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Julie Payette takes on junk science—and tests the limits of her job title

Opinion: The Governor General caused a stir with comments about climate change, evolution and medicine. But it’s the tone, not the facts, that should rankle
Former astronaut Julie Payette takes part in a news conference announcing her appointment as Canada’s next governor general, in the Senate foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 13, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

On Wednesday evening, Governor General Julie Payette said a few things that are true—and a controversy broke out.

In a speech to the Canadian Science Policy Convention this week, the viceregal representative affirmed that climate change is real and caused by humans, that junk science is junk, and that we noble beasts are the product of a random, natural process. All of this checks out according to, well, the scientific method and generally accepted facts.

Admittedly, Payette’s remarks bordered on mockery, which is a problem. “Can you believe…” she started, the usual sign that you’re about to launch into saying that you think someone or some group is really quite stupid. (Reporter Mia Rabson of the Canadian Press described the Governor General’s tone as “incredulous.”) For Canadians who are used to most of their Queen’s representatives contentedly milling about the country as if they were participants in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show—a long, if not unbroken, tradition—her remarks and her delivery of them may be unfamiliar and upsetting, especially those who adhere to a faith that features a divine creation story.

I can understand that. The position of governor general is appointed, non-partisan, and meant to be above—no, let’s say “separated from”—the politics of the day. The man or woman who holds the position is, after all, unaccountable to the public, except circuitously through a prime minister who might choose not to recommend him or her for an extended appointment. Because the position requires a certain distance from the muddy fields where politicians roughhouse, and because the role entails acting as the ceremonial representative of all Canadians (whether you prefer it or not), the governor general ought to refrain from treating the stage as an invitation to practice her material for Yuk Yuk’s.

Tone and content, however, are not the same thing. One could imagine a world in which the existence of human-made climate change isn’t a political issue—indeed, in the future (if we live to enjoy one), I suspect it won’t be an issue because we’ll be too busy dealing with its effects. As for the substance of Payette’s message—that climate change and evolution are real, and that sugar pills are bunk—she might as well have been acknowledging, as political scientist Emmett Macfarlane pointed out, “the existence of gravity.” Indeed. But the controversy seems to be less about Payette’s recognition that climate change, evolution, and the value of mainstream medicine are accepted as fact, and more about her pointing out that, in the 21st century, there are Canadians who doubt that.

Still, while stating facts is one thing, criticizing those who don’t believe in those facts is another. Those are different sorts of utterances and therefore different sorts of acts. The question is whether and when the governor general ought to cross that line. To the former, I say “yes.” To the latter, I say “sometimes.” That’s the wisdom of good governance: knowing when to speak, how to speak, and what to say. In this instance, Payette got the when and what mostly right, but slipped up a bit on the how. It is what she said that is most important, and for that, she ought to be commended. Today, it is more important than ever before for leaders—including the governor general—to make these kinds of statements, to speak the facts.

There are commentators, politicians, “scholars,” and day-to-day citizens who will swear up and down to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that climate change is a hoax or just a naturally occurring phase, that human beings were dropped onto the planet as-is 6,000 years ago, and that crystals cure everything from rashes to cancer. There will always be a collection of people who cling to beliefs that have been categorically rejected by science, others who buy whatever junk science happens to confirm their pre-existing beliefs or jive with their worldview. In that sense, the matters are not “settled”—but in that sense, no matter is settled or ever will be. What should we do? Fit the Governor General with a gag because a small but vocal minority who prefer to ignore the facts are comfortable being mistaken?

Yes, had the Governor General delivered her remarks in a different manner, this little kerfuffle might have been avoided. Phillipe Lagassé, a political scientist and student of all things Westminster, rightly noted that “nobody would have noticed if she called for greater action on climate change”—it was the “pointed way” in which she did it that raises reasonable concern. He cited Prince Charles as a model—who, typically, is a misadventure waiting to happen—in how he phrases his opinions in ways that “please rather than poke.” He’s on to something.

But whereas the Prince shares beliefs that fit well in the category of “opinions,” Payette stated demonstrably true facts. Climate change is real, and it is caused by humans. Humans evolved from other primates through a process of random, natural selection. Mainstream medicine works and sugar pills don’t. On these matters, not only is it fine that our scientist-astronaut-Governor General spoke the facts: it is her duty. It is well-established that Canada, as a country, accepts climate change and evolution and (most of) mainstream medicine as scientifically settled, even if some parliamentarians may not. Payette was not just doing her job as a scientist and educated human being with her remarks; she was also reflecting the position of the state, which she represents, and thus fulfilling the duty of her office in her own way, which is refreshing.

At a time when politicians are constantly tempted to tinker with definitions and to tip-toe around facts to build a world conducive to their agenda and ambitions, Payette standing for the facts should be lauded. If the climate change and evolution deniers and sugar-pill poppers ever take power—which I doubt, thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster—then they can threaten to ignore settled science. But until then, they will just have to live with reality as most of us—including the representative of the monarch in Canada—experience it.