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Canada's Muzzled Scientists Can Speak Freely Again (vice.com)
170 points by mathgenius on Nov 15, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments



We'll know this only once government scientists speak out against the government.


I'm not sure why this is being downvoted, beyond the fact that it challenges the popular narrative.

The Harper government didn't muzzle scientists because it had an inate hatred of scientists; it muzzled scientists because it was afraid of what they would say and the potential for lost votes. Canada's new government doesn't have that fear, so they have no reason to muzzle government scientists -- but that doesn't say anything about their principles. A commitment to openness is only tested when there is something you want to avoid having said.

(Incidentally, I think the "muzzled scientists" issue is somewhat overblown. Nobody complains about legal-advice privilege creating "muzzled lawyers", and exactly the same rationale applies to government scientists: If governments avoid consulting scientists because they're worried about the contents of their consultations becoming public, we're all worse off for it. This isn't to say that I think government scientists should be completely muzzled, mind you; but I think there's a reasonable middle ground between "completely open" and "completely muzzled" which nonetheless allows for governments to seek confidential advice from the scientists they employ.)


> Nobody complains about legal-advice privilege creating "muzzled lawyers"

The attorney-client privilege belongs to the client. The purpose of all the traditional privileges is to allow the client/patient/parishioner to divulge a secret while seeking professional advice without having to worry that it will be published or used against them.

In the case of science, the secret the government wants to keep is not anything the government had to be encouraged to give the scientists. It's the result of the scientists' research.

And allowing politicians to choose which scientific research is published is catastrophic. It invalidates everything published by government scientists because the political filter biases the published results -- intentionally. It would be better that the research not be done at all than that it be published only if it aligns with the political goals of elected officials.


> And allowing politicians to choose which scientific research is published is catastrophic. It invalidates everything published by government scientists because the political filter biases the published results -- intentionally. It would be better that the research not be done at all than that it be published only if it aligns with the political goals of elected officials.

Indeed. There are already enough problems with publication bias -- adding further bias is not helpful.


This isn't about seeking the contents of private conversations between scientists and politicians - this is about access to facts learned through tax-funded government research, and the "muzzling" of scientists in order to promote "message" over facts (and indeed, to promote falsehoods where facts are inconvenient).


this is about access to facts learned through tax-funded government research

It's rather more narrow than that. University professors were never muzzled, even if all of their research funding came via federal granting agencies.

The muzzling of scientists was limited to government scientists, i.e., those belonging to the federal civil service -- the ones whose jobs exist precisely for the purpose of giving advice to the government.


federal civil service -- the ones whose jobs exist precisely for the purpose of giving advice to the government

I'd say their jobs are giving advice to the public. Moreover the Harper party made it difficult for federal civil service scientists to communicate with journalists (aka the fourth estate of government) and the Greens, NDP, Liberals i.e. any other part of the government not in power. The Harper party overreach has no justification in a democratic society and you shouldn't be making excuses for them.


the Greens, NDP, Liberals i.e. any other part of the government not in power

You seem to be getting government and parliament confused here.


I know the difference which is why I specified not in power. The Greens, NDP, Liberals had elected members in the Canadian system of governance. If you want to be pedantic and argue that government in a parliamentary system refers to the party with the most seats in parliament and in control of the executive branch then go ahead. I find that pointless as you're ignoring the main thrust of my argument.


If you want to be pedantic and argue that government in a parliamentary system refers to the party with the most seats in parliament

Not even that. Canada currently has 338 MPs, 184 of whom are members of the Liberal Party; but only 31 of them -- the Prime Minister and 30 other Ministers -- are part of the government.


> the Prime Minister and 30 other Ministers -- are part of the government

That is only the executive branch of the government.


> the ones whose jobs exist precisely for the purpose of giving advice to the government.

That's sort of an odd way to frame it--it makes it sound like these people are only hired to interpret scientific literature for their superiors, or to conduct standard lab tests. On the contrary, many of these scientists conduct basic scientific research. There's no "advisory" value to that work--it is not intended for immediate policy decisions, but rather for the long-term advancement of scientific knowledge.

Basic scientific research is a collective effort, and the only possible outcome you could expect when preventing scientists from sharing their research with the greater scientific community is the prevention of scientific progress. Assuming rational actors, I cannot fathom another motive.


"... when preventing scientists from sharing their research with the greater scientific community ..."

There was no such prevention.


Only in a despotism is the government strictly equivalent to its individual leaders. Harper was engaging in censorship of the public trust so he could secure private electoral victories, but it was never his government to censor.

Of course, there's plenty of time for Trudeau to get this wrong as well; he has his electoral blind spots as well.


Under the Canadian constitution, the government is the Queen, advised by her Ministers, supported by the civil service.

