Science thwarted – for now

I often play devil’s advocate on political issues and sometimes do it with glee, but the Harper government’s involvement in the recent International Polar Year Conference in Montreal leaves me wondering about the negative role it is playing in politicizing science.

 Let me first say my daughter is a scholarship winning research scientist working on her PHD, so I have a natural bias towards people in lab coats working away in order to find solutions and the truth about countless mysteries, and in most cases their work is based on discovery and not the latest trend in political or social causes.

That said, I can think of only one reason our government may be weary, and that is that it is not the scientists they don’t trust, but the media themselves. My prediction is based on my opinion that most of the science is published in obscure (to layman) journals, which most of us don’t read, and probably most media other than specialists will likely not view as timely or controversial enough to sell front covers. After all, the main focus of a journal is furthering scientific research and publishing details of scientific analysis so that the studies can be reproduced by other scientists.

I am ruling out the publications themselves as immediately necessary in the chain of public information as they are mostly infected by scientific standards for peer review. I then have to point to the human connection between scientist and interviewer. I believe that generalization and cause and effect about complex issues always fill a better sound byte than the mass of data available. After all, in order to explain a concept of even basic science to laymen one has to be analogous or restructure the information for simplicity. The meaning may get lost in the message.

Enter the journalist with his/her salivation for a hot word or catchy phrase. The new “Climate Change” vocabulary, or something that might reverse an attitude held by those in power, is a staple of the main stream media adopted role of undermining authority – the so-called left wing bias and assault on institutions – and exposing injustice. One must admit that the role of the media is to expose, and to announce it quickly sells off the shelf faster. Just ask an expert our media would say –especially since that expertise comes with the price of half truth and misunderstanding in translation.

 The government’s control then is a double edged sword and allows the media to skirt around the questions that are most wanted to sell newspapers and instead make conclusions about non-conclusions such as the story that government agents are controlling scientists at our Montreal Polar Conference, which is more about the government’s attitude than the truth of science. Why not, you can’t ask the real obvious questions like “is climate change real, and if so, is it man made?” It is a pretty effective tactic. What it also does though, is create mistrust and enhances suspicion which will not go away. Perhaps not answered by scientific journals themselves, but the questions will get asked somehow. Politicizing science breaks down trust and polarizes those that can use the information to form their own opinions.

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