The quest for knowledge, in Goodyear and bad

Paul Wells on Gary Goodyear, science and religion

The quest for knowledge, in Goodyear and badI’m told that when he was meeting the recipients of the NSERC’s Steacie Fellowships and the nominees for the Herzberg medal yesterday, the Prime Minister expressed surprise that so many were from outside Canada (one’s American, one is Dutch, and one had returned to Canada after spending most of her career in the UK. I may be missing other cases). I can’t imagine why he would be surprised. One of the main selling points of the invigorated national science effort since 1997 is that it has created a climate that makes smart people want to come to Canada. Thousands of researchers from around the world have made Canada their home or returned home from abroad in the last decade. Somebody might have wanted to brief up the PM before yesterday, but apparently the PMO is a little short on people who feel like telling the boss things he wasn’t expecting to hear. Stephen Harper then went on to talk about his plans for more narrowly targeting new research dollars, and for commercializing the products of research. “But we were maybe a bad audience,” one of the researchers told me. “The Steacie Fellows do pure research.”

I am also pleased to announce, given the unpleasantness on the front page of this morning’s Globe, that they believe in evolution. In fact, one of them is a freaking poster boy for evolutionary theory. From a McGill University news release:

It is somehow appropriate that as we mark in 2009 the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and the 200th anniversary of Darwin ’s birth, that an evolutionary expert like Andrew Hendry is recognized. Dr. Hendry heads McGill’s Hendry Lab in Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics and is a leading investigator into the interface between ecological and evolutionary processes and their influence on biodiversity. Most recently, he co-authored a much-cited study about a rarely seen pattern of “disruptive natural selection” leading to the creation of new species among the famous finches of the Galapagos Islands, originally studied by Darwin.

So my reaction to the Globe story is conditioned in part by a senior Canadian official I met in Kandahar last fall, and in part by Miles Davis. We asked the Canadian official whether Kandahar was going to get a good guy for governor sometime soon, and the official said, “Ideally it won’t matter.” This person went on to explain that the province and the country need systems in place that can respond to citizens’ needs, regardless of whether a given governor is a standup guy or a scoundrel. As for Miles, he came in for some criticism from African-American colleagues in 1949 when he hired Lee Konitz, who was not only white but very white, to play saxophone. Davis replied: “I don’t care if he’s green with red breath, as long as he can play.”

What I’m taking the long way around to saying is this: Gary Goodyear can believe what he wants, as long as there are systems in place that ensure an Andrew Hendry can get a Steacie Fellowship. And apparently there are. If the junior minister for science (whose influence on science policy in a Harper government, incidentally, should be reckoned as comparable to the intergovernmental affairs minister’s influence on federalism, or the health minister’s influence on anything measurable) wants to pray to the Tooth Fairy or Salma Hayek every night, then godspeed.

And as long as science can rise in this country, then I would really rather stay out of the business of interrogating ministers to see whether they’re planning to stay in line with somebody’s idea of acceptable thought. (Full disclosure: I believe in evolution, though I am quite sure it doesn’t need my help, and I’m agnostic with gusts to atheism.) If Goodyear and Harper ever try to get their claptrap taught in classrooms as equivalent to evolution, I’ll join whatever committee is in the business of stopping them. Until then, I am as uncomfortable quizzing them about how Christian they are as I would be quizzing Jewish or Muslim MPs about the interface between their faith and their policies. This shouldn’t even be hard: what’s the government doing? We have enough work if we concentrate on that. (And if you care about science, rather than belling cats, then you might want to know the Ottawa Citizen whupped the tar out of the Globe this morning.)

But since the subject has come up, if I were a creationist sitting at the Harper cabinet table, here’s something I might want to think about.

It’s not just Andrew Hendry, it’s just about every conceivable recipient of a natural-science or medical research grant whose work will be embarrassing to somebody who insists on a literal reading of the Bible. Astrophysicists and quantum theorists have no place in their equations for an Earth that’s only a few thousand years old and sits in the centre of everything. Most medical research these days is molecular biology; it depends on DNA as a building block of life, and it operates at levels of detail that make it largely indistinguishable from the hard sciences, so it necessarily partakes of their assumptions about the nature and age of the universe.

So if I were all about God’s creation, I’d be a mite sheepish about funding this never-ending stream of contradictions of my faith. Big ups to the Harper Conservatives if any among them are in that situation but willing to fund science anyway. But the funny thing is, there is a branch of human inquiry that doesn’t pose a bunch of hard questions about where we humans came from, but simply studies what we do in all its richness. That’s the social sciences and its humanities. And it’s the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that’s consistently found itself at the short end of the funding stick, and first in line for humiliating, pointless restrictions on what it can fund with too-rare new research dollars.

My very strong hunch is that it’s because the Harper Government is ashamed of what social scientists poke their noses into. The behaviour and custom of distant lands; literature in funny languages; philosophies whose tenets might not pass the screens erected by the PMO. Questions about the role of women in our society and a thousand others. It’s all so icky. Which is why the Harper government has ensured that this year’s new money for the SSHRC will fund only “business-related” graduate scholarships. And why Harper is so eager to tell visiting scientists about his plans for getting their ideas out of the lab, and so reluctant to ask them what their ideas are. Now, I’m no expert, but I seem to recall that Jesus had the occasional problem with moneychangers. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

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