Canadian scientists fight back against censorship

By Phil Plait | October 22, 2010 7:16 am

In September, I wrote about how the conservative political party in control in Canada is throttling scientists, forcing them to get permission to discuss their scientific results with the media. This is a clear attempt to keep scientists from talking about results that are contrary to the ideology of the political party– and we’re talking about such topics as global warming here. This hearkens back to what was going on here in the US just a few short years ago.

Now Canadian scientists are firing back: they’ve launched a website where they can take their results straight to the public without government interference. The site — artfully named PublicScience.ca — features interviews and videos with Canadian government scientists.

The site is a beautiful thumb-to-the-nose to those in the government who think they can suppress science. Here’s their site description:

This site is sponsored by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

PUBLICSCIENCE.ca opens up the world of science for the public good.

PUBLICSCIENCE.ca advocates for support for the science that touches the daily lives of Canadians in so many important ways.

"Opens up the world of science for the public good." Awesome. Their press release announcing the site makes this clear, too.

I’m certain this makes some government officials apoplectic, and I’m quite enjoying myself envisioning that right now. I loathe censorship in any form, but I especially abhor it when it’s done out of ideology to choke out science and reality.

Good on ya, Canadian scientists. Speak up, loudly and clearly. At the bottom of the site’s homepage is a call to action for Canadian citizens, too. I encourage my neighbors to the north to follow those links, and let your government know that science is for everyone, and not just when it agrees with your personal beliefs.

Tip o’ the toque to Boing Boing and Westsidekef.

MORE ABOUT: Canada, censorship

Comments (42)

  1. SLC

    It should be noted that the Canadian Minister of Science and Technology, “Dr.” Gary Goodyear, is a chiropractor who is also a global warming denier and evolution denier. Compare this with Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu who is the head of the US Department of Energy and Nobel Prize winning research physician Harold Varmus who co-heads the presidents’ science advisory committee.

  2. Ron1

    Excellent. The Professional Institute has done the right thing – no accomodation, no mercy for denialists and related wingnuts. Have at ‘em ladies and gents.

    Phil, this is why I like PZ Meyer’s approach. There can be no accomodation with those who want to destroy what science has achieved over the last two hundred years. Anti-science fanatics give no mercy and have clearly shown (in the US and now Canada)that, once they achieve power, they use that power to mitigate dissent and further their own views, and their views and goals are dangerous.

  3. BRAVO, great move! Reminds me of the ending of the “Serenity” movie… you can’t stop the signal! Knowledge deserves to be KNOWN, regardless of all the witch hunts and inquisitions happening around us.

  4. rob

    Canadian scientists FTW!

  5. J

    When I read the first sentence I was like WHAT? How can this be? Canada is a fascist censorship state?

    Then I read the link and found out that it applied to scientist directly employed by the government, working in a government agency.

    Um, ok.

    Big fat hairy deal.

    It’s government. Sometimes you get the force you want. Other times you get the force you don’t want.

  6. Brett from Canada

    Alas, it looks like their “Take Action” page is still a little anemic. While I’ve sent in my 50 words, hopefully they’ll provide more resources, soon, in order to make it easier for people to contact their MPs, etc.

    But it’s an important step forward. The Harper cabinet and government is one the most restrictive in recent memory, despite their running on a platform of openness and transparency. Hopefully this will be the first of many steps aimed at bringing back those ideals to our government.

  7. Brett from Canada

    “Then I read the link and found out that it applied to scientist directly employed by the government, working in a government agency. ”

    Correct. The government has scientists “do science”. If the government doesn’t like the results, it now has the tools it needs to muzzle those scientists and ensure those results aren’t released. So rather than commissioning scientific studies in order to properly focus and drive public policy, the government can use science as a political tool for driving their specific vision by disregarding any evidence that contradicts the party line.

    But, yeah, I’m sure that’s no “Big fat hairy deal”…

  8. Brett from Canada

    @J:

    And as an aside, the Canadian government is *my frickin’ government*. I elected those guys, and any work those scientists do belongs to *me*, just as it belongs to any other citizen in Canada. The government has no right, nor should the public accept their attempts, to keep “undesirable” results from the public.

