1971 Fredericton Encaenia

Graduation Address

Delivered by: Ostry, Sylvia

"If Science could put a Man on the Moon" (20 May 1971). (UA Case 67, Box 2)

It is a great honour, of which I am deeply appreciative to be granted a degree by the University of New Brunswick and to be invited to address Encaenia. Even as a school child in my native Winnipeg I began to learn of the contribution of your University and your Province to the cultural life of our country through the poetry of Bliss Carman and Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.

My first teacher in economics at McGill was a distinguished son of U.N.B., Burton Keirstead, a dear friend and esteemed colleague. The names of your distinguished citizens who have shaped the political, professional and business life of Canada are a source of pride, not just to New Brunswickers, but to all of us in this country, and I gain pride by my association with you on this day.

Je ne saurais me présenter devant vous sans faire état aussi de la contribution précieuse de vos concitoyens de langue française. Le fait que votre population réalise, à un plus haut degré qu'aucune autre province, une présence équilibrée des deux grandes communautés linguistiques du Canada est d'une importance capitale pour l'avenir du Nouveau-Brunswick et du pays tout entier. Ce n'est pas à moi de vous donner des leçons sur la valeur d'une interpénétration linguistique, d'autant plus que je ne suis pas capable moi-même de m'exprimer facilement dens les deux langues officielles. Toutefois, j'espére que vous me comprendrez, vous surtout; les diplômés, qui voyez devant vous le Canada de l'avenir. Nous savons tous qu'une fédération bilingue et multiculturelle présente des problèmes auxquels les états unitaires, unilingues et uniculturels n'ont pas à faire face. Mais elle nous présente également un défi qui est de loin plus intéressant et des possibilitiésm de développement social beaucoup plus passionnates, voire plus nobles, que n’en connaissent certains autres pays ou que nous n’en avons connues nous-même au Canada dans le passé.

In a University, as mindful of tradition as is U.N.B., I will follow the tradition of this occasion by first offering my congratulations to the graduating classes. Perhaps some of what I have to say in my address will dismay rather than encourage you. Please do not take this as reflecting on the sincerity of my good wishes or diminishing the importance of this occasion to you and your families. Please accept it as an effort to avoid the platitudinous rhetoric of optimism and oversimplification of which the young should be especially suspicious.

My nomination for today’s most popular cliché is the statement: "If science can put a man on the moon why can’t we solve the problems of" – and then follows a long familiar list of grave and persistent social ills. Like all clichés, however, this one stems from constant repetition of a statement containing an important element of truth. With the growth of knowledge and the expansion of education has come increasing disenchantment with science and education and mounting frustration because of our apparent inability to forge an effective link between knowledge and purposive social action.

The disenchantment with knowledge and science takes many forms today. It ranges, at one extreme, from a total rejection of rational inquiry and an escape into an anti-rational mysticism. At the other end of the spectrum, we witness a questioning of many of the bed-rock values of nineteenth century industrialism, including, more insistently each day, a questioning of the legitimacy of the goal of economic growth. Rather than trace and describe the diverse manifestations of the growing popular disenchantment with knowledge and science, I should prefer to speculate briefly on some of the reasons for it.

In part, the disillusionment with science today is a reaction to the utopian optimism, encouraged by scientists themselves, which characterized the public view of it for two centuries and fostered the belief in never-ending progress through knowledge. The peak of glory was reached in the 1950s and 1960s. The genuinely impressive intellectual accomplishments of scientists were greeted with huzzahs of awe and amazement by a public eager to believe that nothing was beyond the power of science. The public reaction to the first heart transplant was symbolic of the times. The scientists floated happily on a wave of self-congratulatory euphoria. They would lead us all to the new Jerusalem.

Today, I suppose we’re all suffering from a kind of intellectual hangover, a hangover which is far more painful and more dangerous than the physical kind. What is difficult to understand is the persistence of this utopian outlook in the statements of some contemporary scientists. Thus one may read in a recent presidential address to the British Association, the assertion that "the deterioration of the environment produced by technology is a technological problem for which technology has found, is finding and will continue to find solutions" and the concluding declaration that "To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind."

Maybe. But as our problems continue without noticeable diminution such words have a hollow ring. And what are we to make of the fact that one hears other scientists, equally distinguished, warning us of impending, inevitable disaster. Thus, from another highly respected source, comes the statement:
"A great many people who don’t understand about science and technology think that at the last moment science and technology will come along and pull a rabbit out of the hat and we’ll all be saved by making food from nothing, I’ve been told, or by eating dehydrated foods like astronauts. The simple facts of the case are that science and technology have been falling further and further behind in taking care of our increasing population over the last two decades, and that there is no, I repeat, no, conceivable technological solution to the problems we face."
How is the layman to sort it out? Do we face utopia or an ecological apocalypse? Will technology deliver or destroy us?

