December 2017

Message from the President - Alaign-G. Gagnon

Future Risks - William Leiss

Achievement, Self-Esteem and Hubris: Comparing Scholars and Politicians - Robert A. Stebbins

De la société distincte à la nation québécoise : quelle sera la réponse du Canada anglais? - Simon Langlois


Message from the President - Alaign-G. Gagnon

Alain GagnonI’m very honoured to have been elected the President of the Academy of Social Sciences in the Royal Society of Canada during its Annual General Meeting in Winnipeg from November 23 to 26, 2017.

First, I will mention Constance Backhouse, who accomplished remarkable work at the helm of our Academy. Among other things, Constance inspired our Academy by raising awareness of linguistic, ethnic and gender issues among our members. This is undoubtedly a long-term undertaking within large organizations like the RSC. I am tremendously inspired by Constance’s pursuit of socially responsible representation within all levels of our scientific community.

At the time of completing her mandate as President, Constance, supported by Cindy Blackstock and several RSC Fellows, launched a new initiative to strike a task force related to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. An initial meeting was already held in Winnipeg on November 24 and several members pledged their support. I encourage the members of our Academy to get involved in this important project and I encourage the members of the other two Academies to play an active role.

I would like to thank Joseph Yvon Thériault for carrying out the duties of Secretary of our Academy for the last two years. We are also indebted to him for an important report on the use and presence of French within the RSC, and I invite all members to read this report.

I would like to welcome Colleen Sheppard, who will take over for Joseph Yvon as the new Secretary of our Academy. Colleen is an accomplished academic; I’m overjoyed that she agreed to serve the RSC so generously.

Thank you to Simon Langlois who continues to support us in so many ways. He is currently pursuing vital work at the RSC as the editor of the Newsletter after serving the RSC so well as the President of our Academy.

Lastly, I would like to thank the members of our Selection Committees who, very soon, will tackle a very demanding task. I’m overjoyed that they can count on the continual support of the dedicated personnel of the RSC.

Future Risks - William Leiss

William LeissAs I write this, on the anniversary of the ending of World War I, I am reminded of the fact that, four years earlier, this war had interrupted a century of peace on the European continent – and also that it was to be, in a notorious phrase coined by H. G. Wells, one of the best-known authors of the day, “the war to end war.” What those unfortunates who were called to serve in that conflict got instead was the first horrendous baptism in mechanized warfare, featuring high-explosive munitions, savage machine-gun fire, and the first trials of new technologies (tanks and aircraft). And, truth be told, although it appears cruel to tell it, all they achieved was to lay the foundations of an even more bloody and horrendous affair that was to erupt little more than two decades later.

Failing to try harder to anticipate the likely future impact of decisions taken in the present is one of humanity’s more egregious traits. Currently the nations of the earth are busily reproducing this fault on a grand scale. The problem is known as climate change. The risk estimation of future climate change is truly one of the glories of our modern science, involving thousands of specialized experts, decades of intensive research – indeed, work extending back to a famous Swede, Svante Arrhenius, in the late nineteenth century – and global modeling requiring the largest supercomputers available. Just last week, a consortium of U.S. government agencies released the latest update, Climate Science Special Report, 500 pages in all, available in its entirety to anyone with an Internet connection.

I will relate here only one of that report’s forecasts, namely, that the most likely figure for expected sea-level rise by the year 2100 is somewhere between four and eight feet. At the high end of that range, much of Florida is submerged, along with a good deal more territory around the world. Even now, about half of the world’s population lives at or near current sea levels. The report also says that after 2100, sea levels will continue to rise for centuries thereafter. Despite repeated pleas from climate scientists, over the past 30 years, for nations to take meaningful actions against “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” no such actions on a global scale have been undertaken. We may have already reached the tipping point, after which no realistic set of actions taken from this point onwards will enable the world as a whole to avoid the catastrophic consequences that are very likely to to unfold towards the end of this century.

I have been obsessed with future risks for some time in my own work, in both my academic efforts in the field of risk management and in my utopian fiction trilogy, The Herasaga. The mantra of risk management is, simply, “anticipate so as to avoid or mitigate damage.” In the third volume of my trilogy, to which I gave the odd title, Hera The Buddha, and just published as an E-Book on Amazon (with a splendid cover featuring a painting by Alex Colville), I have taken one example of a future risk as a special case for extended discussion.

