War on Science, Canuck edition

Another day, another “conservatives’ war on science” meme rears its ugly head. Today it’s Allan Gregg, the small-L liberal, former PC Party-pollster and regular “conservative” pundit on the CBC nightly news.

Gregg, who has never forgiven the Reform Party of Canada for facilitating his own self-destruction of the PCs, called out Stephen Harper’s Conservatives for being anti-science in a speech given to Carlton University the other day. He starts out with the usual Orwellian-dystopia trope, which is a odd way to attack a government which is trying to devolve power away from Ottawa,  and soon quotes from Al Gore’s “Assault on Reason” of all people, in an attempt to show that he, like all enlightened people, are reasonable. This means that anyone who disagrees with him are unreasonable and, therefore, anti-science, anti-progress, etc.

Gregg then bolsters his argument with evidence to show how Evil Harper Co. are systematically dismantling all that is reasonable and scientific in our society.

I have spent my entire professional life as a researcher, dedicated to understanding the relationship between cause and effect. And I have to tell you, I’ve begun to see some troubling trends. It seems as though our government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy is declining, and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency are on the rise. And even more troubling …. Canadians seem to be buying it.

One of the troubling trends Canadians didn’t buy was Gregg’s idea that a physical impediment was somehow a detriment to political leadership.

My concern was first piqued in July 2010, when the federal cabinet announced its decision to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. The rationale for this curious decision was that asking citizens for information about things like how many bathrooms were in their homes was a needless intrusion on their privacy and liberty. One might reasonably wonder how knowledge about the number of toilets you have could enable the government to invade your privacy, but that aside, it became clear that virtually no toilet owners had ever voiced concerns that the long form census, and its toilet questions, posed this kind of threat.

As I noted last year, the only stakeholders not consulted in the development of the StatsCan empire were those being compelled to participate in the survey, so I’m not sure how Allan Gregg knows who voiced what concerns.

Again, as someone who had used the census – both as a commercial researcher and when I worked on Parliament Hill – I knew how important these data were in identifying not just toilet counts, but shifting population trends and the changes in the quality and quantity of life of Canadians. How could you determine how many units of affordable housing were needed unless you knew the change in the number of people who qualified for affordable housing? How could you assess the appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the amount of disposal income available to eligible recipients?

One place to start would be to, you know, ask the recipients of affordable housing about their available disposable incomes first instead of surveying the entire country.

And even creepier …

This from someone who wants to know how many toilets I have.

… why would anyone forsake these valuable insights – and the chance to make good public policy – under the pretence that rights were violated when no one ever voiced the concern that this was happening? Was this a one-off move, however misguided? Or, the canary in the mineshaft?

You now have two choices: you could take Stephen Harper at his word that the privacy of citizens outweighed the demands of social architects; or you could insinuate that anyone who agrees with the government’s decision is unreasonable and anti-science. Guess which way Gregg chooses.

Then came the Long Gun Registry. The federal government made good on their promise to dismantle it regardless of the fact that virtually every police chief in Canada said it was important to their work. Being true to their election promises? Or was there something else driving this decision?

Something else, such as a cost-benefit analysis based on reason and sound statistics?

Then, came the promise of a massive penitentiary construction spree which flew directly in the face of a mountain of evidence indicating that crime was on the decline. This struck me as a costly, unnecessary move, but knowing this government’s penchant to define itself as “tough-on-crime”, one could see – at least ideologically – why they did it. But, does that make it right?

Kingston Penitentiary was built in 1834 and declared a national historic site in 1990. Leclerc, another facility to be shut down, is over 50 years old. Prince Albert’s federal pen opened in 1911. Millhaven opened over 40 years ago, while Kent and Edmonton‘s over 30 years ago.  Stony Mountain opened seven years shortly after the Red River Rebellion. The Atlantic Institution is a mere 25 years old. Perhaps — just perhaps — the Tories’ goal isn’t to lock people up and throw away the key but, rather, to modernize the Canadian penitentiary system.

One suspects Allan Gregg wishes for non-compliant old farmers who forgot about grandpa’s rusty shotgun in the shop to be crammed in dank, crowded prison cells along with other social deviant prisoners.

Then came the post-stimulus federal budget of 2012 which I eagerly awaited to see if there would be something more here than mere political opportunism.

Here it comes.

[W]hen then the specific cuts started to roll out, an alarming trend began to take shape.

  • First up were those toilet counting, privacy violators at Stats Canada – ½ (not 6%, but 50%) of employees were warned that their jobs were at risk.

Perhaps Gregg can find statistics on how many private-sector jobs are denied annually in this country because of an over-staffed bureaucracy.

  • 20% of the workforce at the Library and Archives of Canada were put on notice.

See above.

  • CBC was told that it could live with a 10% reduction in their budgetary allocation.

If this reduction results in Gregg losing his regular pundit post on The National, chalk one up for “reason”.

  • In what was described as the “lobotomization of the parks system” (G &M – May 21, 2012), 30% of the operating budget of Parks Canada was cut, eliminating 638 positions; 70% of whom would be scientists and social scientists.

How many would be “scientists” and how many would be “social scientists”? Look, I’ve been laid off and it sucks. I have plenty of sympathy for those who lose their jobs, especially if they have to uproot their lives and find other work. That said, most legitimate scientists should easily find other work. I can’t say the same for social scientists.

