The cold, dry snow of the Northern Rockies makes a low creak when you walk through it; a sound oddly reminiscent of Styrofoam.



Karin prepares for a day of door-knocking at Bozeman, Mont. (Courtesy of Karin Kirk)

My nose was running, but behind the cover of my KN95 mask, it didn’t seem to matter. It was a gorgeous October day in Montana. Seven inches of fresh snow, nine degrees Fahrenheit (-12.8°C), and piercing sunshine.


I sized up the house in front of me: 507 South Cottonwood Street. It was a single-family home with an unshoveled sidewalk and a drift boat tucked in a corner of the driveway. “Outdoorspeople who sleep late,” I thought to myself as I waded through the snow and knocked on the door as assertively as cold knuckles would allow.


I held my breath to listen for a sign of life inside. Was that a dog’s toenails clacking across the floor? I peered through the sidelight windows, seeking any indication of who these people might be: a flag, a sticker, even an item of clothing.

I held my breath to listen for a sign of life inside. Was that a dog’s toenails clacking across the floor? I peered through the sidelight windows, seeking any indication of who these people might be: a flag, a sticker, even an item of clothing. I heard footsteps approaching and pulled back from the window. Oh good, someone is home. My heart pounded underneath two down jackets. But now I have to talk to a total stranger about politics.


Like many scientists, I’d become increasingly distraught with the abandonment of scientific expertise throughout the Trump administration, a stance that had loudly echoed through Montana’s statewide political narrative. People working on environmental issues were portrayed as corrupt, unlikable, out of touch, and most importantly, our work was characterized as dismantling Montana’s “way of life,” whatever that means.


Karin testifies in front of the Montana State House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee against SB 331 on April 8, 2019. The Montana Energy Security Act, which would have forced taxpayers to shoulder the costs of shuttering Colstrip power plants' coal-fired units, ultimately failed to pass by a margin of 37-60. (Courtesy of Karin Kirk)

As anti-science messaging pumped out through the airwaves and social media campaigns, I felt the best way to respond was to show up on people’s doorsteps, listen to their concerns, and do my best to make an impression that scientists are here to solve problems, not create them.


What I quickly learned is that only in rare cases would I even get a chance to talk about science. But when a deep conversation did occur, it buoyed me for days. I analyzed the places where I successfully guided the conversation and stewed over the parts where I’d blown it.


But I had just enough success to make the process somewhat addictive. I started the campaign season working two volunteer shifts per week. Then three. And then, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away and the scourge of American political hypocrisy fully revealed itself, I shoved all my freelance writing aside, and worked doggedly, every day, from mid-September through Election Day.


As anti-science messaging pumped out through the airwaves and social media campaigns, I felt the best way to respond was to show up on people’s doorsteps, listen to their concerns, and do my best to make an impression that scientists are here to solve problems, not create them.

The fear of confrontations subsided as I began to find conversational pathways that worked reliably. The reward of connecting with voters of all stripes grew more poignant, especially when I found myself far outside my usual bubble. I’m not sure I’ve ever learned so much, so quickly. I went from depressed and unproductive to being focused and driven.



Volunteers line up to get their door-knocking assignments at Bozeman, Mont. (Photo courtesy of Karin Kirk)

There’s an unfortunate misconception that “facts don’t matter.” The reason it seems like facts don’t matter is that too often they are weaponized and hurled at the listener in a flurry of smarter-than-thou talking points. Unsurprisingly, that often backfires.


I’m here to tell you, happily, that facts absolutely matter. But to nurture a conversation to the point where facts are relevant and heard is a tricky prospect. As a scientist, I had a huge desire to share facts with Montana voters. As a human, I learned that the real magic was in setting the stage for dialog.


If I could get people to talk about their ideas, they would get happy feedback from their brain, which helped disarm the dialog. I could nod and empathize and ask follow up questions, then settle in to learn more as I soaked in their answers.

Just about everyone loves to talk, especially about their own ideas and opinions. It turns out that talking about oneself activates the brain’s biochemical reward system, triggering a pleasurable sensation similar to indulging in an oversized slice of cheesecake. If I could get people to talk about their ideas, they would get happy feedback from their brain, which helped disarm the dialog. I could nod and empathize and ask follow up questions, then settle in to learn more as I soaked in their answers.


All too often our reflexes are tuned to home in on the places we disagree and pounce on whatever bit of hypocrisy or false logic we encounter. But in time I learned the opposite approach: to listen for places of agreement, then call those out instead. When I pulled it off successfully, the edginess in the conversation eased away and a deeper conversation developed.


