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Rally for Canadian Science in Victoria, BC

Posted on 28 September 2012 by Andy Skuce

Skeptical Science readers may already be familiar with the dismal performance of the Canadian Federal Government on climate change. The Canadian contributors to Skeptical Science expressed our concerns about the erosion of our country's science for political ends in a blog post here in March of this year: PMO Pest Control: Scientists. We have also run a number of posts on the rapid development of the oil sands, for example: Tar Sands Oil - An Environmental Disaster  and; Alberta’s bitumen sands: “negligible” climate effects, or the “biggest carbon bomb on the planet”?. This summer, Canadian scientists have been taking their protest to the street and last week there was a rally in Victoria, British Columbia.

In an event organized by Ken Wu, Canadian scientists and concerned citizens rallied outside a Federal Government building in Victoria on Friday September 14th in protest against the Federal government's policies that have been cutting science budgets, shutting down vital projects (e.g., PEARL, ELA) and muzzling government scientists. People jammed the sidewalks in downtown Victoria to hear speeches by climate scientist Andrew Weaver, Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May and "Dr X", a marine biologist working for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who appeared in disguise for fear of losing his job.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and marine biologist "Dr X" (hiding behind a false moustache) speaking at the Victoria rally. (All photographs by the author).

Andrew Weaver expressed his outrage about the cutbacks in spending on research and the suppression of free speech for federal scientists. Canadian scientists are no longer allowed to speak directly to the press, he said, but now journalists must get their information from government information officers who deliver carefully scripted "media lines".

Dr Weaver was quoted in the local press:

"We used to laugh about what was happening to science in the George W. Bush era. It pales in comparison to what is going on in Canada now," he said. "Science is happening behind closed doors and is only made public if it fits with the government's agenda."

Andrew Weaver wrote a recent newspaper article on the Canadian government's anti-science policies, here. On September 20th, Weaver announced that he will be seeking the nomination to run as a candidate for the BC Green Party in the elections for the provincial legislature that will take place in 2013.

Climate scientist Andrew Weaver addresses the rally.

Elizabeth May spoke with her usual verve, saying that the Harper government seems intent on replacing evidence-based policy-making with policy-based evidence-making. She has just written an article on the rally, with a long list of the government's recent anti-science actions.

"Dr X" recounted how the staff and funding cutbacks were making his job impossible. His research traces the industrial pollutants in the ocean through bio-magnification into some of the iconic marine species of the Pacific Ocean, salmon and orcas. He is bitterly frustrated at being unable to carry out his professional responsibilities. And he fears the personal consequences should his identity become known.

Andrew Weaver giving an impromptu interview to TV news after the rally. Dr X and Elizabeth May in the background.

A personal view

The Canadian government claimed, in the last budget, that it was closing the independent advisory group the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) to save its $5 million annual operating cost. However, in the same budget, the government allocated an additional $8 million to the Canada Revenue Agency to audit the activities of environmental charity groups. The common factor appears to be to stifle dissenting opinions on the government's environment and resource exploitation policies, rather than to reduce public expenditures.

The historically unprecedented recent lows in Arctic sea ice recorded in 2012 demonstrate unequivocally that our climate is undergoing rapid change. As Caitlyn Baikie wrote here, for Canada's indigenous peoples, climate change is already a reality, threatening their lives and their traditional cultures. They, especially, deserve a government that is prepared to do all that it can to understand the rapid transformation that is taking place in their homelands. And, as a major producer and consumer of some of the planet's most carbon-intensive fossil fuels, Canada's government has a special responsibility to investigate—and to mitigate—the effects that the exploitation of these resources is having on the climate. 

Canada's scientists have a proud record of achievement. Like scientists everywhere, they are happiest when working quietly in their labs. It takes a lot to get them as mad as hell and take to the streets. But, as we saw in Ottawa earlier this summer and last week in Victoria, they are not going to take it any more.

