The following speech was delivered to graduating seniors at the Bronx High School of Science on Thursday.
In an ideal world, or at least an alternative one, I might be standing today to rave about blue-sky opportunities for Bronx Science graduates. But the world is far from ideal, so I am speaking to you in a different voice, for we are living in an emergency.
Threats to reason are rife. Contempt for logic and evidence is held to be a sign of virtue. Your values, our values, are under siege.
Your generation is not the first to be confronted with such an emergency. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper wrote in his magisterial 1945 book, “The Open Society and its Enemies,” “Some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason.”
As he wrote, attacks on freedom and reason were all too evident. Born during that war — during the defense of Stalingrad against the Nazi invaders, in fact — I came of age in a time that breathed an air of triumph and relief, even if it was shadowed by a fear that the victory was fragile.
For the most part, though, we thought we had won the definitive war for freedom and reason. That judgment was premature.
The truth is that human power threatens nature, and therefore puts at risk the future of humanity itself and even the posterity by which we seek to be judged. My generation — the class of 1959 — was inducted into the Cold War, under cover of an illusion that ducking under your desk and covering your eyes would protect you against a nuclear blast. Our mission was to beat back the Russians, who had launched a panic by launching the first orbiting satellite. Bronx Science might just have well been renamed: rocket science.
About 1200 days later, during the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. and Soviet armadas confronted one another off Cuba and a thoughtful Soviet officer intervened to defy instructions and restrain a submarine from launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo at an American aircraft carrier — one of many close calls.
Not all emergencies are that dramatic. Here’s some of what’s on your agenda. You are called upon to face up to assaults on reason in high places. The controlling political party, lavishly funded by the extractive industries, dismisses the overwhelming evidence that the earthly climate is changing convulsively as a result of human causes, a case of humanity’s tragedy in getting what we wished for.
The energy unleashed from the remains of extinct life beginning four centuries ago created the industrial, automotive, world we know — and now drives new waves of extinction and threatens global civilization. The ruling party’s to, “What are you going to do about this?” is “I’m not a scientist.”
You can’t sit still for this nonsense. You may not be a scientist (yet), but you’re not an ignoramus.
You must be educators. You have to sharpen your arguments. You have to patiently explain to doubters that science is neither a cult nor a doctrine but a method; that it is not a stone tablet but a work in progress; that it confronts errors and half-truths by refuting them, not by laughing them off; that it aims not at final truth but at the best knowable truth, just as democracy does not aim at the perfect society but at the most decent one attainable. You have to stand up for science.
When one-third of Americans believe that human beings existed in their present form since the beginning of time, you have to stand up for Darwin.
In a world where men interrupt women when they open their mouths, you have to stand up for equal participation in the search for truth.
When ignorance of fundamentals is evidently no disqualification for public office, you need to stand up for knowledge. This may seem like a no-brainer in a time when the President of the United States appoints his family event and golf-tournament planner to run the office that oversees federal housing programs in New York and New Jersey, a woman with no housing experience, but who did arrange Eric Trump’s wedding and serve as vice-president of the Eric Trump Foundation, reported by Forbes to have allocated $100,000 raised for children’s medical research to a family golf course.
You need to be alert. Freedom needs to be practiced 360 degrees. Threats to reason emerge from several quarters, not only the climate denialists funded by deep-pocketed fossil fuel interests. Dogma is a nomad — it has no single ideological home.
“No Free Speech,” a sign I recently saw at my own university, revolted me, as if the cause of justice begins with a gag order. At universities and colleges, as a student or as a teacher, you need to protect the right to hold any unpopular or uncomfortable view.
You need to remember that education is not the search for a safe space but a brave space — a space where people are unafraid of hard questions, explore many lines of argument, always looking for logic and evidence.
You need to stand up for knowledge, although you may be punished for it, or name-called “elitist” because you believe that knowledge is better than ignorance.
If you are an atmospheric scientist, you may be read out of your position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If you’re a staff member of the Energy Department’s Office of International Climate and Technology, you may have found last week that your job’s been eliminated. If you’re an investigative reporter, you may find yourself stranded in the gig economy without any medical coverage.
So what can you do? As a thinking person, you must not be content to practice reason in your home office. Get your thinking out of the tank. Take it out for a stroll — in public.
As a reader, you need to support honest, professionally gathered news, real news. Subscribe to it. Pay for it.
As a citizen, you need to demand of the authorities that they give reasons for holding their opinions — not just assert that things are what they say they are just because they say so.
You need to take a fresh look at public life and reclaim the noble name of politician. Abraham Lincoln was a politician. Franklin Roosevelt was a politician. You too can help America reason again.
Don’t duck and cover. Make America think. Not everyone will love you for it. Never mind. Life, liberty and sacred honor are at stake. Please remember: You may not be interested in this emergency, but it is interested in you.
Gitlin was the valedictorian of the Bronx High School of Science, class of 1959.