The government is limited in its powers by Parliament and the judiciary -- the government cannot enact new laws or appropriate funds without Parliamentary approval -- but the government is nonetheless controlled by a small number of people.


... and even that "muzzling" was limited to the capacity in which those scientists were to talk to mass media. They could and did publish any academic papers / attend conferences / etc. They just couldn't speak seemingly on behalf of the government.


It's being downvoted because the campaign platform of the new government specifical states that scientists can speak freely.

Now that scientists have been publicly told that they can speak freely, what's to stop them? If you suggest that the new government will somehow be muzzling them from the shadows, and you can explain the mechanism of how this might happen, I am all ears.


The popular narrative is that what the Harper government did was unusual and unacceptable. People who believe that most Canadian governments (of whatever ideology) will not stoop to willful blindness, probably view the the attitude expressed as uncharitably cynical.


Canada and Australia are actually in similar situations i.e. the removal of a right-wing, polarising leader. When this happens everything is seen as a glimpse into what the new political narrative is.

In both countries we are seeing the policies only change marginally but a strong signal being sent about the respect and commitment to science.


> Canada's new government doesn't have that fear, so they have no reason to muzzle government scientists -- but that doesn't say anything about their principles.

It says that they don't feel like their policies and votes are threatened by the truth. That sounds like a "principle" to me.


Harper is religiously far right having moved to a new church when openly gay members were allowed into his old church.

Climate change denial came from the top down Harper was pro oil and in denial anything could change the climate.

Now maybe we can have a Canadian government not a "Harper government".


RE: muzzled scientist issue being overblown.

I'm Canadian. I have scientist friends. I can say this was not overblown. Funding was cut. Programs that were decades old were shut down. Data that contradicted the government was buried.


Funding cuts are off topic to "muzzling".


I'm hoping they speak out about being muzzled.

Edit: "It’s the first time in nearly a decade I’ve been able to speak with a Canadian government scientist directly, on the telephone, without spending days or weeks clearing the request through a media officer and submitting a list of questions for editing and approval."

I realize the ramifications were probably bad, but I'm surprised at least one or two didn't ignore or actively disobey their government overlords... Or did they and I just didn't hear about it?


To what end? To alert everyone that there is a serious vial infection running amok in the pacific salmon? You've lost your job, and any way of helping with the problems (and this isn't software development, there are probably 3-4 positions available outside government in the county if you want to keep doing the same line of work), all so it gets buried because most people don't care about pacific salmon populations?



These people are not whistleblowers, they are not going to reveal anything you don't already know. Their value for journalists is in using them as confirmation / official data points. If they cannot speak in that role, there is little point in looking them up.


Let's be honest this day isn't going to come or if it does no one is going to care.

The only scientific issue that has such a strong political element is climate change. And given that the new government in Canada is left wing and pro environment I can't imagine their being much (if any) dissension. This was the primary reason the scientists were muzzled after all. All the other scientific issues from the lay person/media perspective simply aren't that interesting.


There are a variety of scientific issues with political elements.

For example, evolution. Not the relatively uncontroversial evolution from (common ancestor) -> {humans, apes}, but evolution within humans after this point. See, e.g. James Watson: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Watson#Provocative_comme...

Or economics. Consider this incident in the US: http://thehill.com/policy/finance/255726-dem-economists-atta...

The only real attacks on science that get coverage are the ones attacking environmentalism or pre-human evolution. But science does (or at least should) influence politics in a lot more places.


I would go further and say that any scientific topic which has any controversy is "political" by definition. Furthermore, the political dogmas that are held by laypeople almost universally depend on empirical or scientific facts which have not been established or have the imminent potential to be overturned. Political bias has an effect on what research gets funded and/or published, the size of which is correlated to the "softness" of the discipline.


> The only scientific issue that has such a strong political element is climate change.

Economic policy is hotly debated in both economic science and government. Same to immigration policy. Even statistics has it's controversial bits. Anthropologists also periodically produce some controversial nuggets. Also, let's not forget that many scientists won't hesitate to give their opinion on whatever is asked of them!


Economics- not really science. Where is their lab?


I think it's wrong to say that research must specifically conducted on scientific matters. There are many people who actively research economics.

Also, their lab can be anywhere, doesn't matter. science is about the scientific process, not labcoats and microscopes.


Economics is a social science. The idea that science must be performed in a lab is fundamentally wrong. That said, economists do have labs where they conduct data analysis, often with the assistance of large computing resources.


To summarize the other responses in trite soundbite form:

Science is a methodology, not a location.


Unlikely. The last ten years were a significant departure from Canadian norms. It seems reasonable to assume we're returning to those norms, based on what we've heard so far.


