I was born with normal arms and legs, but I narrowly missed a very different outcome.
My mother was presented with the option to take a drug to fight morning sickness. The drug was thalidomide. My mother resisted. If she hadn’t, I could have been born with severe physical defects.
The thalidomide fiasco was a watershed moment.
Thereafter, health agencies instituted stricter oversight of drug testing and approval.
But mistakes still occur on occasion.
Science is not perfect.
Global warming skeptics often point to the ice age scare in the 1970s, a theory that was hyped in the media but not widely endorsed by climatologists.
In 1999, governments and businesses were urged by a growing chorus of experts to make costly adjustments to their computer systems.
The theory was that computer chronometers could not handle the rollover into the year 2000 (Y2K). No mass meltdown occurred.
Science has its low points.
Nonetheless it is misleading to gather these droplets of failure amid a sea of success in an effort to discredit the very foundations of scientific inquiry.
Yet, that is exactly what is happening these days — on an alarming scale.
Oil companies spent millions propping up a facade of counter-information to fight mainstream climate science. Alternative medicine charlatans regularly smear the medical “establishment” in an attempt to divert scrutiny from themselves.
In response, one would expect the government to act as mediator and referee, protecting citizens from overzealous pharmaceutical companies and false prophets alike. It should fund and promote the highest calibre of research, and make that research open and transparent for all to see.
But in Canada, it doesn’t. At least, not anymore.
Headlines in the past week or so have revealed a truly alarming state of affairs.
It’s no secret that Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to fear science. The Conservatives pay lip service to climate change, for example, but surreptitiously undermine efforts to combat it.
When Canada recently dropped out of a United Nations convention on drought, it sent a clear signal of environmental isolationism. Harper has played spoiler before: in support of our asbestos industry — now defunct — Canada single-handedly vetoed a UN vote to require warning labels on the product for overseas sales.
And the government now seems to be on a mission to sugarcoat the bitter reality of Alberta oil.
Last year, government scientists protested in Ottawa against what they see as a sweeping policy to shut them up. This week, the country’s information commissioner announced an extensive review to see if and how scientists are being muzzled.
It’s astounding to think Canada has become an enemy of science itself. Yet, that is exactly what has transpired.
Where science should actually be driving policy, it is now slave to the dictates of Conservative ideology.
Dalhousie Prof. Jeffrey Hutchings notes how seal research he did with Fisheries and Oceans in the late 2000s was suppressed because it conflicted with the minister’s talking points.
It’s all fine to say science is faulty, and that scientists are also driven by their own ideology. This may be true in a few cases, and not in most.
But the big question is, what on Earth can possibly replace it as a rational basis for public policy?
“What makes a method of enquiry count as scientific is not that it employs microscopes, rats, computers or people in stained white coats, but that it seeks to test itself at every turn,” wrote Anthony Gottlieb in Intelligent Life magazine three years ago.
“If a method is as rigorous and cautious as it can be, it counts as good science; if it isn’t, it doesn’t.”
Hutchings says science cannot work in a climate of strict government oversight.
“(When) you inhibit science, you inhibit the acquisition of knowledge,” he wrote in The Toronto Star last month. “Is this something that best serves society?”
Next week: Fighting back
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.