Radio Freethinker

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Posts Tagged ‘activism’

Let’s see…I’m a skeptic, humanist, atheist…

Posted by Ethan Clow on August 23, 2012

There’s been a lot of discussion lately regarding the new Atheism + group/ideology proposed by Jen McCreight, which I think is great. I wanted to throw in my two cents regarding this, Don has already started discussing the topic as well so you can see what he has to say about it. But to start with, let’s consider what’s on the table here. Jen’s new wave of atheism would expand the circle of previous atheist advocacy to include discussion of social justice issues like racism, homophobia, feminism, political issues and more.

To quote her:

“This new wave of atheism isn’t about declaring “We’ve already achieved something better” or “We’re not like those assholes.” You don’t just get your shiny membership pin and get to say you’re done. This is about saying “We want to work TOWARDS something better.” We need to recognize that there’s still room for self-improvement and to address the root of why we’ve been having these problems in atheism and skepticism. We need to focus on actual change instead of prematurely crowning ourselves victorious.”

I think this will be a great project and I really hope this expanded “big tent” wave of atheism activism takes hold of people and really energizes the movement. Of course I suspect there will be some who will dig in their heels and refuse to acknowledge that atheists can have a position on such “wishy washy” topics like politics or social justice.  Or point out the fatal flaw that you can’t take social justice under the microscope like you can with homeopathy.

That of course comes with a bit of irony since there are plenty of skeptics out there that feel the same about atheism in general. You can’t put God under the microscope.

I pretty much left that way of thinking behind years ago. In fact I’m still routinely face palming every time I see some skeptic/atheist/humanist wag their finger at someone because they are attempting to apply some avenue of free thought to a topic that said finger wagging -ist doesn’t think falls under the limited scope of their preferred -ism.

This debate, the question of what we should be skeptical of/what should we focus our resources on, has been going on since there was an organized free thought movement.

When I first joined in I took a look around to see what the pulse of the various groups and organizations was like. I was surveying the room so to speak. Trying to figure out which conversation I would have the most to say in, and coincidently, which conversation I wanted the most to be a part of.

I happen to love the term “skeptic.” I felt then and now, it most accurately describes what I am. Even though I also identify as an atheist, a humanist, a free thinker, a feminist, a progressive, a liberal and so forth.

See, my background, I was an atheist first, more in the teenage rebellion aspect, but I also had a huge love of critical thinking spurred on by reading books by Carl Sagan. This was all before I even knew there was a free thought movement. When I encountered the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast I had this great moment of realization “holy crap there are people who think like I do!”  That was my first clue that there was an organized effort out there to promote the values I saw as important; skepticism, science, atheism, critical thinking…

Perhaps that’s why I really like the term “skeptic” it was the first way of describing my thought process that I heard. Even though the SGU podcast rarely talked about religion or atheism, or dived into political or social justice issues, I felt that with a mandate like skepticism – vigorous rational inquiry into the world, how could you not being on the side of social justice?

Of course not everyone agrees with me. There are some skeptics who just as vigorously deny any connection between skepticism and atheism. Likewise with humanism. Meh. Fuck them I guess. Okay, that was harsh. No, in all seriousness, I wish them well with their chosen goals. Finger wagging aside, I have long said we need every voice possible promoting this rational movement. Those who do wag fingers… yes they can go fuck off because they are in fact hurting our movement. They push away allies and demoralize the rest of us.

I really have no problem with groups like the JREF not engaging in social justice issues because, well, they would suck at that. Who are the JREF’s experts? Magicians and scientists. These aren’t the kind of people who I want weighing in on social justice. Does that mean that when the JREF puts on a big skeptical conference they should avoid having speakers who are historians, sociologists, harm reduction drug activists, criminologists or whomever? No, because in that case those speakers would be experts on those topics and they there’s nothing anti-skeptical about those topics for a bunch of evidence loving folks to digest and debate.

Of course I do have a problem with groups make statements about the limits of our inquiry (it’s free inquiry for a reason, yes?) Obviously we need these groups to be aware of the effect of making events and conferences safe places and welcoming to people who don’t love to hear homeopathy debunked for the umpteenth time. That’s a given and I’m flabbergasted anyone anywhere actually doubts that.

