Don’t trust Canadian scientists

It seems that Canadian government scientists (that is, those who work directly for the Canadian government, rather than just those who receive funding from it) are being insulated from media contact behind a wall of bureaucrats. Interview requests from media cannot go directly to the scientists, but must be vetted by officials. Those officials may ask for written questions beforehand; they can select which (if any) questions will be answered; and they can redirect requests to other scientists or simply deny the requests entirely. (See the CBC or BBC articles for more details.)

On the face of it, this is an outrage. The greatest value of science – one might say its very essence – is the constant effort to shrug off the various forms of conscious and unconscious bias that distort our understanding of the real world. For a scientific message to be filtered through politically-minded bureaucrats is like filtering clean drinking water through used toilet paper.

It’s important not to blow this out of proportion. It’s not that scientists at large are being muzzled in Canada – only the ones directly employed by the federal government.

So, as consumers of science, the reasonable response is simply to disregard any science reported by the federal government and its scientists. Even if the scientists themselves are perfectly ethical and unbiased, and even if the only actions of the filter are to selectively suppress research (ie, not rewriting or falsifying results), this biases the overall picture painted by the results. (A similar travesty is practiced by pharmaceutical companies – and opposed by scientists and other public interest groups.)

As a taxpayer, I am not inclined to pay for something that is of no value to me. So I suggest the federal government either remove these draconian restrictions or halt all of its science programs. Obviously, removing the restrictions would be better – it would reduce bureaucracy costs and remove (or at least lessen) the taint of political bias on the research being reported, while allowing valuable scientific research to continue.

I would like to mention one point that has been raised in favour of this bureaucratic filter: that scientists are not always good communicators of science.

It is a legitimate concern. Very few people are good communicators of science.

Scientists tend to be the most unbiased about the naked facts of their studies, but can get over-excited about the implications, and can get invested in a particular interpretation. Journalists are increasingly ignorant of scientific methods, and so they tend to exaggerate the implications of studies even more than the scientists, in order to get the more interesting headline. They also lack the perspective that comes from knowing what other studies have been done on a topic, and from understanding the nature of the scientific process. Politicians and bureaucrats are as bad as journalists at understanding the science, and have strong motivations to “spin” (ie, distort) the science to serve their political ends.

It is unlikely that politicians can be reformed in this sense – not so long as popular opinion drives their fortunes. (That is, not so long as we live in a democracy.) Journalists, likewise, will tend to go for the sexy headline over accurate science, so we cannot expect them to self-educate.

On the other hand, there are already movements within the scientific community to encourage better communication outside academia. My vote is to put further emphasis on this solution. Teach more scientists to communicate their research well.

Until that happens, I still think inept-but-well-meaning scientists’ communication of research is the lesser evil.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16881087

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