Counting the uncounted in the US election

Following disturbing allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Donald Trump, and in spite of embarrassing leaked emails among Hillary Clinton’s staffers, Clinton seems to be on her way to victory with some 46% of the popular vote, according to recent national polls, such as Ipsos and Pew. But as I wrote in the current issue of Nature (my first feature story for the magazine!), pollsters disagree about how estimate “likely voters”—people who will actually turnout to vote on Election Day. What no one disputes, however, is that only half of voting-age Americans will vote that day.

Only half, maybe a bit more. That means that Clinton will have actually earned less than a quarter of everyone’s votes, and 76% of Americans will not have voted for the new president. That’s at least 180 million people. Since this typical of US elections, an important question we should ask is, what does it mean for democracy in this country?

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

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California’s poised to become the first state to ban plastic bags

On the 8th of November, if California voters pass a referendum on the ballot known as Proposition 67, the state will become the first in the country to ban single-use plastic bags at groceries, pharmacies, and convenience stores. Considering that Californians go through some 10 to 20 billion plastic bags per year, each one in use for an average of 15 minutes, this could make a big difference.

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Nicram Sabad/Shutterstock)

I get it. Plastic bags are useful and convenient. But so were polystyrene-foam products, and we managed to abandon them in the 1990s because they were damaging the ozone layer. It’s time for us to adapt to the 21st century and be less wasteful with plastic. You can still pay 10 cents for a paper bag if you really need it.

Plastic bags pollute our oceans, coastlines and streets. A recent study found that one-fourth of fish sampled in California markets had plastic debris in them, and shellfish had even more. If we were to continue with business as usual, we could have more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050, according to a study last year. Another study found that 90% of seabirds worldwide swallow plastic, and sea turtles get tangled in or eat the bags too, unfortunately mistaking them for jellyfish.

Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, using the fossil fuels natural gas and petroleum. Only a few kinds are recyclable, and the others don’t decay. Well they do break down very very slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years, during which time they may kill or poison untold numbers of seabirds and turtles.

San Diego, my home town, became the 150th municipality in the state with a ban. The majority of Californians have begun to adapt to the ban. But when the state legislature passed it in 2014 (Senate Bill 270), people opposed to it—including the plastic industry, libertarians, and a few others—collected petition signatures opposed to it. The governor, other leading policy-makers, Democrats and Greens, and numerous environmental groups support the bill.

Now the plastic bag ban is on the ballot, for everyone to decide. A “yes” vote on Prop 67 would make uphold the legislation, while a “no” would overturn it. Two years ago, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed broad support for a plastic ban, with nearly sixty percent of people supporting it and about a third opposed. A new poll may reveal a shift in public opinion, though I suspect that my fellow Californians will stick with the plastic bag ban.

And then we could see other states, like Massachusetts, follow suit. A few other state governments, in contrast, are trying to ban plastic bag bans, but if California is successful with their ban, maybe they’ll reconsider. Then a decade down the road…who knows, maybe the whole country will abandon plastic bags!

News from Nature: Gender Bias in Geoscience, Psychological Disputes, and Mining Asteroids

Here’s a few intriguing and nuanced stories I’ve been working on lately for Nature in Washington, D.C. If you’re interested in them, you can read the whole thing on Nature‘s website. (And if you quote or cite any of them, please give proper credit.) Special thanks go to my editors, Lauren Morello and Jane Lee.


Women postdocs less likely than men to get a glowing reference

Women and men applying for geoscience postdocs receive very different letters of support from their mentors.

Gender bias in scientific fields is no secret, and it is pervasive. It even creeps into the all-important recommendation letter, in which mentors typically bolster the credentials of their protégés.

Globally, female applicants are about 10% less likely than their male counterparts to receive ‘excellent’ letters for postdoctoral positions in the Earth sciences, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience on 3 October. The finding holds regardless of the gender of their recommenders or what part of the world the applicant works in.

“These results uncover a real problem in the geosciences, just like other disciplines,” says Kuheli Dutt, a social scientist at Columbia University in New York City and lead author of the paper. Women start off at a disadvantage, she adds, because they’re perceived as less competent than their male counterparts.

For example, in the US, women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics earn 41% of doctoral degrees, yet in 2012–13 they accounted for only 24% of postdoctoral positions at US federally funded research centres and labs, according to the National Science Foundation. In the geosciences, less than 10% of full professors are women, indicating that the postdoctoral stage — the usual gateway into faculty jobs — is the point at which many women leave the field.

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 3 October 2016.]

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