Friday, November 3, 2017

Rex Murphy: Governor General appoints herself umpire of questions of faith and science

Delight in one’s own intellectual capacity is a delusion both frequent and foolish, and the desire to have others share in that rapture is almost always a disappointment. That we are all partisans for our own opinions is of course a truism, as is the consideration that opinions, particularly political ones, many times follow just as much from temperament as from reason. There is no Ideal Reasoner, and the truth of some questions is always a quarry and never a capture. That is why our finest sages, present and past, have always counselled against certitude, and cautioned that when we are most certain of something is precisely the time we should go over our sums.

Our recently minted Governor General, in one of her inaugural appearances, has been very quick off the mark to make her declarative presence known. She gave a talk at a science conference this week, a speech notable for its confident strength of assertion and readiness to pronounce determinatively on matters large and trivial, and which was unfortunately inflected with a tone of condescension that will do little to buttress the appeal of the mainly ceremonial office she now inhabits.

Merely as prelude, we should point out that the difference between elected and selected is more than a matter of the letter “s,” and add that being assigned to a state ceremonial office does not confer oracular status on a person. On the first, it must be clearly acknowledged that it is the elected, not the selected, who argue and debate the issues of the day and determine the worth and truth of the policies that emerge from that process. They write the laws: the GG, as ceremonial totem, the stand-in for an absent Regent of a hollowed-out Monarchy, affixes her signature to them.

Secondly, elevation to the GG office, delight and honour that it undoubtedly is, does not come with a certificate of intellectual authority, or the prerogative to delimit the scope of inquiry and debate on any issue the Commons or the citizenry may wish to engage. It is not at all evident that Ms. Payette is clear on these points.

Her speech had a scattering, pinball machine trajectory. In the space of a few sentences it went from climate change, to the origin of life, to newspaper horoscopes; from dicta on the “denialism” sometimes confronting the first, to the religious understandings of the second, and the vacuous absurdity of the third. The problem with this neat triad is that, while a tirade against horoscopy might be perfectly agreeable to most everyone (being a machine gun attack on a whole field of straw men  — who reads horoscopes save for feeble amusement?), assertions on life and climate are on another plane entirely...

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