Surprise. That definitely encompasses the mood in Albuquerque this past week.

Of course I am talking about the United States Presidential Election. The US has a rather strange election process – it starts over a year in advance of the actual election, and involves endless campaigning, bargaining, and media stunts. This most recent election was going to be historic regardless of who got elected: either the first female president or the first president without previous political experience.

The surprise in the election results comes from the ‘expected’ outcomes based on polls in the weeks leading up to the election. In short, the pollsters were very wrong. There is a science to polling, however whenever the behaviour of people is involved in a science, things can get more complicated. In the case of the polls leading up to the US election, there is widespread speculation as to why the polls were wrong.

One thing that I consider frequently in my science is the timescale of the processes that I study: if I am looking at the growth of a tree, I may look at a weekly- or monthly- timescale; if I am looking at photosynthesis in a leaf, I may look at it on a second- or minute- timescale. I choose these timescales based on how fast I expected to observe a response, and in any science, it is important to choose the proper timescale. This can be difficult in practice if your system in question maintains itself in a steady state as long as possible, and ‘flips’ to a new state when environmental conditions change. In this case, the precise moment of the flip would need to be captured to fully appreciate the mechanism that led to the change in state, and that requires good, old fashioned, luck.

Now in the case of the polls leading up to the US election, given the volatility of the candidates, their behaviours, and their respective scandals, a poll one month or even one week in advance was likely to be misleading, and given the actual outcome, it’s entirely possible that the American public, on a population level, changed states on election day, explaining why the polls were consistently wrong.

In any case, as with every democratic election on the planet, there are people who are upset, and people who are happy. It was saddening to see comments from people lambasting the American public on their decision. No one, and no people deserve to be treated that way. A divided world is a world prone to war, and given the challenges that face humanity this century, including food security, climate change, over-population, and poverty, we need now, more than ever, to unite as a species and solve these problems on a global scale.

So please support, rather than deride, the American people for their recent choice – they need it more than ever: it was unbelievably quiet and sombre in Albuquerque on Wednesday morning.

And to my fellow Canadians, let’s remind Americans that they are good people, that we appreciate the role they play in our world, and that we will love and support them through these (potentially) turbulent times.

Stay safe and stay informed,
-Joe

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