Canada’s Science Minister doesn’t know Science

I’m about 10 days late here but I felt the following fiasco deserved a mention even if it was a little delayed. In an interview with a Canadian newspaper, the ‘Globe and Mail’, Gary Goodyear- the Canadian science minister- replied to a question about his views on evolution with:

I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.

This evasive response which also suggested evolution was a question of religion rather than science(!) led to a whole raft of blogs and articles lighting up with criticisms of the minister (some even suggesting he was a closet creationist) and calling on him to clarify his position. He obliged that same evening, appearing on a televised interview with CTV, and this time stated when asked whether he believed in evolution:

Of course I do. We are evolving every year, every decade. That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels – of course we are evolving to our environment.

While this may seem like a more reasonable response, afterall he did say that “of course” he believed in evolution, at the same time it also clearly demonstrates that he doesn’t really understand what evolution is or how it works. As Brian Hall, a biology professor at Dalhousie University pointed out:

This is not evolution. The minister is confusing evolution with lifestyle adaptation. We adapt to the intensity of the sun by staying in the shade, using more sunscreen, wearing a hat. We adapt to walking on cement by wearing more comfortable shoes. These are not genetic changes that are passed to the next generation. They aren’t going to add padding to our children’s or grandchildren’s feet and help them walk on concrete, or help their skin withstand more of the sun’s harmful rays.

The day following his CTV appearence he was asked once again by reporters to clarify how he defined the concept of evolution. He declined to answer stating:

You know, my entire background has been in science and my personal beliefs are not important – and what I’m doing, and what this government is doing to move this country forward, that’s important.

Considering a large portion (over two decades) of Gary Goodyear’s background was spent as a chiropractor his claims that his entire background involved ‘being in science’ is rather dubious. Chiropractic treatment, for those who aren’t aware,  is an alternative medicine tradition, very popular in the US and the UK, developed in the late Victorian era and based on the theory that illnesses can be treated by providing manipulations (usually to the spine) to remove internal blockages called ‘subluxations’ which supposedly prevent the flow of a vital life force called ‘innate intelligence’. Chiropractors are not usually noted for being advocates of science or evidence based medicine (see for instance this article) and in fact much more commonly feature as opponents of science (see for instance the current court case brought by the British Chiropractors Association against the science writer Simon Singh).

This is not to say that the science minister necessarily agrees with all of the above, as there is some debate within the chiropractic community, but nevertheless it is a bit of a stretch for him to define a career dominated by being a chiropractor as a career within science. 

Returning to the issue of evolution, his final response seems to backpedal to his original starting position i.e. that his views on evolution are personal and irrelevant to his position as the Canadian science minister. This might be a valid argument for any other politician other than the SCIENCE minister to make since evolution is a SCIENTIFIC issue which makes his position on it very relevant!

All this comes in the wake of major funding cuts by the Canadian government to basic university ‘curiousity based’ research programs which, when combined with this latest evolution fiasco, is bound to have left many, especially in the research community, uneasy about the individual who functions as the scientific representative for the whole of Canada. Nothing further has come up since last week but since Mr. Goodyear will likely be on many journalists radar for the forseeable future, this could be a space to watch… but let’s hope not!

Here are some relevant links for those who want to follow up this story:

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4 comments

  1. Goodyear’s responses are a bit frightening, considering his position! I think what is more frightening though is, how in the world was he able to be appointed to his position?

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