Tag Archives: science

The Canadian Government's War on Science

For those who did not catch this excellent piece in the Toronto Star I encourage you to take a look.

During the Bush era the Canadian war on science was an embarrassing side show to that of its more wildly offensive southern neighbour which regularly silenced scientists, withheld reports, or simply appointed “expert” panels whose credentials were dubious but whose members could be counted on to produce the “right” answer. Indeed, these sad events are well chronicled in Politics And Science In The Bush Administration drafted for Representative Henry Waxman. (This, as an aside, is what happens when you give elected representatives real research budgets – they look into all sorts of issues to keep the government of the day honest. A similar study by a Canadian MP would have stretched their resources beyond their limit).

But just in case you think the Canadian context is radically different, remember that our government has installed unqualified dependents of the oil industry to government scientific bodies. It has censored government scientists, preventing them from talking about their research at scientific conferences. It has barred officials from talking about climate change or harm reduction strategies for drug users. (It even banned one public servant from talking about a fictional book he”d written on climate change). It also disingenuously claims “more research is needed” on issues and then either cuts research programs that look into these questions or attempt to manipulate the process to produce outcomes that align with what they already believe (see the above Toronto Star piece).

This is the sad state of science and policy development in Canada. We alone in the world retain a government that is not interested in uncovering what is actually happening, but in fabricating a reality that conforms to an ideologically pre-determined world view. Our government’s two great allies, the Bush administration in the United States and the John Howard’s government in Australia, have moved on.

Today science is regaining its rightful place in the policy development process as evidenced by Obama’s inauguration speech:

The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

The mention is short and quick, but it was a powerful signal that, for scientists, the Bush era was over. Suddenly science mattered again in the United States. For the Canadian government this line is still more ominous. Their war on science can no longer hide in the shadow of Bush. And none to soon. As a believer in the power of effective public policy the undermining of science has been an attack on the effectiveness of good government. If our government doesn’t believe in science, how are we then to measure success, on what basis are we to decide which policies are more effective?

Oh, and don’t think the world isn’t noticing. You really have to work extra hard to prompt the world’s preeminent scientific journal – Nature – to write a special oped about how your government has become anti-science.

A couple of other fun links regarding our government’s war on science:

Tony Clement, who happily is not longer the Canadian Minister of Health received a swift rebuke for accusing doctors that work at Insite of being unethical.

Gary Goodyear Canada’s Scientific Minister is a creationist. Best response to this sad state of affairs is the incredulous Brian Alters, founder and director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal. He noted this is akin to asking someone “‘Do you believe the world is flat?’ and he doesn’t answer on religious grounds…”

Cool Job in Open Source, Science and Engagement

My friend Rikia S. sent me the link to this cool job posting on the TED website.

Based on astronomer Jill Tarter’s TED Prize wish — to search for signs of intelligent life on other planets – the SETI Institute is hiring a project manager with the experience, qualifications and energy to run the TED Prize wish project for at least two years.

For those interested in Open Source Software, who love science and astronomy and who can engage a large community of citizen-scientists who are contributing to SETI’s efforts, this is a dream job.

The full job description and contact info is on their website:

This is a unique opportunity to work in both open-source software and social media, on a project whose ramifications are literally beyond global.

We are seeking someone with deep experience in managing open-source software projects and the communities that power them to drive a bold and agenda-setting initiative. The initiative will involve managing a traditional open-source software project, as well as a complex public-facing system that will enlist the general/nontechnical public’s assistance in conducting our search. To succeed, a candidate above all needs a history of success in managing major open-source projects. While it’s not essential that this person be a coding engineer, it is essential that s/he be comfortable enough with C++ code to have technically meaningful interactions with committers and the broader open-source community. It’s also essential that s/he be a strong evangelist — able to speak inspiringly in public, and to energize, recruit and maintain engagement with key influencers in the open source coding world.

