What war on science?
NationalPost.com – FP Comment
21/10/13. Philip Cross, Special to Financial Post
The Canadian government has every right to control what its employees, scientists included, tell the press
Some writers and scientists in Canada have latched onto the “war on science” rhetoric pioneered in the U.S. during the Bush Presidency. The term was first used in Chris Mooney’s 2006 best seller, “The Republican War on Science,” which portrayed the Bush administration as questioning everything from evolution to stem cell research, acid rain, how smoking and abortions damaged health, as well as climate change.
Calgary journalist Chris Turner’s “The War on Science” imports the inflammatory lingo wholesale from the U.S. while ignoring the substantive differences in the debate about science and public policy between the two countries. This same importing of U.S. facts and rhetoric without regard to Canada’s much different circumstances also is a prominent feature of the debate over income inequality.
Trust Canada’s critics to not be creative, instead lazily grabbing ideas off the shelf from the U.S. None of the issues raised by the Bush administration are features of Canada’s debate, outside of climate change. By using words symbolically associated with the religious zealots in the Bush administration, Turner gratuitously tars Harper with the unpopular Bush. Asked to provide concrete examples of government punishment to scientists, critics resort to the lame response of “implied threats,” which is about as scientific as fearing the bogeyman hiding under your bed.
The relationship between politics and science has always been prickly irrespective of the government’s ideology. But it is not just the Right that has a testy relation with science. Science is used and abused by the radical left in Europe to push an anti-corporate agenda of blocking everything from genetically modified “Frankenfoods” to biotechnology to nuclear energy. Two science journalists observed that if “conservatives have declared a war on science, the progressives have declared Armageddon.” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker pointed out during his running battles with scientists who believed the mind was shaped only by nurture and not nature, “When it’s academics who wield the power, the political bias will be on the Left.” So while it is the nature of scientists to pose questions, there are also legitimate reasons for politicians to question scientists and their motives.
Some of the tension between government and science revolves around how science relates to economic growth. Higher growth is how the scientific establishment justifies its ample government funding. Increasingly, however, the science underpinning environmental regulation is manipulated to slow projects, with the endless delays in approval of the Keystone pipeline the best example of such a hijacking. Fortunately, our federal government has reduced these possible impediments to economic growth.
Despite selective cuts in some areas, the Harper government has increased overall funding for science during its tenure. In return, it wants the research directed to more commercial ends. You can argue the pros and cons of this prioritizing, but it is not an abuse of science, which Mooney defines as interfering with the scientific process of “the testing and retesting of hypotheses.”
The New York Times recently entered the fray with an editorial saying the Canadian government was hampering “open communications among scientists.” However, the only concrete example it offered is that “journalists find themselves unable to reach government scientists.” This is not blocking scientists from doing their work, it’s management exercising its right to control what is communicated to the media. It is always very dangerous to suggest to the civil service that managers don’t have the right to manage, a concept the rank and file often have trouble grasping. Ensuring government scientists don’t make value judgements in media interviews about contentious issues cannot infringe on their “academic freedom” as the Times claims, since by definition they are government employees and not academics.
Those government scientists that feel the need to express political views are always free to leave for academia, but few possess the credentials to do so. Most of what federal government scientists do is monitoring and collecting data, which is then analyzed and debated by the larger academic community. Scientists in the federal government are not qualified to pass judgement on contentious issues like climate change, since the controversy is not the last data point but the assumptions underlying the models the data are being fed into. These models only exist outside of government. The government has every right to remind the scientists who monitor this data not to speculate about how the data might be interpreted by more-qualified experts.
It is unfortunate for Turner that his attempt to portray supposedly virtuous scientists, unsullied by an ideological agenda, under political attack was released the same week as The Economist had a cover story on “How Science Goes Wrong.” The article highlights how a growing share, probably over half, of scientific results can’t be replicated or are disproven. This shoddy research is the result of the increased pressure to publish results, preferably sensational, and the inability of scientists to keep up with the statistical techniques to extract significant results from the explosive growth of data. The proliferation of dodgy research at a time when social media leverages the results is a good reason for management to be cautious in letting scientists communicate with the media.
Philip Cross is a Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the former Chief Economic Analyst at Statistics Canada.
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