A Brilliant Attack

The PMO sets its sights on Enlightenment scientific ideals

By sheer chance, I was reading Chris Turner’s scathing new book, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada, at the same time as Gillian Beer’s 30-year-old scholarly tome, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction.

It occurred to me that the unerring surgical excision of the Canadian government’s mandate and inclination and ability to perform science that Turner catalogues is as quantum a shift, in its own modest way, as the ideas that Charles Darwin explored in On the Origin of Species, the 1859 book that explained the theory of evolution to a heartily dismayed readership.

Then, in Darwin’s Victorian era, the firmly held belief was that God had fashioned all the creatures on the planet in one fell swoop, and only six thousand years ago. It was called the fixity of the species, and it meant that God had invented every plant or animal that had ever existed, and that they were still here, proof that God’s plan was perfect and infallible. Extinction was inconceivable and so was the creation of new species.

When Darwin set out in the 1830s on his shipboard voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, he believed in the fixity of species, too. He was just trying, like any good gentleman naturalist, to clap eyes on what God had made, and, with luck, both draw and snare samples of everything. It was a bid to discern God’s plan. And it was clear to Darwin and to the other scientists of the day, that God had made it all for us, humans, the apex of the Holy Father’s inventiveness, the ones whom He placed here to oversee things from the very beginning of life.

Then Darwin hit the Galapagos Islands and those troublesome, beak-shifting finches and variously shelled tortoises, and, once back in England, came to realize that some of God’s creatures were changing in response to the environment around them, actually morphing into new species. It was a devastating blow. It meant that life had not been created in a single burst by the all-seeing, all-providing God. And that, in turn, meant that many of the other precepts of Christian society were also suspect. If there were no literal Garden of Eden, then what of the ideas of the fall, atonement and redemption? What if humans were only here on Earth by chance like any other species, with no special reward to come?

Not only that, but Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection explained why British geologists were digging up big fossilized bones. Rather than being the bones of as-yet-undiscovered giants who must still be hiding in the hills of England—or maybe, sniff, Wales—these were the bones of towering dinosaurs that had lived millions of years ago and no longer did. So not only were Victorian species not fixed, neither were those of earlier eras. It was a wholesale rethinking of how and why humans were on the planet.

The British literary critic Gillian Beer comes into the story because she writes about the fact that Darwin’s theory amounted to a new cosmology, replacing the one contained in the book of Genesis, and that it rather quickly took over the public and literary imagination, becoming powerful because it is embedded in our understanding of life. It is why, as the waggish Facebook site “I fucking love science” posted recently, so many of us get flu shots every year. The joke, of course, is that we know the virus keeps evolving.

“Precisely because we live in a culture dominated by evolutionary ideas,” Beer writes, “it is difficult for us to recognize their imaginative power in our daily readings of the world. We need to do so.”

Also difficult, by extension, is to recognize when the imaginative power of evolutionary ideas is being corroded. I think that one of the reasons there has not been even more public outcry about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s war on science is that what he is doing is, in a sense, turning back the clock on those embedded understandings of how life works. His actions are profoundly, almost unimaginably, un-Darwinian, undermining the very idea of progress and prosperity that he -professes to embrace. It is a deeply cosmological attack, brilliant in its execution. And because of that, it has been hard for people to believe it is happening.

The attack turns on several components that I can think of, each of which is culturally invisible because it is so dearly held. One has to do with the basic understanding that human activity can impair environmental health. We know today, at a deep level, that the environment is not fixed. We take it for granted. When environmental health is impaired enough, it ceases to support life. This is the story of the industrial plant whose effluent into the nearby stream kills the fish or drives them off. Life moves away from the harm or dies out or changes genetically to adapt to the harm. And if the changes are deep enough and go on for long enough over a wide enough area, they can force lots of species to die off. Like dinosaurs.

