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From the desk of COLS Dean Chris Cirmo

Facts and civil discourse

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word fact as “That which is known to be real or true; what has actually happened or is the case; truth attested by direct observation or authentic testimony; reality.” Fundamentally, seeking facts is the search for knowledge, which is the mission of all education. 

Students seek higher education to learn about accepted truths forming the foundations of our disciplines. Examples would be the first law of thermodynamics in physics, the particulate theory of inheritance in biology, argumentation theory and logic analysis in philosophy, plate tectonic theory in geology, etc. We call these theories only after centuries of scrutiny and testing. When I have issues with my heart, the logical place to begin exploration of the problem would be to see a cardiologist. If it were my knee, an orthopedist; a tumor, an oncologist. 

In the 1970s, a depletion in the ozone content of the atmosphere over Antarctica was observed, and there was serious concern about increased incidence of skin cancer, threats to vegetation, crops, and the health of our oceans. We trusted the experts — climatologists, atmospheric chemists and oceanographers — to investigate and find a way to remediate the threat. It was determined that the cause of the ozone depletion was a substance called Freon (fluorinated hydrocarbons) in aerosol sprays and refrigerants. Freons were subsequently banned worldwide, the ozone layer recovered and has been unchanged since.

In climate science, one would want to consult experts about climate change evidence. Why do some choose political pundits or talk show hosts first instead of experts? Long-term observation, testing, retesting, observing again, and again ... and again leads to tentative conclusions, and eventually builds theories, upon which entire disciplines stand. All modern society benefits from amazing breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture, technology, engineering, etc. — based on facts. 

Consistent and defensible observation and conclusion leads one to understand that a phenomenon is real — a fact. Underlying causes remain disputable at times, but the observation, after enough time, becomes accepted fact. In this time of frustration about what constitutes “fact,” it is critical that public higher education in particular (since it serves 82 percent of all college students in the U.S.) remains a defender of deep and critical thought, observation, testing and conclusion.

Our students face many ethical, moral and personal challenges each day, and if we do not give them a forum for calm discussion of real numbers, real facts, documented tests — indeed, theories — it all becomes “relative.” It is not all relative and as A.J. Levinovitz states in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The notion of truth, as disrespect, powers the current assault on facts.” 

At UW-Stevens Point, our Civil Discourse Initiative brings together panelists, experts and many sides of an issue, to discuss in a civil and controlled forum. It is not all relative, or a set of beliefs, as many incoming students often tell our faculty. Centuries of knowledge are the foundation of higher education and thought.

Moreover, just because something is supported by many people does not make it a fact. We take pride in how we handle these conversations at UW-Stevens Point and promise to nurture, in civil forums, in our classrooms, and in how our faculty treat and teach our students, to insure that they know the difference between facts and relativism. 

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