By Normand Baillargeon
Université du Québec à Montréal
Imagine the scene.
The candidates in the next federal or provincial election are in the midst of their third and last television debate. After dedicating one evening to the economy and another to social issues, they are discussing a totally different topic this evening, for the first time in history. What is it?
— “Given these data, on which the scientific community has reached a consensus, our Party is aware of the urgency of the situation. We are therefore proposing the measures set out in our program to fight global warming.”
— “We agree with this consensus and we share our opponents’ concerns. However, we think that they aren’t going far enough in the measures they propose. Also, their defence of educational reform is incompatible with a commitment to promote science and technology. All the surveys conducted show declining results for Québec schoolchildren in the sciences and mathematics. This is deplorable if we want to have a population capable of making an informed judgment on important questions like global warming. But it’s also crucial for the Québec economy to remain competitive while fighting global warming.”
You’ve guessed it: the topic of this last election debate is science and technology. And the merits of such a discussion are so obvious that we can only wonder why we haven’t considered it sooner.
Think about it. Science and technology are and will be at the centre of most of the issues and challenges – often immense – that the future holds in store for us. The environment, the economy, climate change, energy, biotechnology, medicine, transportation, communications: on each of these subjects, and on many others, the contribution of science and technology to the definition of the problems, the issues, the possible solutions, and even the vocabulary in which all this is expressed, is of the utmost importance. To ignore them is to condemn ourselves to the darkness of ignorance and put ourselves in the hands of ideologues of every stripe. To refuse to debate them collectively is to refuse to give the benefit of democratic conversation to sources of illuminating clarity that are indispensable if we don’t want to drown in propaganda.
This debate would not only allow the candidates to set out their positions on all the crucial subjects mentioned above, it would have great educational value and contribute to the acquisition of a scientific culture by every one of us, which is absolutely essential to a real understanding of most of political, social and economic issues.
This debate would make it possible to verify the attachment of our politicians to some of the values that characterize science and that should also characterize the democratic conversation — I am thinking, in particular, of intellectual honesty, the capacity to accept criticism, the ability to consider alternative hypotheses, the practice of constructive doubt and the recognition of the fallibility of our knowledge.
For all these reasons, I ardently hope that a debate will be held on science and technology in the next election campaign.
Normand Baillargeon is a Professor at UQAM. He is the author of the best seller Petit cours d’autodéfense intellectuelle