March for Science, but that’s Just the First Step

*Emily Willingham at Forbes expressed some of these same ideas and then some over here. Please give that a read and let her know how great she is.

Anyone reading this blog knows that I am a scientist and that I am into politics. Currently, there is a debate happening in the scientific community about whether the March for Science that is planned for April 22 should be “political.” I think that the question is stupid. The March for Science is necessarily political. I think detractors question whether the march needs to be partisan, which is a separate question. Incidentally, I think the March for Science is necessarily partisan too. I want to point out why the march is necessarily political and partisan, and explain why I think the march–and what it represents–is important.

The March is being organized in response to a specific series of events. We did not call a march when Bush stopped stem cell research. This time it feels different though. We have a president who has openly doubted the value of vaccinations. He expressed skepticism toward the science of climate change. He showed disdain for the EPA and nominated a director who wants to dismantle the agency. The Trump administration’s habit of consistently disregarding the knowledge of experts seems to signal that he will try to govern without using empirical data to inform policy decision-making. Since this is a question of how our nation is governed, it is necessarily a political issue. The GOP has also made it clear that this widely-held belief among their adherents, making it partisan. As proponents of evidence-based policy, we are obliged to stand up to these decisions and the people making them.

None of this is entirely new or unexpected. We could have assumed that a Republican administration would lead to the same deregulation and climate science denial that was the hallmark of the Bush administration. The Republican Party has been denying the science behind climate change for years. But this is clearly a larger problem. Now we are litigating the value of vaccines, the EPA, and whether research will continue to be funded. Trump is the inevitable conclusion to years of conservative anti-science policy. Not content to just disagreeing on how to translate widely accepted scientific facts into policy, conservatives deny the validity of those facts and the experts who work to uncover those facts. The attitude of denying facts and questioning the motives of scientific experts reached its logical conclusion in the election of the authoritarian Trump, who eschews expert advice, norms of conduct, and the validity of facts. It is up to us–scientists and empirically-minded non-scientists, alike–to take our place in policy discussions. We should have been there all along, making sure that our worldviews were represented in the realm of public policy. After all, we are highly skilled professionals with a unique way of seeing the world. We have a lot of value to add to policy discussions. But many of us have neglected our roles as citizens. Now is the time for us to show that we have something to say about governing based on solid facts instead of a partisan agenda. Marching for science is a solid start.

Don’t Stick to Science

I have not experienced it firsthand, but I have heard a lot about “stick to X” phenomenon. Specifically, we all have our area of expertise. Some of us are doctors, some are bricklayers, some are chefs. That is how we pay the rent. Some of us either choose or are compelled to interact with the wider public about this specialty. Writers necessarily put themselves out there and broadcast their expertise to the world. Some scientists with writing habits do that too. Those of us with blogs or enough recognition to get published in periodicals put our views on the progress of science out there for wider consumption.

But we all have ancillary interests too. I am a scientist with a real interest in baseball and politics (real original, I know). If I were a little more well-known, I would probably have eggs in my Twitter mentions telling me to “stick to science” whenever I share a political opinion. In fact, plenty of scientists and other writers I follow have shared stories about people tell them to stick to their respective area of expertise. The whole idea of sticking to X is ridiculous. I have never known a bricklayer or other blue-collar worker shy about sharing their political beliefs, so why should I?

I have been thinking about this a lot more lately because I have been thinking a lot more about politics. As an American–and a progressive one, at that–I have been shocked by the new presidential administration. I feel compelled to share my opinions with my followers. Luckily, it does not seem like I am the only one. Plenty of scientists that I follow have started to speak up. Some are concerned about the way the new administration will employ–or not employ–evidence-based policy-making. Others have broader concerns about the effect Trumpism might have on the culture of diversity and inclusion that we progressives idealize.