  9. Blizzzzzaaaarrg!

    …wait, does this mean that we no longer get to…blame Canada?

  10. Apparently censorship is endemic, although, of course, it may not count if its done by liberals instead of conservatives. See, for example,

    http://www.freedomsite.org/legal/dec18-07_macleans_under_attack.html

    where it can be seen what’s been going on under the guise of protecting “human rights.”

  11. as a show of solidarity you should have spelled it “neighbours”

  12. Philippe

    E pur si muove!

    I know, that story is probably not true, but somewhere, it IS true, know what I mean?

  13. m5

    Our government is getting really really bad with censorship of all kinds. Back in june during the g20 conferences my upstairs neighbor was arrested at gunpoint in a late night police raid for organizing protests and he’s currently under house arrest and has been threatened with jail if he breaks probation by talking politics. http://therealnews.com/idirect.php?i=5741

  14. Gary

    However, don’t overlook the fact that governmental funding influences scientific research as much as censorship of results. The influence can be beneficial or detrimental.

  15. Brett from Canada

    @Gary

    “However, don’t overlook the fact that governmental funding influences scientific research”

    No one is claiming that the government should be the sole entity through which scientific research is done. The issue, here, is that when the government *does* commission a study, the results shouldn’t be quashed if they contradict the goals of the current majority party.

    That said, I also dispute your claim. While government funding influences *what* is researched, it cannot influence the validity of the results. As long as the data and methodology is published, the source of the science, itself, is immaterial.

    Which is why independent researchers, both in the private sector and in the university system, are so vital, as they offer both a counterpoint and a check on the results produced as part of government-funded work.

  16. Huh?

    Sounds like the Texas BOE

  17. Brett from Canada

    @Helian:

    “Apparently censorship is endemic, although, of course, it may not count if its done by liberals instead of conservatives. ”

    Nice attempt to hijack an important story about government transparency with partisan rhetoric.

  18. John EB Good

    Hmmmmm…not sure what’s there I haven’t allready read and was pointed to me through the Google News Science section. All links in “news” point to articles published over the web by mainstream Canadian, American and international medias. So, apparently, not much science was really censored in the end, hey? I even managed to click on links that sent me to websites requiring a paid subscription (Le Devoir) to access a content I know I allready read elsewhere on some other websites giving it freely and openly. (amongst these, Radio-Canada.ca, strangely enough, a federal governement corporation!) So, I’m still searching for this supposedly censored knowledge. Maybe I’ll have a better luck with WikiLeaks.

    Way to go scientists! Right now, you’re making case for the governement’s nihilism in censorship.

    I’ll stick to Arvix and Google News in the meantime.

  19. hevach

    @18. John EB Good: The new regulations their fighting are brand new, they were first mentioned barely over a month ago. If they’re even in effect already , it’s not unlikely nothing’s been censored, and equally likely that anything that has hasn’t been leaked – in both cases that’s, “yet.” There were a couple articles last month that some researchers were concerned enough that they were delaying publication until it was clear exactly what this meant. This is an advance first strike, as the Minister of Science and Technology claiming the option to seal your research results and prevent you from publishing is unacceptable in and of itself.

  20. MaDeR

    @10
    Obvious political troll is obvious.

  21. John EB Good

    @ Brett in 8 when you say: I elected those guys, and any work those scientists do belongs to *me*,

    No, read the Canadian Constitution.

    In the States, the taxpayer money belongs to the taxpayers, and the research done with this money belongs to Tha People of the US of A.

    In Canada, as soon as it leaves your pocket, the taxpayers money belong to the Crown and the research done with it also. All the work done with it belongs to the Crown.

    A subtlety that let even us Canadian able to get US nautical charts for free over the web while we still have to pay for our own Canadian ones. That work done by the CHS with your taxpayer money stays sole property of the Crown.

    Now you know the difference between a Democracy and a Constitutional Monarchy.

    Friendly yours, from la Belle Province!

    Hey! Maybe even now, you know why (amongst others) we’re not about to sign that Constitution. ;) We kind of like democracy over here.

  22. rob

    don’t forget, conservatives understand reality has a well known liberal bias.

