Tag Archives: Canada

The Science Of Democracy

“If Scientific Literacy is the Answer, What’s the Question?” is the provocative title of an online article by my friend Eric Meslin. Eric is a native of Canada– a bioethicist who left IUPUI a couple of years ago to become President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. He wrote the article as part of a celebration of Canada’s “Science Literacy Week.”

Canada has a “Science Literacy Week.” Sort of makes an American cry….

I remember when people in the United States respected science. And education. That, of course, was before Trump, Pence and Betsy DeVos scorned bookish “elitists,” elevated religion over science, and job training over education. But I digress.

Eric reported on a 2014 Expert Panel assessment Science Culture: Where Canada Stands that found Canadians having mostly positive attitudes towards science and low levels of apprehension about science compared with citizens of other countries. Nevertheless,

The assessment also found only 53% of Canadians understood that antibiotics were not effective against viruses; only 46% were able to describe what it meant to study something scientifically (that is, using the scientific method); and that around 42% of the population had attained a basic enough level of science literacy that they could grasp general coverage of scientific and technological stories in the media. And yet, these results rated Canada as the most scientifically literate country in the world.

Why should science literacy matter? Eric points to the “tsunami” of information available, and the need to cull what is useful and well-founded from the mountains of speculation, disinformation and conflicting reports (to which I would add outright peddling of snake-oil.)

Maneuvering in a busy world of science information gives one answer to the question, why does science literacy matter? Knowing something about science can help distinguish between claims that are truthful from those that are not, to understand which new information should be heeded and what can be set aside for the moment. Indeed, part of being science literate is knowing where to find the resources to make sense of the scientific evidence.

Perhaps the most important argument for improving science literacy is the connection between a basic understanding of the scientific method and democratic self-governance. As Eric explains that connection:

As important as science literacy is for people to understand science, a science-literate public may also be the best hope for a well-functioning democracy.

This view sees science literacy as an antidote to the many varieties of fundamentalism that undermine pluralistic, cosmopolitan, multicultural democracies. A science literate society not only better understands the science behind a policy (e.g., it is a good idea to know a little bit about stem cell science before deciding whether to fund it), a science literate public also understands how to think carefully about how policy gets made, who decides, and using what criteria. When decisions are made to build bridges, dams or pipelines; to regulate chemicals and food; or to require vaccination, or fluoridate water, a science-literate public is applying its critical thinking skills to policy making in society.

Scientifically-literate citizens won’t always come to the same conclusions, but their debates are far more likely to be illuminating and productive than the arguments between, for example, the scientific community and the troglodytes who use biblical passages to dismiss the threat of climate change.

Eric also quoted a favorite book of mine: Timothy Ferris’ The Science of Liberty. As I wrote a few years ago,

Ferris argues convincingly that the democratic revolution was sparked by the scientific one. The new approach to governing wasn’t merely a function of the embrace of reason, because–as current events keep reminding us–people can reason themselves into all sorts of conclusions that have a tenuous connection to reality. Science was the new ingredient, and while science requires reason, it isn’t just reason. It’s empiricism, experimentation…the same sort of experimentation that is the basis for democratic governance.

It was the advent of science and the scientific method that underscored the importance of decisions based on evidence.  As Ferris notes, dogma ruled the world before science came along, and dogma remains the preference of the majority of people today. (If you doubt the accuracy of that observation, look at Congress. Or Texas. Or, unfortunately, the Indiana Statehouse.) But democracy is not a dogma–it’s a method,a process not unlike the scientific method.

It is well to recognize that when strident anti-intellectual political figures attack scholarship as “elitism,”  when they dismiss scientific consensus on everything from evolution to climate change, when they call for “repealing” the Enlightenment, it isn’t only science they are attacking.

It’s democracy as we understand it.

The U.S. isn’t doing so well in either science or democracy these days. One more reason to envy Canada…

Poverty and Social Capital

One of the least-recognized consequences of the gap between rich and poor and the growth and perpetuation of the ALICE phenomenon is the effect of poverty on social capital. Social capital is a shorthand term for networks of relationships among people in a society; the ubiquity and strength of those relationships has been shown to be essential to the successful functioning of that society.

