SFU hosts dangerous anti-science crank group

Vancouver is a city in which one must be willing to put up with quite a bit of pseudoscientific woo-woo nonsense. There are reflexology and acupuncture and naturopathy clinics on every commercial block, each hawking their distinctive, heady mix of scientific ignorance and pure unadulterated bullshit. One learns to mutter epithets under one’s breath and make snide comments as one passes these storefronts, because short of passing a law or de-lobotomizing your fellow Vancouverites, there’s not much else that can be done.

But every now and again, there is an event so egregious, it warrants a more serious response:

The Vaccine Resistance Movement is hosting ‘Vaccine Summit: Vancouver 2013′, a major, interactive symposium on vaccines, to take place on Tuesday, March 12th at SFU’s downtown campus. Veteran researchers & nutritional experts will be joining us on stage, and via satellite from across North America. We will also be conducting a round-table discussion with parents of vaccine-injured children, the first of its kind ever mounted in such a conference. This is your chance to finally stand up as a community, and make your voices heard.

Guest speakers will include leading Immunologist & author Dr. Tetyana Obukhanych, Ph.D., Cellular Disease Specialist & naturopath Gary Tunsky, April Renée, a remarkable mother speaking out in memory of her daughter, Casi, who tragically succumbed to vaccine injury, and preeminent Medical research journalist & esteemed author, Neil Z. Miller.

Self-determination of the body is an inalienable right, and yet we, as families, are facing increasingly intense pressure from the Vaccine lobby & big Government to comply with vaccine mandates, pressured, from all sides, into submitting to herd immunity-type policies. Are we any healthier today than our ancestors because of it? Does does the science really add up? And if pushed to the brink against our will, how can we protect those we cherish most? We intend to find out.

Join us for what promises to be a ground-breaking, historic event, a meeting of extraordinary minds, to uncover the truth behind the deception. We are anticipating a lively discussion. The paradigm shift toward self-sufficiency & self-awareness begins with you.

The “Vaccine Resistance Movement” is Canada’s own version of Australia’s “Vaccine Information Network” or the various anti-vax groups in the United States. Its primary raison d’être is to undermine public confidence in vaccines by spreading blatant misinformation about vaccines, their efficacy, and their safety record. They seek to exploit the healthy (and abundantly justified) distrust people have for pharmaceutical companies, in tandem with the average person’s lack of scientific expertise, in order to push an anti-vaccination agenda under the guise of “promoting vaccine choice”.

They have chosen to host an all-day “summit” in Vancouver. If that were the beginning and end of it, there wouldn’t be much to do. After all, even anti-science cranks have the right to free speech. In this case, however, they are hosting their event at Simon Fraser University, an institution that is supposed to model intellectual rigour and responsible communication of facts to the public they are obligated to serve. By allowing the VRM to spew their dangerous nonsense from SFU’s pulpit, the university is violating its own mandate.

The most baffling component of SFU’s clear irresponsibility and evident lack of oversight is the fact that Vancouver has very recently been in the throes of an epidemic of vaccine-preventable disease. This is not a situation in which we have allowed ourselves to become complacent due to the faded memory of outbreaks of these diseases. Nor is it a case where there was some ambiguity as to the role that non-vaccinating parents played in the spread of illness. Unless SFU has the memory of a goldfish, hosting an event like this should have immediately sent up a red flag that someone needed to step in with some oversight.

Over the weekend, SFU’s faculty of health sciences responded on their website:

The Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) was surprised to learn that SFU has rented space to the “Vaccine Resistance Movement” for their Summit 2013 at the Harbour Centre Campus. Renting space to outside organizations for events such as these is done without any academic oversight. FHS disavows any support or affiliation with this event which we believe to be  anti-science and contrary to good public health practice. We are deeply concerned that the public will perceive the SFU venue as legitimation of the dangerous misinformation that the Vaccine Resistance Movement is known for. Please accept our sincere apologies for the inappropriate use of SFU facilities to promote this event.

Vancouver’s branch of the Center for Inquiry is co-ordinating a response to SFU’s breach of public trust (and basic competency) by allowing the Vaccine Resistance Movement to spread their virulent gospel on its campus. I will update this page as this response becomes better articulated. For the time being, if you are interested in participating and/or lending your voice, please contact CFI Vancouver’s regional director, Ethan Clow.

