Canada was first to try to muzzle scientists and fail

Facts and science might be in danger but judging by the Canadian experience, there will be many who will resist.

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    Canada was first to try to muzzle scientists and fail
    Environmentalists protest the nominations of climate change deniers in the cabinet of Donald Trump, on January 9 [EPA]

    Facts are fast becoming an endangered species.

    As anyone with functioning synapses knows, facts and, more particularly, the literate people that produce them, are considered public enemy No 1 by an illiterate president who watches TV obsessively and boasts of not reading books, including, presumably, the turgid, self-aggrandising tomes he paid others to pen for him.

    Donald Trump confirmed long ago that he prefers to inhabit an agreeable alternate universe where "alternative facts" that defy logic, rationality and, in many cases, the immutable laws of nature, are perpetually manufactured by his courtiers to comfort and calm the combustible psyche of the President of the United States.

    And so it was after Trump's sparsely attended inauguration where the National Mall and nearby viewing stands resembled an abandoned suburban shopping mall early on a Monday morning, he had yet another tantrum.

    'Alternative facts'

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    Reportedly, an apoplectic Trump ordered his marionette turned press secretary, Sean Spicer, to gather up his alternative facts and humiliate himself by raging at his blessedly brief maiden "press conference" that the inauguration was the most-watched in alternate universe history.

    Everyone laughed, while The New York Times rightly dismissed Spicer's angry, sputtering performance as a pack of lies. Infuriated, Trump devoted much of his first official day as the "leader of the free world", pressuring the acting head of the National Park Service to produce alternate photographs - that didn't exist - to prove a lie.

    Of course, since that was impossible, Trump did the next best thing; his regime retaliated and temporarily closed the National Park Service's Twitter account when it posted two photographs - one of Obama's densely populated inauguration adjacent to Trump's relatively vacant one.

    In reply to Trump's diktat, a brave, subversive soul posted a series of tweets on the Service's account which pointed out, in effect, that the Earth is well on the way to committing climate suicide.

    The tweets were, no doubt, crafted as a factual rebuke of the climate-change dodos now running the US government. Alas, they soon evaporated into the electronic ether. Still, the point was made, widely noted and applauded.

    Like every other pestilence, however, this one will, in time, pass. Then, munificent Americans must set to work, together, to repair and rebuild after the storm as best they can.

     

    As we know, Trump's media ban on an innocuous government agency would be the first of many. Next on the hit list were those - theoretically-speaking - fact-friendly scientists and bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

    Their intellectual crime was not only to search for, verify and share facts with the public, but also to underwrite other local scientists to search for, verify and share facts with the public about how, among other things, to clean up toxic spills and test for nasty, dangerous stuff lurking in groundwater.

    Since searching for and sharing facts with Americans is anathema to the Trump administration's rule-by-fiat modus operandi, the career scientists and bureaucrats at the EPA were ordered to stop talking to the "opposition party" … no, not the Democrats, but those other supposedly fact-friendly degenerates in the press.

    Canada's science gag order

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    Watching these surreal events unfold in the US, I was reminded of the ultimately futile, destructive actions of a slightly more polished, but equally paranoid leader of another western democracy who shared Trump's preference for alternative facts over the objective truth - former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

    Like Trump, Harper was crippled by insecurity and an irrational conviction that beyond a handful of loyal consiglieri, he was besieged by his mortal, political enemies - visible and invisible, burrowed well inside the bureaucracy. Turns out, Harper wasn't scared of his shadow, but rather scientists and their science.

    Long before Trump appeared on the political horizon, Harper was not only banning government scientists from having any contact with the media, but, driven by a crass, petulant ideology, he and his compliant cabinet also set out to purge systematically the unfriendlies or, at the minimum, stifle their ability to share their work with anyone outside government.

    This translated into a government-wide edict requiring scientists to endure a vetting process with more hurdles than a steeplechase simply to respond to even a routine query from the press that would inevitably, more often than not, go unanswered.

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    The intent of this sorry, cynical pantomime was clear: scientists don't serve the public, but the petty, parochial interests of a majority government that had little faith in or time for their science.

    At first, the attendant "chill" had the desired effect. With neither access to the scientists, nor their science, reporters were increasingly unable to report on serious matters in the public interest, including government-produced studies charting the projected warming of the globe through to 2100.

    But scientists are, by and large, a bright, inventive and independent-minded lot, not prone to saluting when politicians bark orders like drill sergeants.

    One by one, Canadian scientists stepped out of anonymity into the unwelcomed spotlight to tell the truth about what was happening to them and the fate of their work at the behest a politician who thought he could imprison their brains and muzzle their mouths.

    Harper miscalculated badly. Eventually, government scientists, supported by their international brethren, mobilised and demonstrated against a myopic politician and his corrosive, anti-democratic impulses.

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    Last October, millions of other Canadians finally and emphatically joined these courageous scientists to resist and reject an opaquely sinister authoritarian masquerading as a "democrat" who has quickly and happily disappeared into irrelevance.

    Today, the US is confronting a similar, although, arguably, more pronounced and vile menace. If there is an overarching lesson to be learned from the Canadian experience, it may be this: an ignorant regime, led by a singularly ignorant man will use the blunt cudgel of retribution to cause deep harm and grievous damage to America's social, political, scientific and environmental fabric.

    Like every other pestilence, however, this one will, in time, pass. Then, munificent Americans must set to work, together, to repair and rebuild after the storm as best they can.

    In this endeavour, truth and knowledge must be their north star and citizens who subscribe to the transformative necessity and value of facts must be the shepherds out of darkness into enlightenment.

    Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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