Earlier this week, members of the MIT community found in their inboxes an email from Chancellor Barnhart. Immediately beneath the ominous subject line of “Alcohol abuse, illegal drugs and our community” were the expected exhortations against binge drinking and drug use. This time, however, these words came backed by evidence. To quote the email, “The results of the 2015 Healthy Minds Study and 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault survey show the direct — and negative — links between substance abuse and student health and safety.” Included helpfully were also hyperlinks to these two studies, as well as one to the MIT “Statement on Drug-free Campus and Workplace Policies,” which contains, among other things, a list of “selected drugs and their effects.” In short, a bevy of material to support a seemingly obvious claim.
The problem? Within all that material, the data supporting the conclusions Chancellor Barnhart refers to simply aren’t there. Neither of the reports find any sort of causal relationship between substance use and student safety, negative or otherwise. The 2015 Healthy Minds Study did ask respondents about binge drinking, cannabis use, and use of cigarettes in addition to questions pertaining to mental health. But if a correlation was established, it isn’t presented in the final report; all that is given are graphics comparing percentages of occurrence for MIT students to those in the nation.
Her words are more tenable with regard to the 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault — but only with dangerous implications. There is a single statistic in that report that seeks to represent instances of student victims who were sexually assaulted while drunk, high, asleep, or otherwise incapacitated (44 percent out of all victims). While that is a disturbingly high percentage, it is of being incapacitated, conditional on being victimized, not the other way around. It has no real correlative value, especially considering that being incapacitated is distinct from alcohol abuse or drug use. To say that this statistic shows the “[direct and negative link] between substance abuse and student health and safety” is to spin a story far removed from what the published numbers say. Even worse, it seems to shunt blame onto the victims, implying that their victimization would not have happened had they not put themselves in precarious positions.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with the stated claim, it is, in the context of the data that was provided, a glaring misrepresentation. And it is not the only one. The list of “selected drugs and their effects” found in the hyperlinked statement (which itself is part of the Mind and Hand Book) is laughably bad, chock-full of errors, and apparently copied from the website of a small for-profit nursing school located in Virginia. Accusations of plagiarism aside, one would expect that an institute such as ours would compile a concise, accurate, and clearly organized list of proclaimed dangerous substances and their effects for the benefit of its students. Instead, we are given a reference that places PCP (an addictive anesthetic with dissociative qualities) in the same category as LSD (a non-addictive serotonergic psychedelic) while neglecting to mention other common psychedelics altogether. A former student on a particular mailing list summarized the accuracy of this source neatly by noting that it states that “GHB … is made from gamma butyrolactone and sodium or potassium hydroxide, which means that it is essentially degreasing solvent … mixed with drain cleaner.” In the words of the student, the analogous assumption for table salt would be that “it is essentially nuclear breeder reactor coolant (sodium) combined with WWI poison gas (chlorine).”
While sodium and chlorine might not be a toxic combination, that of sensationalized misinformation and an incomplete Good Samaritan policy is. The unreasonable distinction between alcohol and other substances made in the Mind and Hand Book still stands. Although it is now promised that “MIT will treat [any illegal substance-related emergency] as a health and safety matter first and foremost,” the threat of disciplinary action remains. Notably, students who “spot” (i.e., knowingly look after someone who has taken an illegal substance) are excluded from all protections offered. What results from this entire mess are students who are more likely to consume drugs in solitude, friends who are hesitant to offer supervision or even inquire too much, and potential Good Samaritans who are left to carefully balance the possibility of consequences against the chance of a false scare (heightened by inaccurate information) before seeking medical help.
Chancellor Barnhart’s term in office has been characterized by her dedicated efforts to reach out to the student community and to understand its perspectives and struggles. It is without a doubt that this email was sent with the best intentions in mind. The shoddy quality of the information provided, however, is a reminder that there is still much to be done. Failing to give facts the weight that they are due will only alienate students, and we, being the fastidious, contentious, nit-picky bunch that we are, will notice. It is therefore heartening to hear that “the people of MIT have been thinking and talking openly about campus life issues,” but let’s remember that when either is done in the absence of facts, it is done in vain.
Hairuo Guo is a member of the Class of 2017.