When questioned during a news conference Thursday about an alleged plot to blow up a Via Rail train, Prime Minister Stephen Harper — making a dig at his Liberal rival, Justin Trudeau — said that “this is not a time to commit sociology.”
Why not? Why does the prime minister consider it an offence — or perhaps a sin — to use sociology to help shed light on the roots of terrorism or, for that matter, other pressing problems in contemporary society?
Part of Mr. Harper’s thinking may be based on a belief that, in the face of disaster and terror, many people just want to hear a strong voice of reassurance and authority. There’s another, more sinister interpretation of his comments: If you probe too deeply into the roots of terrorism or other problems, you might come to the conclusion that Conservative party’s ‘solutions’ themselves are suspect. It follows that thinking sociologically must to be avoided at all costs.
Consider the well-documented sociological finding that measurable demographic and socio-cultural characteristics can’t predict whether an individual will become radicalized and engage in terrorist acts. Much of the impetus for suicide bombing comes instead from a desire to retaliate against what are perceived as repressive actions on the part of foreign powers.
Yet the Conservative government is now investing a lot of money to compile information on the demographic and socio-cultural characteristics of people with connections to terrorist groups. Their hope is that this information, properly analyzed, will tell us more about what kinds of people to keep an eye on. Sociological research suggests that this is probably not an efficient use of funds.
The government (and Canadians) would be better off investing that money in good police work and a vigorous public debate about whether Canadian foreign policy is contributing to the kind of repression in foreign lands that incites terrorism.
Sociology, and science more generally, can help to solve many of the most pressing problems facing the world. Members of the Conservative government, however, continue to intone that famous line from W. H. Auden’s satirical Reactionary Tract for Modern Times: “Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science.”
The Conservatives pulled the plug on the census. Federal government scientists complain they are being muzzled. Federal librarians have been issued a code of conduct constraining their participation in conferences and public events.
Mr. Harper shut down a world-renowned freshwater research station in Northern Ontario because its investigations into the effects of global warming on marine life don’t suit Conservative policies. Environmental deregulation triggered widespread protests by Idle No More and may lead to the demise of fragile ecosystems. Economic deregulation has led to an influx of temporary foreign workers, many working for less than standard wages. This depresses the income of Canadian workers and prevents unemployed Canadians from finding work.
Canada was once known internationally for sound evidence-based policy. Current comments by the prime minister suggest we are now on the path to policy-based evidence. Facts are ignored, suppressed or distorted to suit government ideology. Doing otherwise has become an offence.