B.C. scientists slam Conservative minister’s evolution remarks

B.C. scientists have reacted with disdain to highly publicized comments on evolution made by senior members of the federal Conservative and Liberal parties.

Controversy erupted on March 17 when the Globe and Mail reported that Canada’s science minister, Gary Goodyear—the Conservative MP for Cambridge-North Dumfries—refused to say whether or not he “believes in evolution”.

Goodyear later stated that he “of course” believes in evolution, but not before a story was published quoting him as saying, “I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.”

Will Davidson, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at SFU, said that Goodyear’s linking of evolution with religion is a cause for concern.

“Evolution should not be a belief,” Davidson told the Straight in a telephone interview. “Evolution is a scientific fact.”

He explained evolution is a theory, which has one of the highest levels of confidence in modern science. Gravity, for example, is a theory, Davidson noted.

“The whole notion that Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, seemed to equate religion and evolution showed a lack of understanding of science,” he said. “It shows a lack of understanding of the portfolio that he has been given to manage. I think that is what the dangerous thing is.”

Amidst widespread criticism of Goodyear’s original remarks, Liberal science critic Marc Garneau, the MP for Westmount-Ville Marie, took the unusual step of defending his Conservative counterpart.

“It is a personal matter. It is a matter of faith,” Garneau was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying. “I don’t think it prevents someone from being a good minister.”

Davidson called Garneau’s remarks “a bit ridiculous”. He warned that bureaucrats’ failure to understand certain tenets of science, as exemplified by a discussion of evolution as a question of belief, can translate into measures like budget cutbacks.

Thomas Kerr, an assistant professor at the UBC medical faculty’s division of infectious diseases, told the Straight that Goodyear’s comments are not simply an issue of one person’s beliefs.

“The alarm bell was sounded because this government’s track record is so poor,” he explained. “I think that many people would be quite happy to leave the minister’s personal beliefs alone, had this government performed better on the science portfolio.”

Among other things, Kerr charged the Conservative government with significantly cutting operational funding for science in Canada, taking an ideological stance on HIV prevention, and interfering in research related to Vancouver’s supervised-injection site.

“Goodyear is entitled to his beliefs and there is no evidence that those beliefs have affected policy,” Kerr said. “Had this government not allowed ideology to interfere with their decision making in the past, people would not be as alarmed.”

On October 9, 2008, more than 120 of Canada’s top climate scientists signed their names to an open letter calling for Canadians to “vote strategically for the environment” in the October 14 federal election. The letter slams the Conservative government for obstructing global efforts to deal with climate change and describes Canada’s participation in recent conferences on climate change as an “international embarrassment”.

One day later, 85 Canadian researchers signed a letter calling on the Tories to end what they describe as the "politicization" and "mistreatment" of science. That letter pointed to "blatant" examples where the Harper government has undermined, suppressed, and distorted science for political reasons.

Evan Wood, a clinical associate professor at UBC and a colleague of Kerr, told the Straight that having a science minister who interprets a question on evolution as a matter of religion is “extremely worrisome”.

In an e-mail to the Straight, Wood wrote: “The Tories’ cuts to science already threaten Canada’s viability as a leader in scientific research and these types of beliefs among key Conservatives may help explain why.”

He continued: “Now that George Bush is gone, Canada is alone among Western nations with our federal government’s positions on a range of scientific issues.”

Not every scientist the Straight contacted was so critical. Isabel Trigger, an assistant professor at UVic and a research scientist at UBC’s TRIUMF facility, said that she thinks Goodyear can still encourage and care about research on evolution.

Trigger said that she recently got to know Goodyear when he stopped by TRIUMF for a tour. “Minister Goodyear was both interested and enthusiastic,” she recalled. “I believe he genuinely cares about research into the fundamental workings of the universe.”

Trigger, a former Sunday school teacher, described Goodyear’s initial handling of evolution as a question of religion as “a little unfortunate”.

“I don’t think it should be a matter of belief but the trouble is we have a religion that a large number of people in the country belong to,” she said. “Parts of that religion are about where we came from and how we evolved.”

Still, it seems most scientists in the province have reacted with concern to Goodyear’s remarks. Bruce Brandhorst, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at SFU, guessed that “nearly any working scientist in Canada will be disturbed about the minister’s comments”.

“In principle he could still be an effective science minister while not understanding and accepting Darwinian evolution,” Brandhorst said. “But his failure to understand the damage his government’s budget is doing to the scientific enterprise is also of considerable concern.”

You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.




Mar 21, 2009 at 5:29pm

steek Some beleave in a God with attachments, others beleave in nothing, some beleave nothing was befor God.

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