Politicians need science awareness: Bob McDonald

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's attempt to explain quantum computing is a symbolic and welcome change from the anti-science stance of the Harper government, Bob McDonald writes

Ignoring or being ignorant of science means decisions might be made for purely economic or political reasons

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains quantum computing during a visit to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont. (CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's off-the-cuff — or perhaps rehearsed — explanation of quantum computing, while visiting the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics this week may not have been perfectly accurate, but it did show a fundamental understanding of a complex scientific concept, which is a refreshing change in Canadian politics.

Many political decisions today involve weighing scientific principles, whether it be the environmental impact of pipelines, dams or drilling projects, the health effects of genetically modified organisms, legalizing new drugs or developing alternative energy. 

In fact, science is so ingrained in our modern lives there is probably a scientific element in just about every political decision.

Yet, politicians will often admit they know little about science or get the facts wrong.

During the 2000 federal election, Stockwell Day, then the leader of the Canadian Alliance Party, was criticized for his belief that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and humans walked alongside dinosaurs. Such beliefs from our leaders can lead to creationism being taught in schools as an alternative to the theory of evolution or to prove that Darwin and the Big Bang Theory are wrong.

Scientists rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in September 2013, calling on the federal government to stop cutting scientific research and muzzling its scientists. (The Canadian Press)

The previous government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't seem to want to hear the science, so federal scientists, especially those dealing with the environment, were prevented from speaking without first getting permission from the government, which often refused permission. 

Similar muzzling of environmental scientists was seen in the U.S. during the George W. Bush administration.

Ignoring science, or being ignorant of it, means that decisions might be made for purely economic or political reasons, which could lead to environmental disasters, such as oil spills, downstream air and water contamination, habitat destruction or killing wildlife. There are countless examples through history. When the eyes of science are closed, the environment usually suffers.

To now see a prime minister try to give a reasonably accurate account of a difficult scientific principle shows that at least he gets the basics.

He demonstrated an interest in the topic, rather than a common political response, which is to "leave it to the scientists."

In the U.S., a growing number of politicians who actively oppose any policy to fight climate change, also claim to not know the science of climate change. "I'm not a scientist" is their common answer when asked if greenhouse gas emissions are causing the world to warm.

Listening to science

When it comes to decision making, science is only one of many perspectives politicians must consider. There is the economy, social consequences, jobs and health, as well as the image of the politicians themselves, who want to please everyone and not lose votes.

So far, it appears that the Trudeau government is listening to science, with the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change on Earth Day, the unmuzzling of federal scientists and supporting fundamental science, such as theoretical physics at the Perimeter Institute.

Let's hope this trend continues, as we face some hard decisions about energy, the environment, water, food — decisions that must be informed and wise, without crippling the economy along the way.

That's a tall order, but like any decision, the most important factor is understanding the basics. This is a start.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.