In case you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last few months, the National Post’s Matt Gurney has a useful summary of Mike Duffy’s corrupt antics in the Senate, up to and including the decision by the Prime Minister’s Office to bail out Duffy with $90,000 in cash from Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, which Duffy then used to pay back his $90,000 in ill-gotten gains bilked from the taxpayer via fraudulent expense claims. At the time, the PMO praised Duffy for “voluntarily” paying back the money. It now turns out there was nothing less than a conspiracy to rescue Duffy from having to make good on the expense accounts, and then to cover up the truth.
It’s illegal for Duffy to accept these sorts of payments in connection with his job as a Senator, so Gurney’s colleague, Andrew Coyne, is probably a little off base when he suggests that the matter wouldn’t have been nearly so awful if Duffy had disclosed the payment when it was made. In any event, I do thoroughly endorse the calls from both Coyne and Gurney (and many, many others) for Duffy to resign.
But there’s a broader observation to be made here, and I’m going to draw on another recent and scandalous episode in order to make it: where the hell has Stephen Harper’s admittedly self-interested sense of ethics gone?
Some of you will be scoffing that he never had one. This isn’t entirely true. Back when Harper was Leader of the Opposition, he believed sincerely in accountable and transparent government — or, more to the point, he believed that talking points about Liberal corruption, of which there was plenty to go around, played well with voters. And after getting elected, too, he passed some serious reforms to the ethics, lobbying, electoral finance, and other laws, even if those reforms have since been criticized for being full of loopholes so big you could drive a truck through them. And ministers could get dismissed for gross indiscretion from time to time, although those times have gotten noticeably fewer and some of the offenders (I’m looking at you, Max Bernier) have been pardoned and welcomed back into the fold.
Contrast that Harper with the Harper of this year. The Harper of this year isn’t exactly open about the corruption of his government, but he makes only slight attempts to hide it, and when caught out, he’s thoroughly unapologetic. When Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue was caught with his hand in a rather large cookie jar, the PMO defended him. When it turned out that they couldn’t simply brazen away massive violations of the electoral finance laws, Penashue stepped down, but only to run in the resulting by-election with a public promise from other Cabinet ministers that he would be reinstated into Cabinet following his re-election, plus some rather appalling guff of his own about he had deliberately (ab)used his Cabinet position by sabotaging government projects elsewhere in the country in order to gather pork for his own riding.
And now Mike Duffy. Duffy, as has been known for some months now, collected $90,000 in expenses for living in his house in Ottawa — a house he already owned and lived in when he was made a Senator, and hasn’t left since — on the dubious pretext that his vacation cabin on PEI was actually his “primary residence.” This declaration was made despite the fact that Duffy pays income taxes to Ontario, has an Ontario health care, and is registered to vote in Ontario; he subsequently claimed that he had made an error when filling out the form. A couple of months ago, while an audit of Duffy’s books was underway, he suddenly announced that he was going to repay the $90,000 in a spirit of generosity. At the time, we put it up to the Conservatives trying to put away the story before it got out of control.
Which was right, in a sense, but also wrong, in a sense. We now know, courtesy of some convenient press leaks, that Duffy worked out a deal with the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the terms of this deal, he “stayed silent” during the investigation — silent about what, we still don’t know — and, in exchange, he received a $90,000 “gift” from Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright, which he used to repay his fraudulent expense claims. So Duffy didn’t actually lose a cent by way of punishment. The Conservatives are adamant that Wright used his own money, not taxpayers’ or the party’s, for this incredibly seedy transaction.
Now, first of all, this seems like a useful time to point out that it’s simply untrue to say that “all politicians are the same.” Chretien’s Liberals, corrupt as they certainly were, were never charged with national electoral money laundering. When ministers were implicated in bilking the public, they were shipped off to Europe as ambassadors — which is bad enough, in its own way, but not nearly as bad as endorsing them as by-election candidates (a la Penashue) or promoting them to the Treasury Board (a la Tony Clement, whose proven exploits already dwarf the Sponsorship Scandal in its size). It’s hard to imagine Chretien not only declining to oust from his party a Senator found guilty of defrauding the taxpayer, but bailing him out of trouble with $90,000. Mulroney might have done it, but only if the cash had been stuffed into a brown envelope and exchanged in a New York hotel room.
As I wrote already, some readers will no doubt be already scrolling down to the comment section to interject that Harper was corrupt all along. I don’t contest this. There was, for instance, Harper’s attempt to bribe terminally-ill independent MP Chuck Cadman with a $1 million life insurance policy in exchange for a vote against the Liberal budget. The difference is, Harper used to angrily deny such allegations, and engage in ludicrously heavyhanded censorship tactics to suppress them — in the Cadman case, he sued the Liberals for libel and demanded $3.5 million in compensation, although the suit was later quietly dropped, presumably because the allegations were true.
