Marathonsam plays politics

Friends, countrymen, constituents, taxpayers, campaign contributors, lend me your ears!

I've got extra ears, if you need them.
I’ve got extra ears, if you need them.

Four score and seven years ago our forefathers…were drinking bathtub gin and dancing the Charleston.

It was 1928. Gatsby was TOTALLY in his prime.
It was 1928. Gatsby was throwing some WICKED parties. 

Now we are engaged in a great congressional clusterfuck, testing whether our nation or any nation so conceived can long endure such  gratuitous gridlock and puerile partisan poppycock.

Remove head from sphincter, THEN legislate.
Remove head from sphincter, THEN legislate.

As a patriotic plucky Ph.D. candidate at a public institution, I have a passing interest in the fiscal well-being of my funding bodies. Today I’m taking a break from long-form ranting writing about GMOs to play at politics. Watch out, Washington, this blogger-backslash-scientist is going to hit you harder than a sequester!

PLEASE GIVE ME GRANT MONEY!
PLEASE GIVE ME GRANT MONEY!

This past Friday, the University of Washington’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate took a field trip to the State Capitol in Olympia to lobby legislators in support of funding higher education. I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to rub elbows with the political elite and practice talking science to a non-technical audience, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to tag along.

Our capitol has quite the shapely dome, if I may say so myself.
Our capitol has quite the shapely dome, if I may say so myself.

During Huskies on the Hill Legislative Lobby Day we were given the opportunity to explaining our publicly funded research to politicians. Catherine and I put up our posters and prepared to present our work to any interested congresspeople.

Two scientists ready to take the Capitol by storm.
Two scientists ready to take the Capitol by storm.

Unfortunately, our boundless enthusiasm for scientific inquiry was matched only by the total lack of interest on the part of any legislators. It turns out that if you want to liaison with the legislative branch, Friday afternoon is NOT the ideal time to try and locate your lawmaker.

Are they hiding in the (seriously fancy) Bathroom? Nope.
Are they hiding in the (seriously fancy) Bathroom? Nope.

The Capitol building was empty, with the exception of one horde of highly-motivated huskies trying to talk to somebody, ANYBODY, about our agenda.

George!? Can you hear me? I'd like to speak to Jay Inslee!
George!? Can you hear me? I’d like to speak to Jay Inslee!

Even though I didn’t get to meet the governor, the day was not a total loss. Catherine and I had a total blast seeing the sights at the state capitol.

Lookin' good George
Lookin’ good George

I also got a chance to practice my skills as a scientific communicator by explaining DNA dynamics to a few law students. I chatted up an aide about my buddy Bacillus subtilis. I saw the world’s largest Tiffany chandelier.

The dome is even MORE impressive from underneath!
The dome is even MORE impressive from underneath!

The hackneyed old saying “those who love the law and sausages would do well to avoid watching either being made” contains a small kernel of truth. I don’t particularly love the law, but it was HIGHLY informative to learn that NOTHING gets done after one p.m. on Friday in the State Capitol.

Admittedly, not much gets done any other day of the week either.
Admittedly, not much gets done any other day of the week either.

As a plucky Ph.D. candidate, used to working on B. subtilis’ schedule (a.k.a. “cells grow just as well on Thanksgiving as any other day”), I must say that the hours associated with a government position seem pretty plush. I don’t think I could ever find satisfaction in being a politician.

Nor could I ever get elected, not in ten million years.
Nor could I ever get elected, not in ten million years.

However, somebody’s got to serve as an interpreter between scientists and the taxpayers that fund our research. The ongoing public misconceptions over vaccine safety, climate change denial, and (my latest pet project) GMOs are just a few examples where poor communication by scientists has undercut our efforts to improve the world. Anti-science sentiment doesn’t arise in a vacuum, it’s our responsibility as researchers to explain our results in a clear non-threatening manner. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make for excellent science such as careful word choice, an utter aversion to dogmatic pronouncements, refusal to generalize, and consideration of every possible caveat, make for lousy headlines on the six o’clock news.

How can there be global warming if it's cold outside right now? Science is BULLSHIT!
How can there be global warming if it’s cold outside right now? Science is BULLSHIT!

Scientist speak in a different language of certainty than pundits. We still call gravity and natural selection theories, for crying out loud.

Believe me, just like natural selection, whether this apple will fall DOWN or UP is NOT under any debate.
Believe me, just like natural selection, whether this apple will fall DOWN or UP is NOT under any debate.
Natural selection is also, technically a theory.
“Theory” means: this is the best explanation that we have right now, and nothing we’ve ever observed indicates otherwise. 

Occasionally our careful language gets interpreted as uncertainty. But we don’t have to be our own worst enemies. I’m not advocating for scientists to start making dogmatic pronouncements.

Let's NOT act like this guy.
Let’s NOT act like this guy.
Though there is a time and a place to be dog-matic...
Though there is a time and a place to be dog-matic…

Instead I’m trying to carve out a little niche for myself as an interpreter between academia and the general public audience at large. I will always be devoted to science, and right now I think that the best way I can move the field forward is by communicating interesting findings in an accurate and informative manner.

With pretty pictures!
With pretty pictures!

So I’ll put it to YOU gentle readers! Got any questions? What controversies are on your mind? I want to explain science to anyone who asks! Drop me an email or a comment, and I’ll find out whatever answers you want.

Or, you know, a job offer would't be the worst thing, either.
You can trust me, I’m a scientist.

8 thoughts on “Marathonsam plays politics

  1. Science Q&A with MarathonSam! OK. I’ll bite:

    So, how should I feel about BPA in general and, more importantly, how should I feel about BPA in my Upslope beer cans? (http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2015/02/no-i-cant-why-im-turning-away-canned-craft-beer) I have finally got my head wrapped around the goodness of beer in a can after a lifetime of avoiding “Bud” in favor of “good beer”, and now I read about BPA. What’s an environmentalist, health conscious beer lover to do?

    Like

  2. Is it easier to adopt a belief than to investigate a theory. I am intimidated by the effort required to become informed about scientific related political issues, infact I am overwhelmed.

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    1. My goal in life is to make science LESS overwhelming for people. But becoming informed is worth the effort! You don’t have to be in the lab doing experiments to grasp the gist of why a study is important (or whether something that seems fishy is, in fact, bullshit). You just have to approach issues with a simultaneous open-mind and degree of skepticism.

      I’d say a good rule of thumb is if something sounds too amazing and complicated to be true, it probably isn’t. If something sounds too SIMPLE and obvious to be true, it probably is. :)

      Like

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