This is a speech I gave to the entering class at George Mason University.
August 24, 2012.
Let me start by congratulating you for sitting right in this spot,
embarking on one of the most exciting periods of your life. And
let me thank you for the tremendous honor and deep pleasure that the
invitation to speak has brought me. To be honest, I was never
particularly good at sports, and would never have thought I’d end up
the center of attention at the Patriot Center.
I’m a teacher, a researcher, and a professor of mathematics at Mason.
That means that I am in school for life. You may be here for just four
years. It’s a trip that will bring you hardship and joy, intellectual
frustration and satisfaction. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the ride without
getting too carsick.
In preparing for this speech, I spent some time thinking about who I
was as a bright-eyed and bushy-headed 18-year-old entering college.
Everything seemed possible, yet I had little guidance about where to go
with it. And with all the vagaries of Fate, how can any advice be
useful for the thousands of people sitting here, any one of whom could
have been myself, more than 20 years ago?
Here’s what I asked myself. Why go to college?
Perhaps it’s for the money. No doubt, someone will talk about earning
potential. There has been a lot of discussion the past few years about
soaring college costs and college debt. Yet a recent economist I
spoke with commented that even the ridiculous price for a college
education is compensated over the course of your lifetime of earnings.
In the next 40 years of your life, you can expect to earn on average a
million dollars more than people who don’t go to college.
That said, for sure the current state of the economy doesn’t make
anyone feel all that comfortable, with a high jobless rate, even for
recent college graduates. And while Mason may be a tremendous bargain
compared to other universities, I know there are many of you here who
are struggling to meet the economic challenge, with no sure guarantees
at the finish line. And while going to college doesn’t guarantee a job,
neither does not finishing mean financial ruin. Look at Bill Gates. He
was a college drop out. So was Mark Zuckerberg. I think they make
pretty good money. So, clearly college is not only about earning money.
Maybe you’ll say you want to change the world. Well, Bob Dylan was also
a dropout. And so was Steven Spielberg. Some people who changed
the world didn’t even start college, like Jane Austin. And surely
a lot of people who went to college did rather ordinary things with
their lives. So college is neither necessary nor sufficient to change
Maybe you feel you’ll be smarter for the experience. Unfortunately, the
evidence on the development of critical thinking skills though college
is mixed. A recent study found that 36%, or more than a third, of
students did not improve significantly in their critical thinking
skills over their four years in college. These students had trouble
distinguishing fact from opinion, and cause from correlation. I’ll come
back to this unfortunate third in a few minutes.
The question of whether college is worth it, and why you should go,
will be answered in 2000 different ways by 1500 different people, many
of whom have more than one opinion.
And yet here you are, beginning your adventure in higher education at Mason.
Let me share some trite sentiments stemming from my own experience.
Knowledge is powerful and beautiful. It can explain why a bridge
stands, why mountains form, how DNA impacts our risk of cancer, and how
our ecosystem depends on weather patterns. But it can also explain
abstract concepts and truths, such as why between any two rational
numbers there is another rational number, or what it means
mathematically to say that the universe is curved. It can even
bring you to the heady heights of medieval Jewish philosophy, or 20th
century French poetry. Language, literature, philosophy, religion, art,
mathematics, biology, chemistry, and the striking allure in Northern
Virginia of politics, law and economics. It’s hard even to know where
to begin as a college student.
Here’s my advice: Take more math and science than is required. And take it seriously.
Sounds like I’m biased -- I am. Let me give you my sell. It’s not actually about the science.
I’ll start with a story. It starts like a bad joke. A woman aged 45
walks into a radiologist’s office. No seriously, she goes to get a
mammogram to check that she doesn’t have breast cancer. In absence of
other information, her chance of having cancer is 1 in 5000. You
know how it is, these machines aren’t perfect, and as a matter of fact
they sometimes give what’s called a false positive. In the case of
mammograms, for every 1000 people without cancer, 983 people will
correctly be told they are clear of cancer, and 17 will be told they
may have cancer and should get a biopsy. Now this woman walks in for
her test, and is told that she screens positive for breast cancer,
requiring a biopsy. What is the chance that she *actually* has breast
Most people – even doctors – would respond something in the range of
50-90%. As a matter of fact, her chance is about 1%. Out of 10000
people, two will actually have cancer. Yet about 170 will test
positive. Two out of 170 is about one percent.