The detectable (but gradual) difference is that after making some cursory efforts at denial, the Harper Conservatives no longer make serious attempts to defend their claims to integrity or accountability. During the Penashue by-election, it was openly claimed — unsuccessfully — by the Conservative Party that it would reward Labrador for supporting Penashue by putting him back in Cabinet and directing a steady stream of government investments into the riding. It was also indicated that if they declined to support Penashue, they would be punished: federal funding for the riding would dry up overnight. Given that Penashue had openly admitted to massive violations of the electoral laws in 2011, it’s amazing that he would have been allowed to run under the Conservative banner again in the first place.
The Duffy scandal didn’t have to be a scandal. The Liberals turfed their own cheating Senator, Mac Harb, long ago, even though he was guilty of much less than Duffy. Yet to date, Harper and the Prime Minister’s Office have not repudiated Duffy. Instead, they bought him out, and now, they have the temerity to claim — in obvious disregard of the ethics code — that the huge payment made to Duffy, much more than most of us make in a year, is actually a sign of how generous and friendly the Harper government is. It’s stunning, callous, and pathetic.
But it’s calculated. We have to assume it’s calculated. Despite their frequent missteps, the Harper government lives by tactics, not grand strategic vision. That is why they micromanage. That is why it’s hard to imagine Harper wouldn’t know about the payment to Duffy and even have approved it (without any semblance of a paper trail, of course). And that is why it’s worth asking what was going through their heads at the time that they judged the political risks of secretly funneling money to a corrupt senator were less than the political risks of simply firing Duffy at the outset and washing their hands of the whole thing, the way they did when another Harper appointee to the Senate, Patrick Brazeau, was recently charged with sexual assault.
On its face, this sort of calculation seems absurd. Harper himself would have had a field day with the issue if the Liberals had done anything remotely like it during their dying days. The conclusion must surely be that they believe the political fallout from being thoroughly implicated in corruption is actually negligible.
Once again, that may seem absurd on its face, but I’m not so sure. 40% of Canadians won’t vote anyways, so it doesn’t really matter what they think, although probably it’s something on the order of “don’t know, don’t care.” Of those who do vote, it’s now quite apparent, after six years of Harper rule, that at least 60% will never vote for the Conservatives anyways. The PMO can afford to write off these voters, because experience has amply demonstrated that you can win a majority government without them. Lots of these people are no doubt very angry about the Duffy scandal, but they weren’t going to vote for the Conservatives anyways, and Harper knows this.
Of the remaining group, the majority — let’s say at least 30% — will vote for the Conservatives anyways, because they consider themselves right-wing to the core, even though there’s no indication that the Harper Conservatives have more than a passive interest in any plausibly “conservative” political agenda. This is actually a surprisingly small percentage of our population that consider themselves too staunchly conservative to vote for any party that doesn’t label itself as conservative — adjusting for the mass of non-voters, less than one in five is a staunch conservative loyalist.
Despite current polling levels, I am quite confident that this represents basically a lower bound and I will stand by my judgement. Even in 1993, when the Progressive Conservatives imploded in spectacular fashion, they still captured 16% of the popular vote, and the Reform Party took another 19%. Plus, voter turnout was higher. Adjusting for that, about 25% of Canadians voted for an openly right-wing party in 1993, which is actually higher than the percentage that voted for the Conservatives in 2011. Of course thinking readers will want to also adjust for the fact that the PCs were not as right-wing in 1993 as they are now, and that by 1993 the Liberals were already a right-wing party in their basic policy outlook if not in their rhetoric.
So that leaves a total of about one in twenty Canadians who will vote for somebody and might vote Conservative but could plausibly be talked out of it. Of this already very small group, only a minority will (a) watch the news regularly, (b) read subtly enough to realize that this sort of graft would probably not be committed by other political parties, (c) put a high enough priority on government accountability that a scandal like Mike Duffy’s, or Tony Clement’s, or Peter Penashue’s, would cause them to change their vote, and (d) will receive such a strong impression from scandals like these that it will still influence their voting intentions two years down the road.
Now, it could be that the cumulative weight of successive scandals will end up costing the Conservatives dearly, the way it did for the Liberals, and the way it did for the PCs. I am not convinced of this, however. Mulroney’s extravagances were so extreme that it sparked the rise of a new right-wing party, whereas today, the vast majority of Conservatives show no interest in leaving Harper, at least on the mere grounds of routine lawbreaking, fiscal incompetence, or heavy-handed secrecy and censorship. The Liberals were buried by a full-court press by the conservative media, whereas today the media can generally be counted on to act as cheerleaders for right-of-centre parties, regardless of their indiscretions. The Globe & Mail is may be already working on the first drafts of their 2015 endorsement of Stephen Harper. At the time, people of all political parties and at all newspapers agreed that the government was subject to the rule of law. Sadly, that no longer appears to be the case.Tweet
I’m not terribly interested in speculating, at least for the moment, about why the pollsters would be devastatingly incorrect — again — about a provincial election campaign. My guess is that in this case it has something to do with young people not voting, but again, the answer will become clear over the next couple of weeks. Mainly because that’s what the media will be focusing on.
