Margaret Atwood speaks out for scientists


First aired on As It Happens (07/05/13)

CBC Books recently hosted the Get Up! Stand Up! Open House Festival, a day-long event about the importance of the individual voice in democracy. One of the strongest individual voices that Canada has is that of Margaret Atwood. In her novels, non-fiction writing, and even on Twitter, she is rarely reticent with her keen opinions about politics and social issues.

She appeared at Get Up! Stand Up! to talk about the "muzzling" of scientists under the current Canadian government and the closure of research facilities. As It Happens aired a excerpt of her speech earlier this week.

"This issue gets less attention than most, though the lack of attention is perhaps due to the fact that people don't understand how research science works, and how it is related to our own health and well-being," she said. "But it is a crucial issue and the way our scientists are being treated, and the way our basic research facilities are being torched, especially those that monitor such things as air and water quality, go to the heart of what we are still pleased to call a democracy."

If there are things that the government doesn't want the public to know, Atwood said, there are two ways they can go about engendering ignorance. "First, they can threaten the scientists working for us and paid for by us. They can slap on a muzzle, forbidding them to talk to anyone, such as reporters, unless they have cleared what they are going to say with a political vetter first," she said. "This has been done in Canada with the intent of keeping the scientists on message with the Conservative government's agenda. 'Hear no evidence, see no evidence, speak no evidence,' that's the policy. What we don't know won't hurt them."

Atwood goes on to explain that of course there are some problems with objective evidence-based science, just as there are with every other human activity. "Large companies aren't the only entities to harbour dishonest activities," she said. "Science, too, has its cheats and liars. And yes, the collective entity called science sometimes gets things wrong honestly.

"But real science is relentlessly self-critical. It relies on peer review replicability of experiments. And self-criticism can only operate where there is freedom of expression. We must allow our scientist to speak freely...taxpayers paid for this knowledge. Give us what we paid for!"