"Post-truth an ugly word" - Principal

Issued: Tue, 29 Nov 2016 12:00:00 GMT

The Principal, Professor Anton Muscatelli, has attacked the concept of "post-truth", a term Oxford Dictionaries have named their 2016 Word of the Year.

Speaking at today's Graduation ceremony, in his Charge to the Graduates, Professor Muscatelli said it was an "ugly" word. He continued: "There is an ominous trend to argue a populist line, where the value of careful and evidence based argument and reflection and the capacity to be open to contrary views, is seen as the game playing of a liberal intellectual elite, adrift and apart from what ‘real’ people think, need, want."

"I don’t need to remind you that there are voices – powerful voices - out there - that want to challenge intellectualism. Apparently, so we’re told, some people have had enough of ‘experts’."                                                                Professor Muscatelli

The Principal also used his address to underline the University of Glasgow's European foundation and tradition. He said: "We stand firmly and proudly in the great European tradition that has upheld the value of a liberal education. We are unashamedly liberal and international. We remain committed to, and the defender of, the free flow of talent and so the free flow of ideas, to create, together, way beyond any national boundaries, the best opportunities to advance our knowledge and understanding."

The Principal's Charge to the Graduates

Ladies and Gentlemen – Welcome again to the Bute Hall this morning/afternoon

Turning to our graduates - this is a very special day indeed.

You have worked hard to get to this point – so this is very much your day, your moment. A time to soak it all in – think about what you have achieved – and simply enjoy!

But there are others round these galleries – watching online, your families, teachers and supporters who feel your joy with the same intensity! And I’m sure they would want to join me just one more time in congratulating you on your success.

You will know as well as I do, that while this is your day, these same folk, your family, friends, tutors, and supervisors looking on, haven’t just turned up on the day! They’ve been with you throughout your journey – every step of the way, through the highs and lows. Supporting you, encouraging you, sharing something of the pain, now sharing something of your excitement.

So can I now invite you, our graduates, to thank them, wherever they are, for all they have done to help you reach this day.

Tried and tested

This moment in the proceedings is billed as the charge to the graduates – an opportunity for me on behalf of the University to say something to you, as you move on to new challenges, fresh opportunities.

Of course you leave with more than you arrived with! You have a degree. You are now graduates of the University of Glasgow. That should put a spring in your step, give a boost to your confidence.

And why?

You’ve been tried and tested, and then acknowledged and rewarded, by one of the world’s top 100 Universities with a fantastic heritage and influence built up over 565 years of intellectual and scholarly endeavour.

If it has been tough and rigorous – I’m sure you wouldn’t expect anything less. It’s more to your credit that you have proven to yourself and to the world around you that you have what it takes to meet the intellectual challenges put your way and emerge successful.

This marks you out. You have deepened your knowledge and understanding of a particular discipline and field of human enquiry. In addition, you will certainly have honed and enhanced those skills and capabilities essential for critical analysis and the evaluation of ideas. You will have developed your capacity to consider and assess different and competing views and positions, and arrive at your own conclusions and communicate your views to others.

As a consequence, I firmly believe you leave better equipped, your capabilities enriched and enhanced, to play a full part, and make a real contribution, to the life of the societies and communities you will go on to live and work in.

And let me emphasise this point! I want to reassert the value of what the University stands for, and what you have now achieved! Our capacity to seek after knowledge and understanding, to cut through the flotsam and jetsam of flabby, and indeed shabby thinking is critical to the common weal: humanity’s well-being, and the sustainability of our planet.

You would never have thought it needed saying, would you?

But it does. I don’t need to remind you that there are voices – powerful voices - out there - that want to challenge intellectualism. Apparently, so we’re told, some people have had enough of ‘experts’. We are told that we live in a Post Truth era. There is an ominous trend to argue a populist line, where the value of careful and evidence based argument and reflection and the capacity to be open to contrary views, is seen as the game playing of a liberal intellectual elite, adrift and apart from what ‘real’ people think, need, want.

It’s a perplexing trend and one we do well to counter.

Let’s face it, without experts, without the analysis of evidence, we’d continue to think our sun revolved around our flat earth.

From the nature of the sub atomic to the fabric of the universe – and everything else in between - humankind has sought to explore and uncover the deep mysteries of who and what we are, and how we can best sustain our existence and that of the world to which we belong.

Without ‘experts’, without people who apply their time, talents and minds to the big questions, how would we ever hope to better understand and address the great physical and moral, social and political, economic and spiritual forces that shape us and our world!

