A Science Minister Should Understand and Respect Science

Bogeyman of the Mad Scientist

On our forum thread “Science Minister Evasive about Evolution“, we have been discussing the news story from three weeks ago about Conservative MP Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, initially avoiding to comment on his view of evolution, believing it to be a religious question, and then commenting later of his reluctant support for it.

Horatius recommended that we send our concerns to the Prime Minister, which I did and only received an automatic “we got it” e-mail in response.

Then Horatius noticed in one of the articles that the Liberal science critic, Marc Garneau, had made an equally discouranging statement on the subject:

On Tuesday, Liberal science critic Marc Garneau said that believing in evolution is not a job requirement for the science minister.

“It is a personal matter. It is a matter of faith… I don’t think it prevents someone from being a good minister,” said the former astronaut, who has been a vocal critic of the government for its cuts to the three granting councils that fund university-based research in Canada.

This prompted me to write to the Liberal leader, with copies to Marc Garneau and Mauril Bélanger, my MP. At least this time, I received from my MP a full response (below the fold) in reply. The problem is that he did not seem to get my point that the Science Minister needs to demonstrate an understanding of science and be a public advocate for its proper use. He also recommended to me the recent Calgary Herald editorial, “When science gets religious, watch out“, in which the editorial writer demonstrated a clear misunderstanding or perhaps a willful ignorance of what science is.

In response, I have sent Mauril Bélanger and Marc Garneau a reply (below the fold) that hopefully clarifies the need for a Science Minister to understand and support science.

Mauril Bélanger’s letter to me dated 27 March 2009:

Dear Mr. Green:

Thank you for sending me a copy of your March 17th note to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and of your March 18th note to Official Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff expressing your views on the recent debate about the views of Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology), on evolution.

You question in particular my colleague Marc Garneau’s assertion that the minister’s beliefs would not necessarily affect how he does his work as minister.

It may not surprise you that I would support my colleague. Let me share why. First, I applaud the civility with which he has chosen to engage in debate in the House of Commons and beyond the House. Marc has criticized the Government repeatedly, severely and effectively. Never has he engaged, to my recollection, in personal attacks in any way. His affirmation about the minister’s beliefs is therefore in character. Criticize the actions of the minister and his government, not his personal beliefs.

Secondly, and although somewhat speculative, I am certain that, should there even be any evidence that the minister is trying to apply or impose his beliefs – any belief – on any decision making scientific body, my colleague would be the first to condemn such behavior.

Thirdly, and this gets even trickier, we must all be careful about dogma, whether religious or scientific. I attach for your consideration a lengthy letter recently published in the Calgary Herald which I found interesting. I don’t share all of its conclusions but it does raise interesting points.

Having said all this, it remains nonetheless that scientific research is of great importance to our society, and our future as a species on this planet, and beyond! On that you have a firm commitment from the Liberal Party as evidenced by our investments during our tenure in government from 1993 to 2005. That commitment to science remains at the core of our policies to ensure a better future for our fellow citizens.

If you ever wanted to discuss these matters I would be delighted to oblige.

Regards,

Hon. Mauril Bélanger, P.C., M.P.

My reply today:

Dear Hon. Bélanger:

Thank you for your 27 March reply. I appreciate that you and your staff writer put some thought into the response instead of just sending me a form letter.

I join with you in endorsing civility amongst MPs and am encouraged by your reassurance that Mr. Garneau will actively intervene if the government tries to sway scientific policies ideologically. I am, however, disappointed that you found anything redeemable in the Calgary Herald editorial you enclosed and hope that Mr. Garneau agrees with me that the editorial provides a concrete example of how people misunderstand the nature of science. I also get the impression that I have failed to communicate my point that the Science Minister needs to be a visible and clear-minded advocate of evidence-based science. (I cringe at having to add that redundant qualifier.)