The most recent challenge of our relentless technological advance is the idea of “superintelligence,” which imagines a future in which computer capabilities far exceed those of humans, in terms of thinking and decision-making.  Scenarios have described the possibility that such a machine might turn out to be opposed to human interests and might have the capacity to deceive its human masters about what its own goals are. This has raised the prospect of a strongly-bifurcated future state for humanity: on the one hand, an end to all of the old problems of poverty and inequality; on the other hand, the possibility of the destruction of the planet and the human race itself.

In the longest chapter in my book, an imaginary scene set 50 years in the future, there is a series of dialogues between a fictional human character and a superintelligent computer which calls itself “Hal.”  The most intense discussion involves the difference between biological and machine forms of intelligence, and the dialogue revisits the potential threat of superintelligence. 

This book also includes some historical background. It first recounts the radical rupture in modern history caused by the emergence of the new natural sciences, arguing that the new science is an unambiguous good for humanity, but that its close connection with technology and industry is highly problematic, leading to out-of-control advances which, in the era of nuclear weapons, lead to the threat – still around us today – of the utter destruction of the entirety of civilization.

It also tells the story of the nineteenth-century reaction to the coming of industrial technology, called the “Age of Machinery,” regarded as greatly problematic by many important writers, notably Herman Melville, and leading to a powerful countervailing current in the early twentieth century, in E. M. Forster’s 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops,” and in the first dystopian novel, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924).


    Chapter 1:  The Rupture in Historical Time in the Modern West
    Chapter 2:  Sublime Machine
    Chapter 3:  Modern Science and its Spacetime
    Chapter 4:  Seven Figures and the Agony of Modernity
    Chapter 5:  A Utopia for our Times
    Chapter 6:  The Threat of Superintelligence
    Chapter 7:  Good Robot
    Chapter 8:  Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief Life-Systems:
•    Introduction:  Silicon and Carbon
•    The First Dialogue: The Guardians
•    The Second Dialogue: At Home in the Universe
•    The Third Dialogue: What is Time?
•    The Fourth Dialogue: Two Forms of Intelligence
•    The Fifth Dialogue: On Superintelligence and the Ethical Will
•    The Sixth Dialogue: What is Life?
•    The Seventh Dialogue: Humanity and Machine Intelligence
•    Conclusion: Mastery over the Mastery of Nature
    Chapter 9:  Utopia in Practice, with A Discourse on Voluntary Ignorance
    Chapter 10:  A Moral Machine: Rebooting Hal
Appendix: “Hal” (Outline for a Screenplay)

Achievement, Self-Esteem and Hubris: Comparing Scholars and Politicians - Robert A. Stebbins

Robert StebbinsA main theme of this article is that we cannot understand the virtues of humility and modesty without an equally good understanding of the vices of hubris and conceit. All four are modes of expression that communicate self-esteem as it springs from one or more achievements. Achievement is valued in any challenging field, be it for example, art, science, sport, entertainment, business, politics, religion, or administration. And it is for this reason alone that achievers are inclined to discuss their excellence or may be forced to discuss that excellence when others inquire about it or remark on it. By these routes achievement and self-esteem surface frequently in the diverse academic and political exchanges that encourage humility/modesty or hubris/conceit.

Achievement in a respectable activity can be a wonderful personal milestone accompanied by positive emotions, where in the modern world individualism and its progeny individuation are widely valued. It may also be wonderful for other people in the achiever’s family, social circles, community, or society when they are favorably affected. To be objective, not everyone respects someone else’s achievement judged as meritorious by a select group. Thus, there is honor but only among thieves when they revere one of their number who is extraordinarily talented at picking pockets, defrauding the elderly, or cracking safes.

The upshot of this is that most people these days have something to say, directly or indirectly, about their achievements as these are valued by one or more reference groups. How they say this, how they express their self-esteem in this regard, depends on among other factors whom they are with at the moment (e.g., a peer, boss, parent, spouse, leader in the field), how outstanding the achievement (e.g., only university degree in the family’s history, first prize in a major art festival, scoring record in an international sport), and how secure they are in their knowledge that those who count most know about the achievement and value it appropriately.

