Why the Harper Majority is a Step Back for Science – Let Us Count the Ways

By Chris Mooney | May 3, 2011 1:51 pm

This is a guest post by David Ng, a science literacy academic at the Michael Smith Laboratories of the University of British Columbia.

In case you missed it, last night saw the Canada election deliver a Conservative majority. It was an interesting and historic vote for a variety of reasons, but the bottom line is that now the Harper government is in a position to do pretty much as it pleases, given its position of majority power in both the House of Commons and the Canadian Senate.

As is the norm for any democratic action, this is good and bad depending on your perspective and ideals. Those who make their homes in the business or economic front generally see the result as a positive; whereas those who value fairness, ethical government practices, and social issues tend to look upon the election as a daunting and frustrating setback. In this mix, however, is the scientific point of view. And speaking as a Canadian scientist, I want to use this space to make the case that all things being considered, this is a fundamentally bad moment in history for Canadian science.

To do this, let’s access how the Harper government (not the “Government of Canada” as it was once officially called) has performed so far (in the science context anyway).

And let’s argue for this in a rational way. We are after all scientific folk. In fact, let’s apply the good old rubric of looking at the claim, providing a reason, and then presenting the evidence for this stance.

First up is our claim: let’s just go with something direct:

The Harper Government is bad for Science.

As for coming up with a reason, it’s actually fairly straightforward. Here, we’ve seen repeated examples that would demonstrate a clear lack of understanding science culture, as well as actions that often undermine the very notion of scientific literacy. Sometimes, you get the sense that science just isn’t important to this government, and on occasion it even feels downright inconsequential.

But, of course, this wordy reason can’t stand on its own verbiage. We need concrete evidence for our claim, and to do this, it’s probably easiest to focus on a number of key points that demonstrate Harper’s modus operandi.

Point 1. The Harper government is not terribly scientifically literate.

There’s a few examples of this (also see point 2), but let’s simply draw attention to the appointment of a Minister of Industry, Science and Technology who waffles on the science of evolution. In case you don’t know his name, it’s Gary Goodyear: and in essence, his role in government is meant to be the primary driver on pushing and representing how science is funded, courted, guided, and basically done in Canada. Although an architect of many a cut to science funding in times that arguably need more scientific innovation (see 4 for more), he was and still is noted as a controversial figure when in 2009, the Globe and Mail asked him to share his stance regarding evolution. To this, he replied, “I’m a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.

Now from a scientific point of view, this type of statement is mildly troubling – you would hope that at least the Minister representing science would have more eloquent words to say on this subject. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case as illustrated with his further comments on the matter when pressed again during a television interview. During this incident, he chose to proclaim his belief in evolution, but continued with this very odd and ludicrous description of what evolution is:

“We are evolving, every year, every decade. That’s a fact. Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course, we are evolving to our environment.”

2. The Harper government has managed to make Climate Change science an ideological issue.

You’ve actually seen a lot of this already in American politics, but nowadays there’s also a Canadian version. Here’s how it works:

In general, science is fairly particular about the way it is done. The method is built to thrive on objectivity and it is ultimately based on the things we see, record, and analyze. It isn’t perfect, since the concept of a paradigm can exert influence, but the evidence it builds on still has to meet some pretty tough criteria – certainly much more stringent than other epistemologies, or other ways of knowing. Put another way, scientific evidence is not suppose to be swayed by ideological or partisan lines.

Despite this, Harper’s politics have warped the science of climate change into one of partisan debate. All other Canadian political parties take the science at face value, and build from it. Not so with the Conservatives. This is inherently disrespectful to the scientific community, as it suggests that we can make decisions concerning climate change in a place where scientific literacy has no currency, whereby the overwhelming scientific consensus is treated as nothing more than an interesting and suspicious footnote.

As a result, Harper runs the country on the pretense of whether one can trust or distrust the scientific evidence, without actually debating the actual technical strengths and weaknesses of the climate science data currently presented. Harper runs the country based on messages that economically sound promising, but are environmentally unsustainable, and have strong repercussions which conveniently will take form long after he is retired. Above all, he places an emphasis on nurturing a subtle form of climate change denialism and has made it part of the conservative ideology. From a scientist’s point of view, this is probably not the best way to formulate important policies – on “feelings” as oppose to concrete evidence. In essence, we can say that I may not be a betting man: but if I was, I’m pretty sure that the scientific community is the best place to get our odds.

Now, one might argue that this is not Harper’s stance at all. It would appear that the official take would proclaim the government’s official backing of the “fundamentals of climate change science.” However, as always is the case, actions speak louder than words. As evidence of this, you only need to keep track of the Harper’s record on climate change. Since obtaining its first minority government in 2006, the Conservatives have essentially moved away from Canada’s commitment to Kyoto, and has repeatedly undermine climate change talks (to the point of being consistent winners of the “Fossil of the Day” award), part of which involves the continual setting up of disappointing emission targets.

In 2009 the goal was to cut carbon emissions by 20% below 2006 levels by 2020; an equivalent of 3% below 1990 levels by 2020. The goal was later changed in early 2010 to 17% of 2005 levels by 2020; an equivalent of 2.5% above 1990 levels.

