Address Science Locally

The last couple of weeks have been pretty frustrating as a scientist. Well, they’ve been pretty frustrating as a human being too. But as this is a science blog, we’ll stick to the science. The measures that President Trump has imposed in the last few weeks have been shocking, but they’ve also been part of a growing wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-science that is growing in the country. We’ve moved from bad (Republican congressmen questioning the legitimacy of NSF grants, despite thorough peer review) to worse (lack of acknowledgement of climate change) to the worst (government scientists not being allowed to discuss their results with political approval). This has stirred furor among scientists and informed citizens alike, leading to lots of political action in the form of protests, marches, and calls to congressional offices. These actions are useful for changing policy at the federal level, and in no way do I mean for this post to discourage such actions. We need big changes in policy at the national level, even though they will be slow to come. However, while we’re protesting for changes at the national level, it’s more important than ever to act locally. Here are some thoughts:

Be a better educator. The importance of scientists has never been more important at the local scale. I embracing my role as an educator as a way to make a difference. I’ve shifted some time away from research towards teaching, but more important than time, I’ve shifted my goals. I have over 200 students in my Intro Bio class. I used to hope they would all leave with a firm grasp of taxonomy and ecological and evolutionary principles. Now I see the basic facts they learn in the class as secondary to the way they think. If we want to fight against the wave of anti-intellectualism in the United States, that has to start by teaching students how to think…how to make a rational argument…how to use facts to support your argument…how to critically analyze the arguments of others…how to consider arguments that don’t meet your worldview…how to be a better Bayesian (i.e. use what you knew before and weigh that against new evidence). This isn’t a quick fix, but my hope is that my students will be better, more logical thinkers before the next election.

Be a voice in your community. Make your presence as a scientist felt in your community. Talk to your neighbors. Don’t withhold your expert opinion in conversations (but don’t be an arrogant ass either). Be an authority. Run for office. Host a science Q&A. Volunteer at your local school, pub, or farmer’s market to answer people’s questions about science. People need a face to associate with their image of “scientist”, preferably a face that they know and like.

Reduce your carbon footprint. With threats against the EPA and likely lack of compliance with the Paris Accords, the United States is unlikely to do much in the way of lowering carbon emissions. That means we’re going to have to do it ourselves. That’s not easy..but with a lot of people acting together, we can do a lot. Imagine if the millions of people who have marched over the last few weeks dedicated themselves to reducing their carbon footprint by some amount. Now imagine each of them convinced a friend to do the same. Drive less. Attend a local conference instead of one on the other side of the country. Eat less meat and dairy. The carbon footprint of a vegetarian is about half that of an omnivore. If you can’t cut everything, start with beef, lamb, and cheese. It continues to shock me that those most concerned with climate change, regularly contribute to it in such a big way. Hey, I live in LA, so I’m far from a low carbon footprint too, but I’m working on it. We can’t just protest…we also need to take personal responsibility.

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