Former University of Minnesota president Ken Keller gave a speech two weeks ago for U of MN’s graduating Institute of Technology (IT) students. In his speech he trashes ID proponents, global warming doubters and anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) people. Here is the speech:
Kenneth H. Keller
May 6, 2005
Good evening to all of you. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m delighted to be here to share in this celebration. I know how special it is for all of you who are graduating and for this auditorium filled with your family and friends, the people whose support and encouragement has been so important in getting you to this point.
This isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a country with many formalities or ceremonies or rituals and, in fact, over time there seem to be fewer of them. But IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m glad that this celebration, at least, continuesÃ¢â‚¬â€because what we acknowledge seems so overwhelmingly important. Each of you who are graduating has reason to be grateful for the intellectual gifts youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been given, and you should be proud of the discipline and hard work involved in using those gifts. Clearly, you needed both to get you here.
We call this event a commencement because itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a new beginning for youÃ¢â‚¬â€perhaps a depressing thought if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been under the illusion that you could finally relax next week when your last exams are over. However, I hopeÃ¢â‚¬â€and I senseÃ¢â‚¬â€that for most of you itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an exciting prospect. As graduates of IT, part of that excitement is that youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re entering a world more affected by science and technology than at any time in the past. But, I hasten to add, the reverse is true as wellÃ¢â‚¬â€a world that expects, that insists, on influencing what we do as scientists and engineers, more than ever before. It is that bi-directional interaction, that new intimacy between science and society, that I want to talk about in these next few minutes.
Let me start with a story, a true story. As many of you know, among the things that late spring brings in Minnesota, in addition to graduations, are tornadoes. And back in the 70s, one such tornado tore through southwest Minneapolis, rendering considerable havoc around Lake Harriet. Shortly after that, the then head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, Neal Amundson, one of the most distinguished chemical engineers in the world, received a telephone call from a person who said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve heard that some scientists are working on a chemical to dissolve tornadoes. Do we have any of that work going on here?Ã¢â‚¬Â Now, unfortunately, Amundson was more distinguished for his intellectual prowess than his tact, so he said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the dumbest thing IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve ever heard. You canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t dissolve a tornado!Ã¢â‚¬Â To which the response came in a huff, Ã¢â‚¬Å“If you can land a man on the moon, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see why you canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t dissolve a tornado!Ã¢â‚¬Â
Now I suspect that one of the things that youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve learned during your years here is that just because you can land a man on the moon does not mean that you can dissolve a tornado. Because although science is a powerful explainer of Ã¢â‚¬Å“how and why things are as they areÃ¢â‚¬Â and technology does teach us, within limits, Ã¢â‚¬Å“how to use the forces and resources of nature to fulfill human purposesÃ¢â‚¬Â (two wonderfully concise definitions, by the way, that we owe to a wise historian of science named Harvey Brooks), they also give us a pretty good idea of where the boundaries are between the possible and the impossible. That knowledge is far from perfect, and thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s alot left for you to do in your careers, but weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve learned to discipline ourselves to proceed cautiously, to deal with our imperfect knowledge, to respect nature, and to stay away from magic. There is a reason that we abandoned alchemy and vitalistic theories, just as thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a methodical process by which we judge the scientific validity of cold fusion or polywater or tornado-dissolving chemicals on the one hand and the big bang theory, or continental drift, or evolution, or global warming on the other hand.
In an earlier era it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t matter much whether most people understood these realities and characteristics of science, although I suppose the person who called the University about the tornado-dissolving chemical may, sadly, still be a little piqued at the U. But as science has become more and more influential in our daily livesÃ¢â‚¬â€more and more relied upon in legislative decisions and in our courts, more and more drawn on in the technologies that affect our environment and our health care and our economyÃ¢â‚¬â€the gap between how the public is affected by science and what it understands about it, is and should be of increasing concern.
