Julie Payette: Engineer, Astronaut, Governor General of Canada, Defender of Reality

Julie Payette is about as ridiculously accomplished as you could ever imagine any person could be.

I like this short passage as a quick summary of awesomeness:

In her career and public life, Julie Payette has proven her mettle, intelligence and integrity time after time. An engineer, computer scientist and astronaut, she has flown commercial and military jets, been certified as a deep sea diver, operated the Canadarm, participated in two missions to the International Space Station, served as the chief astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency, has had international academic posts and has sat on both corporate and non-profit boards. (For what it’s worth: Payette also speaks six languages and is a gifted singer and pianist.)

This article from back in the summer when Payette's appointment was announced gives a fantastic overview of why she was a great choice for governor general.

Which brings us to this most recent tempest in a teapot.

As governor general, Payette represents the Canadian head of state, Queen Elizabeth and effectively functions as the head of state in Canada. For example, it is the GG who formally dissolves parliament before an election and asks the leader of the party with the most seats to form a government after an election. Usually, these are deeds without controversy as the GG is unelected (appointed by the prime minister for five year terms) and follows a fairly well-defined tradition. But not always.

At the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa in the first week of November, Payette gave a talk where she addressed some scientific "controversies" around such topics as climate change denialism, the validity of horoscopes and, horror of horror, whether or not divine intervention played a role in the story of life on this planet.

Some selected quotes here:

"Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we're still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period," she asked, her voice incredulous.

"And 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."

She generated giggles and even some guffaws from the audience when she said too many people still believe "taking a sugar pill will cure cancer if you will it good enough 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."

Overall, pretty mild stuff. Science is real; pseudoscience, denialism and religion aren't.

Not a particularly nuanced approach to be sure, and perhaps she could have phrased the bit about evolution a bit more circumspectly, but at the end of the day I can't find fault with what she said. Yes, we have freedom of religion. People can worship as they please and hold the tenets of their faith as literally or as metaphorically as they please. Payette never implied otherwise. But the government's (and the state's) only requirement is that they not interfere with that worship or require any particular set of beliefs to participate in public life. The government and the state don't support any one religion over any other religion. They also don't promote belief over non-belief (at least in practice; separation of church and state in Canada is a bit complicated). They certainly don't have the burden to reassure believers about the literal truth of their beliefs.

As The Beaverton put it, making fun of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's criticisms,

“There are millions of Canadians who were offended by Julie Payette’s scientific proselytizing,” explained Scheer to reporters about the Vice-Regal’s support of Newton’s law of universal gravitation. “We should be more inclusive to those who believe that gravity does not exist, or who believe in many gravities. We can’t conclusively claim that what goes up must come down; I mean why are mountains still standing?”


“What’s next? Governments advocating for people to get flu shots?” Scheer asked rhetorically, shrugging his shoulders.

Scheer clarified that he wasn’t anti-science, rather trying to accommodate the sacred views that the scientific method is the work of the devil.

In matters of public policy, the government and the state do need to take seriously what the best evidence (demographic, sociological, scientific, historical) and the scientific consensus is on important issues.

Governor General Julie Payette should be congratulated on speaking her mind, on being honest and on putting the emphasis on facts and evidence.

I have to admit, the thing about this whole issue that has surprised me the most is the legs that it's had. If I'd initially thought that it would blow over after a few days, I was certainly wrong about that. Two weeks later and still commentary is trickling in, though at this point it's mostly the disgruntled. I'm always a bit surprised at how defensive people can be, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of how dominant their world view is in society and the media. I will also note that this whole controversy received very little press and commentary in Quebec where official secularism is the norm, perhaps to a fault.


As is my wont in these things, I've collected a fair bit of commentary around this issue both critical and supportive of Payette's remarks. Enjoy!

One response so far

Leave a Reply