In the editorial, Mr. Hannaford makes a number of strawman arguments to represent his flawed understanding of what science is. He identifies eugenics as “science” and positions abortion as being of the “same mentality”, presumably identifying it as science as well. Of course, both eugenics and abortion are social policy issues, not scientific disciplines. By the end of his diatribe, he even goes so far as to characterize scientists as euthanasia-bent atheists. Hopefully, these are some of his conclusions that you say you don’t share.

Mr. Hannaford misses the point of what science is. He seems to believe that scientists jump on popular bandwagons and then guard their dogmatic positions with blind zeal – a stereotypical image of scientists that I have not encountered in mainstream science. In the real world, good scientists rely on the scientific method to develop their theories and do not base them on assertions and ideologies. Inherent to the scientific method is its nature of ongoing self-correction. Scientific theories are not fixed belief systems but scientific explanations built on trials, evidence, peer review and reproducibility and continually subject to challenge, change and disproof. Theories become scientific consensus when they prove to be internally consistent, successfully predictive and repeatedly successful against critique. Strong scientific theories, such as the germ theory of disease or the evolutionary theory of biological development, seem resistant to change, not because scientists hold to them out of faith, but because any challenge to a theory must confront the weight of accumulated evidence supporting it. The onus of proof is always on the challenger.

Mr. Hannaford also misses how the development of the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is an example of the normal process of the scientific method, not the reluctant yielding of ideologically-bound scientists. Hypotheses were generated; evidence was gathered; papers were peer-reviewed; findings were debated; conclusions were verified. After diligent effort and due consideration, AGW has now achieved scientific consensus, as evidenced by the reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Reasonable people” are free to challenge the AGW theory but must be prepared to provide the new, compelling evidence that supports their position, not simply demand equal consideration because they have a closely-held opinion. The epithet of “climate-change denier” is not attributed to scientists who respectfully use the scientific method to challenge the theory but to ideologues who make unproven assertions as fact, who continue to reuse discredited evidence, or who knowingly cherry-pick data to justify biased findings.

Science is not about faith in ideologies or devotion to theories; it is about respect for evidence and proper use of the scientific method. If I were to say that Mr. Hannaford would not make a good Science Minister (not that he is applying for the job, thankfully), it is not a personal attack on him; it is recognition that he has not demonstrated an understanding of what science is or how the scientific method works.

Similarly, doubting Mr. Goodyear’s credibility as Science Minister is not a personal attack on him, nor is it a comment on his religious faith – many scientists are religious as well. The critique is based on his demonstrated lack of understanding of science. As a creationist, his belief that species have been supernaturally created throughout history or perhaps all at once 6,000 years ago shows a lack of understanding or respect for abundant scientific evidence. As a chiropractor, his professional practice of an alternative medical therapy based on the unproven concept of “subluxations” shows a lack of understanding or respect for the scientific method.

The Science Minister does not have to be a scientist, but the portfolio deserves to be filled by someone who can tell the difference between science and pseudoscience, who will support science over ideology, and who can be trusted to make evidence-based policy decisions. To see the consequences of not respecting these safeguards, witness the havoc that has been caused in the US by decision makers who do not understand or respect science. Read Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, which details the ideological skewing of science policy by the Bush Administration. Consider the billions of dollars wasted by Senator Harkin on the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) over the last decade with little if anything to show in return. Observe the alarmist crusades of Senator Burton concerning autism and vaccines or Senator Inhofe trying to discredit climate change science.

Without argument, MPs should be allowed to hold personal beliefs and to take counsel from them. However, given how easy it seems to be to misunderstand the nature of science, as evidenced by Mr. Hannaford’s editorial, it is not too much to ask that Canada’s Science Minister, out of all the MPs in the House, have a grasp of its basics. Science is not about faith or personal beliefs; it is about evidence and the scientific method. All I ask is for one Cabinet minister to ensure that tax dollars intended for investment in Canadian science will not be diverted to ideological or pseudoscientific ends and that science standards in Canada will not be eroded anymore than I fear they already have.

Barry Green

In all the tangential discussion about not offending MPs for their beliefs, I have yet to hear an elected official come out in support of science in Canada. It is disappointing and worrisome.

08. April 2009 by barry
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