A few days ago, while teaching a crowded business class of 90+ college students, my professor informed the room of his belief that climate change is debatable.
Obviously, everybody is entitled to their opinions. Some people believe in ghosts. My friend Adam believes only pooping once a week isn’t cause for alarm. A woman I used to work with believes Kanye West is a shape-shifting reptile bent on undermining our informed democracy. And that’s all fine.
You’re fooling nobody, Kanye.
However, if your beliefs and actions have influence over others, you have a civic duty to inform yourself and be as unbiased as possible before chiming in with your two cents. Last year, the spread of misinformation based on gossip and gut-feelings led to the largest measles outbreak since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000. Sensationalism and distortion of science in the media certainly didn’t help. Meanwhile, 20% of adults in a recent poll continue to believe Obama was not born in the U.S. and successful rappers are proclaiming the earth is flat.
Climate change is not a political, debatable issue; it’s a scientific fact. The scientific consensus agreed years ago that evidence of the warming of the earth is unequivocal and that it’s “extremely likely” humans are responsible. My professor is over 60 years old and has been teaching for 30. He’s a solid teacher by my definition and seems like an overall stand-up guy. As far as I’m concerned he can believe he’s a talking anthropomorphic walrus and I’d have no qualms. But, when he intersperses his lecture to a room full of impressionable minds with popular misguided beliefs, he’s causing damage and promoting the spread of scientific illiteracy. Several students around me nodded in agreement that the warming of the earth may, in fact, be a hoax, their suspicions affirmed by a reputable educator.
Using the world as an industrial ashtray for over a century will yield zero consequences.
Neil deGrasse Tyson put it best a few days ago in his epic slam of rapper B.o.B. and his flat-earth theory on the Nightly Show:
“If you think the world is flat and you have influence over others, as would successful rappers or even presidential candidates, then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry.” Tyson then quotes Isaac Newton, urging the significance of standing on the shoulders of previous generations of scientific discovery, shortly before dropping the mic in a savage demonstration of gravity.
As an educator, celebrity, social icon, politician, guild master or president of your local women’s fiction book club, you’re not allowed to be wrong. Being a leader and person of influence on any scale means your words have power. A large number of people listen to you and they believe you. Whether you like it or not, society holds you to a higher standard, and you have a social responsibility to educate yourself ahead of the curve on matters concerning the welfare of others before joining the conversation, or, at the very least, restrain yourself and bite your tongue. Let’s not forget, success isn’t a license to spew whatever bigotries or conspiracies that cross your mind into the public forum; it’s a solemn duty to lead and hopefully inspire others for the betterment of society.
The moment you gain an audience you cease to be a civilian. Like it or not, up there on that podium, you’re Spiderman. Own that (great) power. Don’t shun your responsibility. The world can’t afford you to.