The other part of the job will be governing a project that will in many ways resemble Galaxy Zoo (an intriguing “citizen scientist” system). This will involve managing a respected Web development company as it creates the site, and thereafter overseeing/”gardening” a large community of nontechnical contributors. We expect this community to be self-policing and self-monitoring, like Wikipedia’s editorial community. But it will need leadership and a baseline architecture, and our hire will be responsible for delivering this.

This is a unique opportunity to work in both open-source software and social media, on a project whose ramifications are literally beyond global.

This will be a full-time role at the SETI Institute for two years, funded by the money TED has allocated toward granting Jill’s wish. However, because this is a TED Prize wish, one in which many people and individuals are giving a lot to make happen, we do hope to find someone who will do this at a reduced rate. We have a large brainstorm taking place on June 1 and would love to have the right person chosen and at the table for that meeting.

Please send a resume and cover letter to tedprize1@ted.com if you are interested in the position.

And please forward this opportunity on to anyone you believe possess the right skills!

Why Canada’s public services need faith

As I mentioned the otherday, I recently finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the text, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term, “paradigm shift.”

Here, in this book about how progress is made in the sciences I was completely floored by this paragraph in penultimate chapter: The Resolution of Revolutions.

…the issue is which paradigm should in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the old paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith. (pages 157-158/3rd edition)

This describes precisely how I feel about Public Service Sector Renewal (reforming the public service). When I talk and write about an open and networked government I understand it raises questions around accountability, ministerial responsibility and human resource management. I’m aware that these are “large problems” for which our present structure has some – albeit highly imperfect and I’d argue, quickly eroding – answers.

Moreover it is true, that if we decided on how and if to reform government based solely on the performance of past models then we would always choose the status quo. The corporate hierarchy has served us well. Any new model will appear, relatively speaking, untested. But a growing number of us know that the status quo is unsustainable.

I know that any new system, however slight the change, will bring with it new challenges and questions, but the paralyzing and untenable problems with the current system will ultimately outweigh these unknowns – even in an organization as conservative as the public service. Ultimately, I am saying that a new system can succeed with many large problems confronting it even as the old system has failed only with a few.

So, as odd as it is to admit, I am, in part, acting on faith. Not only that, I believe the public service is going to learn to have faith as well. Why? Because in the end we won’t have a choice – the old problems this system cannot solve will demand it. We will have to change, and that will mean, someone, somewhere in the public service have put their foot forward into the unknown.

Indeed, many already have.

Structure of Scientific Revolutions vs. The Black Swan (Journalism remix)

Structure of Scientific Revolutions CoverI’ve just finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the title, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term: “paradigm shift.”

I won’t pretend it was an easy to read. Written in a classic academic style, what is a fascinating topic and set of ideas struggles to shine. However, don’t hear me blaming the author for this… it is both that the book comes from another era, and that it springs from a cannon of academic writing that simply doesn’t seek to be as penetrable outside a certain community.

That said, I did enjoy it immensely. One reason is that I once again lucked out and ended up reading it at the same time as another book – Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s The Black Swan – that despite being on a different topics and written 45 years later, dovetails nicely.

blackswan-199x300Paradigm shifts are black swan events. They can be hard, if not impossible to predict. They can arise because of the appearance of a single unforeseen data point (a black swan in a world where all swans were previously believed to be white) and they overthrow systems that we have become overly, comfortably, complacent and reliant on. Finally, although paradigms shifts are rare, because they force us to see the world in an entirely new way they have a disproportional and possibly even unparalleled, impact.

I often like to refer to Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Both Taleb and Kuhn’s books play on this theme. For Taleb, our problem is that we can’t see or predict the changes in our world. We expect that we can predict them and that they’ll arrive in a nice orderly – or bell curve distributed – manner.

They don’t.

Despite the mental image we have of history (and our lives), history doesn’t crawl. It moves it fits and starts. Oscillating between long steady states and sudden change. We often believe the steady states will last forever, and when change comes we trivialize it and then fight it, until it becomes the new steady state, at which point, we come to believe it was always that way.

