Science is supposed to be the objective arbitrator between ideological extremes in our democracy.
Some people readily consume information at face value. Others regard anything disseminated from what may appear to be an authority figure with such a high degree of skepticism (contempt, even) that they trust nothing.
The best bridge between these two camps is science — quantifiable or qualifiable facts.
The collection of data is an important part of understanding our existence on this planet, at the micro or macro level. Even social scientists collect data for analysis. For years, the census has been a primary method of collecting such data in Canada. By making the long-form census voluntary instead of mandatory, however, the government has broken the sequence and consistency of data collection and jeopardized the quality of the data collected, as self-selection is likely to skew results. In a few years, we will have very limited (and possibly misleading) data on which to base our policy decisions.
Similarly, cutting funding to women’s groups that conduct research means we’ll soon see a lack of data on issues such as rates of domestic violence or harassment in the workplace. And how can groups raise awareness of these all-too-common occurrences without the data to support the cause? (Let alone the question of how often these transgressions will see the light of day, now that the Court Challenges Program has been de-funded.)
Environmental causes have become the latest victim in the battle over data.
Unlike ongoing issues of addressing social inequality, this is about throwing an entire planet out of balance – an entire planet, without which we wouldn’t be debating social policy in the first place. Whether you believe climate change is human-caused (anthropogenic) or not, scientists have mapped warming trends and traced them back to increased levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which are affecting every corner of this world, from shrinking Arctic ice shelves to dying coral reefs, massive droughts and floods causing food shortages worldwide, and entire island states begging for urgent action from the ‘developed world’, lest their homes disappear under rising sea waters.
With these stakes in mind, universities are chronically under-funded, charitable non-profit organizations that conduct research and advocate in the name of public interest are under constant heavy scrutiny, our scientists are forbidden from speaking to media without supervision, federal environmental protection legislation has been gutted through various incarnations of omnibus budget bills, and now some of Canada’s world-renowned scientific research projects have been the latest victims of the government’s so-called austerity measures. Some of the initiatives on the chopping block include the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a series of human-made lake ecosystems enabling unique research that isn’t possible anywhere else in the world (with annual budget of $2 million), the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL, annual budget of $1.5 million), and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (annual budget of $5.5 million). Meanwhile, in these tough economic times™, the government has prioritized spending $28 million on reenacting the War of 1812, $7.5 million on the Queen’s Jubilee, and let’s not forget the $2 million that was spent to build a fake lake — directly across from a real one — for the G8 meeting in 2010.
Whether the motivation for these deep funding cuts is as sinister as ideological disagreement with the policy implications of certain scientific findings, or simply due to misplaced budget priorities, the de-funding and silencing of science in this country is reprehensible and inexcusable.
Consider this: if the government were seen burning books somewhere, this would be seen as a blatant assault on knowledge and an insult to Canadians. Meanwhile, however, behind closed doors, the gradual de-funding of scientific research and data collection coupled with the gradual de-funding of public interest groups is slowly accomplishing a comparable end result: impeding the pursuit of knowledge and compromising democracy.
“Science is powerful because it accepts criticism,” said Member of Parliament Ted Hsu at last year’s ‘Death of Evidence’ rally on Parliament Hill, noting that criticism arising from peer review is necessary for improving the quality of the end product.
This basic tenet of the scientific method — peer review — applies in democracy as well. In the second chapter of ‘On Liberty’, John Stuart Mill suggests that what is true is not always popular, and what is popular is not always true, so debate and dissent are important parts of a healthy democracy because they expose truth and help forge new ideas.
If the government’s cuts to scientific research and non-profit organizations anger you, your democracy needs you to speak up, much in the same way a bad scientific study would require a peer-reviewed rebuttal.
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This editorial originally appeared September 17th 2013 at UnpublishedOttawa.com.