  23. John EB Good

    19. hevach: Well, through my explanation to Brett, you should now know it’s theirs, so they can do whatever they fancy with it.

    Is that ok? No. Is it legal? Well, yes. Do I freak out over the lack of knowledge I’ll experience? Not a bit. If they’re scientists, they’re supposed to be somewhat intelligent. What would do an intelligent scientist? I’ll bet I don’t even have to give you the answer! :O

    Still, instead of putting up a website, their first step should be applying for a Green Card. That, I’d call it “efficient pressure on that place where it hurts”!!!

    Remember, when they cancelled the Arrow, those people all went to work for NASA. In a sense, while an American was the first man on the Moon, it’s Canadians who sent him there.

  24. Kurtis

    I have never been ashamed of being a Canadian until this super conservative party came into power a while back. And these aren’t even the slightly to the right type cons, these are the super reform all the way to the right cons. They continually try to supress reports, the Prime Minister doesn’t even allow his cabinet to speak to the media without his approval on all subjects. Ridiculous type of pseudo-dictatorship going on up here.

  25. Pete Jackson

    The Canadian government has sites that present the temperature data itself, that clearly shows the warming of Canada:

    http://www.ec.gc.ca/adsc-cmda/default.asp?lang=En&n=F3D25729-1

    (catchy, easy to remember URL isn’t it?)

    Just look at the bulletin archives to see the warming for each season separately.

    But the site is careful not to attribute the warming to anything in particular.

  26. Brett from Canada

    @John EB Good:

    “No, read the Canadian Constitution.

    In the States, the taxpayer money belongs to the taxpayers, and the research done with this money belongs to Tha People of the US of A.

    In Canada, as soon as it leaves your pocket, the taxpayers money belong to the Crown and the research done with it also. All the work done with it belongs to the Crown.”

    You’re picking nits. No, I do not have property rights regarding the research work. However, I have a *moral* right to that work, as it is commissioned by a government that operates based on the consent of the voters. If you wish to dispute that, fine, although that seems a rather difficult position to defend.

    Or, to put it more succinctly: morality has nothing to do with legality.

  27. Only one astronomer and he is in french. I kind of understand some french but not him.

  28. AJ in CA

    @13 M5: Gah. Sorry, but that site is horrible at actual journalism. There are so many unanswered factual questions, including:

    What was he charged with?
    When did this alleged crime take place?
    Is there a legal consensus as to the legitimacy of these charges?
    What previous arrests has he had, and for what?
    What agency or police force ordered the raid in the first place?

    I’m certainly not defending the court’s gag conditions, but I feel like I’m not getting the whole story here.

  29. AJ in CA

    Oh Motherfark!!! *%&$(@
    Stupid thing ate my post. Grrrrrr.

    In a nutshell, I was asking Canadians if there were any movement in your country to formally dissolve the Monarchy, and if not, why the hell not?

  30. SM

    AJ: Yes, there is a movement in Canada to dissolve the monarchy. They are about as numerous and influential as the passionate monarchists. Why? Well, the current system works pretty well, and most of us don’t trust Canadian politicians to invent something better. After all, our elected politicians do things like muzzle public scientists, force the military to hand over prisoners to thugs, and spend vast amounts of money on the Olympics with no clear plan to make it back. If you notice, the Queen and Governor General have nothing to do with our federal government’s science policy.

    Most of the most livable countries in the world are democracies with a figurehead monarchy. Democracies with an elected head of state have had a rocky record. Probably that’s coincidence, but some political scientists disagree.

  31. Brian Too

    @29. AJ in CA,

    This is a frequent misconception. Although Canada is indeed a constitional monarchy, the “monarchy” bit is distinctly second place. The Queen’s role is almost entirely ceremonial, as are those of the Governor General and their provincial counterparts.

    For instance, all legislation requires the Queen’s assent to be enacted. However this is a rubber stamp item. The monarchy almost never interferes in this process; the Queen does not have the political legitimacy to do so. Everyone knows it.

    The only times the Queen has any real power is during constitutional matters. If there were a constitutional crisis for instance, the Queen could play an important part in resolving it. If a Federal election failed to produce a meaningful result and no coalition could be formed, the Queen might broker a solution. Even then this would be done in consultation with Canadians. Without such cooperation no one would respect the result.

