Addressing the Elephant in the (Class)room
Today I showed up to the university class I teach, and it was clear from the faces of my wonderful students that some were exhausted and struggling. I had considered addressing the election outcome with them but had decided against it until I felt the defeated tone; it was the unmistakable dread cast by the elephant in the room (and soon, White House). So I said something. Below is a (very slightly abbreviated) transcript of how I started my class today. (It's a little rambly and not terribly eloquent because it's almost verbatim what I decided to say spur of the moment.) If you are teaching and you are debating whether or not to address this, I can only tell you that the response from my students was heartfelt and very positive. And that in doing this, and seeing their responses, it warmed my faith in our future.
Before we start talking about science, I want to talk to you guys about what’s going on in the country right now. And I debated whether or not to do this because we are not a political science class, and I as your professor want to be very careful not to impose my political views on you guys. But in light of what’s happening, I feel it would be irresponsible not to have a short conversation about this.
There are two main issues that I want to bring up today. One of them has to do with science, so it should be fairly obvious why I want to talk to you about that (we’re in a science class). The other one has to do with human decency and with how we treat each other. Because if you guys are aware, there have been some incidents already happening across the country on college campuses targeting minorities. There was an incident that just happened at UCSD – there was a swastika painted on the ground, and “heil Trump” was written next to it. Sometimes universities make these things public, and they very publicly condemn them. Sometimes they try to make them go away because it doesn’t look good for their image.
I don’t know if there will be any incidents here at USD. I sure hope not. If the students at large are anything like you guys, then I have full confidence that you guys will all handle yourselves with grace and aplomb and you will not do these things. But if you do see something that is upsetting and that targets people, speak up. You know? Because it’s your community, and you guys get to decide how everybody acts and what everybody tolerates.
So [addressing diverse class] I want to emphasize that everybody here is welcome. Every single one of you guys has the right to be at this university. Every single one of you deserves whatever you want to pursue in life. And do not let anybody make you feel like you don’t. And this makes me emotional because I have worked with students that have been treated badly, and I’ve worked at institutions that are primarily white, and I can tell you that there are a lot of well-intentioned people that are just very clueless about some of the ways that discrimination can manifest itself in the sciences, in regards to race, gender, and sexuality. And it matters to me that a diverse group of people gets to go into science if they want to. Okay? So that’s why I’m talking to you guys about this.
The other issue with science is that we now have a president elect who has an unprecedented lack of respect for scientific findings. So obviously as a scientist this is disturbing to me on a personal level. Science and academia are about the pursuit of knowledge, right? And the principle behind that is that knowledge is as close as you can get to truth.
You guys are learning in this class that even the most well-constructed study is still going to leave some doubt. There are limits to what we can measure, and there are limits to the interpretations we can draw from our measurements. So when you talk about scientific results, there’s always going to be some element of doubt, even in very well-replicated, well-controlled studies. But when you get to a point where there is something called “scientific consensus,” we have reached the point where enough studies have been done by enough different people, that the conclusions are solid. And everybody in the scientific community – well, not everybody, there are always going to be some dissenters – but the vast majority of scientists agree on what is happening.
So for example, climate change. That perfectly describes the situation with climate change. There are always going to be ways that someone can poke holes in certain data collections or certain interpretations of studies, but at this point thousands and thousands of studies have been conducted. There is unbelievable scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change, that carbon emissions are accelerating the rate of climate change. We need to use policy to change this. But we now have a president elect that rejects this finding, and it’s upsetting from a scientific standpoint because if we aren’t going to believe the results that scientific studies are generating, what does that leave us believing?
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. You can say, “Alright I see that humans are driving climate change, but I don’t care.” That’s an opinion, right? Your opinion is that it doesn’t matter. Since it's your opinion, that’s fine, you’re entitled to that. I might disagree with it, but you’re entitled to that. But you can’t just outright reject the scientific findings, because if you reject the scientific findings, then we’re left making things up. We’re left confusing our facts with opinions, mixing those two, and it's really important that we not do that.
So you all are going to emerge from your college experience here as some of the most educated members of society. And you are going to be excellent thinkers. I can see you already turning into excellent thinkers. The changes I’ve seen in the way you have gone about your experiments and the way you have described them in your lab reports from day one until now... I have all the confidence in the world that every single one of you is capable of going on and doing something really cool with your life. And I really want to encourage you to use your voices. And use the critical thinking skills that you are developing, and be part of society’s conversations.
Vote. Have discussions with people that might be unpleasant. It’s fine to disagree. It’s fantastic to disagree. If everyone just agreed with everything all the time, we would never push each other, and we would never make each other think harder and more critically about things. So have those conversations with each other, and use your voices, and use your critical, analytical skills that you have developed and will continue to develop in order to be the wonderful, participating members of society that I know you can all be.
So thank you for bearing with me there. I wanted to give you guys that spiel because I think it’s sort of an unprecedented time in our lives, and I just want to reiterate that if any of you are feeling especially down in the dumps now, remember you deserve to be here. You should be here. And you’re going to do a fantastic job both in college and beyond.
Above photo by Lauren Shipp