Nobel Prize Winner, Robert A. Millikan once said, “To distort the facts to conform to the opinions has become well-nigh irresistible.” These days, if government in Nova Scotia want people to believe their opinion, it is too tempting to leave out, or misrepresent or manipulate the facts, in order to create a layer of support. As a result, it is becoming impossible to believe anything they claim. Especially when they refer to facts. And science. Often in the same sentence.
Have you heard of “goal orientated studies”? Or perhaps you have heard about these so called science and facts when government speaks about the atrocities they approve, or support? Have you ever been shocked to hear a government hired ‘expert’ agrees with an industrial complex that makes you cringe? Something like burning tires, or fish kills in tidal turbines? Or maybe a pulp mill dumping their waste into a fishing ground? It appears to many of us that they are just bulldozing through the opposition to fulfill their plans.
Well there is this funny thing happening in government policies and decisions. It’s when government gives themselves permission to claim there was science in their decision making while the public accepts this claim repeatedly. It’s called decision-based science.
See that? Decision-based science. Rather than science-based decisions, that take environmental and ecological impacts and health impacts into consideration, we have science based on the decisions government wishes to make.
If you haven’t read Effective Citizen, by Graham Steele, you should, and he writes about this exact issue. “Decision-based evidence”. I got my copy of the book, when a friend told me I had to read it. His words were, “I got out the f’ing highlighter, and you know its f’ing serious when I get out the f’ing highlighter.” He is a sponge for good and useful information, and this was not a new concept to either one of us. But having a validation of sorts from a real and perhaps little rebellious former politician, was a pretty spectacular find. And while it confirms things, for many of us who are fighting for things to change in this province, it is also a bit discouraging and ire inducing.
As members of the public are finding, during public consultation, if you produce anything that is incorrect, even just a spelling error in a multi-paged, 100% fact driven and substantially corroborated review, your entire submission is judged as incorrect, unprofessional, uninformed, etc. If you write an emotional plea or express personal concerns without backing those up with ‘scientific fact’ directly related to the conditions that haven’t occurred yet, then the submission is disregarded. If you do provide ‘scientific fact’ the response is, it is based on incorrect information. If you produce something based on a FOIPOP that took three months to retrieve, and only included data up to the date of request, while the proponent has submitted new details, and you have no idea they submitted new details, and your submission is based on outdated information. Your submission is disregarded. There is no offer to revisit. Most of the time, the public is just ignored. Favour is undeniably given to industry, no matter how inaccurate or blatantly false their “science and facts” are.
Some time ago, the residents of Fall River were informed a proponent had actually complained that their community group had been portraying themselves as an association of some sort, and were not registered on the Registry of Joint Stock Companies in Nova Scotia. The proponent decided they had no right to act as a group. While the group had never claimed to be an association or society in the legal sense, but rather always referred to themselves as a GROUP, this has been used as an excuse to not respond to inquiries. So now the public should have to register themselves as a society to be able to work together as a group? In order to have an opinion, we have to pay the government money in the form of fees? That’s how it works? No legislation supports this stupidity.
Proponents have maligned the integrity of members of the public, accusing them, to government, the media, the rest of the public, as well as the courts, of being paid by competitors or being relatives of the competitors. This has happened in various situations around the province. These claims are not facts, and are incredibly untrue, but to some degree they have been effective in swaying government and media, while the real facts are not having the same impact. I have always said if the project cannot withstand the scrutiny, without disparaging its critics, there is much doubt to be cast on its merits.
The Minister of Environment actually said in the legislature in May 2016 that a decision would NOT be based on what is best for the community, nor letters from the community, and apparently that also included a third party expert review of the proposal, because the review had been submitted by the residents. The Minister stated decisions would be based on facts. Since then, the residents of Fall River have obtained through FOIPOP, a report prepared by NS Natural Resources (a group of experts) that supports some of the residents’ concerns about the proposal. It confirms that the proponents had submitted a plan that was so badly written, it even listed the incorrect rock type and contained other errors and omissions. Yet, while the government says they will base decisions on facts and science, they approved this project. Obviously the proponent was more worried about their goal, than the methods by which they got there and did not make real science and facts a priority in their reporting. And obviously the government never expected the residents to see that facts actually supported their efforts including the submitted review.
