Why Science Can't Be SilentUp against the White House’s “alternative facts” and attempts to hide climate data, can new allies—citizens and science—prevail against politicians and corporations?scroll down arrow

YES! Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

We Are All Scientists NowIt’s time to look up, look around, and take note because the planet and democracy need you

After he moved to London in his early 20s, Luke Howard became obsessed with the weather. Howard had a day job running a pharmacy business in the 1790s and early 1800s, but he spent a lot of his spare time staring at the sky. He collected a set of makeshift weather instruments—glass thermometers; a hygrometer (to measure moisture in the air) cobbled together from a wire spring and a strip of whalebone; and a barometer attached to an old astronomical clock that he bought secondhand and repaired himself. He and his business partner, William Allen, started a science club of a dozen or so members, all men, who met in each other’s houses to give talks about a range of subjects like chemistry, astronomy, and mineralogy. When he was 30, Howard presented to the group three names he had come up with for different types of clouds—cirrus (from the Latin for “curl of hair”), cumulus (referring to a pile), and stratus (a “horizontal sheet”). The talk was a hit, and he published a version of the lecture a year later in a science magazine. And the names stuck: Howard’s cloud categories are still used by professional meteorologists.

Madeline Ostrander

Madeline Ostrander is a freelance science writer based in Seattle, Washington. Follow her on Twitter @madelinevo.

This was science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—a buzzing world of nerds and amateurs trying to document the workings of the world in their spare time. It was less an institution than a labor of love, like sculpture or poetry. London was a kind of hub, full of scientific societies and clubs—they were like the maker faires, the do-it-yourself collectives, the hack-a-thons of the Enlightenment. In the United States, there was a flurry of interest in collecting plant and animal specimens and documenting the natural history of North America. The barriers of the time kept certain people out of science. (There were few scientists of color, although women managed to push their way into influential scientific circles in Europe and America, and Black inventors made important technological contributions in the United States.) Still, the technology for making scientific observations was cheap, much was unknown, and nearly anyone with the means available could make a major contribution.

Then, somewhere between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, science took a turn. As it became more powerful, sophisticated, complicated, and better funded, it disappeared behind the walls of ivory towers and corporate labs. Since the 1970s, support for science has become a partisan issue in the United States, as conservatives’ faith in science keeps declining. Fifty-eight percent of Europeans say they can’t trust scientists because they are too influenced by corporate money. Science culture is now elitist, say its detractors.

Have we forgotten what science is actually for?

Now nearly every looming crisis our society faces is at least partly a scientific one. The colossal emergency of climate change, the problem of feeding the couple billion additional people who might populate this planet in the next couple of decades, the collapse of ocean ecosystems, the rise of the next epidemic disease. Problems as large as this will require ingenuity, labor, and support beyond just the professional scientific community. They’ll require scientists to step out of the laboratory more often and the rest of us to get involved.
— Madeline Ostrander

From the Editors

When Scientists Become Freedom Fighters

  • Clo Copass


  • Kim Eckart


  • Tracy Dunn

    Loeffelholz Dunn

We didn’t know what the presidential election would bring when we started planning the science issue. We did know that climate change was not getting the rapid response we thought it merited from political leaders of every party. And we noticed more outspoken scientists challenging the convenient magical thinking of energy corporations and unfazed politicians. It made us consider the powerful alliance of a critical-thinking public and a passionate science community advocating for the common good.

Cover of YES! Issue 81

That was then. Now Donald Trump is in the White House, and the leaders from the fossil fuel industry pepper his team of advisers and Cabinet. The White House website’s “Climate Change” page has been replaced with an “America First Energy Plan” page. Trump has frozen grants and contracts at the EPA. There are gag orders and media blackouts.

After the election, researchers at the University of Toronto and University of Pennsylvania coordinated a guerrilla archiving event to migrate public data stored only on Environmental Protection Agency computers to storage in Canada so that access would not be cut off by an administration hostile to climate research. Those scientists are scared for their careers and for their data, and so are we.

Climate science is looking like the front line of a war, and scientists have become freedom fighters.

Researchers, who usually communicate through scholarly journal articles, are grabbing megaphones. In December, during the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, hundreds of climate scientists put down their research papers to march in the streets, a truly unprecedented sight at a major academic conference. Scientists have even formed a PAC, 314 Action, to get into politics.

When scientists are willing to risk their professional reputations and futures to speak up for people and planet—and truth—we’d better listen up and meet their courage with our own. That requires participation.

We all can dive into observing our world, gathering information, and insisting that decisions at every level of government be based on our best understanding of scientific fact. That’s where the democracy comes in. We the People need to demand truth and then ensure that government and industry use such fundamental research for the common good.

Whether you’re someone who reads scientific journals in your spare time or has trouble recalling the chemical formula for carbon dioxide, you can help. Count the birds in your backyard, test your own water, join a citizen science group, hug a scientist. Whether we think of ourselves as words people or numbers people, it’s a great big data-filled world that desperately needs us all to deeply understand things like parts per billion. We are all scientists now.

Return to the story

During the U.S. election campaign, some politicians and talking heads spoke as if science were not a means of gathering knowledge but some kind of cabal. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump met with leaders of a discredited anti-vaccination group and infamously called global warming a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Matt Drudge, editor of the far-right Drudge Report, on Twitter accused the National Hurricane Center of exaggerating Hurricane Matthew’s intensity, even as it killed more than 1,000 people in Haiti. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith from Texas used the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to hurl unfounded accusations at the researchers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accusing them of altering data.

If federal politicians wage war on scientific institutions, can the public take ownership of science again? There are signs that the internet and global technology are reviving the role of citizens in documenting how the world around us is changing. Not to undermine the knowledge of experts. Not to engage in some elitist project or define some new kind of geekdom. But to build collective insight—millions of little observations about the now-warming climate, the now-shrinking numbers of species of animals and plants, the chemistry of air and oceans and minerals—that might just help us survive and adapt to the next century.

