Green Island Letters

Original Ideas series: Ideas: Science Under Siege June 3,4,5 2015

Sounds good - certainly Harper et al have been doing some really bad stuff to science and scientists the last few years, and there has been pretty widespread outrage across the county. So the kind of 'premier' Canadian CBC 'ideas' show is going to add its voice. But then it got a bit wonderlandish ....

Canadians conducting a 'siege on science'???

Dear Mr Kennedy, Ms Lynk, et al:

RE: Ideas: Science Under Siege , Ideas, June 3-4-5 2015

Regarding the recent Ideas series, Science Under Siege, I felt I had to write, as it was so very objectionable.

Let me explain.

The series starts off ok, with some people noting (as have many before) that the Harper government seems to have a particular dislike of basic science and scientists, as over the last few years he has shut down many basic research centers and taken many very objectionable steps to prevent Cdn scientists from talking to anyone about their work. These criticisms are not controversial, nor new nor really news - I certainly am very unhappy with what Harper et al have been doing in regard to many things including science and scientists - as, it appears, are most Canadians - there has been considerable protest from many quarters about this, as you are no doubt aware there at the CBC, having covered many such stories.

Just for a bit of organisation, I'll 'label' my 4 main problems with the series.

1: 'bait and switch' thesis
But after this beginning, Ms Lynk makes an entirely unjustified leap, as she poses the question (part I ~14:00) - 'Are we in the midst of an anti-scientific revolution?'. The obvious meaning of this question - an 'affirmative' answer of which is then further asserted and expanded on by various people throughout confirming this interpretation, as this reality-on-its-head thesis is developed - is that some majority of 'average Canadians' are against science (a minority does not conduct any kind of 'siege' against a majority) - and this is, in my opinion, a completely unfounded and unjustified, not to mention quite offensive, assertion. There is no 'scientific logic' here, to say that the Harper government is attacking science - and therefore the Canadian people are engaged in a 'siege on science', or participating in some 'anti-science revolution'. Indeed, in my own personal views, and as far as I can see going on in Canada in recent years from my wide reading, the great bulk of 'evidence' available suggests just the reverse, that by far most Cdns support science and are very unhappy with what Harper is doing (i.e. this poll on your own CBC website - Federal science hobbled by cuts and policies, poll says: Government's science priorities out of step with public, union for federal scientists says - there are many, many such stories and reports available, and it is a serious sign of some serious problems at the CBC that apparently none of these studies and reports are mentioned in this series). The media has had many stories bemoaning what Harper is up to - really, I don't think I have ever seen even one story supporting these cuts and other attacks of Harper on science and scientists, and reading the comments after such articles also shows overwhelming condemnation of Harper et al. I have seen no evidence at all, that I recall, indicating any support at all, let alone any kind of 'mass movement' that would somehow qualify as a 'siege', supporting what Harper is up to - and your host offers nothing whatsoever in 'evidence' for this assertion, just makes that big 'bait and switch' leap from 'Harper is muzzling science' to 'therefore Canadians support and/or are engaged in some barbaric 'siege on science' - a completely unjustified leap, and a completely inaccurate one, all evidence would indicate. And very, very unscientific - which is my second serious criticism of the doc series:

2: Unscientific 'opinion' offered as the basis of a program condemning 'opinion based' decision making and supposedly supporting 'evidence based' policy promotion and methodology! - And one might note also about this 'thesis' of a Cdn 'siege' on democracy, that throughout the series, Ms Lynk and her interviewees all proclaim repeatedly how they strongly support science and the scientific way of 'evidence based' policy making, emphasizing how 'science' is based on observation and evidence, whilst 'opinion' starts with something the expresser of the opinion wants to believe, and/or wants others to believe - and then does exactly what she/they accuse the 'anti-science' 'siege-on-science' average Canadians of - having a 'pre-existing' opinion, not based on 'evidence' of any kind (since I don't think there actually would be any evidence to find to support the notion that Canadians are unscientific etc), and then attempting to support the opinion with clever lawyerly-like arguments and opinions rather than science-based observation and evidence - a completely non-scientific approach, and yet exactly what your host and show are doing when you posit with no evidence at all an uninformed, science-illiterate (and proud of it, a couple of your interviewees even proclaim) population conducting some 'siege on science'. (yes, there are a small number of people out there opposing 'good scientific opinion' and science-based policy etc, but they are present only in very small numbers - to cite a poll on climate change, for example, one of the focuses of your host and various scientists interviewed, only 2% of Canadians don't believe in climate change - and you simply can NOT try to make the case that 2% of the population (pretty much fully denied space in the mainstream media so whatever voice they have is very much in the background anyway) constitutes a 'siege on science'). (and the other 'anti-science' offence that seems to raise the ire of the makers of this documentary and so many others calling themselves 'science supporters' are the very misleadingly labeled 'anti-vaxxers' - there don't seem to be any polls, but again, a reading of the Canadian media since the big controversy started late last year indicates a very strong 'pro-vax' majority here - this article says it took 10,000 phone calls to find 1000 people who admitted to only having questions about some vaccinations, a rate of 10%, which is, again, a long, long ways from a 'siege' on the current vaccination science, particularly when you consider the fierce vitriol with which the 'science supporting' majority greet their questions (there's a great deal more to this story, but here is not the place))

