The trendy topics fake news, the media and skepticism were in focus at the Indiana University Undergraduate Commencement ceremony held on May 5, 2018, but the advice given was from a by-gone era. On the surface the speakers were polished and the deliveries were good, but under the veneer was a shocking omission.
Michael A. McRobbie, the Indiana University president, spoke about the importance of ascertaining facts and determining what was true from what was false in his closing remarks. In an era where there is so much concern about fake news, this is understandable. McRobbie talked about the importance of science and healthy skepticism. He reminded graduates of many of the wonderful blessings of modern technology. He specifically praised Enlightenment Era thinking and urged the graduating class to stick to the facts, science and to be skeptical. These statements coordinated with journalist, chairman and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Times and Times Publishing Co., Paul Tasch’s comments earlier during the commencement address.
Tasch emphasized discerning the truth in an era of fake news; he gave examples of purely fictitious news stories that stirred people to act in inappropriate ways, such as the report that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor, which led to someone firing a rifle inside the establishment in 2016.
Indeed, it is important to separate fact from fiction; even more so in this internet age when consumers can gorge themselves on news that supports their views. But to suggest that discerning truth is that simple is a gross oversimplification that ignores the important advances of the postmodern critique of the enlightenment.
The question is not just “What is fact and what is fiction?” The question is also which facts are being presented. Despite critics claiming otherwise, I suspect that Fox News and MSNBC present mostly facts in their news reportage (of course they broadcast a lot of opinion also)! But the question is which facts are being presented and for what purpose? Whose facts? The razor we need to cut through the news reports to wisely discern truth involves understanding who is telling us these facts and why. If one knows the character and the ideology of the person or news outlet presenting the facts, then one has a better chance of discerning the whole truth in context.
The people who created the pizza parlor sex ring story had a reason, an ideology and a kind of morality that resulted in their creation of that fake news.
Yet the greater danger to our understanding of the world in which we live and our ability to discern the truth is not the outright lies, but the presentation of partial truths: that is, the presentation of the facts out of context to influence public opinion. One of the things we have learned since the Enlightenment is that truth is power. Whoever defines the truth has tremendous power and such “truth defining” can be used for great good or for horrendous oppression.
What was missing in Mr. Tasch’s and Dr. McRobbie’s presentations was an emphasis on the importance of character. If the journalist reporting the news is a person of integrity, there is a better chance of receiving less bias and more of the facts in the proper context. Speaking to thousands of assembled graduates about the future and emphasizing only science and the facts without any mention of character is shocking. What we need is not simply pure science and healthy skepticism; we need people of character, people of moral integrity and people who care.
The same science that can be used to find a cure for cancer can be used to create biological weapons that could destroy all of humanity. In an era of increasingly powerful technological advancement, such as CRISPR technology that allows scientists to alter DNA, we need so much more than just to be enamored by scientific advancement; we need people of moral integrity and character who will seek to use the technology for the betterment of humanity. In this dangerous political era we need more than the counsel to search for truth; we need people of character who will present all the facts in context and let the individual decide which ideology to follow.
The omission of any discussion of morality and character at commencement is even more shocking given that Indiana has marvelous colleges for visual and performing arts. Artists help us interpret the facts and understand the implications. Artists warn us, and they help us find joy in living. Living without art, focusing purely on science leads to a cold, joyless and dangerous world. Our best hope for the future is not just the facts and science, as important as they may be: it is people of moral character who will discern truth in context.