Photo: Politicians who reject science are not fit to lead

Repeat glacial photography: Scientists uses historic photos of glaciers to monitor changes over time. (Credit: glaciernps via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

My life as a scientist got its boost in the United States. I was attending college in Massachusetts in 1957 on a scholarship when the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite. The event also launched the space race between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S., as the Americans started pouring money into the sciences in an attempt to catch up.

I was given funding to continue my graduate studies at the University of Chicago. On getting my PhD, I went on to work as a research associate at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Although the facility was built in 1942 as part of a top secret program to purify uranium for the Manhattan Project, its focus had shifted to basic biology by the time I arrived, and it became a centre of world-class research and international cooperation.

Times have changed. I wish I could say that we've evolved when it comes to science. But sometimes reading the news and listening to the pronouncements of politicians, especially south of the border, I'm bewildered by the rampant ignorance about science and the antipathy toward it.

One example I just came across was a comment by the governor of Maine, Paul Lepage, about bisphenol-A, or BPA, which is used mainly in plastic containers and toys. Health Canada recently declared BPA a toxic chemical because of its links to breast cancer, developmental problems in children, prostate disease, and fertility issues.

In response to calls for his state to restrict BPA use, Mr. Lepage said, "There hasn't been any science that identifies that there is a problem. The only thing that I've heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards."

It's a profoundly ignorant statement for anyone to make, let alone a state governor, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. Science is taking a beating in the U.S., and we're starting to see a similar phenomenon here in Canada, although not to as great an extent.

Far more dangerous are attempts by U.S. politicians to attack the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is causing catastrophic climate change. Despite countless studies by scientists from around the world and agreement among 98 per cent of the world's climate scientists and most of the world's scientific academies and societies that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the Earth's average temperature to rise, not to mention the facts staring us in the face — increased frequency of extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels, melting ice caps and glaciers — some politicians in the U.S. continue to reject the science and argue that we must proceed with business as usual.

Virginia's Republican attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli, has been spending taxpayer dollars attacking climate scientists at the University of Virginia and is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its ruling that carbon dioxide and other global warming gases are a threat to human health and welfare.

Many Republicans, some of whom also reject the science of evolution and believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago and that humans and dinosaurs walked together, have been following his lead.

Meanwhile a fifth investigation into the so-called "climategate" brouhaha, this one led by Republicans in response to a request from one of their own, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, has again found no "evidence to question the ethics of our scientists or raise doubts about [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's] understanding of climate change science."

In Canada, our government has cut funding for climate research, rejected or ignored scientific studies showing environmental damage from the tars sands, and been accused of "muzzling" scientists.

We can take some comfort that, according to a recent poll, 80 per cent of Canadians believe in the science behind climate change, compared to only 58 per cent of U.S. citizens.

Science isn't perfect, and it can be used for destructive as well as beneficial purposes. But it's the best tool we have for analyzing and understanding our world and the impact of our actions on the environment of which we are a part. If our leaders reject science, we really are in trouble.

March 3, 2011

Read more

Post a comment


Nov 28, 2011
2:25 PM

Maybe we need to stop confusing the issue with all this ‘climate change’ vs. ‘global warming’ smoke and mirrors, and get back to describing the situation honestly. It’s environmental destruction. Or, put another way, environmental crimes against humanity. This is the war on sustainability, and our basic human rights to clean water and air are being subverted regularly and deliberately by corrupt government officials and politicians (all the way to the top) who deliberately fail to disclose the obvious conflicts of interest that arise when they routinely receive funding from the very corporations who stand to profit the most from perpetuating the disinformation and lies about ‘climate change’ in order to ‘justify’ the business as usual scenario.

These companies, and these politicians, should be put in jail for their crimes against humanity. In my view, Canada and the US are two of the most corrupt countries in the world when it comes to this issue because we have the largest capacity and resources to do something about it, so our corruption and ignorance is the least justifiable and most reprehensible.

Aug 05, 2011
1:25 PM

I agree with Nick Capra. I was once an avid Green Party member and even ran in the 2006 election. I still believe in the Green Party vision, but when the people you are trying to reach out to who should embrace you the most turns their backs or are indifferent it creates an uphill climb too difficult to surpass. Perhaps if the David Suzuki Foundation truly believes the headline then it should consider endorsing Green Party Candidates and the party itself. It frustrates me when I see the vision of the Green party so closely aligned with the goals of the DS Foundation yet in many ways Mr. Suzuki has (inadvertently) hurt the party.

