Tell Me a Story
by Neal Baer, '78, M.D. and executive producer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and former executive producer of "ER"
May 23, 2005
Good morning. I am honored to be here to congratulate the graduating senior class of The Colorado College. I warmly applaud everyone else here today whose efforts have brought all of you to this momentous occasion in your lives. Your professors’ unflagging support has nourished your minds and your dynamic athletic program has strengthened your bodies. Thank you President Celeste and Jacqueline Lundquist, Trustees, members of the faculty, and especially parents, grandparents, family members for a job very well done.
I am particularly honored to have been selected by the students to give this commencement address. Typically, whenever I speak, I show clips from my shows and then take questions from the audience. Unfortunately we’re not set up for a multi-media presentation, so I won’t be able to show any scenes from “ER” or “SVU” -- but I can certainly answer any questions. Like: "What’s it like to work with Mariska?" – "She’s great." "Is George Clooney a cool guy?" – "Yes, but he never knows his lines. He writes them on people’s backs." Do we have microphones available for questions? (pause) Oh. We don’t. Well in that case I’ve prepared a few words for a more traditional speech.
It’s not often one gets the chance to thank those professors who make a difference in a student’s life. Please indulge me almost 30 years later. Thank you, Tim Fuller, for exhorting me to reflect more deeply. “Neal,” you wrote on my exams in Political Theory, “You must reflect more deeply.” Professor Fuller, I’m still trying. Thank you, Bob Lee, for introducing me to African politics. You took me the world outside the US and initiated my interest in world health. Thank you, John Simons, for helping me to understand Wallace Stevens and Elliot. I still turn to poetry for inspiration – to find ways to fashion crystalline dialog. Its not easy. Thank you, Charlotte Mendoza and Paul Kuerbis, for passing on to me your joy and enthusiasm for teaching children, be it in the classroom or in the hospital or in the clinic. And thank you Glenn Brooks for believing in me in times when I had lost my way.
Back in 1978 when I graduated from CC, if anyone had said, “You will become a physician and a TV writer and a producer” I would have scoffed. I loved movies like everyone else, but I was a Poly. Sci. major. I took Psychology as my science elective. That’s it. And a smattering of English Lit. courses. I was planning back then to work in educational policy to improve public schooling. So how did I get to where I am today from my education at Colorado College? What is my story?
Ethics, social policy and social theory, which I studied at CC, inspired me to become a physician and also inform all the stories I tell on television. In fact, I learned in my political science courses how to tell stories -- how to think about and explain behavior using data, how to integrate ideas and apply them in novel ways. One of the first concepts I learned at CC was in an introductory Political Science course taught by Robert Loevy. He taught us that the falsifiability of a statement was the currency of political science: If a statement is falsifiable, it can be tested empirically, otherwise it’s an opinion.
This concept has served me well through the years, now more than ever. For instance, there is much conflict today, wrenching our country apart, over opinions that some hold as fact. Debate rages over the teaching of Creationism and Intelligent Design as being equally acceptable in the classroom as the scientific theory of evolution. Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, recently wrote astutely in the New York Times about the conflict between what can be tested empirically and what can only be held as faith. Krauss writes that the Big Bang, or the beginning of the universe, “is not a metaphysical theory, but a scientific one: namely one that derives from equations that have been measured to describe the universe, and that makes predictions that one can test.” One can’t empirically test Creationism or Intelligent Design, and therefore I don’t believe they should be taught as scientific doctrine in our public schools. Krauss goes on to say that “questions of purpose that may underlie these discoveries are outside the scope of science, and scientists themselves have many different views in this regard.” This is profoundly important. Whether or not you believe the purpose of the Big Bang was inspired by God is a matter of your own individual faith; however, it is not a falsifiable question and can never be tested scientifically.
Unfortunately, fear of science and rational thinking is wreaking havoc across the country. Even here, in Colorado Springs, which is a microcosm of the culture wars, this fear is being played out by the doctrinaire views of Focus on the Family which challenge the tradition of open inquiry epitomized by Colorado College. When the Speaker of the House tells his colleagues that the shooting at Columbine happened because “our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized (sic) out of some primordial soup of mud,” it is clear we are in dire need of well-educated, thoughtful graduates like yourselves to speak up and engage in this vital debate.
