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Award-winning genetic researcher Prof Peter Dearden urged graduates to speak out for science and to avoid a threatened "new lie-filled dark age" dominated by anti-vaccination forces and climate change denial.
Prof Dearden, of the Otago biochemistry department, was speaking to 340 science graduates in the Dunedin Town Hall on Saturday, in a 4pm address, at the second of two graduation ceremonies.
Newly qualified scientists enjoyed exciting prospects for further study or work, he said.
But he warned that hopes to create a better future world were threatened by the rise of unscientific thinking and a "frightening" push back "on evidence as a way to help us make decisions".
"Climate change is a frightening reality, yet dismissed as a mad-eyed cult by some who profit from the fossil fuel industry.
"We are seeing the resurgence of once well-controlled diseases such as measles, with anti-vaccination proponents seemingly uncaring about the damage they are doing."
Science, as a system to interrogate nature, was not perfect, "but at least it is self-correcting and encourages dissent".
Unless graduates spoke out for scientific critical thinking "we will never be able to ensure that knowledge will improve the human condition for all of us, and we will be lost in the depth of a new lie-filled dark age", he said.
Otago University commerce and physical education graduate Shelley Katae had earlier urged 270 graduates in many disciplines, including health sciences, attending a 1pm graduation ceremony to help break down the existing system of social privilege.
Ms Katae, who is general manager strategy and performance at the Tamaki Regeneration Company in Auckland, also strongly challenged personal and social stereotyping.
She recalled an incident, in the past five years, in which she, then as a chief financial officer, and with a well-known Pasifika leader, had arranged to meet a senior Auckland investment broker.
As they waited in the meeting room, the broker entered, looked confused and asked them if they had completed cleaning the room - "I have a meeting in here shortly".
The subsequent meeting had been awkward, but was a "powerful reminder" that she, as a female Maori and he as a Pasifika man, "didn't meet society's expectations of what a chief financial officer and chief executive should look like".
Ms Katae told graduates that, with their "incredible talents" and newly acquired qualifications, she had "absolute confidence that you can change the current system and ensure it is equitable for everyone in Aotearoa".
She came from a low-income family background and had only found her "mojo" and felt comfortable with herself in her 30s.
"I am very grateful for my life experiences because it has given me the ability to feel more and more comfortable leading and supporting uncomfortable conversations in order to drive change," she said.