University of South Florida

Our USF Health New Year’s resolution: The pursuit of truth

By Charles J. Lockwood, MD, MHCM
Executive Vice President, USF Health
Dean, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine

I hope you all had a peaceful and relaxing holiday break and enjoyed time with your family and friends. I also hope we are all ready to embark on a new year energized and ready to tackle educational challenges, make scientific discoveries, and continue to offer the best health care and public health leadership in Florida.

As we go forward at USF Health as health science colleges, we do so with a common spirit: one in which we are passionate about scientific inquiry and an unwavering pursuit of truth. At their heart, this is what great universities do, and it’s a charge that we should take very seriously.

Unfortunately, attacking truth has become quite fashionable of late. Disseminating misinformation, spreading baseless conspiracy theories, and drawing anti-scientific conclusions from anecdotes – sometimes sincerely, but often to expediently score political points — has become numbingly routine. Conversely, we see an equally harmful effort to suppress uncomfortable dialogue, to cancel civil discourse, and to self-righteously refuse to acknowledge different perspectives. We frequently see this as a tendency to censure or silence those who may not conform to the latest fad in virtue signaling.

However, the pursuit of truth demands skepticism, curiosity, objective assembly of facts, generation of hypotheses and their rigorous debate. For half a millennium, nowhere has this formula for human progress been more effectively and consistently practiced than in universities. Since modern universities should be the sentinels of truth, it falls to them to combat the twin threats of disinformation and censorship. Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, made this point in an address to students this fall, saying:

For our part, colleges and universities must combat the spread of misinformation, propaganda, and conjured conspiracy theories first by supporting faculty; they generate scientific data and scholarly insight. Faculty must be free to disseminate knowledge and teach you to think critically about ideas and their sources. …But to do so effectively, our institutions of higher education—faculty and students—must be open to engaging with diverse ideas, whether conventional or unconventional, of the left or of the right.”  

Ben Sasse, the new president of the University of Florida, also underscored the importance of civil discourse and debate when he addressed the Florida Board of Governors during the Trustee Summit held here at USF Health in November, saying:

“At a university, we enter in, in a way and with a posture that is humble enough to say, ‘We’re here to have dialogue with people who don’t always share our beliefs and we don’t share their beliefs,’ and that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing – that we don’t all have the same starting assumptions and ultimate conclusions… We are here at a place like this – at our institutions, precisely to argue and debate.”

That is why we must vigorously resist the idea that students should be sheltered from ideas with which they disagree. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in The Coddling of the American Mind:

“The notion that a university should protect all of its students from ideas that some of them find offensive is a repudiation of the legacy of Socrates, who described himself as the ‘gadfly’ of the Athenian people. He thought it was his job to sting, to disturb, to question, and thereby to provoke his fellow Athenians to think through their current beliefs, and change the ones they could not defend.”  

For our USF Health colleges, the pursuit of truth is even more important – because when we act on misinformation or suppress critical data, patients can die. The truths we seek directly impact people’s lives and health. For us the stakes could not be higher. So we must pursue truth with determination and rigor, through an empirical, logical and deeply rational interrogation of data. This is the very foundation for evidence-based clinical care and effective public health policy.

I’m happy to say that we have a rich history of this kind of inquiry at USF Health. This is reflected in our record-breaking rise in research rankings and our annual celebration of trainee scientific inquiry at Research Day. But it is also found in our matchless record of high-quality patient care and trusted public health leadership during the pandemic. It is in this spirit, that I welcome all of you back for another semester of growth and exploration – and hope that continuing the pursuit of truth will be our most noble New Year’s resolution.


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