Though many of the tools we associate with modern science emerged during the Enlightenment, science itself is arguably as old as human existence. Take, for example, the fields of meteorology and climatology. Indigenous people have kept oral histories spanning thousands of years of past climates. Written a few thousand years ago in India, the Upanishads discussed the process of cloud formation. In 1500 B.C., the Chinese engraved weather data on bones. Aristotle wrote a book called Meteorology in 350 B.C. that described the hydrologic cycle.

But meteorology and climatology emerged as serious scientific professions more than a century after Howard named the clouds, especially after these fields received government funding during World War II. In the United States, the National Weather Service has relied on citizen observers to track weather since the mid-19th century. But once the study of the weather became institutionalized, meteorologists, climatologists, and atmospheric scientists developed their own subcultures, their own publications and meetings, and a kind of separate language, defined by jargon and technical concepts.

In the mid-20th century, scientists like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold popularized the findings of the emerging field of ecology. Public concern about the environment spurred the passage of America’s most important environmental laws and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, which functions as both a watchdog and a scientific agency monitoring the water and the air for chemicals that harm public health and ecosystems. The National Park Service turned to ecosystem science to redefine its work as the nation’s lead conservation agency.

NASA took on the role of atmospheric monitoring, and meteorological research surged forward. Satellites floated overhead to capture images of land and cloud and ocean; supercomputers spun three-dimensional models of weather moving across the entire globe.

Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, some climate scientists began to suspect that fossil fuel burning could alter the Earth’s climate in frightening and irrevocable ways. By the late 1980s, when Dr. James Hansen testified before Congress about the dangers of climate change, the evidence was undeniable—at least to the scientists. But fossil fuel industry leaders, afraid of regulations clamping down on their activities and unwilling to chance any dent in their profits, set up their own alleged experts to sow confusion. Over nearly three decades, industry front groups like the Marshall Institute, the Heartland Institute, and the Institute for Energy Research have paid miscellaneous ideologues and hacks to pose as experts and use media coverage to discredit the work of reputable scientists. Recent investigations reveal that oil companies like Exxon gathered decades worth of evidence confirming that climate change was real, even as they publicly cast doubt. Understandably, the spread of misinformation has bewildered some members of the public: Most people haven’t had access to the inner workings of climate science and couldn’t easily say whom to trust, who was the expert, or what they should do.

Meanwhile, the global temperature has ticked inexorably upward—churning out more severe storms, more intense wildfires, and putting global agriculture and water supplies ever more at risk. Controversy has delayed or obstructed public discussions about how to change the ways we generate energy, grow food, build cities and roads, avert crisis, and adapt to change.

With the public conversation over scientific issues polluted by a haze of misinformation, many people in the United States have never known how to respond to science. Similar manufactured controversies have shrouded other dilemmas where the science was clear but people with an agenda broadcast doubt. Is smoking really bad for you? (Yes.) Aren’t vaccines a bit dangerous? (No.) Is the pesticide DDT linked to cancer? (Yes.)

Now nearly every looming crisis our society faces is at least partly a scientific one. The colossal emergency of climate change, the problem of feeding the couple billion additional people who might populate this planet in the next couple of decades, the collapse of ocean ecosystems, the rise of the next epidemic disease. Problems as large as this will require ingenuity, labor, and support beyond just the professional scientific community. They’ll require scientists to step out of the laboratory more often and the rest of us to get involved.

To photograph clouds, to mark down temperatures, to study how berries ripen, and to support financially and politically the scientists who help us understand how to read the signs of a changing Earth — these now become acts of saving democracy and human knowledge and trying to hang on to a livable planet.

“You can be scientists,” Katie Spellman, a post-doctoral researcher from the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, told a troop of kindergarteners and first- and second-graders in the Native Gwich’in village of Venetie. “You don’t need me.”

Venetie sits just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near the Brooks Range. On an afternoon in early November, the children gathered around a cluster of wild roses a short walk from their school. Under the guidance of Spellman and their teacher, Terri Mynatt, they attached metal tags to the bushes and named five of them—kid names like “Princess Batman” and “Junior Heart.” Then they wrote down the number of rose hips still clinging to the ends of the branches, the first notes in what would become an ongoing data log for each plant.

In the past few years, spring has arrived unusually early here, winter too late. Wild roses, whose hips make jam and jelly for humans (naturally fortified with vitamin C) and winter forage for animals, might bloom sooner or later or more often. As the seasons went off-kilter, would wild foods such as rose hips and berries become harder to find? Both the children and scientists wanted to find an answer.

Then Spellman pulled out a smartphone, and together they gazed up at the clouds. How much of the sky was covered with clouds, and what shape were they? The kids took turns snapping a series of photographs of the overcast sky with an app called GLOBE Observer. The phone automatically stamped geolocation and time and date information on the photograph. A class of schoolchildren in remote Alaska had just joined a global research project—the data they recorded would help NASA scientists better interpret their satellite images and climate models. In Fairbanks, Spellman and her colleagues would use the class’s data on roses as part of a larger project to study what warmer weather might mean for Alaskan ecosystems. In Venetie, the information would allow the villagers to keep track of their own food supply.

NASA’s GLOBE program, a citizen science project, has existed for more than 20 years, but it has taken off since the agency launched the app in August. About 15,000 people have used it to snap more than 55,000 photos of cloud and sky. Clouds are especially difficult to model, and satellites can spot only their tops but not their underbellies. For that, NASA needs people on the ground, around the world, snapping pictures and making notes.