If the image of the "hard" sciences is being debased both by unconvincing expressions of utopian optimism and by conflicting and contradictory prognoses on matters of grave public concern, the social sciences are faring little. Better. It is true that only economics has enjoyed the luxury of hubris. But economics has achieved its position as the most prestigious of the social sciences only because of its capacity for abstracting, not what is necessarily important per se in human behaviour, but what is "most easily subject to the measuring rod of money". But the social system is a unitary system and the very success of the elegant abstractions on which economics is based makes it less reliable as a guide to social processes. Economists, moreover, have until recently shown little inclination to move towards a more integrated multi-disciplinary approach -- largely on the grounds that the other social sciences are too backward to provide much help. Meanwhile, the old joke about asking four economists' advice in solving a problem and receiving five answers seems less funny each day. The elegant models work reasonably well when conditions are normal. But, as is true at present, in a less settled environment the simplistic behavioural assumptions on which the models are based are far less dependable.

This disillusion with science and knowledge -- with rationality itself -- has come at a time when, in the advanced countries, goals are multiplying and shifting at a dizzying pace. Clearly the two phenomena are not unrelated. Both are a consequence of success. Affluence has had a prismatic effect on the aspirations of our society, producing a spectrum of wants in place of the single beacon light of material growth. But wants outstrip resources: the economic imperative to choose, to allocate, scarce resources among a multiplicity of competing objectives cannot be willed away by the rhetoric of zero growth, the attack on GNP, or the call to estimate some index of human happiness. Our problems have not been caused by one statistical series and will not be solved by the estimation of another.

The situation is exacerbated because people are now demanding higher standards of performance by government. As public expenditure has expanded and government activity has shifted more and more into areas concerned essentially with social transformation -- areas such as education or anti-poverty programs, or the control of crime, questions about real benefits, real effects are being asked more and more insistently. Answers couched in terms of the money spent on inputs to the system -- on bricks and mortar, on teachers, on administrators, on social workers, on welfare payments, on policemen, on equipment, on the courts, on the penitentiaries -- are no long satisfactory. The demand is increasingly for answers in terms of outputs -- what do people learn in schools, how many of the poor are permanently lifted out of poverty, has the climate of public security and safety improved? We are seeking for much more ambitious definitions of benefits which will not be satisfied by a display of costs. But the progress of knowledge in these areas lags well behind the rate at which demands for better, more meaningful information is rising. We in the social sciences and in government may, perhaps, yearn for an earlier age when standards were less ambitious. One observer has remarked that "at the time when St. Francis impulsively gave his fine clothes to a beggar, nobody seems to have been very interested in what happened to the beggar. Was he rehabilitated? Did he open a small business? Or was he to be found the next day, naked again in a gutter, having traded the clothes for a flagon of Orvieto?" Alas, contemporary standards for sainthood mitigate against an undue proliferation of candidates. We've come a long way from Assisi.

What are we to make of all this? Last December, in a farewell speech as he left the White House, Daniel Moynihan asserted that "the essence of tyranny would be the denial of complexity". He called the tendency to oversimplify "the single great temptation of our time" and the "great corrupter". He said that "what we need are great complexifiers, men who will not only seek to understand what it is they are about, but who will also dare to share that understanding with those for whom they act". And, I would add, with the public who must elect those men. If we do not understand the genuine intellectual difficulties of dealing with the problems of the contemporary world, if we do not reject false certitude, empty moralizing, arrogant over-simplification we shall, in Moynihan's words again, continue to lurch "from crisis to crisis with the attention span of a five-year-old".

A heavy responsibility lies with you -- the young -- who have the knowledge to acquire and use knowledge. The simple recognition that we do not have the information to begin to formulate effective strategies to deal with our most pressing social problems is a major step forward. Asking pertinent questions -- for which there are at present no answers -- is itself a hopeful advance. This will allow us to sort out and order our priorities in the search for new knowledge directed to specific lines of action, to specific social objectives. By maintaining a healthy skepticism towards scientific expertise you can avoid the excesses of either utopian expectation or the cult of unreason. We hope that you will demand and build a society based on rationality linked to purposive action, in a spirit which is both humble and resolute.

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