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This Rocket Scientist Knows How to Talk With Conservative Voters About Science

CARLY CASSELLA
3 AUG 2018

When it comes to discussing evidence-based policy with voters, Congressional candidate, combat veteran and rocket scientist Joseph Kopser knows just what to do.

"We have more in common than that which separates us," he told us at Science AF.

 

"We want quality jobs with meaningful wages, education that prepares us for the 21st century workforce, and a focus on our children's futures."

Kopser's desire to reach across the aisle has come under fire from some Democrats for being too "centrist." But in a Republican stronghold like Texas' 21st Congressional District, getting past the political tribalism and into the nitty gritty of the issues has worked in Kopser's favor.

Even though more scientists are running for office in the US than ever before, halfway through 2018, Kopser is one of the only science candidates to win his Congressional primary.

This means that Kopser is now one step closer to replacing Republican Representative Lamar Smith, one of the most notorious science deniers in government and, naturally, the current chairman of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

This year, Lamar is finally stepping down after several decades on the job, and if Kopser wins his seat in November, the rocket scientist could flip the district blue for the first time since 1979, becoming one of the only scientists in Congress.

 

As a first-time candidate with an unusual and unique background not often seen in politics, this would be an impressive feat, and the Democratic party is giving him their full support.

"Joseph Kopser will fight for working families," said Elizabeth Warren in a statement shortly after Kopser's victory.

"He's running to fight for Texas families, for better wages and good paying jobs. He believes science and climate change are real. He will fight for Texas every day and I'm proud to endorse him."

But while this sort of progressive messaging works for some voters, it isn't suitable for everybody. This is a challenge that Kopser has had to navigate as a Democrat in a deeply conservative district.

"If you talk to people about climate change then about half the audience shuts its eyes and closes its ears," Kopser told us.

Obviously, that doesn't work for a candidate whose future rests on doing the exact opposite. From experience, Kopser has learned not to talk about the elephant in the room. Too often, he finds it triggers an emotional, knee-jerk reaction from his audience.

 

Instead, Kopser explains, he begins a conversation about the local impacts of climate change, as opposed to the abstract, complex, and politically divisive topic that is global warming.

In particular, he likes to focus on the abundance of renewable energy in Texas, and how, if the state can create energy independence, the next time another Hurricane Harvey comes along, power will be restored much quicker and cleaner.

"We don't need to worry about nuclear or coal plants being flooded. Because when a storm comes you can get back on the grid quicker with renewable," said Kopser.

"Soon, I get [voters] all fired up and excited about trying to find new ways to reduce our dependence on oil and gas. And then I have a new friend in the discussion."

As a rule, Kopser never makes the connection between extreme weather events and climate change when speaking to prospective voters.

"Because what I don't want them to do is think that I'm some kind of liberal, hippy, tree-hugging peace hick that's trying to sneak up and surprise them," he said.

"I'm trying to stay focused on the jobs and opportunities of building a 100 percent renewable economy."

The ability to listen and speak to voters without condescension on divisive issues like immigration, climate change, gun rights and health care has given Kopser an edge that cannot be understated.

A national poll, published earlier this year by the pro-science organization 314 Action, found 55 percent of Trump voters were much more or somewhat more likely to vote for a candidate with a scientific background, and 82 percent of Democrats felt the same.

 

In the poll, 54 percent of all those surveyed said they had serious concerns about the way President Trump and Republicans are currently handling science - a surprising majority considering 40 percent of those polled voted for Trump.

"Evidence from science is the great equalizer in a democracy," says Shawn Otto, chair of ScienceDebate.org.

"We are living in a new age when science affects every aspect of public policy, and voters want candidates to give science issues like climate change, healthcare, GMO foods, and jobs in the new tech economy a higher priority."

The way Kopser tells it, his aptitude for cutting through blind partisanship is a direct consequence of his science background.

"Only when you study these issues using scientific methods to look for trends in the data can you really peel out what's going on, and then you can move beyond anecdote and rhetoric," he said.

This is especially true when speaking to voters about universal health care, something that Kopser strongly believes is a basic human right, but which many Texans regard as pure government overreach.

He recalls that once, a Republican woman came up to him and wagged a finger in his face, saying she didn't want to pay for that lazy 25-year-old youngster who won't get a job.

"I said, ma'am, you are already paying for his health care. If he breaks his arm and goes to hospital, your taxes will be paying. Are you going to turn that guy away at the hospital?" Kopser recalled.

"She said, well, of course not! And I said, ma'am, that's where you and I can work together to fix this problem."

It's that relatable, southern charm that makes Kopser such an intriguing candidate.

Even when dealing with emotive issues like gun control, Kopser remains as calm, rational and objective as possible. As a combat veteran and scientist, Kopser represents a different kind of spokesperson in the movement towards reducing gun violence.

"Here is a two-time combat vet saying that we don't need these weapons of war on our street," he told us.

"Anything that is designed to shoot at a great distance, with great velocity and with great frequency, like a high-powered calibre automatic weapon? Those have no place on our streets among civilians."

But Kopser doesn't just say no. He explains the reasoning behind his beliefs, drawing on his experience as a combat veteran and as a scientist to move beyond the anecdote and rhetoric that has infiltrated the gun control debate.

"When you look at the science and the problem-solving that is necessary to create good policy for gun control, we need only look at the example of the 1950s and 60s with the epidemic we had of deaths due to automobile crashes," he explains.

During this time, President Lyndon B Johnson (from Stonewall Texas) signed an executive order asking the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC) to research the epidemic of car crashes, which were, on certain days, claiming more lives than the Vietnam war. It is from this initiative that we know how important effective seat belts, speed limits and collapsible zones in cars truly are.

Just like the motor vehicle epidemic, gun control is an issue that most Americans agree on, despite what politicians would have you believe. By focusing on the overall goal, which is to reduce gun violence in the US, Kopser is able to find common ground with voters in his district.

"I know people that love to drive race cars," he explained, "but I don't want a car going down the interstate driving 200 miles an hour. So what do we do? We allow people to experience the thrill of driving on closed circuits and tracks."

Kopser says this is exactly what he would like to see happen with semi-automatic weapons. If a person really wants to shoot these guns, then they can rent them out and use them at a licensed gun club.

"And then lastly, if someone still really wants to have that weapon of war and they don't want to be limited to the gun club, they can do what I did and join the US army," he said.

"And I'm happy to march them down to the enlistment station and help them sign the paperwork."

The capacity to take complex and inflammatory subjects, abandon the rhetoric and anecdote, and turn them into something that everybody can understand and support makes Kopser's candidacy all the more gripping. Come November, we will see if his tactics work.

Science AF is ScienceAlert's new editorial section where we explore society's most complex problems using science, sanity and humor.