Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

The Rights of Science and the Rights of Politics: Lessons from the Long-Form Census Controversy

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

The Rights of Science and the Rights of Politics: Lessons from the Long-Form Census Controversy

Article excerpt


The long-form census controversy raised important normative questions about the relationship between science and politics and resonated with other policy issues at the interface of science and politics today, such as global warming, fisheries management, and safe-injections sites. Many commentators argued that the government displayed a general disregard, or even contempt, for policy-relevant science, and a proneness to base policy on ideology in place of scientific evidence. The government was accused of lacking in respect for the integrity of science and, with reference to Statistics Canada, of intruding into a domain of decision making proper to science. Critics worried about the influence of ideology or politics on, or encroachment into, matters they believed should be left to science to decide autonomously, free of political interference.

My analysis probes four critical texts that received significant media coverage, influenced public debate, and exemplified views expressed by numerous other commentators. Two main norms that critics assumed or invoked in their critique of the government's actions stand out: that public policy should be based on relevant scientifically determined evidence and that science should be free of political interference in the generation and interpretation of such evidence. These norms connect with such ideals as "value-free science," "objectivity," "neutrality," and the "fact-value" distinction at the core of the traditional or orthodox view of science that is much contested today in several disciplines, including ethics, philosophy of science, and science studies. (1)

The normative arguments against the government's actions were indeed somewhat simplistic in the way science was opposed to policy and evidence to ideology. Such distinction as can and should be made between science and policy is considerably more complicated than these arguments would have it. Nonetheless, carefully nuanced and qualified, the science-protective norms and concepts strategically deployed in these four critical texts are defensible at the level of theory. Moreover, an important lesson to be taken from the controversy is that at the level of practice some such normative framework is necessary to delimit a zone of autonomy for science in policy and thereby to protect science from undue political interference.

However, a robust normative account of the relationship between science and politics in public policy needs to concern itself not only with protecting science from politics but also with protecting politics from science. In their zeal to defend recognition and respect for the rights of science in public policy decision-making, critics sometimes failed to give due recognition to the essential dimension of values in public policy, and to the rights of politics as the proper locus of decision making for value issues.


The norm that scientific evidence relevant to policy decisions should figure in policy decision-making, although open to interpretation, is hardly debatable. However, the phrase "evidence-based policy" lends itself to sloganism, especially as deployed in rhetorical contexts to advance a favoured policy outcome.

Evidence-based policy emerged as a central theme and rallying cry from the beginning of the controversy. At various points the significance of evidence in policy decision-making was constructed in such a way as to eclipse or displace the dimension of values. The juxtaposition of evidence with ideology, repeated in several formulas, had this effect. The term "ideology" was used in a casual, ordinary language sense as a term of derision denoting something like the hidden operation of unsavoury ideas, as if various experts partisan in the debate did not have ideological agendas, and as if appeals to anything but evidence could only be ideological. Slogans to the effect "evidence, not ideology" framed the debate throughout, as if on the one side were those who believed that policy should be based on evidence and on the other those who would base policy on ideology, at best ignoring evidence, at worst manipulating it to support policy options arrived at on ideological grounds. …

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