The three most populous provinces disagree with the federal government goal and announced more ambitious targets on their jurisdictions. Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia announced respectively 20%, 15% and 14% reduction target below their 1990 levels while Alberta is expecting a 58% increase in emissions. (Wikipedia, April 2011)

More troubling, is that Harper appears to not have any qualms about pushing his agenda in any way possible, and does so in a way that draws clear distinctions between party lines. In particular, is his flagrant misuse of Senate power to go against the democratic passing of a Climate Change Bill (Bill C-311).

Here, a quick lesson in Canadian government procedures might help. Essentially, when Canadian laws or Bills are put on the table, they need to go through a vote in the House of Commons. This is represented by elected members of government, such that the voting here is inherently meant to represent the “will of the people.” However, if passed, the law then needs to go through the Canadian Senate. This level of government is suppose to reflect a place of “sober second thought,” but historically, the Senate very rarely goes against the decisions made in the House of Commons. This is because Senate members are appointed, and therefore in principle are there to still respect the democratic underpinning of the House of Commons’ vote. However, in December 2008, Harper filled 18 vacant Senate spots with Conservative appointments, and has used this Senate majority in undemocratic ways – including the killing of the Climate Change Bill.

Still, there are other ways to force an ideology along: which brings us to point number three.

3. The Harper government has demonstrated a willingness to “muzzle” science.

In 2010, the release of Environment Canada documents showed that new media rules introduced by the Harper Government in 2007, with the aim to control the ability for Federal climate scientists to interact with media, had been responsible for what many of these scientists have called a “muzzling” effect.

“Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high profile media, who often have same-day deadlines,” said the Environment Canada document. “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent.”

The analysis reviewed the impact of a new federal communications policy at Environment Canada, which required senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews.

The document suggests the new communications policy has practically eliminated senior federal scientists from media coverage of climate-change science issues, leaving them frustrated that the government was trying to “muzzle” them. (Montreal Gazette, March 15, 2010)

This facet of Harper’s strategy is especially troubling. Science, as a whole, is a venture that best works when there is fluidity and an openness in how information is shared. Whether that is within the scientific community in the form of expert peer review, or back and forth between scientists and the general public or the policy makers as a dialogue of civic consequence, there is simply no commendable reason for this form of control. It should be obvious that discussions on Climate Change, which has obvious public importance, things shouldn’t be run like a corporation protecting its secrets and/or hiding information that veers away from the desired message.

4. The Harper Government is out of touch with science culture: scientists are driven by many things, and not always by the industry/business/corporate mentality.

Over the last couple years, we’ve seen examples where the Harper Government has consistently pushed research towards a heavy emphasis for applied sciences and industry, often at the expense of basic science. Whether this is via funding cuts to granting agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (a bastion of basic science research), diverting such monies towards projects where business-related objectives are encouraged, or via restructuring of the National Research Council such that industry-related projects are given priorities, there’s definitely a method to his ways. Overall, this indicates a general ignorance of how scientific progress works – that is, it is almost always the discoveries born from basic research that fuel the future innovation necessary for applied benefits. Put another way, if Harper continues on this track to give himself quick political gain, he does so at the expense of future Canadian science. Even a small lull in basic research in the present could result in a significant lull in applied and economic potentials in the future.

As well, this constant patronage towards the business side of science also doesn’t necessarily reflect the intentions of the scientists themselves. Money and economics may be desirable things for scientists, but most often there are other stronger motivations at stake – including an aspiration to bring about positive change in the world, as well as plain old intellectual curiosity.

An example of Harper’s willingness to always give credence to the corporate line, is his Government’s poor handling of the recently diposed Bill C-393. Essentially, this is an episode where bad politics trumped good science. The good science in this case is the fact that there are very effective antiretroviral drug out there, which make HIV/AIDS a treatable disorder. Unfortunately, these are mostly priced too high for individuals in developing countries – countries where unnecessary death from HIV/AIDS is catastrophically high. The bad politics concerns a frustrating series of events that saw a Bill (C-393), designed to fairly and with monitoring facilitate production of generic drugs, get passed in the House of Commons (i.e. democratically given the green light); then was taken to Senate, where it was deliberately stalled for five days, in an atmosphere where misleading information provided by the pharmaceutical industry was being distributed to the Tory Senators; such that it was ultimately killed by default when the new election was called. The fact that the reason for this was ultimately because of the Harper’s Government willingness to patronize Big Pharma is extremely galling, especially when so many lives were literally at stake.

Conclusion

It’s important to note that science culture isn’t the only thing that drives a civil society. However, as a conduit for reasoned discourse and relevant information that affects local and global concerns, it’s obvious that science must not be taken for granted. Based on last night’s election results, we have every reason to worry about the Conservative majority, as the Harper Government has repeatedly demonstrated past activities that not only take science for granted, but treat it with a form of contempt. The Harper government has consistently ignored whatever sound utility the scientific endeavor can provide, and by doing so, has put the future of Canadian science at risk, as well as the elements of society that would have otherwise benefited from it.

In the end, this means that we must watch the actions of this Harper Government more closely; and to be vocal, to be active, and to do our best to hold them to account for their actions. Democracy has given Harper a mandate to govern as he sees fit, and for this there should be an element of respect as well as an element of opportunity. However, Harper should not forget that Canadian democracy is ultimately driven by the people of Canada. For that reason, I will be watching you closely. Scientists will be watching you closely. Canadians will be watching you closely.

