David Peddie: Evidence-based dissent and Canada’s war on science
Is Canada’s war on science breeding new lab-coat-sporting revolutionaries? A week ago, the New Statesman published an article by Naomi Klein entitled “How Science Is Telling Us All to Revolt”. Her article voiced the concerns of climate scientists who argue that the change that is necessary to prevent ecological disaster cannot occur within the current political and economic paradigm. Why? Because in today’s world of corporate, consumer-driven politics, it is unimaginable that an ecological issue could take precedence over the big business of resource extraction.
Klein identifies an oft forgotten source of countercultural dissent—scientists. Climate change has been the main battlefront over the last 20 years as scientists around the world have felt impelled to extend their reach beyond academia and call for effective global environment management. Substantial effort to combat climate change, however, hasn’t fit with the political and economic objectives of global leaders, who have continuously refused to commit to emissions reduction strategies that scientists agree would actually give the Earth a chance to recover. For this reason, Klein highlights geophysicist Brad Werner’s startling scientific conclusions—first, dynamic environmental management isn’t working, and second, direct action, resistance from “outside the dominant culture”, might be the best hope left for sparking a change in consciousness that would counter the dominant economic obsession.
Here in Klein’s home country of Canada, resource extraction and the economy are nearly fanatically venerated in the dominant conservative ideology. But as Werner recognized, irresponsible development faces a consistent challenge from familiar marginalized social movements. Indigenous groups especially remain furiously active in their opposition to energy projects and have made demonstrations, blockades, marches, occupations, and sit-ins commonplace news in Canada. They fight alongside a growing community of environmental activists and concerned citizens, and as resistance increases, it is becoming increasingly clear that the problem isn’t just environmentally destructive resource extraction; it is the national attitude that economic interests supersede all other interests.
Indeed it is the government’s short-sighted and one-dimensional approach to decision-making that has driven what has come to be known as Harper’s “war on science”. Chris Turner describes the nature of this war in his new book, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada:
Above all else, it is a sustained campaign to diminish the government’s role in evidence-based policy-making and environmental stewardship in three simple ways: reducing the capacity of the government to gather basic data about the status and health of the environment and Canadian society; shrinking or eliminating government agencies that monitor and analyze that evidence and respond to emergencies; and seizing control of the communications channels by which all of the above report their findings to the Canadian public.
Such an offensive has not gone unnoticed in Canada and has led to the popular mobilization of another dissident group: scientists. And it’s not just about climate change any more, it’s about evidence—the essence of their practice that is ignored by an increasingly corporatized government outlook. They came out in thousands to the “Death of Evidence” mock funeral procession on Parliament Hill in July of 2012. Most recently, on September 16, they rallied in 17 cities around the country in the “Stand up for Science” demonstrations orchestrated by Evidence for Democracy. Every day, a war is waged in the media and on the web. Science bloggers en masse decry the Canadian government’s failure to put evidence above ideology. And despite the government’s campaign of federal scientist censorship, scientists remain vociferous in the media. They’ve demonstrated their resolve in letter writing campaigns, petitions, op-eds, and interviews—so much so that they are unsettling Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, Greg Rickford, whose recent Conservative fundraising letter referred to a group of respected Canadian scientists who penned a critical op-ed as “radical ideologues”.
Are the concerns of Canadian scientists radical? Are fundamental research, informed evidence-based policy, and public access to scientist expertise really antagonistic to the Canadian government’s vision? No explanation will come from Rickford, who continues to evade response to the issues. Former chief economic analyst for Statistics Canada, Philip Cross, however, has stepped up in support of the government, most recently in an op-ed to the Financial Post entitled “What War on Science?” He argues that government scientists have no right to complain of muzzling, suggesting that they are predominantly unqualified data monitors and collectors that will use their position to “leverage their own political or ideological agenda”. Cross looks at the situation like a good business manager—employees exist to serve their employer; should they feel the need to give an opinion (however knowledgeable) that the public relations department deems damaging to the employer’s mission, they’re welcome to post it anonymously in a blog or resign. As Cross sees it, business employees should be muzzled and “why would that be any different in government when we are talking about environmental policy?”
Cross’s outlook is the root of the whole problem. Acceptable business practice is not acceptable government practice. Democracy is not the act of electing a representative corporate body to power to execute its agenda. A corporation is free to pursue its objectives as it pleases within the confines of the law but a government has a responsibility to be accountable and transparent to its electorate. The public is not a body to be manipulated and appeased by a public relations department; they are the raison d’être of the government. Open channels of honest communication should be made available to encourage an informed, engaged, and critical public.
Government scientists (many of whom are very highly qualified) have invested their life in becoming experts in their field. Their opinions are of course subjective, but they are uniquely well-informed and should be made available for consideration and critique. If, as Cross suggests, they are abusing the platform of the government to “spout the party line of Greenpeace”, their value as employees should be determined by an assessment of their ability to interpret data in a manner consistent with their profession. If it is revealed that they incompetently manipulate data, then by all means they should be relieved of their position. But, in the interest of maintaining an active and informed public, they should certainly not be subject to censorship based on their opinion’s compatibility with the current economic action plan. Who knows, maybe there is some conclusive evidence to support Greenpeace’s party line!
By raising their voice in protest, scientists in Canada have been fighting not only for science and evidence but also for the health of our democracy.