“If I can get people to understand the difference between weather and climate, then we could solve a lot of problems we’re faced with right now,” Jess Phoenix tells IFLScience. “Neil deGrasse Tyson did a pretty sweet job conveying this on Cosmos.”
She then adds: “Unfortunately, you can’t make everyone watch Cosmos.”
Faced with this eruption of anti-scientific hedonism, one volcanologist has decided to fight back. The aptly named Phoenix is running for California’s 25th district in the upcoming midterms, and she sat down with IFLScience to explain why.
“After the election, I went through the period of shock that plenty of Americans and foreigners went through,” Phoenix says. “Nobody could believe it – it was pretty traumatic to around half the country.”
Then, after her 35th birthday this January, she had an epiphany.
“I suddenly realized that I had become eligible to run for office. I’ve had a lot of great local, national and international experience – and as a scientist, I know how to communicate with the public effectively.”
“So I decided that I wanted to help make the US government a place where logic, sanity, and facts prevail. It may not happen, but at the very least, people like me will have tried.”
“We are in imminent peril,” she stresses. “When our national parks are at stake, when our health is at stake, when even our basic scientific literacy is at stake – you just can’t compromise on those types of things. You have to fight.”
Phoenix’s life story is nothing less than movie-like. Born to two FBI agent parents, she initially studied English. She soon switched to Latin, “but when you find yourself learning a language you can’t speak, there’s a problem.”
She then switched to history, craving some large-scale perspective. From American to British to Ancient Greek and Roman history, it just didn’t do it for her. “It isn’t old enough,” she explained. “It didn’t answer enough questions.” When faced with a career in law or geology, she picked the latter because she “didn’t want to be stuck in a library hating myself.”
Working on ancient volcanoes in the Mojave and piloting submersibles in the Pacific Ocean exploring the Loihi underwater volcano, Phoenix had found her calling. Sitting on the summit of Mauna Loa, she decided that “this is the best. Volcanoes are the best thing ever.”
Since then, she and her husband helped set up Blueprint Earth, a group that gathers scientists of all disciplines together to try to understand the complex intricacies of Earth’s biomes. It also encourages kids to get into the sciences and attempts to show how diverse science can be.
“We bring our researchers into local elementary schools – African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Women – and say hey, these are scientists, and they look like you. We want to show kids of any background they can become a scientist too.”
These are not friendly times for science, however, and faced with a constant assault on basic facts, scientists like Phoenix have opted for a change at the top. 314 Action, the political action committee training scientists all across the country to run for Congress, reached out, and now she’s running for Congress herself.
“We have to get to where the decision makers are,” she explains. “We have to leave our labs, go out and advocate for science because no one else will do it.”
She’s certainly not alone. When it comes to science, there are promising signs that the youngest generation is stepping up to the mantle.
We bring up the example of the grade school girl that stood up to Jason Chaffetz, the now-retiring chairman of the House Oversight Committee, at a recent town hall meeting in Salt Lake City. When he gave a non-answer about protecting the environment, the young girl questioned whether or not he believed in science at all, and the crowd went wild.
“Yes! See, this is what we need,” Phoenix replies. “If we give kids answers based on fact, we are opening up a world of possibilities. This is how we set our society free.”
Phoenix says that it’s not enough to just teach children that science is cool and that it’s fun to learn about the universe. There’s not enough of an emphasis on the importance of it.
“We need it to solve these big picture problems like climate change and food security, and to support everyone on this planet.”
“We need science for our survival.”
She is running as a Democrat, but she doesn’t have anything against Republicans per se. She grew up in a conservative area and her father is a Republican, but in recent years, the political landscape has been bulldozed over by extremists on the right. Both parties have become more partisan, and people are no longer connecting with much of the public.
How does Phoenix, a scientist by training, hope to change that?
“In order to connect, we need to talk about certain universal truths,” she begins. “Curiosity is the cure to ignorance – that is a universal truth.”
“You don’t have to believe everything I say, but when I show you how I got this information absent of an agenda," she adds. "When you show people how science is done, under the hood, people open up to science more."
Phoenix finds that when she emphasizes that she cares about clean water, clean air, less pollution, better healthcare for children and so on – people see that she really does have the same goals as they do and that she’s not a cardboard cut-out politician, but human, after all.
“I gave a talk at the Los Angeles March For Science,” she tells IFLScience. “I made the point that ignorance is a disease we’re fighting against. We’re not fighting people; we’re fighting ignorance.”
“You take away the fighting people element, and you start to fight the disease,” Phoenix concludes. “That’s what I do.”
Her opponent is Representative Steve Knight, who she sums up succinctly: “He is, well, bad.”
Steve Knight is on the ironically named House Committee for Science, Space and Technology, which is currently controlled by GOP lawmakers often funded by fossil fuel companies. He lacks a science degree, and it’s not clear if he’s taken any science classes at all since high school.
“I don’t know if he’s qualified to be on the science committee. It would be okay if he was able to listen to facts, but he isn’t,” Phoenix points out. “You don’t have to have a Ph.D., but you need to have a belief and openness to factual information, and he doesn’t have that.”
According to the League of Conservation Voters, he has a score of zero percent when it comes to his voting record on the environment. This means that he has never cast a vote that is environmentally friendly – unique for a California politician.
Last year, a natural gas storage station leaked in the 25th district. “People were literally being poisoned,” Phoenix recounts. Knight didn’t turn up and try and mitigate the situation for months, claiming that he didn’t want to make the issue political.
“The problem is that the people that make these statements probably live in houses, drive cars, and use smartphones,” Phoenix points out. “These are marriages of engineering and science – so how can they ignore it when it’s convenient to do so?”
Her background will certainly come in handy. Unlike climatology, which is harder for the layperson to connect to, volcanoes are about as visceral a science as you can get.
“When you point out to people, you know – this volcano will kill you – people realize you have a cause: scaring everyone else silly, being morbidly excited by disasters, while also being concerned for the people involved,” she tells us, gleefully.
There are signs that things are already improving. Congress recently defied the whims of the President and gave a boost to federal science funding, instead of cutting it. Phoenix sees this as a good sign, but the 2018 gathering of lawmakers could decide on a very different path – and, of course, Trump is, for now, a mortifying constant that won’t go away.
“Trump advocates anger – that’s dangerous. He uses so much hate speech that it allows people to not treat other humans with respect and care,” she tells us. “I’m not just worried as a scientist, I’m worried as a human.”
Phoenix acknowledges that she has a hell of a fight on her hands – and she’ll need plenty of donations to help her campaign triumph over Knight’s well-oiled and wealthy machinations – but she is confident that a scientific ticket will win the day. It’s nothing less than ambitious, but she points out that this is no different from the goals and capabilities of science itself.
“You know, I was just that kid that never stopped asking why. I think we’re all that kid. We may have moments where we lost a little bit, but if we tap into that curiosity – that’s what put people on the Moon.”
“Curiosity always wins over fear; it’ll always be more universal than fear-mongering and ignorance.”