David Ng is a science literacy academic at the Michael Smith Laboratories of the University of British Columbia. He has written essays for the Walrus, humour for McSweeney’s, commentary for Boingboing, and is now trying to learn more about Access to Medicine issues at the My Rights Versus Yours Blog. You can follow him on twitter @dnghub. If you’re a Canadian reader, he also encourages you to check out aidsaction.ca to note that almost all conservatives still align themselves with Big Pharma’s stance on Access to Medicine issues. Why not send them an email to make sure they know exactly how you feel?

Comments (39)

  1. JMW

    Pity that UBC will now be defunded of any federal government grants, thanks to Dr. Ng’s <sarcasm> thoughtless and tactless </sarcasm> criticism of our <sarcasm> brilliant and resolute Great Leader </sarcasm>, Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

  2. Nullius in Verba

    “Science, as a whole, is a venture that best works when there is fluidity and an openness in how information is shared.”

    “I wouldn’t worry about the code. If FOIA does ever get used by anyone, there is also IPR to consider as well. Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people, so I will be hiding behind them.”

    “1. Think I’ve managed to persuade UEA to ignore all further FOIA requests if the people have anything to do with Climate Audit.”

    “I have been of the opinion right from the start of these FOI requests, that our private ,
    inter-collegial discussion is just that – PRIVATE .”

    “One of the problems is that I’m caught in a real Catch-22 situation. At present, I’m damned and publicly vilified because I refused to provide McIntyre with the data he requested.”

    “It would be odious requirement to have scientists document every line of code so outsiders could then just apply them instantly.”

    “1. In my considered opinion, a very dangerous precedent is set if any derived quantity that we have calculated from primary data is subject to FOIA requests.”

    “Yes, we’ve learned out lesson about FTP. We’re going to be very careful in the future what gets put there. Scott really screwed up big time when he established that directory so that Tim could access the data.”

    “p.s. I know I probably don’t need to mention this, but just to insure absolutely clarify on this, I’m providing these for your own personal use, since you’re a trusted colleague. So please don’t pass this along to others without checking w/ me first. This is the sort of “dirty laundry” one doesn’t want to fall into the hands of those who might potentially try to distort things…”

    “The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.”

  3. Concerned

    Unsettling, isn’t it.

    Of the 14,720,580 people who voted, 5,832,401 voted Conservative. That’s 39.6% of everyone who voted. When you divide the Conservative votes by the total eligible voters, 23,971,740, the result is a percentage of just 24.3%. And when you divide their votes by the population of Canada, 34,278,400, it’s a mere 17% of the population that actually supported the Conservatives enough to cast a ballot for them.

    A friend of mine once joked that if no party could garner enough votes to reach 50% of population, then no party should be in power. I actually wouldn’t be against that at the moment.

    http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/results.html

  4. Matthew Saunders

    David Ng,

    Because Harper now has a majority government, everything He does now is His sole responsibility :) as opposed to being a minority government, where someone can blame someone else for their actions :)

    I’m happy that the NDP, a Western Party, bless them, were able to get where they are right now. They must be SO HIGH. This has never happened before. I betcha so many of them are busily learning French :)

    And I think that people should stop expecting their leaders to be Messiahs or Saviors of some sort. They have never been. What matters to us, the ordinary people, is us. Get to know your neighbours, get involved with doing your civic duty, get involved with local groups and STOP WORRYING ABOUT the government. They will do what they will always do and we, the grass roots, will thrive.

    (It’s going to be interesting to see what effects this is going to have on the USA, both countries being inextricably intertwined and all in so many ways)

    (And maybe Harper isn’t the problem — don’t our leaders owe something to corporate interests? I think it would be silly to think that Obama and Harper do what they do as some sort of ‘free agent’…)

  5. Matt B.

    The link in “(not the “Government of Canada” as it was once officially called)” seems completely unrelated. It leads to http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/12/13/john-holdren-at-agu-no-president-has-ever-talked-as-much-about-science-technology-and-innovation-as-this-president-has%e2%80%9d/, which doesn’t even mention Canada.

  6. David Ng

    Thanks for the comments!

    Nullius: In many ways, your quotes actually validate my point. It should work both ways.

    Matt B. That’s wierd, but the link is meant to be:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/jeffrey-simpson/an-abundance-of-teachable-moments/article2007587/

    cheers
    dave

  7. deepelemblue

    “Nullius: In many ways, your quotes actually validate my point. It should work both ways.”

    I think that Nullius will now be eagerly awaiting a long condemnation, by you, of Phil Jones and the rest of the scientists at the CRU as being anti-science or something.

    But really, most of your post is political disagreement you’re wrapping up as you being concerned about poor science, now prostrate and at Harper’s mercy. Or something. And the dig about evolution was just not PC. The man’s personal beliefs are his personal beliefs. He had the decency to not pontificate about what he believes privately in public, and you excoriate him for it and insult him as not scientifically literate.

    The attitude displayed throughout your expression is one of contempt, and that sadly goes to show that no matter how smart you may you think you are, academia is no place to prepare for a foray into politics. But I’m sure it makes you feel better to ooze self-righteous contempt around the Quadrangle, or whatever you may have up there at UBC.

    Be very scared, the Harper is coming to get your science. He’s hiding under your bed right now, armed with a cross and a hockey stick with “Hide the Decline” engraved on the shaft. Run Mr. Ng, run!