It’s part of a kind of citizen science renaissance, driven partly by affordable computer technology: The smartphone puts cameras and a GPS into the palms of millions of people, and the internet makes crowdsourcing simple. This lets scientists draft huge numbers of volunteers to assist in documenting how the world is transforming.

Ready to find your inner scientist?

Lots of resources are available to help you get involved with a citizen science project close to home or across the country. Here are a few:

SciStarter lets you search for projects by location and interest.

Public Lab provides information and tools to participate.

The National Wildlife Federation offers family-friendly ideas.

“What can be really exciting about citizen science is the ability to get many, many people working together on the same problem,” says Scott Loarie, a co-director of a project called iNaturalist, which launched in 2008 and is now run by the California Academy of Sciences. “We’re able to tackle science problems that are too big for any individual person.” About 93 percent of all monarch butterfly data and three-fourths of U.S. dragonfly sightings during this decade have come from iNaturalist, which lets people around the world use smartphones to chronicle their sightings of plants and animals. Every day, they gather about 5,000 new photos of flowers and trees, amphibians and colorful insects, and other organisms. An iNaturalist volunteer in Colombia discovered a previously unknown species of dart frog, simply snapping a photo and uploading it to the web.

Crowdsourced projects like these are proliferating throughout the scientific world like mushrooms. This past fall, researchers at the University of Arizona launched an app called Kidenga to crowdsource observations about mosquito populations and outbreaks of the mosquito-borne diseases Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. Old Weather—a partnership among U.S. and British science agencies, the National Archives, and university researchers—has enlisted 30,000 volunteers to study the scanned pages of 19th- and early 20th-century ships’ logs for weather observations made during Arctic whaling voyages: These help sharpen the calculations of Arctic and global climate models. An organization called iSeeChange, founded by both scientists and journalists, created an app in collaboration with NASA that lets people document phenomena like the timing of first snowfall, early springs, the migration of birds, and the browning of trees in drought. This summer, working with a group called AdaptNY and the radio station WNYC, iSeeChange handed out 30 temperature sensors in New York City’s Harlem and northern Manhattan neighborhoods to monitor the hyper-local effects of heat waves on public health.

The federal government supports about one-third of all research and development, and even the biggest philanthropists in the country wouldn’t be able to fill the gap if much of that money were gone.

The explosion of citizen science comes just as scientific institutions face losses that could endanger us all. The federal government supports about one-third of all research and development, and even the biggest philanthropists in the country wouldn’t be able to fill the gap if much of that money were gone. A senior Trump adviser has talked about cutting funding for NASA programs that document the Earth’s climate because they are, in his words, “politically correct” (as if ice and clouds had a political affiliation). President Trump also has criticized the National Institutes of Health, and scientists fear that some programs there and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could be on the chopping block.

To interfere politically in science that simply watches the Earth from satellites or studies the spread and treatment of diseases is “really disheartening and dangerous as hell,” says Jonathan Foley, the executive director of the California Academy. “I think it’s important for other organizations to step up and start doing science and being a voice for it. I think that’s where citizen science enthusiasts are crucial.”

To photograph clouds, to mark down temperatures, to study how berries ripen, and to support financially and politically the scientists who help us understand how to read the signs of a changing Earth—these now become acts of saving democracy and human knowledge and trying to hang on to a livable planet. Knowing about biodiversity loss, disease outbreaks, or changes in weather, ice, clouds, and seasons shapes our society’s life-and-death decisions—about water and agriculture or about protecting communities from natural disasters or epidemics.

“It’s an interesting circle that we’ve come to,” says Spellman. “We’ve worked so hard to professionalize science, but then scientists became the elite and isolated. Now [science] is returning the power back to the public.” Never has that power been so important.

Madeline Ostrander

Madeline Ostrander is a freelance science writer based in Seattle, Washington. Follow her on Twitter @madelinevo.

To My Fellow Climate Scientists: Be Human, Be Brave, Tell the Truth

YES! Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

YES! Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

I’m afraid to publish this article. Why? Because I’m a climate scientist who speaks out about climate change, and in speaking out I may be risking my career. But I do so anyway, out of love — love for my two young sons, for others’ kids, for wild animals, for this beautiful planet. These are infinitely more important than my career, and I see that global warming poses a clear and present danger to them all. The choice to speak out has become easy, though, because I no longer see it as a choice. I need to speak out. Knowing what I know, I couldn’t live with myself otherwise. And in this I’m not alone.

Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is an Earth scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech (speaking on his own behalf, not NASA’s) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine. His book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, is forthcoming from New Society this summer.

At the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last December, I sensed some collective urgency for the first time. As a few of us gathered for a rally on the steps of a nearby church, Kim Cobb, a paleoclimatologist from Georgia Tech who studies corals, gave a call to action.

“It has been a very tough year for me personally, having scuba dived on a reef in the far reaches of the tropical Pacific, and watching 85 percent of that reef die between one of my trips and the next in six months,” she said. “We have for too long, as scientists, rested on the assumption that by providing indisputable facts and great data that we are providing enough … and obviously that strategy has failed miserably.”

But many scientists — myself included — worry that standing up for what we know to be true, or advocating for a particular action in response to anthropogenic change that we find deeply disturbing, will make us look biased or unprofessional. We’re afraid that if we speak out, we’ll lose our funding or be labeled as politicized or alarmist.

We scientists have a careful, understated culture; we don’t like calling attention to ourselves. We prefer letting our results speak for themselves. As a group, we prefer evidence to politics; we communicate mainly within our ranks and behind paywalls in scientific journals. And when we have something scary to say, we employ the dry and precise language of science.

What Cobb was acknowledging that day, however, was that when climate scientists don’t speak out, we’re inadvertently sending a message that climate change isn’t urgent. If the experts — the scientists on the front lines, the people who know — are so calm, dispassionate, and quiet, how bad can it really be?