It is critical that we scientists not be afraid to share our political opinions. Too many scientists that I know have tunnel-vision: unable to see beyond the next grant to be written, the next committee to chair, or the next experiment to run. I swear, I thought some of these folks did not even know that 2016 was a presidential election year until November 7. But we have a lot to share with the world. We scientists are intelligent, rational people, and our expertise should not be pigeonholed. If you think that scientific training only matters in the field of science, then you might as well set up your lab on a deserted island and never leave. You are not doing science any favors by pretending that we are separate from the rest of the world. So I implore those of you who have been silent: start a blog, tweet up a storm, write a letter to the editor. Stay as up on local politics as you do on the latest issues of Nature and Cell (news articles are, by design, much easier to read than papers). Hell, run for office if you have the chance. You can have it all, and in doing so we will make sure that the scientists of the next generation feel comfortable being citizens as well as scientists. Remember, we cannot do science in a vacuum (unless you are a particle physicist, I mean), and the continued success of the scientific endeavor is not preordained. We have to advocate for our science, our way of solving problems, and our vision of the world. The world will be better for it.

An Open Letter to Trump Supporters

Okay, everyone. It’s time for us to all to have a grown-up conversation. Your guy is not going to win. Nor should he. He has said and allegedly done things (over and over again) that would disqualify anyone from the presidency. But come January, we are still going to have to govern this nation, including all of the Trump Trainers, the “I’m with Her”-ers, the Bernie Bros, the people who threw their hands up in frustration and swore to not vote in this election, and all the rest. We just spent more than a year vilifying each other and it is going to have to come to an end if we are going to make any kind of progress.

Look, I get that some of you have legitimate concerns about the direction that our country is taking. The lack of availabilty of ways to make a blue collar living in areas that used to thrive on manufacturing is a point well taken (you might remember that that point resonated well with people on both sides of the ideological spectrum). It is clear that people in those areas are suffering, and policies will have to be made that deal with rural and Rust Belt poverty and lack of opportunity. But what we objected to the most was the way that some of you tend to wrap that and other issues up with race and ethnicity. “Make America Great Again” might be a laudable motto if it was not widely viewed as a dog-whistle that roughly translates to “Make America White Again.” The fact is that our country has a long, rich history of racism that we would do well to keep in mind as historical context when we are examining current events. But never before has someone so successfully weaponized this hate to further their own political goals–we have never had to deal with a demagogue or a fascist.

I feel like I am qualified to say all of this because I am from Trump Country. I have more than one family member that wears the infamous red cap with pride. And I know that their motivations are complex. Yes, there is a generous helping of racial anxiety in there, and that I cannot excuse. But there is also a pining for the “old days” (which may or may not have ever existed in reality), in which a man (or hopefully now a woman) could earn enough to raise his or her family without a college degree. The problem is that the rose glow in which some people recall those “old days” seems to filter out the racial strife, the lack of opportunties for women and minorities, and the lack of a social safety net that actually existed in those days. It would be foolish to forget that history, and to act like it has not profoundly affected the situation in minority and immigrant communities today.

Maybe there are ways that we can work toward progressive goals in this country while also revitalizing the type of blue collar jobs that used to sustain people like my forebears in certain parts of the country. Or maybe that goal is antithetical to the idea of the type of society that we progressives want to build. That latter idea scares me because I hate the idea that we would leave behind an entire group of people in the name of progress. I’m lucky because I got out, and I have been lucky enough to get a hell of an education off of my cis-hetero-white male privilege and a modicum of hard work. But I am not so encased in my ivory tower bubble that I cannot see that the movement that swept Donald Trump to within mere votes of the White House will never go away until will deal with the lack of opportunties in some parts of the country. So I’m with you all if you want to build a society that offers access to a good life for everyone, from Rust Belt to the poorest of inner cities, for people of all backgrounds. But you need to drop the fascist. He isn’t helping to get that message across, and he will just serve to further alienate you from the current power structure. Together, maybe we can “Finally Make America Great for Everyone.” Slap that on a snapback and I might actually wear it.