  8. David B. of Australia

    Two things jump out at me from this article.

    One is the author’s sour grapes that the other team got up and trounced his team.

    Second is the patronising attitude towards non-scientists who have an opinion contrary to the author’s. As is the case here in Australia, I am sure Canadians are also sick and tired of self-appointed “elitists” and “intelligentsia” pronouncing the climate change faith as if from a pulpit.

    I have news for Mr. Ng. There are millions – tens of millions – of intelligent people who are capable of analysing the evidence and the opinions of experts who believe AGW IS actually an ideological issue, having more in common with politics than real science. I am one of them.

    The Canadian election is an excellent result for not only conservatives, but also common sense. Our own Labor Party is also languishing in the polls because it is grimly pushing a tax on a benign greenhouse tax; it will suffer a similar fate at the next election.

    Instead of arrogantly claiming Harper “doesn’t get it”, his government is not scientifically literate – ergo the millions who voted for him are all dills – I suggest Mr Ng concentrate instead on analysing the empirical evidence supporting the theory of AGW, because it is largely notable for its absence.

  9. David Ng

    Deepelemblue:

    True, that the man’s personal beliefs are his personal beliefs. Except that the question asked concerned evolution, which is topic of science. Therefore, as a Minister of Science, one would expect an answer in the context of science. His reaction was to comment as if the question was an affront to his beliefs, whereas in reality, most would say that the two can easily co-exist.

    Also, if you truly can’t see fault with his description of evolution (chiropractors and all) then I’m not totally sure how best to respond to the rest of your criticisms: except to say that self-righteousness doesn’t really have a role in this particular debate at all. The evidence either supports it, or it doesn’t, and I don’t see you providing any evidence to the contrary.

  10. Nullius in Verba

    #7,

    Yes, it should work both ways – in science. In politics there are other considerations. I assume the restrictions are to ensure scientists are not playing politics, rather than to get in the way of science. It’s a shame that it proved necessary. People taking part in the science are rarely bothered by a few days delay.

    #8,

    No need. I’m sure the implications are clearly understood.

    #12,

    Please, don’t. That sort of behaviour only sabotages the sceptic position, giving them more ammunition. Chris will let through lengthy sceptical comments for debate, which is more than most do. Under those circumstances, being reasonable works better.

  11. Sean McCorkle

    @9

    There are millions – tens of millions – of intelligent people who are capable of analysing the evidence and the opinions of experts who believe AGW IS actually an ideological issue, having more in common with politics than real science.

    How many of those millions understand the basic physics principles of conservation of energy, blackbody radiation, and radiative transfer which, among other things, are all prerequisites for understanding the AGW arguments and interpreting the data?

  12. I think there are two things to keep in mind. One is your conclusion, that it’s necessary to keep close watch. The second is to remember this is Canada not the U.S. Most people in Canada take evolution as a given. That someone so high in government doesn’t would, I suspect, appall most Canadians. But it’s not generally known. So I think what is key here is communication. People like you who have both the scientific background and the ability to articulate it need to write, write, write–communicate with Canadians outside the scientific community through every means available. I’m a writer and I blog, so do a lot of Canadian writers. You and other scientists can avail yourselves of that and other sources as well. I’m sure that nearly any news media that have bloggers would be happy to have Canadian scientists guest blog. I certainly would, anytime.

  13. Kat

    The scientific muzzling doesn’t just apply to climate science, but to public health as well. For example, HIV… Try getting one of the senior federal epidemiologists to talk about something as seemingly straightforward as Canadian disease statistics. They’re muzzled, significantly hampering public health awareness and our ability to curb the ongoing epidemic.

  14. National research council of Canada

    Been a scientist for the National Research council of Canada . I can tell you that Harper’s appointment to Head the NRC. A former petroleum engineer from Alberta has started putting his paws and redirecting our research. To serve the likes of the alberta oil sand industry via his Algae program to recapture CO2. Any respectable scientists knows is dead-end science and a way for petroleum companies to continue polluting while claiming their emissions are green. The problem is this Algea recapture has never worked.Algae used a biofuels well puts back the CO2 in the air, it is just not scientifically sounds.

    Programs in environmetal protection, and many other areas are been slashed like pharma research. The problem is that if fundamental research into new medications is hindered. WE WILL ALL PAY THE BILL LATER ON WHEN WE BUY OUR MEDS THAT WERE NOT DISCOVERED OR PRODUCED HERE IN CANADA… This is one consequence there are thousands of others. WE WILL FALL BEHIND IN INOVATION AND DISCOVERY. Behind Europe and the US.

    OUR CREME DE LA CREME GREY MATTER IS ALREADY LEAVING PLACE TO OTHER COUNTRIES!!
    AND WE WILL BECOME A COUNTRY OF OIL SANDS, MINING AND WAR PLANES. With no regard for the environment, just making $$$$.

    HOW SAD TO LOOSE THIS PEOPLE………KIDS WANT MY ADVICE FORGET SCIENCE< IT IS NO WAY TO MAKE A LEAVING HERE IN CANADA< IF YOU LIKE MATH CHEMISTRY AND PHYSICS WELL THEN STUDY APPLIED SCIENCES TOWARDS OIL< SANDS <MINING

    IF NOT GO IN POLITICS OR BUSSINESS THERE IS CERTAINLY MONEY THERE!!!