These ideas are knitted into our modern understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution. As the planet’s life-support system changes, life itself changes. And of course, identifying change means measuring over time. This is the fundamental role of government scientists in any democracy, as opposed to the potentially blue-sky research university academics can do. Citizen scientists can tackle the numbers over the years on a single shoreline or beloved park. A group of university researchers can look at, say, methane concentrations in a small part of the Arctic Ocean. But in any society, only government has the mandate, scope and reach to do the basic monitoring of the big picture, to tell taxpayers how things are doing.

But there is another, more subtle and equally invisible meaning contained within our modern understanding of Darwinian thought. It is that scientists must aim to find the truth, regardless of the ideological constructs of the day. Darwin’s dreadful personal struggle once he uncovered his heretical evolutionary theories—he referred to himself as the Devil’s chaplain for his findings—unloosed generations of scientific investigators whose understanding of science is that it must be objective. Science is not ideology. Unlike in Darwin’s day, science today is not about trying to figure out God’s plan. For 150 years, it has been about trying to find out nature’s plan. Today, alas, it is also frequently about trying to figure out how human activities are altering nature’s plan.

Sometimes modern scientists fail at eschewing ideology, and certainly some of them tried for objective findings long before Darwin—Galileo, for one. But Darwin’s breakthrough paved the way for a shift across human civilization as no other scientist’s had until then. That is why, when the public hears of a bent scientist or medical researcher, it is such an affront.

As Turner, an award-winning, Calgary-based science reporter and the author of the 2007 bestseller The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, among other publications, chronicles (along with other researchers), Harper’s cuts to the ability of government scientists to measure what is happening to basic indicators of the health of the country’s natural wealth have been staggering.

A partial list from just the past few years: the gutting of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ ability to collect data to measure change to aquatic environments with the axing of 1,075 jobs in that file and the elimination of 700 Environment Canada jobs. Turner and Carol Linnitt, in her article in the journal Academic Matters, also describe the wide-ranging cuts in the Omnibus Budget Bill C-38 of June 2012 that chopped funding for the management of nearly every piece of environmental legislation in the country. Linnitt lists, among the acts affected, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Parks Canada Agency Act and the Nuclear Safety Control Act.

In addition, as both Turner and others describe, Harper’s government has deliberately removed funding from specific long-term monitoring projects such as the unique and world-class Experimental Lakes Area, recently rescued by the -Winnipeg-based International Institute for International Development and the Ontario -government.

The inevitable conclusion is that the government does not want the data. If that is correct, then it kicks up against public understanding of what government science is for. No numbers means no trend analysis, no possible understanding that things are changing, if they are. Darwin be damned. It is hard to see because it is so countercultural. It is like asserting that dinosaur fossils are just the old bones of giants who still live in the hills. Or, in medical terms, like your doctor saying your personality can be determined by reading the shape of your head.

In September, for the second time in a year, scientists and their supporters took to the streets to protest the government’s stance on science, rallying on Parliament Hill and in 16 other cities. In response, the federal government simply says that it has invested $8 billion in scientific research and development since it took office in 2006. Frustratingly, it is nearly impossible for a journalist to compare that $8 billion figure to previous spending, since it is not clear exactly what is included or how it was spent. But the larger point is not about how much money is spent or about making cuts for fiscal reasons. The issue is whether government policy is based on good data.

And what does a government do without data? It resorts, as Turner says, to ideology. Specifically, he points as a model for our current government to the administration of former U.S. president George W. Bush, one of whose aides explained to New York Times Magazine reporter Ron Suskind in a 2004 story that people like the reporter are inappropriately “beholden to an outmoded worldview in which ‘solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality.’”

“The Harper agenda’s shift to the post-reality community is not strictly a matter of ideology or political advantage,” Turner writes. “It involves both, but it is a deeper and a more diffuse transformation, a function of a political culture fundamentally different from those of the governments that have preceded it. Not just the goals of policy but the whole underlying foundation of government and the acceptable uses of the political sphere are now in flux in Canada.”

