Regarding the Arizona terrorist

Most of you are aware of what happened in Arizona on Saturday:

Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot Saturday in Tucson during an attack that left six people dead and 13 others injured. The Arizona man accused in the weekend shooting that left a congresswoman injured and six people dead is due to make his first court appearance on Monday. Jared Lee Loughner, 22, is to appear at 2 p.m. MT before a judge in Phoenix. The dead include a federal judge, a congressional aide and a nine-year-old girl. The shooting also wounded 13 people.

The media has (rightly, in my opinion) pointed out that the kind of language that is consistently exploited on the right, about the need for revolution, “second amendment remedies”, “ballot or bullet” arguments, and so forth, have poisoned the political environment to the point where political disagreement has become tantamount to a struggle between good and evil. Perhaps most damning (or at least getting the lion’s share of the attention) is the “targets” used in a Sarah Palin ad to describe how Tea Party voters should target vulnerable districts in the midterm election. My nemesis has (predictably) chosen to lobby on behalf of the forces of stupid. Depressingly, so has CLS. I suppose I shouldn’t expect much more from dyed-in-the-wool libertarians – the entire premise is based on overlooking complexity and trying to reduce issues into single-concept nuggets, so you can go back to lighting your cigar with your hundred dollar bill or something.

Tim Wise has, true to form, articulated my argument far better than I ever could:

In a media environment where highly paid commentators can keep their jobs even as they insist that those who call for the shooting of government agents so as to stop a world government takeover are“beginning to have a case,” or that a national service initiative is just a run-up to the implementation of a literal stormtrooper corps like the Nazi SS, or that “multicultural people” are “destroying the culture of this country,” or that Latino migrants are an “invasive species,” that seeks to undermine the nation, or that the President is intentionally “destroying the economy” so as to pay white people back for slavery, or that, worse, he and other Democrats are vampires, the only solution for which is a “stake through the heart,” to feign shock at the acts of a Jared Loughner is a precious and naive conceit that we can no longer afford.

It’s like looking at erosion and saying “there’s no way water could do this. Look, I just poured a cup of water on a rock and nothing happened. Therefore erosion isn’t real.” The continued failure of people to look at forces from a broader perspective than what is happening in the here and now is sad to me. There are consequences to using violent themes in your rhetoric – they are precisely the consequences that you are intending to elicit when you use it. To pretend otherwise is either wholly disingenuous, or the mark of a mind that fails to grasp even the basics of the human psyche.

Incidentally, my use of the word ‘terrorist’ in the title is intentional. This man is not an isolated crazy person, or an outlying kook, or some kind of unique case of youth gone mad. He’s a terrorist – he executed people as part of a political strategy to strike fear into the heart of the populace and destabilize the government. Can we stop pretending it’s only those Ayrab jihadis that are doing this? Please?

I also feel compelled to point out that if this guy is an atheist, then he’s an asshole atheist. He isn’t “not a real atheist” or any such ridiculous dodge. He very well might be atheist, and if that’s the case then he’s a murderous fuckhead of an atheist. Do I think that his atheism lead him to commit those acts? Doubtful. Even if it did, that has nothing to do with whether or not there is a God (spoiler alert: there isn’t).

Edit: Looks like he wasn’t an atheist after all, he was… well you decide

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No refund policy? No, refund policy!

This is the second part of this morning’s story of my homeopathic overdose.

After the “overdose” failed to accomplish anything, I went back to Finlandia and told the person behind the till that I was dissatisfied with the insomnia homeopathic preparation I had purchased, because it didn’t do anything. I told her that it had not changed my sleeping pattern whatsoever, and that as far as I could tell it didn’t work. She went and got the manager, who informed me that there was no refund policy on homeopathy. Peeved, I started to walk out. She stopped me and said that she might be able to do an exchange, although that was against policy too.

The reason for the policy, she told me, was that homeopathy doesn’t work right away. If I was looking for a “quick fix” I should try something else, but that homeopathy supposedly “regulates” my sleeping cycle. I pointed out that it hadn’t done anything like that, even after taking an entire bottle. She suggested that I needed to give it more time and keep going. I said that I was warned about that, and that I wasn’t interested in buying more of a product that didn’t work the first time.

