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Dr William Rolleston: Otago Graduation Address

20 December 2012

To make history, speak out against the crowd

Graduation Address by Dr William Rolleston at the University of Otago on 15 December 2012

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, graduates and families.

It is an honour to address you today. Graduates, may I congratulate each and every graduate on your success.

Graduation is a special time – another step in the journey and a point where you once again move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. It is a time of various personal emotions often all rolled into one.

It is also a time of immense pride for parents and partners who have invested so much physical and emotional capital to help you get to this point and who have themselves had their times of doubt and uncertainty.

As parents we look for that sign which might indicate to us just what career path our children will take.

Like the doctor who recounted the moment he thought his daughter was to follow in his footsteps. He was driving his five year old who was in the back seat. Through the rear vision mirror he watched her pick up his stethoscope and placed it in her ears.

This is the moment he thought, this is the moment I will recount to her when she graduates from Medical School. Slowly the little girl brought the other end of the stethoscope to her mouth and said:

“Welcome to McDonald’s, can I take your order”.
As you go out into the world your lives and your actions will be defined by your values.

The challenge is to value for the whole of your life the knowledge that will inform your decisions.

Gather all the information available to you; understand that risk and probability is a part of this universe - nothing is certain or risk free and everything is a trade-off; understand the contrary argument; always be prepared to challenge and question – even your own views; above all adapt to new information.

You will recognise these as basic principles of the scientific method.

My message today is whether your degree is in commerce, law, bio science or the health sciences you must, each and every one of you, understand and employ science principles.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s super detective Sherlock Holmes said:

“It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts “.

Sherlock Holmes called it “a capital mistake”, we call it “confirmation bias.”

Confirmation bias is seen in many of this country’s debates for example alternative medicine, immunisation, genetic modification and fluoridation.

Marketing relies on confirmation bias – accentuate the positive eliminate the negative.

Fundamentalism of all persuasions also relies on it – accentuate fear, eliminate reason.

Science can also fall victim to confirmation bias but the strength of science is that, because of its principles, over time it is self-correcting.

Throughout my career I have always tried to employ the principles of the scientific process and avoid confirmation bias. I want to illustrate to you how this has helped me.

I have a passion for science kindled by my grandparents who displayed that delightful Victorian curiosity for all things natural. Their homestead even had a museum reminiscent of the animal attic here in Otago.

They were also avid conservationists worried how they might leave the land for the next generations.

We were often visited by scientists who carried out investigations on our property.

At the age of six I was invited to look down the microscope to see the first image of the chromosomes of the Blue Syrphid fly - an unremarkable creature for sure but a world first none-the-less.

So science has always been with me.

The development of our pharmaceutical company, South Pacific Sera, was a natural melding of my medical degree and our farming asset. It was a movement along the production chain from clinician to manufacturer.

South Pacific Sera is based on good science and New Zealand attributes which are truly verifiable – that is the exceptional animal disease status of this country.

That simple premise has seen our company grow in the international marketplace.

But we have never touted ourselves as a clean and green. It is a message which has instant appeal and short term popularity but it relies on confirmation bias and is doomed in the long term.

Employ scientific principles and your conclusions will have integrity.

But if you want to alter the course of history you need to be prepared to speak out against the crowd.

To back what you know is right in the face of hysteria or as Kipling said “keep your head while all about are losing theirs”.

In 2001 a group of science and industry organisations, including this university, formed the Life Sciences Network to provide a rational perspective in the genetic modification debate. I was its chairman.

At the time it was a popular notion that genetic modification was bad and dangerous. Bad news stories, no matter how incredible, would linger in the papers for weeks. Celebrities were falling over themselves to slam genetic modification.

Fifteen thousand people marched down Queen Street calling for the technology to be banned. We were vilified as puppets of evil corporates such as Monsanto. It got nasty – at times I was assigned a bodyguard and wondered about the safety of my home and family.

It was not a comfortable position to be in but the question of genetic science was a critical strategic issue for New Zealand. We applied scientific principles and our values.

We did our homework, we considered all the information available to us, we understood risk and probability, we put ourselves in our opponents shoes to understand their view, we continually challenged our assumptions and we were prepared to modify our view if compelling information came forward.

In other words we used scientific principles to form our views and underpin our arguments, which, while not popular, had integrity and longevity.

In our view genetic modification can be used for benefit or harm but like fire it should not be banned.

Our GM opponents confirmed their bias in a fundamentalist approach which is ultimately doomed to failure as Galileo proved several centuries ago.

We held the line.

Fast forward a decade and, while genetic modification is still restricted and viewed with suspicion in some quarters in New Zealand, around the world it is one of the fastest adopted technologies in agriculture.

It is widely used in medicine, food production and manufacturing.

The GM debate was for me an exciting and rewarding time despite the risks. It has also provided opportunity. Speaking out has led me into leadership roles in science, industry and agriculture. The chance to make a difference has increased, not decreased.

You too have that opportunity.

A university education has taught you how to think. But don’t underestimate the importance of this skill and above all don’t take it for granted nor misuse it.

As you go out into the world you will meet triumph and disaster. Take Kipling’s advice and “treat the two imposters just the same”. Have the courage of your convictions, but whether you be in law, commerce, health or the biosciences use the principles of science to give your convictions longevity and credibility.

After all in the words of Sherlock Holmes “it’s elementary Dr Watson”.


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