Science Culture: Where Canada Stands; an expert assessment, Part 3 of 3: where were …?

I did have some major issues with this report. I’ve already touched on the makeup of the Expert Panel in my Feb. 22, 2013 post (Expert panel to assess the state of Canada’s science culture—not exactly whelming). There could have been more women on the panel (also noted in part 2 of this commentary) and they could have included a few culture makers (writers, visual artists, performing artists). Also mentioned in part 2 of this commentary, it would have been nice to have seen a few people from the aboriginal communities and a greater age range represented on the panel or on advisory committees.

In a discussion about science culture, I am somewhat shocked that the Situating Science; Science in Human Contexts research cluster was never mentioned. From the programme’s About Us page,

Created in 2007 with the generous funding of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Strategic Knowledge Cluster grant, Situating Science is a seven-year project promoting communication and collaboration among humanists and social scientists that are engaged in the study of science and technology.

A Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) seven-year programme devoted to Canada’s science culture and it wasn’t mentioned??? An oversight or a symptom of a huge disconnection within Canada’s science culture? I vote for disconnection but please do let me know what you think in the comments section.

As for the assessment’s packaging (cover, foreword, and final words), yikes! The theme colour (each CAC assessment has a theme colour; their policing assessment is blue) for Canada’s science culture is red, perhaps evoking the Canadian maple leaf on the flag. The picture on the cover depicts a very sweet, blond(e), white child with glasses too big for his/her face rimmed in thick black. Glasses are a long established symbol for nerds/intellectual people. So, it would seem Canada’s science culture is blond, nerdy, and, given the child’s clothing, likely male, though in this day and age not definitively so. Or perhaps the child’s hair is meant to signify the maple leaf on the flag with a reversed field (the cover) being red and the leaf being white.

The problem here is not a single image of a blond(e) child, the problem is the frequency with which blond(e) children are used to signify Canadians. Thankfully, advertising images are becoming more diverse but there’s still a long way to go.

There are also issues with the beginning and the end of the report. Two scientists bookend the report: both male, both physicists, one from the UK and the other from the US.

C. P. Snow and his 1959 lecture ‘Two Cultures’ about science and society is mentioned by the Expert Panel’s Chair, Arthur Carty (himself from the UK). In his foreword/message, Carty speculates about how C. P. Snow would respond to today’s science culture environment in a fashion that brings to mind William Lyon MacKenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister from December 1921 – June 1926;  September 1926 – August 1930; and October 1935 – November 1948, Mackenzie King regularly communed with the dead. From the Wikipedia entry on William Lyon Mackenzie King (Note: Links have been removed),

Privately, he was highly eccentric, with his preference for communing with spirits, using seances and table-rapping, including those of Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, his dead mother, his grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, and several of his Irish Terrier dogs, all named Pat except for one named Bob. He also claimed to commune with the spirit of the late President Roosevelt. He sought personal reassurance from the spirit world, rather than seeking political advice. Indeed, after his death, one of his mediums said that she had not realized that he was a politician. King asked whether his party would win the 1935 election, one of the few times politics came up during his seances. His occult interests were kept secret during his years in office, and only became publicized later. Historians have seen in his occult activities a penchant for forging unities from antitheses, thus having latent political import. In 1953, Time stated that he owned—and used—both an Ouija board and a crystal ball.

However, historian Charles Perry Stacey, author of the 1976 book A Very Double Life, which examined King’s secret life in detail, with work based on intensive examination of the King diaries, concluded, despite long-running interests in the occult and spiritualism, that King did not allow his beliefs to influence his decisions on political matters. Stacey wrote that King entirely gave up his interests in the occult and spiritualism during World War II.[80]

At the end of the report, Carty quotes Brian Greene, a US physicist,  p. 218 (PDF) thereby neatly framing Canada between the UK and the US,

However, as stated by physicist Brian Greene (2008), one of the simplest reasons for developing a stronger science culture is that doing so helps foster a fuller, richer experience of science itself:

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive, and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma, but because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

Couldn’t we have found one Canadian thinker or perhaps a thinker from somewhere else on the globe? Assuming there’s a next time, I hope the approach evolves to something more reflective of Canadian society.

In the meantime there is more, much more in the assessment  including a discussion of science-based policy and including the arts to turn STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to STEAM and I encourage you take a look at either the full version, the executive summary, or the abridged version, all of which can be found here.

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