What I like about this Atheism+ thing is that Jen and her other supporters seem keen on brining in the social justice experts, including them in the conversation, and that’s a great way to expand our diversity of topics. Making a point of talking about social justice is great. Having something intelligent to say on it is better.

Here on Radio Freethinker, we have unequivocally supported the “big tent” mentality. By our twentieth episode we had covered such “big tent” ideas like morality, religion, politics, racism and history. And we were just getting started. We’ve discussed everything from ‘how to debate ghost believers’ to harm reduction drug policy and corporal punishment. (Also for the record, we admit to not being experts on anything. We do research and invite people to disagree with us. Sometimes we’re wrong but we’re doing our best to apply our skepticism.)

I joked on Facebook that I was skeptical everything before being skeptical of everything was cool.

So will I identify as an Atheist+? Sure I guess so. I’ll add it to my list. Let me see if I can get this right, bear with me.

I’m a skeptic, I navigate the world around me with a skeptical method of inquiry, I gain my sense of morality and ethics from humanism and when possible, they are informed by science. I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in gods and this is informed by my scientific understanding of how the universe works. Plus(!) I extend my skepticism to my views of social justice; freedom, equality, and kindness. In that, I not only skeptically investigate what social justice policies work, but that I encourage those social justice policies in my skeptical activism.

There. A bit long for a button or logo but that’s what I think.

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Creationist Clashes in British Columbia

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 29, 2010

(Cross posted on Skeptic North)

Recently a creationists, one Dr. Jonathan Sarfati, (his PhD is in chemistry) has been touring in British Columbia speaking on the subject of evolution. The title of his talk is “Evolution: The Greatest Hoax on Earth” which is his way of suggesting that he can refute the claims made by Richard Dawkins in his latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

My esteemed co-hosts and I on Radio Freethinker discussed this event on our most recent episode, and my friend the Crommunist blogged about it over at Canadian Atheist.

Dr. Sarfati, the founder of Creation Ministries International is a Christian apologist who believes in the literal truth of the bible and specifically biblical creationism. For those that don’t know, creationism is the belief that life on earth arose according to the accounts in Genesis (Earth created in 7 days and 10,000 years ago) and not through the process of evolution (a billion year process of natural selection)

As far as creationists go, he has nothing new to say nor is he particularly good at delivering his message.

Why this warrants a blog post is that when skeptics in Vancouver and abroad learned that he intended to deliver his speech at the University of British Columbia as well as several other important venues across the province, many of us were concerned.  We decided it would be prudent to set up an evolution information booth at the event so that attendee’s would be able to get some actual science content instead of Christian dogma.

In Vancouver, our biggest concern was that he was speaking at a university. By nature of the university itself (dedication to research, facts, honesty, education) we felt this lent Dr. Sarfati undue credibility. You can read an article about Dr. Sarfati’s talk at UBC in the Ubyssey, the campus newspaper, although it makes no mention of the pro-evolution contingent at the lecture.

Getting a booth proved difficult. Fortunately persistence paid off and CFI Vancouver, the UBC Freethinkers and the UBC Biology department teamed up to put together some evolution literature and experts at hand to properly explain the science.

Sarfati was also doing talks in Surrey later that day but unfortunately we were unable to get an information booth for that talk. We suspect having the support of the UBC Biology department made our request more likely to be accepted at UBC, however his speaking engagement in Surrey wasn’t in a university but a private venue.

We set up our booth outside his lecture and had many people come up to us to see what we were about. It was actually quite successful, many students who didn’t have a background in science came over to us and eagerly asked questions, which our biology experts were all too happy to answer. We had several science, skeptic and evolution books which people were encouraged to leaf through and look at.

When time came for the talk we took some seats inside and took notes. However, as I mentioned, this was a farce of a lecture, even by creationist standards.

I mentioned on Radio Freethinker that Dr. Sarfati was a clown. I of course realize that’s an ad hominem but it’s very apt. He began his lecture by stating that scientists like Dawkins have different starting assumptions when it comes to biology, Dr. Sarfati has the bible, and Dawkins has Darwin. (Neglecting to mention that while Sarfati begins with the assumption that the bible is literal truth, Dawkins doesn’t believe Darwin to be gospel.)

