If you have an hour to spare and are in the mood for experiencing some blood-boiling rage, I highly recommend that you watch this Fifth Estate documentary which aired tonight on CBC television. Entitled “The Silence of the Labs,” the documentary gives a terrifying, soul-crushingly depressing, but by no means extensive account of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ceaseless campaign against the very idea of evidence-based decision-making.
Now, of course, none of this will come as any great surprise to anyone who has been following the politics here in Canada for the last several years, but the documentary does add one novel element: apologetics* from the likes of Peter Phillips, a political scientist and economist at the University of Saskatchewan. Around 27:53 (also available here in its full context), Dr. Phillips makes the following argument:
Interviewer: “What’s wrong with an expert, a scientist, a scholar, sending the facts out unfiltered to the people who pay the scientist and the scholar? What’s wrong with that rather than putting them through this political, political screen for correctness?”
Dr. Phillips: “There’s nothing inherently wrong if we stick to the realm of evidence. It’s when we start interpreting the evidence as what it says about what governments should or should not do that you’re starting to usurp the policy prerogative of the executive government…That’s [politicians’] job. Their job is to frame policy debates and frame dialogue. Do they ignore some important issues? Undoubtedly. But this government is not unique, every government has issues which they just don’t want to address.”
I’ve been turning this argument over in my head for a few hours now, and I have to admit that after due consideration, and with respect to Dr. Phillips, I find it to be absolutely, flat-out, dead wrong in every single particular. In fact, it’s so wrong that I can’t understand how anyone who knows anything about either science or democracy could make it earnestly.
First of all: it’s not the scientist’s job to just grab “evidence.” A major part of the scientist’s job description** is to construct a probable, materialistically-based narrative or theory to explain the collected evidence. Thus, if a scientist were to sail from one island to another and notice that the local finches’ beaks are gradually changing shape, they might say: “maybe there’s some evolution going on here.” And likewise, if a scientist finds a bunch of toxic waste in formerly-pristine fresh water sources next to an enormous resource-extraction project, they might say: “maybe the enormous resource extraction project next door is leaking toxic waste into fresh water sources.” Now, I would admit that that second theory is inherently suggestive of a course of action (in this case, maybe impose some kind of regulations to prevent massive resource extraction projects from leaking toxic waste into fresh water sources), but it’s still perfectly within the legitimate domain of scientists to formulate.
Secondly, it might interest Professor Phillips to learn that even though most scientists are, indeed, not members of the executive government, they still inherently have the right to express opinions as to how policy should be formulated. Not because they are scientists, mind you, but because they are citizens of a democracy and that is how democracy works. This applies even if they are employees of the government, by the way, because the government (much to some people’s chagrin) is not a private company.
Thirdly: providing information (up to and including theories) does not “usurp” the power of the executive government to make policy decisions. It should, ideally, inform policy. And if it does not, it is (once again) the prerogative of scientists as citizens of a democracy to voice their concerns in public.
Finally: “Every government does this?” Seriously? There is no greater act of moral cowardice than to argue that what you are doing isn’t so bad because someone else is doing the same thing or something even worse. And it’s not even true in this case: while, yes, governments of all sorts need to neglect some details, there is no analogue in the postwar history of Canada for this sort of full-scale, willful act of the federal government shoving its fingers into its ears and shouting “LALALALALALALA!”
This is why I get frustrated, on occasion, by economists and political scientists: because it seems that you can always find some of them, generally in the mainstream, to say something in support of the dominant ideology, no matter how clearly heinous it is. At least, it would be nice if we could have some Science Policy experts who actually knew anything about science!
*These people are only featured because actual Conservative cabinet ministers and appointees refused to sit down to interview. The documentary itself is not remotely apologetic.
**And if you are a theorist as I am, the only part.