3. The third quite egregious nonsense the series attempts to promulgate:
>> Canadians think science is magic!!! (huhhh????!!!!!) (first in Part I: ~15 minutes and on) - Shortly after this somewhat out-of-nowhere, bait-and-switch completely evidence-free allegation that most Cdns are guilty of a siege on science because Harper is doing some bad things, Ms Lynk begins her presentation of the 'case' with US science personality Shawn Otto, who jumps right in with his own completely unfounded allegation to explain why Canadians would be acting so unreasonably, that '...probably the largest cause is the complexity of modern science and technology - how many people can make an Iphone or flat screen tv? - after a certain point, these things become indistinguishable from magic, and then .. they become a matter of belief...' - again, I note, not a whiff of 'evidence' here, in this program about the sad lack of evidence-based decision making, to add even a smidgen of veritas to the assertion that we poor simple modern folk see modern science as magic!!, just Otto's opinion (and surely you folks at Ideas would be able to see that such an accusation about modern Canadians, many of whom listen to your show and other CBC shows, and consider themselves very literate and modern citizens, would be somewhat controversial?? And thus requiring at least a bit of evidence to back it up?? No???) And then followed shortly by a similar opinion of one Laura Snyder, another writer - '..people feel science is this mysterious, almost mystical project, almost like we think of alchemists in the 16th century ... we think of them as wizards stirring cauldrons of bubbling mystical potions...' - and again, I hardly need note, with not even an attempt to provide *any* kind of 'evidence' for this opinion, although one of the main themes of the show is how 'unscientific' people form unscientific 'opinions' and try to put them above 'real science' - but from what 'evidence', survey or whatever, does Ms Snyder get the notion that any significant number of Canadians (the show is about Canadians' supposed 'siege on science' - if Ms Snyder is talking about people in other countries and not meaning to include Canadians, then why would we be hearing this opinion??) think of scientists as 'wizards' doing 'magic' ???? - it is as obviously, and nonsensically, untrue as the notion that the great unwashed herd of modern anti-science Canadians are conducting some kind of barbaric 'siege on science', and the CBC has really passed into wonderland with this fantasy masquerading as a 'serious' examination of the 'siege on science' in Canada.

Well, I am a fairly ordinary Canadian, and to tell me I think science is pretty much magic is highly offensive, and arrogant, and patronising, and just plain stupid - and I will guarantee you would get the same response from a very large majority of Canadians (not just an 'untested opinion' - for some evidence, start with the 98% of Canadians who believe in climate change, for example, as noted above, or have a run through the Exec Summary of this recent report on 'Where Canada Stands in Science Culture - (a bit surprising this report would not at least be acknowledged in your show as a recent academic Canadian report very germane to your thesis, as it examines the way Canadians feel about science - but of course it kind of contradicts your thesis ... oh, I see, as you accuse the unscientific masses of, you have a pre-existing opinion (Canadians are unscientific), and are only looking for 'evidence' that confirms this silly idea - and since you can't really find any evidence, you are trying to make a 'lawyerly' case out of some opinions. Somewhat 'unscientific', however - this report clearly shows that Canadians care about science, and do not share the beliefs and attitudes of people who believe 'science' is so complex it is no different than 'magic' to them ...). But the idea is simply ludicrous in the modern western world, and it raises far more questions about the people who put this show together than it does about Canadians.

It is true I cannot build an Ipad, or a 747, or perform open heart surgery, nor can most Canadians, I suppose (what about you folks at Ideas there - could you build an Ipad? Because of your vast ignorance in this field, do you believe science is so deep and mysterious it is like magic??) - but the notion that these things are so mysterious that I and others would regard them as 'magic' is wildly crazy, a theory perhaps developed in some 'ivory tower' where a completely out-of-touch-with-reality egghead academic sits drawing completely erroneous pictures of a world he or she has never entered, forming theories that somehow, I suppose, feed his ego and sense of superiority, but such *opinions* are not 'evidence', as you ought to know, given the nature of this entire show. I am well aware of modern science and technology, however, as I think most Canadians are, and actually it is highly probable that there would be no more than 2-3 degrees of separation, if you are familiar with the idea, between any average Canadian and someone doing some kind of advanced technology or science - someone in their family, or a close friend, with whom they could converse about such things, and understand very well they are just some learned skills that most of us could master, had we chosen that career path. An Ipad might be like magic to some bushman from PNG who has never been exposed to the modern world before, but to suggest modern Canadians regard such things as the product of mysterious Hogwarts Wizards stirring potions in a cauldron - well, I am really quite surprised an Ideas show could not only suggest but seem to believe such utter nonsense. And, I must note again given the oft-expressed theme in the show that 'evidence-based' decision making is a hallmark of good science, and good policy, and, one supposes, good journalism, should be based on 'evidence' rather than 'opinion', completely free of any evidence, more than a bit ironically, given the general theme of the show that one of our problems today is the lack of evidence-based decision making - what evidence do you there at Ideas have that Canadians regard science as magic? What peer-reviewed properly conducted scientific studies can you point to to back up this wild opinion? I would be very, very surprised if you could even find anything in some internet place about this.

