Convocation 2012.

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 the world.

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 cancer?

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 comfort.

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!