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Groveling at the Altar of Opinion

  • Date: 08/19/2000
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 2000, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of education, business, fine and applied arts, nursing, and community service and technology.

    Your education at The University of Akron has equipped you to face life's most stringent intellectual challenges.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and technologies.

    And, you have discovered that learning is a continuous and exciting process, and that life's experiences will continue to instruct you along the way.

    Perhaps you think that the knowledge you have accumulated has no material value, or at least none that can be quantified. Or perhaps you don't yet know how this new knowledge of yours can be put to gainful use.

    As we enter the knowledge economy of our modern world, however, not only has knowledge become our greatest asset, it is increasingly quantified in the asset ledgers of major corporations, where it appears as intellectual property.

    For each of you, the quantifiable expression of your accumulated knowledge will quite simply translate into increased employability and increased wages.

    Each of you who today graduate with a bachelor's degree will earn appreciably more than those who stopped their education at the end of high school.

    Indeed, you will earn at least two times more or greater in your lifetime than those who failed to go to college.

    And those of you who graduate with Masters and doctoral degrees will earn correspondingly greater salaries still.

    How can you ensure that what you know will become even more valuable?

    I suggest to you that you will do better for yourself if you do two things: First, you must continue to learn, and second, you must learn to separate knowledge from mere opinion.

    Those of you who graduate today can well expect to have five or more different careers during your lifetime. And that is because what we do changes rapidly as new knowledge and new technologies create new industries that replace old ones.

    In this environment, people who stop learning will be left behind, literally and figuratively.

    And if you do not learn to also separate knowledge from opinion, you will not be as effective in what you do, and you will miss opportunities that present themselves to you.

    Regrettably, much of our social life, and certainly much of our journalism, centers around opinions and rarely sorts out the fact and fancy behind those opinions.

    It seems that in our social discourse, it is easier to rally around an emotionally charged message than to appreciate and understand the complexity of a particular concern.

    We use opinions to sway judgment, polarize issues, and arouse emotions. And so strong is their effect that, it seems to me, we sometimes reduce ourselves to groveling at the altar of opinion.

    However, please do not misunderstand me. Opinion does have its place.

    At any one time, opinion will tend to embody the collective sense of a person, a society or a group. When that collective sense is derived from an informed and factual basis, we would call it collective wisdom, whereas if it embodies prejudices and ignorance, it would be folly.

    In either case, whether wisdom or folly, any collective sense can be useful in guiding discussions around complex issues. We call it agreement, and when we agree with others we tend to like them or otherwise be positively disposed.

    Organizations, such as the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, promote intelligent, responsible and imaginative use of public opinion as a means to quantify our collective sense of an increasingly complex and interdependent global environment.

    However, public opinion may or may not be substantiated by fact. For example, public opinion shows that we are against the use of nuclear energy as a means of generating electricity. The facts demonstrate that nuclear energy is far more economical, more efficient and more environmentally friendly than the burning of fossil fuels.

    This confusion between fact and opinion is most telling, indeed, in matters involving risk, which is an opinion of the perceived dangers associated with any action or thing.

    For some, risk becomes anxiety. And quite often, even in academic circles, anxiety leads to "analysis paralysis" . . . a condition whereby a problem or opportunity is analyzed without action, or is simply ignored, until it passes you by or becomes intolerable.

    But remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions.

    A simple story will illustrate the point:

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 150-thousand Americans each year, and automobiles on our highways kill more than 50-thousand people per year. But, nobody seems to be afraid of cigarettes or automobiles.

    However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks.

    The Navy says that there are about 50 shark attacks worldwide each year. The National Bureau of Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few. (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not shark bites.)

    The best guess is that sharks kill two or three people each year in the United States. But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark" everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    That's the difference between anxiety and risk.

    Each of us has opinions, which make us feel this way about various things and some activities in our society.

    How nice it would be if we could put risk and anxiety into perspective, and move to better distinguish the "sharks" in our lives.

    Indeed, where reason and calm prevail, there is always optimism, and much that can be accomplished for the common good.

    Yet like any weapon, opinion can become destructive or dangerous when it falls into the wrong hands. To effectively manage opinion, we must first have knowledge or, if knowledge is unavailable, we must create new knowledge by doing research.

    Steve Trachtenberg, the president of George Washington University, put it best when he wrote:

    "When we replace the flickering of mood with relentless specificities, we find ourselves a step closer to the value known as truth."
    ("The Triumph of Economics," The Wall Street Journal, 1/2/97, Page A6)

    Let me pursue this in one final way.

    There is a famous complaint by poet John Keats who claimed that Sir Isaac Newton had destroyed the wonder and poetry of the rainbow by explaining how it comes about through the diffraction of light as it passes through raindrops. Keats argued that in explaining the rainbow, Newton had reduced the rainbow's significance and placed it in "the dull catalogue of common things."

    In a recent, wonderful book, biologist Richard Dawkins challenges Keats opinion. Inspired by Keats' argument about the rainbow, as you might expect, the title of Dawkins' book is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder.
    (Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998)

    Let me quote from a review of the book.

    "To accuse science of robbing life of beauty and awe is preposterously mistaken, a sign of true ignorance."

    "The wonder of knowledge, snatched by (our) ingenuity from the unimaginable depths of space, surely equals anything an ignorant rainbow-gazer can feel. The distinction between knowledge and ignorance is the crux of (Dawkins') argument. Wonder, as the anti-scientists define it, means ignorant cringing before the unknowable."
    ("In the Eye of the Beholder," John Carey, News International, London Sunday Times, 10/19/98, Page 4)

    Ladies and gentlemen, as newly minted career professionals, as educated people, I urge you to look beyond opinion and to move forward with an open mind and a bold imagination.

    Continue to learn.

    Discover the truth.

    Don't be tempted to grovel at the Altar of Opinion.

    For if you do, you might well be left standing there!

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere -- I salute you, the Summer 2000 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!



     

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