Category Archives: Commencent Speeches

Atul Gawande’s CalTech Commencement Address, June 10, 2016

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, public-health researcher, and a New Yorker staff writer.  His 2016 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology addressed the current American distrust of science. Let me begin by stating that I wholeheartedly endorse the ideas that Gawande sets forth in his address, and I celebrate his salubrious attitude toward science. In what follows I will summarize some of its themes while interjecting my own comments. But I will say this; if we turn our back on rational, scientific thinking—the kind of thinking that Gawande so nobly defends— then we will hurdle toward a new Dark Ages.

Gawande begins by pointing out that science

is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.

It is so easy to accept the first ideas that come along, the first thought to which one is exposed. But so often those ideas are wrong. Time does slow down as speed increases; the earth is curved even if it appears flat; and quantum, relativity, evolutionary, and atomic theories are true even if they are counter-intuitive. A real searcher of truth adopts a scientific mindset which is:

more than a way of thinking. It was a way of being—a weird way of being. You are supposed to have skepticism and imagination, but not too much. You are supposed to suspend judgment, yet exercise it. Ultimately, you hope to observe the world with an open mind, gathering facts and testing your predictions and expectations against them. Then you make up your mind and either affirm or reject the ideas at hand. But you also hope to accept that nothing is ever completely settled, that all knowledge is just probable knowledge. A contradictory piece of evidence can always emerge. Hubble said it best …“The scientist explains the world by successive approximations.”

As a philosopher I would call Hubble an evolutionary epistemologist. The idea is that science typically progresses, not through scientific revolutions as Thomas Kuhn thought, but through a gradual evolution. The successive approximations of science to the truth about the world can be compared to an idea in analytic geometry—an asymptote of a curve is a line such that the distance between the curve and the line approaches zero as they tend to infinity. Science too gets closer and closer to the truth while always remaining provisional, that is, open to future evidence. As Gawande notes:

The scientific orientation has proved immensely powerful. It has allowed us to nearly double our lifespan during the past century, to increase our global abundance, and to deepen our understanding of the nature of the universe. Yet scientific knowledge is not necessarily trusted. Partly, that’s because it is incomplete. But even where the knowledge provided by science is overwhelming, people often resist it—sometimes outright deny it. Many people continue to believe, for instance, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that childhood vaccines cause autism (they do not); that people are safer owning a gun (they are not); that genetically modified crops are harmful (on balance, they have been beneficial); that climate change is not happening (it is).

Nonetheless many people still fear vaccines “despite decades of research showing [such fears] to be unfounded … hundreds of studies have found no link, yet … fears persist. In response, vaccine rates have plunged, leading to outbreaks of measles and mumps that, last year, sickened tens of thousands of children across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and resulted in deaths.” Part of the reason is that people “don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. [But] they do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.” How do we dislodge these false beliefs? It is hard.

Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. But once an idea has got embedded and become widespread, it becomes very difficult to dig it out of people’s brains—especially when they do not trust scientific authorities. And we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities.

Studies confirm alarming trends regarding trust in science. Part of the reason is that many factions present themselves as quasi-scientific authorities. Religious groups challenge biological evolution, certain industries challenge climate science, and others reject the medical establishment altogether. “As varied as these groups are, they are all alike in one way. They all harbor sacred beliefs that they do not consider open to question.” To discriminate between science and pseudo-science Gawande identifies five hallmark of pseudoscientists.

They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts, who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not actually have a credible scientific track record. They cherry-pick the data and papers that challenge the dominant view as a means of discrediting an entire field. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies. And they set impossible expectations of research: when scientists produce one level of certainty, the pseudoscientists insist they achieve another. [And] It’s not that some of these approaches never provide valid arguments. Sometimes an analogy is useful, or higher levels of certainty are required. But when you see several or all of these tactics deployed, you know that you’re not dealing with a scientific claim anymore. Pseudoscience is the form of science without the substance.