I experience a surreal tension between the terrifying changes unfolding within the Earth system and the Spock-like calm maintained within the scientific community. Following a formal scientific talk about dying forests or disappearing glaciers, for example, audiences commonly ask a few questions on instrumentation or methodology, and then quietly shuffle out.

But after I give a public talk, without fail, someone in the audience will ask, “What can we do?” It’s a natural question, and it seems irresponsible to reply, “Figure it out yourself” or “That’s up to the policymakers.” I’ve spent more than a decade grappling with that very question. After all, I’m allowed to think about things other than science. I’ve developed informed opinions as to what works for me as an individual and what seems sensible for society (hint: reduce my own emissions and instate a revenue-neutral carbon fee).

There are two ways for scientists to speak out.

The first is simply to communicate that ongoing human-driven changes to the Earth system demand urgent action before things get much worse. This message contains a value judgment, something you’ll almost never see in a formal scientific talk; scientists prefer staying far away from feelings and value judgments.

A second way to speak out is to suggest solutions, which takes us even further out of our scientific comfort zone.

When I suggest solutions, I make it clear that I’m speaking as a citizen, not a scientist. But if the public expects scientists to have no opinions about policy, they hold a false expectation. Better to accept that we do, and recognize that good scientists are capable of keeping those opinions from biasing results. Offering meaningful solutions is crucial to meaningful communication. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out, acceptance of a problem is much higher when an engaging solution is offered.

I recently surveyed 66 Earth scientists to see how they felt about speaking up. Half of the respondents said they engage with the public at least twice per year; a quarter engage more than six times per year. Two-thirds said they strongly feel that climate scientists should “warn society that change is needed (without necessarily suggesting a particular policy),” and feel increased respect for peers who speak out.

But three-quarters said that speaking out is risky; the most commonly cited fear was loss of credibility. Respondents also feared loss of peer respect, harassment from trolls, and playing into the narratives of climate deniers.

Michael Mann is intimately familiar with these risks.

Currently a climate scientist at Penn State University, in 1998 he was the lead author of the original “hockey stick” graph that traced global temperature over the past 400 years and showed the alarming extent of recent warming. Mann speaks out regularly. Over the course of his career, he’s faced vilification by politicians, federal subpoenas for personal emails, and research grant audits. He has even received death threats.

So speaking out takes real courage. But now the stakes here are so high that we need to find that courage.

We scientists are the ones who synthesize the laws of physics with observations of the recent past, reconstructions of the distant past, complex computer models, and a spectrum of possible human behavior; and we fold these into possible futures. We’re the ones who stand face to face with the beast on a daily basis. If the future we’re headed toward looks scary, it’s up to us to sound the alarm that a change of course is needed. We’ve stayed the course too long, and now, frankly, reality is alarming.

But the public and policymakers simply don’t speak our language, and this is why we need to know when to shed the mantle of scientific authority and speak from the heart. We need to let our emotions shine through; we need to become storytellers. Relaying the science, as beautiful and convincing as it is to us, hasn’t worked. We have a responsibility to tell the whole story.

The real problem here surely isn’t scientists being political — it’s politicians being just plain wrong. Infrared photons and carbon dioxide molecules don’t give a crap about our politics. But with climate deniers sweeping into the White House and the halls of Congress, the stakes just got even higher. For the sake of my kids, I don’t feel that I can afford to wait for our policymakers. It’s a curious situation: You can get in more trouble these days by telling the truth than by telling lies.

Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is an Earth scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech (speaking on his own behalf, not NASA’s) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine. His book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, is forthcoming from New Society this summer.


Small Acts of Scientific Civil Disobedience

Twitter is home to communities of all sorts. It’s no surprise that scientists make use of the platform for outreach and communication, as well as to simply talk shop.

Margaret Beaton is a Ph.D. candidate and open-science advocate.

Spend a little time on “Science Twitter” and you’ll soon see the hashtag #icanhazpdf flitter across your feed.

It’s not an esoteric acronym or an inside joke; it’s a request. The sender is looking for someone to share a journal article or report that is (to them) inaccessible.

A quick Twitter search for #icanhazpdf reveals dozens of requests from scholars in search of elusive articles locked behind paywalls. Innocuous as these requests may seem, sharing these articles is in breach of copyright law. Scientists know this practice is illegal, but many still choose to take part in these everyday acts of civil disobedience.

Traditionally, scientists publish their findings in peer-reviewed academic journals in order to share their research with peers and with the wider public. These publications range in scope from behemoths like Science and Nature to more niche journals like Aquatic Toxicology or the Journal of Number Theory. The vast majority of these publications are behind paywalls, and access to individual articles can cost $20 to $40.

The costs of accessing materials are usually handled by a researcher’s host institution. Universities subscribe to journal packages from publishers at rates of tens of thousands of dollars per year. These costs can be overwhelming for many colleges, and even the most well-funded institutions struggle with the price of access. For researchers outside of academia (those at federal agencies and NGOs or citizen scientists), these data are often out of reach. This means that on any given afternoon, many will spend at least some of their time emailing colleagues or begging the Twitterverse for a copy of that latest Nature article.

Criminality aside, the fact that so many scientists turn to these informal networks begs the question of why barriers to access exist in the first place.

Organizations such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are taxpayer supported and provide funding for research in virtually every realm of science. However, when the results of such projects are published in Nature, taxpayers are not granted automatic access.

The financial barriers to information are not simply a nuisance to scientists, but fundamentally limit their ability to conduct research. Without the ability to explore and thoroughly understand pre-existing literature, researchers risk wasting time, money, and resources, and, crucially, may not understand fully their results in hand. In short, better access makes for better science.

