally get this — it’s a weird, baffling concept to proactively decide to just leave the place your culture has existed for centuries. On the other hand, evacuating when the water overruns your home is a whole lot tougher and more dangerous than getting out of the way of the storm ahead of time. So there is a chance that inertia, along with uncertainty about timing (no one knows exactly when they’ll need to leave) acts as a sort of Xanax dose over the existential panic. But in the end, though it is awful, I think the answer is yes — Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, Vanuatu… these places will likely vanish.
J.P.: I don’t know a ton about you, Dave. You graduated from Haverford College, then landed your Masters degree in journalism from NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. But how did this happen to you? When did you know journalism would be your thing? Did you have an ah-ha moment?
D.L.: I guess I came to it somewhat gradually, though I was always trying to combine science and writing in various ways. Right out of college I started out as a writer for a medical publishing company before heading to grad school a few years later to do more mainstream journalism. I do remember one of the biggest pushes I had in that direction was when I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s amazing book “Field Notes from a Catastrophe.” I think it’s still one of the two or three best books written about climate change, and it both woke me up to the direness of the issue and made me want to write about it.
More generally, journalism is a great way to stay connected to science without actually having to be a scientist — I always balked at the way that a scientist in pretty much any field has to specialize and focus in, working on a single issue and its details for years or decades. Obviously I’m thrilled that so many people DO want to do that, but I just don’t have the attention span — science journalism lets you wander from topic to topic all the time, which fits pretty well for me.
J.P.: Trump—I don’t get it. I truly don’t. Two days ago he referred to a world leader as “Rocket Man” … and his followers loved it. He doesn’t believe in climate change. He wants to crush everything Obama did, because Obama did it. How do you explain the rise and existence of President Donald Trump? And equally important—how do you maintain your sanity?
D.L.: To the last question first: not so sure that I am maintaining my sanity. I’ve joked that there will eventually be a psychiatric syndrome named after the Trump presidency, and whatever it will be called, I’m pretty sure we all have it now.
But anyway — I think I’ll leave the how-did-this-happen issue to others, since writers far smarter than I have taken some pretty good stabs at it so far (Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent piece chief among them). In terms of his continued existence, I almost find it more shocking that GOP leadership outside the White House is so willing to be utterly, monumentally embarrassed by the clearly unfit toddler running things. Obviously, the “gravity” and “decorum” we were used to with every previous administration is something of a smokescreen for all the terrible things government has managed to do over the years, but the people in the government generally LOVE those sorts of things — civility, gravitas, etc, it’s like catnip for a lot of them. So why do they not seem to care that the fucking president is tweeting out badly made violent memes and failing to form complete sentences at every turn??? It’s baffling, though I guess “all that Koch brothers money” is a pretty good Occam’s Razor attempt at explaining it.
J.P.: Totally unrelated to science—you’re a freelance writer in the age of, well, tough times for freelance writers. So how do you go about pitching stories these days? How has that changed through the years? Are your pay expectations lower? Are you frustrated? Is there any reason to give young up-and-coming journalists optimism?
D.L.: I have good days and bad days in terms of how I view freelancing. There are a bunch of newer outlets that offer up different places to pitch, and different styles to write in, so in a way the environment is better than it used to be. But there are also lots of publications doing their dumb “pivot to video” thing, and there’s still a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to breaking into longer form, glossy magazine feature writing (need clips to get assignments, need assignments to get clips) that frustrates me to no end.
But I don’t think my pitching practices have shifted all that much over the last bunch of years, really. I think a good freelancer tailors pitches to the editor s/he is pitching, so it’s tough to pick out any hard practices. The same goes for the pay question — sure, I have lower expectations for some fun places to write just because I know they’re not flush with cash, but it’s not like the more established outlets are dropping their rates all the time or anything.
As for up-and-coming journalists… I think the biggest reason for optimism is that at least to some extent, the Old Boys Club nature of the field seems to be crumbling more and more all the time. There are really, really successful editors and writers who got that way by the time they were 28 or something, and not necessarily through the same mechanisms that used to be a semi-requirement. In other words, it feels to me like a bit more of a meritocracy (I should add: still PLENTY of work to be done to level the playing field for women and people of color), but maybe I’m naive.
J.P.: In your book you write, “In short, [Trump’s] errors on scientific topics are so blatant, so crude, so lacking in even the most basic understanding of physics or biology of chemistry or any other discipline that debunking them often requires essentially no effort at all.” And here’s the thing, David: I hear people debunking him ALL the time. Nonstop. And those with their minds made up seem unwilling to listen. So how do we—you—get them to listen?
D.L.: Well, I think you’re right that his hardcore base just doesn’t care how wrong he is. Debunking his lies on anything, science or otherwise, won’t crack that shell, as depressing as that is to think about. But there’s some portion of the population who maybe can be convinced via inundation — debunk loudly, often, and thoroughly, scream it at the top of our lungs in every outlet we can slither into, and maybe it starts to take hold. I mean, it has in some ways, with all the polling showing how a huge piece of the country thinks the president is a liar. It seems odd to say we should essentially abandon hope for the tens of millions on the Trump-Can-Do-No-Wrong team, but that’s pretty much where we are, I think.
Specifically about science, the one saving grace is that the president himself almost never talks about science. He just ignores it. In a certain, twisted way, that gives science journalists an opportunity to cover the various things government is doing that are profoundly unscientific without the noise of an actual Trump quote getting in the way. Even his hardcore base probably doesn’t have a lot of opinions on Scott Pruitt or Rick Perry, so if we get really aggressive on some of their moves — rolling back clean water regulations and pesticide bans, undermining support for renewable energy, and so on — then maybe it can make a dent in public understanding and public opinion. Again, I am probably being naive here.
