We still know what the problem is
Tragedy at Michigan State shows the threat to scientific progress
This was on my blog over at Science.
Last night, a gunman killed three students and injured five others on the campus of Michigan State University. This comes only a few months after a similar tragic shooting at the University of Virginia. And it occurs in the long wake of mourning for the 21 victims of last spring’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. At that time, I wrote an editorial titled “We know what the problem is,” debunking the idea that these incidents are caused by mental illness or the myriad other incorrect reasons given by gun advocates in the United States. The problem is not mental health. The problem is the irrationally facile access to firearms supported by politicians who are incapable of interpreting the Constitution’s Second Amendment (on the right to bear arms) through a modern lens.
Michigan State University President Teresa Woodruff is navigating a situation that is every university president’s worst nightmare. When I was chancellor at the University of North Carolina, I was fortunate not to have dealt with a mass shooting, but we did experience the woeful deaths of students, including murders by guns. My heart goes out to President Woodruff and to Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia. They, like other campus leaders do, have probably feared a possible shooting on campus, but hoped to get by unscarred.
University campuses as well as elementary through high schools, are supposed to be places where students can flourish—places where ideas can be generated and learned. They can’t serve this purpose if they are environments of mortal fear. As no amount of lives lost to gun violence seems to rattle the National Rifle Association and their minions in Congress, perhaps everyone else needs to explain to them that the benefits of higher education that gun supporters so eagerly tout—education in the practical arts, innovations in the life sciences and engineering, business education, local economic development—can’t be realized if the people behind these rewards are afraid of getting shot. More guns translates into a competitive disadvantage for the United States as it tries to pit itself against international counterparts that don’t have to deal with the rampant and unfettered presence of firearms in their communities. If the United States wants to compete on the global stage, politicians need to make sure that the nation’s innovators and learners are safe. This is an overly pragmatic solution to a massive moral and philosophical problem, but the arguments about competitiveness have always been, sadly, more effective with Congress.
University scientists in the United States have enough problems to deal with: racism and sexism in the workforce, the struggle for funding, undercompensated trainees, and countless other things. But what tops this list—if not now, then very soon—is fear of being murdered on campus by someone armed with a gun. Every effort to improve conditions for academic scientists should start with physical safety. Addressing the other problems, as important as they are, won’t matter if researchers, scholars, students, and staff flee the premises. Everyone lobbying for improving US competitiveness needs to remind Congress that the country can’t play, or expect to win, if its campuses are not safe.
As long as an individual can become a state governor or U.S. Senator/Congressman by outlawing vaccination, masks, and books and advocating for all citizens to carry concealed weapons, change is impossible.
The gun epidemic points to a much larger issue which should be of interest to all of us. You write, "The problem is the irrationally facile access to firearms..." Let's start there, and then think bigger.
QUESTION: Can human beings successfully manage any amount of knowledge and power delivered at any rate?
The "more is better" relationship with knowledge at the heart of modern science seems to assume that we can manage any amount of knowledge and power delivered at any rate, given that the science community is seeking new knowledge as fast as budgets will allow.
Handguns are just the tip of the iceberg. There's also nuclear weapons, AI, genetic engineering, and who knows what else soon to come from the science community. If we can't handle handguns, what makes the science community think that we can handle all these other much greater forces??
I'm always looking for any place to discuss such questions with scientists, philosophers, or anybody else with a sincere interest. Happy to engage here, and grateful for links or suggestions of where such topics can be explored. As a place to start, here's one attempt.