Sunday, May 29, 2011
When Democracy Supersedes Reality
Image courtesy of Google Images.
I live in a democracy, at least in name, and I strongly believe in democracy. The people should hold the power in a nation-state, which ideally should be republican (not to be confused with Republican). My country, Canada, is not a republic of course. We have a sovereign as head of state, and her representative, the governor general as the technical head of the government. But, Canada is, for all intents and purposes, a democracy. We have a parliament with a House of Commons, elected members of parliament, a senate, a separate judiciary, and a prime minister. The parliamentary system, quite a different form or democracy than the American brand, requires the party with the majority of seats in the house of commons to form a government following an election. Should no party establish a majority of seats, then typically either the party with the most seats forms a minority government or more than one party forms a coalition government. As such, it is not uncommon at all to have a Prime Minister of Canada for whose party much fewer than 50% of the population voted. The prime minister appoints as cabinet ministers various elected members of parliament, almost always exclusively from within his own party.
Canada’s current prime minister, Stephen Harper, appointed Gary Goodyear to the position of Minister of State for Science and Technology following an election in 2008 and then again following an election in 2011. It is public knowledge that Goodyear neither understands nor accepts evolution. In a March 2009 interview Goodyear was asked by a reporter whether he believed in evolution. He responded: “I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.” [Note the reporter did not ask a question about his religion.] Later the same day, Goodyear said that he believed in evolution, but when asked to clarify this belief, he responded: “We are evolving, every year, every decade. That’s a fact. Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course, we are evolving to our environment.” [Gary Goodyear is a former chiropractor.]
Remember, this comes from the Minister of State for Science and Technology.
It is obvious to anyone with even an elementary knowledge of science and evolution that Goodyear does not understand it. Human evolution does not occur in the time frame of years and decades, and to suggest so only illustrates a failed attempt to cover up his own ignorance about evolution. Further, anyone with any exposure to the deliberate ignorance promoted as “intelligent design” and the battle (particularly in the United States) to introduce this tripe into schools as “teaching the controversy” in science class, also understands exactly what Goodyear’s position is. The fact that he interprets acceptance of evolution as an issue of religion rather than science and the fact that he is then unable to adequately explain basic evolution, demonstrates that he is indeed a creationist. He clearly lets his religious beliefs determine his view of where humans came from rather than accepting the reality of evolution. And, worst of all, he actually thinks this is an acceptable position for the Minister of State for Science.
In some conversations with people, particularly supporters of the Conservative Party of Canada (which, incidentally is anything but conservative to anyone who holds conservative fiscal and economic values) they tend to defend Goodyear’s right to believe whatever he wishes. They tend to defend the prime minister’s choice to appoint (and re-appoint) him to this scientific cabinet position, justifying it by pointing out that we live in a democracy and the Conservative party won the election. Mr. Harper, as the elected prime minister, has the authority and the mandate of Canadian voters to appoint Goodyear to this post. There are two main problems with this position.
Firstly, while it is true that Goodyear has the right to believe anything he wishes, even known falsehoods such as creationism, he most certainly does not have the right to allow his personal beliefs to cloud his perception of reality, particularly when those beliefs are in direct opposition to the portfolio he holds (science). Step back and imagine if this was another government minister who held a belief that was known to be false and which was directly in conflict with a particular cabinet position. Suppose the Minister of Health believed that HIV was transmitted by eye contact. Suppose the Minister of Natural Resources believed that the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada were only 13 metres apart (this is, after all, an error of the exactly same magnitude as Gary Goodyear's error), or suppose the Minister of Finance didn’t believe the dollar exists. Everyone, no matter their beliefs, would be outraged to find a minister with such beliefs appointed to cabinet and making major decisions about the economy, health, or land resources while holding beliefs that are in complete opposition to known facts. Yet, for some reason when the issue is evolution and science, people are willing to accept that that is someone’s “personal” belief. (And, of course, some people think these are not analogous since for some people, thanks to successful propaganda, evolution is still not known to be true).
Secondly, reality should supersede democracy. The prime minister, while legally entitled to appoint Goodyear to the role of Minister of State for Science given his majority government position by the voters of Canada, should not have this authority. There are some cases when even an elected majority government should not have the authority to make such decisions. When reality is being challenged by a government, democracy is no longer a fair defense of the government’s actions and decisions. No matter how strong of a majority government a party earns in an election, they would never be able to decree that electrons actually have a positive rather than negative charge. They simply do not, and to state otherwise is a challenge to reality. Even if 100% of the population of Canada believed that electrons have a positive charge and supported the prime minister in decreeing that they are positively charged, they still would be negatively charged. Electrons have a negative charge whether Mr. Harper believes they do or not. Similarly, evolution is true whether Gary Goodyear believes it is or not. Attempting to overrule reality with democracy is a very dangerous game in politics because it leads to organized and deliberate ignorance, a topic I hope to follow up with shortly.
There may be those reading this who are still not convinced of the outrage of Gary Goodyear's position. Perhaps you still think he is entitled to his own personal beliefs even if he is in public office. Well, perhaps he does, even if those beliefs are known to be false. But the bottom line is this: Gary Goodyear is the Minister of State for Science. Science accepts evolution. Even if you, as the reader of this blog, don't accept evolution, perhaps you could understand why it is outrageous for someone in the position of authority over science in government to reject one of the main accepted theories of the biological sciences.
Overall, this is simply another example of how a person can blind themselves to the facts because they require their beliefs to fit with preconceived notions based on religion. Just another example of putting the cart before the horse and making the evidence fit the conclusion. Gary Goodyear only rejects (and even fails to understand) evolution for one reason: he is a Christian. (Let's face it, this is pretty much the only reason anyone ever rejects evolution). The travesty in this case is that, rather than only letting his rejection of science lead to his own continued ignorance, he is instead in a position of power over the very subject that he rejects. The irony would be funny if it wasn't so frightening and sickening.