How then do we defend science as the best way to explain the world? The problem is that people aren’t swayed by reason and evidence, as science itself has discovered. (A fact I can attest to after 30 years of college teaching. I’ve found that, as the songwriter Paul Simon wrote, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

In 2011, two Australian researchers compiled many of the findings in “The Debunking Handbook.” The results are sobering. The evidence is that rebutting bad science doesn’t work; in fact, it commonly backfires. Describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers. That’s just the way the brain operates; misinformation sticks, in part because it gets incorporated into a person’s mental model of how the world works. Stripping out the misinformation therefore fails, because it threatens to leave a painful gap in that mental model—or no model at all.

What then do we do? Gawande notes that science itself provides a partial answer. It turns out that providing a narrative of scientific accomplishments is the best way to convince science deniers.

You don’t focus on what’s wrong with the vaccine myths, for instance. Instead, you point out: giving children vaccines has proved far safer than not. How do we know? Because of a massive body of evidence, including the fact that we’ve tried the alternate experiment before. Between 1989 and 1991, vaccination among poor urban children in the U.S. dropped. And the result was fifty-five thousand cases of measles and a hundred and twenty-three deaths.

Gawande also argues that we need “to expose the bad science tactics that are being used to mislead people. Bad science has a pattern, and helping people recognize the pattern arms them to come to more scientific beliefs themselves.” Thus we need to help people to better be able to judge which information to trust. (For example, if you want to understand the truth about biological evolution visit a site like this one from the biology department at UC-Berkeley, rather than the site of a religious group that has a vested interest in misleading you.)

Science is the best method of uncovering truth that we have discovered. It is an organized, systematic, collective, self-correcting project whose errors are slowly eliminated. Look in the cockpit of a jetliner and you see more than a hundred years of the self-correcting nature of science—hence the plane is amazingly safe. Of course science isn’t perfect.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

Gawande also notes that scientific ignorance isn’t the exclusive purview of the uneducated. “The doubting is usually among my most, not least, educated patients. Education may expose people to science, but it has a countervailing effect as well, leading people to be more individualistic and ideological.” Education then doesn’t give anyone special authority on truth, but it does give us an idea of what real truth-seeking is like. “It is the effort not of a single person but of a group of people—the bigger the better—pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline. As scientists, in other words.”

Gawande concludes by emphasizing the social implications of good thinking. “Even more than what you think, how you think matters. The stakes for understanding this could not be higher than they are today, because we are not just battling for what it means to be scientists. We are battling for what it means to be citizens.” (Consider that nearly half the American population in 2016 is prepared to vote for a Presidential candidate who is an egomaniacal, mentally unstable, proto-fascist, manifestly unfit and unqualified for political office. Yes, many of the candidate’s supporters are racists, bigots, misogynists and xenophobes, but many simply don’t understand that they those who hold political office need qualifications, just as their physicians, attorneys, accountants, dentists, nurses, and professors do. And they don’t understand the threat when unqualified and immoral people hold power.)

As we confront climate change, nuclear war, bacteria and viruses, and so many other existential threats, we will survive and flourish only if become better critical thinkers. This can be accomplished partly by education, but in my view ultimately the answer must involve artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation. We will not survive unless we direct our own evolution. In the meantime we can only hope that the uninformed and misinformed don’t gain too much political influence.

Summary of Ken Burns 2016 Anti-Trump Commencement Speech at Stanford

Filmmaker Ken Burns delivers the 2016 Commencement address at Stanford.
(Image credit: L.A. Cicero – The full text can be found here.) 

“Ken” Burns[1] is an American filmmaker, known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary films. His most widely known documentaries are The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), Prohibition (2011), The Central Park Five (2012), and The Roosevelts (2014). Also widely known is his role as executive producer of The West … and Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies ….[2] (from Wikipedia)


Objectivity About History – Burns begins by stating that he is “in the business of memorializing … history.” He reminds people of the power the past exerts on us, and how it helps us better understand the present. He also says that for “nearly 40 years now, I have diligently practiced and rigorously maintained a conscious neutrality in my work, avoiding the advocacy of many of my colleagues, trying to speak to all of my fellow citizens.” (In other words, he has tried to tell both sides of the story as impartially as possible.)

