Rendered mute

Peter Jackson
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It’s hard to know what makes Lawrence Solomon tick.

The National Post columnist has devoted most of his energy to spreading myths and promoting flawed research. His usual target is climate science.

This week, however, Solomon resurrected absurd spectres about the safety of vaccines, overplaying their risks, underplaying their immense benefits and even implying that the supposed vaccine-autism link has not been firmly and decisively refuted.

With people like Solomon around, you can see how important it is that scientists — the credible ones, working in reputable facilities at reasonable arm’s length from interfering interests — are given every opportunity to report their findings as openly and honestly as possible.

Under former U.S. president George W. Bush, scientific agencies experienced an alarming level of interference. A 2007 congressional committee reported how the White House not only put pressure on scientists to tailor their findings, but even physically altered those findings after the fact.

As an example, the committee discovered that the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) made at least 181 edits to the administration’s Strategic Plan of the Climate Change Science Program in an effort to exaggerate or emphasize uncertainties expressed by qualified scientists.

A line that talked of the “severe impacts on goods and services” from climate change was changed to “significant (positive or negative) impacts on goods and services.” Throughout the document, firm scientific statements were watered down with terms such as “possibly” and “believed to.”

The edits were implemented by CEQ chief Philip Cooney. For the previous 15 years, Cooney worked for the American Petroleum Institute. In that role, he devised an action plan for the oil industry to massage the message getting out to the public. The goal was spelled out in a memo leaked to The New York Times:

“Victory will be achieved when … average citizens ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science; … recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom’; … (and) media coverage reflects balance on climate science and recognition of the validity of viewpoints that challenge the current ‘conventional wisdom.’”

Mission accomplished, it would appear.

A couple of years ago, President Barack Obama issued his own memo, one designed to put an end to just these sorts of shenanigans.

The memo was sent to the heads of executive departments and, according to The Globe and Mail’s Mark Hume, “affirmed his support for transparency in government and urged directors to foster a culture of scientific integrity.”

“The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions,” Obama wrote. Are you listening, Stephen Harper?

Because no matter how sinister the deeds of political and industry operatives may seem south of the border, the virtual gag on Canadian scientists remains as tight as ever.

In the U.S. now, scientists cannot only speak freely, but even offer opinions — as long as they specify whether their opinions are theirs or those of the government.

In Canada, scientists must request permission to speak about research, and are often refused.

That was certainly the case last year, when Natural Resources Canada barred a Canadian researcher from speaking about his work on the breaking up of an ice dam until it was vetted through the minister’s office. That process left the scientist in limbo for a week. And the ice-dam incident? That took place 130,000 years ago.

“Science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analyses from inappropriate political influence,” wrote presidential assistant John Holdren, in a followup memo to Obama’s directive.

In Canada, how can we possibly trust science that is systematically muzzled by political overseers?

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email:

Twitter @pjackson_NL

Organizations: National Post, CEQ, White House Council on Environmental Quality American Petroleum Institute New York Times Globe and Mail Natural Resources Canada

Geographic location: U.S., Canada

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