This is also Kuhn point. Look at how he sees paradigm shifts as being important for both the science and politics changes:

Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environmental that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by growing sense, again restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution…

…The parallel has, however, a second and more profound aspect upon which the significance of the first depends. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favour of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all. Initially it is crisis alone that attenuates the role of political institutions as we have already seen it attenuate the role of paradigms. In increasing numbers individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. At that point the society is divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one. And, once that polarization has occurred, political recourse fails. Because they differ about the institutional matrix with which political change is to be achieved and evaluated, because they acknowledge no supra-institutional framework for the adjudication of revolutionary difference, the parties to a revolutionary conflict must finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion, often including force. Though revolutions have had a vital role in the evolution of political institutions, that role depends upon their being partially extrapolitical or extrainstitutional events. (Kuhn, Pages 92-93 of the 3rd edition)

If you don’t think the world operates this way, just look as far as the news industry.

When Shirky says revolutions are times when “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place” he is paraphrasing Kuhn. Journalism is already dividing into camps, those defending the old, and those seeking to figure out what the “new” will be.

But despite all the discussion, we are still very early on in the debate. How do I know? Because we haven’t even begun to shed the old paradigm? The entire debate about journalism, what it is, how it should be practiced and what makes it good or bad is still being largely being evaluated and adjudicated by the old matrix. When journalism finally gets saved I suspect it will be because it will be, in part, radically redefined – a redefinition affirmed and made possible by the establishment of some new institutions, organizations and/or processes. (That’s what my post on the death of journalist was seeking to do).

So yes, we’ve left the ridiculed phase (that lasted 20 years), but we are still early on in the violently oppose phase. All thos unhappy journalists are angry because they may be the midst of a paradigm shift, and that means much like Newtonian physicists confronting Einstein’s theory of relatively everything, absolutely everything they believed in, fought for, taught and lived. is probably going to get redefined and altered beyond recognition. It will still be there, but it will forever be understood differently.

That’s a scary thought. But it is fun one as well, filled with possibility. Which is why Kuhn and Taleb are fun to read together.

science and neo-progressivism

Those who enjoyed mine and Taylor’s piece on neo-progressives may remember that we claimed both the original progressive and the neo-progressive movements were founded on the pursuit of a few core values:

The rise of industrial capitalism during the 19th century led to a series of tense societal changes. These included the emergence of an urban working class, increasing inequality and the new possibility of total war. In response, three generations of pragmatically driven “progressives” emerged. Opposing both the socialist left and the laissez-faire right, they championed values such as equality of opportunity, meritocracy, government transparency and empirical inquiry.

Andrew Sullivan seems to agree with science/evidence based approaches as being one of them – although the post’s title suggests he doesn’t want to credit earlier progressives with adopting science as well. Andrew’s comments spring from the fact that the science magazine Seed has endorsed Obama:

Science is a way of governing, not just something to be governed. Science offers a methodology and philosophy rooted in evidence, kept in check by persistent inquiry, and bounded by the constraints of a self-critical and rigorous method. Science is a lens through which we can and should visualize and solve complex problems, organize government and multilateral bodies, establish international alliances, inspire national pride, restore positive feelings about America around the globe, embolden democracy, and ultimately, lead the world. More than anything, what this lens offers the next administration is a limitless capacity to handle all that comes its way, no matter how complex or unanticipated.

Sen. Obama’s embrace of transparency and evidence-based decision-making, his intelligence and curiosity echo this new way of looking at the world

This is a battle the original progressives won – it is a sad statement that we are fighting it again. But we will win, again. It does help that we’ve got people like Hitchens on our side and that they are willing to remind us that the GOP really is waging a war on science. The republicans really have which left not only the neo-progressives behind, but also conservative minded progressives (yes, they exist). It’s going to be a tough, ugly, conservative rump that is left.