Instead I have something else to get off my chest. I’m disappointed every time a far-right anti-government political party led by ignorant, unimaginative, corrupt, pro-global warming oligocrats wins an election. But to be honest, I’m not entirely surprised, and I’m actually surprised I’m not more disappointed. Being a leftist of my generation — I’m almost 30 now, so I can no longer truly claim to speak for the youth, but I am part of a generation that elects not to vote in unprecedented numbers — is a lonely lot. It’s also a thoroughly depressing lot, to the point that you sort of get inured to this kind of thing.
In my lifetime, I have not witnessed the creation of a single truly significant social program of any kind. I almost share a birthday with the Constitution, which I revere, but it’s pretty much downhill from there: the erosion and now open elimination of universal healthcare; the rise of free trade and the consequent devaluation of Canadian citizenship; the selling off of most of the profitable elements of the public sector at both the federal and provincial levels; the beginning of the end of Employment Insurance, public pensions and Old Age Security; the rise of a political culture of naked deceit and overt criminality of a sort not normally tolerated in democratic countries with the rule of law and not seen in Canada for a century; the slashing and burning of public education…
And, last but quite the opposite of least, the great turning away from scientifically informed climate policy. That one may sound a bit unfair, since my lifetime also saw the rise of scientifically informed climate policy. However, since the year I was old enough to vote, there has been nothing but setbacks on the question of whether dangerous climate change will be mitigated, let alone prevented. Emission regulation ideas surfaced, and were defeated by the right on the grounds they were inefficient. The carbon tax arose, and was defeated by the right on the grounds that it was a punitive move. Cap and trade arose, and was defeated by the right on the grounds that it was unnecessary government intervention in the economy.
Speaking of the economy, it’s worth noting that so called “centre-right” political parties have correctly judged that the vast majority of Canadians are simply not interested in voting for anything other than a promise of budget cuts, tax cuts, and job growth, basically at the cost of anything else, whether it’s social services or accountability or even a minimal level of integrity and honesty in politics or the environment or our international reputation or anything else. This is precisely the result which my series on evolution and the future of humanity was building towards, so I’ll probably feel a little vindicated on that front if nothing else. These people will be basically evenly split between those who don’t bother voting at all and those who vote for whatever party they have a vague hunch will move in those directions.
Which is why, if there was an actual far-right-wing party, one defined by an actual commitment to the free market or an actual commitment to social conservatism or anything like that, it would actually garner very few votes. Because nobody would vote on principle for that either. I believe that most people assume that the social services they personally require will always be there for them, just as they assume that the environment they need to survive will always be there for them. And they vote, or don’t vote, accordingly.Tweet
As promised, I am steadfastly avoiding discussing the Globe & Mail, and its latest partisan salvo — a preposterous endorsement of the BC Social Credit-turned-Liberal Party that reads like it could have been written by said party’s PR hacks — doesn’t help matters. (The Globe describes the NDP leader as a “business-minded socialist,” which is sort of like calling someone a “nonpartisan Globe & Mail editor” — it’s an oxymoron. I do, however, continue to read the comment pages, because it’s unfair to punish them for the sins of the editors, and mostly because I just can’t help myself.
Which is why I feel compelled to respond, despite my sort-of boycott, to a recent op-ed by McGill economist Chris Ragan on the subject of climate change. Ragan and I appear to have very different political opinions, but he’s a serious, intelligent and responsible writer, at least so far as I know. Which, again, is why I felt compelled to write.
Ragan’s concern is that conservatives are not participating in the climate change debate. (On this part we agree: by and large they aren’t, even though they should be.) He goes on to argue the following: first, we need to have a “real conservative” alternative to the “left of centre” big-government types who currently dominate the climate change scene. Second, the conservative option would involve a mix of market-based pricing and taxing solutions as opposed to regulation. Third, we need a nonpartisan think tank-style commission to steer the debate away from hyper-partisanship. Fourth, ideally, that commission should be led by economists.
Now, it should be immediately apparent here that the real problems are (1) lack of education and (2) hyperpartisanship on the part of people who call themselves “real conservatives.” I’m not the slightest bit interested in judging whether Ragan’s “real conservatives” or the pro-global warming crowd that also call themselves “real conservatives” have a better claim to the label, but it’s worth noting that reality-based thinking is not really a defining feature for the conservative crowd by and large, so it’s maybe kind of a moot point anyways.
Consider, as a starting point, Ragan’s points in order. First, it is not immediately apparent that we need a “real conservative” alternative to “left” solutions to climate change. Right now, the Conservative Party — who presumably have as good a claim to the title “real conservative” as anyone else — would be the first to admit that preventing and mitigating climate change is not exactly their highest priority. Maybe it should be, and it’s useful to understand why it isn’t — a point I’ll be getting to in my series on science and the future soon. I have no idea how to go about making them see it as a priority, though. The point is, it’s unclear what possible contribution could be made to the climate change discussion by conservatives who have thus far abstained from participating in it.
