Oct 272012

I gave this post a provocative title intentionally. I am a one-time conservative voter. One reason why I feel disenchanted with conservatives (not just in Canada, mind you) these days is that they seem to have politicized science at every opportunity. Sure, others have done the same thing in the past (liberals are certainly no knights in shining armor) but the past is the past, right now I am worried about the present. Reproductive health, stem cell research, environmental science, climate change, you name it… if they don’t like the result, they attack it, and if the result withstands politically motivated attacks, they move on to attack the researcher. Or, as the case might be, they do their darnedest to undermine the integrity of the data.

This is precisely what happened when Canada’s conservative government eliminated the mandatory “long form” census that was sent to 20% of Canadian households. Sure, there were legitimate privacy concerns that could and should have been addressed (I even wrote a letter to the Chief Statistician myself many years ago when we received the long form census and found some questions a tad sensitive, and the safeguards against being able to personally identify responders inadequate.) But eliminate the long-form census completely, making it “optional”? That is a bone-headed stupid move. The most charitable interpretation is that the government simply didn’t know what they were doing because they don’t understand statistics. A more sinister possibility is that they knew exactly what they were doing, and they are undermining the integrity of Statistics Canada’s data sets on purpose. In light of what has been done and said in recent years, despite my general dislike of conspiracy theories, I am leaning towards accepting this interpretation.

And now the results are beginning to arrive, demonstrating the validity of all those concerns. According to the data collected, the percentage of people in Canada whose mother tongue is English remained the same despite the fact that in the meantime, Canada received 1.1 million new immigrants, 80% of whom had a mother tongue other than English of French. Or that the number of people in Canada whose mother tongue is a non-official language supposedly dropped by 420,000, again despite the above-mentioned immigration statistics.

Of course these results make no sense. What they reflect is a faulty data collection methodology. A methodology forced upon Statistics Canada by a political leadership that finds it appropriate to meddle with science.

The damage due to such meddling is profound and lasting. There is the immediate damage of distorted results. This can be fixed easily; for instance, if Canada were to return to the long form census, this one census could be discarded as an outlier and the long-term integrity of the data would remain assured. But by politicizing the science and polarizing researchers, they undermine the process itself, creating a partisan mindset. Defenders of scientific integrity will unavoidably find themselves participating in political debates and feel forced to adopt polarized positions. Climate scientists often sound more like preachers of a religion than impartial researchers. Could this be, at least in part, due to the polarized atmosphere in which their scientific results are scrutinized? Ultimately, it is the integrity of the scientific process that suffers, and that’s bad news for all of us, regardless of our political views.

 Posted by at 10:40 am