Sarfati also has some interesting views on science itself. He suggests that it was born out Christianity, which explains why Western Christendom was so advanced. (The Dark Ages weren’t really all that dark, he assured the audience.) He further explained that believing in evolution would lead to moral bankruptcy and ultimately atheism (which was very bad)

Aside from the fact that his historical interpretation of the history of science and Christianity is completely wrong, his understanding of how science works also seems completely off base.

His evidence for why evolution can’t possibly be true is staggeringly silly. Consider his case against fossils, which can’t exist because “what happens when a fish dies? Look at your goldfish, it floats!” How could it get to the bottom of the ocean to fossilize? He questions enthusiastically. Throw out your Origin of the Species, everyone!

Of course he also argues that life is simply too irreducibly complex to happen by chance. After all, if things look designed, they must be!

He takes particular exception to the notion of life emerging from non-living components. To illustrate the absurdity of this, he asks the audience what would happen if you put a frog in a blender and added energy? He shows a slide of a blender with frog goop and says “this is what happens when you add energy, not in a million years is a frog going to hop out of that mess.”

He repeatedly hammered that evolution doesn’t “add information” it only results in life becoming more specialized and therefore couldn’t possibly be true. As most creationists do, he constructs a straw man argument and proceeds to knock it down. He really wanted us to understand that mutations are not adding information, “after all” he explains, “most mutations do stupid things like giving a bulldog a smushed nose.” And who wants a smushed nose?

When it came time to answer questions he wasn’t particularly interested in hearing counter arguments. Rather belligerently he would shout down anyone who raised a critical question. Any time a biology professor asked something he would make some comment on them indoctrinating students into atheism.

His obnoxious attitude was so aggressively aimed at the sciences that I was shocked by the way several audience members who weren’t skeptics reacted. Many cheered as Dr. Sarfati lambasted biology professors for teaching evolution and brainwashing innocent young people who come to learn about the natural world. Not only was this insulting to the professors, but several biology students found it offensive as well. There was one protracted argument between Dr. Sarfati and a student that sounded like a school yard dispute then scholarly discourse. Over the course of the question period several skeptics end up walking out in frustration. I don’t blame them, I’ve never actually seen someone so obnoxious.

His demurer didn’t improve. He would later visit the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Alas, there were more skeptics there too.

CFI Okanagan and the UBCO Skeptics also set out to ask some probing questions of Dr. Sarfati.

He was not pleased to say the least. Several skeptics in Kelowna decide to wear t-shirts saying “Creationism: a Philosophy of Ignorance.” He was further incensed when skeptics tried to ask some critical questions. Unlike in Vancouver where the audience was roughly evenly divided between skeptics and creationists, in Kelowna the skeptics were definitely in the minority. At one point a philosophy professor was even threatened with a head lock by a creationist in the audience when he pointed out some of Dr. Sarfati’s logical fallacies.

His respectability metre went down even further when he made some racially insensitive remarks following his lecture that left several CFI Okanagan members justly shocked.

Some would characterize Dr. Sarfati as the fish in the barrel. I think that’s a mistake. About 1/3rd of the audience at UBC was sympathetic to his point and more so at UBCO. Where we should be concerned is that this guy isn’t even a good speaker! His arguments by creationist standards are bad! And he’s a jerk too! The point being, if someone this poorly informed is allowed to direct the conversation on evolution in universities, skeptics may find themselves in a difficult position down the road where they occupy a small minority in lecture halls where creationism and evolution are taught as two legitimate theories of biology and any attempt to criticize this bizarre scenario results in the threat of a head lock. A head lock that encompasses all forms of rational discourse, scientific inquiry and public education.


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Skeptivism: Take 3

Posted by Ethan Clow on October 2, 2010

As we mentioned on the show last week, James Van Praagh, self proclaimed psychic and medium came to the River Rock casino in Richmond to apply his trade on Saturday and we at CFI and Radio Freethinker were there to hand out flyers and encourage critical thinking. You can see and download the flyer here.

This is actually our third skeptivism event in Vancouver but unfortunately, the most challenging as well.

For those that don’t know, skeptivism is a word used to describe activism of a skeptical nature. It may seem like proselytizing or even evangelicalism but skeptivism is about taking the message of critical thinking to the streets. It’s a step that isn’t often taken by skeptical/free thought groups but I for one, believe strongly in.