  • The National Roundtable on the Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science were, in Orwell’s parlance, “vaporized”; saving a grand total of $7.5 million.

Could Gregg or anyone else tell me why taxpayers are directly funding lobby groups?

  • The Experimental Lakes Area, a research station that produced critical evidence that helped stop acid rain 3 decades ago and has been responsible for some of our most groundbreaking research on water quality was to be shut down.

That’s one way to put it. Another, more accurate way would be to say that the ELA didn’t so much “help stop acid rain” as it provided evidence that acid rain wasn’t really the threat everyone made it out to be. However, I know of some environmental scientists who used data from the ELA to re-enforce their own findings.

  • The unit in charge of monitoring emissions from power plants, furnaces, boiler and other sources is to be abolished in order to save $600,000.

This is because provinces are responsible for monitoring emissions, not the federal government.

  • And against the advice of 625 fisheries scientists and four former federal Fisheries Ministers – saying it is scientifically impossible to do — regulatory oversight of the fisheries was limited to stock that are of “human value”.

Again,  the provincial ministries of environment are fully capable of taking over DFO’s role in prosecuting farmers for building culverts in streams bearing suckers and other useless fish.

  • To add insult to injury, these amendments was bundled in with 68 other laws into one Budget Bill, so that – using the power of majority government – no single item could be opposed or revoked.

I’m with Gregg on this one. While I approve of most of Harper’s decisions, his power over that of parliament has gone overboard as he continues the trend established by Trudeau, Mulroney and Chretien.

  • On the other side of the ledger however, the Canada Revenue Agency received an $8 million increase in its budget so that it had more resources available to investigate the political activity of not-for-profit and charitable organizations.

Like I said, the man’s got priorities.

I’m surprised, however, that Gregg didn’t mention the streamlining of the Canadian Environment Assessment Act requirements or the reductions at Environment Canada. Why did Gregg forget these heinous actions? What’s he hiding?

Ok, so now the facts were beginning to tell a different story. This was no random act of downsizing, but a deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously viewed as a legitimate part of government decision-making – namely, using research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions. It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies.

How, exactly, do the cuts to the CBC and the construction of penitentiaries fall under the use of “science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies”?

Maybe dismantling the Wheat Board; or pre-emptively squashing collective bargaining; or sending more potheads to jail is a good thing. But before we make those decisions, let’s look at all the facts; have a fulsome and rational debate; and make a reasoned decision of what is in the best interests of all the parties involved. For voters to determine whether these are measures they support or oppose requires that they know what is at stake and what the government is actually doing.

Just  like how we had a fulsome and rational debate on the merits of the Kyoto Protocol before it was signed and ratified by the Canadian government. Oh, wait …

Anyways, Gregg goes on to offer his explanation over why he thinks Harper’s doing this, how wrong he is, and the like. Gregg states that Harper rules on conviction, not statistics or reason, and then starts making some baseless assumptions as to what Canadians “feel”. It gets pretty tedious (and just imagine if I went through it all for you) but you’re welcome to read it yourself.

My point is, however, is that if Gregg wants to read Harper’s mind for us, he should be prepared to have others do the same to him, which I have done.

I don’t for a moment believe Harper is conducting an “assault on science” but, again, that he’s prioritizing his government just as a majority government is granted legal (if not moral or ethical) authority to do so. My bold prediction is that all his big changes won’t amount to too much detriment to the country because Canadians will get by, like they always have. We’re not going to see masses of starving people suddenly take to the streets, we’re not going to see widespread devastation of our natural environment. We’re going to be fine, and we would be even better if we didn’t freak out whenever a distasteful party takes over our government because ultimately government is a lot less effectual than it and we are led to believe.

For that, I am thankful.

(h/t Jordon Cooper)

UPDATE: Thanks to lance for the link

  1. #1 by Herman Dost on September 27, 2012 - 10:42 am

    Peter Mansbridge at the CBC named Allan Gregg as one of the conservative commentators on the National, along with Andrew Coyne, to show that the CBC was balanced. This was in response to my criticism that the CBC did not employ any conservative commentators.
    Thanks for your commentary on Allan’s article. I’m with the Prime Minister all the way.

    • #2 by blamecrash on September 27, 2012 - 6:50 pm

      CBC’s “Made for TV” conservatives are a lot different then your typical “real conservative”.
      For example, a real conservative would never have a full blown hissy fit on national television and proclaim that “On May 2nd, I’m voting Liberal”, but the CBC’s conservatives would.

  2. #3 by sustainliberty on September 27, 2012 - 5:08 pm

    “… dismantling the Wheat Board…[prosecuting drug offences]… before we make those decisions, let’s look at all the facts; have a fulsome and rational debate…”

    We did.You ignored us. I think it was because every time your side stepped into a rational debate, you were embarrassed.

    -Pete EE

  3. #4 by scf on September 27, 2012 - 10:35 pm

    If Gregg is what passes for a conservative these days then I’m Albert Einstein.
    His post is nothing more than equivocating leftist government social engineering with science, and it is quite easy to debunk such a flawed assertion. Science is not about asserting control over other people.
    As an example of his flawed reasoning, like you said: to be quoting Orwell when a government is reducing its size and reach, well, that is simply absurd.

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