Scientists Need to Be Bigger Assholes

Dave Weigel’s piece on Lorraine Minnite reads like a fairy tale. Minnite is a political scientist who was called to the Pennsylvania voter-ID-law hearing to testify about the myth of voter fraud. When dubious scientific evidence was brought up by Deputy Attorney General Patrick Crawley, there was no hedging or niceties from Minnite. Just an all out attack on what she perceived to be bad science.

Crawley started to asked his witness about Spakovsky’s work, but she didn’t bite.

“We could go through each one, if you want, and I could talk about what I object to. But in general, he has made claims about voter fraud that, upon investigation, are not correct. In fact, I have written a rebutal to a claim he’s made a lot about voter fraud in Brooklyn in 1982,” published on a “highly-read election listserv.”

“I didn’t want to go through his testimony,” said Crawley. But would Minnite admit he was an expert with different views?

“No,” she said. ‘He’s not an academic. He doesn’t do the kind of research that he should do before making these sorts of claims. He’s not an academic. He’s a lawyer. He’s employed by the Heritage Foundation… but he has no standing as an academic. He’s never produced academic research.”

Another merciless rebuttal:

“I can tell by the look on your face that you’re familiar with Mr. Von Spakovsky and his work?”

She was. She and Crawley briefly disagreed on whether Von Spakovsky ever served on the FEC — “I couldn’t remember which thing whe was nominated to that he didn’t actually receive.” She dismissed Van Spakovsky’s work on election boards, because he was “never an administrator.”

And one more:

“Your formal education, if I read your CV correctly, does not include specific training in election administration, does it?” he asked.

“I don’t know what you mean by training,” said Minnite.

“Did you get any degree or take courses that were specifically geared toward election administraion?”

“Actually, there are no degrees in election administration.”

It reads like an Aaron Sorkin script.

Here’s the broader point. One of the problems for people who do legitimate science is that they’re incapable of really unleashing their fervor on people who do illegitimate science. One reason for this is that doing so would be unscientific. To belittle your opponent and say their work is 100% super-definitely-incorrect is to ignore the tiny chance that new evidence will emerge.

The result is that when scientists levy criticism it’s usually built around an official-sounding reference to “evidence at this time.” It lacks the snark and bitterness of a Romney campaign response to an Obama speech, and it certainly isn’t powerful enough to oppose the concerted effort made by those who aim to discredit good science. But if scientists were more like Minnite, and repeatedly ripped bad science to shreds like a derisive 12-year-old giving in to every destructive Machiavellian impulse, maybe things would be different. Or maybe not.

Read Weigel’s longer Slate feature on the hearing here.


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