Facts, community, and bears

Bill Adair delivered the Warren Wilson College commencement address, Asheville, N.C., May 11, 2019. Below are his comments:


Thank you, President Morton, members of the board of trustees, graduates from the class of 2019, and members of the Warren Wilson family.

It’s a wonderful honor to be here today. I want to start by saying congratulations to the Class of 2019 — and congratulations to the families for sharing in this wonderful accomplishment. Graduates, you have worked hard at Research Methods and NSURs, and your families have dutifully sent you money and provided you with credit cards …. so you can afford your PBR and Milwaukee’s Best.

Although Lynn invited me because of my work in journalism, my remarks today are just as much from my perspective as a Warren Wilson parent. When our son Miles arrived here in the fall of 2016, we realized this was a special place.

At first, some things seemed a bit unusual for a college. There was a cafe named after a cowpie. The campus had a quaint farm that gave new meaning to the phrase “farm to table” — and made you think twice about having the sausage.

But my wife Katherine and I quickly realized that Warren Wilson is an extraordinary college. On move-in day, one of the people helping families lug their stuff into Sunderland was President Steve Solnick; and there was a crew for everything — cleaning the bathrooms and giving tours and working on the farm. Warren Wilson is a role model for how communities should work.

Today I’m going to talk about facts, community, and bears.

When we started coming here three years ago, we were struck by the beauty of the campus and Western North Carolina. The people who built and run Warren Wilson have taken great care to respect nature.

At some point in Miles’s freshman year, we became aware of the many bears that live in the area and wander onto campus. I confess that I was a little concerned when he texted us the first photo of a bear sitting in a tree.


I immediately went on Amazon and looked for things to protect him. I found just the product: Coghlan’s Bear Bell! It promised to “warn animals of your presence,” so I bought one and shipped it to Miles. I was half-kidding, but there was definitely part of me that hoped he’d keep the bell in his backpack and pull it out if a big grizzly jumped out of the forest when he was walking to his dorm.

(By the way, bear bells are a bargain! Just three bucks on Amazon or at your local Wal-Mart!)

My fear of bears was fueled by a sign posted in our Asheville hotel during Family Weekend. It said a black bear had been seen on Tunnel Road and it warned us not to get close. The sign had a drawing of a huge bear that looked like it had devoured some tourists because it wasn’t satisfied by the scraps it found behind the Waffle House.

Soon enough, though, I learned the facts about bears. It turns out the ones around here are all black bears, not Grizzlies — and I came to appreciate the wonderfully chill way that students at Wilson deal with them.

The facts on black bears: They’re not aggressive. They are shy and they love to eat — acorns, berries, small mammals. They’re resourceful. There are about 17,000 of them in the state, about the same as the population of Boone.

Seeing a black bear on campus is a pretty ordinary thing. Bears stroll through the woods, they drink in the pond, they hang out in the trees. They are part of the Wilson family. Students don’t freak out; they treat bears with respect because they know the facts.

I’ve come to realize that black bears are marvelous animals — particularly since they are so understanding of us and how we have moved into their habitat. When you get the facts about bears, you see the truth: they rarely attack humans and only when they’ve been provoked. They are docile creatures that want to go about their business — their business being eating and making more bears.

And yet, an awful lot of people freak out about them. I talked with Colleen Olfenbuttel, a state biologist who is an expert in bears, and she told me she gets calls all the time from people who are irrational and want the state to remove the bears — as if the animals belong to the state government.

There are some broader lessons in all of this. Some people seem to revel in fear — and share that fear with others in destructive ways.

The same human tendency that makes us afraid of bears is often exploited by people in politics. I’ve seen it first-hand in my work in the new form of journalism known as fact-checking.

When I started PolitiFact in 2007, it was the dawn of the internet. I remember thinking that we were suddenly connected in wonderful new ways — to each other, to companies, to our government. All knowledge was just a click away. It seemed like the internet would be a force for good.

