In Defence of Facts

I've long been a believer in the idea of voluntary public service, and one of the ways I attempt to serve my community is as one of four members of the Senate of Simon Fraser University who are elected by and from the university alumni. The Senate, taking a role dating back to medieval guild Masters, is the senior body of academic governance of the university; it carries ultimate responsibility for deciding who should be admitted to the university and to whom credentials should be granted.

On Monday evening, I was on the losing side of a vigorous debate over the adoption of a new admissions policy; the precise details are not relevant to this post, save for the observations that it was highly politically charged, that there were very strong opinions on both sides, and that I wasn't particularly surprised to find myself in the minority. The debate was civil, and most of the speakers made good points (even if I happen to disagree with their ultimate conclusions); but I was absolutely shocked by the comments from one speaker.

I opened the debate by speaking against the motion. Having spent the weekend doing research into the issue, I presented data from the university's internal statistics; from the provincial ministry of advanced education; and from Canada's federal statistical agency to show that the problem the policy was intended to solve in fact didn't exist.

Now, I knew it would be too much to hope that this would put an end to the question; I did hope, however, that it would sway a few votes. Surely, I thought, policy decisions must be guided by facts. Not so. Instead, I was castigated for "bringing numbers and percentages into the debate"!

Stephen Colbert famously invented the word "truthiness" to refer to the "truths" which a person claims to know "from the gut" without regard to evidence or logic. He applied it to George Bush's decision to invade Iraq in spite of the total absence of evidence linking Iraq to Al Quaeda or the 9/11 attacks; and we all pointed and laughed.

It's bad enough when the President of the United States of America, armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, makes decisions without regard to facts. When truthiness enters the debates of the senior academic governing body of a university, I fear for our society.

Posted at 2010-09-14 20:30 | Permanent link | Comments
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