    One common description of the monarchy in such a setup is that they represent the country, without governing it. They are symbolic of Canada itself. As such they have some moral authority but little governing authority. In a country like the U.S., both symbolic and operational roles are fulfilled by the President.

    Neither system is perfect. In the end you have to simply ask, “does it work? What is the net result?” Well, Canada is a stable and prosperous representative democracy. By most quality of life indicators life is pretty good. As a result there are some who wish to get rid of the monarchy, but for most it is a non-issue. You’d get more benefit for your time and trouble working on almost anything else.

  32. Natesh

    There’s a scene in Garth Ennis’ Preacher comic that basically describes what I want to do to Stephen Harper almost every day. It involves Jesse Custer in a fist fight with his best friend, Cassidy, basically beating the hell out of him, all the while saying, “Gawd dammit, Cassidy! You let me down! You let me down so bad!” Honestly, I (perhaps a bit naively) voted for the Conservatives expected a platform of fiscal conservatism and social moderation, and what I got was additional support for a war which is none of our business, suspension of civil liberties, and alarmingly fascistic social policies courtesy of Vic Toews. This is just another blow.

    The thing is, though, I don’t know if any of the other parties can do any better. I would die before voting the NDP into power, and the Liberals today are a total lame duck. |sigh|

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    The worst thing about censorship is [CENSORED] ;-)

    @31. Brian Too & others :

    This is a frequent misconception. Although Canada is indeed a constitional monarchy, the “monarchy” bit is distinctly second place. The Queen’s role is almost entirely ceremonial, as are those of the Governor General and their provincial counterparts. For instance, all legislation requires the Queen’s assent to be enacted. However this is a rubber stamp item. The monarchy almost never interferes in this

    The same is true for Australia as well. :-)

    I’m pretty New Zealand like Canada and us here in Oz along with quite a few others also share this system – & it works pretty well. Not perfectly but okay.

    As for the censorship of Govt over scientists it doe soccur tome that ther may occassionally be valid reasons for it eg. military and security applications.

    Hypothetical : If the Canadian scientists discovered how to make a cheap A-bomb out of everyday products, or how folks could make black holes in their kitchen sinks or even time machines – would you really trut this information tobe shared with all your neighbours, fellow countryfolk and people on the street?

    Perhaps it’s a good thing if some bits of info *are* kept secret and some information controlled for the public good and so that it is kept in responsible and not irresponsible hands?

    Playing devils advocate here a bit but still ..

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    Or as Isaac Asimov (perhaps also playing devils* advocate?) wrote :

    “Don’t stare at me like that. How did I know – ”

    “Nobody knew anything ,”said Araman* bitterly, “but you all just took it for granted that the government was stupidly bureaucratic, vicious, tyranical, given to suppressing research for the hell of it. It never occurred to any of you that we were trying to protect mankind [sic] as best we could.”

    - Pages 270 & 271, “The Dead Past” short story in ‘The Edge of Tomorrow’ anthology by Isaac Asimov, Tor, 1986.

    Well *are* we assuming that the Canadian govt here is being stupidly bureaucratic, vicious & tyranical, suppressing scientists for the hell of it?

    Are we sure we’re not?

    Could it be that the Canadian govt really feels it is doing the right and responsible thing here for good reasons?

    I’m not saying they necessarily *are*.

    I don’t know. I know next to nothing about the Canadian govt except that they won their last election and so became the govt.

    But I am saying we should pause and consider the possibility.

    After all, the government is the people we theoretically place our trust in (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!) and who we (or, in this case, the Canadian voters) chose.

    Not everyone should be able to know everything. For example, a patient in a lunatic asylum should NOT know how to hack into the military and order an all-out nuclear attack! ;-)

    Now this is obviously NOT quite on that level & I do oppose censorship usually and excessive govt power over our lives but this is a point to bear in mind at least just a little.

    Things are not always as simple and straightforward as they can be made out seem.

