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...]

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...]

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...]

British Columbia flooded with drug money

The great challenge of being politically conscious is to remain critical (one might say ‘skeptical’, although I don’t think that word means the same thing in this context that we usually mean) of propaganda and showy announcements. Whether you think politicians are cravenly trying to pull a fast one on the populace, or if you’re like me and think that politicians simply begin to think in propagandist terms, the sign of a person who is cognitively engaged with politics is the ability to parse both the positives and negatives from political announcements.

To give you an idea of the way in which I wrestle through the political landscape, here’s an example of a recent development that I found particularly interesting: [Read more...]

Obamacare ruled constitutional

In case you somehow missed it, the United States Supreme Court has ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that the Affordable Care Act (derisively dubbed ‘Obamacare’ by its opponents) does not violate the Constitution and will still carry the force of law.

For a rundown of the decision, check out Ezra Klein’s blog:

“The bottom line: the entire ACA is upheld”

That’s what SCOTUSBlog wrote moments after the Supreme Court announced its ruling on the health-care law. But it wasn’t upheld in the way most thought it would be. The decision was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the Court’s liberals, and Justice Anthony Kennedy casting his vote with the conservatives.

This will be covered, in many quarters, as a political story. It means President Obama — and Solicitor General Don Verrilli — are popping the champagne. It means that Mitt Romney and the Republicans who were fighting the health-care law have suffered a setback. It will be covered in other quarters as a legal story: It is likely to be central to Roberts’ legacy, and perhaps even to how we understand the divisions in the Court going forward.

To read the full decision for yourself (it’s only 193 pages – go nuts), click here.

For a simplified explanation of what the law does, and why people opposed it in the first place, check out this great thread on Reddit.

For my reaction, please consult the following .gif of Ron Swanson: [Read more...]

Physician, kill myself

Anyone who follows my Twitter feed will be familiar with my habit of occasionally spontaneously going on rants about how much I love my city. I really do – we have a mayor I can respect, we have a proud tradition of social activism, we live in greater harmony with our natural environment than most cities our size. Despite its faults, Vancouver is a great place to live. Similarly, despite the fact that I don’t hold our government in terribly high esteem, I do rather like the province of British Columbia. Lots of hydroelectric power, natural custodianship, and abundant natural beauty. We got it like that.

But I am pretty confident that I have never been more proud to live when and where I live that I do after hearing this news: [Read more...]

Empowered Health: Week 2

So the Vancouver Sun is still forging ahead with it’s largely useless feature called Empowered Health. The general bent of the pieces seems to be that a healthy diet and an active lifestyle are good ideas (whoops, spoilers!), but as is the pattern with woo-friendly journalism, they sneak in a bunch of counterfactual nonsense in there as well under the guise of “alternative” practices. They are an alternative – an alternative to stuff that might actually work.

Let’s forge ahead, shall we? [Read more...]

Both sides of the coin

Most people who support a woman’s right to choose when to have children call themselves just that – pro choice. While most rankle at the lazy characterization of “pro-abortion”, I’m personally okay with it. I am for abortion access. I think every time someone makes the choice to have a child it should be celebrated, and every time someone decides that now is not the right time, that’s a smart move too. I feel no sense of moral panic at the consequences of my stance. Anyone who would use abortion as birth control (the religious right’s nighmare scenario) isn’t someone I want raising a child, not even as some kind of twisted form of ‘just deserts’ punishment.

As I’ve explained before, it is wildly inaccurate to call the opposite side – the anti-choice side – anything else. They’re not “anti-abortion”, since restrictions on abortion do not reduce the overall number of abortions. And they’re not “pro-life”, because when women seek out abortion services outside of a licensed medical practitioner, the results can be fatal: [Read more...]