]]]]]]]]]]]]]] 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 bicycles. 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 opponents. 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.
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