// ]]>Second, and to continue on that point, if “real conservatives” are defined as those who favour carbon taxes and carbon pricing schemes, it’s worth pointing out that the NDP and the Liberals are the only “real conservatives” on offer in the Canadian political arena. The Conservatives have what Ragan calls a left-wing policy (since they currently favour a regulation-based approach rather than a tax- or trade-based approach). So in Raganian terms, the Conservatives are leftists and the NDP are conservatives. I know what Ragan is trying to say here, but I think he’s assuming that somehow conservative = free market capitalist, and that equation obviously doesn’t correlate to political reality in contemporary Canada.
Third, yes, it would be nice if we had a nonpartisan commission to study the climate change issue. In point of fact, we had such a commission. We called it the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. The reason we no longer have such a commission is because the Conservatives abolished it.
Fourth, if we were to re-establish this commission, I fail to see why it ought to be dominated by economists. You can only decide which discipline’s expertise is best suited to a leadership role once you’ve decided what sort of questions the commission needs to answer. I think it’s safe to say that people who think the climate change debate is irrelevant or that climate change is bunk, whether they call themselves conservatives or not, are lacking first and foremost in science education. It doesn’t particularly matter what sorts of possible solutions a commission could contrive if they don’t think that climate change is a serious problem worth solving in the first place.
// ]]>On the other hand, conservatives have painted themselves into an anti-intellectual corner with their paranoid anti-science rhetoric over the past few years. I don’t think any assortment of scientists, assembled by any government(s) to compile a careful and measured summary of what we know about carbon and climate change, would be taken seriously by large numbers of self-professed conservatives. Many right-wing commentators essentially equate concern about climate change with political leftism. That closes a nasty but effective political circuit on the political right: climate change alarmism is a feature of the radical greenie left, conservatives are responsible and independent thinkers who oppose radical leftism, therefore by definition conservatives are not alarmed about climate change.Tweet
This post is part 2 of a series on science, politics, and the future. You can also check out Part 1: “Science Denialism and the Future of Humanity.”
More or less on a weekly basis, every serious news outlet delivers a new report about antibiotic resistance. This week’s pertains to a hospital in Windsor. Within my lifetime, there is a fairly decent chance of reaching a point at which universal resistance is so common that antibiotics are basically passé, and at that point, large portions of the Western healthcare system will basically need to be shut down.
I mention this not just because it’s an issue of direct concern in and of itself, but because it’s an important analogy to climate change. The threat posed by climate change is, in the long run, bigger. But the end of antibiotics — if it comes — will come first. The science is (even) more settled. The effects are (even) easier to predict. The solutions will not require wholesale retooling of our economies. Yet so far, Western governments and drug companies have watched the end coming with studied unconcern. Why?
There’s no shortage of quick diagnoses for the problem. Drug companies aren’t spending enough on antibiotic research anymore, we’re told. (And it’s true: only four major drug companies are still actively researching antibiotics.) They’re too busy finding lucrative long-term treatments for chronic diseases instead of focusing on urgently needed cures for acute infections. The medical research tax credit programs (the neoliberal answer) need to be retooled to reward investment in antibiotics. Or maybe (the leftist answer) government needs to take over antibiotic research so that it can be driven effectively with or without profit.
The problem we now face, in a nutshell, is evolution. It’s hard for educated humans to grasp the magnitude of the bacterial life on this planet. In terms of the sheer number of independent life forms, bacteria outnumber animals and plants together by many, many, many orders of magnitude. As you read this, the majority of the living cells in your body are not actually human ones — and that’s true under normal, healthy, uninfected conditions. We multicellular life forms are really just a microbial lab experiment that spun wildly out of control a few hundred million years ago and now delude ourselves into thinking we own the joint.
As we speak, these bacteria are multiplying, mutating, adapting, thriving, all in an inconceivably large, teeming mass. If we say that bacteria divide on average once per hour, which I don’t think is absurd at all (the widely cited figure on pop biology websites is 20 minutes), then in the space of just one month, bacteria go through as many generations as humans have since the invention of agriculture. In the space of a year, they live through about as many generations as the entire history of anatomically modern humans. Since penicillin was released in the 1940s, bacteria have had more than enough time to pass through as many generations as the entire documented history of humanity’s direct hominid ancestors, from the earliest australopithecines to the present.
This observation should give us pause. It should also make us appreciate the scope of the problem. Over the course of maybe half a million generations, we perfected bipedalism, built large brains, and invented language. In the same number of generations, bacteria have — unsurprisingly — built defences against antibiotics.
Against this we have, at least for the moment, a contraption which we call the “free market.” The free market is governed in the abstract by something called economics, which is really just a bastardized derivative of evolutionary theory, dressed up in fancy clothing and presented as an innovative science in its own right.
And here we arrive at the problem. Our pharmaceutical companies are larger, wealthier, and more knowledgeable than any of their counterparts in the history of our species. They should be capable of developing a new generation of effective antibiotics. These antibiotics would eventually be defeated by bacteria just as the previous ones have been, but it would buy us time — time to develop yet another generation, which would be defeated in its turn, and so on. Evolutionary arms races like this can continue indefinitely, or at least until one side or the other cracks under the strain.
