Stanford course on human extinction and cognitive biases strikes a chord with students in time of COVID-19

Teaching students about the existential threat of a pandemic as they are living through one can help make the danger feel less hypothetical and much more real.

Rashid Al-Abri did not anticipate that one of the most impactful classes he would take at Stanford his first year would be about threats to human existence. But now that he is one of only a few hundred students remaining on campus due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the existential threat of a pandemic – one of the four threats outlined in the freshman course Preventing Human Extinction – is easier to conceive.

Stephen Luby (Image credit: Steve Fisch)

“Living on campus almost feels surreal,” said Al-Abri, who was not able to return to his home in Al Buraimi, Oman, due to the impact of the virus.

For the past two years, Stephen Luby, professor of medicine at Stanford Medicine, and Paul N. Edwards, senior research scholar and director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) in the School of Humanities and Sciences, have taught about plausible scenarios that could result in human extinction or near extinction within the next 100 years. Part of the Thinking Matters first-year curriculum, the interdisciplinary course addresses some of the most intractable issues humanity must try to solve.

Both realistic and hopeful in its scope and approach, the course covers four threats to the existence of humanity: nuclear war, infectious disease, climate change and malevolent uses of artificial intelligence.

While COVID-19 poses serious risks, the instructors are not treating it as an existential threat – that risk seems more likely from a synthetic or engineered disease, they said. But talking about the threat of a pandemic in the midst of one certainly made for a compelling teachable moment earlier this quarter. “Instead of spending a large amount of time on just proving the threat exists, we were able to talk about barriers to engagement and public policy to mitigate effects,” said Brooke Swain, a student in the course.

And this pandemic is likely to have an impact on the course in the future. “As an infectious disease specialist, whenever I’ve talked about pandemics, I keep going back to the flu outbreak of 1918 as the most salient event,” Luby said. “I think that will change, and we’ll use COVID-19 going forward.”

Cognitive biases

Luby said he came up with the idea for the class after wrestling with existential risks for years, leading him in medical school to focus on infectious diseases and global public health issues.

Paul N. Edwards (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

“I thought that at a leading university, where we are training leaders for the future, I could put together a class to say we should take these issues seriously,” said Luby, associate dean for global health at the Center for Innovation in Global Health and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Soon after, Luby reached out to Edwards, a climate change scholar who jumped at the opportunity to co-teach the course.

“A lot of what we do in the class is talk about why it’s so difficult to think about problems of that scale – global catastrophic risks,” said Edwards, who also is the William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford. “As humans, we’re built to respond to immediate threats with reactions that are intuitive and instinctive. They learn how to evaluate issues and evidence carefully and base their responses on reasoning. That’s inherently hard, especially around terrifying possibilities that can be immobilizing.”

“It’s an important example of why we need both the humanities and sciences together,” Luby said. “We can explore not only the technical dimensions of these issues but also how to think about them philosophically and epistemologically.”

The course focuses on the psychological, social, and epistemological – relating to the nature of knowledge – barriers that often impede efforts to avert catastrophes. For example, one such barrier is known as availability bias – which refers to the human tendency to place greater significance on things that come readily to mind.

“It’s difficult to get our minds around what a nuclear winter would be like or what happens if the global temperature warms by eight degrees,” said Luby. “It’s hard to do that with good academic peer-reviewed left-brain reading.” So the instructors also include some fiction in the course, including David Mitchell’s “The Siphoners,” from the short story collection, I’m With The Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet. “Having a story can help counter availability bias,” Luby explained.

“As humans, we’re built to respond to immediate threats with reactions that are intuitive and instinctive. At an institution like a university, our job is to help students go beyond that.”

— Paul N. Edwards

There also are other cognitive biases that impede our ability to think about extinction, including being hard-wired to focus on the short term and the tendency toward optimism. “That’s why it’s useful at a university to think about catastrophic risk as a thinking problem. How do we predict the future when these are low probability and high consequence threats?” Luby asked.

Another topic in the course is the role of individual behavior change. “It can be difficult for students to understand the full dimensions of our social selves and the responsibility that might carry,” Luby said. The course also asks students to examine “silver bullet” solutions, which are a recurring trope in popular culture – the lone hero riding in to save the day by firing one silver bullet.

“Most popular movies are hero movies,” Luby said. “But these problems are deep societal problems, and we need to work collectively.” To counteract “silver bullet” thinking, the instructors use the term “silver buckshot” to get students thinking about the multiple interventions that are needed to solve intractable problems.

Teachings applicable to the present moment

While learning about all the ways humans could cease to exist might seem bleak, the instructors have found an eager audience, with the first class in 2019 going from an anticipated 40 students to almost 100. “It’s part of the course design to never talk only about the problem,” Edwards said. “We always talk about what kinds of solutions there are.”

One student who was drawn to the topic, sophomore Vinjai Vale, said that taking the course during his freshman year led to his interest in the problems of artificial intelligence, both from the technical and regulatory sides.

Another student who plans to continue learning more about these issues in order to help find solutions is Al-Abri. “As I scroll through my social media feeds, I witness the same cognitive biases I learned about in class that lead us to prepare and respond inadequately to near-catastrophic and catastrophic scenarios,” he said. After taking the class, his new frame of reference allows him to think about other catastrophic risks, like climate change and nuclear catastrophe, with a different mindset. “Now, it’s about prevention and proactive action,” he said.