KSJ Tracker January 4, 2014

Huff Post: Canadian science under further assault. Can the latest grotesque news be true? Call fact check!

Still from Fahrenheit 451

  Sometimes news seems so bad and so surprising that one needs to just stop and think. Perhaps it is not true, not to the degree of awful as portrayed. Perhaps if it is that bad, that is good! Good enough to spark a countervailing parade of events. And perhaps the situation is even worse than reports so far have asserted.

    Perhaps we just need more information.

   These thoughts arise upon scanning news from Canada over the last few weeks. It regards the latest manifestation of the stance toward science by national leaders in Ottawa. A conservative, business-friendly government has been in charge for nearly the last eight years [Corrected - earlier version called it a coalition government. The conservatives are a clean majority in Parliament; thank you Jim Handman]. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has led it from the start. It has in recent years already put itself in low standing among many scientific academies and disciplines. That has come of slashed federal budgets for research and embrace of a climate and energy policy squarely in defiance of climate-change warnings of the likes of the IPCC.  High on the infamy list are its orders to government researchers to pretty much clam up in the company of journalists or the general public. Any sort of environmental or other research that might favor increased regulation of the private market is under fire. Tar sand exploitation has free rein in Harper's home province, Alberta. Government-employed researchers involved in topics related to all this can say little that is public unless they  clear their remarks with political appointees. Then they must do their talking with a minder standing by. So we've read, as reviewed  in a post last May (which includes links to news accounts running at the time and to earlier tracker posts). If you think US federal limits on government scientists are troubling, look north to see a lot worse. Scientists up there are marching, holding protest rallies, and look ready to riot.

  But now comes a new level of purported disregard for science. We are reading of what some of Harper's scientist-critics and their allies call libricide .

   Yes, the killing of libraries. Specifically, many of the specialized libraries that Canadian fisheries and oceanic research facilities have maintained for many decades, some for more than a century. Not only are ministries ordering them shut but by some accounts workers are burning these well-regarded gov't research installations' archives or shoveling them into landfills. You would think that just putting them in storage would be enough. While the professed aim was to digitize the collections to reduce curating costs, not much of that is happening. So it is declared. Some say religious conviction drives Harper to believe all this is being done to serve divine will. Oh my.

    Could be, but here's the rub. The declarations of libricide, as in document destruction, so far are mostly second hand or anonymous.  Hard evidence - such as photos of important archival books and collections in a dump or being tossed into a trash burner - would be appreciated. Where are the eyewitness quotes? More on that in a moment.

   Reports include (on top is the first that I saw, Saturday morning):

An excerpt: "... closed were the Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland, both world-class collections. Hundreds of years of carefully compiled research into aquatic systems, fish stocks and fisheries from the 1800s and early 1900s went into the bin or up in smoke.

Irreplaceable documents like the 50 volumes produced by the H.M.S. Challenger expedition of the late 1800s that discovered thousands of new sea creatures, are now moldering in landfills.:

Is this possible? One envisions original manuscripts, lab journals, the raw memory of a proud scientific tradition, rudely shoveled into mass graves and into the maws of furnaces. And the Challenger expedition's record? The implication here is that gone is not only the original, but vital information itself. Really? Somebody check that out! One shudders in hope it not be verified. That expedition was not merely seminal. It lives still in cultural memory. One of its crown jewels among oceanographic discoveries was in 2012 the target and namesake of James Cameron's submersible dive to 36,000 feet: The Challenger Deep. Hell, no doubt that if somebody had told Mr. Cameron that the expedition's original and maybe most complete archive was about itself to be deep-sixed and deeper, he'd either have photocopied or bought the whole library himself- or started producing a horror movie in 3-D about a foul intellect vaporizer named Harper. Or both.

   It's not just Huff Post. Canadian and other media in recent weeks have seen the raw material for the Huff Post item roll out:

 The news is getting more pickup:

The Problem: These reports have two main elements. One is purely sensible outrage at the libraries being closed, expressed by researchers talking on the record (most of them presumably university professors not yet muzzled by the Canadian feds). The other is assertion that important and in some cases unique archives are being dumped or burned - with nearly all attribution of this allegation to anonymous sources or collective "scientists say." A third, less important angle is that not much digitization has occurred. But if the works are safely stored away, this would merely be maddening, not an assassination of learning.

  After all, when Baghdad fell and US forces failed to safeguard the national museums and libraries, fears were high the nation's heritage was about to be looted, sold abroad, or just plain wrecked. Turned out most of it went into safe-keeping, thanks to heroic members of the institutions' staffs. When militant forces overwhelmed Timbuktu in Mali early in early 2013, fears were intense that the city's troves of ancient documents might be destroyed. The French tossed the rebels out and the treasures were found to have been well-protected by locals. Maybe Harper's government, rightly reviled by many, has in this case been over-reviled due to mere rumor and suspicion. Just because somebody is prone to perfidy does not mean every noxious rumor is true.

   On the other hand - the Taliban really did destroy the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan when they were in charge years ago, depriving their nation of an internationally acclaimed cultural treasure. Ideologically demented things do occur.

   If, with the attack on Harper including a hint of persecution that tars him for his religious affiliation, one must ask. Who are the accused witches here and who the deranged witch-hunters, the allies of science or Harper and his coterie? If this is a culture war, which side in this new development is hewing closest to honor? I know who I think has been on the side of the angels through the last few years. But I hesitate to accept that this latest round of suspicion - book burning on a mass scale - is justified.

A spate of diligent, disinterested investigative reporting is in order.


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