2011 Fredericton Encaenia - Ceremony C

Graduation Address

Delivered by: Hunter, Lawson

"Encaenia address" (19 May 2011). (UA Case 67, Box 2).

It is a real honour for me to address the convocation of my alma mater, although, I confess I feel a bit like comedian Jon Stewart did when he was asked to host the Academy Awards. Stewart said, "of course I feel honoured, but as someone who's watched the Oscars and is a big fan of the institution, I have to tell you quite frankly, I'm a bit disappointed with the choice."

But it is great to be here to help celebrate the 182nd Encaenia - held, for the first time, in the Richard J. Currie Center, named after a good friend of mine, whom I had the great pleasure of working with at Bell Canada.

Let me begin by congratulating all of the graduates and thanking you for the honour of being a part of your commencement.

Having made the tactical error of passing all of your classes and earning enough credits to graduate, you are now leaving this place to go out into "the real world." That means jamming four years of unlaundered underwear into a green garbage bag and embarking on the greatest challenge of your young lives: moving back in with your parents.

I wish you - and them - the best.

Now, Mr. Mason referred in his introduction to the fact that I was considered to be something of a rabble-rouser when I was a student here. But in those days, in New Brunswick, being a radical was like being a small-l liberal anywhere else!

At one point, the Daily Gleaner wrote a story about the Canadian Union of Students, calling us all sorts of radical names, culminating in - and apparently worst of all - "idealists". Can you imagine? What a terrible thing for young people to be!

But as I thought about my student days here at UNB, and what I could possibly say that might be of some value to you, I realized that the biggest difference between how I saw the world then and now, is that while I am still an idealist, I'm an idealist without illusions.

I have had the benefit of experience. In law, in government, in business. Much of it dealing with complex issues of public policy. And if there's one lesson I've learned, it's the importance of basing decisions on facts. On evidence. And sound analysis.

Now, that sounds pretty obvious doesn't it? But in today's world, taking research and evidence seriously is actually revolutionary. Because the reality is that too often we don't have vigorous discourse on important public issues - at least not based on logic or evidence. Instead we have sterile debates based on political advantage and uninformed ideology. And all the parties engage in it.
Stephen Colbert captures this idea perfectly in his new word: "truthiness". That's a "truth" that a person claims to know intuitively, from the gut, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.

Unfortunately, beneath the humour, Colbert has hit on an important truth - a growing tendency in our society to rely on anecdote over evidence, ideology over facts, and gut instinct over rigorous analysis.

This is a disturbing trend because the issues facing your generation will require decisions based on the best possible thinking. Solid data. Careful analysis. In a complex, interconnected world, where the likeliest thing to happen next is the unprecedented or unforeseen, we need to use information and knowledge effectively. Making it the focus and foundation of policy-making and policy delivery.

Now, in some ways, this trend away from evidence-based decision-making is hard to understand. We live in an age when more information is available to more people on more devices than ever before.
But ease of access is not the same as depth of understanding and perhaps the sheer volume of information is simply too overwhelming for most of us to make sense of. In the marketplace of ideas, the selection is just too great. We don't know what to believe.

The media wrestle with this in how they report stories to us, in how they convey information. And sometimes, in trying to be "balanced", they make matters worse - by giving credence to positions of "truthiness" that don't deserve equal time.

Climate change is a perfect example. There is overwhelming scientific evidence - and a clear consensus among scientists - that climate change is occurring and that humans are contributing to it.

But one scientist with a contrary opinion is given equal time with the thousands on the other side in the interests of "balanced reporting". The result is a false equivalency. Viewers are left with the impression that "scientists differ" or that "there's no consensus" when, in fact, there is.

So what's the answer? How do we elevate public discourse? How do we drain the swamp of "truthiness", map out firmer ground - and occupy it? A few ideas.

First, by insisting on facts. Making hard data the basis for public policy. No longer accepting the snake oil of ideology as a substitute for solid evidence. Demanding more of our political leaders and more of the media.

Second, we need to build a new kind of relationship between knowledge producers and users. We need to end the anti-intellectualism that alienates universities and research institutions from public discourse. Indeed, we need to engage our best minds in addressing our hardest problems.

Third, and related, we need more institutions like think tanks doing solid analytical work, placing a greater range of policy options onto the public agenda. And we need more support for universities like UNB to train the minds and generate the research that will guide future decision-making.

Now, none of this will be revolutionary to the graduates of UNB. Our motto, after all, is Sapere Aude, which has been translated as, "Dare to be Wise". At its core is the idea of courage - the courage to seek after knowledge. Knowledge - not guesswork. Knowledge - not intuition. Knowledge - not hunches.

Each of you has been trained to think, to read critically, to analyze - all of the things we'll need if we're going to apply rationality and evidence to solving the challenges ahead of us.

We need leaders who are comfortable with nuance. Open to new ideas. Clear thinkers who reject slogans and superficiality. We need the best. We need more like you.

Today, you leave here rightfully proud and well prepared. To lead the change we need. The paths you choose will be diverse, but you will always share the common bond of common experience. The red and black are part of you. And wherever you go - whatever you do - you will always carry a bit of UNB with you.

So remember our motto - and Dare to be Wise.

I wish each of you every success in the days ahead.

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