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What we should’ve learned about science before we started doing it

by Phil Plait, Jun 02 2010

Eric Schulze just received his doctorate at the Keck School of Medicine. Asked by his colleagues to give a commencement address, he opted to discuss the things he should’ve been taught about science when he started out. His speech is an excellent introduction into why we need more gifted speakers talking about what science is and isn’t:

At 3:20, he quotes an "eminent cosmologist [sic; the man to whom Eric is referring is actually more of a general astronomer-type and smart ass] and teacher". I’m very sure the man to whom Eric is referring is grateful.

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7 Responses to “What we should’ve learned about science before we started doing it”

  1. I completely agree with this guy. Ever since I got my PhD I’ve argued that people should be given a basic understanding of science. In fact, I give a talk on it:

    http://www.tomfooleryblog.com/talks/

  2. Jim Shaver says:

    That was a great speech! (Too bad he didn’t work in a quote from a truly famous person… :)

  3. Sgerbic says:

    Way to go Phil, your being mentioned in commencement addresses now. And I knew you when….

    Seriously this guy is right on the money. Science needs to fire its PR person. I would like to read a transcript of his speech as I had trouble understanding it in parts.

  4. Brian says:

    I too would like a transcript, some of those one liners might come in handy when trying to inspire one of my cohorts.

  5. Eric says:

    Brian and Sgerbic,

    Hey, thanks for the kind words. I can get you a transcript if you would like. Just find me on Facebook, and I can send it to you.

  6. Sgerbic says:

    Your wish is my command. Fresh from the source…

    Commencement Address Transcript
    May 12, 2010
    Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California
    Doctoral and Master’s Commencement Ceremony
    Eric Schulze, PhD Candidate and Student Speaker:
    “How often have we all been introduced to a partner’s parents, or been chatting with
    a person at a bar and he or she inevitably asks, “So what do you do for a living?” And as a
    scientist, I can tell you as we stumble through explaining endosymbiotic theory, DNA
    replication, and multiple regression analysis, we inevitably are met with a bored and
    confused look from the person staring back at us.
    Now we know that science is not boring. We are the few and the proud who got giddy
    when viral capsid formation was taught in freshman biology. Some may say we are a
    “special” breed. In the quest for those rare “Ah Ha” moments, we have led lives some may
    compare to Gollum from Lord of the Rings: Always hidden away in our caves called labs,
    forgetting to eat meals or bathe; and for that matter, forgetting what it is like to interact with
    other humans. Oh and who could forget mid‐day napping on the cold hard slab we call a lab
    bench.
    Now, as we all step back out into the light of society we really need to cull from the
    valuable teachings of our mentors to survive. Without them we might never have raised an
    eyebrow to a suspicious medical claim made in the news or had the insight to create the next
    cancer‐fighting therapy. It is for this and much else that I must thank my mentor Dr. Qi‐Long
    Ying, and I ask my classmates to join me in thanking our mentors for creating the scientists
    we are today.
    However, in crafting this address, I found myself thinking not about what I was
    taught, but what I was not taught throughout my life as a student of science. Allow me to
    explain:
    You see, in my opinion, science needs to fire its PR agent. We’re in Hollywood, so this
    seems appropriate right? We live in a time where the role of science and the scientist in the
    public sphere is diminishing. Why is that? Only two generations ago, to be a scientist, even
    one that worked for the government, was considered patriotic and noble, a position that
    people gladly looked up to. Now, the role of the scientist in the media is relegated to people
    that can give good sound bytes or happen to be wearing a lab coat.
    I hope you all here change this mentality. And I believe that, in large part this aspect
    can change if we change the misconceptions about what science is certainly not.
    So I have compiled a short list of the things I was never taught about Science. Think of
    this as a new Science “Press kit.” Only in LA right?
    1. To borrow from an eminent cosmologist and teacher Phil Plait, “Without imagination
    and creativity, Science is a dictionary.” Why was this not said on Day 1 of every
    science class we have ever taken? Better put I think: The bold‐faced words you see in
    your textbook are not there to consternate young freshman, but rather as an ode
    those scientists bold enough to see and describe which had not been observed prior.
    I cannot think of a human endeavor that culls from more creative, imaginative,
    and right‐brained skills as science. Think about it. Each one of you sitting here has
    acquired the skills needed to create symphonies, (mathematics); to visualize the
    inner workings of cells, biochemical pathways, or the patterns inherent to disease
    spreading (the visual arts); and the ability to effectively communicate your
    discoveries, not just to scientists, but the world and its future inhabitants by using
    skills cultivated by literature and poetry. Science has made you a walking toolbox
    of education. You are here because you are able to dip into a skillset that few are
    willing to develop.
    2. Science is the most anti‐scientific process you will ever perform. Remember, safe
    ideas are not rewarded with Nobel prizes. You need to come up with a creative, often
    simple, yet counterintuitive, idea that can be tested in a rigorous, methodical, and
    repeatable manner. The idea is often crazy, and seemingly illogical at first. However,
    after some careful reasoning, and a scientifically‐sound experiment, the answer can
    be accepted or nullified by your findings. Ideas themselves need not be scientifically
    acceptable at their inception, but your methods to test them must be.
    3. Science is not just a method, but rather a transformative way in which to think. And
    this is one I wish I had learned earliest. Science derives from the Greek root “Scire”
    meaning ‘to know, to distinguish and separate.” And not the kind of ‘I know how to
    cook pancakes.’ I mean the kind of knowing that says ‘I know not only why pancakes
    exist, but how they are created, and I think I have figured out a better way of
    explaining why they are so delicious.’
    And like the bell that cannot be un‐rung, you begin to see the world as it is. And then you
    begin to question. And you revel in your inquisitiveness. You delight in your lack of
    knowledge about the world around you because you know that no matter how much you
    learn, there will always be more to the story. And you have a chance to be the first to
    discover it, to help others understand it. You realize that you are both wildly insignificant in
    this universe and important simultaneously because you are but one amazing localized
    collection of carbon, a momentary decrease in entropy in a cosmic ocean. And yet we as
    graduates of professional science are able to understand this concept. And it inspires us. And
    as we move into the next chapter of our lives, we will continue to search out knowledge, and
    explore our world through the majestic world of science.
    Congratulations to all the graduates!
    Thank you all very much.”

  7. Jasmine says:

    This was a great speech. Nice job Eric!

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