  15. Nullius in Verba

    “How many of those millions understand the basic physics principles of conservation of energy, blackbody radiation, and radiative transfer which, among other things, are all prerequisites for understanding the AGW arguments and interpreting the data?”

    I don’t know – I’ve never seen a survey. Likewise, I’ve never seen such a survey regarding those who believe the more dramatic of the AGW claims, either.

    But conservation of energy and blackbody radiation are basic physics covered fairly early on, and I think it would be fair to say that there are “millions” who understand them. Radiative transfer is a bit more complicated, but the aspects of it relevant to the greenhouse effect I’d say are easily understood.

    However, none of those are relevant to the most controversial issues (such as feedbacks, or statistical issues), or necessary to understanding them. None of those are necessary to recognising fallacious arguments and poor scientific practice. None of those are relevant to seeing the implications of hiding data, losing data, cherrypicking, hidden splicing, mislabelling, adjusting, extrapolating, short-centering, truncating, teleconnecting, or siting your thermometer right next to the barbecue.

    How many of those millions of people understand that it’s possibly a bad idea to site your climate-measuring thermometer next to the barbecue, or aircon heat exchanger, or in the middle of your black asphalt car park? Would you care to hazard a guess at a rough percentage?

  16. Michael Bramble

    To this day my emotions have still not settled after Bill C-311, our climate change bill, was shot down by the senate. We need to change our economy, energy, and resources, but many people in high places have their heads selectively buried in the sand.

  17. Maureen

    You state “The Harper government has managed to make Climate Change science an ideological issue” – Climate change became an ideological issue when Gore took it over and when the ‘scientists’ used wobbly science to squeeze billions of dollars from taxpayers!

    You state, “The Harper government has demonstrated a willingness to “muzzle” science” – these scientists are in an employer/employee relationship with the federal government and as an employer the government (any government) has a right (and legally due diligence) to control what any employee says. If they want to talk about their work, they probably should not be employed by the government. Even within the academic environment, as an employee of a university you actually have limitations as well – read your contract!

    You state, “The Harper government is not terribly scientifically literate” – I concur that by your standards they are not scientifically literate, but they are not trained scientists (few politicians are and we have the billions wasted on Climate Change to demonstrate what happens when overly vested scientists convince politicians of something) and no body voted for them because there were. And scientists have a terrible track record of explaining their work. That is your responsibility to deal with!

    You state, “The Harper Government is out of touch with science culture: scientists are driven by many things, and not always by the industry/business/corporate mentality” – then don’t use public taxpayers dollars for your research. As a taxpayer, I demand results, and actions – we already have way too many publicly funded programs that produce NOTHING, NIL RESULTS. A scientist should be able to provide a reasonable idea of what results they anticipate – otherwise we have climate change all over again.

  18. Sean McCorkle

    @18
    But conservation of energy and blackbody radiation are basic physics covered fairly early on, and I think it would be fair to say that there are “millions” who understand them.

    The number of people I’ve conversed with who believe that water-powered engines or other perpetual motion machines are possible have led me to believe otherwise. Likewise the numbers of people who’ve never thought through the energy chain that resulted in fossil fuel deposits.

    However, none of those are relevant to the most controversial issues (such as feedbacks, or statistical issues), or necessary to understanding them.

    That an issue is controversial doesn’t mean its important.

    How many of those millions of people understand that it’s possibly a bad idea to site your climate-measuring thermometer next to the barbecue, or aircon heat exchanger, or in the middle of your black asphalt car park? Would you care to hazard a guess at a rough percentage?

    Why should I care? Potential urban temperature biases were identified and addressed years ago, and are in the process of again being re-readressed and are being shown to be unimportant (again).

  19. Dave C

    Really? And to respect the process how about an analysis on the scientific literacy of the other parties? Maybe the waitress in Quebec can help you when she gets back from Vegas. If you knew anything about politics you’d know that ministers rely on experts to help them make decisions because it’s extremely rare for a person in cabinet to have portfolio that they are proficient with. Then again, that would negate part of your thinly veiled political smear job.

  20. Sean McCorkle

    23 continued . Whoops – that last ref slipped through the filter – The Berkley group hasn’t yet published urban-heat island corrections. My error.

    Anyway, those artificial heat sources don’t affect satellite measurements which nicely confirm the surface temperature trends. They’re not an issue.

  21. Hon

    @National research council of Canada: if you’re good at science and not busy trying to get into med school, there is no problem getting funding in Canada…it just has to be translational these days. NSERC will always be there to fund basic science. We all have to remember that the tri-council has a different budget every year while giving out 3-5 yr grants. They have a very tough job in being fiscally sound year in year out.

    @David Ng: Remember me? (face on chair in Path/Forestry 635) I’m a christian and although I dont prescribe to the sentiments Goodyear revealed, you have to realize that the layperson is probably just as scientifically literate as this guy (though I have no stats on this). In this day and age, being scientifically literate means that we listen and adopt medical/basic science advances of the day – its not about adopting a type of philosophy or set of beliefs. And although Goodyear has adapted the theory of evolution to his own tastes, it doesn’t really exemplify his attitudes towards modern applied science. The fact is, we don’t know if he has an antagonistic outlook on scientists in general and if so, we don’t know how that would be manifest – either no increase in funding or cuts to funding. We just don’t know.

