Science doesn’t care about your opinion, or your race
Calgary Herald, April 14, 2018
If Canadians want to understand the practical effect of anti-science advocacy, we need look no further than a recent example from Quebec.
In early February, Patrick Beauchesne, the Quebec deputy minister for the environment, wrote to federal colleagues to point out that draft federal legislation mandating traditional Aboriginal knowledge in environmental impact assessments defined such knowledge in a "very broad" manner.
Beauchesne suggested the bill could be clearer about how such information will be weighed against scientific data.
When the letter became public, a University of Ottawa law professor, Thomas Burelli, and seven other academics wrote to insist the Quebec letter was "offensive."
They argued it was an attempt to favour science and create a "hierarchy of knowledge."
In a later interview, Burelli further asserted the Quebec letter implied that "there is a form of intelligence that is superior, that of science. They are methods developed by the West and so they must take precedence over Indigenous knowledge."
Burelli's argument was daft.
Some forms of knowledge, i.e., those based upon the scientific method, are indeed superior to others, at least insofar as the goal is to link cause and effect.
Example: The empirically informed, scientifically grounded knowledge that vaccines do not cause autism is superior to the ill-informed opinion of Jenny McCarthy that they do.
That is what science is all about. That includes environmental assessments that must go beyond mere knowledge that may or may not accurately link cause and effect.
But this notion, that even the hard sciences are a result of culture and somehow based in some supremacist ideology, and not nature, is an increasingly common, if bizarre, assertion. We are overdue for demolishing such nonsense.
With respect to lawyers, their job is advocacy. In a trial, lawyers downplay the evidence from the other side and play up their own. That's fair ball in court, but it is not a search for empirically verifiable truths, which science is.
The scientific process rules out some variables as causal to (hopefully) arrive at a tighter explanation of what leads to an effect. It is the only systematic way human beings can uncover how various components in the physical world operate and interact. And that physical world has no civilizational bias.
Also, while certain aspects of the scientific method may have been articulated in the West over the past few centuries, or some scientific discoveries made, that doesn't make the scientific process or its results western.
For example: Whether Muslim engineers and architects in the 11th century, French ones in the last few, or Chinese, Korean and Aboriginal ones now, all must pay attention to gravity, wind, water and soil if they are to design a building to withstand such elements of nature once built.
Nature has physical properties and cause-and-effect links exist. They are discoverable. An empirical approach can be understood and practised by anyone. It is not a civilizational possession.
This doesn't mean traditional knowledge, Aboriginal or anyone else's, cannot be used to inform data collection or theorize a way forward for possible scientific discoveries, and heretofore, unknown links. Akin to home recipes from one's grandmother, an existing practice may work because of some physical property that interacts with our bodies and produces a certain effect.
But that knowledge is not yet a scientifically proven theory - not until the science is employed with the usual methods: data collection, observation and formulating and testing hypotheses (experiments) until a theory is falsified or confirmed to the extent that what is proposed, looks like the most plausible interpretation of cause and effect.
Personal knowledge, or that of a community or a yet-unproven theory, is still speculative. The only way to get past that limitation is to engage in the scientific method.
Science doesn't care about one's community, ethnicity, skin colour, history or fake moral claims - or the opinion of an advocate.