Seeing Russia from my House

The ptarmigan of peace?

I’m encountering a lot of anxiety about Russia these days. Maybe it’s because our recent election turned out to be triumph of Kremlin meddling. Or it might be that the insecure man-child they helped install is now threatening to revive the nuclear arms race. Could Russia end up digging its fingers further into American soil? I’m no geopolitical analyst, and I don’t know. Certainly there is precedent. Russia has done so before, for longer than these fifty states have existed as a nation. Of course I’m talking about Alaska. And I do know something about that. I can’t predict or explain the actions of a foreign government, or even our own. But maybe we can all learn to get along anyway.

Throughout my entire childhood, I spent part of each year in the former Russian Empire. My otherwise-Midwestern parents were schoolteachers in several tiny villages on the Kodiak Archipelago. I attended two years of high school in Ouzinkie, population 221, a Native Alaskan community on Spruce Island. The island is lush and evergreen, covered with spruce and alder, teeming with salmon and eagles, and free from the famous bears of the larger islands. Everything comes in by bush plane via a rocky airstrip. The majority of vehicles on the gravel streets are ATVs, along with a handful of trucks. Folks enjoy fishing, hunting, boating, basketball, and, at least in those days before Netflix, plenty of satellite TV.

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A Biosphere of One

Even a seed can be an ark

Biodiversity is a hard concept to pin down. The word evokes a rich ecosystem brimming with plant and animal species. But is it just the number of species that matters, or their dissimilarity? Picture a pond with twenty kinds of frog and no other vertebrates. Surely you’d call it less diverse than a pond with twenty total species of frogs, snakes, turtles, muskrats, carp, ducks, and newts. And what if one species has a lot of genetic variation? Is the kaleidoscopic western ground snake, with myriad shades and stripe patterns, weighted the same as a population of genetically identical salamander clones? What about individuals? Can one organism be more biodiverse, by itself, than another? I once had a t-shirt that proclaimed “BIODIVERSITY” with a picture of a lone, multicolored frog. It implied that a single animal can be biodiverse if it only has enough distinct pigments. Nonsense? Or is there something to this idea?

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Race Ed

Does DNA cause racial differences in test scores?

I got a lot of feedback from Race, Genetics and Taboo. Mostly positive, believe it or not. One particularly engaging e-mail conversation was with Jonathan Tweet, author of the fantastic evolutionary children’s book Grandmother Fish. A lot came out of these dialogues worth sharing with the world. In any case, it’s my responsibility as a geneticist. Just as educators need to speak openly about safe sex despite it being an uncomfortable topic, so it is with race. Thus, even though I maintain that other species are more interesting, here I am writing again about (human) race and genetics.

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The Koala Conspiracy

Do marsupials even exist?

The word of the year for 2016 is officially “post-truth.” It seems a lot of folks just don’t care very much for facts. Instead, they form beliefs based on subjective feelings about what kind of experts are trustworthy and what kinds of stories fit their existing worldview. Fake news is rampant. It thrives under a secular version of Poe’s law: when politics has been fractured into extremes, any tale about the opposition sounds plausible. We are at an impasse. If showing people the data is not good enough, what is?

For science educators, this is nothing new. The most dispiriting and challenging aspect of science outreach isn’t ignorance, it’s willful denial. Folks who have heard about climate change, evolution, the effectiveness of vaccines, or the safety of GMOs, but simply refuse to believe it. It’s frustrating. How do objective scientists reach out to the illogical masses?

We can start by not framing it as such a duality. Everyone operates on subjective belief. We’re not so different from each other.

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This Land is Your Land

You are still welcome here

I spent the evening after the election repeatedly singing, and playing on the piano, the same song: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” My four-year-old kid danced and sang along. Music helps me cope with grief. Indeed, my emotions weren’t all that different than they would be after the unexpected death of a good friend. I needed that simple melody and its depiction of a nation for all.

How could this happen? Everyone is abuzz with ideas. Most that I’ve seen fall into two categories, anger and empathy. Anger: that the electorate is full of racists and misogynists. Empathy: that working-class whites have legitimate concerns which Democrats failed to address. Both of these are accurate to some extent. Trump is clearly a bigot, and overtly hateful voters were naturally drawn to him. Income inequality is a real problem that no party is sufficiently fixing. But neither of these hot takes gets to the heart of the problem.

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