New freelance writings: space policy debates, flawed flood maps, and harmful plastics

In case you missed them, check out my recent stories, from inadequate flood maps to contamination from plastics to space policy debates. Thanks to my editors for helping these pieces turn out so well.

 

Trump’s ‘America First’ Policies Won’t Work in Space

A communications satellite launched earlier this year. Some in the federal government consider space the next frontier for warfare. (Photo courtesy of United Launch Alliance.)

Space is a big place, but our upper atmosphere isn’t. Rapidly increasing numbers of satellites orbit there, in addition to innumerable bits of space debris, and rockets fly through it on missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and deep space. President Trump’s newly revived National Space Council will have to manage this busy region and beyond.

The council members—which include heads of dozens of agencies, including the state, defense, commerce, transportation, and homeland security departments—have their work cut out for them as they develop recommendations for national space policy. Regulating and enabling commercial space activities will likely be a top priority, and the group will likely need to address issues including space debris and potentially militarized satellites. Given the risks of weaponizing space if the US, China, and Russia take their disputes beyond earth, and considering the commercial space industry’s uncertain position with respect to national and international law, the council’s first and primary goal should be to pursue space diplomacy…

[Read the entire piece on Wired, published on 23 August.]

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New freelance writings: forensic science reform, planet impacts, earthquake forecasting

Check out my latest articles and writings this past month, for Undark, Nature, New Scientist, and Now.Space. As always, thanks go to my editors. If you read just one, I recommend the Undark piece, which I’m particularly proud of and took a lot of work to write and report on.

 

Bite Marks and Bullet Holes

The Attorney General ended the National Commission on Forensic Science, suppressing an opportunity for reducing convictions based on faulty evidence.

Forensic scientists working in the crime laboratory located in Ridgepoint House. (Source: West Midlands Police – Forensic Science Lab)

Keith Harward spent more than three decades in prison on the presumed strength of forensic dentistry. No fewer than six forensic dentists testified that his teeth matched a bite mark on a 1982 victim of rape and murder. But in April of last year, after serving more than 33 years in a Virginia penitentiary, new DNA evidence prompted the state Supreme Court to make official what Harward knew all along: He was innocent, and the teeth mark analysis was unequivocally, tragically wrong.

“Bite mark evidence is what the whole case hinged on and ultimately had me convicted,” Harward said. “But,” he added, “this stuff is just guesswork.”

Today, many forensic scientists would agree — and they’d say the same, or nearly so, about a menagerie of other techniques that are used to convict people of crimes, from handwriting analysis to tire track comparisons. And while some techniques fare better than others, everything short of DNA analysis has been shown to be widely variable in reliability, with much hinging on forensic practitioners with widely varying approaches and expertise.

[Read the entire story in Undark, published on 2 June.]

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Prison takes away what we need for a healthy life

As I was reporting on my Newsweek on the psychological and neurological effects of solitary confinement, I came to a realization. Prison in general, and solitary confinement in particular, take away the things we need to have a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

It should come as no surprise then that people who spend most of their lives in prison don’t live as long as the general population. With long prison sentences applied to a wide range of crimes, there’s more and more old people in federal and state prison in the US, and they lack the care and attention they need. Unfortunately, many people assume that anyone in prison is not worth any sympathy. That doesn’t make sense to me. (Plus, as I wrote in a new piece in Undark, some people in prison are innocent but were convicted based on flawed forensics or mistaken eyewitness testimony.)

Anyway, I learned quite a bit from my reporting, especially my conversations with Brie Williams, director of the University of California Criminal Justice and Health Project in San Francisco and an expert on geriatrics at UCSF. In order to maintain our health as we age, we need both physical and mental exercise on a regular basis, and we need meaningful social interactions. According to Williams, loneliness in older adults is associated with increased mortality, cognitive impairment, and dementia.

But people in prison are in extended isolation, with restricted movement and enhanced loneliness. Prisoners hardly get any exercise, and they have very few chances of keeping their minds limber. And their social interactions with people are extremely limited, the opposite of the way you might interact with a close friend or family member. In addition to people with decades-long sentences, nearly one in five prisoners is put in solitary confinement often for long stretches. Some people break down when they hear that metal door clang shut, while others find a way to adapt. But in the end, it’s a noxious environment that people are “exposed” to, as Williams puts it, and it takes a long time for people to recover, if given the chance.

So I feel like I’ve learned something, both for myself and for others. First, it’s important to try to keep up with regular exercise, activities that exercise my mind, and keep up with friends and my social life. Second, let’s remember that our elders need help to have those things too, and that’s what we’re here for. When we’re older, we’d appreciate that, too.

Election polling postmortem finds flaws in polls of Midwestern states that went for Trump

Remember the chaotic election last November? How could we forget! If you followed the polls and listened to pundits, you could be forgiven for expecting Hillary Clinton to win by a large margin. But that’s not what happened, and the outcome surprised even some established pollsters, prompting an investigation of the election polls, which six months later has now been completed.

