Science in Canadian Culture

Science in Canadian Culture


Across Anglophone Canada, science has not been integrated into our culture. In Québec, science has been integral to the culture from the time of early settlement. Work by Frère Marie Victorin (1885-1944) is an outstanding example.

Today and for some decades, Québec Science has been a viable magazine for any Québecois interested in science. Repeated attempts to launch an English science magazine have all failed.

When l’Association Canadienne-Français pour l’Avancement des Sciences (ACFAS) held its meetings at Université de Quèbec à Montréal in 1989, le Devoir inserted a foldout containing the complete program of the meetings including all the papers to be presented and their authors and did so at no cost to ACFAS. A few years later when the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) held their North American meetings in Toronto, local news media paid little attention and certainly did not assist.

What do I mean by “science”? New pills and new gadgets are in our daily news. Does that not make “science” part of our culture? No, science is not focused on producing applications for our consumer culture. Science is not the same as technology, or even engineering, or clinical medicine. That is not how science becomes part of our culture.

When friends frequently say “ … I don’t get science and statistics…” when they see tables of information or any kind of numbers, it is clear that science has not been incorporated into their culture. Likewise when I hear media references such as “… science has proved something or other” it is clear that the fundamentals of science still are not generally understood.

“Science” is just a particular way of “knowing”, a specific way of producing new knowledge so that the truth and meaning can be checked. This can involve careful and exact recording of observations and measurements but that is just a beginning step. The critical step is using that information to create logical hypotheses that can be tested to try to disprove them, either logically or by experiment or both. Logically, absolute proof is not possible so the scientific method dictates that we try to disprove a working hypothesis. If repeated attempts to disprove it fail then we temporarily let the hypothesis stand.

Statistics are often used in science but every number is not a statistic. There are lots of other kinds of numbers! A statistic is a measure taken from a sample of a much larger universe or population of things – too many to measure them all – so a sample is taken. The methodology and theory of statistics are used to test how well the sample represents the entire population of things and also to state the degree of certainty of any decisions made from that sample. For many questions, the most accurate answer is a probability statement. Answers given without a statement of their certainty are often suspect.

Science is used to study many kinds of questions varying from completely theoretical to very practical and applied. The notion, now commonly expressed in our culture, that only studies that result in an immediate application have value seems to result from a few bad assumptions: One is the very basic notion that all knowledge already exists and no knowledge is produced anew. Another is that we humans are omniscient and can know the utility of new knowledge before it is ever produced. A third is that the only way to evaluate knowledge is by its economic value; no value is attached to knowledge for its own cultural and intellectual worths.

Science has strongly affected the nature of our culture but, oddly, has not been incorporated into that culture.

1 comment to Science in Canadian Culture

  • Danijela Puric-Mladenovic

    Great observation and a summary about science and Anglophone Canada VS Québec
    I would say in general the same applies North America vs Europe

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