Now, at first glance, free market rhetoric dovetails nicely with the theory of evolution. The fittest companies, the best products, will thrive in a competitive environment. If you can build it cheaper, or better, or ideally both, you’ll win. And you’ll keep winning until someone else can come along who can do it even cheaper, or even better, or, again, both at once. And so on. The result, in theory, should be progress towards greater efficiency in the marshalling of scarce resources to secure beneficial ends. Free market supporters denounce government intervention in the markets because they think that political manipulation (“picking the winners”) distorts the competitive cycle and replaces the invisible hand of natural selection with the clumsy bumbling of the government bureaucracy. On its face, this is not actually a bad argument.
The problem is, market competition selects for competitiveness in the market. The market is not only an entirely free-wheeling competition, nor does it select for desired social and political ends. I’m going to flesh out this point in a later post, but for now, the important takeaway is that under competitive conditions, whether it’s nature or the free market, units respond to selection pressures through adaptation. That’s not the same as saying that units improve, or get more efficient, or “better,” except in relation to those specific pressures. If the problems they’re adapting to solve aren’t the ones you think they are, or the ones you want them to be, then the “improvements” may actually look a lot like problems rather than solutions.
Which brings us back to drug companies. The purpose of a drug company is not actually to develop a new and effective drug, any more than the purpose of Google is to build a powerful search engine. The purpose of a drug company, like any company, is to maximize value for shareholders. To that end, the drug company attempts to provide a good which other drug companies don’t provide quite as well, which can be priced at a point that the people who want that good are willing to pay for it. If you’re producing something people don’t want or can’t afford, you’re not going to make any money. In theory, our healthcare system progresses insofar as drug companies invest in research with the goal of responding to market incentives to produce better drugs, and cheaper drugs, and better cheaper drugs.
Note, however, that this is not actually the same thing as developing new drugs with the goal of counteracting new evolutionary adaptations by bacteria. Drug companies have a scarce pool of capital and a wide variety of potential projects they could invest in. They respond rationally by investing their capital in those projects most likely to lead to drugs that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. There is no need to suggest a conspiracy on the part of drug cartels here. There might be such a conspiracy, but there doesn’t need to be. In this case the free market can lead to the same outcome with or without elite rigging, the same way as evolutionary processes can move forward just fine both with and without self-aware, intelligent beings like us.
It follows that, at the end of the day, the only way — and I mean, the only way — to make private companies really want to make new antibiotics is to have very high prices for antibiotics. Prices so high that drug companies decide it’s worth investing in antibiotics instead of in new treatments for chronic diseases, cancer, etc. These prices will have to be high enough to make antibiotics seem like a worthwhile alternative to a new chronic disease or cancer medication, and that doesn’t even mean that the prices will have to be similar. A cancer drug will always have roughly the same level of effectiveness as it did when it was invented, so it can be used until a successor comes along. Antibiotics come with a built-in expiry date, whether a “superior” competitor has arrived on the market or not.
Yet the market is not willing to pay these high prices for antibiotics. In the developed world, we expect our public insurance schemes to pay out tens of thousands of dollars for a new chemotherapy regimen for cancer, but the bureaucrats would balk at paying the same price for a round of antibiotics to treat a urinary tract infection, and so would we, and so would the private insurance companies. It’s inane to expect private drug companies not to act in their own self-interest when that self-interest is a defining feature of the evolutionary process which free markets are supposed to emulate. Drug companies aren’t failing to produce antibiotics; they’re succeeding in pursuing their evolutionary imperative of adaptation and success according to the rules of the market. It follows that there cannot be a market solution to the antibiotic crisis unless and until people become willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a course of antibiotics.
This is already canon among critics of the industry, who contend that the whole mess should be hauled into the public sector and run on the basis of effective research rather than efficient marketing. I’m not sure I disagree, although there’s obviously a pretty tenuous assumption that government is capable of conducting effective research either. Our present science minister, who would be running the show if we created a government pharmaceutical lab, holds a view of evolution which could charitably be described as antiquated and goofy. It’s doubtful that Gary Goodyear can or would comprehend the problem, so his capability to oversee the search for a solution is obviously equally dubious.
Ultimately I favour public-sector research anyways, because at least it’s not intrinsically opposed to successful drug research under present conditions. Whether the solution is a government-run lab or targeted grants to private labs, I’m not sure, but the net result is the same: government interventions, not markets alone, must generate the incentives to create the next generation of antibiotics. And the sooner government gets started on that task, the better. Of course, there are good reasons why governments — especially Canadian governments — won’t be doing any such thing. More on that later.Tweet
One of the most irritating features of government-by-press-release is the “re-announcement” — the enthusiastic proclamation, with full fanfare, of something that has already been proclaimed before, often many times. Today the Conservative government engaged in this practice, or, just as conveniently, had the media do it for them by playing up a funding announcement for a biofuel experiment by Pond Biofuels as though it were evidence of the “new” commercially oriented National Research Council:
Hard on the heels of announcing a new commercial focus for the National Research Council, the federal government today provided an example of what this new mission could mean for Canada’s premier science agency.