That sounds like true-scottish-canadian norms.


Does Canada have no protections for freedom of speech?

As an American, the idea of muzzling a scientist is strange. I had thought Canada was more free than this.


There is no absolute freedom of speech law in Canada; the closest they get to it is "Freedom of Expression", and that's been abridged in dozens of ways through court decision.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_of_speech_in_Canada

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_Canada#Criticism...


Even in America there are restrictions about what federal employees may say to the media. Freedom of speech is different when you are representing an employer, although the restrictions on Canadian scientists were egregious.


> Even in America there are restrictions about what federal employees may say to the media.

Not outside of the military except in the case of classified documents or the identities of covert agents. It's not even illegal for non-government employees to publish classified documents, as far as I know.


>> Even in America there are restrictions about what federal employees may say to the media.

> Not outside of the military except in the case of classified documents or the identities of covert agents

I'm pretty sure that's wrong. I clearly remember the Bush administration restricting government scientists (and other employees) from talking to the media, requiring all communications to be approved by political appointees in their departments.

The scientists do have freedom of speech like other Americans, if that's what you mean, but that freedom doesn't protect your job; you can be fired for what you say, just not imprisoned or forced not to say it. It also doesn't protect you if you disclose your employers secrets that are protected by NDAs and similar agreements. For example (and speaking very generally), if a former Apple employee revealed details of some secret Apple tech protected by NDA, I'm almost certain the employee could be sued for damages.


Not usually illegal, but grounds for disciplinary action or firing. There are many cases of the government punishing employees for inappropriate speech while on the job. Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) is a Supreme Court decision finding that some speech of public employees is not protected.

And then there's the Hatch Act (1939), which prevents most federal employees from engaging in activity that could be seen as political.


>As an American, the idea of muzzling a scientist is strange. I had thought Canada was more free than this.

It isn't about law, it's (bad) policy and politics. And to think that similar circumstances aren't occurring in America is naive.


This is less about free speech, and more along the lines of an NDA. We're talking about researchers employed directly by the federal government. Canada has a public service whose role is to advise the current government and provide input into policy decisions, and then to implement whatever policy decisions came down from above.

By and large, though, it seemed like Harper's government didn't seem to really want input from the public service unless it agreed with whatever policy decisions had already been made. If you think this is just about the environment, you'd be very wrong, too; I live in Ottawa and know people in Health Canada, in Transport Canada, in Statistics Canada - I don't know anyone who wasn't complaining to me about how the advice they were giving was being ignored in one way or another.


Nonsense. Government scientists must be cleared to speak with press.


Do all of them? I know we did when I was at the DoD, even for mundane things like generic medical research. Heck, we had to get our stuff cleared to be able to share it with anyone, not just the press.


This "muzzled scientists" story is a bit overblown. I'm also a muzzled scientist - $LAWYER hired me to do some statistics on $FINANCE_THING and search for $LAWBREAKING. One of the conditions of my employment is that everything I did is legally privileged and I can't say anything beyond what is contained in this post. I was a scientific adviser to $LAWYER, and my job was strictly to help him, his client, and only them understand things better.

In much the same way, certain scientists employed directly by political agencies were held to some nondisclosure rules. I'm not sure I know why this is a story - is there some moral principle that all scientists should disclose everything and you can't hire them for confidential work?


> I was a scientific adviser to $LAWYER, and my job was strictly to help him, his client, and only them understand things better.

Looks more like you're wearing an accountant or auditor hat than a scientist hat on this one.

>is there some moral principle that all scientists should disclose everything and you can't hire them for confidential work?

Yes. The search for scientific truth shouldn't be a narrative for the people who pay for it.

>I was a scientific adviser to $LAWYER, and my job was strictly to help him, his client, and only them understand things better.

And when it comes down to it, the client and their representatives (you, $LAWYER, etc) have or will have certain obligations to truth under the law; you might be muzzled but it's more of a reassignment of responsibility to somebody else.


Yes. The search for scientific truth shouldn't be a narrative for the people who pay for it.

So I guess you criticize every corporation who hires scientists to work on proprietary products? Elon Musk is such a fiend!

Look, a much better way to accomplish this is robust intellectual freedom. Rather than expecting every individual scientist to be able to say anything they want, regardless of employer, create a system where any scientist who hasn't chosen to be muzzled can state controversial ideas and expect them to be received with only intellectual criticism. You need far more than just legal protection, you also need a culture where dissenters are tolerated and not socially shunned.

You also need a culture where replication and debunking are given equal respect to finding novel results. The unfortunate fact is that if someone publishes a new result, that gets vastly less prestige than if they replicate (or fail to) an existing study, or spot statistical flaws in someone else's work.


