Monday, May 11, 2009

Descent into madness

Funny...I've just been having a chat b/c with Mike Brock about postmodernism and science, with me taking the view that science is neither "objective," nor value-free, nor the only valid epistemology. Now, reading today's Globe & Mail, I find myself on another side of the question.

It seems that Stephen Harper has been shoehorning his pals into various plum appointments, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. That's not surprising in itself. The problem is that they're climate-change deniers, although neither of the two people in question is a climatologist: one is an
Fraser Institute economist, and the other, a mathematician and Conservative Party insider.

So two more ideological cranks now join evolution deniers like Stockwell Day, Minister of International Trade, and Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology. We have yet to determine if anyone in the Conservative fold is a flat-earther or a disbeliever in the germ theory of disease, but at this point who would be surprised?

In any case, this is deeply troubling. The two new appointees will sit in judgement on scientific research proposals, after all, which is a bit like having Bishop Fred Henry on the board of Assisted Human Reproduction Canada. (Whoops, perhaps I shouldn't put ideas into the wrong minds.) They claim that they will not try to shut down climate research. We shall see.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the main source of support for climate researchers, is being starved of resources by the Conservatives, and will have to shut down next year unless it receives more funding.

The retreat from science into a dark-age bunker of superstition and illiteracy, fortified with far-right ideology, is something we've already witnessed south of the border. And the madness continues down there: in the land of the First Amendment, a court in California (no, not Georgia, not Tennessee) has just ruled that teachers may not criticize creationism in the schools. But, slowly but surely, the same thing is happening right here at home.

I don't believe that science is more than a highly productive procedure, but that's no small thing--just look around. We might argue about its truth-claims, and whether it is the only means of knowing, and whether in its current form its practice is gendered or otherwise biased, but we can't deny its substantial achievements. To place barriers in its way, in the form of ideologues and God-botherers who do not merely critique science but stand in active opposition to it, is a grossly irresponsible turn in public policy.

The considerable shortcomings of Islamic fundamentalism have been well-canvassed in Canada and elsewhere--its insularity, its cultivation of ignorance, its fanaticism. But t
here are other fundamentalisms, no less invidious if given free reign. We are not nearly so far down that path as our neighbours to the south, one-quarter of whom believed that Christ was due to return in 2007, and a majority of whom reject the theory of evolution. But we're getting there, by golly, inch by inch, as the Harper agenda rolls on. And we have every right, I think, to be alarmed.

[h/t Robert McLelland]

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