Open access publishing, which removes the barrier of paywalls, remains a minor segment of the publishing landscape. “Publish or perish” is still the canon in academia, but publishing in lesser-known, open access journals is viewed as risky for scientists without tenured positions.

In recognition of these issues, some scientists are leading the charge to alter how scientific research is disseminated. Decentralized article sharing, as happens on Twitter, is just one method used to bypass restrictions.

The website Sci-Hub enables users to search for and download journal content directly, bypassing publisher paywalls. Over 19 million cumulative users access hundreds of thousands of articles each day through Sci-Hub. The site has been compared to the music sharing service Napster and, just like Napster, is being hit by lawsuits from publishers; publishing giant Elsevier won an injunction against the site last year. For now, Sci-Hub’s founder (a graduate student) refuses to shut it down.

However, change is on the horizon.

More than 16,000 scientists have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier and refuse to publish in the company’s journals until fees are reduced. Some traditional outlets now allow authors to publish individual articles under Creative Commons license (for a fee). Although the publishing industry still holds ultimate power in disseminating research, more scientists are looking beyond the traditional model to ensure both that their work is accessible and that science itself is strengthened. Until then, there’s always Twitter.

Margaret Beaton is a Ph.D. candidate and open-science advocate.

What Your DNA KnowsThe social justice implications of spitting into a test tube

YES! Illustration by Bobby Sims

YES! Illustration by Bobby Sims

As a descendant of enslaved Africans, I’ve always wondered where on the massive continent does my family have its roots. As I aged, I became more uneasy with the phrase “descendant of enslaved Africans.” Where in Africa and from whom, specifically? Millions of people from several different regions were brought to this land.

Zenobia Jeffries

Zenobia Jeffries is an associate editor for YES! Magazine. She covers racial justice issues.

More than 20 years ago, my mother and aunt started a process of finding these answers. My mother then was excited to tell me about a man named Cupid, a not-so-distant relative.

The Rev. Cupid Aleyus Whitfield was born in 1868 to Cato and Amanda Whitfield, former slaves of Gen. William Gilchrist of Gadsden County, Florida. When he was about 16 years old, Cupid began teaching at a primary school and became known as one of the leading “colored” teachers in Gadsden County. He married Rebecca Zellene Goodson in 1889, and they had either nine or 14 children, depending on the source consulted.

My mother and aunt learned their father, Charlie Whitfield—my grandfather—was one of Cupid’s grandsons. This is all that I know of my maternal grandfather’s lineage. Of my maternal grandmother’s, I know even less.

Of my paternal family, I knew only my father’s name, and even after I met him in the late 1980s, that was still all that I knew. I never met his mother, father, or his siblings, and did not know their names. He passed away in April 2006, and I didn’t learn about his death until months later. But I still wanted to know more about him. And so I began my search.

Unlike my mother and aunt’s experience of uncovering information to fill in the many blanks in our family tree, I have the privilege of Google, ancestry websites, and DNA testing companies that emerged in the early 2000s. This new technology is revolutionary for folks like me, who want to know not only where they come from but also from whom—genealogical researchers, adoptees searching for family members, and folks tracing family trees, particularly African American families that had been displaced by slavery.

In her decade-long fieldwork to learn how the new technology impacts the way people self-identify, Alondra Nelson, Columbia University professor of sociology, says she found so much more. Her latest book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, explores the way in which DNA is being used as a tool for racial reconciliation.

I spoke with Nelson about what DNA science might offer social change.

Zenobia Jeffries: You open your book with the story of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights organization that helps find children who were stolen and illegally adopted after their mothers were killed during the Argentine Dirty War. You later tell how DNA was unsuccessfully used in a reparations case here in the United States. How can science help answer fundamental questions about social justice and equality?

Alondra Nelson: The Argentina story shows us that science can help. In that case you’re talking about grandparents and grandchildren. When you’re doing a match, that sort of genetic line is actually pretty close. When you’re talking about the experience of people of African descent, there’s a gap of hundreds of years; you have a bigger mystery and a technical hurdle because you’re dealing with the history of the slave trade. In post-apartheid Africa, you have families who have not been able to do burial rites for members of their [families] who died in the apartheid struggle. I think to be able to identify the remains of a specific loved one, and to be able to commemorate, bury, and memorialize that person is really powerful. Science can help with that identification, but we need to have some complicated conversations. Science can’t be our moral compass.

Jeffries: What implication does DNA testing have for understanding racial and ethnic identity?

Nelson: It’s complicated. The tests are far from definitive. The companies use different databases and make different kinds of mathematical and statistical assumptions. Those formulas and algorithms are their trade secrets, so they’re under no obligation to share them with other countries. So, what we think about in an academic setting, when you think about something being scientifically valid, it means that you can replicate it, you can verify it; [if] someone else does the same experiment or uses the same genetic sample from you and puts it in their database, they’ll get the same results. With these companies, we don’t have any of those kind of gold standards of what we might consider academic research science.

That said, for communities like African Americans, they are in many cases left without any other way to think about that. Though we have some communities who’ve been able to use food and linguistic ties, like the Gullah/Geechee communities, who link to contemporary Sierra Leone through linguistic ties. But those cases are less common.

And so you have a large swath of people who want to know and who are willing to try different ways of knowing. It can help to the extent that, regardless of whether you’re of African descent, you’ve seen the reality television shows—people get a test, and it gives them sometimes new information, sometimes surprising information, or sometimes it just confirms or underscores what they already thought they knew.

Jeffries: Some tests break down one’s percentage of ethnicity. But does knowing that bring us closer or divide us further when you talk about the struggle toward racial justice?