My professors encouraged me to think hard about the pressing issues confronting us and our world. Take global warming, for instance. It was just being talked about when I graduated. Is it still truly a problem? Look at the scientific evidence: It is difficult to deny that dangerous changes have occurred with the thinning of the ozone layer and the melting polar ice caps. And yet, some would argue that these scientific measurements are propaganda, or that because they interfere with economic development they can be ignored. My appeal to you: Don’t turn away from science. Don’t blindly accept propaganda. Read widely. Analyze everything with the critical thinking you have learned here. You might end up with views radically different from mine – so what? You are engaged.
Today you face enormous challenges I couldn’t have imagined twenty-five years ago: Terrorism, AIDS, stem cell research, cloning and the economic dilemmas of globalization. What makes these issues even more difficult is how to address them in a growing climate of fear and closed-mindedness. I believe telling stories for social change is one way each of you can make a difference.
As a physician and a television writer I’ve been fortunate to tell stories on a variety of thorny topics. Here are just a few of the questions I’ve raised for the television audience over the past few years: Recent neurological research shows that impulse control doesn’t fully develop until after adolescence. So you all are just past that. Should juveniles be tried as adults? Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the number one cause of mental retardation in the US. Should a woman who is pregnant be forced to stop drinking alcohol if she intends to keep the pregnancy? Do her reproductive rights trump a fetus’ rights? Where do we draw the line in protecting the fetus? African Americans are less likely to have access to kidney transplants, and many people die owing to a lack of transplantable kidneys. Should we allow people to sell their kidneys? Would the poor be more likely to sell them and the rich to buy them? Is that fair? Some video games have graphic violence and encourage the player to run over women with cars for points. Should we ban these games? Do these games encourage violent behavior?
Many of the stories I told on “ER” and continue to present on “SVU” are based on my personal experience as a physician. I call the stories of my doctoring “private stories.” These are the cases I’ve seen as a physician that have made an impact. For example, as a pediatrician I’ve treated adolescents for alcohol poisoning. And alcohol abuse by teens is a major public health crisis with one out of three seniors in high school regularly binge drinking. I took that “private story” about a young man I treated and wrote two episodes of “ER,” illustrating the problems of alcohol abuse in adolescents and how we can try to treat it. I call these television stories “public stories,” because they are inspired by real cases (my “private stories”) and made public (on a television drama) to illustrate important social problems.
These stories have a measurable impact. Instinctively, we know that we get information from television – and not just news. Dramatic shows like “ER” and “SVU” educate viewers. Studies I’ve done with the Kaiser Family Foundation and published in the journal “Health Affairs” have demonstrated a profound increase in the public’s knowledge about a variety of health issues – after they have watched an episode of “ER.” In fact, one out of seven viewers went to a doctor at one point because of something they saw on the show. Which is quite frightening. The study proved that viewers retained this health information when retested six months later. Stories can make us laugh, make us cry, and make us smarter. Our stories are our power.
Each of you has a private story to tell, no matter if you’ve majored in Chemistry, Music, or Sociology. Which by the way I majored in in graduate school and I never took a sociology course at CC. Just political science but I went on to do five years of graduate study in sociology. So a liberal arts education is a good platform. Each of you has a story that has gripped you, changed the way you thought about the world, or moved you to tears. Take those stories about poverty, drug abuse, HIV, discrimination and make them public. You don’t have to be a television writer to have an impact. Write op-ed pieces. Work in grassroots organizations. Testify before the legislature. Run for the Senate. Debate your enemies. March for justice. Stand for truth. Teach. Tell your stories publicly. Speak out. Read poems aloud, like this one by Auden:
“The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
While drivel gushes from his lips.”
Take your stories and your passions and turn them into potent barbs to fight dogmatism and bigotry. You have much to do from this day on. Use the tools you’ve learned here and speak out. Tell me your stories. Thank you.