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Science and Social Issues

There’s a new club on campus. Founded by the reclusive Kieran Okerstrom (of one-time University of Nottingham water polo fame). Kieran Okerstrom, purveyor of fine memes, data scientist and computational biologist extraordinaire, best known for that one time he fled the farm of a crazy lady and couch-surfed across Germany.

The club meets once per week for an hour and a half in Sampson-Hoffland Laboratories. Its members discuss current scientific articles and their relation to contemporary social issues. Perhaps not surprisingly, this group is called The Science and Social Issues Club. An uncreative name for a creative group of people.

Although I am caught up pretty tightly in the humanities (I major in Philosophy and Classics, after all), I have always had an affinity for science. I read theoretical physics books in middle school, wrote a research paper on prions for an independent study in high school, and planned to be a bio-chem major until shortly before I arrived at Luther. So it’s no surprise that I was intrigued by this new group.

Every week, some group members will have read a selection of scientific literature related to our current topic. Then they spend the first half of the meeting giving an ad hoc presentation on what they found. Afterwards, the group discusses the articles, and we try to draw conclusions relevant to a modern issue.

For example, last semester the focus of the group was on gender identity and other issues related to human sexuality. We evaluated papers from psychology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and more while tackling these questions, and although we were far from any definitive conclusions or paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, I believe that everyone involved got to think about new perspectives in a productive environment.

So far, this semester has seen a focus on the question of gun violence in America. In evaluating this very topical issue, we have tried to keep open minds. The scientific studies that have been performed in these cases are very often open to interpretation, and our discussion leans much more to the social side and is not quite as science focused.

Even as we look at statistics that can sometimes be bleak, though, we try to keep spirits up by having some fun. Just this week, we spent some time looking at political memes and discussing how well they captured the complexities of this issue (spoiler: not very thoroughly). Plus, as an added bonus, we always have snacks!

I am happy to be a member of a group that is willing to tackle these sorts of questions with candor and dialogue, a place where it is expected that arguments should have some basis in statistical fact. In a time of profound social divide, perhaps a little bit of discourse (with a sprinkling of science) is just what we all need.

The one and only Kieran Okerstrom leading a meeting.
How did I end up in the science building???
A view of the Sampson-Hoffland atrium
A regular exercise is to see where we all fall on a scale of agreeing with a statement.
Some memes to promote analysis (and lighten the mood).

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