Why do commencement speakers lie so much?

So asks Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias, a blog I like reading because it presents a smart, well-thought-out, likeable account of a style of thinking and valuation so utterly alien to my own that I can hardly believe human beings manage it.

Hanson objects to the speaker at his son’s graduation saying things like “Never let anyone tell you there is something you can’t do,” and “You’ll have setbacks, but never let them discourage you.”  He remarks:

I was embarrassed to be associated with such transparent falsehoods, but apparently I’m in a minority.  What obvious lies have you heard at commencement, and why do you think such lies were told?

Surely this is one of those questions only an economist could be puzzled about.  Lots of posters and commenters on Overcoming Bias seem to live in a weird Gricean dystopia in which every utterance is a mechanism for, and only for, modifying our degrees of belief about the truth-values of various propositions.  Which means, I guess, that every utterance that fails to do this is a “lie.”

Of course, lots of utterances — especially utterances produced in public, and directed at a heterogeneous audience — aren’t like this.  Love, for instance, is not “all you need” — oxygen, protein, and sunlight are at least as essential to life.  But the Beatles aren’t liars.  For each person in the commencement audience, there is indeed something they cannot do.  And that doesn’t make the commencement speaker a liar, either.  Commencement speeches, like songs, are mainly intended to produce feelings.  This is not worthless.  But now I’m puzzled, because Hanson obviously knows all this.  He is not — I assume — the kind of person who, when asked “Would you mind passing the salt?” answers “No, I wouldn’t,” and keeps the salt.

Anyway, comment if you too find Overcoming Bias interesting and alien, or if you find it interesting and mainstream and think I’m the alien.  That would be good to know.

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7 thoughts on “Why do commencement speakers lie so much?

  1. John Cowan says:

    What is an economist?

    He is (or was, until those pesky government regulations got in the way) someone who thinks that it’s just peachy that women get only 2/3 of men’s wages, because that way he can hire three female assistants instead of two male ones, thus doing his bit to reduce unemployment.

  2. Anonymous says:

    He is not — I assume — the kind of person who, when asked “Would you mind passing the salt?” answers “No, I wouldn’t,” and keeps the salt.

    Really? I’ve always imagined that’s exactly what he would do, except that you left out the ending, where he watches with a barely suppressed smile as you realize he’s not (just) being rude, but rather teaching an important lesson about the precise use of language. :-)

    I don’t always agree with Hanson, but I don’t find him as alien as you do. You’re right that commencement speeches are intended to arouse emotions, rather than communicate facts. However, I’ve never found that they do a good job of it, because the assertions are so transparently false that I can’t take them seriously. To be moved by something, you need to buy in to the basic idea, at least to some extent.

    For example, like most people, I’ve sometimes felt that all you need is love, so even though I recognize the logical deficiencies of this assertion, it still has a lot of emotional resonance. By contrast, I’ve never felt moved by Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Sermons of this sort are apparently extremely powerful for people who accept the basic premise (of our unworthiness before a demanding god), but I just don’t, so I find it interesting but not moving.

  3. Elisa says:

    I love Overcoming Bias (have blogged about it semi-recently even) and for the most part find his viewpoint utterly refreshing, though the post you link to isn’t overly trenchant. Have you read Hanson’s paper on the Great Filter?

    I just clicked around on your bio pages and am sort of surprised I hadn’t heard of you before since you write for publications I like. Maybe I did read one of your articles in the past but forgot the connection. I’m always interested to find people who cross over into both highly rational and highly aesthetic realms.

    Sorry if that all came off as really pompous.

  4. Robin Hanson says:

    I’m honored to be the foil for your reflections. :) I understand that people who say what seems to be nonsense have their reasons, but I’m not sure I want to cooperate with their reasons. Yes they seem to evoke emotions, but I’m not fond of people using non-transparent means to manipulate my emotions. If these words are more transparent to you, perhaps you could translate them for folks like me.

  5. JSE says:

    I think we part ways prior to where the “translation” makes sense — I am fond of people using non-transparent means to manipulate my emotions, whether via pop song, art, joke, or inspirational speech. And I think that’s most of the work a commencement speech is doing — so of course it’s perfectly fine for you not to go, if that’s not your bag! I’m not sure what “translate” means — if it means “write down a series of assertions about degrees of belief in present and future events that’s equivalent to the commencement speech” I can only say that it’s probably untranslatable.

  6. JSE says:

    But Robin, I am in all seriousness curious about your take on the imaginary situations I subject you to in the post — do you think the Beatles are liars? And would you pass the salt?

  7. John Baez says:

    Robin writes:

    “I’m not fond of people using non-transparent means to manipulate my emotions.”

    Wow, you must not like people much. That’s one of the main things people do! Facial expressions, body language, gossip, art, etc. – people can’t *help* using all sorts of subtle non-transparent means to manipulate other people’s emotions. We don’t even know all the ways we’re doing it.

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