I don’t have a high opinion on people like James Van Praagh at all. This man takes people’s money and performs some mentalist tricks and provides nothing but wishful thinking and false hope.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to hand out flyers at the Van Praagh event, the problem was, compared to the time Deepak Chopra and John Edward visited, Van Praagh was in a casino.

If anyone has ever been to a casino they know that these places are built like a fortress and by design are built to protect the anonymity of the people going there.

This made it very difficult to navigate that area and be effective at getting our flyers to those who actually were attending the event. Unlike at the Deepak Chopra and John Edward events where the entrances were very close by.

We were also hampered by the fact that we had a very small group with us at this event. Essentially we had a huge, maze like area to cover and only about seven people.

Deciding to be direct, we started handing out flyers in the lobby of the casino right next to the theatre. We got about 60 or so flyers out, mostly getting scowls from those taking them and one person even said how she didn’t believe us because she was a psychic too.

Within about fifteen minutes, casino security tossed us out and then warned us of “further action” if guests continued to be bothered. We retreated to public property and continued to hand out flyers. After about an hour of that, we retired to some drinks and hope that we got through to some people.

I was disappointed by the low turnout. Compared to the Chopra event, where we had more than twenty, this was quite a small group. Of course part of the reason is that this is not a pleasant thing to do. Handing out flyers to people saying the person they came here to see is a fraud doesn’t leave a great after taste.  We certainly feel strongly about this but the average person doesn’t know (or care) about the harm psychics can cause.

Some people are so bought into the supernatural that the idea that others would rather embrace skepticism is downright insulting. (By the way, for more on my thoughts of this check out my post on Skeptic North “Do We Have a Problem“)

Feeling nervous and uncomfortable are common place at these events and it’s not a surprise to me that many skeptics simply don’t want to take part. I don’t blame them at all. Many people have told me they admire the idea but couldn’t take part because they’d either break into tears or want to smack some sense into the people they meet. Their frustration is understandable and I do wish that I could convince them that sometimes the truth hurts and sometimes we skeptics have to be the source of that truth. Ultimately it’s a choice each individual has to make about what sort of person they want to be and how far they want to take their skepticism.

Aside from the difficulty of confrontation itself there many who feel that skepticism is a personal life choice and trying to convince others to be skeptical is not part of the deal. I’ve been pretty vocal in my disagreement with this. We are silent at our peril.

There are others too who want us to be even more direct. While I understand the passion and can sympathize with the frustration they must feel, getting ourselves arrested is no solution. If we become the ranting raving person on the sidewalk people are going to cross the road to avoid us. We must make an effort to be diplomats. I’m not talking about the divide between so called “asshole skeptics” and “olive branch skeptics.” I’m talking about being aggressive or disruptive literally. I’m talking about the kind of behaviour that gets you arrested and talked about in newspapers.

As rational thinking people, we can’t let that happen. We can’t become the wing nut wacko’s who throw red paint and scream at passer bys. As soon as we do that, we give leave to any hope of convincing anyone.

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What went wrong at the G20 meeting in Toronto? – Pt 2

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 19, 2010

Part 2 – Intimidation is the new Freedom

Are we taking our rights and freedoms for granted here? Is the media being distracted by showing propaganda while missing the ‘important’ issues? As the second part of my look at the G20, let’s check out the role of the security forces and what they mean for us.

The once of the main reason for the expense was to protect the delegates from terrorists and the people of Toronto from ‘black bloc’ anarchist “Thugs”. To accomplish this there was the largest single mobilization of security forces in Canadian history outside of war time[1]. Anywhere from 10, 000 to 20, 000 security forces (the vast majority being state officers) where set upon what was at best 4,000 protests[2].

The Toronto event in saw the largest mass arrest, almost a thousand people, in the history of this country…including the FLQ crisis and the imposition of martial law in the 70s (around 500 were arrested then). The HIGHEST estimate of the dreaded ‘Black Bloc’ was 100. The Black Bloc are self-described (and often governmentally described) activist who exercise an aggressive civil disobedience of smashing in corporate windows and painting anarchist slogans.