Nelson: A test that says you’re this percent of this or this percent of that is making not a historical or factual assumption; it’s making a statistical and probabilistic assumption. So, what does it mean if a test says you’re either 100 percent or 30 percent Nigerian? That means they’ve created some algorithm that they assume is 100 percent Nigerian. But what in the world would that be? The history of human history is one of intermixing, intermarriage, intermating.

I use the phrase “genealogical aspirations” because the questions that people have in agreeing to the testing experience sort of shape what it can mean for them. If it’s important for you to know what part Norwegian you are versus what part Russian, then you’re going to be interested in how you slice those things up. But if you’re more interested in whether you’re more European or more bio-geographically mixed, then you have a different read of what the tests are.

For me, what’s important is not so much that these types of tests give you the truth of who you are, your identity, but that they suggest how we have come to think about putting human beings in buckets. None of these categories means anything outside of culture and history.

Jeffries: You say DNA can be used as a tool in the struggle for racial justice. Is using it for genealogical research part of that struggle?

Nelson: Sure. For people of African descent who feel incomplete without having that information about their African ancestry, it becomes very empowering.

Whether we’re talking about genetics or identity, we know that social movements and social activism come out of a sense of empowerment and agency. And like-minded people who feel empowered and outraged about the way things are can change things. That empowerment comes to some through the use of these tests is part of what mobilizes them for social justice issues.

Jeffries: For the companies that own these databases, is there something to be said about the politics of privacy and the ethics of who keeps our DNA?

Nelson: Different companies do different things. Often the consent forms you sign when you do one of these tests look like the consent that you sign when you’re uploading a new operating system—there’s a lot of small words and people don’t really read it. We know, for example, that some companies keep all of your data, because when you’re dealing with millions of genetic markers, the bigger your databases are, the more reliable statistically speaking your findings can be.

And now that some companies are interested, not only in genetic ancestry testing but also in pharmaceutical developments, this data becomes really important. They’re using people’s genetic samples to try to do investigations and for the development of personalized medicine and protocols.

But then you have the new genetic genealogy 2.0 that’s been happening: the ability for people to upload their markers online, to make them available to other geneticists.

On one website you can fill out as much as you can of your family tree and also upload your genetic genealogy results so that other people can see them or people can contact you. On the one hand, there’s two different competing interests here: One is people wanting to know more about their genealogy and their genetic genealogy, which might cause them to reveal information to other people. But then there’s also this real necessary interest in privacy and the desire for privacy.

Someone might think, “Well, I’m just using this to do my genealogy.” But that same data could be used to reveal things about your medical profile or could be used potentially to implicate people in the criminal justice system.

The thing about DNA that’s different from other kinds of data is that it can be useful in all of these different social and political sites—the exact same data, the exact same samples, potentially. That’s where the portability and transitive nature of DNA technology is the concern.

I’m not trying to paint a dystopic future, but I think it’s something to worry about. Genetic data carries a lot of information that can be used simultaneously in a lot of different places for purposes for which people intend it to be used, and purposes that they do not.

Zenobia Jeffries

Zenobia Jeffries is an associate editor for YES! Magazine. She covers racial justice issues.

Catching FireThe Karuk indigenous tradition of burning forests is culturally and ecologically vital—and the Forest Service is starting to see the wisdom

Photo by Adam Shumaker

Nighttime burn operations illuminate the starry sky deep in the Klamath Mountains during the 2015 Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange.Photo by Adam Shumaker

Nathan Gilles

Nathan Gilles is a freelance science writer based in Vancouver, Washington. Follow him on Twitter @NathanGilles.

Theft brought Fire to the Karuk people.

Coyote, the cleverest of the Animal People, traveled to a high mountaintop where Fire was hoarded by three yellow jacket wasps, sisters, who were old and vain. Using his considerable wiles, Coyote flattered the Yellow Jacket Sisters, extolling their beauty.

Distracted by Coyote’s sweet talk, the Sisters left Fire unattended. Coyote saw his chance. He stole Fire, fleeing with it down the mountainside and back to the other Animal People. The Yellow Jacket Sisters followed close on Coyote’s heels.

The Animal People exchanged Fire between one another as the Yellow Jacket Sisters buzzed angrily around them. Fire continued to pass between the Animal People, burning slowly down to a single ember. Frog, the last to hold Fire, held that dying ember in his mouth and dove into the Klamath River, not surfacing until he reached the opposite bank, when …

“He spat Fire into the roots of the willows growing there. This is why we use the willow to make the sticks to make our fire drills,” says Leaf Hillman, rubbing his hands vigorously back and forth in a pantomime of making fire.

Hillman heads the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy for the Karuk, an American Indian tribe of around 5,000 individuals in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon’s Klamath-Siskiyou mountain region. He’s also a tribal member.

“If I had to make up a new story for today,” says Hillman, “I would tell how the federal government has taken fire from the people. Now we have to take it back.”

For as long as they can remember, the Karuk have used controlled burns to manage the threat of wildfires and cultivate traditional plants. They believe that fire balances their ecosystem; in their words, fire “fixes the world.” Yet for roughly a century, these people of fire have been in direct conflict with the U.S. Forest Service, which now has jurisdiction over most of the Karuk’s traditional lands. Whereas the Karuk advocated for the use of fire, the Forest Service vigorously suppressed it and, in the process, the Karuk. But attitudes around fire suppression and the use of fire by Native Americans are quickly changing as new research comes to light.

A body of scientific and historical work now suggests numerous North American tribes used fire. While the precise extent and impact of this burning remain controversial, what is clear is that Native Americans have managed to accumulate a vast storehouse of valuable, evidence-based approaches to managing their lands, and this knowledge is now the subject of a great deal of scholarly investigation. For the Karuk, this ecological knowledge revolves around fire.

“When people ask, What is your focus, what do you do at the department, I say fire. It’s the most important thing that we do,” Hillman says.

