This is the Way the Year Begins

…Not with a Bang but with a Rant.

Christmastime in the Watts household has always been a time for impotent fury. It is a time to reconnect with old friends seen only during this special season, career biologists who stuck it out and stayed the course and got good steady jobs at universities and federal labs. It is a time to be reminded anew of the price these people pay for their steady paycheques: principles hammered into compromise, compromise flattened down to mushy unmitigated defeat, that grad-school spark of pure delight and scientific curiosity extinguished like a cigarette flushed down the john. It is a time to give thanks, to remember that there are worse fates than poverty; a time to look into the mirror and grin, because baby, you haven’t changed.

But it is also a time to raise your voice and rant, because what good is science if its practitioners are forced to wear ball gags, lest they discover things our rulers don’t want to hear?

Not so long ago, journalists in this country could actually communicate in a meaningful way with federal scientists. It would work something like this: a reporter would call up a scientist and ask about their research. The scientist — pleased beyond measure that someone else in a global population of 6.5-billion might actually be interested in the lachrymal secretions of herring gulls — would answer. The interview would appear in some newspaper or magazine. David Suzuki would get to be condescending on The Nature of Things. Everybody won.

Then we had an election, and a significant number of Canadians — not a majority by any means, but enough to make the difference — did what people en masse have been doing the world over since history began: they proved to be a bunch of fucking morons. So it came to pass that a sweaty, pallid, insecure, and not-especially bright politician of the neocon variety ascended to the throne. His name was Stephen Harper, and holy shit did he ever change things in a hurry.

For one thing, he tried to dismantle the Canadian Wildlife Service: that part of Environment Canada charged with wildlife habitat, endangered species, a whole gamut of conservation issues. He didn’t succeed completely — historically the CWS has quite the international rep, and the Tories weren’t expecting the backlash that resulted. So Harper settled for mere emasculation. Henceforth the CWS would no longer be allowed to conduct “research”. It would only be allowed to “monitor” wildlife. Real research would occur under the purview of — wait for it — “Wildlife and Landscape Science” (which is presumably also responsible for the topiary at the Prime Minister’s residence, if not the actual Interior Decorating within it)1.

For some time now, federally-employed biologists have been given a script to read when approached by journalists in search of a story: “Thank you for your questions. I will be working with our media relations section and we will respond to you as soon as we can. Please direct any further inquiries to media@ec.gc.ca or call 819-934-8008/1-888-908-8008”. Journalists are then required to send their questions to the Ministry of Truth Media Relations, who forward those questions they deem admissible on to the actual scientific authority. Said authority’s written answers are then reviewed and edited by MR before being sent back to the journalist. On those rare occasions when the scientist is actually permitted to speak directly with his interviewer over the phone, Media Relations monitors the call, one restless finger on the kill switch lest their bitch stray too far from her assigned script.

This is what passes for scientific openness in the Harper government. And just last fall, we the people once again proved what idiots we are by reelecting this brain-dead shit-sack by an even bigger margin than we did the first time.

Of course, the censoring of science is hardly an exclusively Harperian, or even an exclusively Conservative activity. Canada’s previous Liberal government also had a fondness for suppressing politically-inconvenient findings2. But while you’d expect all politicians to mistrust any endeavor based on fact-based empiricism, Harper’s naked ideology crosses the line from pragmatic indifference to outright vendetta. The Clintons and Chretiens of the world merely bristle at research which impedes their political agendas. The Harpers and the Bushes, in contrast, seem to abhor science — seem to abhor intelligence — on general principles, unless it feeds directly into the engineering of petrochemical tech.

This is not news. It has, in fact, been going on for some time, and anyone familiar with the sad history of the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency is probably singing me a chorus of Cry me a river of tears, beaver-boy even as they read these words. But it is something we should be aware of, and stay aware of, until someone rids us of these troublesome priests.

Harper and Hallmark hope that you spent the past few weeks contemplating the birth of some mythical martyred bastard-child whose primary contribution to western civilization included such tyrant-friendly platitudes as Turn the other cheek and Render unto Caesar. I would ask you instead to think of more important matters. Friends in the machine visit me like the Ghosts of fucking Christmas Past, and remind me of the way we really do “science” in this benighted excuse for a civilized country. They won’t object if I remind you in turn.

Just so long as I don’t call them by name.

1You might wonder where one would draw the line between “research” and “monitoring”. If so, you’ve got a better grasp of such concepts than Harper’s own bean-counters, at least one of which tried to eliminate field work from the CWS’s BC offices on the grounds that “You collected field data last year, and the year before. Why do you need to do it again this year?”

2I actually signed a petition protesting one such event, back in the mid-nineties. It was the only time my picture ever appeared on the front page of a major daily— front and center and above the fold, no less— and may have marked the most significant impact I ever made as a biologist. Think about that: scrawling my name on a piece of paper raised a louder noise than two decades of actual research on a variety of threatened, soon-to-be-threatened, and downright endangered species. Either the quality of my research was downright Palinesque or there’s something seriously fucked about the way conservation issues are dealt with in this country.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Friday January 02 2009at 05:01 pm , filed under rant, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

17 Responses to “This is the Way the Year Begins”

  1. “Beaver-boy.” Now there’s one you don’t hear every day.