Aug 02, 2011
1:53 PM

I am a machinist, worked in a Pulp mill at Woodfiber B.C. 1968 to1979 a very polluting and enniffent mill ,I tried to get management to form a group to look at ways to save energy and was told oil was so cheap it was not worth it. The solution to high energy cost has been to move industry to Asia with the result a bankrupt America and high unemployment and a steady erousion of our enviroment.

Apr 15, 2011
3:06 AM

~I’ll never forget when they fired Chopra, Hayden, and Lambert for “whistle blowing” on canada’s drug safety laws, they were clearly against certain drugs KNOWING the dangers, and yet fired for airing their concerns….hmmmm, makes you think there’s dollar bills involved somewhere. Sadly, it seems when it comes to SOME politicians, money comes before the people.~

Apr 01, 2011
11:21 AM

I suggest David read “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” by Dan Kahan

The study suggests that the reason the general public is so deeply divided on issues that scientists are not has more to do with their general philosophical outlook than what the state of the scientific case is.

Quoting from the abstract: “cultural cognition of risk refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values”. And from the summary: “the goal of the study was to examine a distinctive explanation for the failure of members of the public to form beliefs consistent with apparent scientific consensus on… issues of risk”.

What I want to draw Dr. Suzuki’s attention to is that although this study considered climate change as one of these “issues of risk”, the authors point out that there is another side of the coin. People like Dr. Suzuki claim they are guided by science, but Kahan suggest otherwise.

Kahan et. al. illustrate this by including the issue of nuclear waste along with climate science in their study. The issue for Dr. Suzuki is where does he get his idea, explained in a posting elsewhere on this site, that “science” “has not found a way to deal with” nuclear waste?

As evidence that the relevant scientists believe nuclear waste can be disposed of safely the authors of Cultural Cognition cite a National Research Council study done as far back as 1990 by the NRC Board of Radioactive Waste Management “Rethinking high-level radioactive waste disposal: A position statement of the Board on Radioactive Waste Management, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources”, National Academy Press.

I’m sure Dr. Suzuki knows of any number of scientific panel assessments of the state of current knowledge of climate science.

The “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” authors call such studies, whether on climate or nuclear waste, “expert consensus reports”.

Consider the title of your blog post: “Politicians who reject science are not fit to lead”. Dr. Suzuki really should change this to “Politicians who reject the science we accept, who accept the science we reject are not fit to lead”

I’m sure Suzuki doesn’t put it that way because he believes if he was that contradictory, no one should pay attention to what he says. I would put it to his face — why should people pay attention to you?

In the US it is the accepted, biblical, truth that no way has been found to dispose of nuclear waste. What actually is the case is that no way has been approved to dispose of civilian nuclear waste. The military is quietly disposing of its wastes at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which met all approval processes and was licensed. They found a salt formation that has been stable for hundreds of millions of years that is large enough to put the entire world’s high level nuclear waste in. The fact that it is a salt formation means there isn’t any water flowing through it to carry anything out of it.

Anyway, apparently, Dr. Suzuki would rather have us fill the atmosphere with fossil fuel waste than go nuclear, because “science” hasn’t “found a way to deal” with nuclear waste.

I heard him on a New Zealand climate show telling everyone that climate change is so serious we can’t let environmentalists carry the agenda anymore: we all have to get on the same page. As long as environmentalists cherry pick “science” to tell us which scientific cases we should reject they’ll never get anyone else onto their “page”.

It isn’t just nuclear power. Carbon capture and storage is another case. For what “science” thinks try looking at the IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage. But, yet again, Dr. Suzuki tells us to ignore science.

The Cultural Cognition project discovered that it made a difference with a group they identify as “hierarchical individualists” as to whether they’d buy into the idea that humans caused climate change, if the story is framed by saying, oh no scientists have discovered humans are causing climate change, which means, shudder, we’ll have to go nuclear. These “right wing” types tend to buy the human caused climate part in statistically relevant increased numbers, because at least some of their values, i.e. nukes are OK, were confirmed. And vice versa, you could sell nukes a bit more to the “egalitarian communitarians” “types like Dr. Suzuki, if climate was part of the package.

But I can see that the Suzukis of this world are too smart to be taken in like that.

How was it we all are supposed to get on the “same page” again? It seems the only way is for everyone to agree with Dr. Suzuki. He should say, “it’s time for everyone to get on my page”, as he has for all these years, and think about what it means.

Mar 29, 2011
2:32 PM

No sane person would deny problems with BPA. They were known decades ago, even though no one really knows how big these problems are. The issue I have with the BPA controversy is that those condemning it are sometimes lying by omission. BPA is harmful, but that is not really the issue at this time, is it? The question is whether the alternatives are less harmful than BPA.

