It seemed a bit bizarre, holding a cap ‘n’ gown “graduation” ceremony for 17 5-year-old kindergartners. Turned out to be fun, though; the kids enjoyed it, and there was food.

During the program, each child delivered a personal “speech.” Most were of the “what I want to be” variety — some envisioned becoming firefighters or police so they could “help people.” Future veterinarians “like animals.” Many wanted to become parents who treated their own kids well.

Our granddaughter began with similar themes, but her final sentence surprised us, and sent a whisper through the audience. “I want to be a scientist,” she said, “so I can figure out the mystery.”

Later, I told our 7-year-old grandson what his cousin had said, and asked him “which mystery do you think she was talking about?”

“She meant all the mystery,” he laughed. He knew exactly what she meant. Silly Grandpa.

There’s a back story. Last summer our extended family rented an isolated cabin in Montana near Yellowstone, using it as a base of operations for excursions. Belva brought three large magnifying glasses for the grandkids’ amusement.

I took our trio of explorers on what we came to call “mystery walks.” Targets of opportunity were everywhere — strange mounds of gravel, ants engulfing the base of a plant stalk, tiny intricate flowers. After close examination with the lenses, we speculated — What’s going on here? Why is it doing that? Why does one plant’s root dive long and deep, while its neighbor’s roots look like a tuft of hair?

It wasn’t long before they were searching on their own: “Ooh, I found another mystery!”

To a child’s perception, novelties are commonplace, but in a real and imminent sense, we are surrounded and engulfed by Mystery-with-a-capital-M. Seen through a child’s eyes, even beautiful things are also puzzling, and the range of subjects for our inquiry seems unlimited. Every answer leads us to another question.

Science provides a methodology for exploring the Mystery, and kids seem to grasp that reality intuitively, after they see it demonstrated. It’s a method that functions as a tool, by far the most reliable and effective tool humans possess for understanding the world within and around us.

Like any tool, science can be misused. Once humans discovered how to make fire, it was just a matter of time before some hapless heretic would be burned at the stake. That doesn’t mean we should shiver in the dark. We needn’t put out the sun to keep weeds from growing.

Too often science is presented to students as a body of facts, facts to be laboriously memorized, but not necessarily understood. Some of those facts are fascinating in their own right, but to generate new knowledge, we need to understand how those facts first surfaced, and how we came to possess them. Newton, Einstein and Hawking became “authorities” because they “showed their work,” and we can check it any time.

A unique respect for evidence distinguishes science from, say, religion. Every scientific conclusion is provisional; if additional data comes along, it’s possible in principle for any “law of science” to be replaced. Some conclusions have been verified so often and so extensively that we treat them as practical working hypotheses, using them to guide our inquiries as though they were effectively true.

I don’t have faith in science, but I have confidence in it, based on its past performance. Unlike faith, confidence must be earned.

Knowledge acquired by systematic observation and analysis contrasts starkly with revelations supposedly given to holy scribes by various deities. The gods don’t goof, so there’s no benefit to questioning their directives. Ultimately, we’re obliged to accept revelations uncritically, perhaps aided by “studying to show ourselves approved” to the gods — endlessly poring over scripture to discern its “real” meanings, but never daring to doubt that the meaning we discern there is absolutely true and complete.

Limiting a universal revelation to a single person or small group, after which it must be laboriously disseminated and explained to everyone else, is extremely slow, inefficient and unreliable.

Science brought us the printing press. Now it’s fast ‘n’ easy for 3,000 Christian denominations to reach 3,000 different conclusions, all studying the same text.

“E=mc2” always means the same thing.

Though some True Believers maintain “faith” renders evidence unnecessary at best, deceptive at worst, they are often among the first to trumpet any “scientific” discoveries which seem consistent with their preconceptions. Archeology shows Jericho really was burnt and destroyed — hooray for science! The same digs also indicate the Bible’s Jericho timelines are highly inaccurate — so obviously that part of the science is wrong. Stupid science.

America has evolved a schizoid view of science. Once the equivalent of rock stars, today’s scientists are often characterized as eggheads, elitists with no connection to the real world of actual people. For some, the term “intellectual” has become a pejorative. If undermining faith is what critical thinking does to us, thinking is bad.

Thank science that many of today’s readers are alive at all. It’s hard to find an element of modern life that hasn’t been positively influenced by science — sanitation, nutrition, transportation, medicine, agriculture, even the arts.

It’s time we systematically enabled our kids to figure out the Mystery. More than ever, their lives depend on it.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton

and lives outside Hays.