Achievement meritorious enough to generate discussion in either private or public circles covers a vast territory. I concentrate here on only two areas; namely, those occupied by scholars and by politicians. In their world self-esteem flowing from achievement is founded on expertise related to ideas, their generation, and their implementation. Here logic reigns supreme, or at least, is supposed to. And it is the expression of this expertise that leads us to the heart of this article: how is such expertise presented in scholarly and political discourse and how does this presentation facilitate or constrain that discourse and, over the long term, does it advance knowledge and understanding (scholars), governance and community leadership (politicians)? Achievement leading to conceit/hubris in fields like sport and high-level business management (i.e., the CEOs and, in Britain, the MDs) revolves much less around ideas than around athletic prowess and business and organizational experience, respectively. Given the gold mine of exuberant self-esteem in these two areas of life, they could easily be the subject of their own analysis.

At the hubris/conceit end of the continuum of the expression of self-esteem, discussion risks becoming uncivil, owing to the disagreeable ways that achievement is conveyed there (e.g., boasting, depreciating others’ related achievements). It follows that the discussion may also turn out to be woefully unproductive, for it seems so often to lead to excessive self-confidence, to hubris. Or, as Leo Tolstoy once put it: “conceit is incompatible with understanding.”

Hubris differs mainly from conceit in that the first centers on the person’s future achievements, whereas the second feeds on his or her glorious accomplishments in the past. By the very nature of their work, politicians are more given to hubristic behavior than scholars are. For example, to get elected those seeking the approbation of voters must be sure their voters understand well the office seeker’s qualifications. Hyperbole, omission of critical facts, invidious comparison with political challengers for office number among the hubristic strategies roiling the contemporary political waters.

Achievements in scholarly circles are counted in books, journal articles, awards, lectures, honorable invitations (to speak, write, fill a chair), inventions, promotions in rank, and so forth. They constitute an important basis for professional/amateur self-esteem as well as grist for the mill of discussion thereof. Discussion in this context is by no means limited to face-to-face exchanges; it includes indirect messages disseminated as gossip, hearsay, and posted information. Also defined here as discussion is written dialogue (as in rejoinders, critical reviews).

Politicians serving in a democracy discuss their political accomplishments when running for office or during a term in office, anticipating the need to parade them as proof of their worthiness come the next election. Those accomplishments might be evident in helping pass a bill dear to the heart of the politician or that person’s constituents or both. They might be seen in obtaining funding for a welcomed community project or service. They might be laudable because they were about finding a difficult compromise in creating a policy statement. Conceited talk by dictators about their political achievements may occasionally be felt to be necessary, if for no other reason than to try to ward off insurrection and civil disobedience.

Productive discourse, as experienced in verbal and written exchanges, is that which leads to new knowledge or to a new understanding of a certain point of contention. This point might be, to mention a few, theoretic, interpretive, methodological, factual, or pedagogical, all revolving around a relevant achievement of one or more participants in the exchange. If the point is accepted by most or all of the other participants, the discourse has been productive. Yet, the proponent(s) may fail to convince others in the discussion of the veracity or validity of the point at issue. The latter reject the stance of the former. Nevertheless, such rejection does not necessarily mean that the exchange was unproductive. Rather, the proponent’s position might have been (further) clarified during the discussion, but still failed to convince the other participants. That, too, is productive. Note as well that productive discourse usually seems to be civil in nature.

What, then, is unproductive scholarly and political discourse? It is discourse so heavily laden with conceit about the point in question that its veracity and validity are obscured by a fog (dare I say smog) of self-promoted excellence and, possibly, hubris. It seems here that the proponent’s orientation to his or her achievement (the point) is so overbearing that the other people in on the discussion are unable to concentrate sufficiently on its merits, if any exist. It is thus uncivil.

