Dr. Jerry Stinner / Dean, College of Science and Mathematics
We on this stage are very, very proud of you, as are the faculty and staff seated in the audience. I am not just saying this, I really do mean it.
You probably don’t realize it now, but you have done the best possible thing you could have done for yourself. You took the initiative to earn a university degree, and whether you realize it or not, in the process you were transformed. You are not the person you were when you graduated from high school.
Actually, I am doubly proud of you because not only did you complete a four year university degree you also majored in science or mathematics.
I hope you don’t feel like Albert Einstein did when he finished school. Here is a quote from him describing his experience: “One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.”
I must say that the older I get the more I cherish science and mathematics. What we know is amazing, including things like the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, the birth and death of stars, quantum mechanics, the history of our 4.6 billion year old earth (including its formation, tectonics, fossil record, and multiple mass extinctions), evolution by natural selection, and the genetic code. These are exciting times for scientists and mathematicians because major discoveries are being made almost every day.
Despite the extraordinary success of science and mathematics, the public in this country remains amazingly ignorant of even its basic findings. I am sure you’ve seen the poles. For example:
1. An NSF survey of American adults in 2001 asked the question, “How long does it take for the earth to go around the sun: one day, one month, or one year? 20% answered one day and 33% answered one month!
2. In the same survey it was found that 31% of American adults consider astrology to be “sort of scientific” and 9% consider astrology to be “very scientific”.
3. A Pew Research Center survey in 2005 found that 64% of American adults were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution in public schools, and one third believe that evolution should be replaced by creationism in biology classes.
4. According to the most recent Harris Poll, 54% of U.S. adults believe that humans did not develop from earlier species. That is up from 46% in 1994!
5. Perhaps most troubling of all, in the 2001 NSF survey it was found that two thirds of American adults do not understand the scientific process and only 2% know what a scientific theory is.
I hope that all of you as graduates of the college of science and mathematics understand the scientific process and that you understand how powerful it is. I didn’t understand how powerful it is until I was in the middle of a PhD program at UC Riverside.
As a doctoral student I spent five years studying lung function in snakes. Yes, you heard me right—A grown man actually devoted his entire existence to understanding breathing in snakes!
I well remember one time when, after a year or so working hard in the lab, I hit upon an amazing idea. I had one of those rare ah ha moments! It was an epiphany! I realized that snakes used countercurrent gas exchange to maximize oxygen uptake. This is so revolutionary that it bears repeating: “Snakes use countercurrent gas exchange to maximize oxygen uptake!”
I was wildly excited. I knew that I would be famous for this discovery. I told everyone who would listen to me, and even presented my idea in a seminar at the University of New Mexico. I became a zealot!
And then I went back to the lab. I used the scientific process and designed experiments to test my idea. It took me several months to complete. And guess what? I was dead wrong. The data clearly did not support my hypothesis and in fact showed that the pattern of breathing in snakes was actually quite mundane and rather inefficient.
That was a very important lesson for me, one that I wish everyone could learn. What I realized was that, without the scientific process to ground human thought, we are free to believe all sorts of things. And we can be quite certain and quite passionate about those beliefs. I never looked at life the same way again. And to this day I continue to demand evidence. I hope as you go through life you will do the same. And I even hope that you will teach your future children to do the same.
Let me close by once again quoting Albert Einstein: “All our science measured against reality is primitive and childlike—And yet it is the most precious thing we have.”