Posted by: Jim | May 14, 2009

PZ’s commencement speech

PZ Myers … whose blog “Pharyngula” I’ve come to read on a daily basis, gave the commencement speech at USC this week. It’s very short, and encapsulates exactly how I feel.

While I don’t consider myself a “public intellectual,” I still abide by much of PZ’s advice. Here are two paragraphs that I found most inspiring:

– Here’s another one you may take for granted, but I assure you, much of the world outside your circle of nerds does not: Criticize. It’s one of the most powerful tools in the scientific toolbox, and self-criticism and constant testing and evaluation of our ideas is how we make our understanding greater. If you haven’t gotten out of the lab much in the last few years, you may be surprised at how much shock and dismay you can generate with the simple words, “I think you’re wrong, and here’s why.” Don’t be shy about using them!

– Go ahead, be offensive. I’m offensive all the time, and I’ve got reams of hate mail to prove it. I say that women should have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies, and are just as good at science as men, and the angry mail streams in. I say that gay people should have the same rights as straight people, and I have offended a vocal horde right there. I say that all religion is foolish tosh and an affront to reason and the dignity of humankind, and boy, do I get outraged letters. And it’s all good. You don’t have to agree with everything I say, because the role of the public intellectual is to spark the argument and provoke change, not to dictate it. Do it.



  1. I think the goal if I understand it correctly is to “spark the argument and provoke change.” Criticism and an uninhibited form of communication I can agree with, as long as it’s honest, and the replies are honest.

    I suppose this guys idea is one way to do it. Ghandi did it one way, Jesus did it another way, Hitler another, and on it goes.

    I would say that we all have a message, and our message resonates differently depending on who is listening. One reason why I chose to blog on your site is because you were less offensive and appeared to want to spark discussion in a peaceful and civil way. If this site became more offensive, I would probably stop communicating, which may or may not be what you ultimately want, you tell me.

    This post makes me believe that you feel that you *need* to be offensive in order to get your point across or in order to spark change, etc.

    “I say that all religion is foolish tosh and an affront to reason and the dignity of humankind, and boy, do I get outraged letters. And it’s all good.”

    This could be a good starting point, and it would spark discussion for sure.

    I think it evokes feelings that no matter what the answer could be, the person espousing this offensive speech would respond with more venom. Meaning that it would not continue into a meaningful exchange, only an offensive one where both sides are resound to their original beliefs and bias’s.

    Provoking someone is not the same as engaging them. Can you elaborate as to your inspiration?

  2. Ted, if you had known me personally for awhile I think it would be clearer. In real life, I’ve been known to be a “very nice guy.” People close to me have said I am “too nice.” Although they’ve stopped saying that recently. Heheh.

    Don’t worry. My purpose isn’t to offend, but I have stopped worrying about being offensive. I’ve come to realize that what I believe will simply offend people. I used to work really hard to ameliorate people’s sensitivities, but I don’t worry so much about it any more. I think you’ve figured this out about me by now. LOL

    But I don’t set out to offend, and I often try to present my ideas so as to promote spirited discussion rather than just piss people off.

  3. Jim,

    Got it. Nothin’ wrong with being a nice guy. 🙂
    I understand that you have come to realize that what you believe will simply offend people — Me too. I’m still in that stage where I’m working hard to ameliorate (nice word by the way).

    I should learn to stop worrying what people think. What’s your trick?

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