Point 4: The media is trained to be 'balanced' on contentious issues, which then confuses people and encourages them, because they are so poorly educated about science and cannot think critically for themselves, to believe unscientific nonsense ??!!?? - another 'completely separated from reality', evidence-free opinion - this is getting ridiculous, for the CBC.
- in the first part of Part III of the series, we get into this notion, that again had me frowning in wonder - where are you getting these ideas??? - completely divorced from reality, which, again, is odd, since you are supposed to be talking about science, and the necessity of first observing things, and then formulating theories. But with this notion, there is absolutely no evidence, or rather perhaps there is a great deal of evidence if one goes looking, but 99% contrary to this statement. Seriously - do we recall, for instance, the Rob Ford story last year, when the entire Canadian media, en masse, was mocking him and demanding his resignation? I don't believe a single word was ever uttered on the CBC in any kind of defence of him - the vast majority of what was on the CBC and in the main print media was overwhelmingly anti-Ford - not a single voice trying to give some balance to the endless 'hate Ford' attack, which went on for months? Or almost any other contentious and more serious issue - for example, when the US decides they want to go bombing somebody, from Saddam to Gaddaffi to Assad to the current demonisation of Putin and 'reports' of what is going on in the Ukraine, there is complete deference from the Canadian media to whatever 'hate this monster!!' stories and interpretation the US wants presented, not a hint of balance, of talking to someone with a different POV of what is happening and needs to be talked about (and for all of these stories, there are very much other sides to them that any media truly interested in fostering open, informed discussion would be carrying - these are **not** 'flat world' issues where there is only one 'truth' that has been decided and thus need not be 'balanced', as at least the pro-vaxxers like to say about the measles vaccine (very untruthfully)). Or what about the bigger 'social' issues this doc seems to be basing its 'siege on science' thesis on, things like climate change or anti-vaxxers? You *must* know that again 99% of the coverage in the media is 'pro science' - all of the media, and most Canadians, understand that climate change is a reality and want their governments to do something about it - there is no 'false balance' in the media about these things, there is no balance at all! - and with somewhat 'emotional' issues like the vaccine stuff, the media leads the charge from the other side, and most Canadians follow along, of attacking and mocking those very few who question the need for the measles vaccine - this would be, in terms of the media, 100% agreement with 'science' and demanding people get vaccinated - it is just unbelievable to listen to the people in this documentary talking, again, apparently from some ivory tower completely disconnected from reality, about some misplaced media belief they need to offer 'balanced' views, and thus give much more weight to unscientific opinion in important issues like climate change than is warranted and thus confuse the public leading them to unscientific beliefs and this 'siege on science' - when in fact they give essentially no room to any climate change deniers, or anti vaxxers at all - you must know that at the CBC!!!!

In Conclusion:

- the CBC Ideas series 'Siege on Science' fails miserably in almost every way:

  • you claim to be defending 'evidence based' decision making, and yet offer a host of evidence-free opinions in defence of your thesis, the elements of which are obviously the kind of evidence-free opinion you accuse the anti-sciencers of:
  • you make the claim that Canadians are 'anti-science', which is patently false
  • you claim that Canadians are so simple-minded they believe science is like magic - again, patently evidence free, and wildly false
  • you claim that the media offers some kind of inappropriate 'balance' on contentious issues, which is part of the reason the public is confused about such issues - again, patently false
  • and, finally, you offer these various evidence-free opinions as some kind of 'proof' that there is a 'science backlash' in Canada these days - again, a patently false assertion - there is a 'science-muzzling' drive coming from the Harper government, but it is very obviously and widely opposed by most Canadians

What else can anyone say, but this series must get an 'F'.

What Might have been done with this idea of Science under Siege And if a serious teacher were marking this, the mark would be even lower than 'F', since a good marker would consider not only the many falsehoods used to try to defend an essentially undefendable thesis, a good marker would also have to consider the very obvious things that should have been included in any examination of the 'siege on science' in Canada, but were either mentioned only in passing with none of the exploration needed, or simply ignoring some crucial, and obvious, points altogether.

