US government stands up for free speech

Those of you who follow alt-med quackery and science-based-medicine skepticism will be familiar with the absolutely ridiculous jurisprudence that is England’s libel laws. In the US , it is up to the plaintiff in a libel suit to prove that the allegations made against them are false (i.e., if I accuse you of practicing quack medicine, you merely have to show that your standards of practice meet industry regulation to win your libel suit). In the UK, however, defendants must prove their allegations true (i.e., if I sue you for calling me a quack, you have to prove I am one). This may seem like a semantic distinction, or even a more fair system (e.g., you call me a pedophile, you’ve got to prove it or else it’s slander); however, it has repeatedly been used by medical charlatans to silence criticism by skeptics.

A famous example (at least among the health skeptic community) is the case of Simon Singh, a medical journalist who wrote a column critical of the wild claims being made by the British Chiropractic Association. For those of you who don’t know, chiropractic is, at its heart, the belief that all disease (yes, all disease) is caused by misalignments of the spine. Controlled scientific studies of chiropractic have shown that it can be effective for treatment of back pain (as can physiotherapy and massage), but that other claims of being able to cure infectious disease or chronic conditions like asthma are unsubstantiated and false. Simon Singh said as much in his column, and was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

“So what?” you might be saying “Just go into court, show the judge the studies, no problem!” We are lulled by television into thinking that court cases are decided quickly and cheaply. Even open-and-shut cases can, if the legal teams are unscrupulous enough, drag on for months and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simon Singh doesn’t have that kind of money. What the BCA (and those of their ilk) hope when they file these suits is that the defendants will settle out of court and drop the suit because they cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fees (in North America we call such suits ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation’ or SLAPP suits). There are anti-SLAPP laws on the books to prevent large companies from silencing poorer critics.

The UK, however, is a haven for such suits, allowing defendants to be placed on trial in British courts, and making non-Brits subject to the rulings of those courts. If the defendants do even the smallest amount of business in the UK, they can be sued under UK libel statutes.

Luckily, the US government has stepped in and made that a thing of the past:

President Barack Obama has signed into law new legislation protecting US writers from foreign libel judgements. The Speech Act, recently passed by Congress, makes foreign libel rulings virtually unenforceable in US courts. The act targets “libel tourists” who launch cases in countries whose legal systems are considered far more claimant-friendly, such as the UK.

This is good news for skeptics in the States who want to speak out against quacks in the UK. Canada has similar libel statutes to the UK (our entire judicial system is cribbed from England’s, so this should come as no surprise), but luckily the Supreme Court of Canada recently passed anti-SLAPP legislation, and Ontario appears poised to follow Quebec’s lead and enact provincial laws to do the same. Free speech shouldn’t be held up by spurious lawsuits designed to silence criticism. Of course, as Orac pointed out to me in an e-mail, this doesn’t protect US writers from being sued, nor does it prevent those judgments from being enforced in the UK (essentially barring convicted defendants from traveling anywhere in the UK). All it does is protect American courts from having to enforce the results of foreign libel suits.

It’s at least a step in the right direction.

CFI Vancouver Skeptics ‘welcome’ John Edward

It was another big weekend for Vancouver skeptics. We hosted Dr. Christopher DiCarlo for a discussion of human origins in Africa, and we once again handed out flyers at a reading by self-proclaimed ‘psychic medium’ John Edward.

On Sunday, August 15th, our fair city of Vancouver played host to self-proclaimed psychic medium John Edward. Mr. Edward is perhaps most famous for his television show Crossing Over with John Edward, a half-hour show in which he claims to speak to the deceased relatives of audience members. In his show, he reveals intimate and personal information about those who have “passed to the other side”. Like other mediums, Mr. Edward claims to be a vessel through which information passes from the realm of the dead to the living.

The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Edward can actually do what he claims. His approach is nearly indistinguishable from a well-known technique of manipulation called ‘cold reading‘. Basically, a ‘psychic’ cold reads a mark by initially using words or phrases that are so vague as to apply to anyone. Once a mark responds, the psychic hones in and sends progressively more specific probing phrases and words until the mark is completely convinced. At this point, the psychic can make claims about the feelings and wishes of the dead person with full buy-in from both the mark and the audience, who by this time are also staunch believers. A better explanation and illustration can be found here.

Why were we there?