Inspiration From The Past – As we look back over the past Burns asks where we should look for inspiration. “Which distant events and long dead figures will provide us with the greatest help, the most coherent context and the wisdom to go forward?” Why is this important? Because:

The hard times and vicissitudes of life will ultimately visit everyone. You will also come to realize that you are less defined by the good things that happen to you, your moments of happiness and apparent control, than you are by those misfortunes and unexpected challenges that, in fact, shape you more definitively, and help to solidify your true character—the measure of any human value.

Burns vividly recalls finding out at age 8 that his mother was dying of cancer. She was not crying about her impending death, but about how her illness was bankrupting her family. Fortunately her neighbors’ small donations kept the family solvent, and Burns learned about how life’s struggles can be ameliorated with small victories. In his filmmaking career he has tried “to resurrect small moments within the larger sweep of American history, trying to find our better angels in the most difficult of circumstances, trying to wake the dead, to hear their stories.”

Meaning From The Past –  But how do we overcome the fear of death? How do we find meaning in life if we all die? History helps us answer these questions.

The past often offers an illuminating and clear-headed perspective from which to observe and reconcile the passions of the present moment, just when they threaten to overwhelm us. The history we know, the stories we tell ourselves, relieve that existential anxiety, allow us to live beyond our fleeting lifespans, and permit us to value and love and distinguish what is important.

The United States Government  – Burns himself finds particular inspiration from Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, while speaking his colleagues in the new Republican party about slavery, he uttered these words: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But within a few years he was president of a divided nation and, in his Annual Message to Congress, he asked us to rise to the occasion.

Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. … The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for Union. … We know how to save the Union. … In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.

Burns points out that Lincoln is speaking to us, we must rise to the occasion and save the country.  He also rejects cynicism about our government even though it has made “catastrophic mistakes.” In fact the lives we live are made possible, to a large extent, by our government.

From our Declaration of Independence to our Constitution and Bill of Rights; from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Land Grant College and Homestead Acts; from the transcontinental railroad and our national parks to child labor laws, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act; from the GI Bill and the interstate highway system to putting a man on the moon and the Affordable Care Act, the United States government has been the author of many of the best aspects of our public and personal lives.

Individualism – We forget how much government gives us “because we live in an age of social media where we are constantly assured that we are all independent free agents.” We don’t see our connection to the entire community because of:

a sophisticated media culture that … desperately needs you – to live in an all-consuming disposable present, wearing the right blue jeans, driving the right car, carrying the right handbag, eating at all the right places, blissfully unaware of the historical tides that have brought us to this moment, blissfully uninterested in where those tides might take us.

Our false individualism makes us feel important “but this kind of existence actually ingrains in us a stultifying sameness that rewards conformity (not courage), ignorance and anti-intellectualism (not critical thinking).” And now such ignorance threatens our political future. ” And there comes a time when I—and you—an no longer remain neutral, silent. We must speak up – and speak out.”

The Unique Danger of Donald Trump – Here is best to quote a man who knows so much of American history, Burns himself:

For 216 years, our elections, though bitterly contested, have featured the philosophies and character of candidates who were clearly qualified. That is not the case this year. One is glaringly not qualified. So before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process, divided our house, to fight against, no matter your political persuasion, the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises, and terrifying Orwellian statements; a person who easily lies, creating an environment where the truth doesn’t seem to matter; who has never demonstrated any interest in anyone or anything but himself and his own enrichment; who insults veterans, threatens a free press, mocks the handicapped, denigrates women, immigrants and all Muslims; a man who took more than a day to remember to disavow a supporter who advocates white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan; an infantile, bullying man who, depending on his mood, is willing to discard old and established alliances, treaties and long-standing relationships. I feel genuine sorrow for the understandably scared and—they feel—powerless people who have flocked to his campaign in the mistaken belief that—as often happens on TV—a wand can be waved and every complicated problem can be solved with the simplest of solutions. They can’t. It is a political Ponzi scheme. And asking this man to assume the highest office in the land would be like asking a newly minted car driver to fly a 747.

