Evidence, the Death of Evidence, and Finding Some Good Questions

The recent announcement by the Canadian Federal government of the closing and consolidation of Fisheries and Oceans libraries has the media, once again, reporting outrage on what appears to be the present government’s war on science. A quiet outrage has developed among academics and researchers as they mourn the loss of priceless data and artifacts.

I call the response a “quiet outrage” because I’m not certain that their concerns are resonating with the general public. One blogger, for example, listed the number of shares of a couple of related media bits, and in my mind, the numbers are quite low.

So what I want to point out is that it seems to me that headlines that assert the Harper government’s row with “science” dilutes and obscures an important point: the Harper government seems to be waging a war on one particular type of science—environmental. Which, I’m quite sure everyone knows. So why not say “environmental science” specifically instead of “science” in general?

Recent media makes little mention of the meaning and reasoning behind these seemingly strategic moves. The few suggestions that appear or are hinted at are basic and typical: profits, especially given Canada’s place in the global market of fossil fuels, and it will be handy to have a bunch of money to hand out just prior to the next election.

But I don’t think it’s that easy. The picture that is painted with such explanations are that of a bunch of greedy cutthroat irrational people conspiring to gain and lord power just for the hell of it and in the face of obvious and imminent demise. Maybe. But I doubt it. Call me sentimental or naive, but I kind of feel that most people tend to be mostly decent and will do a good thing if they can. Of course determining what’s  “good” is based on one’s frame of reference.

I recently attended a symposium about science and society. The foundational question of this symposium was this: “How can we understand and improve the interplay between science and society, and improve science policies for the future?”  Throughout the symposium, and at a number of recent events along similar lines, several recurrent themes have popped up:  citizen science, science and democracy, and trust in science. “Evidence-based policy” and “evidence-based decision making” seem to be the catch-phrases du jour. But there was not a peep about religion. At least not that reached my ears, and I thought I was listening pretty close.

Are we thus to assume that civilizations are now witnessing the pinnacle of  advancement  such that church and state, faith and science are properly quarantined to their respective corners? I am highly skeptical.

In regards to the Canadian federal government’s war on “science” (read: environmentalism or environment or environmentalists), some writers have offered an alternative explanation: Harper and his government are motivated by an evangelical Christian worldview that holds God and his natural law-infused ecological order and balance responsible for the ultimate fate of the earth.  In this view, if this is indeed the case, then it seems that the environment is not a human issue but a divine one.

I am not sure how accurate such claims are, and in fact I don’t really know why the Harper government seems so bent on thwarting environmental science. But I think we need to take a closer look. The news articles themselves say little to nothing about what’s behind the anti-science activities it reports. Few seem to want to bring it up.

I know this is a difficult issue. The media persecutes any misstep towards religious insensitivity or intolerance more harshly than it does Harper’s activities. The academy is no better—everyone seems scared to offend, to cause a scene or infringe on one’s personal and private realm of thought and belief.  I know that this is a volatile issue. There are lots of easy arguments about who’s right and who’s wrong, and no one wants to wake this sleeping dragon.

But if we’re going to talk about evidence, we need to talk about conceptual frameworks. Evidence, obvious or not, is context contingent, and if we want to talk about science and the general public, or science and public policy, or science and public officials, we need to talk about science and its place in the marketplace of competing ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and conceptual frameworks.

What role is religion playing at the interface between science and its publics? (And by “religion” I mean the good old fashioned monotheistic types, replete with their own worldviews, moral systems and evangelistic ambitions, fuzzy as these descriptors might be, at least to start with.) I’m not sure what the consensus is or even what the spectrum of opinion is, but the silence seems to be its own brand of a death-of-evidence.

We accuse the government of killing evidence, of turning a blind eye to the obvious and well- documented. But what is that old saying? The one about being concerned with a speck of dust in another’s eye without noticing the stick in one’s own? Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I’m just not looking in the right places. I am not sure. But for now, I care more about the questions than I do about the answers. In fact, let’s forget about the answers altogether for the moment and just start looking for some good questions.

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