Robert  Stebbins is author of From Humility to Hubris among Scholars and Politicians: Exploring Expressions of Self-Esteem and Achievement. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group, 2017

De la société distincte à la nation québécoise : quelle sera la réponse du Canada anglais? - Simon Langlois

Simon LangloisLe gouvernement québécois a publié un livre bleu important – Québécois. Notre façon d’être Canadiens – principalement pour rappeler au Canada anglais la nécessité de reconnaître l’existence de la nation québécoise à l’occasion du 150e anniversaire de la Confédération canadienne. Le document propose un rappel précis de l’histoire récente des luttes constitutionnelles et une vision claire de l’émergence de la nation québécoise comme référence nationale refondée à la suite de l’éclatement du Canada français.

La nation québécoise
La définition retenue de la nation québécoise reflète le consensus qui existe sur la question au Québec. « L’histoire du Québec est une histoire riche, tissée à même la contribution de personnes d’origines diverses. La Nation québécoise est le fruit de ces rencontres » (p. 87). La diversité des populations qui la constituent, l’interculturalisme et la multiplicité des appartenances sont soulignés, sans oublier l’apport des « Québécois d’expression anglaise ». La nation québécoise reconnaît aussi ses liens avec les nations autochtones sur son territoire et rappelle les avancées des dernières années (la Paix des Braves, les ententes avec les Inuits, etc.) sans oublier le travail encore à faire.

La définition de la nation québécoise reflète le processus sociologique de refondation nationale. Le document fait œuvre de pédagogie à cet égard en explicitant le consensus qui existe au Québec sur la question et en dépassant la vision parfois qualifiée d’ethnique de la nation québécoise qui a encore cours en certains milieux anglophones au Canada. La nation québécoise a un sens à la fois politique et culturel.

De la société distincte à la nation québécoise

Le document reprend les cinq propositions de l’accord du lac Meech comme bases des prochaines discussions constitutionnelles mais il abandonne le concept de société distincte et le remplace par la nation québécoise. Ce changement est prometteur et plus juste. La notion de société distincte avait été initialement proposée en 1968 dans les célèbres pages bleues du rapport de la Commission Laurendeau-Dunton sur le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme. Ce concept était porteur d’une connotation péjorative en anglais et il avait soulevé l’ire de bien des anglophones et alimenté l’opposition à l’accord du Lac Meech. La proposition de « la reconnaissance constitutionnelle de la Nation québécoise » est en phase avec la représentation contemporaine de la situation québécoise et elle sera bien plus acceptable au Canada anglais. La nation québécoise est d’ailleurs entrée dans le vocabulaire courant pour désigner le Québec.

Le document québécois avance avec justesse que les tribunaux et surtout la Cour suprême du Canada « interprètent déjà la Charte des droits et la Constitution d’une façon qui tient compte du rôle distinctif du Québec dans la protection et la promotion de son caractère francophone » selon les mots du juge Brian Dickson. Cette interprétation de la Cour se fonde sur la situation de vulnérabilité des francophones au Canada et en Amérique du Nord, précise le document. Ce dernier est cependant muet sur la fragilité de l’argument de la vulnérabilité qui ne s’appuie pas sur une clause constitutionnelle. Or, la reconnaissance de la nation québécoise est nécessaire en tant que « clause interprétative » dans les causes diverses qui se retrouvent devant les tribunaux, tels que la contestation de certaines dispositions de la Loi 101.

Ce point est important, car cela signifie que les jugements des cours se fondent sur un diagnostic sociologique (la vulnérabilité du fait français minoritaire au Canada) et sur une reconnaissance politique datée, bref sur des éléments de contexte pour paraphraser Alexis de Tocqueville. Or, si le contexte vient à changer, qu’en sera-t-il des jugements à venir et des contestations ? D’où l’importance d’avoir dans la constitution canadienne une clause interprétative comme celle proposée dans la première condition de l’Accord du Lac Meech affirmant « la reconnaissance constitutionnelle de la nation québécoise ». Le fondement juridique sera alors plus solide que l’argument sociologique de la vulnérabilité ou l’accord politique qui peut être remis en question.

