David Suzuki: Politicians who reject science are not fit to lead

My life as a scientist got its boost in the United States. I was attending college in Massachusetts in 1957 on a scholarship when the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite. The event also launched the space race between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., as the Americans started pouring money into the sciences in an attempt to catch up.

I was given funding to continue my graduate studies at the University of Chicago. On getting my PhD, I went on to work as a research associate at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Although the facility was built in 1942 as part of a top secret program to purify uranium for the Manhattan Project, its focus had shifted to basic biology by the time I arrived, and it became a centre of world-class research and international cooperation.

Times have changed. I wish I could say that we’ve evolved when it comes to science. But sometimes reading the news and listening to the pronouncements of politicians, especially south of the border, I’m bewildered by the rampant ignorance about science and the antipathy toward it.

One example I just came across was a comment by the governor of Maine, Paul Lepage, about bisphenol-A, or BPA, which is used mainly in plastic containers and toys. Health Canada recently declared BPA a toxic chemical because of its links to breast cancer, developmental problems in children, prostate disease, and fertility issues.

In response to calls for his state to restrict BPA use, Lepage said, “There hasn’t been any science that identifies that there is a problem. The only thing that I’ve heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards.”

It’s a profoundly ignorant statement for anyone to make, let alone a state governor, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Science is taking a beating in the U.S., and we’re starting to see a similar phenomenon here in Canada, although not to as great an extent.

Far more dangerous are attempts by U.S. politicians to attack the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is causing catastrophic climate change. Despite countless studies by scientists from around the world and agreement among 98 percent of the world’s climate scientists and most of the world’s scientific academies and societies that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the Earth’s average temperature to rise, not to mention the facts staring us in the face—increased frequency of extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels, melting ice caps and glaciers—some politicians in the U.S. continue to reject the science and argue that we must proceed with business as usual.

Virginia’s Republican attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli, has been spending taxpayer dollars attacking climate scientists at the University of Virginia and is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its ruling that carbon dioxide and other global warming gases are a threat to human health and welfare.

Many Republicans, some of whom also reject the science of evolution and believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago and that humans and dinosaurs walked together, have been following his lead.

Meanwhile a fifth investigation into the so-called “climategate” brouhaha, this one led by Republicans in response to a request from one of their own, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has again found no “evidence to question the ethics of our scientists or raise doubts about [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s] understanding of climate change science”.

In Canada, our government has cut funding for climate research, rejected or ignored scientific studies showing environmental damage from the tars sands, and been accused of “muzzling” scientists.

We can take some comfort that, according to a recent poll, 80 percent of Canadians believe in the science behind climate change, compared to only 58 percent of U.S. citizens.

Science isn’t perfect, and it can be used for destructive as well as beneficial purposes. But it’s the best tool we have for analyzing and understanding our world and the impact of our actions on the environment of which we are a part. If our leaders reject science, we really are in trouble.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.



Kim Collins

Mar 1, 2011 at 6:00pm

The conclusion of a very interesting read in the National Post:

"In simpler words, too many of us treat science as subjective — something we customize to reduce cognitive dissonance between what we think and how we live."

"In the case of global warming, this dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism — and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned — is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement. The global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally."

"The appropriate intellectual response to that challenge — finding a way to balance human consumption with responsible environmental stewardship — is complicated and difficult. It will require developing new technologies, balancing carbon-abatement programs against other (more cost-effective) life-saving projects such as disease-prevention, and — yes — possibly increasing the economic cost of carbon-fuel usage through some form of direct or indirect taxation. It is one of the most important debates of our time. Yet many conservatives have made themselves irrelevant in it by simply cupping their hands over their ears and screaming out imprecations against Al Gore."

"Rants and slogans may help conservatives deal with the emotional problem of cognitive dissonance. But they aren’t the building blocks of a serious ideological movement. And the impulse toward denialism must be fought if conservatism is to prosper in a century when environmental issues will assume an ever greater profile on this increasingly hot, parched, crowded planet. Otherwise, the movement will come to be defined — and discredited — by its noisiest cranks and conspiracists."


monty/that's me

Mar 1, 2011 at 7:17pm

Environmentalists who dictate how others should think should go home count all your money and be quiet.


Mar 1, 2011 at 9:31pm

Politicians pander to the people that finance campaigns and become bias towards money. Science can be hazardous to the corporate interests and profits thus affecting political campaign finances. Nor does science have the PR department and advertising budget that a business interest does. IMO, Politicians are smarter than you think despite occasionally showing a lack of real knowledge or forethought for the health and welfare of every living thing on the planet. After all, it's getting elected and re-elected that matters to most politicians and the opinions, beliefs, delusions, falsehoods, and campaigns with the biggest PR budget usually win.

Bob Joyce

Mar 2, 2011 at 8:20am

The irony to that particular statement, Monty, is that it is usually “conservatives”, in the throws of AGW denial that both make money from and insist on a particular attitude towards environmental destruction. So, perhaps YOU ought to go home, count your money and stfu.

Of course, if you're not making money from it and you just happen to be one of these fools that are only ideologically aligned with the business of destroying our world for a buck then you can relax as you have already had a particular set of thoughts dictated to you. Sadly, it seems you are just too dim to know when you’ve been propagandized.

Science has no political bias. It does, however, have a reality bias. If you disagree then maybe you should throw out your computer, cell phone and every other piece of technology made possible by the thing you feel so comfortable calling a fraud.

In short, you, sir, are a damn fool.

reality time

Mar 2, 2011 at 9:50am

You claim that "We can take some comfort that, according to a recent poll, 80 percent of Canadians believe in the science behind climate change".
But that isn't true. The poll question was about whether you think it has gotten warmer over the last 40 years. 40 years of weather patterns is quite different than climate change.


Mar 2, 2011 at 9:56am

A fruit fly scientist with 5 kids and a huge carbon footprint is not fit to be a global warming political activist...

Dave Shadow

Mar 2, 2011 at 10:26am

"We can take some comfort that, according to a recent poll, 80 percent of Canadians believe in the science behind climate change, compared to only 58 percent of U.S. citizens."

Interesting to know that the Americans are smarter than the Canadians in this aspect.

Difficulties with Science and broad claims

Mar 2, 2011 at 1:01pm

The nature of science is the recognition is that things in life are often not certain. Ideas are called hypotheses and theories and left open for debate. Therefore its important that readers and more importantly authors like yourself don't confuse debate with a rejection of science.

Take the case of the senator's comment about BPA. This comment is absolutely correct as scientific research done on this subject has reveal little to no effects on actual humans. In fact the statement reveals scientific knowledge about the chemical as reference is made to microwaving which as a major method of which BPA could be released.

Fred Magyar

Mar 2, 2011 at 1:44pm

I'd like to pick a nit with use of the moniker 'Global Warming', while technically correct, the word warming has a connotation of warmth and goodness.

I would prefer 'Climate change' just the facts, mam, nothing to feel especially good about.

However, I could accept the reality of 'Catastrophic Climate Change', that the author used at the beginning of his post.

It doesn't leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling >:^(]

monty/that's me

Mar 2, 2011 at 1:53pm

Mr. Joyce, we have freedom of speech in this country. That does NOT give you the right to be rude. All science is not true: Big Pharma is one example. No one was called a fraud, Cheer up, the sun shines. Your opinion is not mine. So what.? No need to get your knickers in a knot.