As she ushered me over to the counter of sleeping stuff, she introduced me to the devil herself – the Heel Homeopathy rep. I described my issue to her and she gave me a bunch of the same nonsense about how it was working to ‘balance my energy’ and that I would need to wait for at least a week to see any effect. There was a guy behind the counter who said “it takes time, and homeopathy doesn’t work for everyone” (that old gem). I pointed out that when I came in, I told them I was having a sleeping problem, they gave me something they told me would help – at no point did anyone say “this will help in a week’s time” or “this might not work for you”. I was just told to follow the instructions. There is a difference here between things like antidepressants that actually do take a while to take effect – this information is disclosed to you when they are prescribed. These scam artists had told me no such thing at the point of purchase, and were then trying to evade having to pay me back when their snake oil didn’t work.

The assistant manager quickly swept me away from my debunking, and back to the sleeping pill counter. She then tried to up-sell me a bunch of stuff. The one she pushed the hardest was $44 a bottle! I put on my best skeptical face and said “look, I’m a scientist. I know a thing or two about how the body works, and none of what you’ve said so far addresses my problem.” Sensing defeat, she then buckled and refunded my money in full. Of course, on my way out she tried to sell me a bunch of other stuff, and told me to “do my own research”. Silly manager, I’ve done LOTS of research – you’re full of crap.

I do kind of feel bad about taking the refund under false pretenses, after buying the product under OTHER false pretenses. However, since it was PRESCRIBED under false pretenses, and the people who provide this stuff really ought to know better than to make false health claims, I will sleep just fine tonight (*rimshot*). I will donate the $18 to the James Randi Educational Foundation.

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My homeopathic overdose

If you’re reading this, then I survived a deadly overdose on sleeping pills. It wasn’t my iron constitution, survival instincts or even the quick work of trained medical professionals that saved my life; no, it was the fact that I used homeopathic sleeping pills.

Many of you have probably heard of homeopathy, but don’t really know much about it – this is how they make money. Like Scientology, the explanation is so stupid that once you know about it you can’t believe anyone buys into it. Basically, homeopathy operates on the principle that “like cures like” – for example, an herb that causes fever symptoms is a good cure for fever. The secret is that the substance must be super dilute, and the more diluted it is, the stronger it becomes. Avogadro’s constant (6.02 x 10^23) describes the number of molecules present in a mole of the substance in question – there are, for example 6.02 x 10^23 molecules of O2 in 38 grams of oxygen gas. What this means is that if you dilute something past 23C (C is a number which denotes the number of 100X dilutions a substance has undergone), there is essentially zero chance of even one molecule of active substance being present in the “remedy”.

Many homeopathic drugs are diluted to 30, 100, even 1000C – a sphere of water the size of the entire universe wouldn’t even contain one molecule of the substance. Homeopaths counter this by saying that water has “memory”, and can “remember” what was diluted in it. How it distinguishes between the herbs you want and the thousands of animals that have peed in it, the rocks it has passed over, and the other homeopathic remedies that have been in the same water (more dilute, therefore much stronger) is a question for which an answer has never even been attempted.

For a better explanation of how homeopathy works, go to this website: http://www.howdoeshomeopathywork.com/

It’s no exaggeration to say that homeopathy is completely useless. It couldn’t possibly work without re-writing the entire understanding of chemistry and physics, developed over hundreds of years. Even still, it has been tested – it doesn’t work. While a handful of “studies” (no control group, no proper blinding, small sample size) have shown a small effect for homeopathy – an effect that is much smaller than the claims that are made by homeopaths – every single rigorously-controlled study has shown it to be no different than a placebo. You could give someone a glass of water, tell them it’s homeopathic, and get the exact same result as if you put a drop of onion juice in it then diluted it a billion times.

However, despite the fact that it can’t work, and that it doesn’t work, people still buy into homeopathy in a big way. Walking the streets of Vancouver, it’s easy to stumble across a “natural” pharmacy that sells herbs, vitamins, and of course homeopathic preparations. Homeopathy is a multi-billion dollar industry – essentially the largest legal scam ever perpetrated (aside from, perhaps, religion) – separating desperate people from their money one vial of water or bottle of sugar pills at a time.

What did I do?

On Wednesday, October 27th, I participated in a mass suicide bid along with a handful of other Vancouver skeptics, organized through CFI Vancouver. I went to Finlandia, a naturopathic pharmacy on Broadway, to procure myself some homeopathic sleeping pills. I presented myself to the person behind the counter as a person suffering from insomnia, and curious about homeopathy (which, I would imagine, is a fairly reasonable case study). Without hesitating, the naturopath behind the counter pulled down a bottle of Neurexan, described on the bottle as a “Homeopathic preparation for the treatment of sleeping problems”.

Neurexan - homeopathic sugar pills

You’ll notice that the non-medicinal ingredients are sugar. Nothing else, just sugar. The suggested dose is 3 pills, so consuming the whole bottle would be about 16 doses of sleep meds.

