Why the panic over Julie Payette?


Governor General Julie Payette made comments in a speech to the Canadian Science Policy Conference on Nov. 1 in which she encouraged her audience at a science convention to ignore misinformation, fantasy and conspiracy theory, to support facts and science, and to engage in “learned debate.” That has the right furious, and as is their wont, making both fallacious claims about her words while launching ad hominem attacks against her.

It’s particularly galling to the right that not only is Payette a woman, she’s smart and accomplished: a former astronaut and an engineer. That means the right gets wildly incensed when she says anything vaguely interesting, let alone true. And so they’re trying to make this into a wedge issue about religion. The undertext being that Payette, being a Liberal appointee, is touting Liberal anti-religion screed.

Andrew Scheer, the pasty-white leader of the Conservatives who recently hired as his party’s campaign chair a former media director of the vile Rebel media organization, 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.

Which is bullshit. Scheer, of course, completely ignores the actual truth and substance in Payette’s comments. How dare the GG make any statements that are not the most innocuous, content-removed, pastel puffery? Yet nowhere in her speech did Payette mention any religion or indigenous people, so where does he get this allegation? Probably from his misogynist, racist Rebel media buddies. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to see Scheer’s attack as an anti-feminist one: that’s been Scheer’s way since he took charge.

What colossal arrogance for Scheer to think he can speak for millions – even billions, because he doesn’t specify there are just Canadians he’s speaking for – of people with whom he has no contact, let alone consulted about their reaction to Payette’s comments. And why does he think that any Canadian, not just our Prime Minister, has to have blanket, unquestioning support for every bit of religious myth, pseudo-health or pseudoscience claptrap? That’s simply nuts. And cowardly. We elect people to have opinions, to take stands, to advocate for issues, and to stand up for truth, not simply agree with everyone and everything. A toy bobblehead doll does that. That’s not what Canadians expect from their leaders. Unless, it seems, they are Conservatives.

What, then, did Payette actually say that ruffled so many feathers? There’s no transcript of the speech (yet), but I’ve pieced together some of her words from various news reports and videos of the event (it’s a very short piece, just over two minutes long). For example:

…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.

Apparently that mocks some religious beliefs, I suppose those of creationists. Let’s be clear: creationism is codswallop and should not be debated at any governmental level. Beliefs unsupported by fact are merely opinions and fantasy (and there’s that so-called separation of church and state that should preclude religious beliefs from entering political discussions). There’s no substantive difference between belief in, say, creationism and other fantasies like homeopathy. Which Payette also commented on:

“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!

Well, like creationism, homeopathy is bullshit, both easily debunked by actual, empirically provable facts. It doesn’t matter what you believe if the facts contradict you. Homeopathy is not an alternative medicine because it isn’t anything related to actual medicine. It’s water and sugar pills sold at exorbitant profit to the hard-of-thinking. But it appeals to the gullible because they’ve been told that “Big Pharma” is trying to control them, and they buy that conspiracy, so any hocus pocus or New Age woo hoo that doesn’t list chemicals or sound like science must be better for them. Homeopathy is like magic crystals, reiki, and astrology – the latter another claptrap belief Payette comments on:

… people (believe) that your future and every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations.”

Astrologers prey on the superstitious. One Canadian astrologer is sort-of upset, siding with Scheer and his see-no-climate-change Conservatives in their umbrage but expressing it in her New Agey way:

According to popular Canadian astrologer Georgia Nicols, Canada’s Governor General should be doing what she can to “keep the peace” with loved ones today and avoid the “planetary vibe” that is urging people to engage in power struggles and disputes.

Gosh, the “planetary vibe” sure sounds like diaphanous piffle to me. But I’m not in the business of selling vibes to people for a living. If Payette had said the world is round, Scheer would claim she was mocking rap music and black culture because some brain-addled rapper thinks our world is flat.

But at no time does Payette offer any policy or make a statement advocating or insulting a particular faith or ideology. She just comments that people still believe in this hogwash and nations are still debating some of it at government levels. She’s right: anyone who looks south to the USA where the Christian evangelical theocracy is taking over cannot debate that climate change and evolution – both scientific facts – are being challenged at the highest levels of America’s government.

Well, let’s add up the affrontery of Payette: those who believe in creationism, pseudo-medicine and pseudoscience. And the Conservatives, of course, but we can’t really include them because they are affronted by anything with the taint of Liberal or, worse, NDP, on it. We’ll just take it as a given they are affronted by anything that they didn’t come up with, or anything that smart women say.

So where’s the affront to religious groups? Sure, some religious people are creationists, but they’re the fringe of the fringe. And she doesn’t mention religion once, just comments on how we’re still debating about the origin of life. Indigenous people? They’re not mentioned once, either, nor are their beliefs (homeopathy isn’t a native practice). But to the Conservatives and the media (Canadian media, with a very few exceptions is, like American media, mostly right wing) managed to decipher some egregious insult buried in her words. As Chris Selley wrote in the NatPost:

Many Liberal partisans would have seen the criticism as God-bothering nonsense from a bunch of conservative dinosaurs. …The chattering classes might be just fine with an anti-religious Governor General.

