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If you’ve been following the news in Canada over the last year or so, there should be nothing too surprising about our Prime Minister’s “war on science”. World-class labs and experiments have been shut down, libraries destroyed, scientists “muzzled” and mandates have been re-written along unabashedly ideological lines. The disregard for any science which might contradict his political interests has provoked indignation throughout Canada’s intellectual and academic communities, leading to protests at Capitol Hill by many notable scientists. At issue isn’t just information which might damage his political chances or the petrochemical industry he represents but the notion of “science” itself.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of very good critiques of science, academia and “rationality” out there. Since taking the reigns of “established truth” from religion, science has often found itself in the same authoritarian roles, defining dark-skinned people as less-than-human, homosexuality as a “mental illness” and generally facilitating the spread of empire. That being said, I must ask, if not science, then what? Emotion? Rhetoric? Dogma? If and when a better system comes along I’ll gladly adopt it, as will, I suspect, every intellectually honest academic, but only after demonstrating a superior ability to predict and explain the unknown, something the alternatives have all (so far) been unable or unwilling to do. Science, as an institution, has shown the nearly unique ability to admit wrong-doing and learn from its misktakes. That evidence-based evolution, rather than any one claim, defines “science” and sets it apart from its peers.

In spite of all the economic and institutional incentives for science to parrot the views of government, it often doesn’t, and that’s the problem here. Over the past century honest self-criticism and better methodologies have demolished many of the cherished ‘truths’ it once upheld, making life a lot harder for those who based their reactionary politics on them. This has provoked some understandable resentment and suspicion, especially among those unable to understand or evaluate the science in question. In more ignorant and hardline groups, this often leads to a wholesale rejection and allegations that all of science and academia are aligned against them in a giant liberal/communist/Jewish* conspiracy, which is now sadly something of a mainstream political view.

Even in a perfect world, science will never be “neutral”. It may assume neutrality as a starting point, but sticking with it means never reaching any conclusions, or at the very best permanently agreeing to disagree (as we have with philosophy, religion and musical preference). The sad fact is that we can’t all be right. We may be entitled to our own opinions, but reality is not obliged to indulge our egos. Believe, if you wish, that global warming isn’t real, that the Tar Sands and fracking are sustainable, that austerity, tax cuts or the gold standard are likely to fix the economy or that putting more people in prison will lower crime rates, but that’s not what the evidence says. That may be a result of Illuminati agents distorting the data, but there’s a far simpler explanation: you might just be wrong.

What we don’t know can hurt us. Not looking to see if there are cars coming doesn’t make crossing a street any safer. Nor will avoiding tests for diseases stop them from making you sick. In the face of danger, ignorance is among the worst choices one can make. Sadly, in this case, the choice is being made for us.

The rejection of science leads us down a dark path. If conclusions are decided ahead of time, there’s little point to doing experiments or writing papers at all. If evidence isn’t valued, then what sets serious debate apart from a karaoke competition? This policy threatens to stifle a world-class scientific community which took generations to build. Worse, it sets a precedent by which knowledge and truth are decided directly by the government of the day and evidence tailored to fit their views. If replacing science with ignorance is to be the new official position of our government, the only thing we’ll be able to know for sure is that our country is run by a bunch of idiots.

This week’s “movie” is actually the most recent episode of the CBC’s Fifth Estate, “Silence of the Labs”. I don’t usually use this space to promote current broadcast programming, but given the dire nature of this subject matter as well as the CBC’s willingness to post the whole thing online, I’m willing to make an exception. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d definitely recommend making time for this one, if only to see yet another glaring example of how twisted this nation is becoming.

Silence of the Labs (Official CBC Link)
YouTube Link (for those outside Canada)

*This is not hyperbole, there is a long history of association between fascism and anti-intellectualism. The Nazis adopted the ultra-nationalist “Deutsche Physik” movement which rejected “Jewish Science”, especially Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Similar views are common among religious fundamentalists, Holocaust deniers and John-Birchers for obvious reasons, as well as most of the nastier authoritarian leftist regimes.

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