By Nicholas Savage
Chris Turner is angry. Having read his recent book, The War on Science, not only do I understand his anger, I also share it. While I have a great respect for faith and organized religion, I have never considered myself a ‘person of faith’, having no real convictions that I felt were beyond question. Thanks to Turner’s book, I now know I was wrong.
While I’m familiar with ‘The Enlightenment’, that period of European history when writers and scientists threw off the shackles of religion’s stranglehold on knowledge and began to understand their world through the application of science and reasoned arguments, I didn’t recognize it as the birthplace for a belief that, thanks to Turner, I now realize is sacrosanct to me. Simply put, I believe that decisions about how we as people interact with each other and the natural world should be governed by rational ideas derived from evidence. When applied to governance, those with decision-making powers should be beholden to those who gather information and process it in order to make the right informed choices.
At its core, The War on Science is an indictment of the Harper Conservative government for its betrayal of this ideal: not only are facts and evidence ignored when formulating policy, but scientists and institutes that may disagree with their irrational aims are routinely muzzled or find their funding put through the shredder.
Turner does an excellent job as prosecutor, noting how Harper and Co. began during their minority government days to slowly dismantle scientific research and fact gathering resources with measures like “the elimination of the Office of the National Science Advisor … and the tabling of a sweeping crime bill that went against decades of research.”
Then Harper finally won his majority and the floodgates were opened. Bill C-38, the first ‘omnibus’ budget bill, gutted the Fisheries and Oceans Act, “reducing its mandate from all fish habitat to only that of “valuable” fish populations…” Now I’m no scientist, but I have seen enough Planet Earth to know that ecosystems are rather delicate, and that the life of so-called “valuable” species are linked to other, non-valuable ones. We eat fish, but they also eat fish and other organisms we don’t eat. I could easily explain this concept to an 8 year old, so what are Conservatives not getting?
Bill C-38 also cut all funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, a grouping of hundreds of lakes in Northern Ontario, which are, as Turner succinctly put is, “the most important freshwater research facility on earth.” It’s the Rosetta Stone of freshwater research, a natural laboratory enabling scientists to find solutions to the freshwater problems of the entire planet.
So why is Harper doing this? According to Turner, Harper is a corporate and partisan shill: “At the core of (Harper’s wilful) blindness is the…agenda’s abiding mistrust of expertise and its contempt for any kind of science not being applied directly to an economic activity of immediate benefit to Canadian industry and self-evident appeal to Conservative voters.” The government is telling scientists that they should only do research that directly benefits Canadian industry. Using examples of programs the Harper government has cancelled or severely defunded, Turner does a good job arguing that this is not the way science works, as scientific discovery is not simply created in a vacuum of corporate interest.
The only criticism I could offer of The War on Science is that it is at times repetitive in the way that a prosecutor can be when making a final argument: quotes and policy decisions are repeated for both emphasis and recollection so that the reader holds on to them throughout the read. Repetition aside, this book is very well written and researched. A must-read for anyone interested in Canadian politics, public policy, science and, perhaps, even lunacy.