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

by Sandra Feder

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. “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.