J.P.: When things get really, really, really, really bad, I feel like all these people who deny science will be begging science to save us. So, um, can science save us? Can science, potentially, solve the ozone issue? Can science raise our shores? Can science rebuild reefs? In short, how much will science be able to do?
D.L.: It can do a LOT, but it’s not magic. (I mean, it sort of is, when you think about it — federally funded biomedical research is a big part of the reason we live THIRTY years longer than we did a century ago. Magic.) The discussion surrounding geoengineering is a good microcosm of this: can we manufacture a way to cool the planet? Sulfate particles in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, iron filings dumped into the ocean to create CO2-sucking algal blooms, etc — these are pure technical fixes, and though in some sense they would likely work there is also a whole universe of unanswered and largely unanswerable questions about them.
My guess is that when the level of bad rises to all those “reallys” you mentioned, people will start trying some of these ideas — they’re not all that expensive, and they could be done unilaterally. But they are truly rife with danger and uncertainty, so it’s a scary thought. On a more localized level, there are tech fixes that really might work — think a massive sea wall in New York Harbor — and other situations that I find hopeless, science be damned (so long, Miami). Ozone hole? Yes. Coral reefs? This is awful, but probably nope. And so on — we’ll have some Ws but also take some pretty big Ls.
J.P.: I love hearing book process stuff—so what was your process? How did you go about researching/writing? How long did it take? Was it fun? Awful? Awfully fun? Hell, how’d you go about landing the book deal?
D.L.: I had more of an easy time of book writing than a lot of people I think, just by dint of what the book actually is. The idea for it arose when I was a staff science writer for FactCheck.org, and I started sort of collecting patterns of deception I was seeing from politicians. Because of that, I had done a decent amount of the research already when I left the gig to work on the book. Once I was just working on the book itself, the whole research/writing process took me about a month and a half; I’d tackle a chapter at a time, covering a certain type of error or misdirection, usually finishing each one within two or three days. (Fun tidbit: science writer eminence Mary Roach laughed and told me to “fuck off” when she heard that was how long it took.) I had three good editors: my real one at the publisher, my wife, and an old friend of mine who read through it as well.
I had fun writing it, just as a change of pace from my day job. As for the book deal, that was pretty smooth too — I have a good agent who thought a certain editor at WW Norton would be interested in the concept, and he was right. We had it settled pretty quickly.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVE LEVITAN:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): crumbs, Rich Dotson, the Styx-REO Speedwagon tour, Katy Tur, Glen Rice, Madeleine Albright, Johns Hopkins University, Rwanda, Gym Class Heroes, Tampa, Cookie Monster, Betsy DeVos: Glen Rice, Katy Tur, Rwanda (I have a KICK ASS feature story idea about Rwandan cancer care, if any editors with a budget happen to be reading this), Hopkins, Gym Class Heroes, Tampa, Cookie Monster, Styx-REO Speedwagon tour, Albright, Dotson, crumbs, DeVos
• One question you would ask Terry Crews were he here right now?: Who was the weirdest guy on the set of the Expendables, and why?
• Greatest moment of your sports existence?: Since I wasn’t sure if this meant me playing sports or watching sports, I’m giving two. Playing: Soccer game, sophomore year in high school, I scored a diving header goal that was pretty much the prettiest goal anyone has ever scored. Yes, Messi included. Watching: I am sorry to everyone who (justifiably) hates Boston, but I’m from there, so — end of game 4, World Series, 2004. Total anticlimax of a series, but the most relief I’ve ever felt watching sports. The most satisfying balloon deflation in history, inside my chest.
BONUS, SINCE I DON’T EVEN WATCH BASEBALL ANYMORE AND I’M AN NBA JUNKIE: The Block. I stood up from my couch, fell down on the floor, woke up my wife, got up from the floor and then fell back down again. McGrady scoring ~792 points in 30 seconds was great, but I’ll never forget witnessing the Block.
• In exactly 23 words, explain the unwillingness of humanity to embrace tuna melts: Humanity is righteous and good and has showed excellent judgment. There are, give or take, five hundred better sandwich options than tuna melts.
• Al Gore: Tremendous spokesperson for climate change or does more damage than he’s worth?: Oh man, this is in the rapid-fire section? I have fucking BOOK CHAPTERS worth of thoughts on this issue. The super short answer is that he WAS a tremendous spokesperson but it might be time for some new high-profile messengers.
• How long does Trump serve as president?: If I’m betting my life on it, four years. If I’m betting like one fifth of all I have and I will not die if I’m wrong… Mueller might get him. So… 1 1/2 years?
• Do you think Claudell Washington and Paul Zuvella were enough of a return for Ken Griffey, Sr.?: I am aware that I was probably just supposed to go with “yes” or “no,” but I couldn’t help it:
Post-trade career WAR: Washington, 4.3; Zuvella, -1.0; Griffey 1.6.
Meh. I’ll go with sure, why not.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope, though I have plane crash dreams ALL THE TIME. Like, once a month I’d say, if not more. I fly a lot but have a fairly healthy fear of turbulence, though I understand fully how irrational that fear is. I hate it. I’ve been on some verrrrrry bumpy flights, but never had to assume a crash position or anything like that.
• On a scale of 1 to 100, how concerned/scared are you about your own mortality (100 being terrified beyond belief)?: 65. It’s not super healthy.
• Five things that really gross you out: Cockroaches, The squeaky sound/feeling in my teeth that I get from eating green beans, Very moldy bread, Steve Mnuchin’s weirdo corruption smile, Cockroaches again