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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dinosaur attack in Canada!!: No, not science fiction, honest!

The Darwinian evolution mob struck recently, in Canada, against Minister of Science Gary Goodyear, in Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

But it is a confused story, and the motives are unclear.

As the photo caption in 24 Hours (the Toronto subway's biggest free source of litter), put it,
A group calling itself the Disgruntled Dinosaurs held a protest outside the Intercontinental Hotel yesterday to call attention to Science Minister Gary Goodyear's refusal to confirm he believes in evolution. Goodyear - who was at the hotel to deliver a speech - clarified Tuesday that he does believe in evolution and initially refused to answer the question because it was "irrelevant" since his beliefs have nothing to do with government policy.
Fancy that.

A Minister of the Crown who does not believe in treating his office as a personal fiefdom from which he can dictate his beliefs to us serfs?

To the stake with him, right! When a guy becomes Science Minister, he gets to impose his personal beliefs on all the rest of us, regardless of public policy. Right?

Oh, you don't like that? I don't like it either. Neither, it seems, does Gary Goodyear.

So ... what really happened here?

The intelligent design controversy has had little impact in Canada, principally, in my view, because the way the public is divided on the subject is not on political lines.

Mike Strobel for the Toronto Sun had, I think, the right take on the controversy. Some were upset due to funding cuts and refocuses in science and technology:
Scientists roasted Goodyear. Is this why the feds have cut research funding? Does Ottawa figure it's cheaper to read the Bible?

Fumed one: "It's the same as asking the gentleman, 'Do you believe the world is flat?' and he doesn't answer on religious grounds."

No, it's not the same. We can bloody well see the world is round. But I can't look at an ape and see myself. Except some Sunday mornings.

Anyway, at Front and Simcoe, the protest evolves into two college kids in Barney the Dinosaur outfits.

An unsuspecting Goodyear is in the InterContinental Hotel, telling the Economics Club how the Tories are boosting research in these tough times.

Warily, I approach the puff dinos. They identify themselves as the Disgruntled Dinosaurs. Man, I know how you feel, fellas.

They are U of T science students Adam Tempiy, 23, and Yves, uh, Smith, 24.

Hmmmm. Adam and Yves, eh? What a revelation.

You aren't Young Liberals by any chance?

"No, no," says Adam. "We just feel a creationist shouldn't be science minister. It doesn't jibe with his mandate. Does it start to skew his view?"

Wow, a dino-poet. I look around. The hotel swarms with TV trucks, cops and men in black with wires in their ears. For a couple of kids in Barney suits?
Puff dino fashion parade can be viewed here.

Goodyear, deciding to be the adult yesterday, told the Canadian Press (quoted in the CBC, the government broadcaster):
"We're evolving all the time," Goodyear said in an interview. "Of course I believe in evolution."
Wow. Now we know what really caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Puff Barney suits and wasting time on worthless causes, when you are a science student.

(Presumably, if you have really been accepted as a science student at the University of Toronto these days, you have a heavy course load, no?)

Local media sensed what was happening here, to their credit, and have largely failed to bite.

Some thoughts:

- The intelligent design controversy has not been politicized much in Canada, principally due to the fact that - as a recent Decima poll confirmed - views don't break out on predictable political lines here:
In a trend that also departs very much from the American scene, the people who intend to vote Liberal were much more likely than those who intended to vote either Conservative or NDP (leftist) to choose a "theistic" option - God either created humans or guided the process. Only 22% of Liberals thought God had nothing to do with it, but 31% of Conservatives thought that, as did 31% of leftist voters.
So what does this mean?

It means that if I were the campaign manager of a politician running for any party likely to have a chance at electing a member, I would whack him silly if he suggested politicizing the issue: "It's not an issue we need, and it won't bring us any votes. And I will quit the next time you say another word about it."

Things are quite different in the United States where the Democrat-Republican divide predicts views on this question to some extent. And therefore evolution vs. creation (or design) is politicized. Every important politician will be asked for his or her view.

However, some would doubtless like to politicize the controversy here. The activism business is slow these days. So a brand new controversy would be like the day they first struck oil in Leduc, Alberta, in 1948 ... I am told that a bank branch opened the next day. So if activists could just get the Minister of Science fired over something that doesn't relate to urgent present day concerns, maybe they could screw funds loose for ... who knows what?

- Fortunately, as mentioned above, few seem to be taking the bait. (But then how many people run around Toronto in puff dino suits anyway?) The Canadian Press report explained,
The Globe and Mail had reported that some scientists suspect Goodyear is hostile toward science, "perhaps because he is a creationist."

But Goodyear, a self-described Christian, said religious beliefs — his or anyone else's in government — have no bearing on federal science policy.

"Our decisions on the science and tech file are not based on what one reporter wants to have people believe, which is that religion somehow forms a part of our policy," he said.

He said science policy is developed by "a multitude of people," in consultation with scientific advisory bodies, research granting councils and other stakeholders.
Well, uh yes. That is how we do it here. It's taxpayers' money, after all.

Essentially, thousands upon thousands of people are losing their jobs. In this environment, researchers - in my view - are well advised to aim their research at a clear and obvious public benefit, rather than start rumours about the Minister of Science. Hoping for what? To get him dumped in favour of a wimp who will vote money for whatever anyone happens to want? Grow up guys. It's not gonna happen. Revisit your priorities.

- I don't know who suggested the puff dino suits, but they were actually a political statement because, as the Canadian Press report points out,
Creationist beliefs have caused trouble for the Conservatives and their predecessor parties in the past. In the 2000 election, Stockwell Day, then leader of the Canadian Alliance, was ridiculed for suggesting the Earth was 6,000 years old and that humans once shared the planet with dinosaurs.

During a TV panel, Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella held up a stuffed purple dinosaur and reminded Day that, "The Flintstones was not a documentary."

Kinsella, who will head up the election war room for current Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, used his blog Tuesday to draw parallels between Day and Goodyear. Borrowing from The Flintstones theme song, he referred to Harper's "modern stone-age government" and called Tories "kooks right out of history."

However, the Liberals' official science critic was kinder to Goodyear. While he criticized funding cuts to research granting councils and the government's fixation on commercializing research, Marc Garneau said there doesn't seem to be any religious motivation to the decisions.

"With respect to science policy, I can not honestly say I've seen a direct link - so far," said Garneau, a former astronaut and onetime head of the Canadian Space Agency.
So basically, this was a political move on the part of some individuals that isn't even being seriously supported by the Official Opposition, the Liberal Party of Canada.

- I was supposed to be on the Charles Adler show Tuesday (out of Montreal), but I expressed reservations about what I was sure would turn into a stupid and irrelevant circus. The researcher must have agreed, because she kindly wrote back to say that they had decided to put the show on hold.

So I guess we can all send our puff dino suits back to the costumers now.
(Note: Gary Goodyear is pictured above.)

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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