    I have no words of real comfort, aside from the possibility that these facts may show up on the citizenship exam one day, and I’ll remember them. And hey, after that, I’ll actually have a vote.

  2. I’m just glad it’s not the cat in the cross-hairs.

  3. To the tune of “I Love a Parade”:

    I love a good rant. This might be a good one, I don’t know, not being in the Canadian Wildlife Service, and not having any inside track on Harper’s need for a bullet in his kitten-koddling head as suggested by the kreepy photograph.

    What I can say, being up to my damn eyeballs in Superfund contractors. is that the US EPA has taken a few hits from Republican administrations in the last 20 years, including bringing in an interim administrator for 2 weeks to sign off on regulations the White House wanted in 2005. I get an extended rant by asking, “So, guys, what was the most egregious manipulation of the EPA you remember?”

    This blogger’s and their comments further my impression that the tug of war over how quickly we should utterly crap all over the natural world proceeds apace in several “civilized” countries, which dovetails with Watt’s We Are So Screwed theory.

    However, Peter is wrong that he hasn’t changed, or at least, I would hope to Vishnu he has changed somewhat since grad school, since the process of maturing includes The Great Disillusionment in which we figure out the difference between what we were taught about how things ought to be and the much less romantic and much more complicated way it actually works. (JTK doesn’t always get the after-the-fact waiver from Starfleet Command.) A person who hasn’t changed since grad school has stagnated.

    But we are specifically talking about scientific curiosity, aren’t we?

    Does poverty help keep the fires of inquiry alive? I don’t know. I know two people who currently are in actual experimental research stuff, and they’re both poor, and I get to hear about the drudgery of grant-getting and the irritation of biological stuff in the lab acting randomly when you need consistent results, etc. However, every now and then I see them light up talking about the process, and they continue to work in their fields so there must be something in research that makes the poverty worth it.

    I’m glad to know, however, that someone out there is getting rich doing science so our blogger can look in the mirror and feel good that he didn’t trade his integrity for the fabulous wealth that follows the professional experimentalist. Canada must pay her scientists better than the US does, because it is very easy here to earn a miserable paycheck-to-paycheck living in science.

  4. …what good is science if its practitioners are forced to wear ball gags…

    You obviously don’t know some of the scientists I’ve known.

  5. Good rant. Makes me want to reply in kind:

    Oh hell, if it were only a vendetta against conservation and the very idea of Global Climate Change, it might almost be tolerable♖.

    No, what the neocons are doing is waging total war against the very basic tenets of science, especially the notion of externally verifiable truth. They want “truth” to mean whatever they say, when they say it♔.

    And the things they want to claim as “truth” are necessarily at odds to what you’ll find in the real world, because all they care about is justifying their own delusions of power, righteousness, and adequacy.

    ♖ Well, not really. But if it were limited, I might be willing to stop at one assassination.

    ♔ And if they change what they say, the truth automagically retcons itself to match.

  6. Speakerstomanagers: “And the things they want to claim as “truth” are necessarily at odds to what you’ll find in the real world, because all they care about is justifying their own delusions of power, righteousness, and adequacy.”

    I have to agree that their reality is fundamentally different, and that’s part of the problem. Why are these folks immune to appeals about the environment? I have a theory that it has to do with the politician mentality.

    Most people who make politics their life’s work are “people” persons. To them, you get things done via people, and their reality is verbal, not mathematical or scientific, on the average. The longer they’re in politics, the more experience they have in which actions are taken and work is done via talking to and persuading people.

    It feeds into their gut intuition that the prime active particles of the universe are people and persuasion, so somewhere in the back of their minds is the idea that they can persuade the environment’s importance or good health to and fro by force of their rhetoric and personal magnetism. The idea of an underlying concrete reality which cannot be bartered with gets severely eroded, so the danger of certain environmental policies simply isn’t real to them.

    “They want “truth” to mean whatever they say, when they say it.”

    Definitely. That is the politicians’ credo. Orwell was right in many ways.

  7. I believe the word everyone’s looking for here might be “sophistry.”

  8. No, Madeline, I think the word was doublethink. The scary thing is I’m pretty sure The Bushies and the Harperites read Orwell as younger pigfuckers and decided to use 1984 as an operations manual.

  9. Don’t you think Orwell might have read a little Plato in his day?

  10. Yes, of course Orwell read some Plato! I’d be surprised if he didn’t.

  11. I love it when you rant, Peter.

    Now, I have to admit to not having a clue what the word? “scilitics” referrs to…

  12. Madeline said…
    I believe the word everyone’s looking for here might be “sophistry.”

    Ray said…
    No, Madeline, I think the word was doublethink.

    You guys have gotten at the question of where the responsibility for these messes sits?

    If Mssrs Bush, Cheney, Rove, Harper, et cetera, are true doublethinkers, they hold two contradictory concepts simultaneously without dissonance – for instance, that we can allow unregulated industry and still have clean ground water.