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Bravo to Canadian skeptics: Jenny is Dropped

About a week ago, I read that Jenny McCarthy, the celebrity face of the anti-vaccine movement, was going to be headlining an event called “Bust a Move” at the Ottawa Cancer centre. I was horrified, and spelled out my objections in a letter to their CEO:

Hello Ms. Eagan,

I am writing this letter to you to express my shock, disappointment, and outrage at Ottawa Cancer’s decision to host noted anti-vaccination activist and celebrity provocateur Jenny McCarthy as the face of its “Bust a Move” campaign. Ms. McCarthy’s actions over the past decade have revealed her to be deeply antipathetic to the process and institution of science – a process and institution that cancer patients and practitioners rely on for their lives and livelihoods. By inviting Ms. McCarthy, Ottawa Cancer is signaling that it either does not care about Ms. McCarthy’s anti-scientific views, or that it shares them.

One of the largest barriers cancer researchers face is the unjustified suspicion of not only cancer survivors but the general public in accepting the scientific facts about the disease. I am overjoyed that people are not simply adopting the asserted axioms of the scientific establishment without doing some research, but what Ms. McCarthy has been doing is something else entirely. She has, using her pulpit as a celebrity, been deliberately spreading misinformation to people who are vulnerable to the predations of opportunistic hucksters. Is it Ottawa Cancer’s position that this kind of fraud-by-proxy is acceptable simply because she has name recognition?

I strongly suggest you do not allow the reputation of Ottawa Cancer suffer as the result of what I can only assume to be poor staff work. Beyond the simple fact of public perception, you have a duty to ensure that patients are receiving a message that is grounded in evidence and best practices, not the pseudoscientific hunch-based beliefs of a woman who has been actively campaigning for years to undermine children’s public health programs. You should immediately announce that you have personally looked into Ms. McCarthy’s background and have made the executive decision not to associate the good name of Ottawa Cancer with her anti-science advocacy.

Do the thing that is not only right for your organization, but for the cancer survivors and families who rely on Ottawa Cancer for sound information and advice.

Skeptics across the country, buoyed by editorial pieces in MacLean’s and the Ottawa Citizen, lobbied Ottawa Cancer to drop Ms. McCarthy from the event (coining the hashtag #dropjenny).

And it worked: [Read more...]

Because Abortion needs to be explained, apparently.

I am irate. Look, I realise that I am in a position of privilege, and I realise that I’m not angry about this all the time because I’m male and that this is something that I have the privilege of simply not-concerning-myself-about for the vast bulk of my life.

I rationalise this as that I pay attention only insofar as harm is brought to my attention. And Ireland has ever-so-slowly been moving towards legalising abortion since 1992. Oh, that’s right, you didn’t know that abortion was illegal in Ireland. My bad. Did you know that it was actually illegal for doctors to tell patients about their abortion options in other countries? And that it was illegal for people to travel to another country for an abortion? No? Well, anyway, we were focused on my privilege, so let’s keep on topic.

[Read more...]

Recognizing the enemy

You have by now no doubt heard of the story of Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and his statement that pregnancies resulting from rape are part of “God’s plan” (much the way, incidentally, Trayvon Martin’s murder was part of “God’s plan” too – God has shitty plans, people). People have been chewing this over and reminding as many people as they possibly can that yes, this is what Republicans actually believe – the only part of it that was a ‘gaffe’ is the fact that Mourdock was accidentally honest about what his party believes about rape and women’s rights.

The reaction north of the border has, as it reliably does, contained more than a little smug anti-American sentiment, along the lines of “well that’s what happens when you live in America. Thank the Old Gods and the Seven that we don’t have that kind of abhorrent nonsense here in Canada. And to a certain extent they’re right: we don’t have the same kind of mainstream toxicity pouring from the mouths of our political candidates… at least not as often. But when we do get it, it’s just as bad: [Read more...]

They took ur helth curr!

I will honestly never know how it was that conservatives got this reputation as being “fiscally responsible”. People who fancy themselves politically savvy centrists will often describe themselves as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” as though that was a superior approach to just calling themselves “moderates” or something. Nuanced it may in fact be, but a point in their favour it is not. Classical fiscal conservatism is, at its heart, an argument that the state should interfere with economic matters as little as possible, and even then only to encourage the development of private industry through competitive markets and maintaining standards of fairness.

