Where are the Scientists in Congress?

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A few years ago on Real Time with Bill Maher, astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson brought up a very interesting point about the United States Congress. “I wonder what profession all these Senators and Congressmen are? Law, law, law, law, business man, law, law. . . . There are no scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of life?,” quipped Tyson. The rest of life, indeed. According to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service, there were only 11 members of Congress (out of 535) that were scientists or engineers; all of them were in the House of Representatives, with the exception of one engineer in the Senate. This is the very definition of disproportionate, seeing as by 2010, one in every 18 jobs in the United States was in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM). By 2018, it is projected to be nearly one in five. If our congressional representation kept a parity with the private sector, there should be 30 scientists, rather than merely 11. By 2018, it should be closer to 91.

This is a sad state of affairs, something that should have changed years ago. However, with the election of one of the most unqualified, anti-science administrations in history, scientists are beginning to get political. As a recent piece in the New York Times noted, scientists are now beginning to organize and even run for office, namely UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen. Within the growing secular movement, activist and science communicator Aron Ra is running for the Texas State Senate. This is all culminating in a national March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and all-around rationalists from across the country are getting organized to take on the anti-science, anti-reason impulses of our body politic. But it doesn’t end there.

The March for Science should be the starting point of an even larger movement to reshape Congress. Our Congress needs to be more aligned with the growing body of knowledge about the harmful effects of climate change, the wrong-headed hysteria over GMO foods and vaccines, as well as a larger commitment to critical thinking. We need to have organizations and activist resources that help us find, groom, canvass for, and finally elect science-oriented reformers to Congress. So much of the rancor and divisiveness plaguing our politics is rooted in a partisan view of the truth. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” An objective, non-partisan view of facts and science should come back to our politics. Liberals, conservatives, and independents should more than happily disagree about specific actions we take on the issues, but if we can’t even agree on what the issues are, we can never really change them. Electing science-minded members to Congress will go a long way to fix many such ills we face in our country and the world.

Without the Net: Depression and Anxiety as an Atheist

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Content Note: This article is about my experiences with depression and anxiety. I’m not a medical professional or psychologist, so if you’re worried about your own condition, I strongly advise you to visit your doctor. This article is not intended to be medical advice.

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I often wonder what it feels like to die, to give up on everything; to finally feel the release of this tortured frame of my body and be free. It’s a thought I’ve had many times in my life. Despite my successes, my family and friends, and the passions that animate my curiosity, the creeping darkness of my own mind still haunts me.

To know these feelings is to know depression, at least how it manifests in me. I’ve lived with clinical depression for over ten years, and clinical anxiety for three. Alongside the darkness and thoughts of death, I also experience episodes of intense worry, regret, and self-destruction. These moments paralyze me, make me feel the urgency of my body. The constant wrenching in the stomach, the deep and stentorian beats of my heart. This combination makes it very hard for me to relate to people, especially ones whose easy-going nature and calm demeanor often aggravate my own intensity.

I try not to take it out on them, of course. It is not their fault I am who I am. I am the product of biology as well my environment. My family has a history of depression, often undiagnosed. My father’s depression, of which his undiagnosed case catalyzed the end of his marriage to my mother, still creates in him an inner turmoil. Today, he does seek treatment for it, but as I do, lives with the lingering emotional scars. However, I’m unlike my father in that I’m an extrovert and desire the approval and attention of others. These interactions are a great source of strength.

I have what is called dysthymia, or low-grade depression. It doesn’t appear like other forms of depression do, where you have long-bouts of completely debilitating experiences. Instead, this type of depression smolders under the surface, constantly picking away at you for weeks or months before you have a bad day, month, or even year. You still function, but you battle fatigue, irritability, and loss of attentiveness. In my experience, I often have a poor temper with regards to my episodes. Things will wear on me all day until the smallest thing sets me off. Whether it’s my wife asking me to do something, dropping an item on the floor, or forgetting a task that was important, these send me into a sort of mania that makes me really unpleasant. I have to be talked down from these moments, and thankfully for me, I have a partner who is patient and understands my symptoms.

