Friday, November 11, 2016

A few words on the election, as an American scientist

Although I usually stay strictly away from politics in my online (and thus professional) presence, there is an elephant in the room, and I need to address it before this blog goes back to my regular programming.

On the morning after the election, I had email from my European colleagues expressing sympathy and concern. Others wondered whether the declared plans of our incoming administration meant that organizing and attending conferences in the US was going to become problematic. To them I sent the reply that I feel best describes our situation in general at the moment:


Donald Trump has made a lot of promises, many of them frightening to many people, many of them contradictory, and some of them almost certainly impossible. The presumptive Republican leadership in Congress has done the same. What happens when they actually attempt to govern could go in a lot of different directions, some of them reasonable (even if likely to be things that I disagree with), some of them extremely dangerous and damaging to a large number of people, and some of them potentially existentially threatening to our civilization and possibly even our species. Whether you agreed or disagreed with Hillary Clinton's promises and plans, they certainly offered a much more predictable course than I see playing out before us now, and high degrees of uncertainty have serious dangers of their own, given our species' current technological capabilities.

As a citizen, I intend to take actions to try to ensure that my government effectively supports myself, my family, and every other person in our nation and on our planet, to grow and thrive and live long and stable lives in an environment of sympathy and positively chosen peace.  I also intend to make reasonable contingency plans in case some of the bad scenarios that I now see as more likely come to pass.

As a scientist and a professional, my intention is to continue to do my best to contribute in the areas where I have unique or rare skills, abilities, and insights. I will do my best to advise my government and will continue to choose subjects for research and development that I think are likely to have more benefit than not for humanity. Even as people were voting, I was submitting a proposal addressing a subject of potential great concern, and I hope that I will have a chance to execute on that and help to reduce some of the risks that I see out there.

The future is highly uncertain to me right now, and one of the truths that my scientific honesty impels me to acknowledge is that my personal choices and actions are unlikely to make a significant difference to our future, just the same as it was a week ago. Yesterday afternoon, my father and I walked together on a bed of fossils from and ancient sea floor, laid down 375 million years ago, talking about our lives and finding ancient corals, brachiopods, and sponges. Experiences like that are a valuable reminder to me that I am very small and have been here only a very short time. At the same time, as a student of complex and self-organizing systems, I know that individual choices do matter, and that the actions of individual people in networks can indeed have a major impact on the world in which we live.

My dear readers, I urge you to think carefully about your choices and actions, and to act with as much empathy and care for your fellow humans as you can, no matter who you supported, where you live, or what your political inclinations. I urge you this now, as I would have urged this before as well and will continue to do so no matter what may happen. It is only that now, in this time of great chance and uncertainty, that I feel impelled to do so publicly as well as personally.
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