Turner, who ran for the federal Green Party in last year’s Calgary Centre by-election, losing to Conservative Joan Crockatt and splitting the non-Conservative vote with the Liberal candidate, Harvey Locke, traces the underlying foundation of Canada’s government and scientific endeavour back through time. He gives a special nod to our eighth prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, who served in that office from 1911 to 1920. A Conservative, as many progressives once were, Borden shut down cronyism and corruption, Turner writes, replacing it with a civil service that was rational, efficient and non-partisan.

And Borden, like other western leaders over the centuries, can trace his dislike of a bought system back to the Age of Reason, which transformed human thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thinkers including the German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that “the light of reason and the revelations of science would form the foundations of public policy, implemented by a law-making body well informed by the best scientific expertise and objective data it could obtain,” Turner writes.

One of Kant’s key works, which Turner quotes, is the 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?”:

An epoch cannot conclude a pact that will commit succeeding ages, prevent them from increasing their significant insights, purging themselves of errors, and generally progressing in enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature whose proper destiny lies precisely in such progress.

In other words, collapsing a government’s collection and respect for data, refusing to let scientific facts influence policy and repudiating their very value thrust Canada into a pre-Enlightenment era of three and a half centuries ago.

But as Turner and others explain, it is not just the collection of data that has been affected in Canada (see the Science Uncensored website at <http://www.scienceuncensored.ca>). It is also the dissemination and explanation of government scientists’ findings. They catalogue many examples of high-powered Canadian government scientists not allowed to discuss peer-reviewed, published findings with reporters. One of the most shocking is the 2011 case of Kristi Miller, a scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. She had a study on salmon published in Science, one of the two most high-impact journals in the world, and was prevented from discussing her work with the media by the powerful Privy Council Office, subsequent access-to-information documents showed.

That incident and a raft of others prompted the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre to publish a report on the issues and to ask Canada’s information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, to investigate the phenomenon1. She is doing so.

In addition, the Harper government has begun preventing its scientists from doing research with scientists in academia and in other countries, Turner says. They are stopped from going to international conferences even when they have been invited to give papers and are babysat by government media handlers when allowed to go out in public, forced to read from the handlers’ scripts.

I have experienced the chill myself when I have tried to interview Canadian government scientists. In one case, the scientist refused, after repeated attempts, even to get back to me about a paper he had published in the high-profile Journal of Geophysical Research that described a catastrophic, unexplained decline in the water storage capacity of the Great Lakes Water Basin upon which 25 million Canadians and Americans depend. I ended up sending the paper to two American government scientists and two Canadian academic scientists for parsing, each of whom was happy to discuss its findings with me, but, alas, none of whom had done the actual research.

This is an attack on cosmology. In the 21st century, do we in the Canadian public expect scientists paid by our tax dollars to be systematically barred from discussing their findings with us? That is, if they can collect the data to analyze in the first place. Of course not. It is inconceivable. It is hard to overstate the betrayal this represents of the post-Darwinian precepts of our time.

Of course, there is more. One of the most fascinating sections of Turner’s impassioned book is about the Harper government’s attempts to alter the remit of the National Research Council. That is one of the bodies that gives tax dollars to academic researchers. Its forebear was set up by Borden to be at arm’s length from the chicanery of Parliament.

Conceptually, it is supposed to be the mechanism through which the federal government can support ideas, the ones that advance human knowledge and understanding but that may not yet be money-spinners. As with the National Science Foundation in the United States, that has been a tricky relationship from the start, with elected officials frequently wanting the research to help industry make money and scientists frequently wanting to retain the right to do pure, basic science that might someday lay the foundation for practical applications.

But the Harper government has managed to gut the place on a whole new level, and not just with staff cuts, but with a shift in what the whole agency is for. The point man to explain it to the public has been Gary Goodyear, a chiropractor who, until July 2013, was minister of state for science and technology. Goodyear, as Turner recounts, “made headlines shortly after his appointment to Cabinet in 2008 for hesitant and confusing statements … about whether he believed in evolution.”