Since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, however, fiscal conservatism has come to mean “get the government out of the way” by “starving the beast” and basically denying the possibility that public control over any industry is anything other than a surefire path to failure. It’s not enough to maintain fairness – it’s an absolute necessity that government be powerless not only to participate in markets, but to also demonize the possibility of intervention when things are clearly headed for calamity.

Specifically, this attitude has reared its disgusting and self-centred head in a discussion over the provision of health care to refugees. The basic underlying philosophy of publicly provided health care is to ensure that people are able to access medically-necessary services based on their need for those services, rather than a market-based approach that prioritizes those who have superior ability. Yes, it happens to be anti-capitalist, but it has the side benefit of being more fiscally responsible, since people aren’t putting off illness management until it’s too severe for them to ignore it. Refugees, people literally fleeing to Canada for fear of persecution in their home countries, often have greater need (particularly for psychological care, a particular bugbear of mine). The public health care system, it therefore seems to follow, should respond with greater provision of services.

Not if you’re a “fiscal conservative” though: [Read more...]

Good thing we’re studying the important issues

We live, as we ever have, in a time of great uncertainty. Climate change is undeniable, but specific and plausible paths forward are seemingly beyond our grasp. We face an inscrutable economic future, with a whirlwind of contradicting ideas constantly blowing around us. Despite the progress we’ve made unlocking the mysteries of the cell and the double-helix, human health is still very much a crap-shoot. Genetic manipulation of food, once seeming to hold the promise for the cure to world hunger, has revealed itself to be far more complex than we could have imagined. In the face of these interminable unanswered questions, it’s hard to look at the scientific enterprise as something upon which we can consistently rely.

And yet, even with such epistemic despondency so justified, there are occasional bright spots where we can lean confidently upon the rigour that science provides us and make confident conclusions about the world. For it is science, that great illuminator, that has finally bestowed upon our poor race a great and fundamental certainty, answering once and for all one of the great questions that has plagued mankind, lo these many years: does getting an HPV vaccination turn your daughter into, like, a total slutbag? [Read more...]

A legitimate Republican

Trigger warning for rape dismissal, extreme misogyny.

So I’ve been walking around angry for the past couple of days. Undoubtedly you’ve heard the latest pearl of idiocy to drop from a member of God’s Own Party:

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

Republican Congressman Todd Akin has decided to impart his second-hand medical wisdom on the rest of America, and undoubtedly legislate based on it. First of all, no Mr. Akin you absolutely did not get this ‘understanding’ from doctors. Nobody who has had a conversation about reproduction with any medical professional who isn’t deep in the anti-choice* camp could possibly walk away believing that the human body can recognize rape and stop conception from happening. One would think that nobody who has taken a high school sex-ed course could possibly believe this kind of mythology, but since Todd Akin is likely opposed to sex education as well, there is no inconsistency. [Read more...]

Special Feature: Crommunist does alternative medicine

Many of you will remember that I attended the Imagine No Religion 2 conference in Kamloops, BC in May of this year. It was my first ever atheist meeting/convention, and I had a really positive experience there. I was asked to me a somewhat last-minute addition to a panel on alternative medicine, based (I imagine) on my background in health sciences, my experience public speaking, and the fact that at least a handful of people would recognize my name.

And so it was that I found myself sitting next to Skeptically Speaking host Desiree Schell, and Dr. Ian Mitchell (a local physician), talking about the wild and wooly world of alt-med. Long-time readers will know how irritated I am by the term “alternative medicine”:

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.

I’m also irritated (clearly, as you will see from the video) by the doggerel: “cancer cure” and the associated conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies are hiding cancer cures from the public. I tried my level best to apply my own personal brand of smackdown to this odious and ludicrously nonsensical claim, with all the humour and aplomb that I could muster at 9 am after a night of drinking. I also made reference to a couple of things that the local chapter of CFI had done – debunking Deepak Chopra and staging a homeopathy workshop. Both were examples of skeptical activism, or as we coined it, ‘skeptivism’.

The full video from the event is available below the fold. [Read more...]