Now, with that number of security forces did they at prevent the destruction of property or injury of people?

Well, there were a number of people who were injured (by all of them claim it was the security forces that caused their injuries). What about property damage? Well dozens of windows were broken (mostly for multinational chains) and some minor damage by way of political graffiti. However, from the way the government officials spun things, back up by an overly critical press, downtown was a war zone; an image that was supported by the mass number of imposing security forces and, perhaps the iconic image of the G20, the torched of police cars.

Before I go on the talk about the press images, I have to ask – what were the police doing while the ‘black bloc’ protested? They were there; they did apparently smash windows and plaster graffiti. They security forced did nothing! It was as though they wanted the bloc to have the chance to justify the security forces presence. This is why is you check the video/images of the G20, you never see the police clashing with the bloc. There is great talk about past clashed (in Genoa) but the security forces seem to have allowed the bloc free reign over the city. So, then why have so many security officers?

I shall now return to the Miami Model I mentioned last post. This is a set of tactics that were used by the Miami policy to prevent the ‘disruption’ of the meeting of those negotiating the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement. The participants did not want a repeat of past events where ‘their’ efforts of ‘codify’ the neo-liberal model (such as that attempted with the Multilateral Agreement on Investment) derailed by popular protest and activism.

Of importance to us is certain tactics used to ensure both a passive demonstrations as well as to ensure a favourable image for the security forces themselves. Amnesty international, among others, refer to them as brutal intimidation techniques. The techniques used that I know of:

Pre-emptive contextualizing: This means ensuring lots of news stories, mostly rooted in official news releases, warning about the potential danger of “rogue” protesters who will turn the peaceful demonstrations into orgies of violence. This often includes pre-arrest of people and the ‘discovery’ of a cache of weapons. A notable example was a camper who was ‘driving slowly’ days prior to the event. Upon a search of his car they discovered an axe, a chain-saw, gas (presumable for the chain-saw), hunting equipment and other things you would have to go out in the country[3]. Further, great press was made of the security expert Byron Sonne who was arrested for ‘terrorist activity’. The fact that he had publicly informed the security community that he was attempting to test and show the futility of the security planning for the G20 was never mentioned (in the popular press). That, although stung by his own activities, he was never a ‘real’ terrorist but was useful in creating the proper context the security forces wished to establish prior to the event.

Also in the lead up, and often mentioned in news stories without any commentary beyond the official government line, were the pre-arrest of people who the security forces though COULD be dangerous. Over 20 people were ‘pre-emptively’ arrested. SAY WHAT!!!! The vast majority of these were not charges and their only crime was to be involved in social (but not violent) activist groups. To repeat Amnesty international – brutal intimidation techniques. I know acquaintances of mine went ‘underground’ during the Olympics because of vocal communist they were afraid they would be ‘gitmo-ed’ or just plain arrested. Even if you are released hours or days later, the process can be traumatic and disturbing; especially if your under the preconception we live in ‘free society’. 

Let get back to the iconic image of the Toronto G20, the burning police car. The police car and the apparent (well apparent to anyone watching on TV) willingness of the security forces to allow THESE acts of violence to happen leads us to conspiracy theory of sorts. Now being a proponent of this idea, I have to preface this talk by stating that just because something is labeled a conspiracy does not automatically make it false. Those watching the video were left asking 1) why was the police car left on the street? 2) Why, once it was a fire was started, did not the security forces (which in video could be seen in great numbers of security forces less the 50 metres away) at least ATTEMPT to secure the area 3) where were the fire department? 4) Why were there not police or security forces ATTEMPTING to keep people away from the bringing car that was potential danger to civilians? And 5) What were they afraid of, CTV and CBC both were next to the car and the vast majority of people were ‘gawkers’ trying to grab photos/vids with their cellphones. The most I ever saw were 2 to 5 ‘actively’ violent individuals (and they looked more homeless than Black Bloc).

Okay, lets pull back a bit. I am NOT saying Harper is creating a massive security force that will be Jack-booting their way down main street Canada tomorrow…probably not net year either… What I am saying is that what we saw in Toronto was the effective use of scare tactics; intimidation and misdirection that show scare us all[4]. There is where a great number of peaceful protest, activist trying to get the word out that there are things happening or not happening at the G20[5] that should be of concern to us all.