For the rest, indeed, any politician who rejects science is not fit to lead. Our lifespan has doubled over the last one hundred and fifty years. That is thanks to science, not thanks to prayers to an unseen god, dances for “mother earth” or alternologists of any and all stripes.

Science is far from perfect, but that does not make ignorance, wishful thinking and “belief” into a better alternative. Science, with all its imperfections, all its uncertainties and all its questions is our best bet.

Mar 12, 2011
5:31 PM

If you vote for anyone other then the Green Party, don’t complain — including you Dr. Suzuki. It pisses me off to hear people complain about politicians when there is a choice we can make yet even seemingly intelligent people like Dr. Suzuki criticizes rather then endorses the very people who have the balls to speak the truth and RECOGNIZE THE SCIENCE! Do I sound angry? That’s because I am angry that I have to argue with climate change deniers and climate change believers. Thanks for the help Mr. Suzuki. Together we will…give the carbon loby an excuse to call us both whack jobs. Cheers…and VOTE GREEN everywhere you can!

Mar 11, 2011
4:52 PM

“Politicians who reject science are not fit to lead”

How true. It`s not only in regards to Climate Change where Politicians reject Science.

Premier Dalton McGuinty of Ontario has rejected Science and is not fit to lead.

Hopefully he will no longer be leading come October.

Mar 10, 2011
8:28 AM

I find it absolutely incredible that people in positions of responsibility, particularly politicians, still reject the science around climate change. Of course if we are to bring about real change it means changing our economic system, i.e. corporate capitalism, and the consumer mentality. How many people who give lip service to climate change would give up their gas-guzzling SUV's, or even, heaven forbid, their car? It will take real change: smaller houses, reestablishment of forests and wetlands, living with less. If people were to embrace this new lifestyle in any numbers in the "developed" world, it would destroy the current economic system and bring down an elite that does not want to give up power. It's an uphill battle, but a battle won one person at a time. You don't have to be like the Joneses or anyone else but yourself. Just do it!
Mar 09, 2011
4:01 PM

I believe the problem is larger than described; i.e., the perversion of scientist’s findings and/or their professional opinions and across a variety of disciplines. Having worked as a federal biologist for a DOI agency in the Alaska, colleagues of mine, as well as myself, had non-scientist agency managers substantively change our environmental assessments and conclusions without a shred of science to support their perversions. The documents were NEPA decision documents (e.g., EA’s) that were used to support federal actions; i.e., they were public documents used to support federal decisions. In challenging federal managers over these changes, I and other scientists were reprimanded in one form or another. Whistleblower laws were weak and/or were not enforced at the time. I resigned in disgust. Other colleagues left the agency over the next 12 months. My question is this: what can scientists (e.g., state or federal) do about scientific fraud/dishonesty on the part of supervisors or management chains all captured by the same lack of integrity, while not killing their careers?

Mar 05, 2011
11:26 AM

OPB recently broadcast a program on Mongolia. The Nomads, who depend upon the reindeer for survival, are stressed because global warming has increased mosquito infestation which threatens the reindeer, and hence the Nomads, by depositing eggs in the reindeers’ nostrils. The larva then invade their tissues, including their brains, thus destroying them. Yet another example of global warming which lying conservatives blatantly deny. Cheers to David Suzuki!

Mar 04, 2011
4:00 PM

I guess Stockwell Day didn’t get the memo…

Mar 04, 2011
12:16 PM

David hardly needs to go south of the border to find brainless political leaders — they’re right on his doorstep. Including the newly chosen Premier of B.C. who sees nothing at all wrong in oil tankers entering northern coastal inlets.

Mar 03, 2011
3:02 PM

It’s not much different here in Australia David. With around 60% of the population believing in climate change, but far less are willing to actually change any habits or lose any money towards fixing it.

Australia is being ravaged by climate effects yet very few can see the relationship. Its a shame that at the time when we need cooperation the most, we have the most selfish generations living on the planet. Its a right mess.

Good Luck

Jeff Greene

Mar 03, 2011
2:34 PM

Our leadership seems to be concerned only in the almighty buck or the well being or profits for organizations like Exxon but realistically they are doing a lousy job even for the almighty buck. They could have subsidized environmental industries, as an example the research and development of wind energy. This would have created jobs and exports rather than in the future depending on importing the technology. The current economic philosophy does not make sense. Cut the taxes for the very rich and the large profit making organizations and tax more heavily the middle class yet it is the middle class and not the very rich that spend almost all their income which keeps the economy circulating.

The David Suzuki Foundation does not necessarily endorse the comments or views posted within this forum. All contributors acknowledge DSF's right to remove product/service endorsements and refuse publication of comments deemed to be offensive or that contravene our operating principles as a charitable organization. Please note that all comments are pre-moderated. Privacy Policy »