My depression started when I was 15 years old, about a year into some major life changes. My parents divorced, my father and I moved away from my mom and sister, and I started life at a new school. The first year was pretty great; I gained new friends, found new hobbies, and improved academically, but then a series of misfortunes triggered my first bout with serious depression. I suffered a break-up, being kicked out of my band (due to my increasing moodiness), and was struck with a serious sinus infection that lingered for months. These experiences awakened a melancholy that was brewing all my life. I had an intense childhood that left me with mild trauma. Emotional, verbal, and rare, but very real physical abuse from my past played over and over again in my mind. I blamed myself for the pain that I took, for the breakup of my parents’ marriage, for the poor relationship with my sister. I had a complete breakdown of my self-esteem and personal growth.

It was around this time that began to study religion. I tried to grab on to something, anything that might help me understand what was going on in my mind. I studied the Bible (the book of Ecclesiastes and its poetry still fills me with comfort) as well as Buddhism. I began to meditate and tried to seek answers to my all-encompassing problems. Despite some semblance of recovery, it didn’t really help. It wasn’t until I understood the science of depression that I began to understand my condition. This discovery, alongside other reasons, also led me to my abandonment of religious belief in 2009.

At the suggestion of my doctor, I began taking anti-depressant medication, Lexapro. It was a low dose, but I had to take it every day. Lexapro is a SSRI, or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. People with depression and anxiety often have problems with the neural framework of their brains; serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is blocked from performing its task as a mood regulator. A SSRI signals in on these serotonin irregularities and helps to normalize the neurotransmission process. In doing so, it helps to regulate mood. I took it as a teenager, spent a few years off of it, and then resumed it in 2014.

The catalyst for resuming the medication was the second major depressive episode in my life, now more pronounced due to my anxiety. My anger, sadness, worry, and impulsiveness began to get the best of me. While my grades were good in college and I was excelling in my professional life, I often came home a shattered wreck of a person. It made me have serious relationship problems with my girlfriend and I found it absolutely exhausting performing even the most basic of activities. I finally had a period of intense panic attacks and breakdowns, especially once I began graduate school, which convinced me to resume my medication and begin another period of talk therapy.

I began seeing a talk therapist during my first depressive period in high school. While he was helpful, I think he thought I was just a moody teenager in need of friends rather than a seriously depressed person. It wasn’t until I began my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife), rebuilt my self-esteem, and climbed out of the hole that I realized that I really didn’t need to see him anymore. Also, the sessions were rather expensive, and our finances also motivated my decision.

I resumed talk therapy, this time with another therapist, in 2014, after the second round of depression with added anxiety. He was a very helpful and kind listener, who respected my lack of religious belief, encouraged me to follow my passions, and gave advice as to how to alleviate some of my symptoms. While I no longer see him, I’m in the process of finding another therapist. I’ve also continued meditating, this time focusing on the practices of Mindfulness.

So, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with atheism? For me, everything. When I lost my religious inclinations in 2009, I began to explore the world as it is, not how I wanted it to be. I no longer expected the world or the universe to care about me, because they don’t. The person who is calling the shots in your life is you; atheism is the realization that your life belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to the state, it doesn’t belong to the church. It’s yours to make worthwhile. This was a revelation to me (pardon the religious phrasing). Once I realized that my life was mine to mold as I wish, I had a renewed sense of purpose that reinvigorated my self-esteem and helped me with my depression and anxiety.

