12/16/17 ASHLAND, Ohio – Dr. Steven Benner, professor and distinguished fellow at the Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology, asked Ashland University graduates to challenge experts as a way to discover the truth during his speech at AU’s winter commencement ceremony held Dec. 16 in Kates Gymnasium.
Benner spoke on the topic, “Are you Sure You Know That?”
“In addition to having learned all the things that you now know, I hope you also have learned that you do not know many things. And that some of the things that you have learned perhaps are not even true,” Benner told the graduates. “And further I hope you have learned that others do not necessarily know they are true either, even if they tell you they are certain they are true. Now, I am a scientist, but I think that the word science should be used broadly to mean any human endeavor that seeks to understand reality.”
Benner said that as Richard Feynman, the noted physicist from Cal Tech, pointed out, ‘Science begins with a distrust of experts. And good teachers teach their students about the infallibility of our teaching.’
“We learn from our teachers that they have our best interests at heart, and collective wisdom of the past is nothing to sneeze at, it’s a good starting point, on the contrary, it’s a reliable starting point, but we understand our teachers may be wrong about many things. Around the edges of knowledge for sure but sometimes even things that are very very central,” he said.
Benner went on to explain the contradiction that the graduates have to face and he said he hopes that their education will help them face it.
“On one hand we must start somewhere, but that some part of that somewhere is likely to be false, but we have a process to separate the truth from the false. It dates from the enlightenment and begins with open discourse, something that President Campo just mentioned, sometimes called free speech, but it also involves self-doubt and intellectual humility – as Feynman went on to say, people are easy to fool and the easiest person to fool is yourself,” he said.
Benner said this also requires intellectual discipline.
“It is fun to be right and it’s also fun to trash our intellectual adversaries or opponents, especially on the Internet and maybe you guys do that. But sometimes we are wrong and they are right,” he said. “And more importantly, when we do not understand the opponent’s positions, not only can we not defeat them on our Internet blog but more deeply, and more deeper a statement of epistemology, when we don’t understand the opponent’s position we do not understand our own.”
Benner noted that even scientists hate it when their favorite theory turns out to be wrong.
“We often become advocates of our own theories sometimes prominently advancing data that we agree with and managing to sweep under the rug all the data that disagree with our favorite theory,” he said. “But as good scientists, if we really want to understand reality, we do so not by attacking our opponents’ positions, but rather advocating our opponents’ position and maybe even loving them and this requires intellectual discipline, some of which I hope you have learned at Ashland.
“Now, as you have heard already, these are tough times but times are always tough in some way,” he said, before referencing that 50 years ago was 1967.
“I am old enough to remember that 50 years ago when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1967, Robert Kennedy went on to be assassinated just after winning the democrat national primary in California almost on live television, there were riots in the streets. In Chicago, tear gas from the riots filtered into the Democratic national convention where they were nominating Hubert Humphrey and there was a war in Southeast Asia that killed 55,000 people,” he said. “So by comparison, private email servers and Russia collusion seems rather minimal. But we still have problems.”
Benner said that today, there is an assault on the actual process by which true is distinguished from the false. “Often these are the very institutions where we must treasure open discourse and must teach intellectual discipline and must understand the truth. For that reason I am very happy to see that Ashland has adopted the Chicago Principles for Open Discourse at academic institutions. This is where it has to occur,” he said.
Benner said graduates will remember 2017 as the anniversary of their graduation. “While it is 50 years after 1967 and its political turmoil, it’s also conveniently 500 years, almost to the month, of the first events that led to this ethic of challenging experts as a way of discovering the truth,” he said, going on to explain that on Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to a door of a Wittenberg church and challenged the experts of his day.
“When he was called to account, Luther said, ‘I do not trust the Pope or councils or experts, since they have often erred. I cannot and will not retract anything since it is not neither right nor safe to go against my individual conscience. Here I stand, may God help me,’” Benner said.
Benner said Luther was no scientist but a direct line connects this statement of an individual as a judge of fact and reason not to the consensus of experts but to the miracles of the 21st century. “And I quote from the Ashland webpage where there’s an Accent on the Individual, it also leads to the hallmark of Ashland University,” he said.
“When I was a student roughly in your position, I was told that many things were impossible by teachers whose teachings I valued and used. I was taught by my teachers that it was impossible to cure a virus disease because viruses took over your biochemistry and to kill the virus you had to kill the patient,” he said. “Well today, hepatitis C, a virus, is cured and an HIV patient is more likely to die of old age than from the viral infection. When I was a student 50 years ago, I was taught by teachers whose training I valued and used that it was impossible to cure cancer because cancer was the patient attacking the patient himself. Today, 80 percent of the children who come into our hospital at Shands at the University of Florida, with childhood cancer will leave the hospital officially cured.”
Benner continued, “The scientific method that Accents the Individual, the economic system that Accents the Individual, the body politic that Accents the Individual have made it so that we can do diagnostics of infectious diseases now and even the poorest countries in South Africa now……and the poorest among us in our own society live better – have food, better housing, travel, work, communication, health, than the richest of the princes that were attempting to suppress the free speech of Martin Luther. God’s work indeed.”
Benner concluded by noting, “So be impressed by the accomplishments of those who were educated with an Accent on the Individual, learn from the education that you have gotten from an Accent on the Individual, but remember that it might be erroneous and also remember that a half of a millennium of struggle has given you a process by which you can correct those errors. Go out now, add to it, be confident in your own teaching, even as you doubt some of the things that you were taught. Do God’s work knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be your own.”
Following the commencement address, the presentation of degrees was handled by President Dr. Carlos Campo and Provost Dr. Eun-Woo Chang. A total of 376 degrees (144 graduate and 232 undergraduate) were awarded in the winter 2017 ceremony, including 1 doctor of education, 1 doctor of nursing, 50 master of education, 73 master of business administration, 15 master of arts, 4 master of science, 32 bachelor of arts, 36 bachelor of science, 29 bachelor of science in business administration, 37 bachelor of science in education, 57 bachelor of science in nursing, 1 bachelor of music, 1 bachelor of fine arts and 39 associate of arts.
Ashland University, ranked in the top tier of colleges and universities in U.S. News and World Report’s National Universities category for 2017, is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University (www.ashland.edu) deeply values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong, applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students. ###