Publications, opinions, and speeches

Opinion

Democracy and Science, in the National Interest

Published on 24/02/2012

Democrats and scientists have a lot to be concerned about in Canada these days. For those who think the essence of democratic governance lies in a vibrant exchange of views and protection of the rights of minorities, recent developments have been troubling. And at the annual meeting of The American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver recently, a topic of conversation was the muzzling of scientists working in government or funded by government. They are increasingly required to funnel their findings through government public relations channels.

In the lead-up to the hearings by a Federal Joint Review Panel into the proposed Enbridge pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat on the B.C. coast, the federal government picked up on the industry campaign to discredit dissident voices. It warned darkly of foreign money from US philanthropists intent on impairing the Canadian economy in order to advantage US commercial interests in the oil industry, a loopy conspiracy theory lacking evidence. It also railed against environmental extremists who they claim oppose any progress and are driven by a destructive ideology, pleading for letting science be the basis for deciding pipeline issues.

And it also proposed to truncate the pipeline hearings, characterizing them as vulnerable to the delaying tactics of opponents.

In Toronto recently a senior civil servant was summarily fired for daring to speak truth to power. His sin was to give his best professional judgement on future transit development, an analysis that ran counter to the mayor who then engineered his departure.

Governments, especially majority governments, get impatient with democracy. It is messy and discordant, and it takes time. It raises voices and issues some prefer not to hear. It can have unpredictable results.

So there is an instinct in some to suppress it, to end parliamentary sessions prematurely, to shorten periods of debate, to withhold inconvenient information, or to create large omnibus bills that hide all sorts of evils amidst essential or admirable items.

And there is a tendency to use language that derides others, to claim that “you can stand with us or with the child pornographers”, or saying critics should “take off their tin foil hats and deal with reality”. Such febrile language slips from the lips of too many politicians these days.

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried. He was a man involved all his adult life in democratic government, who wore the badges and bore the scars like few others.

Resisting the devaluation of our democracy has always been one of the obligations of a citizen. We can add to that resisting the devaluation of the evidence science produces. Science can inform the choices we make in our democratic institutions, which is surely in the national interest.

Let democracy flourish. Let science be heard.

Summary

As citizens, we must resist the devaluation of science, evidence and democracy.

Topic(s)

Civic engagement, Evidence-based policy