Posts filed under Science

Government science

For nearly a decade, the Conservative government in Canada enforced formal rules and a byzantine censorial bureaucracy deliberately intended to control the time, manner and content of any and all public statements by every one of the many scientists working for branches of the Canadian government. Of course this policy destroyed open communication, hampered research, and damaged the careers of promising scientists. It was often used heavyhandedly to censor scientists’ discussion of their own research to comply with political priorities and even to muffle public criticism of the governments’ communications procedures or censorship policies.

The basic liberal response is to look at this horrible situation and say, This is why it’s important to elect governments that won’t try to control what the scientists that work for them can say to the public. Just think of what might happen in Canada if the political winds reverse.

The radical response is to look at this horrible situation and say, This is why it’s important for scientists to be independent of government funding. If scientists work for the government, then their jobs are dependent on a political process and they are subject to political control. But scientific shouldn’t be subject to the direction of the political winds.

The original article from Nature follows below.

Shared Article from Nature News & Comment

Nine years of censorship

Canadian scientists are now allowed to speak out about their work — and the government policy that had restricted communications.

Nine years of censorship

Early one Thursday morning last November, Kristi Miller-Saunders was surprised to receive a visit from her manager. Miller-Saunders, a molecular geneticist at the Canadian fisheries agency, had her reasons to worry about attention from above. On numerous occasions over the previous four years, government officials had forbidden her from talking to the press or the public about her work on the genetics of salmon — part of a broad policy that muzzled government scientists in Canada for many years. At one point, a brawny minder had actually accompanied her to a public hearing to make sure that she didn’t break the rules.

But the meeting last autumn was different. Miller-Saunders’ manager at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in Nanaimo walked in with a smile and gave her advance notice that the newly elected government would be opening up scientific communication: she and other federal researchers would finally be free to speak to the press. . . .Canadian scientists celebrated the move far and wide. . . . Six months later, the government is loosening its grip on communications but the shift at some agencies has not been as swift and comprehensive as many had hoped. And with the newfound freedom to speak, the full impact of the former restrictions is finally becoming clear. Canadian scientists and government representatives are opening up about what it was like to work under the former policy and the kind of consequences it had. Some of the officials who imposed the rules are talking about how the restrictions affected the morale and careers of researchers. Their stories hint at how governments control communications in even more politically repressive countries such as China, and suggest what might happen in Canada if the political winds reverse.

The crackdown on government scientists in Canada began in 2006, after Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party was elected prime minister. During the nine-year Harper administration, the government placed a priority on boosting the economy, in part by stimulating development and increasing the extraction of resources, such as petroleum from the oil sands in Alberta. To speed projects along, the administration eased environmental regulations. And when journalists sought out government scientists to ask about the impacts of such changes, or anything to do with environmental or climate science, they ran into roadblocks.

For decades before the Harper administration, reporters had been free to call up government researchers directly for interviews. But suddenly, all requests for interviews had to be sent to government communications offices, which then had to get approval from multiple tiers of bureaucrats higher up. “It was an incredible rigmarole to try and get the most innocuous bit of information to media or the public,” says Diane Lake, who was a communications officer with the DFO at the time.

Lake had been a newspaper reporter for a dozen years before joining the department in 1992, so she knew what journalists needed to produce stories. She has fond memories of her time as a communications officer before the Harper years, but after he took office, her job became less about communicating science and more about censoring it. When journalists called her trying to reach scientists, she was required to get approval for scripted answers that researchers could give, but she found the authorization process opaque and arbitrary. There were never any written protocols on what would pass muster and what wouldn’t, she says. I would always say, can you write that down? to folks in Ottawa. No one ever did. . . .

–Lesley Evans Ogden, Nine years of censorship
Nature (03 May 2016)

Science as Radicalism

Hey, read this. Seriously.

Science as Radicalism

William Gillis

It’s no secret that a good portion of the left today considers science profoundly uncool. A slight affinity with it persists among a majority, but few asides of scorn by the continental philosophers influential in the contemporary leftist canon see spirited response and science’s most prominent champions remain dated historical figures like Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus. Indeed there’s a lingering whiff of technocratic stodginess and death that the word “science” has never quite shaken. Those leftists most associated with it have a tendency to either be authoritarians looking to legitimize near-fascist narratives, or doe-eyed activists enchanted by saccharine visions of self-managed bureaucracies and The Meeting That Never Ends. To a great many who identify as radicals “science” appears in our lives primarily as a place our various enemies habitually retreat to conjure the authority their shoddy arguments couldn’t.

. . .

The fact of the matter is that the remarkably successful phenomenon that the term “Science!” has wrapped itself around is not so much a methodology as an orientation. What was really going on, what is still going on in science that has given it so many great insights is the radicalism of scientists, that is to say their vigilant pursuit after the roots (or ‘radis’). Radicals constantly push our perspectives into extreme or alien contexts until they break or become littered with unwieldy complications, and when such occurs we are happy to shed off the historical baggage entirely and start anew. To not just add caveats upon caveats to an existing model but to sometimes prune them away or throw it all out entirely. Ours is the search for patterns and symmetries that might reflect more universal dynamics rather than merely good rules of thumb within a specific limited context. As any radical knows “good enough” is never actually enough.

–William Gillis, Science as Radicalism
Human Iterations, 18 Sextilis 2015

Shared Article from

Science as Radicalism

Sex, and not the natural kind.

Here’s a story from last month over at Science Made Easy, featuring a nice diagram which is (misleadingly, in my view) called the Tree of Sex.

What makes a creature male or a female? If you mentioned the X and the Y chromosomes, you are correct. I mean, you’re correct if you ignore most forms of life on this planet. If you actually take the time to examine the lifestyles of different life forms, many of the basic assumptions about sex differences don’t hold.

I am going to try and explain this to you, using the Tree of Sex. This family tree traces the ancestry of sex in all of its weird and wonderful manifestations. Those Pie charts are coded according to the method of sex, and I will be explaining what each of those colour codes mean below.

. . .

–Faz Alam, What can we learn from the Tree of Sex?
Science Made Easy (3 June 2014).

You should read the whole article, because if you’re not familiar with this stuff, it’s pretty interesting from a scientific standpoint.

That said, I think that the main thing that this kind of diagram shows is that really it’s kind of a silly and obsolete bit of cultural detritus that we go on pretending that bees and mayflies and fig trees even have male and female sexes that way that humans or turkeys (kind of, somewhat) have male and female sexes. They have sexual reproduction, sure, but when it comes to the idea of the sexes of individual organisms, what we’re talking about across all these different species are basically very different biological phenomena. They’re basically very different in what they arise from, structurally, and they’re also basically very different in how they function. Trying to wrap them up with human categories for sexual dimorphism[1] is at this point kind of like imagining that the queen of an anthill goes around wearing a little crown and ordering ant commoners to do her bidding. Biological sex is not a natural kind, it is the projection of a social metaphor, and often it’s kind of a misleading or an unhelpful one.

  1. [1]Actually, spoiler alert, biological sex is actually also really complicated in human beings and the binary social categories don’t line up all that perfectly with the diversity of actual human bodies.

Your Tuesday morning Spontaneous Order

A marine photographer managed to capture hundreds of wide-eyed fish apparently posing for a picture. Californian photographer and conservationist Octavio Aburto had spent years photographing the school in Cabo Pulmo National Park, Mexico, and had been trying to capture this shot for three years.

Fish are pretty awesome. (So’s technological civilization.)

(Thanks to Cap’n Midori.)