A handful of volunteers from the Centre for Inquiry – Vancouver were present at the event to hand out some informative flyers to audience members (a pdf of the flyer can be seen here). As we have done previously with Deepak Chopra, we stood on the sidewalk outside the venue, and handed flyers to people as they came in. I must admit a bit of deception on my own part, as I asked people if they were here to see the John Edward show, and if they affirmed, I told them that we had flyers for them. While I did not lie (more on this in a bit), I didn’t dissuade them of the impression that I was working for the show.

Once again, we were not there to tell people they were stupid, or gullible, or uneducated. We weren’t there to feel smarter, or a smug sense of satisfaction at ‘educating the rubes’, nor were we there to ‘convert’ people to skepticism. It is my personal belief that most people are skeptical about some things, but seem to be readily willing to accept other things at face value.

We had two primary goals – first, to encourage people to be skeptical of claims by showing them some of the techniques ‘psychics’ use to trick people; and second, to engender a discussion of critical thinking and skepticism in a group of people who are likely not skeptics. We wanted people to be asking themselves ‘does this really make sense?’ We hoped that by showing people what the techniques were, we would prime them to ask real questions about what they were seeing.

How did it go?

Most people took a flyer and looked over it as they walked in. Some people asked for multiple flyers for their friends who were inside in line. We didn’t have a particular target for how many flyers we wanted to distribute, but we estimate our output at just under 100. The room in which the event was held has a 300-person capacity, meaning we missed more than we hit. We weren’t exactly thrilled that we didn’t get everyone, but we had a few hitches.

When we first arrived, we learned that many people had already gone inside the venue and were waiting in line for the doors to open. We ventured inside and up the stairs, and were suddenly face to face with 60-70 people, most of whom were much older than we were. A number of attendees were in wheelchairs and walkers. Standing there, faced with a group that outnumbered us 12:1, standing patiently waiting to speak to their dead relatives, we quickly lost courage and beat a hasty retreat to the Starbucks across the street to rethink our strategy.

We decided to stick to the sidewalk and get people coming in. This was decided for a few reasons. First, we felt a bit dickish going to people waiting in line and putting flyers in their hands. It felt opportunistic and mean. Second (and probably most importantly), it was scary. I kept having visions of a growing angry murmur going through the crowd, followed by a stampede of wheelchairs thirsting for our blood. On the sidewalk at least, we rationalized over frappuccinos, people had the opportunity to ignore us, or engage us, without having to face a giant crowd. Yes we’d miss the die-hards who showed up early, but they’d probably reject us out of hand anyway.

Overall, we walked away happy that at least we had done something, even if we didn’t shake up the world.

My personal experience

One woman offered us an extra ticket, and I jumped at the chance to get some intel from inside. When I went to talk to her, she asked me if I liked John Edward. I told her I’d never met him. The rest of the conversation went thusly:

Her: But do you like his work?

Me: No, not really.

Her: Why not?

Me: The world is a complicated place, and there are serious questions we have to ask ourselves. Whenever someone offers easy answers to difficult questions, I’m immediately skeptical. In the course of my skepticism, I’ve learned there are much better explanations for why John Edward can do what he does than believing he can talk to ghosts.

Her: Well then I’m afraid you can’t have the ticket.

Me: Oh, okay.

Her: If you bring negative energy in, it will prevent the spirits from speaking to him.

Me: Surely they wouldn’t be afraid of me. I’m just a guy.

Her: They aren’t afraid, they just require you to have an open mind.

I thanked her for the offer, and she thanked me for my honesty. I wasn’t about to take this woman’s money (tickets ran over $200) based on a lie. As much as I would have loved to get the inside scoop for you, there was no way I was going to do it through deception. She really believed in the supposed powers that Edward claims to have, so much so that the presence of even one person who didn’t believe would chase away all of the ghosts. This kind of insular environment allows Edward to prey on people, where not even one dissenting voice will be tolerated (although I suppose I could have just bought a ticket – even $25 would have been too much in my opinion).

The low point, of course, was high-tailing it out of the hotel at our first pass. I was amazed at how powerful the normative pressure was. Nobody was staring or being aggressive, yet as soon as we saw the line I could feel the pressure to run away. I’m not a shy person – I have no problem talking to strangers or approaching people in social settings; however, I was petrified by this situation. I have a bit more appreciation for people who are afraid of public speaking after failing in our first attempt.