It’s early October in Orleans, California, a time the Karuk traditionally burned. Once the site of a Karuk village, the town of less than 1,000 is now a blip located on a winding highway that shadows the Klamath River as it cuts through steep hillsides of Douglas fir, oak, and madrone. Altered by logging, mining, and fire suppression, the landscape differs significantly from the one the Karuk once occupied. But there is an old, familiar smell in the air, something like a large campfire.

From the riverside to the surrounding hills, men and women, many of them Karuk, are igniting bright orange flames on the landscape, wearing hard hats, flame-retardant green cargo pants, and yellow jackets. (The Karuk consider the jackets’ similarity to the sisters in their fire story as something of an inside joke.)

Photos by Stormy Staats/Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative

Rony Reed, a Karuk tribal member, participates in a burn at Bacon Flat in Orleans, California.Photos by Stormy Staats/Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative

This marks the third year the Karuk have helped run and organize the community burning program, a joint venture between the tribe and several groups, including a local watershed council and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, which uses the burn as part of its own national training program in controlled burning. For the Karuk, the program marks a historic turn from years of being labeled as arsonists for lighting the fires that belief says they are required to perform. It’s also a tribute to the fact that controlled or prescribed burning is becoming in vogue among scientific and resource management circles. The Karuk hope their young fire program will be the start of a sustainable, community-based effort leading to a cultural and ecological revival for the tribe.

“It’s been around 100 years since fire suppressions began, and we’re coming around to the understanding that fire is good for communities and the protection of wildlife,” says research ecologist Frank Lake.

A kind of rock star in the scientific study of burning by West Coast tribes, Lake is a member of the Karuk tribe, although he works not for his tribe but for the Forest Service (a positive sign of change, he says). Lake is part of a growing number of researchers taking issue with the long-held assumption that North America was a sparsely populated wilderness when European colonists arrived. Not only are the population numbers of Native Americans likely much higher than previously estimated, according to Lake and other researchers, but tribes—from Appalachia to California—employed fire to transform their environments from inhospitable wilderness into productive working landscapes.

Lake and others’ research on the Karuk and similar California and Pacific Northwest tribes suggests Native Americans used fire to cultivate plants and fungi adapted to regular burning. The list runs from fiber sources, such as beargrass and willow, to foodstuffs, such as berries, mushrooms, and acorns from oak trees that once made up sprawling orchards surrounding tribal villages. What remain of these orchards on Karuk lands are now largely overshadowed by taller and faster-growing Douglas fir, a major source of commercial timber. Tribes also reportedly used burns to clear out forests and create savannah for game animals. There’s even evidence that fire encourages salmon spawning, a notion enshrined in Karuk belief.

What’s clear, Lake says, is that Native Americans used fire. What’s hotly debated is to what extent. (The literature ranges from moderate local impacts to changing global climate.) Things get especially tricky when considering America’s long history of suppressing fire.

Photos by Stormy Staats/Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative

Karuk tribal member Vicki Preston keeps watch over a controlled burn in Somes Bar California. She and her crew lit the underburn during the 2016 Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange.Photos by Stormy Staats/Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative

Fire suppression became enshrined as federal policy following a series of catastrophic wildfires in 1910 that caused massive property damage and killed 78 members of the then-fledgling Forest Service.

“The country got shocked in 1910 and in many ways doubled down and decided that those who died did not die in vain,” says Stephen Pyne, a leading fire historian.

The loss of life and property was simply unacceptable. Wildfires must be suppressed. The Forest Service led the charge. Federal and state fire agencies fell in line while dissenting voices, including those arguing for prescribed burning that mimicked Native American practices, fell by the wayside, says Pyne.

The policy, which lasted for much of the 20th century, is now considered to be a major blunder. The current scientific and management consensus is this: Putting out fires built up fuel loads in the nation’s forests, ultimately leading to larger, hotter, more destructive, and less manageable wildfires. Humans had interfered with the natural fire regime, the new argument goes, and now it is time to put fire back on the landscape in a prescribed way. But what if that historical regime wasn’t all that natural?

“You often hear about natural fire regimes and that fire played a natural role, but less attention has been given to the ways tribes used fire on the landscape to influence biodiversity,” Lake says.

The Forest Service, it seems, is becoming receptive to this view.

A sign of the times is Merv George Jr., a member of the Hoopa Valley tribe and California’s first American Indian forest supervisor. Last year, George signed an official agreement with the Karuk to start prescribed burning on the Six Rivers National Forest, something that would have been unheard of in the past.

Tribes—from Appalachia to California—employed fire to transform their environments from inhospitable wilderness into productive working landscapes.

“I’m sort of a social science experiment,” says George. “I came to this job realizing what this landscape needs is all people’s help and concern and experience, whether that comes from science or thousands of years of knowledge. Here on the Six Rivers, we’re a good example of blending that.”

George says he knows of at least two similar collaborations happening between tribes and other national forests. However, these collaborations could remain the exception. That’s because although blanket fire suppression is no longer official policy, prescribed fire remains a contentious practice. The reason: Controlled fires can get out of hand.

This was the case with the 2000 Cerro Grande fire that started as a National Park Service attempt to burn just 1.4 square miles in northern New Mexico. Winds and dry conditions whipped the flames of this tiny controlled burn into a nearly 75-square-mile conflagration that raged out of control in and around the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It destroyed 280 homes, multiple Lab buildings, and resulted in $1 billion in damages, according to an investigation by the General Accountability Office. Unintended and unfortunate consequences like these, according to Pyne, have made agencies risk-averse to prescribed burning.

Photos by Stormy Staats/Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative

Rony Reed and Sophie Neuner learn to refuel their drip torches.Photos by Stormy Staats/Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative

“Fire management on public lands—you’re talking about public assets and you’re talking about public safety. That’s a highly political environment. There is not a lot of tolerance for error,” Pyne says.

