Ignorance is not a Virtue

The focus of this blog is the relationship between science and medicine, with an emphasis on skepticism, not politics. However, larger cultural problems in our attitudes towards science and reason are relevant in that they impact how people perceive science and scientific evidence, and the choices they make as a result. I was sufficiently impressed by some of President Obama’s recent remarks during a commencement speech at Rutgers University that I want to reproduce them here. I think they are an insightful commentary on a pervasive and dangerous anti-intellectualism that bedevils not only our political system but our ability to make choices, as a society and as individuals, about matters connected to science and health.

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.

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.”

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.)

He also touched on the issue of engagement with people and ideas with which one disagrees, another important and relevant issue:

If you disagree with somebody, bring them in—(applause)—and ask them tough questions.  Hold their feet to the fire.  Make them defend their positions.  (Applause.)  If somebody has got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong.  Engage it.  Debate it.  Stand up for what you believe in.  (Applause.)  Don’t be scared to take somebody on.  Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears off because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities.  Go at them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words.  And by doing so, you’ll strengthen your own position, and you’ll hone your arguments.  And maybe you’ll learn something and realize you don’t know everything.  And you may have a new understanding not only about what your opponents believe but maybe what you believe.  Either way, you win.

We need this perspective, in politics and everywhere else in our society, and it was inspiring to hear someone in the most prominent and visible public position articulate and defend it.

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3 Responses to Ignorance is not a Virtue

  1. Eric Ratner says:

    The last paragraph of the President’s remarks that you quote are, in my view, the most important. One of the unfortunate aspects of the internet is that we no longer have a common source of general knowledge about the events of the world, as we did when most people listened to Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley. Now we each read the blogs of the talking heads with whom we agree (or listen to FOX if we’re conservative or MSNBC if we’re liberal), and our belief systems are not challenged.
    My daughter, a high school junior, is thinking of going to Scripps next year. I was dismayed to learn that after Scripps chose Madeleine Albright as a commencement speaker, a number of faculty members said they would boycott her speech because they disagreed with her acts as Secretary of State and her comments about women who opposed Hillary Clinton. In my view, regardless of how you feel about Albright, it’s no answer not to listen to her. Challenge her if you find her unpersuasive, but don’t wall yourself off from people whose ideas are different from yours. This is particularly true in an academic community.

  2. John Gillis says:

    Drs. Petr Beckmann and Howard Hayden (the former deceased and the latter much alive), who have been two of the foremost energy experts of our era, would be pleased by Mr. Obama’s sentiments about facts, reason, logic. Yet, their views, such as approving of nuclear power as safer than other forms, and their skepticism about the usefulness of solar and wind energy, has been vilified by the President’s allies and the President, for years.

    And the President’s comments go directly against this week’s attack on free speech and unfettered science, by the Portland OR public school board, which decided unanimously to ban all textbooks that say that anthropocentric global warming “might” or “could” be wrong in various ways. So much for engaging one’s scientific enemies. But perhaps Mr. Obama’s statements will have a salutary effect and cause the Portland OR board to rescind their metaphorical book burning.

  3. darwinslapdog says:

    Sorry to be so late to the party, but I’ve not got around to this blog for a while. I very much appreciate you reproducing the President’s remarks as I would never have known of them otherwise and find them welcome and prescient.

    @John Gillis

    Lying to children is not really free speech, nor is presenting invalid views just for “balance” a good idea. We need not be so open minded that our brains fall out. A good scientist doesn’t really have “scientific enemies”, rivals perhaps, but not enemies. Either the work of a scientist is upheld or it is found lacking and rejected. Science is not a matter of argument, rather a method of investigation supported by experiment, data and replication.

    Just to be fair, I will investigate Dr’s Beckmann and Hayden to find out more about them, as (for the record) I also feel that nuclear power is being overlooked due to false fears and assumptions. I haven’t been aware of any vilification by the government; perhaps you could provide some examples/links?

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