In the meantime, it became obvious that we all have a lot more in common than we think. It’s cliché, I know, but I was repeatedly surprised at just how quickly the stereotypes broke down. People are complex, and so are our opinions and values. Few among us can be reduced to a political party or a single issue. Many people straddled both sides of typical divisions, like a young health care worker who grappled with the injustice of poor health care for marginalized communities but was not concerned with making sure those communities had clean air and water.


Views from Heather Lake in the Gallatin Range, less than an hour's drive from Downtown Bozeman, Mont. Southwest Montana is a magnet for outdoor recreation. (Karin Kirk)


The weather turned warm the week before Election Day, and strolling the backstreets became a pleasant task. One gentleman saw me striding up his sidewalk, retreated from his front door, then re-emerged, wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap that he seemed to don with a particular sense of purpose. But at the same time, he smiled warmly and welcomed me to his doorstep. His name was Gary, and he was in the mood to chat. It was a clear opportunity to test out my conversational skills, and avoid pitfalls I’d encountered in previous encounters.


So I listened. I listened to war stories, hunting stories, and skiing stories. I asked questions and enjoyed the answers. As I always did, I nudged the conversation toward the topics I cared about most. Montana has abundant renewable energy resources, access to a huge market of eager buyers of clean energy, but little leadership to steer our energy economy in a cleaner direction. It was far easier to blame our half-shuttered coal plant on us “radical environmentalists” than to grapple with the fact that energy markets will never again favor coal.


As our conversation delved into energy, Gary recited predictable half-truths and myths. Wind turbines take more energy to build than they generate, he said. China is causing global warming, and nuclear power was our only option.



Pictured in the fall, Hyalite Lake is just below the summit of Hyalite Peak, one of the iconic summits in the area. (Karin Kirk)

I could feel the benefits of months of practice because none of these statements raised my heart rate. Instead, I leveraged off the fact that as outdoorspeople, both Gary and I had developed an innate sense for Montana’s weather. “Gary,” I said, “We both know how hard the wind can blow around here. It sure is annoying sometimes but the amazing thing is that Montana has the second-best wind resource in the nation, blowing right over our heads. Only Texas has better wind.” Gary looked skyward, perhaps to catch a glimpse of the breeze. I continued, “That energy is ours for the taking. If Texas can harvest their wind, then there’s no reason we can’t.”


All too often our reflexes are tuned to home in on the places we disagree and pounce on whatever bit of hypocrisy or false logic we encounter. But in time I learned the opposite approach: to listen for places of agreement, then call those out instead.

I knew I had little hope of changing Gary’s vote, and that wasn’t my intention. But maybe the next time Gary heard about clean energy, he could appreciate its upsides, for a change. If Texas is doing it, it can’t be all bad, right?


Gary seemed to appreciate what I’d told him. “But what about China?” he asked. “Why should we change our way of doing things, when they’re the cause of this ‘global warming’ or whatever you people call it?”


I smiled. I loved that he’d even asked the question. Thanks to the careful foundation we’d established, I now had an open floor to talk about climate change.



“China is causing climate change, absolutely!” I said. Gary seemed surprised that I agreed with him. “But so are we,” I said while making a sad face. “China is the leading offender right now, but for decades before that, the United States was by far the biggest polluter of greenhouse gases. Overall, the U.S. has been the biggest cause of the problem. But the key thing is, we’re smart enough to solve this problem. Americans – and Montanans in particular – don’t shrink from a challenge.” Gary nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “And the best part is that our West Coast states would love to buy clean energy from us. So why don’t we sell it to them? We have the wind, we have the know-how, and there’s nothing standing in our way.” I paused but sensed no pushback, so I delivered one final pitch, “Let’s sell them clean energy and get rich doing it!”


I also hoped that this was a novel situation for him – a face-to-face conversation with a scientist and ‘radical’ environmentalist, that turned out to be a completely pleasant experience. We’d both broken the stereotypes.

Karin wrapping up her voter outreach efforts on Election Day. She has knocked 916 doors, walked 50 miles, and made over 2500 phone calls over the election cycle. (Courtesy of Karin Kirk)

Gary was a bit bewildered by my burst of optimism, but his feathers were not ruffled. I smiled and relaxed. By then I’d learned another painful lesson on the campaign trail – to end on a high note, and not let things backslide into bickering. I seized the moment and told Gary that I enjoyed learning from him, thanked him for his time, and pivoted off the heel of my boot to walk back down his sidewalk. I had a feeling he was still watching me, and I could only hope he was replaying our conversation. I also hoped that this was a novel situation for him – a face-to-face conversation with a scientist and ‘radical’ environmentalist, that turned out to be a completely pleasant experience. We’d both broken the stereotypes.


I waited until I’d rounded the corner and was far out of sight before doing a little fist pump and happy dance. That was precisely the type of conversation that got me out of bed each morning. I had 17 doors left to knock on the day’s route. Who knew what potential might await.






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