The new report released today [I’ll include a link here] by the American Association for Public Opinion Research finds that, no, the polls aren’t “broken.” National polls fared pretty well, while Midwestern state polls missed a big segment of voters leaning toward Donald Trump. The letter from FBI director James Comey about the Clinton email probe appeared to cause a small temporary shift, and quite a few undecided voters broke for Trump at the last minute, but despite that Clinton won the national vote by 2.1%, almost as much as forecast (3%) and well within the uncertainties. But Trump’s victory in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where non-college educated suburban white people were politicized and turned out in large numbers, caught experts off guard. (Polls gave Clinton the edge in those three states, and had she won all of them, she would’ve won with 278 vs 260 electoral votes.)

The popular vote went for Clinton, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. Pollsters need to spend more time and effort on state polls, especially in “battleground” states, to improve those polls and more accurately get the voting preferences of all segments of the population of likely voters, including those who don’t respond as often to pollsters’ phone calls or online surveys. State polls throughout the upper Midwest seem to have missed non-college educated and working-class whites in suburban and rural areas, who turned out the vote more than expected and preferentially for Trump.

There’s a couple other findings worth noting, but I’d like to make a more important point about how polls are interpreted. Many people seem to have banked on Clinton’s narrow national lead, which did not translate into an Electoral College win. It wasn’t even close. “The horse race becomes interesting news fodder, but it’s misleading,” Michael Link, past president of AAPOR, tells me.

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Trump Transition News in Nature: Budget Situation, Scientists Respond

Here’s a pair of stories I’ve worked on recently on the transition to the Trump era and what that means for science. The second one was written by Heidi Ledford, Sara Reardon and me. Thanks as usual to Lauren Morello for help editing. Thanks also go to my very informative sources. At the end of this post, I’ve also included links to a couple related stories by my Nature colleagues, and I recommend checking them out, too.

 

Stopgap spending bill leaves US scientists in limbo

Proposal would keep funding flat for most research agencies, but cuts could come early next year.

In what has become a year-end tradition in Washington DC, the US Congress is getting ready to approve a stopgap spending measure before it adjourns for the holidays.

The legislation introduced yesterday in the House of Representatives would hold spending flat at most science agencies, with some limited increases. These include an extra US$872 million to implement provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that would reform drug development and biomedical research. The money would be split between the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and state governments…

The stopgap funding bill, which would expire on 28 April, also allows for extra funding to keep a handful of major multiyear space programmes on track. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of probes designed to monitor Earth’s weather and climate, as well as NASA efforts to explore deep space and develop a replacement for the retired space shuttle.

But for most science programmes, funding would remain at roughly the same level as in the past fiscal year. And continuing to operate under a temporary funding measure means that agencies cannot start new programmes or end old ones without explicit permission from Congress.

“Every time you delay a [final] spending bill, it prevents the science agencies from doing the planning they need, and it keeps them in limbo,” says Lexi Shultz, director of public affairs for the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC…

Many researchers are more worried about what might come after this temporary funding extension, if it is approved. When president-elect Donald Trump takes office on 20 January 2017, Republicans will control the White House and both houses of Congress — and their science priorities are very different from those of outgoing President Barack Obama, a Democrat…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 7 December 2016.]

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Is Trump betraying his base?

Many Trump voters hope their man in the White House will be a brave outsider who will shake things up in Washington and improve their economic and job situations. But his platform, landing team and appointments so far indicate that they’ll be sorely disappointed.

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

(Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

President-Elect Trump won 62 million votes, and the way I see it, many of those came from people who felt disillusioned and disenfranchised by a system in which the political establishment ignored their concerns and struggles. Many from Midwestern states also saw local industries erode and jobs remain hard to come by—the rate of unemployment plus underemployment is stuck at 10%, higher than when Obama took office in 2008—at odds with talk by commentators of an improving economy. (Racism, sexism, and xenophobia disturbingly factored into Trump’s campaign as well; these are very important issues, but I’ll write about them more later.)

However, it’s hard to see how Trump would change business-as-usual when lobbyists and Washington insiders make up so many of his appointees and transition team. These include Wilbur Ross, founder of a private equity firm, to lead the Commerce Department. He previously owned a coal company whose Sago mine in West Virginia had been cited for hundreds of safety and health violations and in which 12 miners lost their lives following an (avoidable) explosion. Betsy DeVos, a prominent donor to head Education, would likely push for more access to private schools which would lead to decreased funding to public ones, including those that many Trump voters’ families depend on. Trump also has numerous advisers and potential appointees from Washington think tanks and lobbying firms, including Myron Ebell, Michael McKenna and Michael Catanzaro.

None of these people have experience with or a record of supporting working-class people, whom Trump won more votes from than Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate, according to exit polls. He also won more men and more people with less than a university education, according to a Pew survey, and his supporters primarily came from rural areas and suburbs. (And yes, there was a big racial divide, but it looks similar to previous elections, in spite of the role racial issues and immigration played in Trump’s campaign.)

