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Follow the mob

09 Oct 2019 | News Roundup

Speaking of the war on science, a vice president of the University of Alberta just abruptly resigned following a scandal. Namely an ad saying a warmer world might be good for Alberta barley. She did not resign because it is untrue: researchers at her own university showed it is true. But activists got upset because the university said so. So she had to go. Which makes it especially ironic that the tag on the bottom right corner of the offending billboard said UALBERTA.CA/TRUTHMATTERS. Her mistake was believing they meant it.

Jacqueline “Jacqui” Tam, erstwhile “Vice-President, University Relations”, a job whose duties and purpose are not entirely clear, could be forgiven for wondering what just hit her. VP is a prestigious and lucrative job within notoriously well-padded academic bureaucracies famous, even notorious, for job security, like most of the public sector. You get one of those gigs and you’re in for life unless you commit a fairly serious felony. And certainly Tam did nothing wrong as that term is used in normal conversation. And yet she went out the window with dramatic suddenness.

The U of A spun predictably in response to the incident. President Daniel Turpin reluctantly accepted the resignation he had presumably just demanded while explaining that it was a question of process not content. Tam had gone rogue and approved an ad that “should have been vetted by the executive team and I’m pretty sure it never would have seen the light of day”. OK. But why not? And why fire her for such a misstep? It’s not as though the ad said anything untrue.

As the Edmonton Journal noted, “The university is in the process of removing billboard advertisements that read, ‘Beefier barley: climate change will boost Alberta’s barley yield with less water, feeding more cattle.’ It was based on research from 2017 that found Alberta barley would grow better and require less irrigation if the climate was warmer and wetter.” Which stands to reason: Increasing atmospheric CO2 has already made the planet greener, not least because with more CO2 plants grow better in more arid places. (The technical reason, or one of them anyway, is that plants need fewer “stomata” or “holes” in their leaves to let in CO2 when it’s more abundant, and those same holes leak moisture.)

In a piece of re-education that would have warmed the cockles of Mao’s heart, especially as it failed to save her job, Tam posted a statement on the university blog saying the angry public response clearly indicated that the ad “fails to communicate the meaning and complexity of the research.” Even if true, such a mistake would not normally bring a high-flying academic career to a screeching halt. But, she continued, “The messaging on the ad called the reputation of the University of Alberta and its extensive research on climate change into question. As vice-president (university relations), I apologize for this and take responsibility”.

She immediately resigned, which at least gives politicians a lesson about the true meaning of the phrase “take responsibility”. But for the rest, her statement was a disquieting compelled lie. What the angry response really indicated is not that an ad failed to communicate the complexity of some research. It’s that the truth must not be told on climate.

Ironically, just two days earlier Tam had posted in defence of the university’s “Truth matters” campaign, saying “Different, even divergent, approaches are pursued by researchers across the University of Alberta; this is necessary work, even when it challenges expectations and assumptions”. Wanna bet? Oh wait. You already did. And lost.

According to the Journal, “Turpin said he’s unsure whether the fiasco had affected the university’s reputation as an institution that takes climate change seriously.” The real question is whether it affects its reputation as a place where truth matters.

2 comments on “Follow the mob”

  1. The school motto is, "Quaecumqua vera" - whatsoever things are true. Or used to be.
    I'm so embarrassed, I have turned my degree certificate around to face the wall.

  2. I'm embarassed that the univ. fell for the zealots hysterical response. What happened to supporting your academics, and truth??
    As a U.Of A grad , I'm shocked and saddened that my alma mater has succumbed to such childish hysteria.

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