Consider, for example, the recurring and increasingly insistent debates over the teaching of evolution in our schools. In states and school districts around the country, we hear repeatedly that evolution is Ã¢â‚¬Å“only a theory, not factÃ¢â‚¬Â that we are Ã¢â‚¬Å“uncertainÃ¢â‚¬Â about many of its details, and that we ought to be offering a counter-theory called Ã¢â‚¬Å“intelligent designÃ¢â‚¬Â, a stalking horse for creationism. Now let me say immediately, strongly, sincerely, that I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mean in raising this issue to discredit, disparage, or in any way deny what each of us may believe about the higher or deeper or more wonderful realities of our existenceÃ¢â‚¬â€things that are beyond our ability to reason about or to understand, which therefore rightly belong in the realm of what we believe. What does concern me is that, in the interest of defending that higher belief which, in my view, needs no defense, those arguing for teaching creationism as a competing theory, distort and destroy the integrity of science, which is the discipline we depend on for, if you want, a human and practical understanding of nature.
Let me be more specific. To say that something is Ã¢â‚¬Å“only a theoryÃ¢â‚¬Â and therefore Ã¢â‚¬Å“not a factÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“not yet provedÃ¢â‚¬Â misses several very important concepts in science. First, we do not call something a theory to suggest that it is not yet proved. Nothing is ever proved for all time in science, but theories, over time, come as close as possible to that finality. I caution you, for example, if you contemplate stepping off the edge of a cliff, to give prudent heed to the theory of gravity; it may not be proved yet, but I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t count on its being wrong. I advise you not to waste too much time trying to build a perpetual motion machine because another theory, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, gives you pretty reliable guidance that it wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t work. And IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m glad that the people in our space program have accepted the rather counter-intuitive special theory of relativity because our astronauts would be having a rather tough time of it if that werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the case.
And are facts really more reliable than theories? Just what do we mean in science by a fact? Well, one way of putting it is that it is a Ã¢â‚¬Å“believed observationÃ¢â‚¬Â. And the reason for putting it that way is that the only way we get to facts is through observations and thus much depends on how good those observations are, as all of you who have lived through our laboratory courses can attest. Most in this audience have observed, for example, that the full moon looks a great deal larger just as it rises, than it does later in the evening when itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s higher in the night sky. We know thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not true because of a host of other observations that, through theory, tell us that the moon doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t actually change in size. Closer to home, you might offer as an observation, and mistake as a fact, that the chairs youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re sitting in are pretty solid. But, of course, what we know, because of molecular theory, is that that chair is mostly space with a few electrons and nucleii bouncing around rather vigorously to give you the illusion of solidity.
These interrelationships between facts and theories are important aspects of science and if they are not understood, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s difficult for us to know whether we are hearing about, or teaching about, real science, or whether we are being duped by what Robert Parks calls voodoo science. And the reason for not teaching creationismÃ¢â‚¬â€or intelligent designÃ¢â‚¬â€in biology classes as an alternative to evolution is not that it is wrong, but that it is not science. Its theories are not testable by observation and canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be disproved by any facts. After all, if your theory is that anything is possible if an Ã¢â‚¬Å“intelligent designerÃ¢â‚¬Â chose to make it so, then nothing is impossible and no experiment can test its validity.
I mentioned uncertainty as another issue in the evolution-creation debate. In fact, scientific uncertainty, something that all of us who do science live with as a matter of course, has, unfortunately, become a political football in many debates, perhaps chief among them the discussions concerning the environment and global warming. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure all of you are aware that in the political arguments over whether and how to take action to limit global warming, those who oppose any drastic or immediate action depend heavily on the argument that it is uncertain whether the observed global warming is anthropogenic, that is, whether it arises from the actions of human beings and their societies. But, of course, there is always uncertainty in scienceÃ¢â‚¬â€in every measurement, in every theory, in every fact. But the fact that we do not know everything about a particular phenomenon does not mean that we do not know anything. Science is a process of narrowing uncertainty and there is little question that the evidence supporting the reality of man-caused global warming is inexorably increasing.
