The closure of DFO libraries is an attack on knowledge and democracy

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The Harper government penchant for suppressing science and information has had a numbing effect over time. There's just been too much. You may recall a few: abolition of the long-form census, making it hard to know what's going on and thus formulate sensible policy. Or barring scientists from the Experimental Lakes Area so they couldn't collect data to help preserve freshwater lakes. That one struck a chord, maybe due to all those beer ads set at the cottage. But the net was cast too wide: fisheries, crime, food safety, public health, the climate. For a depressing refresher, visit the Muzzling Science Timeline.

Some of it's been overtly about shutting scientists up. A recent Environics survey found 24 per cent in the public service "had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons." A half knew of cases where their department "suppressed information" with the effect of "misleading" the public.

But a quirky anti-science attack this week hit me harder than any of those and I'm not sure why. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is closing seven of its 11 libraries and dismantling their contents, not just books but maps and journals of rare quality. They've been scavenged by anyone who shows up or burned, sent to landfill and stuffed in dumpsters. Scientists were practically or actually crying as they watched their beloved atlases etc. hauled away or dispatched to the shredder. The feds say it's all been digitized but that's evidently untrue. Postmedia unearthed a document marked secret that had no mention of digitization. It was all about cost-cutting, minor in effect. They're also clearly aware of damage control and thought they could get away with this one.

Nothing's got at me like that since news from Iraq of the looting of relics in its national museum in 2003 right after the U.S. invasion, while American soldiers stood by. That too was far from the worst disaster in the overall catastrophe of war. Millions were killed or displaced (and getting worse even now). Yet it too seemed uniquely poignant. Here are some thoughts on why.

For Canadians, it's like the loss of irreplaceable family photos. This country was built on its coasts and waterways via the fishing grounds and fur trade. We are as we are -- nature heavy and underpopulated -- due to those patterns.

It goes deeper though. It has to do with being human. What humans do is solve problems with intelligence, when they can, and when they fail, try to learn from that and pass it on for the next round. This gives humans their edge. We lack fur for protection from the elements and we're way more extinction-prone than cockroaches. But we can adapt by using our mental abilities and develop those adaptations over generations. Many such achievements preceded modern science but were incorporated into it. There's something willfully perverse in turning your back on accumulated knowledge in the name of "value for taxpayers." Knowledge is what we have in the face of nature and adversity.

It's also, I'd argue, anti-democratic. Democracy isn't about everybody casting one vote. That way all you get is a sloppy aggregation of individual opinions. The whole is the sum of its parts, period. Democracy means people consult together, listen, discuss -- so that some voices will weigh more than others, and everyone gets a chance to decide which those are. But that can't happen if the most informed voices from the past and present are stifled or dropped into dumpsters. I don't mean the most informed or scientific voices should rule. I don't believe that for a minute. They've often made a botch. But they have to be heard so that everyone can make a wise decision together.

I think that's also why I found the Iraq museum looting so saddening. It isn't that there's wisdom in the past. It's that everything we are is anchored there. Anything we have of which we're proud or delighted, like the Internet, was achieved because of millennia of human striving before us. We didn't do it ourselves. We all did it together: them and us, then and now. What does that get you? Humility, I'd say. Listen up, Harperites.

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This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Giulia van Pelt/flickr

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