Amy Coney Barrett’s Climate Denialism

“I’m not a scientist” is not an excuse for a Supreme Court Justice.

Jesse Harris
Oct 14, 2020 · 4 min read
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Sources Agustín Lautaro on Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons

When the topic of climate change comes up, you often hear conservatives use a bizarre defence: “I’m not an expert” or “I’m not a scientist.” This rhetorical move may seem innocent, but it is revealing of a specific form of climate denialism.

Yesterday, this came up in the confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett, who is a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States.

What a weird exchange. Let’s change it up a touch to highlight the absurdity.

“Giant meteor” is a bit of an exaggeration, but you can switch to something more realistic. Do you have opinions on the widespread flooding? Do you have opinions about world-wide famines? Mass extinction? Any views? Thoughts? Opinions?

When Barrett states that she does not have a view on climate change, she is actually making it very clear where she stands. If I heard that thousands of scientists were extremely worried about a potential disaster, I would learn about it! I would only not look it up if the concern was not credible. When Barrett says she does not have any “firm view”, it strongly suggests she doesn’t think it is a relevant threat.

Given Barrett’s hardcore pro-life stance, it is curious that she is not concerned about a force that could threaten millions of lives. It is also curious that the fossil fuel lobby has spent millions of dollars in support of Barrett’s nomination. Kinda surprising she doesn’t have any views on the subject given these factors.

But there is more to this exchange that is worth dissecting. What is meant by “I am not a scientist”? It is pretty obvious she is not a scientist given the circumstances, so why point it out? And why do so many conservatives use this defense when discussing climate change?

“I’m not a scientist” means “You can’t hold me to the standards of a scientist.” Scientists are supposed to look at data, come to conclusions, and form views on the subject. This statement absolves yourself of any intellectual responsibility. “I’m not wrong, I just don’t know any better.”

The “I am not a scientist” line is suitable for some everyday people, but Amy Coney Barrett is nominated to sit on the Supreme Court! This defence suggests she is not able to assess scientific arguments. The Supreme Court isn’t here to settle cutting-edge scientific questions, but there are plenty of cases where science comes up! Lawsuits related to environmental standards, patents, mental health, intellectual property, disability law, or technology regulation all have the potential to include a significant scientific dimension. In fact, it seems possible that “pandemic law” might become very important in the very near future! Barrett doesn’t need to be a scientist, but it is laughable to imply that science doesn’t come up as part of her job.

What is particularly maddening about the way conservatives use the “I’m not a scientist” defence, is how they will then undermine the work of the scientists. Take Barrett as an example. She could have easily said “I would not say I have firm views on it, but I understand most scientists are extremely concerned about climate change. I respect their authority on that matter.” Not a hard response to give! Her failure to endorse the mainstream scientific opinion is a loud signal of where she really stands.

Other conservatives use the “not a scientist” defence more boldly. HBomberguy did a spectacular video covering the absurdity of climate denialists. People like Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder will admit they are not an expert, and then immediately turn around and pretend they know the science better than the experts. These folks will claim to be champions of reason, logic, and science, but will then use every trick possible to misrepresent what the scientists are saying to fit their world view. As HBomberguy explains, this defence is important because:

…if you claim to actually know what you are talking about it would become crystal clear you were deliberately lying when it turned out you were so obviously wrong. But if you say you’re an amateur, there’s deniability.

People are allowed to not be scientists, but you shouldn’t be taken seriously on scientific matters unless you have a basic competency in science. Barrett could be involved in deciding some of the most important scientific topics of our time — if she doesn’t respect the expertise on climate change, then she clearly isn’t qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.

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Jesse Harris

Written by

Scientist / Writer / Environmentalist ~ I would love to work with you. Learn more about me: https://jesse-harris.ca/

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Jesse Harris

Written by

Scientist / Writer / Environmentalist ~ I would love to work with you. Learn more about me: https://jesse-harris.ca/

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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