What Goodyear explained to the public was that his government has metamorphosed the NRC into what he called a “concierge” service for Canadian business—something like the hotel front desk clerk you call up who makes sure you have fresh towels or tickets to the opera—except in this case, he explained, it would be a one-stop solutions-finder for business problems, responding to the business community’s needs by providing such items as research capacity. Goodyear said the agency had needed change because it had been doing too much to “create knowledge and push the frontiers of understanding.”

So the systematic dismantling of Canada’s scientific capability is not just about making sure we do not have numbers and trend lines describing how we are affecting the physical environment of the lands, air and waters we are stewards of; it is also about making sure we do not create knowledge or advance understanding in a general way.

I am reminded of a spate of research I did during a fellowship at the University of Oxford on Darwin and the immediate, vehement battering of his ideas by the church, material I used in my first book, Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World’s Environmental Hotspots. One quote sticks out. It is from the Roman Catholic Dublin Review:

The salvation of man is a far higher object than the progress of science: and we have no hesitation in maintaining that if in the judgment of the Church the promulgation of any scientific truth was more likely to hinder man’s salvation than to promote it, she would not only be justified in her efforts to suppress it, but it would be her bounden duty to do her utmost to suppress it.

The “Church” in Harper’s Canada appears to be the unrestricted, unexamined exploitation of natural resources, including fossil fuels, in order to expand gross domestic product in the short term. Data points get in the way of that, apparently. What puts the tin lid on it is that all of this is in aid of a short-term play. It is the opposite of progress, of providing for the future. It is not conservative at all; it is risky as hell. Harper is playing Russian roulette with our country’s economic future. He can win sometimes but, eventually, he loses. The winning stance would be to invest in the science and technology to move us away from what Turner calls the “shallow and brittle prosperity” of relying on fossil fuels.

Of course, Turner’s candidacy for the Green Party in Calgary will likely be seized on by critics of his book in the business and energy sectors, not to mention the Prime Minister’s Office. He will be seen to be scoring whatever points he can against the Harper Conservatives for purely political and ideological reasons, particularly because he dedicates the book to the team that tried to get him elected and opens it with a march on Parliament Hill that a scientist whom he identifies as a Green Party activist helped organize. While it is true that by running for office he has changed the lens through which his journalism is seen, it is also true that his points remain sound and that they are impeccably researched.

Ultimately, his book is about the quality of Canadian democracy. It is worth noting how dramatically the Harper government’s actions to suppress data, information, analysis, knowledge and understanding are at odds with global trends pushing greater, not less, transparency in the workings of government. John Keane, the Australian political scientist who founded OnDemocracy.org and the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, points out that more intense public scrutiny—often online—of the arms trade and the banking and credit spheres is a growing phenomenon that is helping citizens keep democracy “on its toes.”

In the essay “Humility and Democracy,” Keane writes that democracy “embraces institutional pluralism, visions of complex equality and a variety of mechanisms of public accountability that ensure that wrong-headed decisions and outright folly can be prevented, or undone.”

But the flip side, he notes in a separate work, is that governments are more fearful of their public because of our increased ability to find out what they are doing. The recent outcry in the U.S. over unmanned drones and government surveillance of citizens is an example.

That, of course, is the flaw in a plan like Harper’s. If the public caught wind of this assault on cosmology, if we ever really figured out that that’s what this is—rather than a spot of fiscal prudence or political expedience or even just sheer cynicism—the backlash would be immense. His actions represent an unforgivable sin because they go to the heart of what we believe about why we are here and what we are for.


  1. The letter sent by Tyler Sommers of Democracy Watch, Calvin Sandhorn of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic and law students Clayton Greenwood and Naomi Kovak to Suzanne Legault in February 2013, along with the report entitled “Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?,” is available from the ELC website at <http://www.elc.uvic.ca/press/documents/2012-03-04–Democracy-Watch_OIPLtr_Feb20.13-with–attachment.pdf>.