In Annapolis Royal, a tidal power plant has been reported by the public for killing fish. Clam beds were destroyed by the siltation caused by the construction and impacts of this energy plant. For 30 years, it has been well documented, studied, discussed and complained about, by the public, academia and local fishermen, but the government has remained unmoved. There have been academic studies of the ongoing and chronic effects at population levels. An entire strain of bass has been wiped out, but this has never prompted action. The Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans have stated they have never received any reports of fish mortality. The owners of the tidal power plant have stated their plant does not kill fish. But it was found that in December 2016, during a Standing Senate Committee hearing on Fisheries and Oceans, a Nova Scotia Power Inc. representative disclosed to the committee that if they had to report all of their fish mortality, they would have to call in every day. She stated that reporting all fish mortality is “quite onerous”. So, were they reporting some fish mortality, or not reporting at all?
After 30 years, and only due to the testimony of their own people, Nova Scotia Power was forced to accept responsibility for the damage they were doing. But even still, what that responsibility means is still a question. The only movement on this to date is to announce that a peer review will be undertaken. Will the power plant be allowed to continue operating? Will they be fined and new rules set up for them? Will they be allowed to kill fish going forward under the Fisheries Act without authorization? And let’s not forget the scientific and public reporting on this case that has been set aside. Nova Scotia Power had commissioned several studies through a scientist and professor who is now a lead scientist at DFO. It is obvious Nova Scotia Power expects the public to just accept their word and never dig deeper. Their hope is no one looks for or prints those years worth of studies. The plant is reportedly set to restart operations any day, after being offline for maintenance for the past several weeks. This would be a proper and necessary time to not restart the plant, an act of good governance and an act of goodwill on the part of the utility.
Clear cutting throughout Nova Scotia is so severe and so widespread that satellite imagery pieces together a patchwork of colour that draws images similar to places like parts of Scotland or Isle of Man where one sees trees stand in clustered forests created by plantations between rolling hills of green grasses and rocks. There are many tales of the thick forests that covered those lands, and every warning about where we are headed due to exploitation reminds us of thick forests that were destroyed. While other places are planting and nurturing their forested spaces, to protect their longevity, we are treating our forests like crops, meant to be harvested as soon as they are a certain height.
The science in forests is not complex on its surface or in our assessment of what they mean to us. But deep inside the forest the relationship between what lives and grows there is fragile and essential. Upsetting one element, the most essential element, will do more damage than one can see with the naked eye. The scarred and brutal clear cuts across this province are also lost habitats, lost ecosystems, lost ground cover protecting the water ways and ground water, higher temperatures on the planet, lost oxygen producers and carbon absorbers. These losses result in dried out empty voids, where wind and rain eliminate the soils essential for things to grow and live. The science of forests is studied and practiced by scientists all over the world. It is well known, well written, well thought out and expressed. And experts have spoken out over and over again about the situation in Nova Scotia. But government and industry have found “experts” who are willing to support their self-serving rhetoric and short sightedness. They have chosen to ignore the years and spans of real knowledge and real concern in favour of feeding the industry that sees money growing on trees.
One industry that influences government in Nova Scotia when it comes to decision-based science in forests and otherwise is pulp mills. The Pictou County Pulp Mill has a long standing and controversial relationship with the Government of Nova Scotia and the locals. The public can easily recognize the impacts of this mill every single day. And after 50 years this long-term relationship has provided more than enough scientific evidence for the least knowledgeable to easily understand how things can go horribly wrong. Studies from across the world document very well the environmental impacts that pulp farming, bleached kraft pulp and pollution from these mills have. Now the mill owners and the government are attempting to imply their science and facts can be trusted as they try to thrust a new and terrifying plan on the region. Now they want us to believe their effluent, that turned Boat Harbour into a toxic environmental disaster is safe to be dumped into the ocean. Into a fishing ground. Into the the Northumberland Strait. The effluent that will corrode their pipes.
For those on the receiving end of this twisted and distorted view of facts, and misuse or misrepresentation of science, these promises of new and improved are hard to swallow. There is little trust, and very little tolerance for these grandiose and far-fetched plans. whether a tidal turbine, a rock quarry or a pipe into the ocean. The members of the public are hard at work gathering facts they believe and science they can trust. And government needs to catch up in this age of information. The public can find the furthest reaches of the Earth when we need the truth. If what the government is accepting from industry does not line up with what the public knows, there will be no going forward until it does. Decisions must be made based on real evidence. And evidence cannot be distorted to conform to a desired outcome.