    —————

    * Weirdly enough this name is very similar to another character in an Isaac Asimov short story who was named R.E. Mann – which turned out to be a form of “Ahriman” the Zoroastrian “Satan” figure to Ahura Mazda’s benevolent god. Now I’m not sure if that’s just co-incidence or not but it is somewhat interesting to observe. ;-)

  35. me

    I don’t think that the canadian government are protecting us from all spying on each other from the immediate future tho. Although that story does have some echoes of facebook these days.

  36. AJ in CA

    @#30 SM: I see. That certainly makes sense. At the very least, it’s nice to have a national spokesperson who’s not also involved in policy (or electoral politics). I notice that most people in similar nations (ie the UK) tend to have a much higher opinion of their royal families then their elected leaders :P

    And don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing Canadian culture, at all. In fact, if I can get my career on track enough to make myself useful to Canada, I’d love to live there.
    It’s just the whole bit about science (and whatever else) technically being in service to the Crown, well, that’d rub me the wrong way.

    @Brian too: Thanks for the information. I hate to further the stereotype of Americans as ignorant of other nations, but… what the hell, it’s mostly true :P
    Anyway, as I said above, I guess there’s something to be said for a representative (or moral authority, as you put it) who doesn’t have to worry about pandering to voters.
    So basically the attitude is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? As someone who’s wasted countless hours torturing numerous computers trying to “improve” them, I can definitely see the wisdom there :)

  37. AJ in CA

    I do appreciate a good devil’s advocate :) Certainly there are some technical discoveries that might be vital to keep secret for security purposes, like the hypothetical pure fusion bomb that doesn’t require fission to initiate it. But how can natural science ever fall into that category? Unless these scientists made some discovery about weather that’d allow people to build weather-controlling devices, I can’t see any possible rationale for keeping research from being freely released.

    “Could it be that the Canadian govt really feels it is doing the right and responsible thing here for good reasons?”
    Well shoot, sure they do. Almost everyone believes that they’re doing what they’re doing for all the right reasons. Even people like Hitler and Pol Pot were convinced that if we could just get rid of these few (million) people, everything would be a million times better for everyone ELSE in the long run. The ends justify the means and all that. Everyone’s got a rationalization for what they do, usually an altruistic one.
    In the case of climate science, I’d argue that there’s a strong negative confirmation bias due to fear. Many people simply don’t want to acknowledge the situation, because it’s scary and requires some unsettling changes to be made.

  38. Daniel J. Andrews

    Thanks for that link, Phil. I’ve signed up for the updates now. We’ve been doing some politically sensitive work up in the far north, and even at the provincial level we’ve been told not to talk about it (it involves mining, First Nation land claims, environment, and an eventual altering and changing of landscape and ecosystems on a scale that we haven’t seen since the prairies were converted to farmland. It is going to all happen regardless and sometimes the work just seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But the government ban didn’t stop me and two others from giving presentations on the work to different advocacy groups last week (we’re contract though so technically we can talk about it in between employment contracts).

    Incidentally, there will be many benefits to this project as well (for one, the First Nation communities only have winter road access and global warming has reduced the usefulness of these roads, precipitating a crisis situation this year when the road was only open for 3 weeks). It just seems a shame that with those roads will come the unsustainable practices that have already changed the areas further south.

    “However, don’t overlook the fact that governmental funding influences scientific research”

    A recent example is where the government scientists found the pollution levels of the tar sands operation were well within guidelines, but independent scientists like world-famous limnologist Dr. David Schindler found the pollution levels in the rivers were way above acceptable. He responded to questions about the discrepancy with something like, “Let them [gov't scientists] argue their case in the proper forum–peer-reviewed journals”, and said he and others on the independent teams would happily put their work under that kind of scrutiny from others.

    Hm, I saw the words “Democracy” and “la Belle Province” in the same sentence. *blink* Well, I suppose it is a democracy although minorities and the First Nation people might disagree. C’est la vie.

  39. Don Gisselbeck

    This is like the perrennial problem during war, the tendency of leaders to demand and get intelligence that fits their ideology rather than describing what is actually happening.

  40. J

    @Brett

    The issue, here, is that when the government *does* commission a study, the results shouldn’t be quashed if they contradict the goals of the current majority party.

    Don’t you believe in democracy?

  41. J

    @Don,

    No. They just don’t publicly release the intelligence.

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