May 03 2016

Pulling Back Canadian Censorship of Science

HarperDuring the recent Harper administration in Canada, scientists doing federal research were effectively censored from speaking with the media. This was a clear attempt at controlling the narrative with regard to environmental issues, from global warming to the effect of fisheries and water quality.

Now that the Harper administration has been replaced by the Trudeau administration, the restrictions are being lifted and scientists are able to talk about how oppressive the Harper restrictions truly were.

Nature has an in depth report, which discusses the totalitarian atmosphere created by the Harper restrictions. Essentially reporters could no longer directly contact federal scientists to verify facts or comment on their research. Rather, they had to go through a series of government officials. This became more frustrating and time consuming than navigating the DMV, and as a result reporters could never get any comment prior to their deadlines.

The end result was that journalists simply stopped trying. There was no point. This effectively cut off communication between federal scientists in Canada and the press.

The government defended this action by saying that federal researchers were often involved in legal cases and their expert testimony had to remain confidential, but no one really believed this. This was a justification for putting a layer of red tape between scientists and journalists, effectively cutting off communication.

Further, some scientists were given “media minders” to accompany them to meeting to make sure they did not speak out of turn. These were described as burly baby-sitters who might as well been KGB agents.

This nine year travesty is an excellent reminder of how easy it is for oppressive policies to take hold. The desire to clamp down on information came from the top, and the vast army of bureaucrats fell into line. Formerly friendly and helpful media contacts were now pressed into service as part of an oppressive regime.

Those in power will always want to control the flow of information, because information is powerful. Being a politician means controlling the narrative, spinning reality, and cherry picking your facts. It is a rare politician who is honest and candid. Just watch seasoned politicians being interviewed by the media, they can be masterful and tenacious in their control of the message.

The skills they develop to help them get into office do not disappear once they are in office. This is precisely why a free press and a culture and legal infrastructure of transparency is so important.

This should be especially true when it comes to science. The culture of science is perhaps the opposite of the culture of politics. In science the skill and ability to tell it like it is is highly valued, and a tendency to spin the facts to suit your theory is looked down upon.

But of course, politics and science mix all the time. Large governments fund scientific research, and that funding is inevitably political. The government, on behalf of the citizens they represent, certainly have a right to determine what happens with federal funding of scientific research. But they should not micro-manage.

Ideally the government would fund broad scientific goals, but let scientists determine how best to allocate funding to specific research projects, labs, and researchers. As with industry, bureaucrats shouldn’t be picking winners and losers. Let the experts do that.

Further there should be broad recognition that the public owns the results of publicly funded research. This includes access to publicly funded scientists. In the US, this is policy.

I also strongly believe that the public interest is best served when science is used to inform government and policy, rather than ideology and policy dictating the science. When ideology comes first, the inevitable result is pseudoscience. This can be utterly disastrous for a society (see Lysenkoism).

It is certainly a good thing that the oppressive policies of the Harper administration are now over after nine years, but it is still a little disappointing to me that these policies were tolerated for that much time. There was criticism, but I think there should have been outrage. Perhaps it just wasn’t realized how bad it was, but this is the kind of thing about which the scientific community as a whole needs to have solidarity.

I also think this episode was partly due to the simmering anti-intellectualism that pervades most cultures. Scientists are demonized by those who consider the findings of science to be inconvenient to their ideology, whether it is climate change, evolution, vaccines, or the infinite power of nature to heal. Scientists are portrayed as elite ideologues themselves using science to oppress.

Turning the public against science and scientists, however, is a foolish and short-sighted policy. It is too big a sacrifice to make over one issue, no matter how important you think it is.

This is why anti-science should not be tolerated in any arena. This is all part of “what’s the harm.” Academics, scholars, and scientists should not look the other way when the public embraces one form a pseudoscience they find benign. None of it is benign. It all eats away at the public trust in science as an institution, and it makes it just a little easier to oppress or harass scientists when you don’t like the findings of science.

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