The #marchforscience happened this past weekend. In a truly heartwarming display of both political commitment and self-aware nerdiness, scientists and science-enthusiasts from around the globe took to the streets last Saturday sporting a series of exceedingly rational demands and some outstandingly witty signs. While of course some people found themselves poking holes through the actual level of commitment of many of the protesters, it is hard to argue that engaging the public to fight for evidence-based policy making can be at all a bad thing. However, a common risk of engaging people on such an emotional level is that the initial enthusiasm can easily fizzle out – after the march is over and the signs have been stored away, it is all too easy to go back to our old lives. However, there are many ways to stay engaged with science and policy-making year round.
- Take part in a science outreach project
- A lot of what scientists perceive to be resistance to scientific ideas is often simply rooted in ignorance. Almost half of all adults in the US believes that life was created in seven days by divine intervention. Over half of the country still doesn’t believe in man-made climate change (an one wonders, how far under water do we have to be before that half of the populations stops blaming the media, or the self-serving academic interests of climatologists). We are still not doing a great job at teaching kids about science and math – which means adults will have trouble getting on board with science-driven policy they don’t understand. The great thing about this aspect of the problem, however, is that it is easy to fix. Engaging younger people to become excited about science is a sure-fire way to produce adults that will not only understand the scientific method, but trust it to make decisions on a day-to-day basis. If you are a scientist, or are simply passionate about science, there are thousands of programs you can join to make a difference.
- Get involved in politics
- Much to the dismay of those who believe in democracy, our current political system means that the principal concern of those in office is to get re-elected by their constituency. This means that they will say or do anything that they know will carry favor with their electorate. This is true for elected judges, people on school boards, majors, congressmen, senators and presidents alike. Therefore, put your vote where your principles lie. This doesn’t necessarily have to wait until the next big election – local politics are often as important as the national stage if not more. You can probably make a difference in a lot of forgotten races you don’t care about – even tho you should! Who sits on your local school board? What are their policies on teaching science, evolution and sex education? Who is prosecuting criminals where you live? Do they show a bias in the cases they choose to go after? Are they looking out for the environment? These are all things you can take into account – and vote accordingly.
- Make your voice heard
- The world of policy-making is full of moments open to public opinion. The Administrative Procedure Act requires for every executive decision taken by government agencies such as the EPA to have a public comment period, during which citizens like you can make their voices heard. Moreover, every elected representative has an office dedicated to listening to their constituent’s concerns (I refer to my previous point about voting with your head as well as with your heart). These are all excellent opportunities to email, call and write to make your voice heard. A common misconception is that making your voice heard won’t make a difference because the big political players will have their way either way. While of course the opinion of a single citizen is not going to change the world (and let’s face it, that’s probably a good thing), studies have shown that public opinion has the power to change public policy. Writing, calling and emailing does make a difference. The latest presidential election has shown how news shared on social media has the power to shape the way other people think, too. Sharing thoughtful, science-based opinion pieces can be a wonderful way to counteract the wave of fake news that is plaguing this particular segment of media history.
- Talk to people
- Dialog is the fundamental tenant of a democracy. people only change their mind when somebody engages with them. As a scientist, or a science-enthusiast, the best thing you can do is to engage in dialog with people who disagree with you. Assuming you can’t and never will change their mind is not the most productive attitude to look at things. While of course one conversation is unlikely to completely change somebody’s worldview, a lifetime of disagreeing with people they respect might. The key here is people they respect. Respect is almost always earned rather than granted. This means that engaging with somebody who holds polar opposite views to ours has to come with strict self-control. Aggressive language, excessive displays of emotion, passive-aggression and patronizing attitudes not only do not solve the problem, but make it worse. In a world that is increasingly “us” versus “them” talking to other side should be more about what we have in common than about what divides us. Somebody’s perception of the “pro-science” godless liberal elites might be challenged by an honest conversation with a pleasant person who shares in much of their daily problems, but who has a different approach to the solution. In fact, from suffragism to the civil rights movement all social change has been achieved though normalization and conversation, rather than confrontation. The popular show “Modern Family” has done more for gay rights in America than years of lobbying.
- Put your money where your mouth is
- At the end of the day, the great thing about capitalism is that it puts the consumer in control. As somebody who presumably spends money to buy things, you have more power than you realize. If you disapprove of a company’s behavior, simply buy products from their competitors. Of course, sometimes you have no choice (or no reasonable choice) – in which case a small but better-than-nothing alternative is to make sure the company knows how you feel. Social media is a great platform to air your grievances – of course, your single tweet is not going to change the course of a billion-dollar company, but a rising momentum of dissatisfied customers is bound to be listened to eventually.
Of course, these are just some of the many things you can do. What are your ideas? Let me know in the comments below!