Science: What do you think? 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Science matters Pique columnist Leslie Anthony believes science-based decision making leads to good governance.
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  • Science matters Pique columnist Leslie Anthony believes science-based decision making leads to good governance.

In the dying days of the doomed regime of Stephen Harper, a curiosity occurred. The man who waged virtual war on the scaffolding of Canadian science through nine years of treasonous rule began to use a phrase previously alien to his lips in sentences. An election campaign was underway and Harper, doubtless informed by his criminal cadre of NeoCon handlers that the Conservatives' policy-based science making (as opposed to science-based policy making) was hurting them in the polls, decided to send up a few trial balloons. In typically disingenuous fashion, he was suddenly shilling natural resource projects, new national parks, and innovation-funds as "science-based" decisions.

But few were buying; by this point, Harper's anti-science cabal had made the George W. Bush years in the U.S. look like the Age of Enlightenment. He was summarily bounced, in part for this, in part for the open contempt of democracy it was part of. Justin Trudeau has paid lip service to reversing this course, but the damage from years of Conservative attacks on the verity of science and promoting false equivalency of scientific precept with religious thought had done their damage on soft-minded Canadians. Public discourse and political debate showed Canada was now on a par with the U.K. and U.S. when it came to skepticism over proven scientific orthodoxies. And now there are numbers to back that up.

The 3M State of Science Index is original, third-party research that explores global attitudes about science. A tech company with a vested interest, 3M commissioned the survey to examine perceptions of science and its positive or negative impact on society. The answers it sought were basic: What does the world think of science? Do people see, feel and appreciate its impact or are they largely unaware, unconscious and indifferent to its presence in their lives? Are they trusting, skeptical or indifferent when it comes to science and scientists? If indifference prevails, there are consequences. Apathy and skepticism will undermine respect for the role of science, impacting future scientific endeavours, funding and research.

The data were gathered through a survey of 1,000 people in each of the 14 participating countries divided between the developed and developing world, and delivered three key conclusions: 1) Globally, people are fascinated with science, but a clear and powerful skepticism exists; 2) People appreciate science from a distance, but take it for granted in everyday life; 3) People have high hopes for science, but there are barriers to overcome. (You can unpack the details at https://bit.ly/2E7WMme).

Perhaps the biggest finding was the variability of trust toward science between countries, and that Canada has fallen to the middle of the pack at 55.5 per cent—behind the United States' 57.3 per cent (India leads at an astonishing 67.2 per cent, testament to their educational system and a portent of the future). Can our slide be attributed to conservatives' chipping away at the ivory tower for purely political purposes, as seen—yet again—in a U.S. election that installed as president a blithering idiot incapable of understanding even the most basic science?

As Michelle Pucci wrote in The Walrus of this war of narratives: "The challenge now is reminding political leaders (that) science-based policy differentiates fact and fiction. Human-caused climate change? Fact. Vaccinations linked to chronic illness and autism? Alternative fact."

Public disinterest/distrust in science allows governments to slash budgets the way Harper did and turns a blind collective eye to despotic actions like closing data centres or prohibiting government-funded scientists from talking about their research. Not only did the Trump White House, as one of its first malicious anti-Obama acts, remove information about climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency website, but sought an unprecedented 18-per-cent budget cut to the National Institutes of Health, the primary U.S. science research funding agency. Without public outcry, such cuts, as seen during the Harper regime, are entrenched through subsequent budgets and essentially become irreversible, as Trudeau faces in trying to restore funding to key sectors looted by the HarperCons. And without increasing science awareness among the public, support from the electorate is weak at best.

As Albert Einstein said, "Those who have the privilege to know have a duty to act." By promoting wilful ignorance for decades, politicians are sculpting a society not only bereft of a duty to act, but unaware of the reasons for doing so.

Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.

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