Payette: It’s a Joke, Folks
The Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette, spoke to a room of scientists on November 1, regarding climate change, evolution, horoscopes, and bad science in general (Moscrop, 2017). She was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual Canadian Science Policy Convention in Ottawa (CSPC, 2017).
Payette targeted evolution, climate change, horoscopes, and alternative medicine in the speech. Some quotes, on climate change from human activity:
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? (Persian Mirror, 2017)
On evolution by natural selection, unguided:
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. (Ibid.)
On alternative medicines:
And so many people — I’m sure you know many of them — still believe, want to believe, that maybe taking a sugar pill will cure cancer, if you will it! (Ibid.)
And every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations. (Ibid.)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supported the remarks by Payette. (The Canadian Press, 2017).
I read prominent commentators, even nationally so, on Payette’s speech. I feel concern about these public intellectuals, journalists, and writers now.
I feel as though each took the same script, and then played their role as they were cued to come stage right and read their lines to the public and exit stage left. In short, I am disconcerted and annoyed at the uniformity of the media in misrepresentation.
Payette broke the mold of the culture around governor generals, as this was seen to “rankle” via the “tone” of the speech (Moscrop, 2017). Moscrop argued, and ‘can understand,’ the position of those citizens’ feeling that the Governor General, as a role, should be non-partisan.
But I find this misses the point, as the Governor General listed scientific truisms: well-substantiated theories backed by facts, or rejection of ones lacking those characteristics. Science is non-partisan.
Does evolution amount to a Libertarian or a Socialist perspective? Do horoscopes remain Conservative or Liberal? Does the Green Party hold sole ownership of climate change?
Apparently, Moscrop is concerned about the effects of Payette speaking scientific truisms, e.g., the questionable persistence of the human species if action is not taken regarding climate change. It is a concern around faux feelings of insult about a joke around denialists because these points of science are “accepted as fact.” He states:
As for the substance of Payette’s message — that climate change and evolution are real, and that sugar pills are bunk — she might as well have been acknowledging, as political scientist Emmett Macfarlane pointed out, “the existence of gravity.” Indeed. But the controversy seems to be less about Payette’s recognition that climate change, evolution, and the value of mainstream medicine are accepted as fact, and more about her pointing out that, in the 21st century, there are Canadians who doubt that. (Ibid.)
I can understand Macfarlane’s and Moscrop’s positions, as some say. I can understand that they are articulate, educated, and wrong. As written by CBC News (2016), the scientific literacy of Canadians exists as a concern.
They note this about a survey by the Ontario Science Centre (CBC News, 2016). 2/5 Canadians think the science on climate change is unclear (Ontario Science Centre, 2016). 1/5 Canadians trust intuition over science regarding genetically modified organisms (Ibid.).
1/5 think there’s a link between vaccines and autism (Ibid.). On those points, the general Canadian public — at least 2/5, then 1/5, followed by 1/5 Canadians, respectively, based on the prior survey results — hold empirically false beliefs. Payette spoke her mind. The Ontario Science Centre states:
Climate change is a highly charged topic hotly debated by politicians and industry. But in the scientific community, there is a substantial consensus on the factors that contribute to this global issue. (Ibid.)
Still, while stating facts is one thing, criticizing those who don’t believe in those facts is another. Those are different sorts of utterances and therefore different sorts of acts. The question is whether and when the governor general ought to cross that line. To the former, I say “yes.” To the latter, I say “sometimes.” That’s the wisdom of good governance: knowing when to speak, how to speak, and what to say. (2017).
Payette — for the when, how, and what — can speak this way when in the company of scientists as a keynote speaker at a science policy convention (when), so able to speak directly and with humor about scientific matters including science literacy (how), and speaking about concerns such as denial of scientific truths or acceptance of pseudoscientific falsehoods (what).
She did nothing wrong and made a joke. The next was Postmedia News.
Postmedia News published an editorial (2017). They say, “Canadians hold a diversity of views on religion and climate change and the GG, who on behalf of the Queen represents all Canadians, has effectively suggested those who disagree with her views are ignorant.”
Nope: she relayed the views of the science. Science provides explanatory frameworks of the natural world. It’s great. You can know which beliefs are more probable or improbable, or simply wrong. Many of the diverse views on climate change in the public are wrong, not by necessity brought about by ignorance. Canadians have a variety of wrong beliefs about climate change, evolution, and horoscopes. Variety relates little to truth.
Postmedia News continued, “The world’s full of nitwits with Twitter accounts who think they have licence to lecture those they disagree with. Our Governor General shouldn’t be one of them.” Duly note, she was the invited keynote, who spoke to a room of scientists at a science policy convention. Not exactly Twitter, a lecture, or lay people, or an informed editorial for that matter.
Following them came Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who, in the prominent and highly respected media forum of Facebook, said:
It is extremely disappointing that the prime minister will not support Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion…Respect for diversity includes respect for the diversity of religious beliefs, and Justin Trudeau has offended millions of Canadians with his comments. (Wherry, 2017)
Insofar as I know, believing something to be true, regardless of tenet or premise of a religion, faith, or way of life, doesn’t make it true, but showing something empirically to be true, repeatedly, does increase its probability of being so, Payette’s speech comes from science.