In the wake of Trump’s disastrous behavior at the G7 meetings, The New Yorker had a fascinating article about Justin Trudeau and the extent to which Canadian social capital allowed him to (politely but firmly) stand up to America’s Bully-in-Chief. Trudeau made it clear that he and his country would not be intimidated.

Trump responded with gangster-style threats and sneers, followed by more threats and sneers from his associates. Trudeau, a young man generally thought to lack the great prime-ministerial gravitas of his late father, Pierre, emerged as a statesman and a leader. On Monday, the Canadian Parliament voted its unanimous support for his statements.

So what is it about Canadian national character that allows the country to stand up to bullies?

Famously obliging in attitude—how do you get twenty-five Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Please get out of the swimming pool”—Canadians are also notoriously stubborn of spirit. What gives them backbone alongside their gift for compromise, allowing them to bend equably and then snap back sharply? …

Canadian democracy is supported by some of the strongest social capital in the world, exceeded only, by most academic measures, by that of Scandinavia and New Zealand. Trust in social institutions, in the honesty of government and the solidarity of citizens, remains strong in Canada, even when its results, as with the election of Doug Ford—the smarter brother of the late Rob Ford, the onetime mayor of Toronto—to the premiership of Ontario, is not what progressive-minded people might like. Though the United States now ranks below Canada, it still scored high in recent registries. But it once led the world in social capital. Can it do so again?

Social capital is generated through civic involvement. Adam Gopnik, who authored this essay, refers to a seminal study by Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone fame), analyzing differences in governance between north and south Italy.

Putnam discovered that the existence of “intermediate institutions” was crucial: in northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds, service groups, and choral societies, regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives.” In southern Italy, by contrast, where patterns of civic engagement are far weaker, regional governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient.

As most of us learned in U.S. History, the first person to notice the importance of civic engagement to the probity of governing institutions was de Tocqueville, who attributed what he deemed to be laudable American characteristics to widespread participation in the new country’s numerous civic and voluntary organizations.

Civic engagement, however, requires resources–namely time and energy. ALICE families–struggling to put food on the table, balancing the cost of diapers against the due date for the rent, stressed when the ten-year-old car or the twenty-year-old furnace gives up the ghost, or a doctor’s bill must be paid–have neither.

It’s no wonder the voices of the poor are so seldom heard in the halls of our legislatures, or via the ballot box. When simply surviving is the order of the day–when it consumes all of your time and energy–there isn’t anything left over from which to construct social capital.

Oh, Canada!

Today, my husband and I return from a ten-day trip that took us out of the U.S. and—far more consequentially—much of the time, out of areas in which we had access to the internet. My blog platform allows me to schedule posts, but my ability to share those posts on Facebook was pretty hit or miss. So—apologies to readers for the lack of regularity.

It’s experiences like this that make me realize how utterly dependent I have become upon today’s technology, and how helpless I feel when I can’t immediately read and respond to emails, or consult Dr. Google to find information.

This particular trip was a long-planned cruise vacation with our younger two grandchildren, ages 12 and 14. No parents invited. We began in Boston, and ended with Quebec City and Montreal, Canada. (Along the way, I think we guaranteed the continued profitability of Gray Lines tours…)

In many ways, visiting Canada doesn’t seem different from visiting other parts of the U.S. Even in Quebec, where French is the “first” language, everyone speaks English, and the clothes and customs are familiar. Starbucks and McDonalds and Subway are ubiquitous.

But there are differences, and they reflect well on Canada. And not so well on us.

The news was full of stories about Canadians’ embrace of Syrian refugees, for example. Canadian families wanting to “adopt” a refugee family (in the sense of helping that family acclimate, find housing and employment, and willingness to function as a resource) significantly outnumber available “adoptees.” The articles provided an embarrassing contrast to so many Americans’ deeply suspicious and negative response to that same refugee population.

Then there was the contrast provided by Canada’s physical and social infrastructure.

Quebec’s sprawling historic districts were meticulously maintained. Streets everywhere we went were free of potholes, and public art was everywhere—including on the sides of buildings and on the supports for highways. In both cities, public parks, public squares and other public spaces were everywhere and filled with people. Montreal, we are told, was just named one of the globe’s “smart cities.” (We were duly grateful–we finally had  wifi!)

