]]]]]]]]]]]]]]         CONFLICTING VISIONS          [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[ 
             Commencement Address (slightly shortened)
         for Penn State College of Science May 14, 1988 
                     by George E. Andrews,
                    Professor of Mathematics

     President Jordan, Dean Freed, Dean Mullen, Mr. Huck, Dr. Chapman, 
distinguished faculty, guests, relieved parents and exuberant gradu-
ates. I congratulate you, Class of 1988!
     This is a glorious moment for you and for Penn State. We cele-
brate and take pleasure in your achievement. I feel distinctly honored 
to have been asked to speak to you today. Shortly after I accepted 
this invitation, I visited the Penn State Room in the library to find 
out what others had said in my circumstances in the past. The first 
thing I noticed was the lack of mathematician commencement speakers. 
I'm not sure why this is the case; however I was reminded of the 
Spring 1980 issue of Froth, Penn State's humor magazine. The entire 
issue pretended to be published in 1990 focusing on "A Look Back At 
The '80's." One item for May 22, 1987 was especially noteworthy: "The 
retirement of Dr. Walter Grimsby left the university without a single 
English speaking mathematics professor."
     Also, for goodness sake, what could a math professor possibly say 
to the entire College of Science that would be of general interest? 
There is always danger he might try to sneak in that one last impor-
tant lecture which had been omitted: The Inverse Hyperbolic Secant And 
How I Licked It! 
     What grand theme could a mathematician regale you with? The first 
major possibility I contemplated turned up by surprise.
     I was in India flying to a conference celebrating the Ramanujan 
Centenary. My seat mate turned out to be a man holding a chair in 
political science at a major Indian university. Finding out that I was 
a mathematician, he called my attention to Richardson's mathematical 
theory of war from Volume I of the Journal of Conflict Resolution.
     "You must examine it," he said. I note in passing that this 
Richardson is not our current Provost; although given recent events 
our Provost may soon be publishing articles in the Journal of Conflict 
Resolution. In any event, here was a grand topic. For the last several 
years, mathematics has been of mundane aid for many of you in 
providing statistical analyses for lab reports and in providing a 
framework for many scientific theories. Now I could take the gloves 
off and explain WAR in your last lecture at Penn State. Unfortunately 
I found Richardson's theory to be one of the most pompous bottles of 
mathematical snake oil ever to have been fobbed off on a bunch of 
gullible academics. Whoops!
     I finally settled on a more modest goal. I decided I would urge 
you to read a particular book, Thomas Sowell's, "A CONFLICT OF 
VISIONS." I chose this modest course in the hope that such a small 
request would actually be heeded by some of you. Furthermore I feel 
that this book is of great assistance to scientists and, indeed, 
achievers in general as they attempt to understand a perplexing con-
tradiction in their lives.
     Most of you graduates are well aware of the pride and admiration 
your parents, friends and relatives hold for you. Many of them are 
completely awestruck, thinking you must be a genius to have achieved 
this goal. In this portion of your world, science is something wonder-
ful, and you are wonderful for having mastered it. In addition, you 
have had the good fortune to be educated by many dedicated teacher-
scientists, each of whom has a deep understanding and love of his 
particular subject. For you, science is exciting, challenging, ad-
mired, noble and useful.
     However this is not the only world you live in. is the rest of 
society, interpreted for you by movies, TV, magazines and newspapers. 
Here science is reported to have deformed babies with toxic wastes and 
ubiquitous nuclear radiation, poisoned entire towns with dioxin, 
caused cancer with food coloring and destroyed much of the world's 
wildlife with pesticides -- especially DDT.
     In this world, the role of the scientist was epitomized in the 
immensely popular and charming movie E.T., soon to be available at 
your local video store. E.T. was a loveable little creature from 
another planet who had been inadvertently left behind on earth by his 
spaceship. While he was very loveable, he wasn't exactly beautiful. 
Indeed he resembled a freshman in an 8 a.m. Monday morning calculus 
class after a weekend of heavy drinking. After numerous adventures, 
E.T. decides he will never get over his stomach upset unless he can go 
home. Unfortunately for E.T., the bad guys now make their appearance. 
And who are the bad guys? Well, of course! A large team of SCIENTISTS 
led by a megalomaniac. They envelop the house where E.T. is hiding out 
in a hugh plastic bag and with the best scientific intentions proceed 
to terrorize E.T. and his friends resulting in E.T.'s apparent demise. 
