A Defence of the “War on Science” Metaphor

Two McGill academics throw cold water on the idea that the Harper government is engaged in a War on Science. Here is why they are wrong.

The Canadian Journal of Communications has recently published a “preliminary version” of a paper entitled Getting it Right: Canadian Conservatives and the “War on Science” by Elyse Amend and Darin Barney. In the accompanying editorial, Michael Dorland states that he is making the paper – which is, in his view, “a timely and outstanding account of a hot topic, written with the calm of the very best policy scholarship” – available early “in the interests of democratic debate… to time it with the remaining days of the electoral discussion”.

Materials from the Agriculture Canada Library at Lethbridge, Alberta, were thrown in the trash when the library was closed in 2015. Source: PIPSC.
Materials from the Agriculture Canada Library at Lethbridge, Alberta, were thrown in the trash when the library was closed in 2015. Source: PIPSC.

We agree that the War on Science is – or rather, should be – an important election issue. We are less certain, however, about the quality of the scholarship.

In the first eight pages or so, the authors provide a reasonable history of the issue. Nonetheless, there are some difficulties. For example, the authors contend that science and technology funding has been “consistent”. This is refuted by the very Statistics Canada data they cite: funding decreased by 18% in constant dollars during the Conservative majority government of 2011-15.

More significant issues arise thereafter.

Everyone engaged in this issue understands that the phrase “War on Science” is used rhetorically. As those writing for a journal of communication surely know, metaphor is a very common – and evocative – rhetorical device that can be used to great effect. So it has been here.

Yet the authors seem to have inferred that those who have employed this rhetorical phrase are levelling a substantive accusation, namely, that the Harper government is “anti-science”. For example, we are told:

“The ‘anti-science’ charge has circulated widely in Canada since the Harper Conservatives took power in 2006 and allegedly began their ‘war on science’ (e.g., Death of Evidence, 2012; Dupuis, 2013; Gatehouse, 2013; Turner, 2013).”

But none of these cited sources argues that the Conservatives are “anti-science”. The Death of Evidence rally was a protest against the Harper government’s science policies. John Dupuis’ blog “The Canadian war on science: A long, unexaggerated, devastating chronological indictment” provides a history of cuts to federal science programs and facilities. Gatehouse’s MacLean’s piece focuses on the issue of muzzled scientists and concerns about how federal research dollars are allocated. Chris Turner’s book The War on Science paints a broad canvas, but makes no claim that the Harper government is “anti-science”. Even David Schindler – perhaps the Harper government’s most bitter and implacable scientific foe – doesn’t think this, saying in the Gatehouse piece:

“They’re all for science that will produce widgets that they can sell and tax.”

In short, the “anti-science” charge is a straw man. A conversation with any of the journalists, policy experts or scientists who have been intimately involved in the issue would have made this clear. Judging by the Acknowledgement section of their paper, it appears that the authors chose not to ask.

The authors also contend that those who would like to see a little more consideration of scientific evidence in decision-making believe that decision-makers should simply implement what the science (ostensibly) says:

“Similarly, it is a curious defense of democracy that aggressively champions ‘the laboratory’ as the ‘final arbiter of truth,’ such that all the processes of mediation, translation, and deliberation that are required to make evidence legible and actionable should give way to a straightforward regime of implementation of scientific findings.”

We don’t believe this, nor do we know any scientists who do. The charge is not only tiresome, but palpable nonsense. Of course there is more to decision-making than scientific evidence.

Straw men notwithstanding, what do the author’s eventually conclude?

“There is no question the Harper government’s cuts to publicly funded scientific research negatively affected the state’s capacity to monitor and regulate the environmental impact of commercial activity and industrial development, placing ecological sustainability and public safety at significant risk in an effort to remove constraints on market activity, particularly in the extractive sectors. It is also clear that the communication protocols imposed on federal scientists have dramatically undermined transparency, freedom of expression, and public access to knowledge, and thus contributed to an alarming democratic deficit in Canadian society whereby the ability to hold both government and the private sector accountable has been severely compromised.”

We completely agree. But if this does not constitute a War on Science, then what does?

The problem, apparently, is that the authors don’t like the War on Science metaphor (and the “anti-science epithet”, as they put it) because it is inaccurate:

“… the rhetorical efficiency of the “anti-science” label [is] a proxy for what might be described more accurately as the structural transformation of science along neoliberal lines.”

We wonder how many books Chris Turner would have sold had he elected to go with the title “The structural transformation of science along neoliberal lines”. It is probably a good thing he didn’t.

Scott Findlay is a University of Ottawa biology professor and chairs the Board of Directors of Evidence for Democracy.

Thomas J. Duck is a Dalhousie University atmospheric science professor and is on the Advisory Board of Evidence for Democracy.

(Updated 17 October 2015)