Effective public policy needs to be informed by the best possible science. In order to make up its mind on  policy proposals, the public requires free access to information and analysis directly from the scientists that they fund, unmediated by government spin. The unfortunate reality is not that Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not understand the importance of science in helping discriminate between responsible and irresponsible policy-making, but rather that he understands the power of science all too well.

Addendum, September 29, 2012. Journalist Mike de Souza, writing in the Calgary Herald, points to a briefing document prepared for Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent by the staff of Environment Canada. The document was obtained through access to information legislation. It details the many impacts that Canada is experiencing now as a result of climate change, driven by an average rate of increase in temperature for the country of 1.6°C for the period 1948-2010, double the global average rate. The  change in climate results in a long list of costly effects, for example: damage to BC's forests by pine beetles; shorter seasons for Northern ice roads; lower water levels in the Great Lakes; changes to surface water availability in the Prairies; and increased coastal erosion rates. Some of the information came from the recently disbanded advisory council, the NRTEE, referenced in the article above.

Needless to say, this information has not been communicated to Canadians by their government.

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Comments 1 to 29:

  1. "Replacing evidence based policy making with policy based evidence making." How beautifully said! That one is going into my lexicon. Dr X is worried about loss of funding. So much for the world government, green conspiracy and its umpteen gazillion mega-bucks whose origin nobody can explain. Maybe the scientists actually have a case!
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  2. Elizabeth May's newspaper article lists a sorry litany of science avoidance by the Harper government. Is shooting the messenger a valid part of prudent governance today? It used to be the action of a fundamentalist religiosity and enlightened Western governments were supposed to be above such stupidity, but now the inmates seem to be running the Canadian asylum. No doubt such awesome leadership is soon to be coming to a conservative government near you.
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  3. I fear Dr X will not be difficult to unmask, and retribution will be swift in coming. The Government of Canada Harper Government is not, insofar as I have followed its relations with the civil service, known for tact or valour. The stereotype in politics is that one becomes more conservative as one ages and has children. As I have grown older - and especially since the birth of my son just over a year ago - I have become increasingly intolerant of the policy promulgated by Canadian conservative parties. I wonder if that is because I am going against the stereotype, or because the Conservatives are. I fear it is the latter case.
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  4. C99, I agree. Wouldn't true conservatives conserve? Surely a real conservative would follow the precautionary principle? Be risk adverse? I'm saddened to hear that a scientist has to hide behind a mask to draw attention to the fact he can't follow his vocation unfiltered from the public view.
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  5. The Canadian government is more interested in all the billions of foreign investment, mostly from China and Middle East governments, this resource represents. They are having a big fight over this. Should they sell controlling interests in their vast tar sands fields to foreign state owned oil companies? Should they allow foreign workers into Canada to exploit the resource? Should they rapidly extract all that nasty gunk at the expense of the environment and water resources or should Canada nationalize the resource to better control its development? Having negative scientific studies just confuses and complicates these issues and their vision of vast wealth flowing into Canada. So, step one: push the scientists aside, ignore their concerns, discredit their studies, and never ever mention climate disruption. All oil, coal and natural gas rich nations are basically the same. They are going to develop that resource no matter what science has to say because it is really about trading climate and environmental security for short term economic security.
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  6. There has been a lot in the media about Harper and the Federal government being ant-science, as this article illustrates. I think it is important to note that "the federal government has increased spending on science and technology in recent years" Some areas of spending have been cut while some areas of spending have been increased. Some areas of spending have even been newly created, like the new $200 million arctic research centre. The fact of the matter is that in the current global economic environment, smart nations need to make extensive cuts to the bloated bureaucracy. All levels of Canadian Government are making deep funding cuts to many different programs. Which programs get cut depends on the priorities of the party platform and the mandate they received from voters and evaluation of the efficiency and benefits of any given program. All those who are being affected will, be they teachers, nurses, environmental scientists, jailers, police, etc. invariably protest and claim nefarious motives and attract the attention of opposition politicians and advocacy websites. And that is fine. But when the headline suggests that "science" is under attack because of spending cuts, when spending for science is actually up, it is my opinion that it is no more than typical political rhetoric and will be dismissed as such by the public.
