Seeking the Wise Average
Commencement address Spring 2008
Welcome to the University of Texas at Dallas!
If you are on our campus for the first time today, we hope you will look around and get to know us better. And, for those of you who are graduating today, don't let this become your last day here. Your university is a stepping stone toward your aspirations, but it is also a place we hope you will think of fondly, and return to visit often.
We are about to begin some of the largest construction efforts in our history, preparing to realize more than $220 million in improvements to campus. We hope you'll want to keep track of this progress, and help us make others aware of the university's growth and achievements.
And what a year it's been for achievements:
Our chess team is now the first-ever two-in-a-row winner of the national championship. No college team before has held both the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere titles two years running!
One of our own scientists, Dr. Ray Baughman, director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid Nanotechnology Center of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, was one of only two Texans elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Our School of Management's Executive MBA program was named number 1 in Texas by the Financial Times. And I am pleased to report that a team of three management grad students recently took first place in the 2008 National NYMEX (New York Mercantile Exchange Commodities) Challenge , besting student teams from Yale, Brown, Columbia, Rice and UT Austin, among others.
The Eric Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science continues to lead the region in rankings, and added to its portfolio a new degree, Mechanical Engineering.
Our school of Economic, Policy and Political Sciences is adding to its portfolio as well, with the acquisition of the journal Geographical Analysis, the leading publication of this field, to its endeavors.
Our Center for BrainHealth in Behavioral and Brain Sciences made news with its revolutionary treatments for autism, which were created in the true UT Dallas fashion: through an interdisciplinary partnership with Arts and Technology in the School of Arts and Humanities.
The schools of General Studies and Arts and Humanities are also celebrating a pair of special graduations today: Taylor Sawyers, interdisciplinary studies and teaching major, will receive her bachelor's. Her father, author and teacher Buz Sawyers, will receive his master's of aesthetic studies. Just for today, and just for the Sawyers, we are allowing a graduate student to receive his diploma with an undergraduate class. It was the least we could do after Taylor's dad doubled up his course work to graduate with her.
Today, we gather to celebrate the accomplishment of those assembled here, and to honor what is the first and most urgent task of a university: to create a better future, by creating more thoughtful, educated, aware people.
We know this process makes a difference in the lives of our graduates and their families. There's plenty of research to show that it makes an economic difference.
But in this election year — so different from many preceding presidential election years because of the extraordinary engagement of the voting public — you, as highly educated, thinking individuals have an opportunity to wield extraordinary influence. And your achievement will require something you've already proven you can do: You'll need to learn, and think. And, of course, you'll need to vote.
To help explain what I'm about to say, I want to tell you about a two-time presidential candidate of long ago-Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, a very accomplished and thoughtful person, became best-known in popular American culture for running for president and losing. A National Public Radio story about him not long ago described a campaign rally in which a supporter shouted out: "Governor Stevenson, all the thinking people are for you."
"That's not enough, I need a majority."
This story also reminds me of a class I took as a freshman engineering student. My professor, Leland Barclay, asked each of us to estimate how many erasers wide the blackboard was. Estimates among the 50 or so students varied widely, from 10 eraser widths to 150. I remember chuckling to myself at how silly some of the individual answers were. But after all the estimates were made, one of the students was charged with averaging them while two others measured exactly how wide the blackboard was in eraser widths. To my utter astonishment, the average was correct to within a tiny fraction of one eraser width. What we discovered was the power of a group of individual, independent observations when considered collectively rather than individually.
This phenomenon has been described by James Surowiecki, writing in The Wisdom of Crowds about decision-making. He says: "Ask 100 people to answer a question or solve a problem and the average answer will often be at least as good as the answer of the smartest member. With most things, the average is mediocrity," but, "with decision-making, it's often excellence... as if we've been programmed to be collectively smart."
The key to wisdom of crowds is that the group of people must each be independently thinking and not collectively biased in the same way.
By now you may be wondering: What does this have to do with our election this year?
It's a sad fact of life that most people are not as informed about candidates as they should be before they vote. And it's a fact of basic statistics, as Bryan Caplan writes in his recent book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, that in a large election each candidate will get about half the votes cast by individuals who are mentally flipping a coin. If most people are ill-informed on the issues and therefore voting randomly, they statistically divide virtually evenly between two candidates and cancel each other out. In such cases, it will be the small percentage of the truly informed — those who have a reason for their vote — who will drive the election. If 90% of the vote is merely random, the 10% of voters who make a deliberate choice will decide the race! The independently thoughtful, well-informed group of people will likely be the "crowd" in whose wisdom the fate of the election rests.
We've all met ill informed voters who cancel each other out. My mother and father used to vote in every election, just to make sure that they would offset each other because one always felt it their personal responsibility to society to cancel out the other. But smart people who analyze issues carefully tend to agree with each other more than we realize.
The average decision from a group of smart, independent people - not all biased by the same factors - is a wise average. And it often is the deciding factor in an election.
I am proud to tell you that we have a politically engaged campus. I am asking each of you, as representatives of our campus and as educated people to take the time-now that you have it, now that classes are over-to inform yourselves and to make a conscious decision when you vote about what is best for your city, state, and country. While every vote counts, I know that today's graduates are exceptionally smart people and I believe that your collective choices will have far more impact that you might realize.
In closing, I want to congratulate parents, families, friends, and of course, you, the people we are all here for, our graduates. Like going off to college, graduation is a rite of passage, as much an emotional and personal milestone as an intellectual one. Though simply by being admitted to one of the most selective universities in Texas, you showed that you had achieved a certain level of academic distinction, no one's success is predetermined. You had to work to get here, and we are proud of you, and proud to play a transformative role in your life. I offer my deepest admiration for your achievement today, and for those achievements to come, and my very best wishes to you.
Thank you, and good luck!
Updated: November 22, 2011