[1] I could not find firm numbers for other events, but what I could find supports this point but be sceptical.

[2] Although the CBC reported estimates of 10,000. From the video is saw, the lower number I used seems more accurate.

[3] There is not a lot of ‘forests’ around Toronto but the ultimate destination of this traveler was farther afield. It is noteworthy that he was never actual charged with any crime. Also if his intent was nefarious, it seems incompetent to act as he did…unless his intent was innocent.



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What went wrong at the G20 meeting in Toronto? Pt1

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 19, 2010

Part 1, show me the money!

There were several issues that arose out the recent meeting of global leaders in southern Ontario at the end of June. The first issue is cost. The G20/G8 cost the Canadian people over a billion dollars for a 3 day event. This expense included a 10 km fenced enclosure costing almost 10 million, new crowd control equipment including the dreaded ‘sound cannon’ and of course security enforcement personal..

The security cost of last G20 was held in spooked Pittsburgh cost only 13 million, London’s in 2009 was priced (for the whole event) at 20 million. Now, the G8s have a record of costing more (although even by that standard we spent more than twice as much as the next most expensive G8, L’Aquila, which was a masked way for the Italian government to rebuild the town after a devastating earthquake) but in this case the vast amount of money was spent on the G20 in Toronto.

Let’s compare this to other past events. Security for the Olympics here in Vancouver cost around 1 billion, depending on your source. This was a 26 day event with some history of terrorist violence in the past (The Munich and Atlanta Games). At the opening ceremonies 10 heads of state as well as over 41 other high officials from over all over the world. This of course did not include the thousands of performers or the crowd of tens of thousands watching in person or the billion or so watching on TV; a very high profile event we paid over 40 million a day for security. If one was worried about ‘sending a message’ the Olympics (as those who tried to justify the expense of the games constantly reiterated) would be a prime target.

The G20/G8 events, although also ‘famous’ for their protest, these are low level (ie few people), low impact (minor property damage) and attack mainly social justice activist. However, they do get a disproportionate amount of press in the first instance because the activist are trying to point out social inequalities, access inequalities and other justice issues and for the second instance because the participants (especially those representing private interest) do not want the ‘masses’ to know what is going on (largely at private behind-closed-door events) and those who worry about a repeat of MAI.

MAI was the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) which was derailed by popular protest in the late 1990s. This victory of the ‘people’ followed by the resistance to ‘restart’ MAI at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. Seattle was a break water point for both the activist and the ‘establishment’. When protesters came out again in Quebec in 2000 and Genoa, the ‘security’ forces were prepared to be more ‘aggressive’. Since then there have been a couple of deaths – all of them protesters.

The change the security forces have taken is the adoption of the ‘Miami’ model. This was an event where negotiations for the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement occurred in Miami, Florida. This model, seemed a win-win (-lose) for the security forces, the politicians/lobbies (and the activist/masses). There are several aspects of the psychology of the Miami model I will bring up in the next post, but the important aspect for now is the money. One reason the ‘local forces’ are willing to be so ‘active’ is large amounts of money are infused in the local security apparatus and forces. Often this is seen as new equipment but in Toronto’s case the vast amount of money was spent ‘paying’ for the personal (with its corresponding overtones of ‘mercenary’). One area of visible equipment increase was in the form of riot gear but enough to say a lot of money was spent, a lot of people detained, a lot of press on the ‘thugs’ and very very very little was broadcast of substance in spite of the fact the VAST majority of the activity of activist were peaceful, important and should have been heard; instead we got a burning car.

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Posted by Don McLenaghen on June 7, 2010

Let me tell you about my night with Deepak. Myself and a group of skeptics went to pass out information pamphlets at a performance of Deepak Chopra at Vancouver recently. We did not want to be too confrontational; wanting instead to reach out to those who have been taken-in by the mis-speak of Deepak. When asked by friends what we were doing I was at a bit of a loss; we were not exactly picketing or protesting Deepak – that would have been more aggressive and confrontational. To say were ‘just skeptics’ handing out notes seemed weak. It is also true that a number of skeptics are passive and live the skeptic life but don’t want to ‘preach’ or promote the cause. Then it struck me (well a friend of mine), it was skeptivism…skeptic activism.