As I would do with any new medication, I asked a few questions:

  1. As a larger person, sometimes I need a higher dosage. Response: It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 lbs or 1000 lbs, use the same dose.
  2. What happens if I miss the directions, or otherwise misuse the product? Response: If you miss a dose, just take a bunch extra.
  3. I’ve used sleeping pills before, and I woke up groggy. Response: Won’t happen with these.
  4. Is it possible to overdose? Response: You can’t overdose on homeopathy because it’s just energy.

If you go to a pharmacy and they tell you that the dose doesn’t matter, that you should just take a bunch extra if you miss the protocol, that there will be no adverse effects at all regardless of your previous medical experience, and that it’s impossible to overdose, make sure you haven’t stumbled into Bizarro world. Such advice from a real pharmacist would be recklessly irresponsible, which is why you get specific instructions when you buy medications.

I honestly don’t think that Jane (not her real name) was out to defraud me. I’m certain she believes that homeopathy works, as do her bosses. However, personal belief is not enough when you have someone coming in with a real medical problem. I might believe that punching you in the uterus will fix your infertility problem, but would you let me? Should you let me? Should you let your sister or wife or mother come to my uterus-punching clinic because she believes it too? No, what you’d likely do is demand some proof from me that it works – proof that you’d examine closely because of how implausible my “treatment” is.

While not the same as an uppercut to the babymaker, the bottle of pills cost me $18 – that’s some expensive sugar! On my way out of the pharmacy, I grabbed myself a copy of this little gem:

Pharma Fiction magazine

You saucy little minx – tell me how it’s the pharmaceutical companies that are defrauding me by selling me stuff that’s been shown to actually work. I’ll believe anything that you and your smoking bottle of pills tells me.

I met up with a group of CFI Vancouver skeptics in front of Vancouver General Hospital. They had all brought their own homeopathic concoctions, including a popular homeopathic flu medication, sleeping pills, arsenic pills and belladonna (the latter two being highly toxic when undiluted). All of these were available from places like Choices and Whole Foods – none of them were particularly cheap. At the appointed hour, we opened our bottles of pills and tossed back the entire thing.

To be clear, if you did this with sleeping pills that you could get as a prescription, or even over-the-counter things like Tylenol, cough medicine, antihistamines, pretty much anything you could get in a real pharmacy, you’d probably die. Even if you didn’t die, you’d be sick as a dog as the pharmaceuticals do what they do inside your body. Even if you didn’t get sick, you’d most assuredly feel something – high, woozy, drowsy, hyper, something. The most likely outcome of downing a whole bottle of sleeping pills is death.

What happened?

Nothing. Nothing happened at all. We stood around for an hour, waiting to feel something. Nothing happened.

What did we learn?

We are not the first group to perform this stunt – a group out of the UK called the 10:23 Campaign first did this on January 23, 2010 as a massive protest against Boots, a naturopathic pharmacy. Since then, the National Health Service (NHS) has called for the stoppage of funding for homeopathy with public money, doctors have petitioned the government to stop licensing homeopaths, and a great deal of light has been shone on this shadiest of practices.

Here in Vancouver, naturopaths are being given diagnostic and prescription privileges. People are flocking to places like Finlandia on the mistaken assumption that the stuff in the bottle does what it says. Homeopaths are banking on a combination of the scientific ignorance of the populace and the veneer of respectibility that accompanies being called a “doctor” to push placebo medicine to desperate people. They compound this by railing against the pharmaceutical companies and the government health regulators, stirring up hostility against the scientific community at large. In fact as a skeptic, it is almost inevitable that you will be accused of being a “Big Pharma Shill” when you bring up the fact that most “alternative medicines” don’t actually do anything (or at least they don’t do what they claim).

The predictable response from those who endorse “alternative” or “natural” medicines is to say “what is the harm? If people think it makes them feel better, why tell them otherwise?” I’ve dealt with this question before, which is to say that the truth is important if we are going to live in a society with other people and make decisions that affect each other. In this particular case though, there is a more tangible cost. This website lists cases of people who died or were seriously injured by belief in quack medicine. Obviously no treatment is perfect, but to convince people to forgo treatment that has a chance of working because you want to sell them something that doesn’t work is tantamount to abetting involuntary suicide.