The Karuk are keenly aware of just how dangerous fire can be, but they say they need to risk controlled fires now in order to avoid out-of-control fires later, especially as the climate changes.

Over the past quarter century, more than 780 square miles of the Karuk’s lands have burned. As with much of the rest of California and the American West, Karuk territory is experiencing an increase in wildfires. Climate change is now believed to be responsible for much of this growth, accounting for a doubling of the land area burned in Western forests in recent decades. This trend is expected to continue throughout this century as climate change produces warmer, drier conditions—ideal for large destructive wildfires.

Keeping a watchful eye on the impending firestorm is Karuk member and Hillman colleague Bill Tripp. Tripp has just finished helping write a 200-page climate change assessment that covers all 2,000-plus square miles of the Karuk’s traditional territory. The document, a joint effort with a longtime collaborator at the University of Oregon, hopes to parse out how climate change will affect the Karuk’s cultural resources. The short answer is fire. The Karuk are concerned that climate change’s coming mega-fires will burn too hot for even some of the tribe’s fire-adapted plants, leading to an overturning of the local ecosystem that could strike at the heart of many Karuk traditions.

The trick, Tripp says, will be to keep the wildfires in check with controlled burns. In practice this will mean creating protective burn rings around their homes and towns and burning plots according to how often the willow, oaks, or other resources require it. In other words, doing what they’ve always done. A soft-spoken man with something of an aw-shucks demeanor, Tripp is both steadfast and realistic about how long this will take.

“We’re not going to be able to solve this problem overnight. This is going to be a 100- to 200-year process,” he says. “But we have to start. Otherwise, the whole ecosystem around here just doesn’t have a chance.”

Nathan Gilles

Nathan Gilles is a freelance science writer based in Vancouver, Washington. Follow him on Twitter @NathanGilles.


To Change Hearts, We Need More Than Facts

Some years ago, the communications psychologist John Marshall Roberts said at a talk I attended that there are three ways of converting people to a cause: by threat of force, by intellectual argument, and by inspiration.

Colin Beavan

Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) helps people and organizations to live and operate in ways that have a meaningful impact on the world. His most recent book is How To Be Alive and he blogs at ColinBeavan.com.

The most effective of these methods, Roberts said, is aligning communication about your cause with the most deeply-held values and aspirations of your friends, relatives, neighbors, and fellow citizens. To get people’s total, lasting, and unwavering support, in other words, we should try neither to cajole them judgmentally nor convince them forcefully. We should inspire them toward a vision that they—not we—can really care about.

Which points to the potential problem of blindly using facts and science—be it climate science or demographic science—to “prove” the righteousness of our causes. Research shows that people tend to embrace data that support their life views and reject data that refute them. Whether we like this or not, it is a truth about how humans evaluate and make decisions. Having the “facts on our side” to make an argument more forcefully may not help if those facts and arguments refute someone’s view of life and the values that are precious to them.

The communication challenge, then, is to use our facts and science to skillfully and compellingly connect our causes not to what we think our friends, relatives, and fellow citizens should care about, but what they already do care about.

During the Vietnam War, a dairy farmer told a friend of mine the story of how he got recruited into the anti-war movement. The farmer happened to sit on a plane next to an anti-war activist. They got talking, and the activist said that he was campaigning against the U.S. use of fire-bombing.

The cow farmer said, “I know it’s awful, but we surely wouldn’t use that weapon if we didn’t need it to win the war.” The activist told him that crops were being burned and villagers were starving. The dairy farmer felt sympathetic but said the weapons might ultimately bring a faster end to the war. The activist mentioned children getting burned, forests turned to cinder. The farmer felt awful about the suffering, but his view remained unchanged. Finally, in frustration, the activist said, “Even the cattle are dying!” The dairy farmer said, “Wait! What?! They are killing the cows?!”

We may think the cow farmer should have cared about the crops, villagers, children, and forests. Yet trying to force more information—science and data—about them down his throat might have risked alienating him. Instead, finding his true soft spot—the cows—and being willing to enter into his life view was what eventually recruited him into the anti-war movement.

In another example, when activists with the California-based Leadership Lab knock on voters’ doors in its efforts to defeat anti-LGBTQ prejudice, they don’t start by talking about homophobia—they start by asking what personal experience of prejudice and bigotry the voter has had. Then, Leadership Lab volunteers tell a story of an LGBTQ person experiencing homophobia. They ask a question: “Do you see a connection between the prejudice you experienced and homophobia?” Recognizing that prejudice is the same wherever it is found, many voters are inspired to combat it.

In converting friends and fellow citizens to our causes, we should not blindly attempt to use facts and science to bolster the arguments and stories that appeal to our own values and experiences. Instead, we are challenged to listen to and understand the people we are trying to convince. Then, we can marshal the facts and figures that prove that our cause can help support their values.

In the case of renewable energy, for example, our friends may care more about national security than climate change. We can tell them about the security advantages of generating energy at home; trying to force them to believe in climate change by explaining the scientific details of the greenhouse effect, on the other hand, may not help. The point is to begin by asking questions in order to understand the values we need to appeal to, and then to use our facts to build a story that inspires the people we are talking to—rather than trying to force our own inspirations on them.

Facts and figures are wonderful tools, but they are not a communications strategy. Let’s not let our convictions blind us to the fact that other people have theirs. We need to hear our audiences’ stories and then retell ours in a way that mirrors their challenges and aspirations. We need to be empathetic and know that our stories are their stories. And that the challenges we face in being human are one.

Colin Beavan

Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) helps people and organizations to live and operate in ways that have a meaningful impact on the world. His most recent book is How To Be Alive and he blogs at ColinBeavan.com.