>So I guess you criticize every corporation who hires scientists to work on proprietary products?

Those are engineers, not scientists. Even at that, the whole purpose of the patent system is to publicize developments while protecting those who create it for a short time.


You seem to be placing a lot of stock in the word "scientist" vs "engineer" or "accountant". Could you explain the substantive distinction you are making?

For my part I don't see much of one. In all cases one attempts to learn true facts about the world via careful analysis of data and experiment - the label is just for potential employers.


>>Yes. The search for scientific truth shouldn't be a narrative for the people who pay for it.

>So I guess you criticize every corporation who hires scientists to work on proprietary products? Elon Musk is such a fiend!

Then it's not science. If the scientific community does not participate it's maybe development. There is nothing wrong with it.

But there is something wrong if the public sectors stop doing science and get's castrated to be a thinktank for the current administration.


>Yes. The search for scientific truth shouldn't be a narrative for the people who pay for it.

I don't believe the parent comment is arguing on behalf of "merchants of doubt". He or she is suggesting that it should be possible to enter into a contract with a scientist in which the scientist agrees to investigate a scientific truth without disclosing it publicly in exchange for money. Whether you have herpes is a "scientific truth" a scientist might discover, but it's your prerogative whether that fact is publicly disclosed.


Where does that leave scientists who were already working when Harper showed up and unilaterally muzzled them?


With respect to my comment, it leaves them in a completely different position from the one I referred to, as they were before Harper's term.

I was clarifying that the OP did not appear to be defending the sale of "credentialed" opinions on political issues. The intent behind the "muzzling" matters. There are situations where a contracting party has a legitimate interest in enlisting a scientist to investigate a truth while maintaining confidentiality. Harper's suppression of scientific evidence was not one of these, but my comment addressed the notion that there are no such circumstances.


As a Canadian who was living in Canada at the time the previous government enacted said policy, I don't find this story overblown at all, and am very happy to see the new government moving so quickly to remediate this problem. There was a lot of public outrage at the time, especially given that this "muzzling" was seen as another part of the Harper government's systematic undermining of climate science in Canada.


basically this. I don't think yummyfajitas understands how against the data-driven decision the Harper Government is.

It's like the equivalent if the gvnt (instead of oil companies) studying climate change, and then hiding the results. except that the government is SUPPOSED to be morally engaged beholden to the best interests of society at large.


> is there some moral principle that all scientists should disclose everything and you can't hire them for confidential work?

I think the argument is that released scientific knowledge is generally in the public's interest, and since the research is in fact funded by the public, government scientists should be allowed to release whatever they want. The government is a public institution, so some feel that "confidential government research" should be restricted to very limited things.

That said, I do agree that it is all a bit overblown.


By political agencies, do you mean government agencies funded by the taxpayer?


Yes, government agencies funded by the taxpayer, with scientists directly employed to work for them. In much the same way, I wouldn't expect a person working for the DEA to be allowed to publicly say "legalize it", and I wouldn't be particularly outraged if in fact that is banned.

I use this term to contrast to, e.g., university researchers receiving an NSF (or Canadian equivalent) grant and (in name, at least) given political independence.


So you don't mean scientists, you mean whores who pad out the opinion of their employer.

No wonder you find Harper's policies unobjectionable.


A key difference:

You were employed by a private party. The muzzled scientists were employed by the citizens of Canada.

To make your example comparable, you would have been employed by an attorney on behalf of the attorney's client, and then the information you found would have been withheld from the client who was paying for it. I'm not saying that doesn't happen, but it would be a breach of ethics on the part of the attorney to do so. Just as, in this case, it was a breach of ethics for the Canadian government to force scientists to withhold information from the people of Canada.


The government should serve the people, and the scientists should serve the government. Disclosure, as far as is reasonably possible, should be the default and should be transitive down from the government through its various arms. The same principle that makes secret courts, (generally,) a bad idea, makes forcing scientists to toe a party line, (generally,) a bad idea.


A "data scientist" is not a scientist.


In your mind, what is the distinction between the two?

I don't see any way to draw a strong distinction between what I did during my physics days and what I do today. Different math, sure - PDEs vs statistics. But then again the math changes when you go from quantum physics to statistical mechanics also.


You tell things to your hairdresser, and you tell things to your priest, but that doesn't mean your hairdresser is bound by the conventions around the confessional, does it? So you did some maths for a guy and signed an NDA, don't make it something that it's not.


Um, you dodged the question. I didn't ask "what's the distinction between a hairdresser and priest".


Umm, not at all. You are not a "muzzled scientist", a million of us have signed NDAs without making a big song and dance about it.


The question which you have failed to answer is "what is the distinction between data scientist and scientist"?


What employee can't speak freely?




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