08/29/2014 01:38 EDT | Updated 10/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Why science literacy matters: Bob McDonald

The good news this week that Canadians are tops when it comes to understanding science in the media is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to making policy decisions that involve science.

Science is a powerful tool that tries to understand how the universe works. It doesn't ask why the universe is here; that's a philosophical or theological question. Science is only interested in the mechanics of nature and how systems relate to each other.

Think of science as a pair of glasses that you put on, and when you look around at the same world that everyone else sees, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

A green leaf becomes an energy factory that turns sunlight directly into food for the plant. You can see down to the infinitesimally small world within an atom and discover the powerful forces at work there. You look up and see billions of other worlds, exploding stars, galaxies, out to the edge of the universe and back to the beginning of time. An odd-shaped rock becomes the leg bone of a giant creature that walked the Earth, long before humanity.

Perhaps most importantly, science sees relationships, the interconnectedness between systems. Ocean currents affect weather patterns, the weather affects life on land, volcanoes cool the climate.

As the great American naturalist John Muir wrote: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

Now, it seems that humanity is picking out just about everything in sight and affecting everything else on the planet.

And that's why we need science to see those effects and remind ourselves that we are an intimate part of the whole system.

I had the pleasure of exploring the waters of the West Coast this summer, sharing the journey with seals, sea otters, humpback whales and countless other creatures in the sea and within old growth forests.

Part of the trip included Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, which lie 130 kilometres off the B.C. coast. At the Haida Heritage Centre, in the small town of Skidegate, representatives from Parks Canada gave an excellent presentation on the unique biology and cultural history of the southern tip of the island chain known as the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Reserve Area and Haida Heritage Site. Ancient totem poles from thousands of years of native occupation, and a rich diversity of land and marine life, have earned the area the nickname, “Galapagos of the North.”

​Following the presentation, I asked about any restrictions on bringing our sailboat into the area. I was told we would have to take a 90-minute course on where not to anchor, how to deal with discharges (none of any kind is allowed), even when not to use the anchor light at the top of the mast, because it might interfere with migrating birds.

I was impressed that Parks Canada is taking such good care of this precious bio-reserve.

Then I looked at a map and saw that the parade of oil tankers that are supposed to carry bitumen from the proposed Enbridge pipeline will pass just south of that same site.

My sailboat needs a special permit, but tankers carrying hazardous cargo are OK?

A single tanker spill would devastate the area. Is it any wonder the Haida people are totally opposed to the project?

This is just one example of how we need science literacy to be part of decisions we make about energy, water, food, population — in fact, just about anything we do. In this country recently, the voice of government science has been muzzled, so resource extraction can happen more easily. That is short-term thinking.

Most decisions we make in this country involve some aspect of science. That's why science literacy is important for business people, politicians and everyone who votes.

Let's let science be a voice of reason, not to stop progress, but to proceed in a sustainable way that is good for this incredibly beautiful and interconnected system that we live in.