Scheer’s comments are as cynical as they are insulting. Cynical through twisting meaning, then insulting because the turn of meaning is directing the majority resentment and prejudice of many religious — already extant — against the large minority, the formal irreligious or formerly religious, for the points in the intangible economy of politics.
The joke was not at religion at large. It was at the notion that can be in some religions — often asserted, unproven, and a matter of faith — of divine guidance for humanity, whether young or old Earth creationism, or purported directed evolution.
The scientific consensus is unguided evolution. That is, no divine guidance in the birth, maturation, decay, and death of organisms, or in the reproduction, perpetuation, and speciation of species. Besides, why should empirically false beliefs deserve respect? They are beliefs, like 2+2=5 or squares are circles, or the Sun orbits the Earth.
The people holding them is another matter. Scheer did not say irreligious people can hold wrong beliefs about climate change and horoscopes, too, not simply “Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups.” Did he even see the full speech or think about it, or did he simply observe a political opportunity?
Therein lies the cross-points, the crucifix, of the notion or narrative throughout the news coverage, ‘Payette targets religion, especially religious individuals’; whereas, the truth is the targeting of empirically false beliefs with a joke while in the community of professional scientists.
Of course, the media misrepresentation seems like a politically convenient maneuver, so Scheer used the opportunity to score political points by bravely targeting, not Payette directly but, Trudeau. Easy, expedient political currency, if cynical enough, why not? Next was the long-time Canadian commentator Rex Murphy.
Murphy made note about religion and science not being in conflict: how cliché and delightfully vague. What is meant by religion?
It depends on the contents of the religion to an individual. Some see “the good” in religion as a motivation for protests outside abortion clinics, killing abortion doctors, holding signs saying, “God hates fags,” killing homosexuals, criminalizing atheism with the death penalty, even suppressing women and denying rights, and so on. Others see the same good in religion through self-sacrifice for fellow human beings in disaster areas, or for the donation of their income to those in most need.
Payette’s statements point to empirical claims about the natural world without evidence, not religion. Unless, the religion’s specific tenets or beliefs contain empirical claims in conflict with scientific evidence, to the individual religious person, but this remains different than religion at large.
If the religious tenet or belief remains in conflict with the evidence about the natural world from the science, and if the religious tenet or belief asserts an empirical foundation, then the religious claim is dust, nothing, or simply wrong.
Murphy queried the reader, “In this wonderfully diverse Canada that Ms. Payette now represents, was it her intent to ridicule the religious beliefs of so very many faiths whose cosmologies include a divine creation, some as myth, some as a fact of faith — as opposed to a fact of science?” Nope.
The fulcrum for Murphy’s teeter-totter is Payette claiming umpire status, tacitly in his opinion at least, on faith and religion. Here’s a question: Who made Murphy umpire on the interpretation of the meaning of the Governor General’s words?
Payette iterated a series of the strongest theories backed by the empirical evidence discovered by science, e.g., climate change or global warming is real, human activity is a major contributor to global warming, horoscopes are bogus (sorry, Georgia Nicols), and humans arose via the principles of unguided evolution, and so on.
Murphy noted the “truths” of religion without a statement, again conveniently, of what exactly, I wonder. If moral codes, these amount to heuristics for behaviour, evolved (without divine intervention, to Payette’s point).
Then came the epithets, I was waiting for one: “Scientism.” A dishonourable history of what I consider “terms to defame to dismiss.” Use a word, give it bad implications, apply against an enemy, you don’t need to address the claims anymore. It’s perfect.
Then there’s also only implication of terms to defame to dismiss, where some conceptions behind terms are well-instantiated in the society without need for direct reference, e.g., elitism. Payette, by the insinuation of Murphy, is elitist talking down to the general public, especially non-college education and non-science types.
Case in Murphy wrongness, she spoke against elitism, saying, “We will be able to claim as a people, as a nation, as humanity. That we are a science literate species. By science literacy, I don’t mean we should all have a math degree” (Persian Mirror, 2017). The point isn’t higher education. The point is science literacy.
Also, speaking of condescension, Murphy quipped, “A backhand dismissal of religion is a sophomoric indulgence.” I feel under the stronger impression that belief without evidence and backhand dismissal of fundamental empirical truths is such an indulgence.
Following Mr. Murphy was Mr. Levant, Ezra Levant, of Rebel Media fame, dove into the public discussion as well. In a video entitled “Ezra Levant: Governor General equates religion with superstition,” he decided to be ambitious by being wrong from the start, from the title (Rebel Media, 2017).
His opening salvo starts with a mediocre jab with the common tactic of misquotation of a great individual in history, in this case the little-known historical figure and scientist named Albert Einstein.
Levant quotes Einstein, “Science can only ascertain what is and not what should be” (Ibid.) Of course, Einstein also said:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (Einstein, 1989).
