If you want a real answer from conservatives on science, then change the question

In case you haven’t heard by now, the latest conservative cool kid response to questions about climate change or evolution is “I’m not a scientist.” It displays a certain humility and folksy ignorance while avoiding tough questions about destructive GOP policy.

It’s cute, but it only works because journalists are asking the wrong questions. As Ben Adler notes, the question isn’t whether a politician believes in climate change or evolution. It’s whether they accept the scientific consensus on the issue:

So how can journalists avoid letting Republicans give this asinine answer? By asking the right questions. If you ask a non-scientist whether human activity is causing climate change, “I’m not a scientist” has a surface validity as a response. But climate change isn’t a matter of belief. It’s a matter of scientific consensus, just like evolution or gravity. One should not ask whether politicians believe in climate science or evolutionary biology, just as one wouldn’t ask whether a politician believes that gravity causes apples to fall from trees. Instead, the question should be whether they accept climate science. The phrasing could be, “97 percent of papers published by climate scientists in peer-reviewed academic journals have found that human activity is causing climate change. Do you accept those findings?”

Therein lies the key. It’s not about belief, but about acceptance of the scentific consensus.

But I would argue that it doesn’t just stop at the edge of “sciencey” issues like evolution or climate change. We now know a great many things that prove Republicans are dead wrong about policy: higher minimum wage laws create jobs rather than kill them, higher marginal rates on the wealthy do not hurt the economy, abstinence education is a failure, etc.

If journalists want to strive for accuracy, they could begin by asking whether politicians accept the scientific consensus around the minimum wage, tax policy, climate change, evolution, supply-side economic, sex education and a great many other things about which conservatives have been proven wrong by hard data.

If conservatives want to engage in a PR war with science and reality itself, let them do it brazenly in the open rather than with ersatz folksy dodges. It’s all about how you ask the question.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.