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The Dog Ate Trump’s Homework

That debate last night was painful. And not just for the obvious reasons. We all know that Donald Trump is a horrible misogynist. We all know that he is a horrible racist. We all know that he has no relevant experience that qualifies him for the presidency. But last night I saw something else. In fact, I’m surprised that I never saw this before. It’s a little embarrassing, in fact. This guy cannot even hold a conversation his counterpart, the press, nor the voters. He was completely outmatched up there. He obviously has not even read a newspaper or a briefing book. Just take his insistence that the military should not telegraph its strategy before major operations. Martha Raddatz and Hillary Clinton were visibly frustrated. He has no appreciation for nuance; the world that Trump inhabits is black and white, and he has no desire to complicate his simplistic view of the world. These debates are there so that we can compare the candidates on their policy ideas. But Trump does not even have the aptitude (or is it attitude?) to engage in that conversation. These debates are a waste of time. Trump is like a schoolkid that didn’t do the homework before class, and all American citizens are the rest of the class suffering as he slows down today’s lesson.

Maybe President Trump Wouldn’t Be Too Bad?

In addition to baseball and biology (in that order), I also nurse an interest in politics. This primary season has really fascinated me, particularly because of the cast of characters that the GOP trotted out there. So, of course, I’m going to talk about Donald Trump and why hypothetical President Trump might not be as bad as anyone thinks he could be.

Before we really get started, there are two things I want to make clear off the rip. First, I do not support Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. I think that the xenophobic, sexist, and generally unenlightened remarks that he has made throughout his primary campaign are disqualifying; someone who has said those things into a microphone should not represent our nation to the world.

Second, I do not think that Donald Trump has any real chance of being president in January. This election will likely be Clinton’s coronation, and it seemed like it would be that way months ago. But the fact is that Trump will almost certainly be the Republican nominee, putting him mere electoral college votes away from being the “most powerful man in the world.”

This hooligan’s proximity to the Oval Office has put me in a bit of an existential rut lately, and it took a lot of introspection to pull myself out of that hole. But it finally dawned on me: I don’t think President Trump would be too terrible. I know, but hear me out. The president has power, but the office is not a dictatorship. Trump would still have to work within the confines of our republic, particularly with a Congress that would likely stymie anything he might try to do (and hey, We the People are used to that after the last eight years).

In addition to the checks and balances built into the system that would keep hypothetical President Trump from Trump-ing out too much as the Commander in Chief, there is also the inertia of the bureaucratic systems built around the presidency that carry over from administration to administration. For example, the intelligence officials who brief the president daily to keep him or her up to speed on global situations would have their own agenda from day one. It is likely that their advice would keep President Trump from marching down to Mexico City and slapping an invoice down on Peña Nieto’s desk for the newly erected border wall.

There is certainly damage that can be done. The worst that Trump can do might be to rile up unstable members of our society who have been waiting for “strong” president to “say what everyone is thinking” and “not give a damn about being politically correct.” We have all seen what can happen when certain individuals are emboldened by political rhetoric to take matters into their own hands. If hypothetical President Trump would continue talking about the Mexican people, women, and other groups like he has done in the past, it may convince someone to do something. He would be the president, after all.

But all of this might be ridiculous to contemplate. Trump just isn’t a general election candidate. Sure, he cleaned up in the primaries, but that is because the primaries select for the most “out there” candidates, who then have to tack back to the middle to be viable in November. Trump certainly can’t do that, right? But maybe there is reason to worry about a viable Trump general election candidacy. Consider that the Trump rhetoric has seemed to dull a bit lately. After knocking Cruz out of the primary in Indiana (all but assuring his own GOP nomination), Trump even seemed respectful of his competitor Cruz. He has also been avoiding some of the over-the-top offensive speech topics that he gained notoriety (and a ton of free media coverage) for earlier in the primaries, probably due to the influence of new political handlers that he has brought into the campaign in preparation for a run at the Oval Office in November.

Taken all together, this can be terrifying for those of use who never wanted, nor expected, Trump to have any chance in November. He still has to go up against the Clinton political machine, and who knows how offensive his rhetoric might become in a contest against a strong woman candidate. Heck, he has already suggested that Clinton is only polling high because she holds the “woman card.” In other words, he still has time to screw this all up. But even if he doesn’t, hey, maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. This time next year, we might all be wearing matching hairpieces. I, for one, welcome our new overlord.

Update: The NY Times posted a piece that made some of the same points that I made at around the same time that I put this piece up, so go have yourself a look-see over there if the spirit moves you to do so.