Yeah, well, that’s nice. One of the problems with this notion is that the NRC was already working on the algae file. In fact, unless I’m reading the entrails wrong, they were already funding Pond Biofuels to do exactly these sorts of projects. So while it’s nice to see that Pond Biofuels has made it another step toward full commercialization by building a subsidized bioreactor for a tarsands company in Alberta, this really isn’t the “new” NRC. This is the “old” NRC. Whether there will be a “new” NRC, and what form it will take, remains to be seen.
The reason I’m feeling a little bit snarky about this is because I’m deeply skeptical of the long-term usefulness of the sort of product that Pond Biofuels is now developing, with heavy government assistance. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing sinister about them. What they’re doing is developing ways of capturing carbon dioxide at it’s released from various types of industrial plants and feeding it to algae in specially designed vats. That’s stage one, and there’s nothing blameworthy about reducing emissions. It is somewhat disturbing that the journalists don’t bother to tell us what percentage of the emissions are captured in this way. It seems unlikely that it would be 100%. But even a little bit isn’t nothing.
The problem is stage two. Stage two is that the captured carbon, via the algae, becomes the basis for a new biofuels “bonanza.” In other words, once they’ve prevented the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere they’re going to… convert them into saleable form so they can be released back into the atmosphere anyways. We’re not exactly making a great deal of progress here.
Defenders of Pond Biofuels will interject — correctly too, I might add — that it’s not really the same thing at all. Those biofuels are taking the place of conventional fuels. Less conventional fuel will need to be extracted and refined. The ultimate effect will be less carbon is released into the atmosphere. It’s the same argument that defenders of fracking use: that natural gas plants may emit carbon, but that the industry is still “green” because natural gas is better than coal, which is what the natural gas will be substituted for.
Which is why I don’t want to be too hard on Pond Biofuels, because they’re not doing anything wrong, but the fact of the matter is that this sort of technology is not helpful in the long run and it’s a waste of the NRC’s time, and the taxpayers’ dollars, because it means entrenching an industry we should be displacing. There’s no good follow-on here.Tweet
The latest census is out and for one reason or another, one of the several numbers upon which media attention has been fixated are the religion figures. This sort of ties into my new series on science, evolution, and the future of humanity, but actually it’s a separate question which I probably would have written about anyways. So I hope you’ll forgive the digression.
Anyhow, the headline figure is that the number of Canadians who stated on the census that they were non-religious has increased from a small portion (16%) to a slightly less small portion (24%). What one is to make of this, it’s hard to say. The Globe & Mail has printed two articles on the subject, one titled “Canadians Losing Their Religion” and the other “Religion in Canada is Changing, But It’s Not Being Abandoned.” There’s also been the perennial gag about Jedi Knights, a subject which holds absolutely no interest to me except to say that it’s nice to see how many people approach the census with as much cavalier disdain as the Conservative government does.
But the thing that intrigues me about the religion figure isn’t that it’s shrunk. It’s that the figure is so high. About 75% of Canadians espoused a religion on the 2011 census. Almost all of them stated that they were Christian. It’s certainly true that those describing themselves as having “no religion” is increasing, but the vast majority of Canadians continue to say they are religious, Christian in point of fact. Next time you’re out in public (or at work), pick 13 people out of the crowd. Over the past 10 years, on average, 1 of those people abandoned their religion. All of this is simply to say that when the media prints statements like “we’re losing our religion,” they’re making statements that are really only valid for a very small minority of Canadians.
It does raise an obvious question, though: where exactly is all this religion?
// ]]>What I mean is something quite different from the “are we losing our religion?” prattle that is presently making the rounds of the professional media. To show you what I mean, I’m going to compare the headline figures from the census with some very slightly more detailed questions asked on a regular Association for Canadian Studies poll last year.
Now, we know from the census that about 75% of Canadians say they are religious, and that about 67% say they are Christian. There’s no reason not to take Canadians at their word when they make these statements. I’m not accusing them of lying on the census.
We should, however, ask what it means when they say that they’re religious. On the ACS poll, only 67% of Canadians stated affirmatively that God exists. Note that this is less than — not a lot less than, but noticeably less than — the 75% of Canadians who say they are religious. About 10% of “religious” Canadians don’t actually believe in God.
That’s a minor quibble, though: the numbers drop off even more quickly from there. 58% of Canadians agree that “a higher power governs the world” — raising some obvious questions about an additional, substantial tranche of “religious” Canadians who think that God exists but does not intervene in any world affairs. (This is a feature of several religious traditions, but none of them have large followings in Canada.)