  22. ktron

    It’s worse even than this article indicates. More details on serious sidetracking of Science funds:

    http://sixthestate.net/?p=1134#more-1134

  23. RJ

    So, continue to educate the masses, increase scientific literacy, and increase intelligent participation in the political processes of the country. Publicly rallying against the newly elected majority and the (over?) emotional responses it elicits will do nothing but advance the polarization of the perceived Left and Right that we see in our neigbours to the south.

  24. It appears that some of my writing wasn’t clear enough and for that I apologize. Alright, some replies to various comments.

    re: comments on the anti-Harper bias. Given the Conservative’s track record with this topic, then it should be clear why such a bias should exist. I agree that from a political standpoint, the other parties also bear scrutiny for their own past actions (Liberals in particular with their inaction during the Kyoto years), but this piece is meant to focus on the likely effects of a Harper majority – that which was delivered to the country these past few days.

    re: comments on Goodyear: As the Minister who represents the scientific context in parliament, I do believe that at least he should meet a certain bar of scientific literacy (or as the case may be, he surrounds himself with folks who can provide that context in a meaningful way). However, based on past evidence, it really doesn’t look like he meets this criteria. Whether, this is because he lacks the understanding and is antagonistic to science himself; or whether he is scientific literate, but is ineffective within the larger context of the Harper controlled government, it all still translates to a bad sign for Canadian science. As an aside, if you want to get a sense of the type of expert opinion, Conservative ministers surround themselves with, you should look deeper into the Bill C-393. Corporate (not health experts, not policy experts, not legal experts, not economic experts) clearly influenced and won that battle, armed with mistruths and all.

    re: comments on industry focused research being better: I’m not saying that basic research is better, just that it’s just as important. You might say that since taxpayers are funding the research, you expect to see results, but the reality is that results are still initially dependent on the discoveries and innovations found in basic research. To go too far towards applied side at the expense of basic research may be good from a short term political perspective, but in the long term, it will be very harmful. In the end, there needs to be a balance: the Conservatives don’t seem to respect this balance – it often feels like a “this is what my business buddies are telling me what to do” mentality.

    re: comments that refute the science of climate change: Speaking as a scientist, I do value the scientific consensus. I know it’s not perfect, but it works well to get to a rational take on what is going on in our physical world. As a whole, and in the context of the huge numbers of researchers trying to hypothesize and design experiments to test their hypothesis, we have a large body of experts that tend to cross all sorts of personal categories (nice, not so nice, business driven, curiosity driven, left, right, this motive, that motive), all working to discover new knowledge. The thought of an overwhelming majority of these scientists in the world conspiring to push an agenda is amusing to me, since if I were to be frank, I would imagine that players in the political world are much more effective at pushing those sorts of buttons.

    Anyway, here’s the thing. I do sincerely hope that the Harper government takes peek at this post. I think there are valid points made here. I also agree that scientists as a whole need to do a better job at being more vocal, taking part in efforts to inform the public and government members themselves. In this vein, I welcome the chance to speak to Goodyear or anyone else in parliament. Indeed, this is not just an empty offer, as I run a science literacy lab. Hopefully, I’ll have the wherewithal to talk science in a way that can bring some utility to these discussions.

  25. Canadian Scientist

    @Hon – “if you’re good at science and not busy trying to get into med school, there is no problem getting funding in Canada” Um, are you kidding me? Funding has steadily decreased over the last decade and a half. If you would like some evidence, here are the stats for CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) operating grants (year, % of grants funded)
    1998 – 42.6%
    1999 – 38.4%
    2000 – 35.6%
    2001 – 32.4%
    2002 – 31.1%
    2003 – 29.1%
    2004 – 31.1%
    2005 – 28.5%
    2006 – 24.4%
    2007 – 26.5%
    2008 – 21.8%
    2009 – 21.7%
    2010 – 18.1%
    2011 – 17.2%
    You don’t need to be a scientist to recognize the data above has a negative (rather than positive or flat) slope.

  26. For a small country population-wise with about 34 million people, Canada has performed quite well in its contribution to the advancement of international science. This is despite the fact that it invests about 6-time less per person for biomedical R&D than in the United States. Overall government investment in science in Canada has not really differed that much between the Liberal and Conservative Parties when they have been in power in the past few decades.

    The main problem facing biomedical researchers in Canada is that over the last decade, federal and provincial governments have invested heavily in infrastructure and the hiring of additional high quality scientists, but they have not really increased their support of the operational costs associated with these initiatives. Consequently, it is similarly difficult for Canadian researchers to obtain grant-in-aid support as is presently being experienced by our American counterparts with the NIH.

    Some special research initiatives such as Genome Canada have received high government support, in this case with the promise that this would galvanized genomics research on a path to commercial development. Although this has been a clear failure, the Conservative government has remained committed in supporting Genome Canada in its latest budget proposal. However, such diversion of precious research dollars away from more productive research avenues has most likely contributed to the decline of the biotechnology industry in Canada and the plight that most Canadian biomedical scientists face today in getting support for their research.

    The lion’s share of Genome Canada’s spending in the past decade has gone to sequencing the genomes of diverse exotic species, some of which are still not available to the broad scientific community after many years. With the plummeting cost of genome sequencing over the last decade, and the gene sequencing frenzy that has taken hold world-wide, it appears that Genome Canada has primarily invested in creation of assets with rapidly diminishing intellectual property value. It is time for Genome Canada and similar organizations around the world in other countries to go beyond the genome and more seriously promote proteomics and translational research. Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research for Genomics could start by at least changing their names.

