Dr. Christopher Beyrer
May 22, 2022
Congratulations to each and every one of you, members of the class of 2022. You’ve earned your degrees in a remarkable once in a century period, learning through the pandemic years of 2020, 2021, and 2022. So I’d like to start by asking all the others of us here, your families, your friends, your partners, the faculty, administration and staff of these colleges, to celebrate your resilience. You survived. You thrived. And you have taken care of yourselves and each other. Well done. Truly well done.
I am an epidemiologist and as you’ve heard, and my work has been in infectious diseases. Until recently, kind of a niche field.
Epidemiology comes from the Greek: Epi demos, for Upon the People. It’s been described as compassion at a distance, since we study not the individual person, but communities, populations, and, when we have a great pandemic, our human species as a whole. Today, I want to speak with you about some of the lessons we’ve learned from this extraordinary time we’ve all lived through together, and then to think together about the tasks you will face, the roles you may come to play, as you leave this special place.
But before I do, I’d like to start with gratitude.
First, I want to thank President Jacobson for the honor of being asked to speak to you all today and for the honorary degree, which means so much to me. Not just because I truly loved my years on this campus, but also because of the great legacy of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the modern era, who studied here when it was the Geneva Medical College. A remarkable and still fascinating woman, who pioneered ideas of hygiene during the civil war that still inform medicine and public health practice. As just one example, been hand sanitizing much lately?
I’d like to thank my Dad, Dr. Charles Beyrer, Hobart class of 1956, who is here today—another Hobart physician. He met our mother, Nancy Beyrer, Keuka class of 1955, while at Hobart, and for that, our family is eternally grateful.
I can’t step on this campus and not think about the amazing professors who helped shape my thinking and the many endeavors that marked my time here, and of the lifelong friends I made here, many of whom are here today as well. Suzanne McNally was my advisor in History. Marvin Bram was our guide for all things pre-history, which remains ever more relevant today as advances in genetics, in paleo-genetics, uncover more of our human origin story every day. Doc Heaton managed to get us Religious Studies credit to start an organic farm on 5 acres along the Seneca, loaned to us by Geneva farmer Robbie Poole. That became the Farm Club, and then the Farm House. I’ll just share one Suzanne McNally anecdote to give you a sense of her remarkable caring and concern. In 1979, around the 10th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, we decided to form the Hobart and William Smith Lesbian & Gay Alliance. (This was also so we could get on the bus with people from Cornell to join the first march on Washington for Gay Rights). The Alliance as we called ourselves, we, as in, one gay man (me) and one lesbian, Ellen Gutmaker, put a notice in the Finger Lakes Times about the Alliance, and I put my apartment phone number for anyone interested in joining. The phone rang as soon as the paper was out, and it was Suzanne, calling to check in. Eternally grateful!
Now, about those lessons. So, my work has dealt with two pandemics, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19. When COVID-19 hit, I joined the COVID Vaccine Prevention Network, this was the US publicly funded network which conducted the vaccine trials. For those of you who pay US taxes, thank you.
There are many facets to the U.S. response to the pandemic. Doubtless we’ll be studying these for decades. One is certainly the magnificent scientific triumph of the COVID-19 vaccine effort. After a courageous Chinese scientist published the genetic sequence of the virus online in January of 2020, vaccine candidates were ready for early stage testing in less than three weeks. By the early spring of 2020 the NIH laid out plans for 5 large scale safety and efficacy trials with 30,000 volunteers each—over 150,000 people would be needed to test these vaccines. And Americans stood up, and volunteered in huge numbers, and we were able to do all 5 of these trials, beginning recruitment in July of 2020. These were rigorous randomized trials done to the highest scientific and ethical standards. And the vaccines have delivered, despite the speed with which this virus has evolved, and continues to evolve. And by the way, for those who think evolution is still an unproven theory—we have all been living through all the proof we ever needed that Charles Darwin’s great imaginative leap of insight was correct. His only error was in thinking that evolution progressed at glacial rates. As we have all seen, sometimes it can be incredibly fast.
But there are other aspects of the response that are much more challenging.
First, of course, are the stark inequalities in health care access and the many inequities in our society that COVID-19 so rapidly exploited and uncovered. We witnessed the terrible power of what are called the social determinants of health, poverty, lack of scientific literacy, social marginalization, drive up case rates, and lead to losses of life among minority communities, the working poor, the essential workers who couldn’t work from home, the undocumented.
But we soon saw something else as well, and this is what I really want us all to think about together today. Disinformation, the deliberate spreading of falsehoods, and misinformation, the unwitting, but still enormously damaging further spread of those untruths, have turned out to be literally lethal threats. Disinformation led millions of Americans to believe falsehoods, choose unproven (and in several cases dangerous) therapies over clinically tested and effective ones, and led millions to refuse vaccination with some of the safest and most potent vaccines we’ve ever had.
And this is not just in the realm of science or health. The political manipulation of falsehoods, including the big lie of the stolen election of 2020, have emerged as some of the most serious threats facing our democracy.
And these threats are transnational. And they are happening globally. Take the false narrative that Russian leader Putin has put forward to justify the invasion of Ukraine. His supposed mission: to “de-nazify” Ukraine. Who destroyed the city of Mariupol relentlessly shelled by Russian forces? The Ukrainians destroyed it! This is a Shakespearean inversion of the truth, of the evidence, of reality itself. And because totalitarian regimes like Putin’s crush independent media, and silence critical voices of dissent, too many Russians either believe these falsehoods, or are too afraid to challenge them.
And this is why dealing with disinformation and misinformation, unpacking false narratives and recognizing the politicization of evidence are already a signature challenge for your generation.
Critical thinking is going to matter more than ever. Your education matters more than ever. Here’s another example: The ability to look behind the denials of climate change and see the fossil fuel industry and those they have paid to represent their interests, is essential if we are going to preserve our futures, and the lives of all the other precious species with which we share this breathtakingly beautiful and irreplaceable planet.
Upholding facts against falsehoods is more than a responsibility we share as citizens of this self-governed republic. It is a right. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the two leaders of the US delegation, along with W.E.B du Bois, called a Magna Carta for all mankind, one of less appreciated rights is that of the right to benefit from the fruits of science. This right was stipulated in the universal declaration because during WWII so many people were subject to human experimentation from which there was no chance they or their families would benefit. But this has since been understood as a shared right that we all have by virtue of being humanÃ¢â¬âthe right to benefit from scientific advances. That includes new data, evidence, findings, facts. It also includes the integrity of the scientific process itself. Since we are always learning, always refining and expanding knowledge, and we have to be open to abandoning old orthodoxies, when new evidence shows them to be incorrect, incomplete or obscuring the way forward. This is why the independence of thought, the freedom to think and work without undue politicization, is so fundamental to advancing evidence. And the systems, the integrity of the processes, matter as much, or more, than the content.
You have a right to the truth as it evolves. And that right, now, has to be vigorously defended.
We have been watching history unfold in real time—and also watching the attempts to rewrite this living history as it unfolds. As you go forward from this marvelous place and take your turns at making history, it will be essential to protect the truth, to protect integrity for yourself and for others. To use your critical thinking to interrogate false narratives.
Democracy cannot thrive in a post-truth world. Neither can nature. And neither can we.
So let me close by saying please use your education, use your critical thinking. Don’t be fooled. Don’t be bought. Unpack those false narratives. In whatever field of endeavor you choose, speak truth to power, and defend that truth. It’s your responsibility and it’s your right!
Thank you for your attention, and congratulations again, on your wonderful achievement today.