The next drop is even bigger: only 42% of Canadians say that religion is an important part of their life. This figure is particularly intriguing. It means that something like one-third of religious Canadians (say they) believe that God does exist and does govern the world, but still don’t think it’s important to figure out what He, She, or It wants from them, and to live their lives accordingly. I really don’t think I need to say anything more about the sheer vapidity of whatever “religion” is being espoused by such persons: they’ve already as much as said all that needs to be said.
It’s easier to explain why people say they’re religious but don’t really believe in God — mainly cultural inertia combined with a vague sense that church attendance and morality go hand in hand — than it is to explain why people say they believe in God but don’t think that this belief should play an important role in their lives. There’s simply no way to reconcile these statements in a way that makes any real sense whatsoever. The only real explanation that I can think of is that these people are simply bullshitting the pollster, and maybe themselves too.
And I have my doubts about the remaining 42%, too. It would be interesting to see the results, for instance, of a poll of all self-declared Christians which walked through the core elements of the Apostle’s Creed, which at least in theory is the bedrock statement of Christian orthodoxy defended by basically all denominations. How many Canadians, in other words, will state that they genuinely believe that God exists in three persons; that He impregnated a virgin in order to bring his “son” into the world; that this son was executed but raised from the dead and now “sits at the right hand” of God; and that this son will return to usher the faithful into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting? How many Canadians could actually explain, in remotely coherent detail, the concept of the Trinity?
// ]]>I really have no idea what answers Canadians would give to such questions. It would be especially amusing if more than 42% answered yes to the above, but I kind of doubt they would. I rather suspect that there are even more people who say they take their religion seriously but would get seriously hazy when asked to give details. It’s hard to find a survey that even began to ask such thorny questions, but there was a 2010 ACS poll which revealed, hilariously, that one-quarter of Canadians believe in reincarnation, something directly at odds with the core tenets of the faiths which at least some of those people claim to adhere to.
I hesitate to use American figures, for various reasons, but in this case it is useful to make a comparison, since we generally assume that Americans are more religious and conservative than Canadians are. In regular polling conducted by the Barna Group, fully 60% of Americans “said their faith had ‘greatly transformed’ their life” and only around 10% said their religion wasn’t important to them. But 40% denied that Jesus was sinless, and 60% claimed that the Holy Spirit was not a living force. 35% said they believe in Satan, but 76% said that religion was a choice between God and the devil. Only about half of those who said that the Bible was a sacred text owned to having read it outside of church in the past week.
All of which leads me to conclude that very few religious people take their religion very seriously, which is why I don’t take it particularly seriously, either. The evidence suggests that only a minority of religious Canadians consider their religion important enough to, for instance, come up with logically consistent answers to some fairly basic questions on the subject. The real question isn’t why the number of non-religious has grown from 16% to 24%, but why the number of people who say they’re religious remains so high when plainly, for many if not most of them, religion is not actually important to them at all.
All of this dovetails quite neatly with the leading theory at Sixth Estate, which is that people are ignorant and either unable or unwilling to think deeply. There are important reasons why this should be the case, most of them revolving around the fact that brains are expensive. Last year, I made much the same point about the pathetic state of Americans’ knowledge of the most basic facts in elementary science, a subject which most people also show no particular interest in taking seriously:
One thing we can say for certain is that a very large number of people are appallingly ignorant. As I suggested in my title, one-quarter of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth. One-half of Americans also think that the Earth goes around the Sun (or vice versa) in one day, rather than one year.
In addition, more than half of Americans think that antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria, and this number is actually climbing (up 7% over the last 5 years). Americans are also evenly split on the existence of the Y-chromosome, on whether electrons are smaller than atoms, and on whether there’s land at the North Pole or just ice…
At best, I think we can conclude that Americans are badly confused about basic scientific concepts. This probably won’t surprise many people, especially scientists or educators. It doesn’t terribly surprise me either, given that the British Columbian government recently engaged in weighty deliberations over whether fish, bacteria, and viruses were all members of the “animal kingdom” (the general consensus: bacteria and viruses probably were, but fish might not be).
It probably goes without saying that vast ignorance is an unfortunate basis for democracy.Tweet
Recently, answering questions about the future of scientific research in Canada and the ongoing transformation of the National Research Council from a basic science research organization into a facilitator of “commercially relevant” private-sector research, Science Minister Gary Goodyear said the following:
On publishing, scientists—and frankly, professors at university—will tell you they are rewarded for publishing. In my view, publishing, while it’s a great place to be, is like second base. It’s not the home run. When the knowledge that is developed by the scientist, especially if it’s funded by federal dollars in any way, is transferred out of the laboratory into something—a process, an application, a product, a different way of treating patients, etc.—that knowledge transfer completes the cycle.
In doing that, you have the medical isotopes that are necessary for the next-generation diseases, you have customized health care that can diagnose situations much faster, more accurately, and then, of course, treatment protocols that are more effective and less expensive.