Skeptivism is what we as skeptics do best. Like political activist we are acting…educating…we are casting a light on issues that the broader population should know about. Skeptivism is the effort that skeptics do to advocate for skeptism. We need more skeptivism because as quick as we shine the light of reason and science on one quack another shows up. At the Deepak event I heard, for the first time, about a ‘new healer’ who uses chromotherapy healing that seems to be the next big thing in the metro Vancouver.

To that end, how can you get into skeptivism.

First be informed – subscribe to Radio FreeThinker on iTunes (while at it, you might also subscribe to Skeptoid and SGU). Check out some blogs like Pharyngula or SkepticBlog. Check out science sites like Nature or Scientific America.

Second, get connected – checkout Sceptics-in-the-Pub, Café Scientific. Join a group – UBC FreeThinkers or Center For Inquiry. All on Facebook

Third, get involved – check out events in your community, talk (not yell) to your friends about skeptic issues (global warming, anti-vax, alt-med), and don’t let your friend think fiction is fact.

Lastly, be effective – Skeptivism is advocacy and education it is not mounting the barricades and eliminating the enemy (Skeptic warriors do that work). It is not directly confronting the hard-core believers but in ensuring the deceived, ill-informed and gullible are given the knowledge they need to exercise their own skeptism. It is also to make sure whenever the pseudo-scientist/Quack-med/New-ager tries to convert and confuse another flock of people, we are there to provide an alternative…a lifeline from the misinformation, illogical and (often) false information pushed by those who profit from the unskeptical.

Now get out there, it is Skeptivism in action!

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Politics and Skepticism

Posted by Daniel Gipps on February 13, 2010

Politics is one area in desperate need of more skeptical inquiry. The problem is that it can be difficult to look skeptically at government policies and laws. The reasons for this are numerous: party support, ideological or moral beliefs, lack of information, lack of time, and many others. Another one of the biggest problems is that many of these decisions are either primarily economic, or partly economic, and there are economists who will tell policy makers anything. There’s an old saying that there are as many different economic models as there are economists and politicians are no doubt thankful for this.

Is there good evidence behind this claim about the Olympics? A skeptical look is the best way to find out. / Daniel Gipps

Proof is an important concept in skepticism. Skipping over the philosophical problems of whether we can actually prove anything (not that it isn’t an interesting topic, but isn’t relevant to the topic at hand), we have the problem of determining whether something is proven to be, for all intents and purposes, true. In science, there is a rigorous standard of proof. Large amounts of evidence must exist for a theory to be considered proven. It can also be disproved with even a small amount of evidence that contradicts it. The standard of proof within the scientific community is therefore very high. This is also similar to the legal concept of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” which applies to criminal law. Someone cannot be sentenced guilty to a crime unless there is enough evidence to remove any reasonable doubt that they may be innocent.

High standards of proof work for science, and exist for crime to reduce the likelihood that innocent people are punished. However, not everything relies on such high standards of proof. Our civil law system, that is issues such as contracts, property rights, divorce and even charter challenges work on a different standard. This standard is known as the balance of probabilities. What it basically means is that whatever is most likely is considered “proven”. Without this relaxation of standards, civil law would be almost useless. It is just too difficult, or even impossible, to prove many things “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The problem is, skeptics too often hold scientific standards of proof for things that simply can’t be proven to that level. Politics is definitely one of those areas.

One example of this that I am sure is fresh in everyone’s mind is the 700 or so billion dollar bailout of the largest U.S. banks by President Bush and continued by President Obama. It would be impossible to prove their true motivations behind the bailout beyond a reasonable doubt. Was it done purely to keep the economy afloat as both have stated numerous times, or was it primarily to keep their wall street friends from suffering the consequences of their reckless actions? Neither of these can be proven absolutely. Even if a secret recording of backroom talks surfaces, it would not be enough to absolutely prove anything. There is no way to know if those involved were speaking any more or less truthful on the tape than in public. All that can be done is to look into what is more likely based off of other factors such as campaign contributions. In this case, one needs only to look at the major campaign contributors for Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign(hint: it reads basically like a list of corporations who have received bailouts) to see the balance moving towards helping out his buddies rather than the nation as a whole.

