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Go! Learn things!

This is a talk I gave at the 2017 Young Scientist Awards, an event organised by the Science Teachersí Association of NSW.


Good evening

On behalf of Australian Skeptics Inc I would like to congratulate everyone here tonight Ė the students who are winners just for getting here whether they win first prize or not, their parents, because without their encouragement the students would not be here, and the teachers for their skills and dedication.

Iím not a scientist, in that I donít do science for a living. I did very well in science at high school and my friend Graham and I shared the top two places in every test, assignment and exam throughout our time there. Unfortunately there was nothing like these awards then to encourage and extend us. One thing that was very different then and is going to be even better next year is what Kerry [Sheehan, NESA Inspector, Science] mentioned - if we wanted to do anything extra like run experiments it had to be done in our own time after school (depending on the availability of a teacher) or in lunch breaks.

After school I became a computer nerd and Graham became a minister in the Uniting Church.

In her message in tonight's printed program, STANSW President Margaret Shepherd talks about "the value of failing in order to learn" and I'm an expert at that. I had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at getting a science degree and finally settled on doing psychology and philosophy. The philosophy taught me about ontology (the sort of things that we can know) and epistemology (how we can know the truth of the things we know) and the psychology part was largely about statistics and scientific methodology. Science is the application of epistemology. It is skepticism applied to the real world.

Knowing about science is actually more important than doing science, because it helps you separate sense from nonsense, and thereís a lot of nonsense out there. Every day I see advertisements on TV or in the press which claim scientific backing for some claim, but a closer look shows that the "science" is either non-existent or totally misrepresented. I won't name any names because I've been sued before and I'm not too keen on it happening again.

Science has been under attack for a long time, and knowing what it is lets people like you resist the attack. This book, The Origin Of Species, came out in 1859 and contains the most important theory in biology ever conceived (and some have argued, the most significant scientific theory of all time). It triggered an attack on science that still reverberates. The 19th century evangelist Dwight Moody said that reading was unnecessary and that learning was an impairment to faith (he published books, so he must have seen at least some value in reading) and the current US Secretary of Education seems determined to undermine education and science. (Her considerable family fortune is actually based on lying to people who donít understand basic arithmetic.)

Iím a science groupie in that I like to hang around with scientists and people smarter than myself, which is one of the reasons I'm here tonight (the young people have a few years to forget things and catch up with me). I write for a science magazine, Australasian Science, where I've had a regular column since 2003. The word "scientist" was actually invented by a science groupie, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and another non-scientist friend of his, Humphrey Davy, invented the lamp that saved many coal minersí lives. (I have a Davy Lamp hanging in my lounge room.)

Now Iím talking about literature I have to say that we can learn a lot from fictional or imaginative works, not just text books. Great literature survives because it contains messages that teach us things about ourselves and human behaviour. One of the things we can learn from Coleridge himself relates to his most famous work, "Kublai Khan". If you are about to write something down and there's a knock at the door, write the idea down before answering the door or you might forget what it was.

I want to finish with a piece of advice from some ephemeral fiction that will be forgotten ten years from now. One of my favourite TV shows is "NCIS: New Orleans". When the team is about to go out to investigate some crime the boss, Dwayne Pride, has something he says to them, and itís something we should tell ourselves every day.

Like Dwayne says Ė "Go! Learn things!".

Thank you.

The night's program showing all finalists and winners can be found here.


I speak at a lot of events and this one gives me the highest dose of stage fright. Maybe it's because I only have a very short time (3-4 minutes) to get my points across. Maybe it's because the audience is full of people a lot younger and a lot smarter than I am.

Also, I was about 290 kilometres into the 300km drive from my house to Wollongong when I realised that the copy of The Origin Of Species that I had intended to hold up as a prop during the talk was still sitting on my desk at home, so I left that reference out of the final speech.


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