Another tired trope is that homeopathy only works on some people. It’s quite the coincidence that none of the people who have tried the overdose or who have been observed in carefully designed clinical trials are the ones who it “works” for. The whole point of a study is to control for random differences between people, so that the only difference is the treatment you’re giving them. It would have to be the mother of all coincidences that nobody in these rigorous studies, nobody in our group, and nobody in the 400+ skeptics in the 10:23 campaign felt any effect in the slightest. It would have to be coincidence if it worked – but it doesn’t. The easiest explanation is that homeopathy is just water, with no more “medicine” in it than what comes out of the tap.

We were lucky as well to have the entire thing videotaped by CBC Marketplace as part of their exposé on Boiron, the largest manufacturer of homeopathy in Canada. The episode is due to air this Friday at 8 pm, so you should check it out. I’m not sure if I got on TV or not. Hopefully our merry band of skeptics can help convince people that spending any money on homeopathy is a complete and total waste, because it doesn’t do anything.

Incidentally, I slept pretty much the exact same as I always do that night. I woke up around 3:00 in the morning, rolled over and went back to sleep.

TL/DR: Homeopathy doesn’t work either in theory or in practice. Taking an entire bottle of pills doesn’t have any effect. Homeopaths are defrauding people and giving them sugar pills instead of real medicine.

Make sure you read part two of this saga.

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Movie Friday: Imaginary Friends

A while back I wondered aloud at the complete lack of self-awareness and sense of irony demonstrated by religious people – consistently using arguments that refute their own position, all the while blissfully unaware of their hypocrisy. It’s funny, but oftentimes utterly depressing – sometimes these cognitive dissonances are so slippery that logic just slides right off.

For a great example of this, let’s talk to Fr. Jonathan Morris of Fox News:

Now I know you caught the punchline at the end, but let’s back up a bit first.

First, a “study” says that people who pray do better than those who don’t, and a completely reasonable mechanism is proposed. The hypothesized mechanism seems to be supported by the fact that it doesn’t matter who or what you pray to, the effect size is similar. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if the effect came from the human mind rather than from a supernatural source.

And then Fr. Morris gets his hands on it and says “If God really does exist, there’s going to be feedback.” So is there feedback, Fr. Morris? “Well of course these studies aren’t going to show that.” Why wouldn’t they show that? People who pray to the proper god will have better outcomes than people who pray to a heathen god, or who pray to a stick (which, of course, they don’t).

And then there’s the delicious bit of irony at the very end, where Fr. Morris rightly identifies belief in an imaginary friend as a product of a diseased mind. It is here (and only here) that I think he and I might find some common ground.

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This isn’t racism (except that it is)

I’m unpopular with a good segment of the population, I’m sure, for my stance on the definition of racism. I contrast the “classical” understanding of racism – violence and open hatred aimed at the subjugation of one race in favour of another – with the current face of racism – a de facto subjugation of one race through passive social structures and institutions. They both come from the same root, which is the attribution of group characteristics to individuals based on their ethnicity. Most of the time such attribution is based on a faulty understanding of the ethnicity in question, manifesting itself through easily-identifiable and understandable cognitive mechanisms.

The reason why my stance is unpopular is that there are many people who would simply like to be done with racism. By rejecting the modern contextual understanding in favour of the “classical” one, these people are able to throw up their hands and say “I don’t actively hate anyone – racism over!” Racism becomes, as a result, everyone else’s problem – if only others were as enlightened as I, they could become non-racist too. As I’ve pointed out before, being “non-racist” isn’t an option for anyone. Racism is built into our culture, and pretending it doesn’t affect us is like building a car without airbags or seatbelts because you don’t even want to think about the possibility of a crash (actually, it’s more like drawing a free-body physics diagram and not including the normal force because you don’t believe in it, but not everyone would get that reference).

The problem is that clinging to the “classical” definition of racism screws our cognitive blinders on so tight that we end up with situations like this:

[South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande] said chicken past its best-before date was being recycled – thawed, washed and injected with flavouring – then sold to shops in black townships. A spokesman for the poultry industry admitted the practice takes place, but said it was both safe and legal. The meat is removed from major chains of supermarkets and is re-distributed to spaza shops – smaller, family-run shops which serve black communities – and independent wholesalers.

The meat being re-packaged is (the industry assures us) completely safe to eat, and poses no health risk above what is acceptable by the health department’s standards. This is not an attempt to poison black people with tainted meat, or anything so sinister. Under the “classical” definition of racism, there’s absolutely nothing racist about this practice. They are simply re-selling meat, and it just so happens that the consumers of this meat are predominantly black people.

The one sentence that is the key to unraveling this whole thing is right here:

But [poultry industry spokesperson Kevin Lovell] also accepted that re-worked chicken did not go on sale in major supermarkets, which served the country’s wealthier suburbs.

