Letter: Muzzling scientists should worry all

Re: The case for scientific freedom, Editorial (May 27)

  • Jun. 2, 2015 1:00 p.m.

Re: The case for scientific freedom, Editorial (May 27)

The editorial stated, “The Stephen Harper Conservatives have done a disservice to Canadians by muzzling scientists and hacking scientific research to bits. The information researchers discover belongs to us and our public scientists need to feel safe to express their informed opinions.”  Bravo. This editorial deserves to be widely quoted.

The scientific method is a sequence of steps used to understand the world:  formulate a hypothesis, gather data to test the hypothesis, and publish the results.

Science advances because researchers want to prove that their hypothesis explains the facts better than the previous hypotheses.

Scientists argue vigorously with each other at meetings. They are usually careful about what they say and write, because they do not want to be ridiculed by their peers.

It is senseless for a government to restrict what scientists say, and to belittle what they find. The world and what we can observe about it (research evidence) is not affected by a government’s policy about the freedom of scientific expression.

Conversely, human and government actions do affect the world. In 1986, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientist George Winters presented a paper at a meeting indicating that the Atlantic cod stocks were declining steeply, and that the DFO had been overestimating cod stocks since 1977.

For political reasons his findings were ignored, and fishing quotas remained high for five years. Stocks collapsed, and in 1991 the Canadian Atlantic cod fishery closed forever.  (The War on Science, Chris Turner.)

We can make better decisions if we have good evidence to review.  We all benefit if governments and universities employ scientists and allow them to speak about their findings.

Robert Shepherd,Affiliate clinical instructor in the Department of Family Medicine,UBC and UVic