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. I believe that it is critical that we not be afraid to share these 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.

Space, man.

In the summer of 2012, I was a precocious undergraduate spending the summer at a certain Ivy League institution as a research assistant in the laboratory of a certain Nobel Prize winner. I plugged away at the microscope all day, with Earl Sweatshirt’s early shit blasting in my ears, the steady minimalist beats fueling me through my grueling days. But then I would come home, and unwind in front of my computer like any good millennial. One day the Curiosity rover landed to much fanfare, and I stayed up on my computer late into the night to watch it. Something about space is so inspirational to anyone with any real interest in science. We have run out of things to explore; those greedy colonialist pigs circled the globe long before I ever got the chance (and made a real mess of things by doing so). And space itself isn’t something new: JFK inspired the US to reach for the stars decades ago, while the USSR was also looking upward. Since then, it seems like every country has a space program. Maybe space is just mundane now? Maybe resupplying the International Space Station is like the monthly trip to Costco? But I think there is still some mystique in it. Because the night that Curiosity landed on Mars, I watched with wonder–and I was not the only one. We keep having these moments as a society where the space programs of our planet manage to keep us interested long after people were supposed to have gotten bored with space. I started to wonder if NASA is just getting better at marketing. Did they hire some big PR firm to drum up public support–and maybe secure a half a percent more of the next federal budget. Maybe it makes more sense that this wonder was never really gone. Because now Elon Musk is promising to send people to Mars and I want to be first in line. The truth is that the rational part of me doesn’t believe that SpaceX will ever send a soul to Mars. Hell, they can’t even get a resupply rocket off of the ground. But the idea is just so human. There’s nothing left for us to explore. So why not pile into aluminum tubes and blast off (or up) for the heavens, why not see what we can find out there? This monkey is ready to blast off into space, man.

Life Graph

biographI got bored in a genetics lecture a couple of days ago and started to doodle a graph of my perceived biology knowledge and reasoning over the course of my life. “Perceived biology knowledge” is in arbitrary units, and parts of my life are binned into “childhood,” “high school,” “college,” and “grad school” along the x-axis. One caveat is that I am perhaps too biased to reliably perceive my own knowledge and reasoning at any point in my life. Memory is also imperfect, so the early life data-points are probably hard to believe.

In spite of the problems with trying to turn this type of subjective introspection into something data-driven, the general trajectory of the plot and the relative magnitudes within the x-axis bins are likely reliable: the biphasic linear growth through childhood and high school seems reasonable, and the large gains going into college and grad school should be unsurprising to anyone who has had the pleasure of going through those experiences. In fact, one of the major conclusions that I draw from this thought experiment is the effect of disruptive events on my scientific reasoning and knowledge. I was learning a bit and growing throughout childhood and high school, but the real gains came from first going to college–and getting thrown into the deep end with rigorous science classes first semester–and the similarly disruptive first year of grad school. This seems to argue in favor of the conventional wisdom that getting out of one’s comfort zone is the only way to truly grow and improve. To extrapolate a little advice out of this: Don’t be afraid to be in over your head, I guess.