    Double think correctly done means you believe both ideas, while a sophist could be quite aware that he was using language to deceive, an intentional rhetorical device. I’ve always wondered when listening to them speak publicly if they could honestly believe the crazy stuff they were spouting, or at least which parts they have convinced themselves are true.

    Lots of politicians you can hear what is spin and what is dogma for them. It was scary to listen to Cheney particularly, because he sounded so convinced.

    Think Harper believes what he’s saying?

  13. “Harper’s naked ideology crosses the line from pragmatic indifference to outright vendetta.”

    Look in a mirror.

  14. The ever-courageous “Anonymous” said…

    …Look in a mirror.

    I see you’ve noticed the crosshairs.

    I hope you’ll agree, however, that there’s a significant difference between responding to an act of provocation and instigating one. The former is merely an act of self-defense; the latter is an assault.

    And speaking as a person with one foot in the sciences and the other in the humanities — as someone targeted both by Harper’s censorship of open science and by his contemptuous description of artists as rich people at galas whining about the size of their grants — I regard myself as more than justified in returning fire.

    Stephen Harper has a federal government at his command, replete with the power to invent laws and to use all manner of coercive force to ensure compliance. I have Photoshop and a blog. Somehow, I think ol’ Stevie will be okay.

  15. A different, and somewhat more thoughtful Anonymous said…

    However, Peter is wrong that he hasn’t changed, or at least, I would hope to Vishnu he has changed somewhat since grad school, since the process of maturing includes The Great Disillusionment in which we figure out the difference between what we were taught about how things ought to be and the much less romantic and much more complicated way it actually works. (JTK doesn’t always get the after-the-fact waiver from Starfleet Command.) A person who hasn’t changed since grad school has stagnated.

    I don’t know. Maybe I have stagnated: certainly my position on a lot of Big Issues doesn’t seem to have changed fundamentally since my early twenties. Maybe I’m just not open to new insights, but I’d hope that isn’t the case. There are other issues in which my position has changed substantially.

    I think I disagree about maturity necessarily involving The Great Disillusionment, though. I know exactly what you mean — I've seen a whole shitload of people go from fiery idealism to gray, indifferent acquiescence to The Way Things Are — but I get the sense they do that not so much because they've "matured" as because they've been trapped. They start a family. They take out a mortgage. They have to make payments on the car, and the kids' college fund. And suddenly they can't afford their principles, simply because other people are depending on them. They can’t afford to not toe the line, because all of a sudden it’s more than just one person, a couple of cats, and a cheap apartment; a whole family ends up on the street if you rise up and raise that middle finger. They sell out, but they sell out for the right reasons: to protect their loved ones.

    In that sense it’s been easier for me. I don’t really have any loved ones to speak of, at least none that a) depend on me financially and b) can’t be comfortably maintained with a bowl of kibble and a trip to the vet now and then. I have always had the option of raising the middle finger and telling the boss to fuck off, and I’ve done that more than once. On balance I feel good about that, but the tradeoff is that I don’t have the nice house or the steady paycheque or the long-term financial security. And because I can afford to actually speak up when so many others only wish they could, I end up with this reputation— and bookstore proprietors who don't know me make confident assertions about my "moodiness" when their customers come in looking for a copy of Ten Monkeys Ten Minutes.

    I'm not as cynical or as disillusioned as many seem to think— hell, why do I keep flying off the handle at each new example of human stupidity if I didn't, on some level, expect better?— but does that render me stagnant, or less "mature" than my mortgage-saddled brethren?

    I don't know. Maybe. Perhaps I should do a poll…

    Canada must pay her scientists better than the US does, because it is very easy here to earn a miserable paycheck-to-paycheck living in science.

    I can’t say whether Canada pays her scientists better than the US does. I can only state with confidence that Canada’s scientists get paid way better than me.

    rayp said…

    You obviously don’t know some of the scientists I’ve known.

    Or at least, I haven’t dated them.

    And perhaps yet another Anonymous (or maybe one of the previous ones) said…

    I have a theory that it has to do with the politician mentality. … their reality is verbal, not mathematical or scientific … so the danger of certain environmental policies simply isn’t real to them.

    Huh. I had not thought of that. It makes a lot of sense, though— and it redefines your average politician as someone who isn't so much willfully blind as someone merely shaped by their own empirical (if sadly lopsided) experience. Which to some extent gets them off the hook in terms of personal culpability.

    Hmmm. Not sure how much I like that perspective…

    Teresa said…

    Now, I have to admit to not having a clue what the word? “scilitics” refers to…

    It’s a mooshing-together of “science” and “politics”, and generally refers to the unhealthy influence of the latter on the former.

    As an author, I get to make up words. I have a Creative Commons license to neologise.

  16. Good rant, Peter. It all sounds very familiar to me, but then I’ve been living in Alberta for the past twenty-odd years and the neocon toadstool reared its leprous head out here a long time ago. I used to work on endangered species status (used to work, used to), but one public expression of esteem for the Tories’ environmental policies and that was that. You’ve said all that needs to be said so all I’ll say is thanks for putting it so well.

    Cheers – Lars

  17. Huh. I had not thought of that. It makes a lot of sense, though

    Thank you. *smiles*