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  7. Smith - Canadian government scientists cannot directly communicate with the media over climate related matters. Interviews are vetted by bureaucrats, whom also dictate what can and can't be said in such an interview. These tactics, and seemingly targeted funding cuts, are the basis for such claims. Do you have evidence of similar government tactics in other government-funded sectors?
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  8. Mr. Painting @7: So in reality you and others have concerns with Canadian science in climate related matters, and not concerns about Canadian science in general. Is this a fair assessment? If so why is the headline about science in general? Clearly, if Federal government spending on science is up, it is hardly fair to make the assertion that they are anti-science. With regard to the Canadian government controlling information released to the public, the PMO even keeps a tight leash on its own MPs, so I hardly think it is out of character and IMO not targeted at climate science communications. Harper runs a tight ship, that's all. Some don't like it and that's fine. I suspect this is as much about politics as anything else.
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  9. Smith When you look at the priorities for the new Arctic research station, the top two priorities are promoting resource development and sovereignty. That's entirely consistent with Harper's message on the Arctic. And when you look at the price tag, $189 million over six years, cutting costs does not seem to be the motivator here. It may well be the case that the Harper government has responsible policies in areas of science apart from environmental sciences; I haven't paid much attention to what they are doing in, say, medical research or atomic physics, I admit. But it is clear that any science that gets in the way of resource development agendas will be muzzled and risks having its funding cut. I think that most people would agree that political meddling in any area of science is deplorable and amounts to an attack on all of science, since it undermines the principle of free enquiry and open communication.
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  10. I'm Canadian, although I've lived in the US for the past three years. I am a former Speaker of the British Columbia Green Party. I was most active politically in the period 1988 to the late 1990s. Harper is a right wing ideologue who is elected from Calgary in the heart of Canada's oil province Alberta. He once gave a speech to the Council for National Policy, an American think tank, which illustrates some of the thoughts he has that for the most part he manages to keep hidden from Canadians: He started off with this: "your conservative movement is a light and an inspiration to people in this country and across the world". He comes across in Canada as somewhat of a Bush lite but he served notice with this what he believes. He is a social engineer something like Ryan in the US, out to transform Canada and Canadians because he doesn't like what it is and he doesn't like many of its people: "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it" He displayed open disrespect for most Canadians: "if you're like all Americans, you know almost nothing except for your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians" He views his political opponents not as legitimate representatives of people who disagree with his vision but as the Devil incarnate: "the NDP [the federal left wing party] is kind of proof that the Devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men." He claimed he was joking. The NDP is the political party that is credited with enabling Canada to adopt the most popular government program the country has, universal health care. Harper toned all this down when it became apparent there was a chance he could unite the two right wing parties in Canada who seemed to have doomed the right to be a perpetual opposition because they were splitting the right wing vote. He ended up leading the movement and became Prime Minister. He intelligently managed to stifle the wilder voices in his coalition unlike for instance what is happening to Republicans in the US where they are actually sending Ryan into Florida to tell the old folks they must be mistaken, he and the backers of the Republican Party are not aiming to eliminate old age pensions and health care. Compared to Romney, Harper comes across as a political virtuoso. Anyway, study Harper if you like somewhere else. Back to our issue, what's he doing with science. Harper was condemned by Nature magazine in this editorial which was entitled Science in Retreat. I think I would have looked for a title that encompassed Nature's prime concern, i.e. that climate science was on Harper's hit list, that also managed to convey that any science that comes up with data likely to make it more difficult for any industry to operate is also on that hit list. Otherwise you might be able to make the case he likes science. Harper made sure he didn't attend a ceremony honoring Canada's members of the IPCC who won the Nobel. He eliminated the position of science advisor so he wouldn't