  27. Anne

    Another clarification:
    The issue that I have with our science minister, Gary Goodyear, is that Goodyear does not seem to understand what evolution is. As a Canadian voter I think it is valid to ask our science minister to be up to date, or at least willing to learn about, important scientific concepts.

    Evolution is defined as changes in gene frequencies over time (e.g. generations). Thus, walking on cement may change your leg muscles, but this is not evolutionary change as it occurs within your own lifetime. The fact that our science minister does not understand this basic scientific concepts is what is troubling, not his personal religious beliefs.

    “We are evolving, every year, every decade. That’s a fact. Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course, we are evolving to our environment.”

    see these sites for further information:
    Does our science minister understand evolution?
    http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090319.wcoevolve20/BNStory/specialComment/ARNE+MOOERS+AND+DOLPH+SCHLUTER

    A neat bit on the Catholic church & evolution:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7920205.stm

  28. Hon

    @Canadian Scientist: I obviously know about those stats, but what I’m trying to say is that if you’re good at science and productive, you don’t worry about getting funded. Its essentially the same thing in the US. If you’re marginal, don’t expect the govt to fund you. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when deadweight researchers get funded. No taxpayer would like to see that.

  29. Nullius in Verba

    #33,

    No offence intended, but that’s not a very good definition of evolution either.

    Darwin’s insight was not about evolution but about natural selection. That species changed over time and possibly had common ancestry was a possibility that had been considered many times before. (We ourselves turned wolves into dogs, and made similar changes in the domestication of the horse, cattle, cats, and many of our crop plants.) What we didn’t know was how or why, or how far it went.

    One of the problems with education about evolution is the way everybody concentrates on the random mutations. It is a source of a lot of the confusions – how could randomness lead to the appearance of design? You are supposed to believe there is this long chain of advantageous mutations one after another. For many people it’s not credible, and nor should it be.

    The actual secret to evolution is death. The source of the ‘design’ in nature is the environment itself, killing off all those organisms that don’t work. Creation stories often have life being made like an artist makes a clay model, built up layer by layer. But a better analogy is that it is sculpture – only with a fluid and ever expanding medium. Species slowly spread out in all directions by blind mutation, like a block of tar left out in the sun. But death selectively clips it away whenever it crosses certain lines, and the tar flows into all the tiny nooks and crannies of the outline left.

    Thought of in this way – concentrating on what is eliminated rather than what works – it is far easier to believe that an oozing block of tar can flow naturally into an intricate design, like into an invisible mold. It is also easier to see that the “designer” is the lethal environment itself; it “figures out” which designs work by means of the fact of whether they actually work. Nature uses the problem an organism has to solve itself as the mold by which it designs the solution.

    It is a simple insight, but not obvious because you have to think in terms of the negative – not of life and survival, but of death and non-survival. (It applies more generally than just to genetics, too – Dawkins invented the concept of memes just to illustrate this particular point. It could also be considered to apply to some non-genetic body adaptations, such as the science minister was talking about.) It might help if people called the theory by its proper name: “Natural Selection”.

    Given the number of people I come across who believe in evolution, but who do not actually understand it, I can understand the widespread scepticism. Many people believe in evolution simply because they are told to – because some authority figure they trust has told them it is true. Disbelievers often use exactly the same approach, merely picking a different authority figure to believe. I don’t consider either group any more scientific than the other – getting the answer right by a lucky accident is not being scientifically literate.

    Creationism is a symptom of a failure to teach science. It is a consequence of science teaching falling back on authority, of “dumbing down” where science is not explained because we believe the public are incapable of understanding (a self-fulfilling prophecy), of glossing over subtle complexities, of suppressing those curious but often inconvenient people who don’t simply believe what they’re told and want to ask questions. It is a consequence of not teaching people how to question.

    The polls get it wrong by asking people whether they believe in evolution. They ought to be testing whether they understand it. That’s what scientific literacy is about.

  30. Paul in Sweden

    @31. Canadian Scientist Says:
    You don’t need to be a scientist to recognize the data above has a negative (rather than positive or flat) slope.

    Actually, you don’t need to be a scientist to recognize that without the data showing the number of grant requests and the total funds granted each year that your posting is alarming but fairly meaningless. We are however very accustomed to meaningless alarmism.

  31. Hon

    @35. Paul in Sweden…well that was hilarious. I had responded earlier but my post is not up yet. I guess my main point is that if you are effective, productive and good at writing, you should have no problem with research funding in Canada. I see countless grant applications that put ME to shame. One thing scientists need to do more frequently is look at themselves and determine if it is them that needs to improve and not the govt.

    @34. Nullius in Verba – that is very well written. I’ve copied that post for my records and for me to share in the future.

    Anyways, let’s hope that the funding situation around the world improves. I don’t really know what will help make that happen, but its our job to improve our work and science to make those decisions happen.

  32. TTT

    Creationism is a symptom of a failure to teach science. It is a consequence of science teaching falling back on authority, of “dumbing down” where science is not explained because we believe the public are incapable of understanding (a self-fulfilling prophecy), of glossing over subtle complexities, of suppressing those curious but often inconvenient people who don’t simply believe what they’re told and want to ask questions.

