Let the kids vote.

I think it’s time to lower the voting age to 16.

This is something I’ve felt strongly about since I was in high school and bummed that I couldn’t vote in the 2004 presidential election (my parents can attest to me loudly voicing my frustration on this matter). I REALLY wanted to vote in high school. I registered way before I turned 18, even though I knew I’d have to re-register with a new address before an election I could vote in actually came up. Hell, I was so annoyed that I missed being able to vote in the 2006 midterms by a few months, when it looked like my district might finally swing to the left and we could boot our corrupt Republican Congressman, that I tried to convince my apathetic 18-year-old friend to register and let me “advise” her on how to fill out her ballot. Yes, I know that is illegal, but dammit, I was more politically aware than plenty of adults, and it seemed unfair and nonsensical that they had this right and I didn’t. I even wandered into my precinct’s polling place and casually asked them if I could fill out a ballot (spoiler: they didn’t let me). I was really excited to be part of the democratic process and I went out of my way to inform myself on the issues. Though most of my peers probably didn’t feel the same way, I don’t think that apathy is inevitable. I think it’s totally possible for teenagers to get interested and informed about politics, and to be effective— just look at the political action spearheaded by teenagers in the wake of the Parkland massacre. We should respect them by giving them the right to vote. I can think of plenty of good reasons why 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote, and no good reasons why they shouldn’t (though a number of arguments have been made against giving them the vote, and I’m open to hearing and debating about others). Let’s delve into it.

The maturity question

The main argument against lowering the voting age is generally that kids are too immature or don’t have enough life experience to make informed voting decisions. This is condescending and just plain false. First of all, it’s essentially saying, “Hey teenagers, you’re dumb and make bad decisions, so you can’t possibly be capable of thinking intelligently about important issues.” While it may be true that people’s brains keep developing into their mid-20s, we don’t consider that a good reason to keep anyone under 25 from voting, nor do we take voting rights away from people with demonstrable cognitive deficiencies. As long as you are older than 18 and not a felon, you can vote even if you have dementia, or are blackout drunk, or believe that you are second coming of Christ, or think that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor. We don’t apply an intelligence or critical thought test to anyone over 18 before giving them the right to vote, and yet we automatically assume that people under 18 aren’t cognitively advanced enough to handle the issues being voted on. Give me a break, and give kids some credit. They have valuable things to say, and many have done more to further an intelligent civic discourse than most adults.

Furthermore, I doubt there’s much difference in the cognitive abilities of someone who is 18 versus someone who is 17.5, and yet the 18-year-old gets to vote while the 17.5-year-old doesn’t. The voting age is kind of arbitrary in this way. The counterargument to that would be that we have to set the cutoff somewhere, but by setting it at 18, we’re disenfranchising people who are fully capable of making informed voting decisions. The type of cognitive skills needed for voting are known as cold cognition, and they are established before a person turns 16. These are the skills that allow people to make rational decisions based on assessing evidence before coming to a conclusion, without being influenced by emotion. Teenagers can absolutely do this, and they can absolutely use those skills to make responsible choices at the ballot box. In fact, in Austria, one of the only countries to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, research shows that youth voters make voting decisions that are similar to those of people over 18. So no, they aren’t irrational and impulsive at the ballot box. When it comes to their voting choices, they’re just like all of us supposedly older and wiser voters.

Making the political process belong to them

Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote would get them engaged in the political process early. Right now for a lot of teenagers, it probably feels pointless to pay attention to politics (or government matters in general) because they have no say in it, and it seems like something not worth worrying about until they are considered adults. They don’t feel any ownership of it because they’re excluded from participating in it. But political decisions affect everyone in this country, including those too young to vote. Congress kowtowing to the NRA and refusing to pass meaningful gun control has allowed kids to be massacred while trying to get an education. Even if those kids want to vote out the politicians who sit on their hands while angry white men/boys shoot up schools, something that directly impacts kids in a literal life-or-death way, they can’t do it. But if they were allowed to vote, they could feel empowered to make great changes in society and work to ensure their own safety (which they shouldn’t have to do, but that’s what things have come to). They could feel like civic engagement was another milestone to reach in adolescence, as opposed to an opt-in burden to take on as an adult or something that doesn’t belong to them. Let’s give kids a better reason to get engaged than having to fear for their lives due to school shootings.

Increasing voter turnout and easing the transition to civic engagement

We have a problem with voter turnout in the US. Youth voter turnout is particularly low; 46% of eligible voters aged 18-29 voted in the 2016 presidential election, and turnout is even lower during midterm elections. Of course, this doesn’t help with the stereotype that young people are uninformed and apathetic. Facilitating voting in schools would be a great way to easily bring young people into the voting process. On election day, there could be polling sites at high schools, and students 16 and older could be granted time to go and cast their ballots. Perhaps teachers could even give extra credit to students who vote, proven by bringing back a ballot stub to class after going to the polls (their peers who are younger than 16 could also receive extra credit for learning about the issues and voting in a mock election, to make things equitable). Nonpartisan information about the issues could be distributed to students in class (the same information that gets mailed to adult voters). I think that getting people started voting early, so they see what it’s like and get in the habit of learning about the issues and candidates, will set them up to keep voting later in life when they have to be independently responsible for it.

Right now we don’t do much to make teenagers feel any ownership of voting or political engagement, but then we expect them to immediately become independently engaged the moment they turn 18. Some adults even have the gall to chastise young people who don’t vote and blame them for unfavorable political outcomes. Fuck off with that argument. We aren’t setting teenagers up to vote easily or to care about civic engagement, when we definitely could. Why not help them? Obviously this won’t solve all of the voter turnout problems in the US, but I believe that supporting people in civic engagement early on would do a lot to motivate people down the road.

No taxation without representation

16-year-olds can work and pay taxes, and yet they have no say in what their tax money is spent on. This can definitely affect them directly: they have to pay into a system, but if their Congressperson wants to defund public schools or take away regulations on student loans meant to protect the borrower, they can’t do anything about it other than suffer the consequences. This is taxation without representation, which is why the US became an independent nation in the first place. And being taxed on their income isn’t the only thing teenagers can be compelled to do without having any kind of say. Teenagers can be tried as adults in court, seemingly acknowledging that they’re capable of adult-level cognition as applied to criminal activity, but for some reason not to civic engagement. They (particularly teenage girls) can get married before the age of 18 as long as their parents “consent”, which often equates to parents forcing their daughter to marry her abuser. In the eyes of the law, she is old enough to get married and deal with all the responsibilities and ramifications associated with that, but she is not old enough to make an informed decision to vote against policies and lawmakers who support child marriage. How backwards is that? If we can force teenagers to do these things, we are obligated to give them a say in the matter.

I think this issue has more momentum now than ever before. The students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have shown us repeatedly that teenagers can be public voices for intelligent expression of the issues that affect society. They are not impulsive, or irrational, or incapable of understanding problems at the same level as adults. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Teenagers have always been capable of being informed, civic-minded voters, but adults have held them back. It’s time now that we empower them to take their rightful place as participants in our democracy.

 

Featured image: the Indonesian embassy in Washington, D.C.

Hatred and bigotry: the Republican legacy.

I’m a little late in sharing this, but if you haven’t seen it yet, Vice News created a video that is an incredible look into the far right white supremacists mobilized by Trump who sparked the violence in Charlottesville, and seek to do so elsewhere. It’s incredibly disturbing, to put it mildly.
 
I am Jewish. My whole family is Jewish. The men shown in this video don’t know me or anything about me, but they state here that their ideal America is one that is “cleansed” of me and people like me. If you care about me, or any other Jewish person or person of color or queer person, this should chill you to the bone. If you are a decent human being, this should make you ill.
 
These white supremacists have been courted by the Republican party for years, and the GOP has relied on their support while simultaneously pretending not to encourage them. Now we’re seeing the results of this Republican strategy: a president who campaigned on racial hatred, who egged on his violent far right supporters and relied on them to win, who refuses to strongly denounce these white supremacists and instead insists that many of them– many of the neo Nazis, the KKK, the people who thought that running over nonviolent counterprotesters with a car was justified– are “fine people”. A president who supports the racial profiling and inhumane treatment perpetrated by Joe Arpaio so much that he pardoned him. Emboldened white supremacists who seek to terrorize others. A majority of Republicans in Congress, sitting on their hands and doing nothing to help, but talking a lot about how “troubled” they are. They are the ones in the position to do something, and many of them recognize how wrong this overt bigotry is and that something should be done, but they are silent. Cowards.
 
This hatred and bigotry is the Republican legacy. People who voted Republican, and especially those who voted for Trump, voted for this. Even if you didn’t approve of Trump’s racist rhetoric and voted for him for other reasons, you tacitly approved this. It’s now your responsibility to stand against the white supremacists and far-right bigots, and to call Trump out for supporting them. If you remain silent, you are continuing your approval of their actions. You’re saying, “This racist terrorism is fine by me.” And that makes you either a coward, or frankly, a shitty person.

Weaponizing the scientific method

We’re experiencing an unprecedented level of lying in American politics right now, mostly courtesy of our “so-called” president. What is there to do about this? Right now it seems like no amount of calling out bullshit stops Trump from baldly lying, or his supporters from accepting the lies, or congressional Republicans from spinelessly hiding in a corner pretending it’s not happening. Trump is doubling down on his lies and lashing out at the media for exposing him, which threatens our free press and our ability to fight back against his wannabe-authoritarian regime. I’ve talked about how hopeless this makes everything seem before, but also how we don’t have much of a choice except to fight back. We are still scrambling to figure out the best way to fight.

As a scientist and someone who prefers to rely on logic to make decisions, I believe that one way to do this is by teaching people to get comfortable using the scientific method all the time. It’s not really that hard once you train yourself to think that way and apply it to all kinds of situations, even those that occur outside of the lab. So what is the scientific method? In a nutshell, it’s a set of principles used to conduct evidence-based inquiry. It’s founded in the idea that you can make an observation (“X phenomenon occurs”), extrapolate a hypothesis to explain the observation (“Y is acting on Z to cause X phenomenon”), and then do tests to find out if your hypothesis is correct or not (“If I remove Y, does X phenomenon still occur?”). A good scientist will form multiple possible hypotheses, including null hypotheses (“Y is not acting on Z to cause X” or “Y and Z have nothing to do with X”), and set up tests that will generate observations to address each hypothesis. At the root of the scientific method is thinking of multiple possible scenarios and applying skepticism to all of them, as opposed to just accepting the first one you think of without questioning it further. Oftentimes you come up with a hypothesis that makes logical sense and is the simplest explanation for a phenomenon (i.e. it’s parsimonious), but when you investigate it further you find that it is not at all correct.

Let’s apply this to politics today. Here’s a basic example: Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, but he keeps claiming that this is due to massive voter fraud where millions of people voted illegally. You could just take his claim at face value and not question it. After all, he is the president, so he’s privy to lots of information the general public doesn’t have, and as the leader of the U.S. he should be acting with integrity, right? You could use this logic to form the hypothesis that he is correct and there is evidence of massive voter fraud. Or you could apply a bit of skepticism and formulate an alternative hypothesis: Trump’s claim is false, and there’s no evidence of the massive voter fraud that he cites. How to test this? You can look for the evidence that he claims exists just by Googling… and you won’t actually find any. What you will find are instances of his surrogates claiming that the voter fraud is an established fact, various reputable news agencies and fact checkers debunking the claim (even right-leaning Fox News admits there is no evidence for the claim), and a complete dearth of any official reports that massive voter fraud occurred (which I would link to, but I can’t link to something that doesn’t exist). In support of the claim you will find right-wing conspiracy websites like InfoWars that don’t cite any actual evidence. So based on that inquiry, you could conclude that Trump’s claim is false. It didn’t take much skepticism or effort to address the question, just enough to ask “Can I easily find any solid evidence of this?”

One problem with this strategy: we aren’t doing a great job at teaching people how to think rationally and critically. On a large scale, we would do this by refocusing our education standards around critical thinking (part of what Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards aim to do, albeit with mixed results over the methods and implementation with which they teach the scientific method/critical thought). There has been a lot of pushback to this, particularly in conservative areas. Why? One explanation could be general distrust of government and antipathy towards regulations/standards demanded by the federal government. Another could be over-reliance on religion, which fundamentally demands faith in the absence of evidence. I’m not going to fully wade into this murky debate right now, and before I do I’ll say that not all religion is bad, and it’s not true that no religions teach their followers to think critically and analyze things. But some religious groups don’t teach these principles, and they rely much more on encouraging their followers to just believe what they’re told by their pastor (or whatever religious leader), or face moral doom. This dangerously reinforces the idea that it’s okay to just blindly follow certain authority figures without question. It extends past the church doors, to the school teacher slut-shaming high school girls instead of providing them with comprehensive sex education, to the public official who expresses skepticism over climate change despite an abundance of evidence that it’s happening and caused by humans. People believe what these authority figures say. We’re seeing it now, as more than half of Republicans accept Trump’s claim that he really won the popular vote, with the percentage being higher among Republicans with less education. One of the main reasons we hear from Trump supporters why they voted for him was his tough stance on immigration, and they seem to be happy with his controversial travel ban, even though just recently the Department of Homeland Security found that people from the countries targeted by the ban pose no extraordinary threat compared to people from other Muslim-majority countries (Trump rejected this report, even though it was ordered by the White House). This underscores the importance of providing people with an opportunity to learn and practice critical thought. Rather than putting in a tiny bit of effort to look for the evidence that those claims are true, or thinking about their news source to figure out if it’s biased or not, they blindly trust what Trump says.

Fixing the education system to provide more training in critical thought and use of the scientific method is absolutely necessary long-term, but right now we need a strategy to deal with people who don’t have that training. So if you have conservative friends or family and you’re brave enough to talk politics with them, ask them why they believe things to be true. If they cite something as evidence that isn’t rigorous, ask them why they trust that source. I think it’s possible to do this without talking down to them; most people are probably capable of applying logic in their thinking even if they haven’t been trained to do so. Instead of trying to argue that someone is wrong and back it up by saying “here’s a fact to support my argument and you should believe it because it’s true” (even if that’s accurate), ask them why they think your fact isn’t true, and respectfully lead them to your evidence to back up your argument. Perhaps it won’t work all the time, but if the seed of skepticism can be planted in at least some people, they may be more careful in their voting decisions in the future. If you rely on logic and rational skepticism to make your decisions, you have an obligation to help other people do the same. It’s worth a try.

 

Featured image: Barbara Lee’s town hall, February 18th, Oakland.

The first one.

Like many people, I’ve decided that this year I’d like to start writing more. I’m (hopefully) nearing the end of my PhD and I’ve been thinking about where I want to go next, and what I’m gravitating towards pretty much always involves communicating complex scientific topics to non-scientists. More generally, we’re heading into a time where people will need to be more aware of what’s going on in the world, to think critically about it and speak out about it. Our bullshit detectors should be high, as Jon Stewart called for. So here I am, resolving for this year to blog once a week minimum. I’ll do what I can to contribute to the necessary discourse between scientists and the general public. I’ll look for cool new scientific developments to share, and keep an eye out for media misrepresentation (it happens a lot, and is truly cringeworthy). Most of all, I’ll be on the watch for attempts to stall progress, both scientific and otherwise, by those who don’t understand it and/or are being paid to keep it from happening.

If there’s any lesson we should glean from 2016, it’s that rational, empathetic people cannot sit by and expect progress to happen on its own. We need to take an active part in it. So many of us have the ability to do so— whether it’s due to experiences in our personal life, or our career background, we should use our experiences to provide a logical perspective on issues we can speak to. It’s easy to get caught up in our own hectic lives and use that as an excuse not to participate, but it’s clear now that we have a job to do.

I’m setting a reminder on my phone. Sunday nights, I’m telling myself to write. I’m going to try to discipline myself, make myself take some of that time spent on Facebook and Reddit and use it to be productive. We’ll see how it goes.

(Also, prepare for some unrelated featured images, because I’m still figuring this WordPress thing out, but the default “random raspberries in a mug” picture is not my jam. Here are some San Francisco houses, because in these uncertain times, it helps to occasionally stop and admire lovely things.)