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Governor General Julie Payette speaks of science at science convention, shocking media

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Julie Payette is an engineer, a businesswoman, and an astronaut; she holds 27 honorary doctorates, speaks six languages, is an accomplished musician, and is woefully overqualified for her new position as Canada’s 29th Governor General. Her appointment received praise from across the political spectrum as an inspiring and accomplished choice to represent the people of Canada.

Some are singing a different tune, however, after it became clear from her speech at the annual Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa on November 1 that she had no intention of letting her appointment silence her strong opinions.

Her speech took on climate change deniers, evolution disbelievers, placebo medicine enthusiasts, and even the complex and — according to astrologer Georgia Nicols, very mathematical — study of astrology, in a five-minute period, overwhelming the media and launching a debate on her qualifications for the position as Governor General, as well as her tone of voice.

“We are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention, or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process,” said Payette incredulously, raising her eyebrows and wagging her finger at her audience.  

“And so many people — I’m sure you know many of them — still believe, want to believe, that maybe taking a sugar pill will cure cancer, if you will it, and that your future and every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations.”

Her words have been taken by some as a personal insult against their faith. They claim speech was contemptuous, offensive, and unfitting for her ceremonial position as Governor General, a claim that may not be completely unfounded. Her non-partisan role dictates she stay above these petty political matters, and it is hard to deny the political controversy surrounding astrology these days.

But, as a scientist speaking at a science convention, her words don’t really seem out of place. In her speech, she encouraged placing high value on science and on critical thinking, and encouraged her peers to remain wary of misinformation and bogus science.

These days, this is invaluable. We are bombarded with facts and conclusions every day, from social media, from the news, from friends and family. Payette encourages us to take it upon ourselves to fact check, to reveal misinformation spread either out of ignorance or to promote an agenda, and for us to be accountable for what we in turn say as facts.

Her examples may have hurt the feelings of some who hold these views, but at a science convention, astrology and cancer curing sugar pills aren’t held in high regard.

“Democracy and society have always gained from learned debate, but we have to remain vigilant, we cannot let ourselves fall into complacency, so we can deconstruct misinformation, and don’t end up in an echo chamber just listening to what we want to hear,” Payette said.

Her words have since fallen straight into the media echo chamber. The negative press may serve to soften her tone and quiet her opinions for her next speech, but I certainly hope not. If Canada wanted a complacent Governor General, she was the wrong choice, indeed.

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