Politically correct science

Peter Jackson
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There’s nothing like being trapped in a circular argument. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? If I say everything I say is false, is that statement true or false?

There are some corners that are easy to get backed into. And one is the corner of objectivity.

Here’s an example: if you’ve lived most of your life in a certain place, you have a certain depth of perspective about yourself and your home. But can you form an objective opinion about a place that is so much a part of you? Or are you doomed to see things only through the lens of your own bias?

To me, this is at the core of recent remarks of — and reaction to — political science professors Alex Marland and Matthew Kerby.

Last week, I voiced annoyance at the views presented by these two professors regarding, among other things, the causes and motivations of political activity in this province.

I feel it important to expound on a couple of issues stemming from that column.

First, there’s the research itself. I have not read much of it, other than a paper on Newfoundland nationalism by Marland. But that, along with comments in a Telegram article, convinced me something didn’t ring true.

Yes, there is a strain of Newfoundland nationalism that is highly xenophobic. There are nationalists here who believe in all sorts of conspiracies with little or no basis in fact. And there are nationalists here who put themselves and their perceived compatriots on an impossibly high pedestal.

But it’s not all delusional. It’s not all hostile and blind to facts.

Marland, in “Masters of our own destiny: the nationalist evolution of Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams,” attempts to define, with references, the terms nationalist, populist and regionalist.

“Nationalism aggressively promotes group interests and a populist ideological myth,” he writes. A broad statement, to be sure, and one that sounds like one of those “Hinterland Who’s Who” spots that used to air in regular rotation on TV: “American bison have been known to migrate hundreds of kilometres to take advantage of the changing availability of food plants. They also promote group interests.”

But here’s another broad sweep from Marland that really over-simplifies things:

“Instead of recalling responsibility for massive economic problems and political incompetence, or celebrating considerable progress since joining Canada, the province’s elites tend to promote economic romanticism, do little to discourage federal conspiracy theories … and generally absolve Newfoundland society of responsibility for bad economic decisions.”

That’s the sort of thing that paints you into a corner. Complain about it, and you’re just another bison … er, nationalist. Don’t complain, and you’re admitting you’ve been living a lie.

And what economic decisions? The Lower Churchill contract? No one I know of absolves Newfoundland (or Joey Smallwood, at least) for this lopsided deal. It was a botch-up, plain and simple.

Yet theorists like Marland like to present it as a psychological demon.

It’s not a demon. It’s a deal from hell. And local politicians don’t just wallow in it; they want to change it. They’ve tried every argument in the book, from a constitutional challenge to the current civil code case based on forseeable unfairness.

To want to right such a terrible wrong hardly requires a mythological backdrop.

Metaphysical constructs may be useful in explaining and even predicting the way people act and interact in some circumstances. But without a deeper appreciation of the economic and cultural history of this province, they are shallow tools at best.

I don’t want to suggest these professors have completely missed the mark. But they do work in one of a handful of academic fields that are rife with pitfalls. That is, trying to make a science out of human activity. It is prone to false premises, and no less susceptible to biases and presupposition than politics itself.

This leads me to the transgression I was most frequently accused of following last week’s column: that of regional chauvinism — or insecurity, depending on your point of view.

To this, I reply that it was not me so much as the professors themselves who raised the spectre. Not only did they suggest they can offer a much more objective perspective, but that, in any case, the local standard of governance and academia leaves something to be desired.

I can see their heads shake at such an accusation, but the phenomenon is not exactly new. As an isolated, loosely-knit people, Newfoundlanders have historically been a magnet for outside observers. In the early ’60s and ’70s, there was a huge influx of social scientists fascinated with what they saw as a pristine culture living off the land and sea.

It generated a wide variety of questionable narratives and theories, including at least a couple of loopy Marxist theories to explain simple community traditions such as mummering.

I mean, there’s xenophobia, and then’s there’s plain common sense.

In fact, much of the supposed romanticism Marland and Kerby describe as being part of the Newfoundland consciousness was spurred by imported influences. Folklorists, for example, promoted a sense of pride that was zealously taken up by local musicians and artists, and spread like wildfire.

Let’s not forget, as well, that insularity is a two-way street. There’s been a lot of bias and misinformation about this province spouted in national circles, often from intelligentsia.

It is just as easy to develop a stereotypical view of the country’s fringe populations from within the bosom of Ontario’s elite as it is to rant against foreigners in Outer Inner Cove.

Objectivity is an impossible quest. One can only strive to rise above it to the best of one’s ability, and to understand one’s own limitations as well as others’.

We all have our baggage. The trick is to check it before we board.


Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Newfoundland society

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, Ontario

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Recent comments

  • The juvenile province of NL was 'SHAFTED ' in the Upper Churchill Contract under the wings of Mother Ottawa.
    March 01, 2011 - 11:40

    There should never have been a bad economic decision made on the Upper Churchill Contract. When that contract was signed, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was but a 'BABE' in the bosom of the Canadian Federation, about 14 years old to the point of the signing of the contract. Our Mother over-seeing government,Ottawa, must have known that our province's experience with big Contract making was almost non-existent up to that time, and given that Ottawa was the mother figure in this situation, it should have guided us into doing a deal that was, at least, as good for our province, as it would be for the province of Quebec. Ottawa cannot be excused for not overseeing that contract for its most juvenile province. The 2 politicial scientists cannot make excuses for Ottawa's lack of guidance. There is simply no excuse.

    • W McLean
      March 02, 2011 - 15:23

      And here's Agnes, proving the point that Russell W. made in his column yesterday.

  • Eva
    March 01, 2011 - 11:26

    I'm from a small town on the mainland. I have no problem being honest about the town's good points AND bad points. Haven't been struck down by lightning yet just because I try to be ojective rather than pretend the community is perfect. And I don't care what anybody else says about the town or the province it's in either. Another thing - Maybe decades ago Nflders were the butt of silly jokes on the mainland, but people are sooooo over that now. Really.

  • Peter Jackson
    March 01, 2011 - 09:20

    Yes, I meant Upper Churchill. Thanks.

  • Brad Cabana
    March 01, 2011 - 08:24

    I'm guessing you meant to say "Upper Churchill contract" instead of the "Lower Churchill contract", although it is our own present day disaster unfolding. We should be learning from the past mistakes...Can't blame Joey Smallwood for this one, but we can stop it before we have to blame anyone.

  • Maurice E. Adams
    March 01, 2011 - 07:22

    Very well said indeed.