have to listen to warnings about climate, and he issued the order to muzzle scientists on the federal payroll, i.e. those working for Environment Canada, who now have to have bureaucratic approval before they can speak to the media. The muzzling was the kind of thing NASA scientist Hansen brushed off when Bush/Cheney tried it on him, but in Canada, Harper got away with it. Canadian scientists might learn something from that. Standing up without a disguise to speak publicly is what it takes. Weaver's newspaper article you link to in your post confirms it is climate and environment science that is under attack there, not science. Caution: political discussion follows. I think Weaver is making a mistake channelling his energy into the Green Party in BC. There is no proportional representation in BC or anywhere in Canada. Its all first past the post winner take all. As Harper and his right wing coalition discovered, if you split up into a number of little right wing parties, your opposition just mows you down each election and runs the country forever. The Liberal Party of Canada held power for more years in the last century than any party in any developed country in the world, while types like Harper languished in the shadows. Now there was a referendum on proportional representation in British Columbia that was narrowly defeated. Incredibly, the leadership of the Green Party opposed the system and advised British Columbians to vote against it. The margin of victory was so narrow, less than 2%, I am convinced had the Green not opposed, there would now be proportional voting in BC, and there would be pressure in Canada that the feds change their system of voting as a result, which would have legitimized Green politics in BC and Canada and in BC given the party the balance of power given historic voting patterns. Since the Greens opposed, I say they should fold up their tents and stop splitting the progressive or left vote. Canada tends to follow political trends in the US and we can see clearly what the Republicans in the US have become. Canadian Greens should work to unite the left in Canada to eliminate Harper and his ilk. The last time I appeared to try to enter a Green Party meeting in BC I discovered that the Leader of the Party had removed my name from the membership rolls and I was barred at the door. I was trying to debate with them before the vote took place on that referendum for proportional voting.
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  11. Smith @ 6: "the federal government has increased spending on science and technology in recent years" I'd agree with the comment that the Arctic Research Facility is resource-oriented, and being funded at a time when places like PEARL (noted in the post, located in Eureka) are having to shut down research because of cuts. I also know personally of a research site that is being largely shut down to avoid roughly $200K in salary and operational costs. Shutting it down and removing the unused facilities will cost millions. This is not a good way to save money. Google the mess that has happened over the ozone monitoring in Canada. The Harper government does not respect science.
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  12. Andy S @9: The priorities you highlight from the article are not listed in an order of precident and I think it is fair to point out that the other two priorities are "Environmental stewardship and climate change" and "Strong and healthy communities".
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  13. Smith@12 The CHARS website (scroll down to the bottom of the page) does indeed state that the priorities are listed in "no particular order". Usually, when no priority is intended, a list is ordered alphabetically, but "environment" would then have appeared first on the list and perhaps people might have got the wrong idea that this was the most important item. As you say, Harper "runs a tight ship" and his senior civil servants must know that all too well. It's surely no coincidence that they would put "resources" and "sovereignty" at the top of the priorities list when they hear the PM saying things like: Arctic sovereignty ‘first priority’ for north, says Harper.
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  14. Smith @12: the other two priorities are "Environmental stewardship and climate change" ...and I can call my Ford Pinto a Lamborghini Countach, but that doesn't make it one. I tend to judge politicians by what they do, not what they say. I would not buy a used car from Stephen Harper - especially if it was a Ford Pinto he was claiming was a Lamborghini Countach. With the recent round of cutbacks, both Fisheries and Oceans office in Saskatchewan will close. I know Saskatchewan doesn't have any oceans, but it does have a lot of fish. Wit the changes to environmental legislation, fish habitat will no longer be protected unless it is a "commercial" fishery. If we can't dig it up or catch it and sell it, it's not important?
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  15. Smith - So you cannot provide evidence of other scientific disciplines being muzzled by the Canadian government, as climate and environmental scientists are. Didn't think so. Let's not beat around the bush - the Harper government fully intends to exploit the oil sands it has at its disposal, and damn the consequences. Canadian government-funded research which highlights how reckless and dangerous such action is, would not go down well with the public. It's exactly the kind of government suppression and control that the conspiracy nuts waffle on about - except that it is actually for real.
