Valedictory to my Students at ZheDa

My Dear Students:

My year of working with you in Hangzhou has come to an end, and I am back at my home in Atlanta.  Inevitably, these first days far away from the year’s events demand my reflection and analysis, catalyzed by the questions of my friends and colleagues here: “So, how is life in a Chinese university?”

My valedictory begins, naturally and sincerely, with my expression of gratitude at having had the opportunity to work with you.  It afforded me not only the adventure of a different life style in a venerable culture, but the more personal satisfaction of having come to know and respect many of you as friends and colleagues.  I was impressed by your intelligence and diligence, and by your friendliness and openness.  Constrained to my own limited ability in Chinese, I was also impressed by the level of competence in English many of you have attained, without which getting to know you and to work with you would have been impossible.

At a grander scope, I have an inkling that I have witnessed China at the dawn of an era in which she will make a significant impact on world science.  The American media regularly reports on China’s “tiger economy”; will try to look past the GNP statistics for evidence of your “tiger science” — and take a little undeserved pride in watching it develop.

In keeping with my own frequent exhortations to you to “think critically”, I would be remiss not to include words of concern, as well as words of praise.  As I attempt to formulate my concerns, I need   first to discuss concepts of intellectual honesty and of the scientific dialectic, both deeply ingrained in my Western upbringing, and inextricably related to each other and to my notion of the mission of a university.

In the 1980’s, American President Ronald Reagan, in dealing with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, coined the slogan”trust, but verify”.  This attitude may be prudent in international relations, and it certainly applies to the “market place”, where exaggerated, misleading or outright counterfeit claims are commonplace.  But it has no place in the university, where the measures required for “verification” would create a virtual “cold war” between professors and students.  A university community is a unique institution with a unique purpose:  to promote individual and collective knowledge.  Privilege can be obtained fraudulently; knowledge cannot be.  A community that is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge can function only on the basis of mutual trust.  William Shakespeare’s advice is better suited than Reagan’s to the University:” This above all: to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day; Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Those coveted letters “Ph.D.” embody this tradition of intellectual honesty.”Doctor of Philosophy”, translated into plain English, means “teacher of the love of wisdom.”  Love of wisdom, just as love of another person, relies on trust.  And that reliance on trust extends from the university to the whole realm of science.  When I read a scientific paper, I may — I must — question the authors’ interpretations or the appropriateness of their methodology.  But it never enters my mind that their data might be fabricated.  I trust the authors.  We practice intellectual honesty not out of fear of being exposed, but from the realization that it is the only feasible mode of action that can lead to “wisdom”.  Of course, there are occasional exposés of scientific fraud, but these shock and dismay us just because they are so unexpected.

I introduce this philosophic discussion in hopes it will help you appreciate my strong, negative reaction to some examples of student behavior I encountered while at ZheDa.  Without generalizing guilt, nor pointing to specific offenders, I note two such examples, both taken from my “Professional English” class.  One involved my attempt to measure student attendance by use of a “check-in sheet”.  On several occasions there were far more “checks” on the sheet than students in the classroom.  Another involved a student’s written “critical review” of a paper.  The review was written in very excellent, sophisticated English.  The trouble was that the student’s oral English was marginal at best; it was difficult to imagine that the same person who gave the oral report wrote the review.  In fact, he didn’t.    He later explained that, because his English was not so good, he had asked a friend to write the review.

With both the ghost-written review and the bogus check-ins, student response was, in essence “I’m sorry, I didn’t think it was such a big deal.” To me it is a “big deal”, because it erodes what I consider the fundamental premise of a university — intellectual honesty.  That it was unintentional or inadvertent makes it all the worse.

So, how does intellectual honesty relate to the intellectual skepticism that is absolutely essential to progress of the dialectic of science?  A currently accepted hypothesis is not “true” — even if it is articulated in the highest of high-impact journals — nor false.  It is merely a model which is offered as best fit to the current set of data.  Its “antithesis” usually comes as new data which do not fit the hypothesis, and thus requires rethinking the model, the “synthesis” — which, in turn, gives rise to a new hypothesis, and a new round of challenge and refinement.  In this dialectical process lies the success of science, and the excitement of scientists.  Some 400 years ago, new data on the revolution of the moons of Jupiter, revealed to Galileo Galilei by use of his new telescope, forced the science of astronomy to abandon the hypothesis of an earth-centered universe in favor of a better-fitting model, the sun-centered solar system.  That was the reaction of scientists; the reaction of the Catholic Church, in contrast, was simply to declare Galileo wrong, and to put him under house-arrest.  Science thrives because scientists constantly challenge existing ideas and dogma.

My dear students, although I give you “A” for your intelligence, knowledge and diligence, I’m afraid I have to give you “B” for your skepticism.  Never accept a paper silently, passively.  Always raise questions:  Do the authors’ conclusions outstrip their data?  Do the methods employed yield sufficiently precise data?  Are there alternative models to explain the authors’ data?  What sort of new data would put the current hypothesis to a critical test?  No matter whether listening to (or reading) a Nobel Prize winner, a visiting scientist, a fellow student, your own boss, or (perhaps most importantly) in considering your own research work, ask probing questions.  This is not a sign of disrespect towards the speaker or author, but an obligation of any scientist, fledgling or seasoned.

I wish each of you personal success in your careers, as research scientists or medical practitioners.  And I wish you collective success in enhancing the stature of Zhejiang University among the international community of scientists.

Bob Wohlhueter
Atlanta, 3 March 2008

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