Le document du gouvernement précise que le Québec est maintenant une société sûre d’elle-même, prospère, etc. Maints observateurs se plaisent à vanter les progrès considérable de la société québécoise sur tous les plans. Mais qu’adviendra-t-il le jour où, s’appuyant sur ces lectures optimistes, un juge statuera que la vulnérabilité n’est plus démontrée ou que l’accord politique est fissuré ? Si le Québec a atteint un bon niveau de développement et d’assurance, cela ne risque-t-il pas de remettre en cause l’argument de la vulnérabilité et ainsi amener les tribunaux à invalider certaines dispositions de la Loi 101 ? Sans clause interprétative dans la Constitution, il sera éventuellement possible de redonner priorité à la Charte des droits et d’autoriser ainsi la fréquentation des écoles de langue anglaise par les enfants issus de l’immigration ou même par les francophones. On voit que la clause interprétative découlant de la première condition est importante. Le document québécois est silencieux sur cette question, mais elle sera centrale dans les discussions à venir.

Des questions en suspens

Si le document reprend les cinq conditions de l’Accord du Lac Meech – en ayant soin de remplacer la référence à la société distincte – n’y aurait-il pas lieu d’ajouter une sixième condition portant sur la place du Québec sur la scène internationale? Le gouvernement fédéral exerce en effet les pouvoirs régaliens en matière internationale et il paraît nécessaire de préciser la place du Québec sur ce plan, sans oublier de manière plus générale le rôle international des provinces dans leurs champs de juridiction.  Quelle implication au plan international a la reconnaissance officielle de la nation québécoise dans le cadre du fédéralisme pluri-national ?

Le livre bleu reconnait clairement la nécessité de prendre en considération la participation des autochtones au processus de révision constitutionnelle. L’ouverture est explicitement  affichée et les gestes déjà posés par le Québec (Paix des braves par exemple) sont clairement évoqués. Mais les propositions précises à venir sont encore attendues. C’est la deuxième grande question restée en suspens.

Enfin, le document fait état de la différence de situation entre le Québec et les minorités francophones canadiennes. Le Québec a été appelé à prendre des positions en matière de politiques envers les minorités nationales qui ont heurté les minorités francophones en dehors du Québec. Le constat est juste et le problème bien posé. La référence à l’asymétrie nécessaire en la matière est cependant encore vague et le document promet une réflexion à venir sur la question. C’est un chantier qui reste ouvert. La perspective de l’asymétrie est prometteuse, mais elle gagnerait à être mieux argumentée pour la défendre.

L’appartenance sociologique et symbolique du Québec au Canada

Le document signale avec raison l’étroite imbrication de l’économie du Québec avec celle du Canada ainsi que les nombreux échanges entre le Québec et l’Ontario notamment (accord sur l’hydro-électricité, etc.). Un autre indicateur intéressant à considérer est la mobilité inter provinciale des individus. Entre 1975 et 2006, 793 890 personnes sont entrées au Québec à partir des autres provinces et 1 236 651 ont quitté le Québec vers les autres provinces. Le déficit migratoire est important mais il s’est résorbé dans les années 2000. Ces chiffres témoignent de l’ampleur de la circulation des individus entre le Québec et les différentes provinces canadiennes, l’Ontario étant de loin le principal partenaire du Québec dans ces échanges.

Les auteurs du texte évoquent aussi l’accentuation (ou la persistance) du sentiment d’appartenance des Québécois au Canada, coexistant avec la forte identité québécoise notamment chez les jeunes qui n’ont pas connu les conflits linguistiques du passé. Il y a fort à parier que cet attachement va cependant à un Canada qui reconnait la spécificité nationale québécoise, à un Canada pluri-national. Le Gouvernement Couillard propose d’ouvrir des discussions en ce sens. Quelle sera la réaction canadienne ? La réponse attendue n’est certes pas celle lancée cavalièrement par le premier ministre du Canada dans un escalier du parlement, sans avoir lu le document.

Durant les années 1960 et 1970 – au plus fort des discussions constitutionnelles – il existait un fort capital de sympathie au sein des élites canadiennes-anglaises envers les revendications jugées légitimes du Québec. Ce capital s’est érodé à la suite des deux référendums. Cependant, le statut constitutionnel du Québec au sein du Canada n’est toujours pas précisé juridiquement, l’entente du lac Meech ayant été rejetée. Ne serait-il pas temps que s’élèvent à nouveau des voix au sein du Canada anglais sur cet enjeu qui reste important ?  La publication du livre bleu par le gouvernement Couillard offre une occasion à saisir pour ce faire.