Monday, May 16, 2016

Ignorance Is Not a Virtue

I love the shout-out to Norman Borlaug.
From the transcript, available here:

Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things. (Applause.) These are qualities you want in people making policy. These are qualities you want to continue to cultivate in yourselves as citizens. (Applause.) That might seem obvious. (Laughter.) That's why we honor Bill Moyers or Dr. Burnell.

We traditionally have valued those things. But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. (Applause.) So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be. In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. (Applause.) It's not cool to not know what you're talking about. (Applause.) That's not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. (Laughter.) That's not challenging political correctness. That's just not knowing what you're talking about. (Applause.) And yet, we've become confused about this.

Look, our nation’s Founders — Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson — they were born of the Enlightenment. They sought to escape superstition, and sectarianism, and tribalism, and no-nothingness. (Applause.) They believed in rational thought and experimentation, and the capacity of informed citizens to master our own fates. That is embedded in our constitutional design. That spirit informed our inventors and our explorers, the Edisons and the Wright Brothers, and the George Washington Carvers and the Grace Hoppers, and the Norman Borlaugs and the Steve Jobses. That's what built this country.

And today, in every phone in one of your pockets — (laughter) — we have access to more information than at any time in human history, at a touch of a button. But, ironically, the flood of information hasn’t made us more discerning of the truth. In some ways, it’s just made us more confident in our ignorance. (Applause.) We assume whatever is on the web must be true. We search for sites that just reinforce our own predispositions. Opinions masquerade as facts. The wildest conspiracy theories are taken for gospel.

Now, understand, I am sure you’ve learned during your years of college — and if not, you will learn soon — that there are a whole lot of folks who are book smart and have no common sense. (Applause.) That's the truth. You’ll meet them if you haven't already. (Laughter.) So the fact that they’ve got a fancy degree — you got to talk to them to see whether they know what they’re talking about. (Laughter.) Qualities like kindness and compassion, honesty, hard work — they often matter more than technical skills or know-how. (Applause.)

But when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem. (Applause.)

You know, it's interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about. (Applause.) If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane. (Laughter.) And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don't want somebody who’s done it before.” (Laughter and applause.) The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science — that is the path to decline. It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey — (applause) — he said: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

The debate around climate change is a perfect example of this. Now, I recognize it doesn’t feel like the planet is warmer right now. (Laughter.) I understand. There was hail when I landed in Newark. (Laughter.) (The wind starts blowing hard.) (Laughter.) But think about the climate change issue. Every day, there are officials in high office with responsibilities who mock the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that human activities and the release of carbon dioxide and methane and other substances are altering our climate in profound and dangerous ways.

A while back, you may have seen a United States senator trotted out a snowball during a floor speech in the middle of winter as “proof” that the world was not warming. (Laughter.) I mean, listen, climate change is not something subject to political spin. There is evidence. There are facts. We can see it happening right now. (Applause.) If we don’t act, if we don't follow through on the progress we made in Paris, the progress we've been making here at home, your generation will feel the brunt of this catastrophe.

So it’s up to you to insist upon and shape an informed debate. Imagine if Benjamin Franklin had seen that senator with the snowball, what he would think. Imagine if your 5th grade science teacher had seen that. (Laughter.) He’d get a D. (Laughter.) And he’s a senator! (Laughter.)

Look, I'm not suggesting that cold analysis and hard data are ultimately more important in life than passion, or faith, or love, or loyalty. I am suggesting that those highest expressions of our humanity can only flourish when our economy functions well, and proposed budgets add up, and our environment is protected. And to accomplish those things, to make collective decisions on behalf of a common good, we have to use our heads. We have to agree that facts and evidence matter. And we got to hold our leaders and ourselves accountable to know what the heck they’re talking about. (Applause.)

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