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Show me the data!

Members of the Rutland High School Class of 2003, friends and family, and honored guests:

I'm truly happy to be here with all of you this evening, and I especially want to thank the senior class for inviting me to speak. Being your commencement speaker is one of the greatest honors of my life, and I'm afraid that my ego has now swelled to embarrassing proportions.

I graduated from Rutland High in 1991, and since then I've spent most of my time taking science classes and doing scientific research. There are several reasons for this -- including the fact that I look pretty sharp in a lab coat -- but the biggest one is that I like the way scientists argue with each other. Although arguments are part of almost every job, I specifically like the standardized method by which scientists try to resolve their arguments. This method is known simply as the "scientific method," and, as many of you know, it involves generating hypotheses, doing careful experiments, collecting data, and determining whether the hypotheses are supported by the data.

The method may seem quite simple, and it is. Nevertheless, it has enabled scientists to settle countless arguments. For instance, in my own research, I've helped answer such controversial questions as, "How does fumonisin alter sphingolipid metabolism in corn seedlings?" and "How is the seed-caching behavior of black-capped chickadees affected by the presence of conspecifics?"

I won't go into the details here, since not all of you have an intense personal interest in the seed-caching behavior of black-capped chickadees. I'll simply note that, as I've conducted this technical, specialized research, I've realized that parts of the scientific method can also be applied to many other things. The music of the Beach Boys, for example.

Consider the 1988 Beach Boys hit "Kokomo" -- the one that goes, "Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya / Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama" and so forth. There's another line in the song that sounds something like, "Mar… tinique… The mon suh rah muh stuh." According to many people, the words to that line are, "Mar… tinique… Vermont's a rotten state." But could those really be the right lyrics? Could the Beach Boys really despise the entire state of Vermont?

Perhaps if we think like scientists we can get to the bottom of this. Our initial hypothesis will be that the Beach Boys are singing anti-Vermont lyrics. We should now ask whether this hypothesis is consistent with the data we already have on the Beach Boys. Does any of their other work suggest a hatred of Vermont? Current evidence says no; in fact, their song "California Girls" praises both East Coast girls (who are described as "hip") and Northern girls (who are said to "keep their boyfriends warm at night"). It's not clear whether the Beach Boys consider Vermont to be part of the East Coast or part of the North or both, but, either way, the song seems to reflect some appreciation of Vermont, or at least of its female residents. So our hypothesis is already looking a bit problematic.

A second critical question we need to ask is: are there other plausible interpretations of "The mon suh rah muh stuh"? Different scholars translate the line as "That mound of rotting steak," "The monster is a snake," or "A mozzarella cake." However, the official website of misheard Beach Boys lyrics insists that the line is "That Montserrat mystique" -- Montserrat being an island east of Puerto Rico -- which admittedly fits the song's Caribbean theme better than the anti-Vermont words do. In light of this information, and in the absence of a reputable source backing the "rotten state" hypothesis, we must conclude that the Beach Boys harbor no hostility toward Vermont.

So what does all this have to do with real life? Well, the general point I'm trying to make here is that, from scientific discoveries to song lyrics, ambiguous and contradictory information is all around us. I urge you to examine this information critically and to ask questions about where it came from. Don't assume that second-hand rumors are true, and don't be afraid to ask for supporting details when they aren't initially provided. If you want to see a direct quotation rather than a paraphrased summary, or if you want to see the actual numbers that led to a particular recommendation, just say, politely but firmly, "Show me the data!"

This phrase -- "Show me the data!" -- is so useful that I'm going make you memorize it by singing it over and over. This is what I'd like you to sing:

Show me the data.
You've got to show me the data.
If you don't show me the data,
Then how will I know?

Try singing it with me and the senior Chamber Singers:

Show me the data.
You've got to show me the data.
If you don't show me the data,
Then how will I know?

Now we're ready to do the whole song. I'll sing a verse, then we'll all sing the chorus (which is the part you just learned), then I'll sing another verse, and then we'll sing the chorus again. Here we go!

Information all around --
Some is bad, and some is sound.
How can I decide which statements to accept?
There's a logical recourse:
Locate each primary source,
So conflicting sets of rumors can be checked.

CHORUS:
Show me the data.
You've got to show me the data.
If you don't show me the data,
Then how will I know?
Show me the data.
You've got to show me the data.
If you don't show me the data,
Then how will I know?

Is that candidate a jerk?
Does this toothpaste really work?
I must gather all the facts and then decide.
If there's truth in what you say,
Let me see Exhibit A.
Then my thirst for details will be satisfied.

CHORUS

In conclusion: remember that the world is full of information and that your success will depend on your ability to distinguish the good information from the bad. Go forth with a skeptical but open mind. Congratulations, good luck, and may the data be with you!