Cool stuff is happening!

There are two very nifty things happening this week that may be relevant to your interests.

Edwin appears in Meatspace

Co-blogger Edwin is giving a talk entitled “Digital Hatred: White Supremacy in the Information Age” this Friday night at the Oakridge Library in Vancouver (41st and Cambie):

The Internet has been something of a double edged sword for most of its existence. While offering people all over the world access to information they might never have seen otherwise, modern communications technology also proved to be a boon to racist organizations desperate to get their message out. To a great extent, their attempts have been successful; there are now more than 1000 known hate groups present in the United States, and their numbers continue to grow. These groups are religious, secular, white supremacist, black supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-government, and many other flavours besides, with the vast majority hewing to one form of explicit (and violent) white supremacy or another. How has their message been adapted to fit into the digital age? How do they recruit? Who are their leaders, and who joins their causes? How does one counter an idea that can spread around the world in the blink of an eye? How can a person recognize racist speech – especially when it has been specifically tailored to appear non-racist?

If you’ve never heard Edwin speak before, you should know he’s an almost ludicrously eloquent and engaging speaker, and is abundantly knowledgable about this topic (as well as many others). The event is free and can be easily accessed by public transit, so if you’re looking for an opportunity to interact with some other Vancouver skeptics with an interest in social justice topics, this is your chance. I will be in attendance at the beginning of the event (my band has a gig that night so I will have to sneak out early), so keep an eye out for me.

Register either at the meetup.com page, or on Facebook.

Bad Science Watch launches WiFi project

You might remember that some colleagues/friends of mine have launched a new Canadian scientific skepticism activism organization called Bad Science Watch. In addition to their inaugural project looking at the federal government’s policies towards homeopathic “medicine”, they’ve released this today:

Bad Science Watch has announced the launch of a critical investigation of the state of anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The independent non-profit plans to document the motivations, funding sources, agendas, and any conflicts of interest for those groups and individuals promoting misinformation about wireless networking technology (WiFi). These activists claim WiFi and related technologies can cause a variety of adverse health effects, and are attempting to convince city councils, libraries, and school districts across the country to remove or restrict the deployment of WiFi networks.

“While many of these activists are well-meaning yet misinformed, others are profiting from the uncertainty and doubt that has been manufactured.” said Jamie Williams, Executive Director of Bad Science Watch. “Some of the most prominent anti-WiFi scaremongers are tied to the sale and promotion of bogus products to ‘block’ WiFi, or promote sham medical diagnoses and treatments for false illnesses.”

Many activists blame WiFi’s low level radio signals for a broad variety of medical problems, from mild headaches and fatigue to chest pain and heart palpitations. When someone using or living near WiFi networks experiences these or other symptoms, they are told they have ‘Electromagnetic-Hypersensitivity’, or EHS. The existence of EHS is not supported by rigorous science, and has not been accepted by the medical and scientific community as a real condition. This distraction can lead to greater anxiety for parents who are worried about the well-being of their children, and may instead serve to delay the diagnosis of more serious and treatable medical problems like anxiety disorders or heart defects.

Bad Science Watch will use the findings of this investigation as a starting point to counter misinformation in the public sphere, and represent sound science to public officials who are confronted every day with requests to act on it.

Individuals who would like to support this and similar projects are invited to visit www.badsciencewatch.ca, subscribe to the mailing list, and make a donation to Bad Science Watch.

It’s a good week to be a skeptic in Vancouver! Please consider making contact with us and letting us know you’re out there!

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The new hotness: Bad Science Watch

My skeptical teeth were cut on religious claims – I got into the skeptical blogosphere (and learned the resulting jargon and necessary facts) as a direct result of my wrangling with my own newly-recognized atheism. I rather quickly and seamlessly migrated from there to my discussions of race and social justice, but there was a serious in-between time when I spent a lot of time learning the ways of skep-fu in the alt-med school. I am, in that sense, a pretty bad skeptic because despite getting my start there, I spend comparatively little time talking about the ‘hard science’ stuff that is probably most closely suited to my professional training.

Mea culpa, folks. I don’t have an agenda with this site – I just kinda write what I feel.

Luckily, I have a few colleagues/friends here in Vancouver who are on it big time: [Read more...]