There’s nothing unsafe, illegal or in any way racist or wrong with the practice of re-selling the meat, he says. But just to be safe, only the poor black people get it. This is the same kind of logic that fueled the incredibly-racist “literacy tests” for voting back in the days of Jim Crow. You have to be able to read to vote, the logic says. There’s no reason why black people can’t vote, as long as they can demonstrate the requisite reading ability. Please ignore the fact that black schools are underfunded, and that the tests often had nothing to do with literacy, and that they were often only required of black voters… Please ignore that, and also ignore that the end result is that black voters are turned away in droves, thus disenfranchising people based on race. That’s not racism though, at least not under the “classical” view – no laws have been made to target one group, so there’s no problem.

It’s this uncomfortable truth that people who cling to the antiquated view of KKK-style racism are so reluctant to confront, preferring instead to becoming indignant and dismissive whenever it is pointed out. It’s not just liberal propaganda designed to make white people feel guilty though; it is a real thing that has real effects on real people. Whether you are made a second-class citizen by the passage of a blatantly racist law or by the willful ignorance of the ruling class, it is a distinction without a difference. The discrimination is real, the effects are real, and the only thing that is surreal about the whole process is the repeated refusal by the oppressors to see what is happening.

Such people aren’t evil or malicious in their racism. Maybe they’re just chicken…

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Canadian Native communities face a new kind of challenge

There was once a time when I called myself a libertarian. After all, I believe that people should be allowed to do what they like, as long as it hurts nobody besides themselves (Scary Fundamentalist is going to poke me for this statement, too). I think that innovation happens when people are allowed to address challenges in whatever creative ways, rather than when they are forced to abide by a strict set of rules. I think that the more free a society is, the better off its citizens are. However, these are principles that have caveats: external regulation is necessary to prevent exploitation and fraud; liberty is not absolute, particularly when one person’s liberty infringes on another’s; it is sometimes justifiable to curtail the actions of a few to benefit the many in the long term. As such, I am not well-described by the term libertarian, and unlike CLS, I am not attached enough to the term to try and reclaim it.

However, the ghosts of my long-dead love affair with Ayn Rand were momentarily stirred when I read this story:

[Brian] Smith had made headlines for leading a grassroots uprising against the elected leaders of the Glooscap First Nation, after learning that his chief and councillors were each collecting more than $200,000 in salary and other payments — for running a community of 87 people.  He organized a petition demanding a community meeting, where Glooscap leaders were made to account for their extraordinary pay and promise more transparency in the future.

“You’re changing the way things are done,” said one email to Smith from an Ojibway supporter in Central Canada, whose sentiments were typical of the messages Smith received after the Glooscap details broke.  “I’m really, really, really happy you are standing firm on this and giving voice to us First Nations people who want better governance. I’m (also) proud that change is going to come from the community level, and from a First Nation person.”

It is a well-understood fact in sociology circles that if you want to engender lasting and meaningful change in a community, the solutions must come from the community itself. As well-intentioned as outside help might be, it stands the risk of being resented or worse, mischaracterizing the problem and failing to take salient details into account. Friends of mine went on a humanitarian aid trip to Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario a few years ago, to conduct what is known as a Needs Assessment – determining what problems face a community and what resources are needed to address them through dialogue with members of the community. The community expressed a strong desire to have public health education and resources made available. When the team pointed out that there was a federal building staffed with 2 public health nurses and the resources they had asked for, the community pointed out that it was “the government’s building”. Branded as it was with the federal logo and built without consultation from the community leaders, members of the public distrusted the service and assumed it was for the government’s use.

It has been a common practice to see a problem and swoop in to try and solve it. However, as anyone who has been on the receiving end of such an effort knows, this approach is rarely helpful. What is needed is direction from within the community, which fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for solving the issues. To make it fully effective, such an effort should be supported by resource allocation (from the government or the NGO or whatever external parter is present), but their use must be determined by those stakeholders who use the service, not by those providing it. It seems perverse and exclusionary, but it is the only way to sufficiently address the problem.

With issues of good governance, it seems that members of First Nations communities are realizing this for themselves:

“I don’t have any desire for the federal government to come in and solve our problems,” says Cherie Francis, another Glooscap member angered by what her chief and councillors were being paid. “We elected these people. At some point, we have to step up in our own community and be responsible for our own actions, and our own leaders.”

“I’m glad Indian Affairs is staying out of this,” says Smith, who works as director of operations for the Vancouver-based National Centre for First Nations Governance, an independent group that promotes good leadership in native communities. “In the past, Indian Affairs would have jumped right in. That has changed in recent years. I think the message First Nations people are giving to the federal government is, at the end of the day we want to be more responsible for ourselves. And sometimes you’ve got to learn the hard way what is the right and wrong way of doing things.”

Ronald Reagan lampooned this (perhaps) well-intentioned bungling and over-reaching with his immortal line about the nine scariest words you’ll ever hear: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Of course, as with most conservative calling cards, this drastically over-simplifies the issue. There is absolutely a way for government to help, and sometimes it is necessary for it to do so. However, when it overasserts its role and tries to solve the problem rather than making available the resources required for an organic solution, problems inevitably arise. The opposite approach, a sort of laissez-faire approach where government sits back, does nothing, and waits for problems to solve themselves, does nothing other than allowing the current conditions to continue unabated. A deft touch is required – one that is sensitive to the contemporary and historical forces at work in the situation and navigates the waters accordingly. This deft touch involves active engagement, and exists somewhere between the authoritarian “we fix it” and the libertarian “you fix it”.

This is fertile ground for a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say that the racial barriers, stigma, and long cultural history of betrayal and oppression facing First Nations people in Canada can be addressed, and self-government goes a long way toward starting that process. There is a role for all Canadians to play in this fight, and a role for government as well; provided it stays its hand and acts according to the will of the people rather than its own ideas of how to “fix” the Native “problem”.

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“Alternative Medicine” isn’t

I am not Orac (though at times I wish I had his flair and his work ethic). My involvement in medicine can be accurately described as “tangential”, at least insofar as it comes to my career. That being said, I’m interested in the decisions we make when the stakes are high, and they don’t get much higher than the life and death circumstances we find ourselves in when talking about our health. As a result, I am acutely interested in the discussion around “alternative” medicines.

Alternative medicine, of course, is a propaganda phrase used to describe “treatments” that lie outside of the accepted norms for medicine. It is applied with equal gusto to completely sensible and useful things like modifying diet and exercise; things that seem like they might work but are a little out there like acupuncture and chiropractic; and to things that don’t make any sense and are completely batshit insane like homeopathy or energy healing (although, to be sure, there are way crazier things out there). The problem with such a… shall we say… flexibile definition of “alternative”, is that when someone points out that acupuncture doesn’t work, or that “energy healing” is the same fakery that faith healers exploit, people jump on them and say that they’re against anything that is “natural”.

That’s a distortion of the skeptical position that is so outrageous that it borders on being a lie. Large mainstream science-based organizations like Health Canada and the World Health Organization whole-heartedly endorse the use of diet and exercise modification to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and any number of other chronic and acute conditions. Herbal remedies are refined and turned into powerful pharmaceuticals (Aspirin is a commonly-invoked example of such a refinement). Things like yoga, massage, and other types of relaxation therapy are often recommended to reduce stress which can underly a number of health problems. Skeptics are happy to accept something so long as it works. We don’t care if it’s “alternative” or not.

These “alternative medicines” are not alternative in any way – if they work, then they aren’t alternative, they’re just medicine. The other side of the problem is the ones that are truly “alternative” aren’t medicine! They don’t work any better than voodoo or augury or invoking ancestor’s spirits. This wouldn’t be so problematic, except that they still do cause side-effects:

Giving alternative treatments such as homeopathic remedies instead of conventional medicines to children may have deadly side-effects in rare instances, a new analysis says. Australian researchers monitored reports from pediatricians in Australia from 2001 to 2003 looking for suspected side-effects from alternative medicines like herbal treatments, vitamin supplements or naturopathic pills. They found 39 reports of side-effects including four deaths.

Real medicine is regulated, monitored for safety, and must pass through a strict certification process to reach market. Nobody would claim that the process is perfect – some real stinkers get through – but they get caught. All some quack has to do is slap the label “alternative” on her product, and she gets off scot free. This poses a real threat – herbs and supplements are biochemically active substances that have real effects in the body. The liver doesn’t care if something is “natural” or not – it still breaks it down. The metabolites of any substance that enters the body can exert real effects, particularly if they are used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals.

But what about things like reiki or homeopathy? Surely these things that exert no actual effect on the body (above the often-misunderstood placebo effect) don’t cause the liver to do anything. What possible side-effects could they cause?

The answer is that people will often forego real treatments in favour of these so-called “alternative” approaches:

In 30 cases, the issues were “probably or definitely” related to complementary medicine, and in 17 the patient was regarded as being harmed by a failure to use conventional medicine. The report says that all four deaths resulted from a failure to use conventional medicine.

One death involved an eight-month-old baby admitted to hospital “with malnutrition and septic shock following naturopathic treatment with a rice milk diet from the age of three months for ‘congestion’”. “Another death involved a 10-month-old infant who presented with septic shock following treatment with homeopathic medicines and dietary restriction for chronic eczema,” the authors say.

One child had multiple seizures after complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) were used instead of anti-seizure drugs due to concerns about potential side effects. The fourth death was of a child who needed blood-clotting drugs but was given complementary medicine instead.

These people proceeded in defiance of medical advice to give useless products to children with real health problems. Adults do this to themselves too. It’s not because they didn’t know or weren’t told, it’s because they believed in the lie that is the phrase “alternative medicine”. I can’t put too strong a point on this: “alternative medicine” isn’t alternative, and it isn’t medicine. The stuff that works is just medicine, and the stuff that doesn’t work is nothing other than voodoo.

I have friends who are voodoo practitioners. A woman I did my undergraduate with is training to be a chiropractor (much to the face-palming chagrin of the rest of our class); two of my close companions here in Vancouver use acupuncture as part of their otherwise science-based rehabilitative toolkit; another friend is into “energy work”, whatever that means. This is not an abstract concept to me, nor should it be to you. If you buy into the idea that there is such a thing as “alternative medicine”, you’re helping contribute to the climate that puts completely decent things like healthy lifestyle factors in the same category as crystals and “psychic surgery”.

There is no “alternative medicine” – there’s just medicine and bullshit.

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Love the sinner, hate this meme

I am officially back from vacation, with a full buffer and a great deal of enthusiasm. I enjoyed my time in Ontario, but I am glad to be back and bringing you the good stuff once again. Happy New Year!

When I was in high school I had a string quartet. We were called The Four Quarters and we played gigs in various places around southern Ontario. Our second violinist was raised in a conservative Christian household, was home-schooled, and was about as fond of religious bottled phrases as I am fond of butter tarts (which is to say a lot). She once shared with me her outrage over some guy who was told he wasn’t allowed to discriminate against gay people at his print shop. I expressed my bafflement that this was a problem for her – wouldn’t the Christian thing to do be to love all people? I still remember her response:

Her: As a Christian, I love the sinner but hate the sin
Me: Um… Jesus wasn’t really into hate.
Her: I don’t hate gay people, I just hate the sin
Me: Still, hate… not exactly very Christlike

It was the first time I heard the whole “love the sinner,  hate the sin” trope. At the time I was still a believer, albeit a much more liberal one than she was. I had never seen anything wrong with being gay, and hadn’t yet read the lovely passages in Leviticus and the letters of Paul that called gay sex an “abomination”. Even then, I knew it was a stupid phrase, because it’s still hate, and hate is not represented anywhere in Christian scripture. The only story we have that even comes close to touching on the subject is the one about Jesus and the adulteress, from which we get the famous line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s a nice story, provided you don’t think about it too much, and ignore the fact that it’s not in any of the other gospels, and couldn’t have been from an eyewitness, and probably got snuck in after the gospel of John was written, and probably never actually happened. The relevant point here is that sins should be forgiven. It doesn’t say anything about hating sin.

But back up a second and replay the story from the beginning. Assume Jesus had come to the crowd and instead wrote “Love the sinner, but stone the sin to death”. Who wants to lay odds that that woman would have made it out alive?

The problem lies in the fact that being gay, or doing the things that are a direct result of being gay, are labeled as “sin”. Whereas someone could, conceivably, make the decision not to commit adultery, there is no choice in the matter of being gay. Even if there was, while there is a clear harm from adultery (assuming the spouse isn’t okay with it), there is no clear harm to being gay, or expressing your sexuality as a gay person except insofar as all sexual expression has risks and harms, and the fact that small-minded bigots have made people feel ashamed of being gay.

“But Crommunist,” you say “it’s not me who says that homosexuality is a sin, it’s GOD! The Bible makes it very clear that is it a sin!”

Ah yes, that pesky God. You’d totally have no problem with homosexuality, but it says right there in black and white that homosexuality is an abomination. What can you do? You certainly can’t ignore the stuff it says directly in the Bible, right? I mean, if you could, for the sake of argument, ignore some parts of the Bible that don’t make any sense or are impractical, you would totally do it, right? If the Bible is the only reason that you condemn homosexuality, and you are capable of ignoring certain parts of the Bible that conflict with your personal beliefs, then you’d stop condemning it?

Well, consider it your luck day, because chances are you completely ignore lots of stuff in the Bible. Let’s start with the easy ones: if you have ever had sex for any reason other than procreation, you’re ignoring the story of Onan. Do you own a cross or a crucifix? Maybe a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or a statue of the Virgin Mary? Whoops, you just ignored the second commandment. Let’s not even get started on what happens if you catch your neighbour working on a Saturday or a Sunday.

“But that’s all Old Testament stuff,” you say. “The New Testament is where all the real rules are.” Okay, fine, but then you’re no longer allowed to talk about the Ten Commandments. Obviously if stuff in the Old Testament that doesn’t make sense can be ignored, then we can stop talking about the “thou shalt nots” as though they have any real meaning. Also we can throw out Genesis, so that takes care of creationism (and Intelligent Design, it’s hilariously-ironically-named cousin). Just so long as we don’t disregard anything that’s in the New Testament we should be okay to call homosexuality a “sin”.

Do you support school prayer, or prayer in public places, or even group prayer in church? How about take an oath of office? Do you think people should be allowed to fight to defend themselves against violent attack? How about the right of people to save and accumulate money? How about… oh I don’t know… identify someone else as a sinner*? Whoops, you’ve chosen to ignore specific instructions from Jesus himself. What about specific instructions from Jesus about whether it’s okay to fuck another dude or make sweet sweet mouth-sex to another lady? Hmm… he’s oddly silent on that one.

So since you’re cool with ignoring some parts of the Bible when they are either out-dated or don’t seem to make sense, you have no reason to condemn homosexuality as sin, right? Well… unless that condemnation is just you trying to find a lame excuse about “loving the sinner but hating the sin” to justify your a priori hatred of gay people. But you wouldn’t do that, would you?

The fact is that identifying a set of behaviours that have no demonstrable harm to anyone as a “sin” is completely arbitrary, just as if I said that it is a “sin” to hold hands in public with your spouse, or encourage your daughter to play sports. By branding such a thing as a “sin”, you’re passing judgment on people who do it, and asserting (without evidence) that there is some sort of shame in their living their lives as they see fit. In so doing, you put the lie to the completely laughable statement that you are simply “hating the sin” whilst all the while “loving the sinner”.

TL/DR: “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a false statement, since it is based on the premise that acts can be “sins” even if they harm nobody. People pick and choose which parts of the Bible they follow, so the excuse that God condemns it is also false. Calling someone a “sinner” is already condemnation, which is a direct contravention of the idea of loving them.

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*For the record, Matthew 7:1-5 has always been, and probably will always be, one of my absolute favourite Biblical passages. The idea of someone with a beam in their eye always made me chuckle, but it’s a great message to remember about hypocrisy.

Crommunist’s FAQ

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed at The Crommunist Manifesto are solely those of the author named in the title of the post (which is most often Crommunist). Crommunist specifically disavows any association between any content appearing on this site and any other person or group, including (but not limited to) employers, political organizations, academic institutions or non-governmental charity organizations unless specifically stated otherwise. At no time should anything appearing here be construed to reflect the position or opinion of anyone other than the author. The author is not responsible for any remarks taken out of context or misinterpreted.

To avoid having to re-hash a number of topics that I’ve already explored, I am setting this page up as a general destination for some of the questions or comments I get most commonly, grouped by category for your convenience. If I have referred you here, it’s because you asked one of these questions or some permutation thereof. Please take the time to read and understand before re-stating your question.

Why are you called ‘Crommunist’? What is ‘Crommunism’?

When I was 12, my classmates used to refer to each other in diminutive forms of our various last names. In such a fashion, I became “Crommie”. An astute classmate pointed out the similarity between that nickname and “Commie”, and began calling me a “Crommunist”.

Since that time, I have developed a set of political and philosophical principles that borrow from Enlightenment philosophy, methodological skepticism, anti-racist and feminist thought, and various other tidbits borrowed from books, movies, plays, what-have-you. While they bear little or no resemblance to actual communism, it is useful for me to bundle them together as “Crommunism”.

Interestingly, I do define “Crommunism” in contrast to “crapitalism”, which is the exchange of valuable goods and energy for meaningless crap. Under the umbrella of ‘crap’ I place religion, pseudoscience, most of modern conservatism, arch-liberalism, cultural relativism, and a variety of other topics that I take great pleasure in skewering at every available opportunity.

General stuff

Religion

Race/Racism/Anti-racism (many of these questions are answered in video form)

I don’t hold out any great hope that this will be sufficient to forestall these questions being asked again and again, but hopefully it will help stem the tide a little.