Fortunately magic comes to the rescue! E.T. is miraculously healed 
and escapes in an exciting chase sequence helped along by flying 
     The implication of the movie is clear. In the real world where 
magic can't save you, numerous scientists are furiously striving to 
work their imperious will on you. I doubt that the different views of 
scientists I have described will ever be dealt with rationally by an 
industry that will sell more papers tomorrow if you have been scared 
to death today and are anxiously awaiting tomorrow's issue to discover 
if you have any hope at all. Unfortunately none of the real-life 
issues I began with is even close to being presented accurately in the 
media. In the real U.S.A., as most of you know, the health effects of 
low level radiation, food additives, and dioxin are in the statistical 
noise level; the leading causes of preventable death are cigarettes 
and drug and alcohol abuse, familiar killers whose effects are subject 
to individual human will.
     In a larger sense, I doubt that harried media writers really care 
al that much about the negative image of science they are presenting; 
it just makes exciting copy. However there exists a substantial group 
of people -- some scientists themselves, many not -- who are ready and 
waiting to provide the opinions, predictions and proclamations which 
help to make E.T.'s scientists believable to the average citizen.
     It is therefore important for you to try to maintain your balance 
and common sense in this stormy environment. No recent book I have 
read has been of more help to me in understanding both sides in this 
and related disputes than Thomas Sowell's, CONFLICT OF VISIONS.
     Sowell begins his book with a common observation: "One of the 
curious things about political opinions is how often the same people 
line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves 
may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from 
military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet 
the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from oppo-
site sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too 
often to be coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A 
closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are 
reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These different 
premises -- often implicit -- are what provide the consistency behind 
the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, 
unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works."
     Sowell devotes his first chapter to a careful description of 
these visions: the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision. 
Briefly then, he asserts: "Visions rest ultimately on some sense of 
the nature of man -- not simply his existing practices but his ulti-
mate potential and ultimate limitations. Those who see the potentiali-
ties of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently mani-
fested have a social vision quite different from those who see human 
beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous 
impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves 
produce unhappy side effects... Running through the tradition of the 
unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices 
explain the evils of the world -- and that wiser or more moral and 
humane social policies are the solution... By contrast, the con-
strained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the 
limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and 
intellectual limitations of human beings. For the amelioration of 
these evils and the promotion of progress, they rely on ... certain 
social processes such as moral traditions, the marketplace, or fami-
lies. They conceive of these processes as evolved rather than designed 
-- and rely on these general patterns of social interaction rather 
than on specific policy designed to produce particular results for 
particular individuals and groups."
     One of the topics extensively examined in A CONFLICT OF VISIONS 
is who makes the decisions. Or as Sowell puts it: "where does the 
`locus of discretion' lie?"
     "Pending the ultimate achievement of an unconstrained society, 
the locus of discretion in the unconstrained vision is the surrogate 
decision-maker [who picks] a collective [best choice], whether in 
economics, law, or politics, and whether for a limited range of deci-
sions or for the structuring of a whole society. By contrast, in the 
constrained vision, the loci of discretion are virutally as numerous 
as the population. Authorities exist, but their role is essentially to 
preserve a social framework within which others exercise discretion."
     Science, in my view, is a natural ally of the constrained vision. 
First of all, as an activity, it is totally incompatible with the idea 
of an elite surrogate decisionmaker deciding with the force of law 
what science should be. Lysenko genetics, not science, fits most 
easily into the unconstrained vision. But more importantly new major 
scientific discoveries tend to destabilize ellaborate legalistic im-
plementations of the unconstrained vision of a moral elite. The energy 
crisis is one example. If, as we thought in the early 1970's, energy 
exhaustion was moments away, then vast schemes would have to be under-
taken to force us to be better human beings so that we could exist in 
an austere world. Indeed, the author of Soft Energy Paths, Amory 
Lovins, gave the game away in a 1977 interview: "It would be little 
short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abun-
dant energy because of what we might do with it...We ought to be look-
ing for energy sources ... that don't give us the excesses of concen-
trated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth and to each 
other." The temporary abating of the energy crisis has forced the 
proponents of the unconstrained vision to look for other issues to 
advance their agenda. Scientific breakthroughs may well keep the ener-
gy crisis permanently abated; their lack may well bring it back with 
greater virulence. 
     Each of the ecological media events alluded to earlier is also an 
example of my theme. In each case, science winds up as the heavy in a 
morality play about perfecting humanity.
     In conclusion, let me distinguish my own biases from Sowell's 
scholarly book. Both visions get an eloquent presentation by Sowell 
with backing from important modern and ancient thinkers. I say this as 
someone who has passionately held each vision at different times in my 
life. As a young scientist you may well believe in the perfectibility 
of humanity and hope to use your science to further this goal. Reading 
Sowell's book will alert you to many bright minds who share your vi-
sion and will help you understand and, to some extent, appreciate your 
     If, like me, you find yourself in sympathy with what I would call 
a more realistic view of science and mankind, I believe you will find 
Sowell's book to be an incomparable aid in making sense of these con-
flicting visions.

Return to the ground floor of this tower
Return to the Main Courtyard
Return to Fort Freedom's home page