    As a former science teacher and curriculum designer, I can cite the authority of my own experience and that of all of my colleagues in saying that this is inaccurate.

    Not only have I never seen a science lesson for evolution “from authority,” but I’m having a very hard time even imagining what one would look like. “Kids, if you turn to chapter 6, you’ll see how cool Charles Darwin was, and that an opinion poll says that we’re going to teach about adaptive radiation now”?

    There is no “authority” in the evolution curriculum and there are precious few personalities at all. The lessons are indeed based on the scientific basics. Creationism is holding out because of several other reasons:

    -Teachers never have much time to teach it, especially not if the federally-mandated standardized tests do not cover it in depth.

    -Creationist troublemakers train their kids to undermine the lesson with memorized misleading questions and distractions ad nauseam. A “trap” question, asked in bad faith, is poison for the teaching process, especially when each one could take ~15 minutes to knock down (and that’s already just about half a period; if you don’t answer all of them, you look like you have something to hide, so it’s lose-lose.) And of course, if the teacher doesn’t have the material memorized and instead needs to rely on finding a print citation that they don’t have on-hand, thus giving the trained troublemaker the “last word,” they have lost that way too. They have to bend themselves into knots in “accommodating” the religious sensitivities of these troublemakers, who show no such courtesy in spreading their accusations of lies, criminal conspiracy, and collusion / emotional causation for genocide.

    -The average person really doesn’t care about science, because the average person really doesn’t care about anything they encounter in school. The reason we are able to get away with paying our teachers such paltry, unlivable salaries is because everybody knows a major fraction of the teaching pool is in this to try to “reach” students, to “make a difference” in their lives–and that, in turn, is based off the precise knowledge that it is very hard to reach most students because most just don’t want to be there and do not care. A teacher can bask in the afterglow of self-validating success if they honestly believe they have granted lasting knowledge and appreciation of their topic to perhaps 10% of the students in any class. I’m not talking about fancy prep schools with uniforms and 12 students per class either, I’m talking about your typical-to-worse public school with 30+ per.

    Anyone who thinks the problem is simple isn’t thinking about it.

  33. Nullius in Verba

    “As a former science teacher and curriculum designer, I can cite the authority of my own experience and that of all of my colleagues in saying that this is inaccurate.”

    Ah! That explains a lot!

    “Not only have I never seen a science lesson for evolution “from authority,” but I’m having a very hard time even imagining what one would look like.”

    You do seem to have some difficulty recognising authority arguments. You use them all the time, and then when I point it out, you don’t seem to understand the concept.

    Let me help you with your imagination. An authority argument would start with something like “Scientists say…” or “Biologists agree that…” or “The Scientific position is…”. It has nothing to do with how cool Darwin was, although an argument that starts “Because Darwin said…” could be. Opinion polls are argument ad populam rather than argument from authority, of course.

    Science itself consists of “trap questions” asked with the intention of challenging a theory. Theories that don’t survive the traps are rejected. If kids set trap questions, get them to write them down, and then set homework for the class to find out what the standard response of the biologists is, what the evidence for that is, and then to assess how the evidence meets the challenge. The more questions they ask, the more homework they get, which potentially introduces an element of peer-pressure too, but you ought to hope for at least a few questions. This sort of thing is a valuable learning experience – it teaches people how to research questions for themselves. Initially you will need to give them some guidance on how to find the information, what to look for, and how to weigh evidence – but of course that’s all in a science teacher’s job, isn’t it?

    Yes, the lack of time in class compared to the breadth of the curriculum is an issue, and I’ve said before that part of the reason that teachers have to fall back on authority arguments is that they don’t have the time to do it properly.

    But I would say that the priorities for the limited time available are wrong. It is more important for kids to learn the principles of science than it is to cover a particular range of scientific facts. You’re going to get kids coming out of school with sub-standard educations anyway – and it’s far better that they come out not knowing Boyle’s law than that they come out not understanding the need to check evidence. If Federal standards get in the way of that, then get them changed.

    The fact that so many young people don’t want to be in school, that they hate it there, suggests to me that the schools are doing something wrong. It’s a complex problem and there are many factors in society external to schools – but at the same time that it is so common a complaint indicates a systemic problem.

    In my limited experience, the main thing that leads people to hate lessons is when they don’t understand them. At some point they’ve lost track, they’re being bombarded with new material while they’re still struggling to assimilate the foundations, answers are continually being demanded of them that they can’t provide, and they are forced to sit through an endless succession of lectures they find incomprehensible, constantly in trouble for finding them so. In self-defence, they turn off. They tell themselves that success is not important to them, that they don’t have to comply with the system’s demands, that the constant disapproval they face doesn’t matter. And the trendy approaches to modern teaching only confirms the belief by relaxing the demands, not enforcing discipline, and just letting them drop out of society.

    I’m not saying that is all the fault of teachers – it is a complex problem. But I do wonder if part of the difficulty some students have with understanding is the tendency of teachers to take the “Wakalixes” approach to science, and then rush on to the next topic leaving half the class floundering. Lengthy questions are not welcome when you have a schedule to keep to. Personally, I asked them anyway, and didn’t care how annoyed everyone got. But not everyone is like that. Some will let it go, and then find themselves out of their depth.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »