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Posts Tagged ‘UBC’

Saturday Stub: Helpful Advice for new UBC Students

Posted by Ethan Clow on September 10, 2011

Welcome to another Saturday Stub, where I take a quick look at something of interest to skeptics and freethinkers.

It’s the first week of classes at UBC and students from all over the world are now ankle deep in life at the University of British Columbia, all full of hopes and dreams and that jazz.

While I was on campus getting ready for the show, I saw this handy little guide entitled  The Book: Everything you need to know about surviving your year at UBC

Well, I thought, this might be interesting. It’s a small pamphlet or booklet produced by the team at the Ubyssey, the campus newspaper at the university.

Flipping through it I found some practical information like advice from students, maps of campus, a bit of who’s who.

In fact, most of it seems quite fine. Until I got to the part about sex.

One of the sections reads:

STIs that start with H:

Herpes, hepatitis and HIV are serious health concerns that make having sex super awkward. Always wear a condom.

Okay, well that’s one way of putting it.

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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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Limits of Free Speech

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 1, 2010

Below is the talk i gave at UBC Feb 24 on the limits of free speech.


Free Speech Lecture

Welcome and thank you for coming out, this discussion is about the limits of Free Speech and the first limit is I get to speak and no one else does. (dramatic pause) No, that was a joke. I hope to start things off by giving context to our discussion then open the floor up to for questions and comments.

Let’s start by asking what is free speech and why is there such a reverence for it. On the surface free speech is the ability of one to transmit their ideas to the public. Free speech does not, in a modern ‘western’ context, refer to private speech between individuals. However what qualifies as ‘ideas’ can be everything from political ideology, commercial advertisements, comedy…etc. It is in the transmission of ideas, and often the more controversial questioning of ideas, that lie at the heart at what we see as the value of free speech. John Stuart Mill said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race [for] If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”[1]. We live in a culture of constant change, where stagnation is seen as detrimental to progress and only through the improvement of thought that society can evolve. Radio Free Thinker, as a skeptic show, is predicated on the idea that dogma should be challenged everywhere and that only through this free exchange of ideas that a healthy society can exist.

That said; it is also dogma (hmmm…) that free speech is the first among rights and should be complete and absolute. Therefore we shall focus on the need to limit speech, where those limits might be and how such limits might be enforced while preserving the spirit of and medicinal nature of free speech.

In the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms, we find section 2b which states that a fundamental freedom is that of thought, belief, opinion and expression. However, section 1 states that such rights have “reasonable limits” and can be limited when “demonstrably justified” to protect a “free and democratic society”. This arrangement or priorities shows a fundamental difference between Canada and the USA, in the US constitution (if not in practice) the individual is supreme and as such the only function of government is to protect the individual’s liberty. Canada, by contrast, has always been a more ‘communal’ nation and this “one for all and all for one” Victorian spirit can be seen in our founding anthem “Peace, order and good governance”. The legal opinion in Canada is that only through a healthy society can an individual prosper; turning the US idea on its head.

No, this is not a discussion about the merits of communalism vs. individualism, nor about the historical developments of nation states. We are concerned with free speech here and now; in the context of what is. There are limitations on free speech and these are manifest in three areas – legal, economic and social. In Canada, freedom of expression can be limited provided it is justifiable, that said limitation of proportional and ‘rationally connected to their aims’. For those who have taken any Canadian law, you will know this as the “Oaks test” after the case of the same name.

What is “Justifiable”? The principle here is that, given a specific manifestation of speech, the harm done to a ‘free and democratic society’ would be greater if the freedom were allowed unlimited than if it were limited. A classic example of this is violent pornography. The courts acknowledge that pornography is a protected form of expression however it also upholds legislation the limits violent porn because, in the opinion of the justices, there is a ‘reasonable apprehension of harm’.

What is ‘rationally connected to their aims’? This simply means that if I wanted to prevent the sale of violent porn, any limitation of freedom must be connected to that aim. I could not revoke the drivers licence of those who sell violent porn – it may be punitive but has no rational connection to the aim of ‘preventing the sale of violent porn’.