But then strange emails started popping up in our inboxes: from your odd brother-in-law Bob and from Derek, the guy you barely knew from Accounting. The emails said Barack Obama was a Muslim, that he was born in Kenya, and that he refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

We were seeing the dawn of how the internet could be used for a devious misinformation campaign. It was decentralized and it used trusted friends and relatives and coworkers — your brother-in-law Bob and Derek from Accounting — to spread the falsehoods. The messages preyed on people’s fears. Back then it was chain emails that often targeted old people. Today it is false news articles and bogus claims on Facebook. One common denominator: they target old people.

In 2007, we spotted the emails early and started fact-checking them. We found they were nearly always ridiculously wrong. We gave them our lowest rating, Pants on Fire. But we couldn’t keep up. There were too many Bobs and Dereks who could spread them far and wide, faster than we could spread the truth. And the way people spread the falsehoods, through personal emails, made it impossible to reach everyone who got them.

If you think about it, things are pretty similar today. The techniques for spreading misinformation have gotten more sophisticated, but the equation is the same: old people are being targeted and the fact-checkers can’t keep up. There are more than 160 fact-checking sites in the world, a number that keeps growing, but even with new initiatives from Google and Facebook to amplify their important work, falsehoods spread faster than the truth.

They spread because of passion and fear. We have deep passions about our teams… in sports and politics. We want our team to win and we want the other side to lose. Those feelings run even deeper in the age of partisan media, when there’s a pep rally every night on cable TV. Every time we turn on the TV or look at our phones, we see how wonderful our team is and how awful the other team is. And those messages are particularly good at exploiting our fears. They make us worry that the other team won’t keep us safe.

I’m afraid the digital age hasn’t turned out how I hoped. The internet being used in awful ways to spread false information, to create forums for hate and to prey on people’s fear. It’s enough to make you want to hibernate.

But we can’t give up. We need to harness technology and our sense of community to turn this around. At Duke, we’re inventing new ways to put the facts on television and on web videos. We are developing a product that we’ve code-named Squash — as in “squash the falsehoods” — that can detect what a politician says and instantly display a fact-check on the screen.

If we can overcome our technical challenges and get Squash deployed on a large scale, we can help the fact-checkers catch up with the people spreading misinformation.

On a grander scale, we also need to establish a better community. Class of 2019, this is how you can help. You need to get out of your filter bubbles. I have a couple of simple suggestions for actions you can take starting today.

First, you should make a point to read an article you disagree with every day. It might be from a columnist you’re not fond of, or from a website you dislike. The article will frustrate you a bit, but it will give you a deeper understanding of people from the other team, from a different community: their values, their choices, their passions.

Set a reminder on your phone to go off every morning. Call your reminder “Understanding someone else.”

Second, just once a week, make a point to talk to someone outside your community. It might be a quiet neighbor, or someone you see regularly who doesn’t wave to you — or maybe Derek from Accounting. Stop them and say hello, ask them how they’re doing. Start with the weather or sports, stay on neutral ground.

This will take some effort. We are a tribal people. You’ll have to work at this. But soon enough, you’ll probably find things you have in common — maybe you both like the Chicago Cubs or cold brew coffee or golden retrievers.

A short chat in the parking lot may blossom into a friendship. Maybe you’ll have coffee or meet for a beer. Maybe you’ll talk about politics and gain a richer understanding of where the other person is coming from. But even if it’s just a conversation in the lunchroom or the parking lot, it will lead to greater understanding. Plant seeds for more understanding and humanity every place you can. You never know where they will sprout.

Here’s where the facts come in. You may decide that your new friend doesn’t have the facts right on tax policy or immigration…or bears. Have a gentle conversation about it. But remember that it’s also possible that they have their facts right — and you don’t.

One conversation at a time, one fact at a time, we can rebuild trust and understanding.

In 1960, the writer James Baldwin gave a speech in San Francisco in which he mused about writing a novel, but his comments shed light on his hope about how America could overcome its painful history with race and inequality. He said: “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

That’s where we are in the internet age. Our world can sometimes look pretty bleak, filled with misunderstanding and darkness. But with facts and friendship, we can bring light back to the world and make it over.