This is what a secular, atheist, and broadly humanist outlook on the world has given me. When people say that life is purposeless without God, they are working with a poverty of ambition. When you understand that life is precious, that each moment can be used to laugh, to love, to live, to speak, to think, and to be down once in a while, it gives you the resolve to be better. Realizing that chemistry, biology, and society, not sin or karma, were responsible for my depression and anxiety gave me the necessary tools to live a fulfilling life. As the author Andrew Solomon once wrote, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” Vitality is what we should strive for, not mere contentment. I’m not happy every waking moment of my day. Hell, no one is. But what I am trying to be is vital, thriving, and dedicated to my own values.

For those who suffer from depression and anxiety, it can get better. There are people who love you and will support you if you ask for their help. There are medical and psychiatric professionals who are there to help you get better. The world can be a beautiful and rewarding place if you face it head-on and not cave to superstition or wishful thinking. Clear and honest reasoning about your own troubles is difficult, but in doing so, you can combat almost any inner struggles you have. My atheism has helped me understand and then care for my depression and anxiety, because I’m not waiting for someone to help me from the sky. I know it’s upon me to take the path that I know will make my life better. It isn’t easy, nor is it the be-all, end-all solution, but being a reasonable person in an often unreasonable world will push back the inner demons. It did, at least, for me.

The Scientist and Communicator: Reflections on Carl Sagan

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It has been twenty years today since we lost Carl Sagan, the beloved astronomer and science communicator at the age of 62. His untimely death still feels prescient, especially in light of our seemingly chaotic and irrational world. However, I know that if he was still alive, Sagan would have found a way to be optimistic, looking ever forward to new horizons of knowledge and exploration.

I came to learn about him as an adult. Growing up in the rural Midwest, I received an abysmal science education, which left me largely ignorant and uninspired. I went into the humanities, history specifically, and found it to be my calling. I love studying the human race’s march toward betterment, through understanding ourselves and the universe around us.

As a result, I came to Sagan as an undergraduate in college. I am a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, so it’s surprising that I didn’t get to Sagan earlier. But once I watched Cosmos for the first time, I was hooked. His ability to interweave science, history, and philosophy in way that is eloquent, engaging, and entertaining is unmatched by anyone. Even after all these years, Sagan is still the master.

From there, I began to read his books, which were even more rewarding than Cosmos. My all-time favorite is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Published shortly before his death, this book is easily his best. In it, he stresses the importance of not just learning about science, but about critical thinking and skepticism. As he writes:

“One of the reasons for its [science’s] success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”

The more we think critically, the more we test ideas against the evidence, the more we learn and grow as a people. As he said countless times, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

In his own career, he was a pioneering scientist. A professor at Cornell, Sagan’s research on the greenhouse effect on Venus and his work on the Viking and Voyager missions for NASA solidified his position as an astute scientist. Alongside his popular books, he published numerous scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals and continued his research into the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life for most of his career. Despite all this, he was never admitted to the National Academy of Sciences (they did give him a distinguished public service award, but not full membership).

His snub by the NAS was likely the result of his role as “popularizer” of scientific ideas, which was an unheard of endeavor during his time as a scientist. Most scientists were content with researching, publishing, and teaching, but Sagan took it a step further. He didn’t just want to be a great scientist; he wanted to be a great communicator of ideas. Even though some of his peers derided his public advocacy of science, the court of public opinion held him in the highest-esteem.

This is why Carl Sagan matters, why his work stands the test of time. When I started my search for graduate schools in history, I was inspired by Sagan to do something different. As such, I became a public historian, dedicated to quality research and analysis but interested in sharing this knowledge with the public. I didn’t just want to be a historian. I wanted to be a history communicator, someone who not only shared history with others but explained the importance of history to my fellow citizens and the world. I got this lesson from Carl.

Carl wasn’t just a great scientist; he was an amazing champion for skepticism, critical thinking, and intellectualism. His powerful voice, decades on, still inspires me to be a better thinker, a better communicator, and a better person. I have such a deep admiration and affection for someone I’ve never met, but whose mind and life compel me to be the man I am today.

Carl, thank you for all you did for the world. We love you and we miss you.