The highlight for me was meeting Debbie, an attendee who came outside to ask us why we were there. Debbie felt that we were being uncharitable, and calling people stupid for not doing the research themselves. She told me that until you’ve had a supernatural experience, you have no right to criticize someone else’s search for truth. I told Debbie that I had indeed had several experiences that I attributed to supernatural causes, but once I had been exposed to better information and given the opportunity to make up my mind, I was grateful to have learned something. I also pointed out that we were no more calling people stupid than a public health campaign for hand-washing was calling people stupid – we are merely presenting people with information that we think could help them. She was not entirely swayed by my argument, although she did laud us on our non-confrontational style and general affability.

It is easy to dismiss the positions of those who disagree with you, especially when they are paying money to see a well-known fraud, but if we want to gain allies in the skeptical movement, we have to take criticism from all sides and evaluate it on its own merit. Debbie may have had a point – who were we to take away people’s false hope? My response to that as always is that the truth is important. We need to get as close to objective truth as we can in order to deal with each other honestly, and to allow humankind to progress. Permitting nonsense and charlatanry like John Edward to pass us by uncontested is an invitation for more deception, and a betrayal of the ideals of humanism. Things like this should be discussed and criticized, and people should not be allowed to defraud each other simply because “everyone is entitled to their opinion“. We have a duty to the truth, and ought to talk about it openly.

Hopefully our exercise in “skeptivism” encouraged a few people to think critically about what they were hearing. As we continue to do these events (James van Praagh, another ghoul who preys on the grief and credulousness of an non-skeptical public, will be in Richmond at the end of September), we invite members of the skeptical and non-skeptical community to give us commentary on how we can be more effective, and/or less offensive to those who buy in.

Welcome to all those here from Pharyngula!

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Movie Friday – postitive thinking

Psst… do you want to hear something amazing? There’s an unbelievably simple trick you can use to get everything you’ve ever wanted, without having to work for it, put any effort at all into bettering yourself or your life, or kill off your rich uncle.

It’s called THE SECRET

Anyone’s who’s taken any type of eastern philosophy course knows about the law of attraction. Basically, the theory is that if you put positive energy out into the world, you will reap the benefits of that energy. Hindus call it karma, Taoists call it the Tao, and skeptics call it a heaping pile of steamy bullshit.

Like prayer, or ‘remote viewing’, or psychics, mediums, Tarot and horoscopes, the law of attraction (karma) relies on some fundamental cognitive heuristics our brains use. The first and most important is called confirmation bias – our brains selectively attend to those events that fit assumptions we’ve already made. The second is a logical fallacy called ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc‘ or, ‘after it, therefore because of it’ – we see two events and infer that the first causes the second.

For an example of this, think of what happens when you’re waiting for a bus. How many times have you waited for a bus, got fed up and decided to walk, only to have the bus show up a minute after you leave? Have you ever said “of course, as soon as I leave, the bus arrives.” Your leaving has nothing to do with the bus arriving – the two events are independent, but after it happens 2 or 3 times, your mammal brain puts them together.

So when you send out positive vibes and something good happens, the two aren’t necessarily causally related – indeed, there’s no mechanism by which they could be related. The “Secret” is just an appeal to your mammalian brain and the cognitive shortcuts we all use to get by.

“So what?” you might be saying. “It doesn’t hurt anyone to think positively.” Despite evidence that it absolutely CAN hurt people to have unrealistically positive outlooks, it also leads to victim blaming. People assume that if you can think your way to happiness and wealth, then anyone who is poor just has a bad attitude.

Let’s let Dave Chappelle have the last word here…

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CFI Vancouver Presents PZ Myers: Atheism in the Scientific Battleground

It was a big weekend for Vancouver skeptics. On Friday, July 30th, we hosted biology professor, speaker and celebrated science blogger PZ Myers. Sunday, August 1st saw us marching (“dancing” would be a more accurate term) in Vancouver’s Pride parade.

UPDATE: You can now follow me on Twitter, you lucky people!

On Friday, July 30th, CFI Vancouver was proud to host biology professor, speaker, and author of the popular science and skepticism blog Pharyngula, Dr. PZ Myers. Dr. Myers presented an hour-long discussion of the role of atheism in the scientific battleground.

As the event was hosted and organized by CFI, this is not the official writeup. Since I was on hand with my camera, I did videotape the entire presentation. Once again, however, CFI laid out all of the groundwork to make this happen, so I will not post the video online, preferring instead to send the traffic their way. I will, however, post a couple of segments and a summary of my own reactions to both the presentation, and meeting PZ himself.