Curiosity of mind

And let’s bring it right home to the here and now - without experts, where would we be with no i-phones to record and communicate every inch of this, your graduation day!

That probing, that curiosity of mind, that drive to progress our understanding was, is and forever will be this University’s beating heart. And you, as its graduates, have, I hope, absorbed this ethos and are ready to exercise it in the world around you.

Post-truth is the word of 2016, apparently. But it’s an ugly word, isn’t it? If objective facts are no longer as influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to personal belief and emotion, then that’s a matter of regret. There are probably two main reasons for its appeal.

The first is that whilst assertion is simple, establishing the truth as defined by objective facts is complicated. Rebutting blind assertion requires considerable skill.

The second reason is the perceived arrogance of those who assert knowledge. If, as has been said, there is the arrogance of the ignorant, there is also the arrogance of the knowledgeable. That’s something we all need to temper.

There are no, know alls, who know it all. They don’t exist. And there are some pretty amazing role models in human history to keep us in check!

After all, it was Aristotle who said:

‘The more you know, the more you know you don’t know’.

And Newton who compared himself to a boy playing on the sea-shore ‘whilst’ and I quote, ‘the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’

And no less an intellectual giant than Einstein, echoed these sentiments:

‘The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know’.

Perhaps we can’t go wrong with Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein. But I can point to precedents closer to home, closer to our times.

Gravitational waves

For me one of the really fascinating aspects of what has been described as one of the truly great scientific breakthroughs of all time – proof that gravitational waves really do exist – was the response of my colleagues at Glasgow.

Of course they celebrated an outstanding achievement. And rightly so. But nobody, with even the slightest hint of self-satisfaction was tempted to shut up shop to rest on their laurels. No. That was not their way.

Having proved the proposition, they were immediately on to the next step, the next thought: now that we know the waves are there, what does it mean for us, what does it tell us about our universe, what are the implications, where will this knowledge now take us?

It’s an attitude to be admired and one I hope you as graduates can identify with. It’s an attitude which properly takes its confidence from knowing what is known, tempered with an honest understanding of what remains unknown.

That’s a good mind-set to have. Yes, as graduates, you have achieved great things, but that’s not the end of the story. Now is the time to exercise and share that knowledge, using it to drive your curiosity and ingenuity still further, making them work in the service of society. That’s the way to counter any dangerous perception that might exist out there that you, your knowledge, your intelligence, is in any sense adrift and apart from what ‘real’ people think, need, want.

I came across a phrase in the press recently [Guardian Saturday 12 November] which sums this up well. It appeared in a dialogue between Philippe Sands, the lawyer and Hisham Matar, the Libyan writer. They were discussing human rights, citizenship and identity and their concerns over a shift towards a xenophobic and populist path. Matar remarks that:

‘…what I believe we are capable of is an intelligent and imaginative engagement.’

As I’ve stressed to you, having achieved a degree from Glasgow, I’ve no doubt you are capable of intelligent and imaginative engagement! And that word engagement, and the terms of engagement that this phrase captures, is critical. It’s critical and indeed a responsibility you now own, that you should take all you have gained from here and engage with the world around you: not as someone who pretends to have all the answers, but as someone who listens and responds with intelligence and imagination to the challenges set before you.

With this approach, there’s no need to be an apologist for your learning and the benefits you have absorbed from a liberal and intellectually demanding education: you do have something real to offer, so offer it.

Intelligent and imaginative engagement

Fellow graduates, with my charge delivered, I leave you briefly, with three more.

First, please be an advocate and defender of the worth and value of cosmopolitan, international Universities and the learning they offer to create the experts of tomorrow! Never has the world needed the collective wisdom of the world’s best and most creative minds to address the great challenges of our times. Populist sound bites might have temporary traction for a day – but we all have to face tomorrow and we are better placed to do so if we continue to build each new generation of individuals who can engage with intelligence and imagination.

Second, more specifically, please support this University and be our ambassadors. We stand firmly and proudly in the great European tradition that has upheld the value of a liberal education. We are unashamedly liberal and international. We remain committed to, and the defender of, the free flow of talent and so the free flow of ideas, to create, together, way beyond any national boundaries, the best opportunities to advance our knowledge and understanding. We are very proud of you, I hope you are proud of this University and that you will continue to promote its values and reputation.

And third, and finally, my last charge to you: have a truly great and memorable day today: relish and enjoy all that it means to you, your family and friends. With all of that, glowing bright within you, journey on to exercise a full life, one of intelligent and imaginative engagement.

Thank you.