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  16. Gentlemen, I understand that you are not fans of Harper and clearly disagree with the support of a thriving economy and security. Arctic sovereignty and economic prosperity through resources development are important to many Canadians. A plurality in fact, as is Harper's mandate. And just because I can't come up with specific examples of other scientific diciplines having been "muzzled" does not take away from my point that science in general is not under attack by the Canadian federal government. In reality it furthers the point and reinforces the inaccuracy of the article title. "It's exactly the kind of government suppression and control that the conspiracy nuts waffle on about" Indeed.
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  17. Smith, Are you really looking to deny, defend or ignore (or, somehow, all three) the muzzling of scientists? Do you think it's not happening (i.e. your veiled "conspiracy" reference)? Do you think it's okay because it's limited to climate scientists ("science in general is not under attack")? Do you think it's okay because "a plurality" of Canadians want to ignore the science, too, and don't want to be pained by hearing the truth from the people that actually know the facts? Please clarify your position on muzzling climate scientists. Are you saying it's not happening, it is happening but it's not that big a deal, or it is happening and it's the right thing to do?
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  18. Spherica @17: It is my position that the Harper government has a tight communications policy and that bureaucratic climate scientists are no special case. Even his MPs are carefully managed, so it should come as no surprise that the bureaucracy is similarly controlled to stay on message. I understand that this is objectionable to you, however the notion that science is under attack is misleading at best. Some areas of bureaucratic science funding are being cut. It is expected that those with a vested interest in these particular areas will protest and generalize. But it does not make their generalizations accurate.
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  19. Andy S @9 An article posted yesterday by CBC confirms that, overall, Canada is fairing well in terms of science in technology; particularly within the subjects of clinical medicine, historical studies, information and communication technologies, psychology and cognitive sciences, physics and astronomy, and visual and performing arts. This announcement corresponds quite nicely with the opening of the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nanotechnology Centre at my university - the University of Waterloo - something Canadians can be quite proud of. However, also the article also mentions that since 2006, the dawn of the Harper era, research in natural science and environment has declined steadily, where once it was one of our top strengths. This conclusion was drawn by both a waning share of contribution to research on the subject and a growing share of global experts which identify Canada as falling behind in these fields. The article by Elizabeth May linked in this SkS article summarizes quite nicely a few of the affronts on natural sciences which would lead to this decline.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] link fixed.
  20. Smith, I'm not sure which appalls me more, Harper's attitude towards communication or your calm support of his approach.
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  21. Sphaerica @20: What a disappointing reply. You are appalled by my support of his approach. Are you similarly appalled by the other 5,832,400 Canadains who gave Harper his mandate last year and also support his approach? (-snip-). (-snip-).
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    Moderator Response: [DB] Tone trolling and inflammatory snipped.
  22. Yes, I am not a fan of the Harper government. Largely this has to do with the obvious consequences of the exploitation of the oil sands. This will have dire implications for current and future generations of life on Earth, not just humans. It is possible, of course, that any other political party would do exactly the same - the lure of that short-term wealth proving too irresistible. I do doubt, however, that other political parties would stoop to the level of muzzling, and de-funding, climate and environmental scientists - simply because the truth is inconvenient.
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  23. Smith seems to be very adept at using words, a hallmark of the PR and political operators, among others. I was especially amused by the "tight communication" bit. It's a very interesting concept, but rather ill defined. What kind of tightness scale are we looking at? If Harper has it tight, could it be said that Stalin had a "very tight" or "extrememly tight" communication policy? What are the checks and balances on that kind of tightness? So many questions, so little time to listen to the self righteous communicators who get all disappointed when one disagrees. I'm of the opinion that scientists who do not share in Mr Harper's ideology are found apalling enough to be be made non-issues. That's my opinion, Smith, don't be apalled...
