It’s been a very long and busy day here in Los Angeles — I’ve had a tour of USC, I ate a King Torta, I sat around for a long time in very warm black robes, I had a wonderful dinner with some of the faculty here, and oh, yeah, I gave a commencement speech. These events are always fun…I’m not a big fan of ceremony and ritual, but commencement is one of those events where the students can’t keep themselves from smiling, and families are all there whooping and cheering.
So, anyway, I’ve got to get some sleep, and then it’s an early morning off to the airport to fly back home, so I’m just putting my little speech below the fold.
I am genuinely honored that the students of this university have asked me to speak at this important event in their lives. I heard that last year, standing here at the lectern, the previous class had a Nobel prize winner giving the commencement address. I apologize for my lack of stature, but look on the bright side: he talked for almost an hour, while I promise considerably more brevity. But, unfortunately, I also have to explain a little bit about who I am.
I am a biologist at a small liberal arts university in the midwest. I do a little research on developmental biology, and I do a lot of teaching. A LOT of teaching. Of course, even a lot of teaching means we only turn out 30 or 40 biology graduates a year, so I’d be surprised if any of you here have ever taken a class from me. I’m better known because I also run a rather popular weblog and write articles for magazines and newspapers where I do a couple of things: as an extension of my teaching, I try to communicate the excitement of science to a lay audience, and as a public intellectual, I take great pleasure in slaughtering sacred cows. Some think I perhaps take a little bit too much pleasure in not just slaughtering, but the long, slow, brutal vivisection of the sacred, but that’s just who I am.
And the responsibility of the public intellectual is what I want to say a few words about to you. You are about to receive a diploma that gives you the potential to be one of us, too.
A public intellectual is the modern equivalent of the court jester — the wise fool who could say anything to the king, because no one would ever take him seriously as a rival for the throne. If the concept is too medieval for you, look at 21st century America, where the best news commentary on television is offered by a couple of comedians on a small cable network. It’s the same principle: people on the edge of the herd, whether it’s the mass media or the general electorate, are unconstrained by the group norms and are given greater freedom to speak out and express themselves. The weirdos, by their very nature, have more latitude, and we also institutionalize the principle in ideas like academic freedom.
Did I just call you all weirdos? I’m sorry, yes I did. You’re all receiving advanced degrees from USC, and that automatically makes you all a bunch of nerds. You should be proud.
Now wait just a minute, you may protest, this is serious business. You’ve been working hard. You’ve been extracting the secrets of life, the universe, and everything. You may have accumulated a lot of debt. You have a mission, and you are thinking about the lab or the clinic or both right now. Your plan may be a life of sober scholarship, solid contributions to your field, and professional dignity, and maybe a little prosperity and security — and that diploma is a key to all of that.
That’s all true, too. The door has opened for you to cloister yourselves within your disciplines and do all that you’ve been trained to do, and I hope you succeed at that.
But there’s something more. You are also the lucky few, the ones with talent and discipline and the fortunate opportunity to pursue science and medicine, and you have acquired another kind of debt: you have been granted this privilege, and now you owe society repayment. We need you to make the world a better place. To quote a comic book character, with great power comes great responsibility.
Power? That diploma may not give you political power, or the ability to beat up criminals, and it may not even guarantee you a job, sorry to say, but it does represent something significant: it’s intellectual capital. You will have acquired some small measure of authority and credibility with that acknowledgment of your accomplishments, and I’m here to tell you to spend it.
I’m not going to tell you specifically how to spend it. Many of you may disagree with how I personally use my academic freedom, and that’s fine — I’m a strong believer in stochastic processes, and while individuals may go off in directions we don’t like, I’m confident that the aggregate activity of large numbers of smart people expressing themselves in public will end up making the world a better place.
So let me just give you a few general guidelines.
- Create more smart people. The best thing you can do for the future is to encourage and enable more people to follow you, by teaching, mentorship, example, or support. This is basic: you all know that science is a collaborative enterprise, so you should have had this dunned into your head by now. I should also warn you that your alumni association will be contacting you regularly from now on to remind you of your duty.
- Here’s another one you may take for granted, but I assure you, much of the world outside your circle of nerds does not: Criticize. It’s one of the most powerful tools in the scientific toolbox, and self-criticism and constant testing and evaluation of our ideas is how we make our understanding greater. If you haven’t gotten out of the lab much in the last few years, you may be surprised at how much shock and dismay you can generate with the simple words, “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why.” Don’t be shy about using them!
- Go ahead, be offensive. I’m offensive all the time, and I’ve got reams of hate mail to prove it. I say that women should have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies, and are just as good at science as men, and the angry mail streams in. I say that gay people should have the same rights as straight people, and I have offended a vocal horde right there. I say that all religion is foolish tosh and an affront to reason and the dignity of humankind, and boy, do I get outraged letters. And it’s all good. You don’t have to agree with everything I say, because the role of the public intellectual is to spark the argument and provoke change, not to dictate it. Do it.
- More generally, communicate. All these years of training have stuffed your brains with arcane knowledge — you know amazing things that few other people understand. You already know about the expectation that you will write your knowledge up in the form of arcane articles for even more arcane journals, but you should also feel an obligation to explain it all to everyone else. I don’t mean this as an excuse to be a deadly bore at parties, but that you should put serious effort into explaining the significance of what you do to people like your grandmother, or the readers of your local paper, or the president of the United States.
– One final admonition. What is going on here is a small miracle. You are all going to be receiving a nearly identical piece of parchment that says you are all graduates of the Keck School of Medicine. Yet, did you notice, you did not have to sign a loyalty oath to enroll here? There is no USC Dogma you are expected to adhere to. Some of you may have immersed yourself in such different specialties that you scarcely understand what your equally specialized peers say about their work, or you may disagree with each others’ positions. You have different politics, different religious beliefs, different cultural backgrounds, and I think you can even go so far as to decide to root for the UCLA Bruins, and they won’t revoke your degree. I look out at you all sitting there in your identical black uniforms and ridiculous hats, and am amused at the incongruity, because the one thing I can know about you all is that you are intellectually diverse and independent.
You are graduates of in institution that has encouraged you to think for yourself. I want you all to continue doing that.
And what’s more, I want you all to think very loudly, so the rest of us can hear.
Thank you all, and congratulations.