Celebrating the Graduate Class of 2017: Defenders of Truth in a Post-Truth Era

Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana

Friday, May 05, 2017

Questioning Truth

Trustees, Provost Robel, Dr. Yu, honored guests, colleagues, and members of the Graduate Class of 2017:

Half a century ago the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt asked in her famous essay on “Truth and Politics”, “Do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all?”1

She went on, though, to answer this question most emphatically in the affirmative. Arendt argued that while events are open to interpretation, there is no excuse for blurring the dividing lines between fact, opinion, and interpretation.

She wrote: “Even if we admit that every generation has the right to write its own history, we admit no more than that it has the right to rearrange the facts in accordance with its own perspective; we don’t admit the right to touch the factual matter itself.”2

Arendt described what she called “brutally elementary data, whose indestructibility has been taken for granted even by the most extreme and most sophisticated believers in historicism.”3 In other words, certain facts are true and are beyond argument, dispute, or opinion.

The Post-Truth Era

Despite this, the number of those who consider the truth to be unworthy of respect has grown in recent years. You graduate today into what has been called the “post-truth era”—a time in which there is a disturbingly widespread casual attitude toward the truth. We have recently witnessed rampant attacks on established knowledge; a fundamental rejection in some quarters of basic science and dispassionate rationality; and political upheaval around the globe driven by wild claims and spurious statistics.

These and other factors led the Oxford Dictionaries to proclaim “post-truth” the Word of the Year for 2016. For context, “post-truth” is defined in the Dictionaries as a condition “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”4

For former viewers of The Colbert Report, this will sound rather familiar since Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 to satirize the use of emotional appeal as fact. “Truthiness” was made the Word of the Year for 2006 by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. In fact, among today’s graduates are a number of students who worked on the so-called “Truthy” project—an award-winning, National Science Foundation-funded research project led by IU information and computer scientists to study the ways in which information spreads on social media.

Reflections on the Nature and Importance of Truth

But as a great educational and research institution Indiana University stands for truth; truth unadorned by artifice or equivocation; truth plain, simple and unadorned. For truth and veracity are the very foundations of our society.

Truth is an elemental component of our moral and ethical systems. “Telling the truth” is regarded as a fundamental part of our relations with other people, not just for its pragmatic utility, but as a good in itself. It is something we are all taught from the earliest age. And the ability to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence, of new true facts, is prized as one of the most revered of virtues.

For thousands of years, truth has been a topic of the deepest enquiry by the greatest minds from every human culture and civilization.

The search for what is true knowledge is the underlying theme of all of Plato’s works. In his Republic, Socrates argues that it is impossible to find anything more akin to wisdom than truth.5

The Chinese philosopher Kong Zi, better known as Confucius wrote in his Analects that “The object of the superior [person] is truth.”6

To England’s first Poet Laureate John Dryden, “Truth is the foundation of all knowledge and the cement of all societies.”7

Why Truth Matters

We live today in an age when information is more readily available than at any time in history, and yet we continue to face what President John F. Kennedy referred to more than half a century ago as “vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered.”8

A society with respect for the truth understands that there are always new truths to be discovered, that the natural and social sciences continually evolve, and that advancement in all aspects of human life and human understanding is forever possible.

Our society needs, just as it did in Kennedy’s era, policy-makers, scientists, public servants, business executives—leaders in every sector—who have reverence for, and an understanding of, the importance of truth.

Devising solutions to the grand challenges our society faces—challenges whose solutions have the potential to resolve or mitigate the most difficult and vexing problems of humanity—will depend on applying the power of logic and reason to extensive bodies of factual information hard won over many decades.

Finding efficient energy sources; strengthening cybersecurity; ensuring the supply of safe foods and fresh water; curing diseases and infections such as cancer, malaria, AIDS, and Ebola; and alleviating the threat of global pandemics will require individuals who are tirelessly dedicated to the search for truth—individuals like all of you, people with graduate training.

All disciplines are concerned with particular truths—with discrete facts and the inferences supported by those facts.

Astronomers, for example, rely on the pragmatic value of truth when they evaluate the orbits of celestial bodies, just as one of Indiana University’s great early faculty members, Daniel Kirkwood, did more than 150 years ago. The biologists among you revere the pragmatic value of truths about living things, including the genetic code, and the structures and functions of molecules. Those of you who are about to become journalists or historians have learned to become truth-gatherers, using probing inquiry to uncover and report true facts. The artists, writers, and musicians among you have learned not only that certain techniques are more useful and effective than others in the execution of your art, but you have also begun to learn to seek, and reveal through your art, universal truths about the human condition.

Regardless of your discipline, you have all experienced the deep sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and achievement—that sense of exhilaration—that comes from recognizing and understanding previously unknown truths.

Your IU education has given you the knowledge, values, and habits of mind to distinguish reality from appearance, to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources, to understand what constitutes a valid argument, and to assess the evidence used to support a claim.

These same habits of mind will enable you to contribute in immensely important transformative and innovative ways to the prosperity and progress of this nation and the world.

Wherever Truth is Injured, Defend It

In 1838, the great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson called on students at Dartmouth College to, in his words, “explore, and explore, and explore,” to “traverse the star-lit deserts of truth.”9

In his journals, he later wrote that it is not enough to search for truth; one must also uphold it with the greatest of energy and diligence.

“Wherever truth is injured,” Emerson wrote, “defend it.”10

As graduates of Indiana University, you have been preparing for years to become the next generation to discover, to understand, and to apply all that you have learned.

As you leave this ceremony and begin to use the knowledge and skills you have acquired to become the leaders of tomorrow, I call on you to renew your commitment to be the standard-bearers of truth.

Bolstered by the motto of your alma mater, lux et veritas, light and truth, may you appreciate and tirelessly defend the truths we now possess.

And may you, in this “post-truth era,” speak for truth and defend it against those who would distort, discredit, and defame it.

Congratulations and best wishes to the Graduate Class of 2017.

Source Notes

  1. Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Originally published in The New Yorker, February 25, 1967, and reprinted with minor changes in Between Past and Future (1968) and The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited by Peter Baier (2000) and Truth: Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions, edited by Medina and Wood (2005).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Oxford Dictionaries, Web, Accessed May 1, 2017, URL: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post-truth
  5. Plato, Republic, Book 6, 485.
  6. Confucius, The Analects of Confucius, Annping Chin (translator), (Penguin, 2014).
  7. John Dryden, “A Character of Polybius and his Writings,” in George R. Guffey, et. al. (eds.), The Works of John Dryden, Volume XX: Prose 1691-1698 De Arte Graphica and Shorter Works, (University of California Press, 1990), 23.
  8. John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University on the Space Effort, delivered September 12, 1962, Web. Accessed May 2, 2017, URL: http://explore.rice.edu/explore/kennedy_address.asp
  9. Relph Waldo Emerson, Address to the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, delivered July 24, 1838.
  10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (editors), Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations, Volume 3, (Reprint Services Corp., 1998, 1910), 269.