As I noted at the first, I and most Canadians (it is obvious from the written record, various references throughout this letter, many many more available were this any kind of 'study') have been aware for some time that at least some kinds of science are under siege in our country, even though this series, attempting to make the utterly nonsensical case that 'average Canadians' are conducting a 'siege on science', does pretty much nothing in terms of examining the problem in any useful way - that is to say, weapons science doesn't seem to be facing any problems from the government, nor chemical science, nor medical research, nor communications science, and others.

As an idea, exploring 'Science Under Siege in Canada ~2015 - what path might be taken:

You actually touched on the real problem a few times during the series, but did not pursue it further or in depth, for some reason, choosing instead to divert your time and resources to trying to make a (n evidence-free) case for the demonstrably nonsensical idea that 'average Canadians', anti-science all and believing in magic, were at the heart of this siege on science. But of course, as has been recognized for decades now (David Korten's When Corporations Rule the World, Murray Dobbin's Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen in Canada, etc etc etc), it is large corporations, primarily in certain industries, which are behind the siege on science, as they work (at this time in Canada) with Harper to minimise any scientific findings which might give ammunition to those fighting to stop the widespread environmental degradation of our countries, and muzzle scientists working in such areas, from industries producing acid rain to industries devoted to catching all edible fish in the North Atlantic to industries involved with energy based resource extraction to the 'health science' industries working with the big pharmaceutical companies to increase their drug sales. These are not chimeral 'hippy' ideas but represent a very real threat to our endangered planet - but the people controlling the corporations are addicted to profit, and no doubt consider their wealth protects them from any adverse problems they create for everyone else, and thus doing what they can to minimise any evidence that might give the many people fighting them ammunition to demand profit-reducing regulations - and Harper's current 'war on science' is very directly tied to influence from such corporations. Now there is something you could run with - rather than lengthy pretty much meaningless rambles about the fall of the Roman Empire being connected with citizens shunning science, or very questionable ideas about some British 'backlash' against science in the 1800s, etc, you might very much more usefully and pertinently explore the recent history of how corporate money came to be such a major influence on government decision making, becoming a much more powerful force in our governments than the 'democratic will' - a subject which, unlike your 'people think science is magic!' nonsense, has a great deal of evidence to support it.

(actually, it needs to be said - anyone currently considering the many problems with this series would have to consider the question - why is the CBC apparently diverting attention from the well-recognized and true culprits here, large corporations, in the 'siege on science' not only in Canada but in all western countries, and trying to pretend that 'average citizens' are the problem? What is the connection of the CBC with such corporations, that they would agree to such an obvious attempt at misdirection? - I don't suppose the CBC is going to seriously examine itself, but you can be sure such questions are being asked where honest researchers who are truly concerned with what is happening in our country and world gather ...)

I was quite surprised, for example, that you did not even mention Chris Turner, a Canadian writer and his recent book The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper's Canada (review here), which speaks directly to your supposed subject, and involves a lot of recent 'evidence' from a Canadian writer - although I suppose if your actual desired thesis was to make Canadians appear supportive of and even responsible for Harper's war on science, and Turner (rightfully, no evidence) does not even consider 'average Canadians' as part of the cause but points the finger directly at Harper et al, with considerably more evidence than your so-called documentary managed to raise to make your case that anti-science Canadians were responsible, and you very obviously were not interested in actual evidence contradicting your 'thesis' - well, avoiding something that knocks the feet from your thesis would not be something your 'form an opinion and find (or create) 'evidence' to support it' approach would be interested in. But many, many people have been aware of the influence of large corporations on government policy, including stifling science that contradicted their desired goals and forcing malleable scientists to keep quiet about various things, for quite a long time now, and had you wished to do a more accurate show on Harper's 'siege on science', pointing fingers and shining lights where these serious powers do not wish lights shone, you could easily have done so.

We 'average sorts of people' here in Canada are not 'anti science' at all, nor so stupid we regard it as magic - but we are surely anti-corporate running of our governments, including the way they stifle anything that gets too close to the truth of what they are doing, and you have done quite a disservice to Canada, really, with this show trying to paint us all as anti-science magic-believing barbarians out to take down the great civilisation we are part of while leaving the real perpetrators pretty much untarnished.

There is a real enemy out there - but it is not 'we the people', who are the victims.

Just a sample of things you might use as a starting point, if you decide to do a somewhat more 'evidence-based' and truthful examination of the 'siege on science' currently under way in Harper's Canada:

- and of course many, many, many more articles condemning Harper's 'war on science' - and how most Canadians are strongly opposed to this - anyone with any experience in research could find quickly - if that is what you actually want to talk about.

Dave Patterson
Ontario, PEI, Thailand
Green Island

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