Which is just ideological claptrap with the same credibility as homeopathy and astrology. Payette doesn’t mention any god or gods or even Conservatives. Maybe that rankles them: they want to be front and centre in her speeches.

The Sun editorial claimed Payette “overstepped her role and that,

…the role is also largely ceremonial and as the Queen’s representative the GG should exercise the same caution as her boss when it comes to speaking on controversial matters.

More ideological bafflegab. Trudeau is not Payette’s “boss” – parliament as a whole is. But more important, the GG is the “…federal viceregal representative of the Canadian monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II.” The position is recommended to the queen by the sitting Prime Minister, but the GG is appointed by the Queen. The Cons are simply huffed that the Liberals got to do it this time and they had no say in the choice. Plus they’re probably miffed that any controversy about the GG at all might raise again the issue of dropping the monarchy from the Canadian Constitution entirely, an idea that keeps Cons awake at night in fear and trembling.

But Payette’s real fault, for the Cons, is that she gently questioned why we’re still debating science with climate-change deniers:

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?

Since the whole climate-change-is-fake-news-burn-more-coal thing is deeply ingrained in Conservative bones, that comment was the biggest affront of all. How dare a scientist, a woman scientist at that, comment on deeply held Conservative ideologies at a convention of scientists?

The Conservative and astrologers (and, one assumes, homeopathists and creationists, although we have yet to hear from any of them) are not alone in their condemnation. Liberal (small l) and the vaguely-left-in-a-wishy-washy-manner commentators have sputtered their distress that Payette actually had the temerity to voice an opinion that wasn’t as bland as their beliefs in a colourless, figurehead GG.

Even the nominally-neutral CBC had this comment from columnist Robyn Urback:

Payette essentially mocked people for believing in horoscopes, alternative medicine, divine intervention and for not believing in climate change, incredulous that some Canadians would hold those views “still today in learned society.” … she appeared to deride people for their beliefs.

Frankly, I once hoped the CBC would not engage in reactionary opinion pieces like this, but have long been disabused of such hopes, since our national media has veered rather right in its dotage and is trending further in that direction.

Let me be clear: while people can hold whatever opinion they want, can believe in whatever nonsense or fact they want, not all opinions are of the same credibility or of the same merit. Belief in homeopathy or astrology are not on the same level as belief in the efficacy of vaccinations or in the Big Bang theory. Believing in the divinity of invisible pink unicorns, or giant teapots orbiting in the asteroid belt, or in a flat earth are eminently worthy of being chided and derided and yes, even mocked. What’s so special about astrology or homeopathy that they must be treated with respect?

We do not need to hold every wild and wacky notion in high esteem. That’s political correctness go awry. Nor do we need to be afraid that a gentle chiding and a bit of humour will damage the fragile self-respect of their believers. Go online and you will find the defenders of these fantasies as vocally loud and aggressive as anyone on the internet. And aside from a rather flaccid response from a single Canadian astrologer, I haven’t seen or heard any outrage from those groups or supporters. No creationists or astrologers are marching in the street protesting, demanding that Payette be removed from office.

The ones who are most upset are the Conservatives and it looks to me like those are crocodile tears, rather than actual. Andrew Scheer is merely soapboxing to get his name in a compliant media looking for any reason to discredit the Liberals.

At least iPolitics didn’t jump into the arena to criticize Payette. In an excellent article on the controversy, Jamie Carroll wrote:

As the keynote speaker at a dinner in Ottawa, Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette — CC CMM COM CQ CD, Governor General of Canada, Commander in Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces, former astronaut, engineer, pilot and all around impressive human being (she’s been to space – twice!) — told a group of fellow scientists that science is good and facts matter.
Well, holy hannah. Has the sky fallen yet? Did the sun still rise in the east?
Immediately after the GG’s comments, some commentators in social and mainstream media began chastising Her Excellency for having somehow offended those across the country who don’t believe in facts.
… the bigger issue, it seems to me, is an ongoing one. There is an accelerating trend — especially in the context of social media — of people concluding that having the right to an opinion also protects them from hearing that opinion challenged or mocked. In this case, that apparently extends to those who hold personal beliefs that are at odds with scientific facts.

My reading of her words finds neither mockery nor advocacy in them. She makes the point, perhaps more theatrically than we have seen in former (and generally boring) GGs, that governments should be focusing on other things like science and fact. What’s more important are the lines from here speech that never seem to get quoted. She adds (from around 1:08 in the video above):

The problem is the explosion of communication means: the internet, social media, 24 hours a day. They have opened access to information to more people than we can say, and that is a good thing. They have enriched and enlarged and broadened the discourse. Democracy and society have always gained from learned debate, whether it is political, or scientific. But we have to remain vigilant. We cannot let ourselves fall into complacency. We must be vocal, all the time, everywhere, every single one of us, so that we can deconstruct misinformation, and don’t end up in an echo chamber where we’re just listening to what we want to hear.

That, I think, is the most important part of her short speech: we must actively speak out to combat misinformation, and we must engage people in learned debate. Yet this part has been overlooked by both the media and those righteous Conservatives who are eagerly putting their own wild spin her other words.

We should, instead, laud Payette for having an opinion, for being interesting, for showing the world that we like having smart women represent us.

Keep defending science, Julie, keep defending facts and learned debate. Please.

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