As well as:
The word God for me is nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can [for me] change this. (Jones, 2015)
It is a fun game, and easy too. Levant moves next into the purported equating of God and superstition by Payette. Only if your definition of a God somehow implies horoscopes, anti-evolutionism, and global warming denialism, which seems like the problem to me.
The definition of God, in the context of the Levant video, amounts to a God defined by a metric of rubber inches. Somehow, by any means, this God will be fit into the appropriate category to imply Payette being a) anti-religion and b) anti-religious people.
For quotation of Payette, the research team at Rebel Media didn’t selectively quote as much, as in the case of Einstein, which is nice. They quote Payette on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life or SETI.
Background: Frank Drake, who is alive, created the Drake Equation to estimate the probabilities of extraterrestrial life. If life arose by nature here, what odds elsewhere? The equation, depending on the values given to the parameters in the equation, calculates the estimate.
As a former astronaut, I am certain Payette knows about the equation, incorporates this into her worldview, and likely answers questions about extraterrestrials, or aliens if you will, in that context.
The difference between the superstitions and the aliens is the evidence. Life exists here, on Earth. It arose, naturally. Then you can ask, “What parameters need to be taken into account to calculate those probabilities?”
The superstitions or false beliefs lack evidence, or are overwhelmed by the vast majority, the preponderance, of evidence. That points to the — ahem — point of Payette’s statements and joke about divinely guided evolution, horoscopes, and climate change denial.
Levant moves into a complete non-sequitur about God creating the universe, extraterrestrial intelligence, and then insinuating Payette said that you’re a kook if you believe the former but not the latter. Of course, Payette never said anything of the sort.
Another individual in the media personalities with concerning popularity playing the cynical, if purposeful, or ignorant, if accidental, game “Missing the Point” is Chris Selley. He noted 53% of Canadian citizens believe God is active in this world. What’s their evidence?
Argumentum ad numerum is the Hail Mary, or argument by the majority. The response: the majority can hold false beliefs. Quantity, in people, does not determine veracity. Again, this was not a jab at religion, so Selley was playing in another baseball field: with other Canadian media personalities while Payette was absent.
Mia Rabson of Global News did a good job. She represented the speech with honest intent to relay what Payette said, and meant, to the audience at the Canadian Science Policy Convention (Rabson, 2017).
The argument remains imaginary, though, as with the insinuation of the narrative throughout the prominent media, generally. Payette didn’t jab religion. She jabbed empirically false claims or assertions without evidence. That is not anti-religious; it is pro-empirical truths. So Moscrop and Emmett, Postmedia News, Scheer, Murphy, Levant, and Selley (and I assume others) miss the point, then run on steam or tirade oil.
CBC News. (2016, September 22). Q&A Survey reveals ‘significant gaps’ in Canadians’ understanding of science. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/survey-reveals-significant-gaps-in-canadians-understanding-of-science-1.3772707.
CSPC. (2017). Canadian Science Policy Convention. Retrieved from http://cspc2017.ca.
Estate of Albert Einstein. (1989). Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses from His Archives. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=T5R7JsRRtoIC&pg=PA43&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Moscrop, D. (2017, November 2). Julie Payette takes on junk science — and tests the limits of her job title. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/opinion/julie-payette-takes-on-junk-science-and-tests-the-limits-of-her-job-title/?platform=hootsuite.
Murphy, R. (2017, November 2). Rex Murphy: Governor General appoints herself umpire of questions of faith and science. Retrieved from http://nationalpost.com/opinion/rex-murphy-governor-general-places-herself-as-umpire-of-questions-of-faith-science.
Ontario Science Centre. (2017). Ontario Science Centre survey reveals gap in public understanding of critical scientific issues. Retrieved from http://www.ontariosciencecentre.ca/Media/Details/432/.
Persian Mirror. (2017, November 3). Governor General Julie Payette speech at CSPC2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbvRPazFsts.
Postmedia News. (2017, November 3). EDITORIAL: Julie Payette speech oversteps her role. Retrieved from http://torontosun.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-julie-payette-speech-oversteps-her-role.
Rabson, M. (2017, November 2). Julie Payette takes on climate change deniers, divine intervention and horoscopes. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/3839305/julie-payette-takes-on-climate-change-deniers-divine-intervention-and-horoscopes/.
Rebel Media [Rebel Media]. (2017, November 4). Ezra Levant: Governor General equates religion with superstition. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axe7YrikDkw.
Selley, C. (2017, November 3). Chris Selley: With her dig at religion, Julie Payette plays a dangerous game for Liberals. Retrieved from https://www.google.ca/amp/nationalpost.com/opinion/chris-selley-with-her-dig-at-religion-julie-payette-plays-a-dangerous-game-for-liberals/amp.
The Canadian Press. (2017, November 2). Trudeau applauds Payette for standing up for science in convention speech. Retrieved from http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/trudeau-applauds-payette-for-standing-up-for-science-in-convention-speech-1.3661058.
Wherry, A. (2017, November 3). Scheer blasts Trudeau for supporting Governor General after ‘divine intervention’ comment. Retrieved from https://www.google.ca/amp/www.cbc.ca/amp/1.4385895.
Originally published at www.canadianatheist.com on November 6, 2017.