Scientists gathered on Parliament Hill for the Stand Up for Science! rally

Why You Need to Talk More About Science

To save the environment, we need to save evidence-based decision making.

What do we want? Evidence-based decision making!
When do we want it? After peer review!

What do we want? Evidence-based decision making!
When do we want it? After peer review!

Back in September, I went to Ottawa for the Stand Up for Science rally held by the new not-for-profit organization Evidence for Democracy, which formed out of last summer’s attention-grabbing Death of Evidence “funeral march.”

Prominent scientists and public servants delivered inspiring remarks on the steps of Parliament (and in other cities across the country), admonishing the Canadian government for a decline in policy based on solid evidence and calling for better support of basic scientific research.

You’ll hear some of those speeches in an upcoming podcast.

The same week, I was doing research for an article in our new Heroes issue on the many, many ways in which the conservative government has not just shunned evidence-based decision making in the environmental realm, but has gone to great lengths to ensure we don’t have the evidence on which to base good decisions in the first place.

This probably isn’t news to anyone, but to be clear, we’re not talking about a small handful of weakened regulations or muzzled scientists. This is a full-scale, systemic, orchestrated attack on science, with the goal of leaving the Canadian environment (and Canadians) not just unprotected, but unprotectable.

Legislative changes have specifically removed triggers that prompt environmental assessments and decreased monitoring of environmental impacts, the elimination of the long-form census reduces our access to information about the health of Canadians and new government communication policies limit public scientists’ ability to inform the public about their research. All of this makes it more difficult to demand environmental protection or point out the harmful effects of a given industry or practice.

As family doctor and public health advocate Kapil Khatter said at the rally, “we can’t do anything about pollution in water if we’re not measuring pollution in water.”

We are all responsible

It’s hard not to lose hope for this country’s – this planet’s – future when immersed in this topic for days on end. Luckily for me, I also spent a lot of time in Ottawa with people who are hopeful – and are fighting back.

What became clear in these conversations is that the problem is about more than the current government. We are all responsible for this turn away from evidence-based decision making (henceforth referred to as EBDM). I interviewed lawyer and environmental rights advocate David Boyd for the article, and he reminded me that “holding politicians accountable is the people’s responsibility and Canadians have dropped the ball.”

As the panelists at our In Defence of Science event in September 2012 articulated, we all need to demand EBDM, but more than that, we need to partake in it. Of course, thinking that scientific findings are entirely up for debate can be dangerous (see: climate change), but we do need to be able to understand and discuss those findings and what to do about them. And we especially need our elected representatives to be doing so.

My conversations with scientists and politicians identified three things we need we need to ensure: the ability to produce evidence and present it to the public; the capacity of the public, media and government to interpret evidence and debate courses of action; and the political will to use evidence and listen to public debate.

Safeguarding the production of evidence

The ability of scientists to produce evidence and present it to the public is obviously pretty related to number three, as it requires the political will to have evidence, let alone use it. Evidence for Democracy (E4D) aims to tackle this problem head-on. I sat down with co-founders Katie Gibbs and Scott Findlay at the University of Ottawa to discuss their hopes for the organization.

Over the next year, they intend to make EBDM an election issue and to help articulate what a good federal science communications policy looks like (for example, scientists being free to share their results with the public). One project you may see come out of E4D is a crowd-sourced “science charter” that all levels of government could adopt (kind of like the food charters that have been popping up everywhere to guide local food system development).

The shuttering of federally operated and funded research stations and programs is a big obstacle, to be sure, but assertions from federal ministers about their support of science, and the backpedalling on defunding PEARL provide some indication that the government is feeling at least a little pressure from the backlash.

Democracy Watch is also fighting the muzzling of federal scientists, having filed a complaint with the federal Information Commissioner, in partnership with the Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Victoria.

Communication lessons for scientists – and the rest of us

Luckily, science isn’t just produced in vulnerable government departments, but University of Ottawa biology professor Adam Brown argues that all scientists need to be better at communicating their work more effectively to non-scientists in order to get it out of the lab and into the public sphere in a useful way.

While post-grad programs and special workshops for high-level academics are gaining in popularity (Alan Alda even runs a program at Stony Brook University), essentially no one is addressing the need for science communication skills at the undergraduate level. And since most people who get an undergraduate science (or environment) degree end up somewhere other than the ivory tower, we need to make sure they’re getting the skills they need to communicate their work effectively in whatever industry they’re in. That’s why Brown has started teaching science communication classes to undergraduate students, something he thinks should be offered everywhere.

(Aside: Dr. Mary Louise McAllister at the University of Waterloo is making similar efforts in her environmental education class, which A\J partners with as part of our Academic Integration program. We’re happy to talk with university and college professors – and students – about how we can provide opportunities for students to hone their communication skills!)

“Far larger systemic issues”

Evidence for Democracy’s focus, however, is on “far larger systemic issues,” like how science is presented by the media and non-scientists’ capacity to interpret and consider scientific knowledge.

Rather than teaching scientists how to talk to the media, they argue, we need to teach the media how to talk to scientists. “Bringing along the media in their sophistication” in tackling scientific issues – and public policy issues with a scientific basis – is key, Findlay says, and hopefully something E4D’s planned network of experts will help address.

Katie Gibbs also reiterated what we heard on last year’s panel about the role of the education system: that people need to learn, at all ages, how to think critically, something Gibbs (and many others) say is not being adequately developed in today’s students – and, I would argue, not being demanded of the rest of us often enough.

Without a will, is there a way?

On the political will front, the outlook is relatively bleak, though enough public pressure may bring at least some level of accountability and EBDM. Independent MP Bruce Hyer and NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie agree that, in the short term, the “squeaky wheel” approach may get some results. But in the long run, Hyer says, the only real solution is a new government. E4D is non-partisan and will take support for science from politicians of all colours, but their goal of making science an election issue in 2015 certainly speaks to dissatisfaction with the current regime.

What you can do

If all of these folks are right, then the upshot of all this is that we need to be honing our science interpretation and communication skills, and using them publicly. “Embrace your inner scientist – be skeptical, demand evidence, and consider it carefully,” Findlay urged at the Stand Up for Science rally.

Encourage media outlets and politicians to pay more attention to science by asking scientific questions and correcting them when they get things wrong. Help make EBDM an election issue by asking candidates to ground their platform in evidence and show support for basic scientific research. And until the mainstream media improve their reporting on scientific findings, look elsewhere.

You can stay up to date on the latest research and science-related news by following NGOs, research institutes, independent media (like A\J!), museums, science centres and universities. You can help support all of these sources of information financially to ensure they keep the info coming. And when something concerns or excites you, talk about it. Talk to your colleagues, friends, family members and political representatives – and if you feel up to it, try a more public form of communication like writing an op-ed (or a letter) for your local paper.

The more you read and talk about science, the easier it gets. There are also a lot of resources out there for improving your critical thinking and scientific thinking skills.

Caveat: I want to note that I am by no means advocating for everyone to only think scientifically, nor am I saying that scientific knowledge is the best or only kind of knowledge we should value. Traditional Indigenous and local knowledge in particular are crucial for addressing environmental issues adequately and ethically. We need many kinds of knowledge, based on real understanding, rather than ideology or ignorance.

So start talking.

What else you can do:

Laura is a past A\J managing editor. She has an MA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, is an organizing aficionado, lackadaisical gardener, and former musical theatre producer. @inhabitings