Furthermore, the tax code Trump has proposed would raise taxes on the poorest while cutting them for the richest people. Nearly 8 million families, most of them single-parent ones, would see higher taxes, too. The biggest tax changes would be to the richest 1 percent, who would benefit from windfalls of 13.5% on average, the Tax Policy Center finds. The richest of the top 1 percent (multi-millionaires) would also benefit from him repealing the estate tax (and possibly the gift and generation-skipping taxes). If all these tax cuts passed, the deficit would balloon over Trump’s term and it could be tough for his administration to continue the federal government’s support for the welfare system that some of his voters and many other people rely on, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump voters are concerned about what they perceive as inequality in job opportunities, according to a Pew survey conducted right before the election. (But they’re not worried about economic inequality, presumably hoping that the “American Dream” will one day come true for them.) It’s not clear where the needed jobs would come from during Trump’s term though. Infrastructure projects often create many jobs, but Trump’s proposal seems to depend on huge tax credits, which won’t necessarily have the intended results.

Nevertheless, if Italy’s experience with Berlusconi is any guide, I suspect that most Trump voters won’t simply turn against him just because he broke some campaign promises or because his economic policies don’t benefit them. People want to feel like they have someone, anyone, who listens to them and represents their interests. If no one else provides a clear and credible alternative, I think many people will stick with Trump through his term.

Finally, how will journalists grapple with the Trump era? Many have different thoughts on this (see this, this, and this), and I’m still trying to figure it out for myself as well. I don’t really have an answer yet, but stay tuned.

My election polling coverage for Nature

Here’s a few stories I’ve been working on lately for Nature. 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 Richard Monastersky. At the bottom of this, I’ve also posted a few other election-related articles from my colleagues.

 

Pollsters struggle to explain failures of US presidential forecasts

Most surveys did not predict Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

What went wrong? That’s the question that many political pollsters in the United States are asking themselves in the aftermath of the 8 November presidential election. Republican Donald Trump won in an electoral landslide, but for months most polls forecast a victory for his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Many types of polls, including randomized telephone polls and online polls that people opt into, tightened in the weeks leading up to the election — but still pointed to a Clinton win.

“The industry is definitely going to be spending a lot of time doing some soul-searching about what happened and where do we go from here,” says Chris Jackson, head of US public polling at Ipsos, a global market-research and polling firm based in Paris.

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

(Credit: Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

The most recent national polls — including those conducted by ABC/Washington Post, Ipsos, YouGov, and Fox News — all estimated a Clinton lead of 3 to 4% over Trump. Minor-party candidates, such as Gary Johnson of the Liberal Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party, were forecast to win single-digit support. Yet as this article went to press, as the last votes were being counted, Clinton leads the popular vote by a razor-thin margin: just 0.2%. The majority of states have tipped for Trump, awarding him their valuable electoral-college votes and ensuring his victory.

Poll aggregators such as FiveThirtyEight and New York Times nonetheless forecast Clinton’s chances of victory at 71% or higher, while the Huffington Post predicted a Clinton landslide. This dramatic polling failure could have been due to factors such as poorly assessed likely voters, people misreporting their voting intentions, or pollsters poorly surveying some segments of the population.

“It’s a big surprise that such a wide variety of polls using such a wide variety of methodologies have all the errors fall in the same direction,”says Claudia Deane, vice president of research at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC…

[For more, read the entire story in Nature, published on 9 November 2016.]

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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!

Campaign promises and proclamations I hope President Hillary Clinton will fulfill

I know, it’s probably premature to talk about what President (Hillary) Clinton could or should do. Poll aggregates currently estimate about an 88% chance of her winning the election, but you don’t need to be a political scientist to know that that’s far from guaranteed. A lot can happen in the next two and a half months, and we haven’t seen Clinton and Donald Trump debate yet. But barring a major shift, Clinton will likely prevail in November.

(Credit: U.S. Department of State)

(Credit: U.S. Department of State)

If she wins handily, by a margin of even 10%, and if there’s a big turnout of the electorate (60% turnout is actually considered high in this country), then Clinton can say that she’s earned a “mandate.” But as the New York Times asked on Monday, what exactly will that mandate be for? Thomas Frank argues in the Guardian that, as Trump’s campaign nosedives, Clinton need only campaign against him, rather than for a progressive agenda. What Clinton says in her speeches and whom she highlights as her top advisors and endorsers is at least as good a sign of what’s to come as her official platform.

In any case, many voters as well as observers abroad pay close attention to her policy positions and campaign promises, and they want action, not just rhetoric. As noted by the LA Times and the Atlantic, political-science research shows that promises made during this phase of the campaign often get followed up on later (with mixed results). Here are a few in particular I’m hoping she follows through on. Clinton will be able to make progress on many of these even if the Congress becomes gridlocked.

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