As part of the Financial Post’s ongoing series dispelling many myths packaged as science, MLI’s Philip Cross comes to the question of “muzzling” government scientists; is their a chill being put on science or is ideological bias behind some of the claims made government scientists?
Philip Cross, Special to Financial Post | 13/06/13
Very little of what some scientists say is unalloyed fact
There has been a concern in some quarters about scientists in the federal government being muzzled. What began as idle musings on the CBC’s As It Happens was taken up by former astronaut Marc Garneau in a last-gasp attempt to kindle interest in his bid for the Liberal leadership. On April 1 (coincidentally April Fool’s), the Information Commissioner said it would look into complaints, from such clearly-partisan advocacy groups like Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, that freedom of speech for government scientists was being curtailed.
These complaints about alleged muzzling are presented as chilling, as critics like to frame these matters, so let’s take a closer look.
The Environmental Law Centre wants the government to encourage scientists to speak freely about scientific information and findings on everything from the oil sands to polar bears and climate change, all matters that have a significant political dimension.
The first question that arises is, What are scientific facts? Honest scientists acknowledge how few facts are really known. For example, last summer’s excitement about the so-called discovery of the “God particle” actually was an experiment that did not disprove the idea; it does not rule out the possibility that some day another theory could explain the same experimental result. Scientists don’t emphasize enough the uncertainty that surrounds their knowledge; after all, not so long ago science “knew” that formula milk was better than mother’s milk.
Very little of what some scientists say is unalloyed fact, scraped free of all ideology. As noted by the skeptical empiricist Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, the problem is not always the facts themselves, but that a narrative is woven into their presentation to convey the impression of causality and knowledge. Taleb cites research that found “scientists too are vulnerable to narratives” and sensationalism in presenting the results of their research.
The more basic question is how any government, in the Internet age, could stop a scientist (or any other individual) from expressing their opinion? Any government scientist in China, never mind Canada, can anonymously post/blog an opinion or raise a concern in a million places on the Internet or, if they are timid, have a colleague at a university or research institute do so.
The idea that civil servants are pure, innocent, virginal creatures being ravaged by an autocratic and controlling government displays a child-like naivety about the civil service, irrespective of the accuracy of the portrayal of their managers. What some government scientists really want is to use their department (or agency) of the Government of Canada, and all the profile and credibility attached to it, as a platform to leverage their own political or ideological agenda. That is where management legitimately has the right to say no, you’re not free to hijack the department’s name without our permission and due process to review what your message is.
This is no different from where I worked at Statistics Canada, an independent agency that strives to keep at bay the many groups who want to use the Statcan “brand” to propagate ideology, thinly-disguised as facts. In the run up to the recent release of the controversial National Household Survey, Statistics Canada reminded its employees “to refrain from making personal comments about the organization or government…particularly if they identify themselves as Statistics Canada or Government of Canada employees.” (There was also a long overdue admonition about personal hygiene and proper dress.)
Situations where employees criticize or contradict their employers surface regularly these days, with postings on social media like Facebook and Twitter. In every instance, as the CBC’s Kevin O’Leary delights in saying, the employee should be “whacked” if they criticize or denigrate their employer. Why would that be different in government when we are talking about environmental policy? If you want to spout the party line of Greenpeace, fell free to resign your cushy government job and spread your message to the four winds. Just don’t expect the government to provide the stage at your workplace, all on the taxpayers’ dime.
So, is freedom of expression by government scientists under attack? Certainly not where public health and safety are concerned, for which there are various whistleblower mechanisms. Should scientists be allowed to express their opinions about polar bears or the oil sands, under the pretense it is science,when they disagree with departmental policy? The wonder is the question even comes up.
Philip Cross is Research Coordinator at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the former Chief Economic Analyst at Statistics Canada.