The NRC has become the focus of Goodyear’s campaign because it’s the science organization most susceptible to political pressure. NSERC will doubtless be next, to the extent that it hasn’t already been compromised. It’s been suggested in the press that the Conservative government has been inspired to model the NRC after the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, which also focus on applied rather than theoretical science. While this is true, the reason German applied science funding goes to the Fraunhofer Institute is because German pure science funding goes to the Max Planck Institutes. With the NRC going the applied route, Canada simply doesn’t have an equivalent to the Max Planck Institutes.
So far criticism has been restricted to the overtly anti-science agenda of the Harper government, and there is plenty to say on that subject. Even Goodyear’s examples of the promises of applied science are obviously ill-chosen. In Canada, medical isotopes were not produced by a drive to generate commercially relevant research. They were a useful sideline which came up while AECL was brainstorming about things it could do with its already-constructed research reactor. The NRU reactor at Chalk River is one of the leading radioisotope production facilities in the world — and there are only a handful of those anyways — but it won’t remain so for long. It’s decades old, and its sister facilities in other countries are being replaced. NRU isn’t.
But beyond that, there is a broader point to be made here. The distinction between pure and applied science is important — since, typically, industry will fund the latter but not the former, which is why traditionally governments invest in pure science and industry invests in applied science, except, of course, in Harper’s Canada.
There are other important distinctions too, though, mainly between those who see a future for science and those who don’t. The willingness of Canadians to tolerate a government led by anti-science religious zealots is now having its natural and probable consequence: the religious right sees no use in pure science, and therefore, given the choice, the religious right will not fund pure science. This is a fairly simple and logical equation, and one doesn’t need to hunt out conspiracies between government and big business to understand why a creationist like Goodyear sees more value in “customized health care” than he does in, say, probing the frontiers of theoretical physics. All the important questions that theoretical physics could try to research have already been answered, for thousands of years, by a divine author in a much better position to know the answers than mere physicists.
This is aided by the fact that (I suspect, anyways) the majority of non-evangelical Canadians, and certainly the majority of non-evangelical Conservative supporters, simply don’t care about scientific research one way or the other. It’s not that they think, as Goodyear does, that the theory of evolution is anti-Christian bunk. It’s simply that they don’t know much about it and don’t particularly care whether it is or not. Questions like the origins of the universe or of the human species simply don’t hold much interest for them. So when the federal government announces that it’s no longer interested in them either, well, that’s fine with them. If science can’t do anything for them, why should they do anything for science?
There are important evolutionary reasons why, absent a proper education system (which we obviously lack), humanity is saddled with a frustrating surplus of intellectual apathy on the one hand and religious foolishness on the other. I have theories — well, wildly speculative and untestable hypotheses — on these subjects. I’ll return to those. But for the moment, it’s enough to point out that they exist.
To understand the magnitude of the problem posed by traditional religion on the one hand and happy-go-lucky disinterest on the other, it’s worth briefly noting how Canada and other countries are responding to two problems: climate change and antibiotic resistance. There are interesting parallels between these. First, both are direct consequences of huge breakthroughs in applied science. Climate change is the blowback from an ongoing economic revolution which has lifted more people out of poverty more quickly than any other event in human history. Antibiotic resistance is the inevitable consequence of antibiotics — at least for those among us, the Cabinet evidently not among them, who have a layman’s understanding of the theory of evolution.
Second, given the present state of scientific knowledge, we can state with something approaching certainty that both of these processes, unchecked, will have catastrophic consequences for modern societies. The end of antibiotics will mean the end of modern medicine: a century ago, the leading causes of death were bacterial infections and these together with influenza accounted for almost as many deaths per capita as all major causes of death do today. Climate change would, left to run long enough, mean the end of modern, well, everything.
Third, there exist theoretical solutions to both climate change and antibiotic resistance. There are social solutions which we refuse to enact because of the short-term political consequences: we could simply stop using antibiotics and carbon-emitting technologies. There may also be technological solutions, although to find them, we will need to invest trillions of dollars in applied science.
Fourth, we will not arrive at these solutions in time to avoid at least some level of extremely serious harm. Hilariously, but also for good reasons which are readily explained by the theory of evolution (and its mentally defective cousin, economics), there is very little money to be made preventing climate change or inventing the next generation of antibiotic medicine. Such projects are not — to employ the terms now being used to decide upon research at NRC — commercially relevant.
There is, of course, one important difference between the two. The really catastrophic effects of climate change will probably be faced, at the earliest, by my generation’s grandchildren. In contrast, the effects of the end of antibiotics will be felt in our lifetimes. Under ordinary circumstances, you might think this, if nothing else, would spur some action on the problem. You would be wrong, and again, there are very good evolutionary reasons why.
I’ve referred repeatedly to evolution in this post, and not by accident. There’s a reason we fund pure science, or at least used to: because it leads to answers about some of our biggest questions and problems as a species, issues which are so large that they cannot be handled within the narrow confines of the commercial market. Such answers are intrinsically threatening to some sectors of society, the religious right and the apathetic not least among them. Understandably, these sectors respond by trying to eliminate that threat.
And they are succeeding.Tweet