Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Why Waste Money On Science?

Federal and provincial governments employ many scientists and underwrite the work of many more. Why? Oh, politicians say their decisions are informed by science but that's a fairy tale they tell sleepy children and reporters. In reality, politicians cite science when it supports decisions they want to make anyway, for other reasons, whether ideological or political. When science does not support their decisions, they ignore it. And, since no politician has ever suffered at the polls for abusing science this way, voters seem to be just fine with that. So why waste money on science? Consider what happened last week, in Geneva, at a meeting to discuss whether asbestos should be listed under the provisions of a United Nations convention covering hazardous materials. The discussion was informed by the work of a UN scientific panel. Yes, the panel concluded, asbestos is hazardous. Yes, it fits the criteria of the convention. Yes, it should be listed. The panel's conclusions weren't controversial in the slightest, since the science on asbestos is much clearer than it is with many other hazardous substances. Asbestos causes cancer. It kills. There's no doubt about that, which is why the taxpayers of Canada are now paying vast sums to have asbestos removed from Parliament. And listing asbestos as a hazardous substance is a very modest step. It doesn't trigger a ban. It doesn't even restrict its production and trade. It simply requires that importers be informed of the risks and follow safety protocols in handling it. In other words, it requires informed consent. Nothing more. The Canadian delegation in Geneva accepted the findings of the scientific panel that asbestos is a hazardous material. But it opposed listing asbestos as a hazardous material. Almost every other nation in attendance took the opposite position and, as talks continued, it appeared that there would be the unanimous agreement needed to add asbestos to the list. But Canada wouldn't budge. The change was defeated. And asbestos continues to be, in an official sense, not a hazardous substance, no matter what the scientists say. Science be damned. Of course the reason for the government's obstinacy is that Canada produces asbestos. Or rather, one tiny region within Canada produces asbestos. In economic terms, the asbestos industry is minuscule, supporting fewer than 500 jobs, but those jobs are in rural Quebec and the prime directive of Canadian politics is "never annoy rural Quebec." So to hell with Canada's international reputation. And to hell with science. That was on Thursday. On Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper celebrated Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day with a visit to a dairy farm at Thetford Mines, the centre of the asbestos industry, and a Conservative stronghold since 2006. It's not only Conservatives who have no use for science, incidentally. The Liberal government of Quebec, along with the Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois, are just as shameful on asbestos. And consider a story that got little attention when it broke a couple of weeks ago. In settling a legal challenge, the government of Quebec formally and explicitly acknowledged that "products containing 2,4-D do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment." In one sense, that was a stunning admission - since Quebec was one of the first major jurisdictions to ban certain uses of 2,4-D on the grounds that the chemical puts human and environmental health at risk. But in another sense, it wasn't surprising in the least because 2,4-D is one of the most-studied chemicals in the world and there simply isn't substantial evidence that it is a hazard when used as directed. "There is reasonable certainty that no harm to human health, future generations, or the environment will result from use or exposure to the product," declared Health Canada's Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), after an exhaustive review of the science concluded in 2008. So, having admitted the ban isn't supported by science, what would the government of Quebec do about the ban? Why, keep it in place, of course. The Liberal government of Ontario is doing the same. Which only makes sense, really. The PMRA review was released before Ontario banned 2,4-D and the ban went ahead anyway, so when Ontario ignores Quebec's confession and keeps its ban in place, it is only being consistent: It ignored science then and it's ignoring science now. Then there's the Bisphenol A fiasco. In early 2008, the federal government was getting hammered on environmental issues and so it announced it would take the cost-free and high-publicity step of banning the chemical BPA in baby bottles even though the science didn't really show BPA in baby bottles was a hazard. Since then, the policy basis for this decision has only got weaker. Multiple reviews - including one by the extremely risk-averse European Food Safety Authority - have concluded there are no scientific grounds for a ban on BPA. Just don't expect the federal government to change its policy accordingly. But asbestos? Well, that's another matter entirely. The science is clear. It kills. And Stephen Harper's government will fight to the last, painful, cancer-riddled breath to stop even something as minor as an informed-consent provision. So why waste money on science? PMRA alone employs some 350 scientists who spend their days producing excellent work the politicians ignore. Close it. Fire all the scientists, everywhere, and stop funding those who can't be canned. What's the loss? Political decisions can't get any more ignorant. And think of all the gazebos the government could buy.