What is proportional? This means that any freedom must be limited as minimally as possible to achieve its state aims. So a ban on the sale of all porn, so as to prevent the sale of violent porn, is a larger restriction of freedom than is needed to prevent the stated aim when a simple ban on violent porn would be sufficient.

Now this limitation is important when it comes to Canada’s hate speech laws. Canada is a multicultural nation; as such ‘identity’ groups are a fundamental aspect of our cultural landscape. Even those, notably libertarians and Marxists, who do not believe in identity groups, are forced to acknowledge that both victims and victimisers believe in these groups and are willing to use them to perpetrate hatred and violence. Now, in the case of holocaust denial, overt racism or homophobic violence, it is a general consensus that these forms of speech should be limited.

However, there are issues with this; such as at what point does my discussion of genetic distinctions between races cross over into racism? There are other issues, where do we draw the line about what is hate speech? Does Leviticus constitute hate speech? Do comments about the Israeli occupation of Palestine constitute anti-Semitism? The courts have given four exceptions or guides to distinguish ‘hate’ from non-hate speech even when such comments might be construed as hate. These defences are ‘it’s true’, ‘good faith opinion on a religious matter’, ‘in the public interest’ and ‘good faith attempts to point out hate speech’. So Leviticus is off the hook because we have a, in my opinion a destructive, special place for religion…comments on Israel MAY be okay IF true…

Okay, so that’s the law. There are two other ways that our freedom of speech is limited. Economically; this means that someone like Jim Shaw (who own Shaw Cable and just purchase CanWest/Global) who has both money and access can have more speech than I have. However, this leads into the difference between positive and negative rights. Legally, and ideologically, our society tend to side with negative rights over positive rights. This means a right is simply the absence of hindrance…i.e. no one is preventing me from running an ad on CBC. Positive rights means the presence of opportunity…i.e. I am given free time on CBC to speak. For those who are aware of the resent Supreme Court decision in the US will know this a huge topic south of boarder (and maybe one that should be bigger here as well).

The other limitation is that preached by people like Foucault. This is the ability for society, or ourselves, to censor what is obsessively legal speech. A great example of this was during the Olympics. There was reported that the head of RCMP security for the Olympics said that there would be “free speech” zones, and then the VPD said people could demonstrate anywhere but there would be designated areas for “safe”[2] protesting. Other talk about prosecution for ‘anti-Olympic’ posters and unprecedented enhanced security in the GVRD lead to a form of social self-censorship; where a great number of people just did not want to chance a run-in with the authorities. As a radio personality, I acknowledge that there have been a number of times I have thought twice about saying a thing for fear of legal or social outrage that may hinder Radio Free Thinker or cause personal suffering.

This social censorship also related to our earlier discussion of positive rights. Currently there is a legal debate going on about the loss of ‘club status’ of an anti-abortion group at the University of Victoria, of another club at the University of Western Ontario that has been ‘decertified’ for its apparent pro-Palestinian or anti-Semitic stance, depending on who you are speaking to. The UVic case is not so much  a question of free speech, for the club is allowed to organize if it wish, but a question of equality because is being treated differently than other ‘groups’ by being denied club status.

The heart of this case shines a light also on where or how we define hate speech. Opponents to the club point out that its (or similar groups) posters can be graphically obscene and the fundamental stance of the group is to imply the women who have or even advocate abortion are “bad” people who should be shunned. Pro-choice groups point out that anti-abortionist groups have violently harassed and harmed those who advocate, seek and/or provide abortions. The anti-abortion club claims its posters are tasteful; that it has not directly been involved in harassment and that it merely represents a difference of opinion on an issue that they should have much freedom to express as those who are pro-choice.

One last thought before we open the floor. Do universities, and by extension its students and faculty, have a great ‘right’ to free speech than those ‘off campus’? Do universities have a special and protected role in society to be a ‘bastion’ of speech irrespective of its content, impact or perspective provided it is done to forward academic education/research/growth?

ON that note…I will open the floor to thoughts, questions and comments….

[1] p. 24, Mill, J.S., Three Essays: On Liberty; Representative Government; The Subjection of Women. Oxford University Press, 1975, ISBN 0-19-283013-9

[2] Staff Sgt. Mike Cote, “Olympic protest zones don’t exist VPD says” (

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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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