Canadians all seemed to approve of their Premier. Those with whom we spoke were uniformly grateful for and supportive of the country’s national health care system. Several taxi drivers bragged about the efficiency of their cities’ winter snow removal (given the amount of snow they get, it’s an obvious priority.)

And everyone with whom we interacted was so polite….albeit quite willing to share with Americans that they are appalled and repulsed by Donald Trump.

Travel is generally instructive, if only to make us look at our own cities with fresh eyes—to ask ourselves what our cities and neighborhoods would look like to someone from another country. What would we brag about? What would embarrass us?

A few days as a tourist allows only a very superficial assessment of any city or country. I have no idea what civic or governmental problems bedevil the residents of the charming places we visited, what urban challenges are unmet, what social problems remain unresolved.

Still—it’s hard not to get a bit wistful when you see all that well-maintained infrastructure…..




An “Extra Long” Campaign…”

Okay–I am seriously considering a move to Canada.

A good friend who recently vacationed in Vancouver thoughtfully brought me a copy of the Vancouver Sun. The paper was thick with news and commentary, making me nostalgic for the days when we, too, had a real newspaper, but that wasn’t the reason for the gift.

The reason was the headline–first page, above the fold: “Long campaign officially on.”

Long, in Canada, is eleven weeks. Actually, that is “extra long”–an opinion piece in the same paper was titled “Harper bets extra-long campaign will favor Tories.” A few lines are illuminating:

With the longest federal election campaign in our modern history now grinding into motion, despite the electorate being mostly still in flip-flop and barbecue mode…

Harper’s decision to opt for more than twice the minimum 37-day length for a campaign held hints for what’s ahead….

Saturation media, especially web video, de facto makes this more a popularity contest than any previous election in our history…

Contrast that to the nonstop coverage of an American election that is fourteen months away. Here in the US of A, we are already being “saturated” with reports from the Iowa State Fair and the results of New Hampshire polls; partisans are already training their guns on opponents and digging for scandals. Obscenely rich power brokers are launching SuperPacs and spending unthinkable amounts of money to elect people who will preserve their government subsidies and tax loopholes.

And unless we can crawl into a cave somewhere, we won’t be able to escape any of it.

It is highly unlikely that the additional year of campaigning will make us a more deliberate or informed electorate than Canada’s. It’s more likely to make us crazier.

Canada has universal healthcare, great public transportation and short election campaigns. Sounds like heaven to me…


A Lesson From Canada

I frequently post about the problems with “contracting out” by units of government–a process often misnamed “privatization.” (Contracting has also been a focus of my academic research, and my scholarly articles addressing privatization are archived on this blog under “Academic Articles.”)

The bottom line is that sometimes contracting makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t. But even in situations where contracting is appropriate, the practice raises significant management issues that deserve attention. The “how” is every bit as important as “whether” and “when.”

So I was interested to see that Canada’s Project on Government Oversight recently issued a National Action Plan for Contracting Reform–a proposal that sets out 8 steps intended to “improve government contractor transparency and promote responsible contracting.”

Those steps–which I wholeheartedly endorse–are:

• An improved Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) database.
• Publicly Release Contracting Documents
• Post Contractor Past Performance Reviews on FAPIIS
• Publicly Release the DoD Revolving Door Database
• Publicly Disclose Contractor Political Spending
• Publish an Annual Report on Defense Contracting Fraud
• A requirement for the government to inform FOIA requesters that specific contractor information has been withheld or redacted
• Ending Dun & Bradstreet’s control over how the government uses DUNS data

All of these steps are warranted, but the disclosure of prior performance reviews may be the most important. Units of American government preparing to enter into contracts to deliver services through private providers need to take a page from our neighbor to the north, and require those bidding on government contracts to document their prior performance.

Performance information is especially important when the contracts involve children. In Florida, to its credit, Palm Beach County recently tightened its rules on charter schools by requiring charter school applicants “to disclose any prior history with failed schools and prove they offer innovative programs.”

The underlying premise of government contracting is that the private sector can perform a given service or function more efficiently at the same or lower cost than government. It seems only reasonable to require solid evidence that the contractor can actually do so.