Here’s another story. You’re on the jury for an appeal to a murder
case, in which a woman who is in prison for poisoning her son to death
claims she is actually innocent. The old evidence is extremely
convincing that she committed the crime, though the woman has insisted
on her innocence for years. The new evidence consists of a functional
magnetic resonance imaging - or fMRI - experiment on the
defendant. fMRI machines are basically huge magnets that can track
oxygen flow in your brain as you think about something or do something
while in the machine. These changes in oxygen are related to neural
activity and therefore to your mental experience – such as your
thoughts. Anyway, the defense team carries out the following
experiment. The defendant is put in the machine and asked to state
falsehoods about a number of items. Then she is asked to speak some
truths. Finally, she tells her story about her innocence while in the
machine. The brain patterns resulting from speaking these known
falsehoods and known truths are then compared with her brain patterns
when she tells of her innocence. The claims of innocence evoke brain
patterns that are similar to those when she speaks the truth. Would you
be swayed toward her innocence?
Most people would. Few would ask the important question of whether
repeating a false story many times might produce the same brain
patterns as those that were seen while the woman told her story.
Repeating a false story may bring as much comfort as truth, and the
brain patterns suggesting innocence may well be reflecting comfort
rather than truth or falsehood. It’s why lie detector tests are
considered so unreliable, and actually it’s also why Mason decided to
implement the Honor Code instead.
What does science have to say about these scenarios? For the woman
getting a mammogram, it tells us that quantitative thinking can greatly
influence our health decisions and our emotional states. For the person
on the jury, it tells us that critical thinking about how a phenomenon
may have occurred, the difference between cause and correlation, can
lead us to a better justice system.
Now most of you are less than half my age – today is my 41st birthday.
When I entered university, only a few geeks such as myself had an email
account, and the World Wide Web had not yet been born. HIV was a death
sentence, and global warming was a term referring to winter break in
the Caribbean. Gas cost less than $1 per gallon, and the Soviet Union
was a power to contend with. People balanced their checkbooks with a
calculator. It’s hard to fathom as a young person how much change has
occurred in such a small time, and how much you are likely to see –
perhaps even contribute to-- in the next 20 years.
Personalized medicine may revolutionize how we manage our health – and
tell us we are genetically disposed to specific diseases. Computers may
become part of our physical bodies, such as eye-implants that mimic
Google Goggles. Neuroscience may lead to a cure for neurodegenerative
diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Most food may be genetically modified.
The Higgs boson may explain Dark Matter. Politicians may learn how to
pass a budget.
How will we process the gobs of information we have access to? How will
we assess risk and make decisions? You need more than just quantitative
literacy. You need science, logical thinking, and the scientific method.
While I am a math professor here, I am also director of research at
STATS, a nonprofit affiliate that works with journalists about
communicating anything involving statistics. One of the things I have
learned from this experience is that science in the public eye is not
science to people who know about science. And this impacts everything
we do, from how we raise our children, to how we make public policy, to
our decisions about what to eat and how to spend our money. I can think
of no better tool than quantitative thinking to be able to process the
information that is thrown at me, both the theory and the practice.
A French mathematician, Henri Poincaré, made the following comment in the late 19th century.
“If nature were not beautiful, it would
not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would
not be worth living. "
Poincaré means Nature in the broadest sense, including our observed
physical reality such as plants and animals or spacecraft design, and
also abstract constructions such as mathematics and even those places
in between the physical and the abstract, such as the human mind itself
and its consciousness. This is a profound statement about the meaning
of life. Being alive is by itself a need to explore Nature. Scientific
thinking will lead you to appreciating its beauty in deeply satisfying
ways; like the jurists for the murder trial, science values Truth over
You all have many diverse interests, and you should pursue them with
passion. Just add science and math classes to that mix, work at
becoming a scientific thinker. Then let’s take another look at that
study claiming that for more than a third of students, college doesn’t
improve their critical thinking. Turns out, this third of students
isn’t taking any science.
Best of luck in all your endeavors. Thank you very much and welcome to George Mason!