A Williams College Student Publication

Keep Politics Out of the Biology Classroom

Posted on

Wed, Sep 13, 1:16 PM

Hello Professor XXXXXX,

I wanted to reach out regarding something which has been bothering me ever since I took BIOL 101 with you last fall. I appreciated the work you did as our professor immensely, and it was very clear that you cared immensely about all of our success and that you love biology.

However, one day which I remember especially well included a look at evidence surrounding the origin of COVID-19. As I recall it, you present a case that COVID-19 originated through zoonosis, citing studies which found COVID-19 at several locations at the market in Wuhan. If I recall correctly, you implied that this was the accepted origin story, and that the "lab leak hypothesis" was caused by "sensationalism" in the media.

Since last fall, a lot of good investigation has been done regarding the origins of the virus, and it seems to me that you thoroughly misrepresented reality in your discussion of the origins of COVID-19. Just yesterday, the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability issued a press release revealing that a whistleblower who is a "highly credible senior-level CIA officer ... alleges that of the seven members assigned to the CIA team tasked with analyzing COVID-19 origins, six officers concluded that the virus likely originated from a lab in Wuhan, China." Furthermore, according to this whistleblower, CIA officials were bribed to lie about their opinions: "To come to the eventual public determination of uncertainty, the other six members were given a significant monetary incentive to change their position."


I feel that as a Biology professor, it is not your place to teach one side of highly controversial political topics as scientific fact, especially when the side you present as fact is actually incorrect. I hope that in the future, you will keep politics out of your classes as much as possible.



Wed, Sep 13, 2:39 PM

Hello XXXXX,

I appreciate the feedback, and I wish you would have brought this to me sooner so we could have talked this over in person.

We discussed SARS-CoV2 origins in the context of nucleotide structure and genomes as a way of illustrating percent similarity. There were two recent Science papers about animal stalls in the Wuhan market at the time that I borrowed figures from and used to guide our discussion if you’d like to check them out: https://www.science.org/doi/epdf/10.1126/science.abp8337 and https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abp8715

The goal of this conversation was to present the latest scientific evidence and discuss how scientists are using genomics to search for the origins of the virus. As a scientist, I rely only on hard data from peer-reviewed, credible journals, and I would never present data in class that wasn’t from a peer-reviewed source.

As for the lab leak hypothesis, I did mention in class that there’s a research institute in Wuhan that studies coronaviruses because there are lots of caves in the area where bats harbor coronaviruses. I have in my notes that I shared that we’ll likely never know the precise origins of SARS-CoV2 unless scientists collected samples from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that were an almost exact match for the SARS-CoV2 strain that infected patient zero.

I hope this is helpful.

Best regards, Professor XXXXXXX

Sep 13, 2023, 3:45 PM

Hey Professor XXXXXXX!

Thanks for your reply. Sorry for not bringing this up sooner; I just wasn't sure that it was worth discussing until I recently changed my mind.

I understand that your goal was to have us engage with the latest scientific research and understand how the material we were studying could be applied in meaningful ways. I also understand that your sources were reputable peer-reviewed journals, and I agree that the Science papers you used are an important part of the discussion.

My issue comes from the fact that it seemed to me that another one of your goals, or perhaps an undertone of the discussion, was to establish the idea that as an expert in Biology, you were able to use your scientific knowledge to understand that the natural origin hypothesis was much more likely than the lab leak hypothesis, and that as students of Biology, we were encouraged to also adopt the "scientific" perspective on this issue by not giving credence to the lab leak hypothesis. We did not read any scientific papers exploring the merits of the lab leak hypothesis; this side of the debate you attributed to "sensationalism" in the media. I remember clearly that you used this exact word.

I agree that we will never know the origin of SARS-CoV2 with perfect certainty. However, as I understand it, the papers we read did have some problems. First, the samples collected at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market were collected in January and February of 2020, when the authors themselves acknowledge that humans were likely transmitting SARS-CoV2 in early November 2019. The fact that the lineages A and B match the strains of the virus found in humans has been interpreted by many, including the authors of the Muddy Waters Report on The Origins of COVID-19, as evidence that it was humans who brought the virus to the wet market in the first place.

Second, according to internal Chinese communications detailed in the above report, we know that SARS-CoV2 was all over Wuhan by the end of November 2019. The samples taken months later in the wet market didn't even show infections in the animals. To me and many other intelligent and reputable people, including experts of epidemiology, the timing just doesn't add up.

I could be wrong. This email is not meant to convince you that you should have spent a class period talking about how SARS-CoV2 leaked from a lab. However, I would encourage you to choose scientific research for class discussions which is not part of a current political controversy, as politics often leads people (including researchers, unfortunately) to misrepresent the facts in service of an agenda. In this case, the government wanted to dismiss the lab leak hypothesis so much that they allegedly bribed CIA officials to lie about their opinions. It would be far better to choose something which is unlikely to have a political agenda behind it.

If you do choose to bring a discussion about a controversial topic to the class, I strongly feel it is important that you do not imply that there is one right "scientific" side of the issue and one "sensationalist" side, as I feel you did in this case. Even if you believe that one side is clearly correct, the implication that students who disagree with you are being unscientific strikes me as unnecessary and harmful.

Perhaps you will deny that you made this implication. I felt it very clearly and have outlined what you did to imply it above.

I hope you understand my concerns a little better now.