Another problem is that political opinions generally have ideological or moral roots. A libertarian is likely to see a government managed economy as morally bad, whereas a socialist likely sees it as morally good. Neither of these positions is wrong in any true sense, they are both based off of the subjective morals of the individuals. A skeptical argument can not be made directly attacking their moral positions, as neither is objectively correct. A skeptic can however look at evidence, or make logical arguments about the consequences of either position. As an extreme example, if a politician tables a law that would free all murderers and give them, and future murderers, $100,000 each, a skeptic would likely point out that there will be consequences to that decision. The most obvious being that it gives an incentive to others to murder. Obviously this is quite ridiculous, but it does highlight how skeptics can question public policy separate from ideology.

Another problem in looking skeptically at public policy is a lack of information, or a difficulty in getting information. Many bills that are passed are pages long, written in legal jargon, and made purposefully vague. It can be very hard to skeptically critique what a law might do when it is vague, or gives great discretion to secondary bodies (e.g. University Endowment Act giving great control to the UBC Board of Governors to pass rules). These problems make it difficult to properly argue what the law actually does. One example is the Vancouver Charter amendment increasing in fairly vague terms the city’s ability to go after signs. The city insists that it is only to go after ambush marketing, but many groups such as the BC Civil Liberties Association have argued that the potential exists to do more. I will not get into the argument here, but it does demonstrate some potential problems for skeptics. If the wording of a law is vague (as many laws are), should skeptics look for the consequences of the extreme interpretation or a more moderate interpretation? For now I won’t answer that question, as I eventually want to write a well researched blog post on it.

I have found a strong distaste for politics within the skeptic community and I feel that it is a missed opportunity for skeptics. Laws put into place by our politicians have enormous impacts over our everyday lives. The latest scientific finding doesn’t affect us nearly as often (I intend in no way to diminish the importance of science, I simply mean to point out that while interesting, most scientific findings only really matter to a very select few). If skeptics want to have an important impact on people’s everyday lives, they need to stop ignoring public policy and start looking into the consequences of political decisions being made every day.

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Michael Ignatieff visits UBC: Greenpeace makes environmentalists look bad

Posted by Daniel Gipps on January 17, 2010

Greenpeace protesters disrupt town hall

Michael Thibault/Crimson Phoenix Photography

On Friday, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff came to UBC as part of his Cross-Canada campus town-hall series. The event was definitely successful, with one of the Liberal organizers estimating about 1,200 people inside UBC’s Norm Theatre as well as outside in an overflow area connected via video. While I doubt that number is accurate, it certainly was impressive to see so many people come out to hear from, and ask questions to, the leader of the official opposition.

The focus of the questions was on the environment, and specifically climate change. Ignatieff was asked many questions ranging from what he will do to meet the Kyoto Protocol, which he more or less dodged a committal answer to, to whether he supports the Alberta tar sands. To his credit, he did give a strong and committed answer, even though those asking him the question were openly hostile towards him, and hardly gave him a chance to speak.

Ignatieff made it clear many times that he will continue to stand behind the tar sands. The National Post quotes him as saying, “If you’re asking me to shut down the tar sands, it’s not in my power to do so, and frankly, it’s not in the national interest of our country to do so”. What Greenpeace seems ignorant of, or more likely, chooses to ignore, is that the Constitution Act of 1867 specifically gives jurisdiction on matters of natural resources to the provinces. Not only is it a bad idea to just shut the tar sands down, it is not even possibly for Ignatieff to do this if he wanted to. The courts would almost certainly rule against the legality of any legislation designed to do that.

It seems to me that Greenpeace and some other environmental organizations absolutely hate the ideas of individual freedom, rule of law, and populist but limited governments. To them, these long established ideas that have existed to benefit individuals and protect us from overbearing governments exist only as barriers to their own specific goals. Rather than educating individuals to act more environmentally friendly, or at the very least educating voters so that they know the facts about global warming and can vote for logical, evidence backed solutions like a carbon tax, they would rather disrupt civil town-halls, destroy coral reefs while campaigning to save them, and disregard science all in pointless attempts to put in place policies that few Canadians support.

Greenpeace needs to go back to its roots, back to when it followed science not activism, and when it was about education not protesting.

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