Letter: Science should engage, rather than alienate

Governor General Julie Payette recently delivered a speech at the ninth annual Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, in which she attempted to shed light on the overwhelming lack of acceptance of science in the general public. In this speech, she joked about a wide range of issues, from the refusal to acknowledge human contribution to climate change, to the belief in horoscopes.

As a science student watching what is unfolding in the White House, I am absolutely on the same page as Payette in terms of her disbelief at the lack of acceptance of many theories in science that are supported by overwhelming evidence.

However, while I admire her passion for uniform understanding and acceptance of science, I do not condone her delivery of this important message.

There is a fundamental problem in science communication, in that the scientific method behind most findings has become largely inaccessible to the general public. Scientists publish their results in journals, solely intended to be read by other scientists. The whole scientific method has become hidden under a thick coat of complicated nomenclature that is essentially a foreign language to anyone outside of the niche scientific community.

In my opinion, this inaccessible language leads to a lack of understanding, which can lead to an unwillingness to accept science as fact. If you can’t understand something, are you likely to believe it?

One problem that Payette highlighted in her brief speech—the pseudoscience of “sugar pills” that are promised to “cure cancer”—is actually a very dangerous and pertinent issue. Those who provide these sugar pills, along with the empty promises of cures, are not only putting cancer patients at a higher risk of death as they stop their actual treatments, but are capitalizing on their vulnerability as the victim of a disease with no definitive cure.

This is a huge moral issue that needs to be addressed with better education in science and more transparency in the research on cancer treatment, as it has real effects on people and their families.

What bothered me, is that the Governor General grouped the real issues of pseudoscience and lack of acceptance of climate change with things like religious belief on the origin of life, and horoscopes. In doing this, I feel that she unnecessarily widened the gap between the scientific community and those who are not on board, and that these statements are what particularly caused the backlash to her speech.

Although I do not follow any religion, I strongly believe that it can exist in harmony with science, and should not be a joking point at a scientific conference.

As far as I know, there is a lot of speculation concerning the origin of life, even in science. I should be clear in that the origin of life is different than evolution, as natural selection is a theory in science supported by a wealth of empirical evidence—thank you, Charles Darwin. How it all started, however, is up for interpretation.

If someone finds peace in believing their version of how it all started, they are not doing any harm to anyone, and should not be ridiculed, especially not by the Governor General. In terms of horoscopes, what harm does reading them do to anyone? As far as I can tell, none.

I am really glad that people involved with Canadian politics are so accepting and passionate about science, but I do urge people like Payette to be cautious in the delivery of their passion.

The focus should be on bridging the ever-widening gap between scientists and the general public via better communication, not on further polarizing the two parties with sarcastic remarks.