But in this case, too, my concern is less over whether the reality of global warming is acknowledged than over the propagated misunderstanding of how science works. Uncertainty is not failure, it is not culpable, it is part of the process of coming to understanding. In a world that depends more and more on scientific knowledge, it is vital for the public to understand and to learn to deal with that reality. The irony is that we have long since learned to deal with economic uncertainty, with political uncertainty, with military uncertainty. But we are uncomfortable with scientific uncertaintyÃ¢â‚¬â€and I submit that is because for too many people science is a mysterious and arcane pursuit, sometimes the work of angels, sometimes of devils; never of mere mortals.
Which brings me to my third and last example: genetically-modified organisms or GMOs, sometimes ungenerously referred to by critics as Ã¢â‚¬Å“FrankenfoodsÃ¢â‚¬Â. Here the issue is real enough; when we alter the genetic structure of a plant or an animal to confer on it some property of nutritional improvement or disease resistance, do we also do some mischief that we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know about? This suggests, quite reasonably, that we need to exercise caution in implementing such changes, a view that has been captured in the phrase Ã¢â‚¬Å“the precautionary principleÃ¢â‚¬Â and much of the debate has been over the details of how to apply that principle.
But as in other cases, the debate takes place in a public setting where the science is a total mystery. For example, a couple of years ago a poll was taken asking the public what the difference was between a natural plant and a genetically-modified plant. A large fraction of the responders said that genetically-modified plants contained genes. Well, they certainly do, but that context is hardly one in which a serious discussion of how to implement a Ã¢â‚¬Å“precautionary principleÃ¢â‚¬Â can take place. So the debate becomes, instead, a political one in which the phrase Ã¢â‚¬Å“precautionary principleÃ¢â‚¬Â is not a guide to a scientific process of assessment of the safety of a GMO, but a strategy for more or less absolutely blocking the introduction of these new species. And this distortion takes its toll on both sides; a search for truth gives way to an advocacy debate, with each side selecting just those data that support its case, with critics pretending they are seeking a cautious road forward when they have no road in mind and proponents appearing to reject the perfectly sound idea of proceeding with caution.
The losers? All of us. Debate about scientific issues is reduced to a series of anecdotes: about animals whose ingenious physiology proves that there must be intelligent design; about, on the one hand, unexpected cold snaps that contradict global warming, or, on the other hand, unusual solar flares that explain it; about the unmeasurable, but nevertheless Ã¢â‚¬Å“realÃ¢â‚¬Â differences claimed between altered and unaltered plant species. And lost in it all is a fundamental truth that you should have learned implicitly in your education here, but which may not have been expressed as clearly as it was recently by Alan Leshner, the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“The plural of anecdote is not evidence.Ã¢â‚¬Â
So why do I tell you all of this? Because the developments that IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve tried to illustrate will affect your professional lives in the years to come. The truth of the matter is that just as we have stressed in your education that most engineering problems require a systems approach, a recognition that no one part of a system can be successfully understood on its own; that each part affects and is affected by the others, science and engineering themselves are part of a larger social system and the connections canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be ignored. How and what science is fundedÃ¢â‚¬â€or not funded; how scientific knowledge is used, or ignored, or distorted by governments; what aspects of our culture or our political structure, or our economy lead new technologies to produce unexpected and unintended results. The Minneapolis citizen looking for a chemical to dissolve tornadoes is not a problem; but when Richard Darman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Reagan remarks, as he famously did, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Computer chips, potato chips, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all chipsÃ¢â‚¬Â, it signals that we do have something to worry about.
If thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a solution to the problem, it lies with each of you. You enter society with the general obligation of citizens and the special knowledge of scientists and engineers. More than ever before, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll have to be concerned with the whole system, not merely the specialized parts youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been particularly trained to understand. Indeed, your success in using your skills to benefit society will depend on your bringing your knowledge as a specialist to your role as a citizen. Not everyone in our society can or needs to be a scientist or an engineer. But they do need to understand what the enterprise is about and you, collectively, need to be able to explain itÃ¢â‚¬â€continually, repeatedly throughout your careers. You will have to teach as well as do. And if youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re willing to accept a final comment from someone who has spent most of his adult life trying to do just that, let me assure you that it can be enormously satisfying, especially at moments like this. My best wishes to all of you. Do well and do good.