An Open Letter to the "COVID" Class of 2020
A professor shares some life lessons on science and the human condition with his science-minded students as they continue on life's journey after graduation.
This week concludes the most challenging and disrupted semester of teaching I have experienced in my 30-year academic career. COVID-19 has negatively impacted life on a scale unimaginable six months ago. Nothing works quite like a time of total disequilibration to prompt us to push pause and reflect on what can be learned from our current situation. These are thoughts I chose to share—online, of course—with my students at the close of the spring 2020 semester.
I’m disappointed to not have the opportunity to spend our last class period together, discussing the major learnings you will carry with you from this course. Allow me, though, to provide some reflections on the semester and our current global crisis.
First, I want to thank you for your interest, enthusiasm, and hard work over the course of the semester. I really enjoyed teaching you. A month into the semester, I told my wife that I was having more fun teaching this course than I had any other in my career at the University of Wisconsin. It was your engagement that made it so.
Two months ago, none of us would have predicted that we would be in the situation we find ourselves in today. COVID-19 has thoroughly disrupted many aspects of our lives, education included. As a consummate (some would say “incorrigible”) teacher, I cannot pass on this opportunity to reflect on science in the context of COVID-19. Whether or not you continue in science for a career, I encourage you to carry these perspectives into the future:
Destruction of the natural world can have severe and immediate consequences.
Most of the destructive impacts of humans are slow and progressive, imperceptible to the unattuned ear. But not all. It took only one person, interacting with a bat, a pangolin, or a raccoon dog—most likely in the context of wildlife trafficking or bushmeat marketing—that led within months to the deaths of over 300,000 people and the grinding of the global economy to a halt. The consequences of COVID-19 will reverberate for decades.
When the going gets tough, the tough turn to science.
Science is not a perfect medium for understanding how our world works. But it is without question the best option available. It is the discipline we turn to for understanding, for answers, and, ultimately, for solutions.
Underfunding and defunding science has consequences.
Scientists have been declaring for decades that the next pandemic is coming. Few people have paid attention. Other scientists tried without success to garner funding for development of vaccines against SARS-like viruses. Federal programs established to anticipate and prepare for pandemics have been underfunded or shut down. So now we pay the price.
Science denialists resort to the same playbook, irrespective of the issue at hand.
Consider these parallels between COVID-19 and our climate crisis: it’s not real; it’s real but not serious; scientists disagree; it’s someone else’s fault (typically China’s); it’s a conspiracy.
For the good of all, science must remain nonpolitical.
Fifty years ago marked the original Earth Day, which, during a highly partisan era, catalyzed extraordinary bipartisan initiatives to put science above politics, for the health of people and the environment. The shift away from science-based environmental policy-making began in the 1980s, and has continued ever since. Science has been politicized, weaponized, and dismissed for personal, political and corporate gain at local, state and national levels. Society will flourish or flounder parallel to the credence accorded science by our political leaders.
Humans are hardwired to ignore future risks, no matter how ominous.
Humans evolved to modify behavior in response to the lion that may leap out of the bush at any moment, not in response to the drought that may occur in a few years. Indeed, only recently in our history have we been able to identify long-term risks. Again, the parallel between COVID-19 and climate change is striking: humans are motivated to change behaviors by felt needs, not by future risks. How to address that fundamental human constraint remains one of our largest challenges.
Don’t waste a good pandemic.
Yes, I know, there is little about this pandemic that is good. But my point here is that good can come of it, and these opportunities come along (fortunately) only once or so in a lifetime. This is our opportunity to think hard and creatively, and push “reset” with respect to the infrastructure that underlies modern civilization. How can we alter our human aspirations, activities, and institutions in ways that provide for more equitable, just, and sustainable flourishing for all life, including people? This is one way we can seek to salvage good from our COVID-19 crisis, because, as suggested by New York Times columnist David Brooks in a recent podcast: “Pandemics leave in their wake a crisis of meaning.”
At some level or another, many of us are asking the existential question why? And here is where we bump up against the limits of science, which can provide proximate but not ultimate answers. The failure of our rationalist mindset to provide adequate explanations for suffering is what culminates in the experience, as old as the human race, of lament. And, historically, it is at such times that turning toward faith and spiritual perspectives has provided not an answer to, but a path through, the crisis.
One of the privileges given to professors is a platform to profess. So thank you for this opportunity to do so. Be safe, be well, and let’s take advantage of this opportunity to leverage the transformation of our world.
About the author
Emily Smith | Science & Neighborliness
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