Scarcely a month into her tenure as Canada’s Governor-General, Julie Payette has stirred up controversy. As keynote speaker at the ninth annual Canadian Science Policy Convention in Ottawa, Payette recently exhorted members of the audience to help combat a variety of misleading beliefs, notably those she deemed especially foolish in regard to climate change and origin-of-life myths.
In a sarcastic tone that raised eyebrows, given her position as the representative of a monarch renowned for her studied political neutrality and reticence in pronouncing on sensitive issues, Payette asked, with intentionally mocking incredulity, “Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period?
“And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.” She went on to mock astrology and the use of placebos in the treatments of illnesses to the amusement and obvious satisfaction of her listeners.
Since then, Payette has been receiving some well-deserved flak for her performance. The tone of her remarks bespoke the kind of patronizing arrogance one often finds among progressive elites who equate non-scientific or holistic approaches to life’s big questions as the mere superstitions of unenlightened, childlike mindsets.
I do not know what constitutes “learned” in Payette’s books, but it would seem to be restricted to those educated people who are in agreement with her. There happen to be plenty of, what any objective observer would call, “learned” people who do not question “whether humans have a role in the earth warming up,” but who disagree with alarmists’ apocalyptic estimates of anthropogenic contribution.
By insisting on the false dichotomy between “science” and denialism, rather than acknowledging that there are grounds for legitimate debate between scientists (in fields Payette is not personally equipped to comment on as a figure of authority), she is betraying the first principle of scientific inquiry: you don’t shut down debate in dealing with predictions. Where hypotheses on the future are concerned, nothing is “settled science.”
The same principle applies to her comments on creationism. Payette’s understanding that divine intervention is incompatible with a natural process is just plain silly. Nobody truly knows whether the first seemingly random sparks of life happened with or without cause. All hypotheses regarding the prehistoric past are as unprovable as predictions about the future.
In ridiculing creationist beliefs, Payette was doubtless thinking of evangelical Christians, who are fair game for mockery in the eyes of virtually all progressives.
If she had considered, for a moment, the impact of her words on Indigenous peoples—some of whom hold quite fanciful beliefs on how the world came into being—she might have stopped her mouth, for Indigenous people and their narratives are never to be disrespected. Sooner or later, Payette will find herself the guest of honour at some Indigenous ceremony, gravely accepting a smudge on her forehead and listening to spiritual chants. At such moments, with her damning words hovering over the scene, what will be her thoughts? And theirs?
In a way, I am glad that the GG has overstepped her role. Payette’s thoughts on matters of faith and science would be none of our business if she had stayed within the bounds of her mandate. But now it is our business. In breaching traditional walls, she has, as litigating lawyers say, “opened the door” to further questioning of her beliefs regarding what she holds to be science and what she holds to be pseudo-science.
So, the door having been opened, I entertained a little fantasy about what might have occurred following her address, assuming there had been a fearlessly apolitical biologist in the audience, true to his or her scientific principles, who, in my scenario, would have stood up and asked: “Mme GG, we scientists so agree with you that pseudo-science like astrology is counter-productive to educating our citizens in objective truths.
“May we have a statement, based in the same assumption, regarding transgenderism hypotheses based in the unscientific theory that biological sex is neither a predictor nor a determinant of one’s gender, and which asserts, on unscientifically proven grounds, the fact that 99.9% of human beings have identified, and continue to identify, with their biological sex is simply a result of social construction? Is transgenderism a science like astronomy, or a pseudo-science like astrology? The government has passed laws, after all, that presume transgenderism is science-based. Where do you stand on this?”
And that’s just the first politically incorrect question that occurred to me. I am sure readers can think up plenty more.