Burns has seen this type of figure arise many times and many places in history.

an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African-Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber-rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again – all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral Internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.

Burns does decry that the media has not exposed this charlatan, primarily because  he delivers good ratings. “In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior.” As Burns notes, “This is not a liberal or conservative issue, a red state, blue state divide. This is an American issue. Many honorable people, including the last two Republican presidents, members of the party of Abraham Lincoln, have declined to support him.” And he implores those Republicans” who have endorsed him to reconsider. “We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization and reject the troubling, unfiltered Tourette’s of his tribalism.”

Burns concludes this section of his speech by saying to these graduates of one of the most prestigious universities in the world:

The next few months of your “commencement,” that is to say, your future, will be critical to the survival of our Republic. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty.” Let us pledge here today that we will not let this happen to the exquisite, yet deeply flawed, land we all love and cherish—and hope to leave intact to our posterity. Let us “nobly save,” not “meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

Fatherly Advice – He finishes by offering some advice. Take it seriously when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted; be for things not just against things; be curious; feed your mind; remember that insecurity makes liars of us all; don’t confuse success with excellence; don’t overspecialize, be generally educated; think beyond the binary; seek out mentors; embrace new ideas; travel; read; have children, you will learn much; be enthusiastic; remember the great threats to your country come from within; support science and the arts; vote; and

Believe, as Arthur Miller told me in an interview for my very first film on the Brooklyn Bridge, “believe, that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful.”

What a wonderful speech. Thank you Ken Burns.

I’ll conclude with the disclaimer the Huffington Post features after every one of their columns about Trump:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

I was recently reminded of David Foster Wallace‘s (1962 – 2008) well-known commencement speech: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” Below is a summary and commentary on the speech. Some of its main themes are: solipsism, loneliness, the monotony of life, the meaning of real education, and the importance of sympathy and conscious awareness. (At the bottom of the post is a video which contains multiple quotes from the speech and ties together its main idea. Below that is an audio of the complete speech.)

Wallace begins with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Wallace quickly explains that “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Against this story’s backdrop, Wallace considers the value of the liberal arts education. Wallace argues that the significance of a liberal arts education isn’t so much about learning how to think as it is that it provides”the choice of what to think about.”

To explain this idea he considers a theist and an atheist who are both convinced that they know the truth. For Wallace this shows that people construct meaning from the inside by interpreting reality differently.  Yet most of us are close-minded, unaware of how imprisoned we are to the ideas and events that continually shape us—to the water all around us. A real education teaches us: “To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

So a liberal arts education gives us tools to escape from our default settings, from the things we believe to be obvious, but which really aren’t. Education

… means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed …

If you’re truly educated you can “keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” And to show why this is so important Wallace informs the new graduates:

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

To explain Wallace pictures of an average day in the near future for college graduates:

you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping … So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

This is the life that awaits the graduates. It will be their life “day after week after month after year.” But we can choose to be upset about the store or the traffic, or we can reject this natural default setting, which is to be frustrated with all of this. We can then see that all of this isn’t about us;  we can learn to see things differently. Perhaps those in traffic or at the store are as stressed as we are. Perhaps their lives are much worse than ours. It is hard to see the world like this, but we can do it with effort. As Wallace poetically puts it:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Wallace’s point is that “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.” (This advice is reminiscent of the existentialists.) Worshipping money, power or physical beauty will not satisfy, for you will never have enough. These are the things the world encourages us to worship, what we worship by default. But

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Wallace concludes that:

… the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now. I wish you way more than luck.

I thank Wallace for reminding me of so much—that education is about choosing to escape our biological and cultural default settings; that we can only control our own minds, and not the external world; and that real education is a lifelong process. I also thank him for reminding me that the meaning of life is found, if anywhere, in ordinary things. Finally, I would like to thank all the friends and teachers who helped provide me with a humanities education so long ago. It has not made me rich, but it has helped make me free.

And here is the speech in full.