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Science friction: Austin Democrats look at growing clash between politics and facts

Friday, January 26, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Perhaps the key to fighting fake news claims and a growing resistance to scientific research in state and federal policy decisions comes down to teaching scientists and engineers how to tell jokes.

The need for making scientific analysis accessible and relatable to everyday voters was one of the points discussed Wednesday at a panel of local Democratic candidates organized by 314 Action, a national pro-science advocacy organization. The 90-minute session saw three panelists – U.S. House candidate Joseph Kopser, Texas state Rep. Donna Howard and Austin mayoral candidate Laura Morrison – cover the ongoing debate over climate change, how ideology has become more important than fact in primary races, and how highly educated citizens can get more involved in the political process.

“We in the scientific community can do a much better job of being in the conversation,” said Kopser, a military veteran who founded the tech company that became RideScout and is challenging Rep. Lamar Smith in the U.S. House’s 21st district. “Take an improv class, go to an open mic night and learn how to speak out. All of us have a responsibility to go beyond what we’re comfortable with.”

All three panelists shared the view that bringing issues such as climate change and energy policy to a ground-level conversation has to become a more commonplace tactic in political brokering.

“Take these really hard science problems we have, take them to people who don’t think about those things very often, and create a bridge to their values, so we can get out of a discussion about whether the climate is changing,” Kopser said.

“Instead, talk to peach farmers in the Hill Country about the reason why we’re selling North Carolina peaches at the farmers market right now: because the weather here didn’t get cold enough for our peach crops.”

Much of the conversation pinned the ideological streak in modern politics on Republican voters and candidates but also acknowledged that Democrats can shirk science around issues such as vaccines, water fluoridation and genetically modified foods.

But Howard said the low voter participation in primary races gives science-resistant voters great influence in deciding who sets policy at the state level.

“In the legislature, there are more people who are responsive to facts. But the politics prevent the facts from reaching the level they should because we have a system that allows a small amount of primary voters to decide the political outcome of this state,” she said. “I have Republican colleagues who are in a position to run in a primary when they know a large number of people who vote in those primaries don’t look at facts and are ideologically driven.”

Howard said those tendencies have played out in the past two state sessions, where lawmakers have targeted local-level policies backed by science that doesn’t agree with the viewpoints of many elected officials. She said there’s also been an increase in trying to discredit scientists who present data that paints the state’s laws on issues such as women’s health in a negative light.

“In the last couple of years, with research looking at women’s health care, some of the results weren’t the results some legislators wanted to see, that made what we’d been doing to women’s health look bad,” she said. “So, of course, we attacked the research and the work that was published in that trashy New England Journal of Medicine.”

Morrison said ideological divides on science don’t tend to be as pronounced at the local level, but said there is still need for scrutiny and lots of data gathering around issues such as energy policy, wastewater treatment and transportation policy. In most cases, she said, her previous terms on City Council saw progress made when opposing sides were able to respect and trust each other in the name of compromise.

“What’s been effective for me is, it’s good when you bring people together and there’s somebody who has some leverage, who gives you some tough love and says, ‘You’re going to figure this out,’” she said. “When the two different sides can start thawing and trusting each other a little bit. … I enjoy working with people who are on the other side because you learn how to disagree and come together when you need to.”

Throughout the session, panelists and organizers implored the 60 or so audience members to vote in all elections, volunteer their expertise for local candidates and run in elections at all levels. Doing that, and finding a way to identify with more working-class voters, is seen as a way to broaden the discussion and address the trend of STEM-educated voters being 10 percent less likely to vote than the average citizen.

“Go out to West Texas or San Marcos and meet people where they are to connect with them at a value-based level,” said Kimberley McCormack, state-level coordinator for 314 Action. “That also comes to teaching scientists and engineers to not preach to people, to go out and connect in a way that’s accessible and interesting to people on every level.”

Photo by Michael Barera [CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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