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  24. Smith@21 "Are you similarly appalled by the other 5,832,400 Canadains who gave Harper his mandate last year and also support his approach?" Can you be sure that they all explicitly gave the mandate in this particular case as you propose, or do you just commit a logical fallacy by assuming that all those persons who voted for Harper are 100% behind his every action? Were those voters even aware of his intention in this case when they cast their vote? I'm asking this in earnest, since I a) am not a canadian, nor b) have followed Harpers case at any distance.
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  25. Smith: Nobody is disputing Harper's democratic right to govern and I am not questioning Canada's right to exercise its sovereignty in the Arctic. But I maintain my right to speak out forcefully on matters that I consider important. I agree with you that it's better to maintain a civil tone and I assume that you were also disappointed with the tone of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver when he described the opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline as "radical groups" with the goal to "to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth". It's worth noting that Christie Clark, the right-of-centre Premier of BC is now a member of that radical group. As for your continued objection to the headline of this piece, I reiterate that any scientist would consider the muzzling of government scientists to be an attack on all of science, whether the suppression of free reporting of results was in environmental science or, say, in the reporting of pharmaceutical trials. Similarly, when the Natural Resources Minister dismisses the people who oppose his views on pipeline construction to be "radicals", I consider that to be an attack on all Canadians. Don't you?
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  26. I want to avoid dogpiling, so after this comment I will leave the discussion with Smith to Sphaerica, Rob, and Andy - unless there is further discussion of my specific points that warrants my further contribution. In several comments, smith says the following: "I understand that you ... clearly disagree with the support of a thriving economy and security." Straw man and goalpost shift. Nobody said "I don't support a thriving economy", and you're creating the artificial dichotomy between concern for the environment and proper use of science, and economic development and security. "the Harper government has a tight communications policy and that bureaucratic climate scientists are no special case." A good friend of mine is a science manager in Agriculture and Agrifoods Canada. If called by a reporter, he is free to talk to him/her immediately. Afterwards, he is expected to file a report on the interview with the communications people, just so they know it happened. Contrast that with the case of Environment Canada's David Tarasick, who does research on ozone. Requests for interviews with him were refused for months, and when finally granted a communications person attended the interview and controlled the questioning. The Harper government also had communications people follow scientists at an Arctic conference in April. Clearly, certain topics are controlled more than others. "It is expected that those with a vested interest in these particular areas will protest" Ah, the good old "vested interest" canard. You could have equally said "special interest group". Instead of discussing the issue, just call someone a name that is supposed to mean that they should be ignored. "Are you similarly appalled by the other 5,832,400 Canadains [sic]who gave Harper his mandate last year and also support his approach?" Lanfear has already commented. I will just ask: how many people cast votes for someone other than Harper? [Hint: the answer is about 1.5x larger than your number.] ...and finally, the "tone troll" appears: "I was hoping this conversation could stay civil. I guess that was asking too much." Disagreeing and being blunt is not being uncivil. Even if it was uncivil, that doesn't mean you are right. "He was rude, so he was wrong" doesn't cut it.
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  27. Andy, Thank you for highlighting this. It is so very sad that it has come to this. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that science and scientists would be under siege, especially by the government. On a positive note, it is heartening to see that the scientists (and some politicians too) are standing up for what is right. Very good post @ 26 Bob. I concur.
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  28. Smith, My position is simple and not personal. As a citizen of the United States of America, I find any curtailment of free speech to be unacceptable and appalling, particularly when exercised by a government on scientists in their own sphere of expertise. This attitude applies to such efforts in my own country (see the life and times of G.W. Bush), neighboring countries, allies overseas or enemies overseas or backwater dictatorships anywhere on earth or in history. I am further appalled by anyone who takes an "ends justifies the means" approach and somehow feels this is acceptable because they share interests with the intolerant/greedy parties involved. Gagging scientists, any scientists, is never an acceptable policy. Period. The facts that he's only doing it to climate scientists, and it's because he's doing so in a bid for the greater glory of Canada, and that the effort is supported by millions of Canadians are all irrelevant. Those facts do not make it right, not in the slightest.
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  29. I have made an addition to the article based on a recent article in the Calgary Herald by Mike de Souza. (Hat-tip to John Hartz.)
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