Ethan Clow, head of CFI Vancouver, meets PZ Myers

The Presentation

Much has been made of Dr. Myers’ confrontational style; people seem to expect him to be a fire-breathing ogre who preaches hatred of Christians from a pulpit made of Creationist’s skulls. Having seen video of him speaking before, I went in expecting exactly what we got – an interesting, humorous, and gregarious biology professor from Minnesota. The talk took place at the University of British Columbia’s Wesbrook building, and was attended by about 300 people (CFI will have actual numbers).

The focus of the presentation was in like with Dr. Myers’ usual stance on the issue of how ashamed we should be to call ourselves atheists – we need to be visible, we need to be consistent, and we need to stand up for our principles. He started with a brief discussion of why it is impossible to ‘disprove evolution':

I really like the Newton/Einstein example, because it’s a perfect illustration of how science is supposed to work – we adjust our models to fit the observed evidence, not chain them to our preconceived notions of how we think they should look. That’s why quantum physics is so weird – because the universe is a weird place.

He then moved on to a topic that was a bit of a sore point for me: the ‘dictionary atheist’. He describes those of us who say that atheism is merely the absence of belief in God, and nothing more. He then calls that out as a bullshit position:

My feelings were a bit hurt, because I have been advocating that exact position. However, as I was to discuss with him later, he makes an important point, which is the basic underscoring of his presentation – namely, that Atheists (note the capital A) do believe in things. We’re not Atheists by accident, or because we haven’t yet heard how awesome YahwAlladdha is, but because we reject superstition and appeals to invisible authority as a basis for building a functioning society. We believe that evidence, reason, and an abiding respect for humanity is a much higher standard to which human beings should be held than the fear of a paternal sky-genie.

I will not do a play-by-play of the entire talk, partially because I don’t really feel like transcribing the entire hour-long presentation + ensuing Q&A, and also because I think Dr. Myers’ speaking style is best captured on video. I will be pushing hard on CFI Canada to release the video in a timely manner, so please stay tuned.

The Post-Event Reception

After the talk, there was an opportunity for guests to sit down and share a beer and some appetizers with PZ. This was the part of the evening I had most looked forward to, so I bought my ticket to the reception early. I was lucky enough to get a chance to ask him about some things that have been on my mind.

Someone made cupcakes, with this special cake-topper for PZ

The so-called ‘Burqa Ban’

Regular readers will know that I have been wrestling with the issue of France, Belgium and Quebec passing law that bar women from covering their faces when interacting with government employees and while in public places. I asked PZ what he thought on the issue. He told me that while there were arguments to be made on both sides, his default position is to side with human liberty – women should be allowed to wear what they want, even if the establishment doesn’t like it.

Being a leader of the skeptic movement

I’ve always been curious to know how people like PZ, or Dawkins, or Hitchens feel about the appellation “leader of the skeptic movement.” Is there a sense of pride of being a senior statesman in a major political and social movement? Does he even consider himself a leader, or just another person with a dog (albeit a big one) in the fight? He replied that unlike any other group in history, the entire purpose of the Atheist/skeptic/humanist movement was to have no leaders (he used the phrase “Atheist Pope”). The whole point, he said, was to motivate people to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

His stance on ‘dictionary atheism’

Because I took it personally, I asked him about the virtue of identifying as atheists. He himself noted in his presentation that there were many people who were nihilists, believing that because there is no God, life is therefore meaningless. I suggested to him that even further, there were people who are atheists because they hate religion, or religious people, or out of rebellion against their parents… for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with skepticism. These people are covered by the label ‘atheist’ without being skeptics of any stripe. PZ replied that while those people do exist, as skeptic atheists we can drive the public perception of atheism as people who have deep beliefs that are guided by evidence, not merely a negatively-defining group.

Summarizing thoughts

I really enjoyed my night out with PZ and the Vancouver skeptics. We stayed out late drinking, shutting down both Moose’s Down Under and the Railway Club. We talked about science, atheism, politics (apparently I’m an asshole because I self-define as Libertarian :P) and a number of other topics (including the intricacies of PZ’s spam filter – one of the highlights of the night was reading an e-mail that a local kook had sent him regarding the oil spill in the Gulf). I was lucky enough to also be able to speak with Mrs. Myers (The Trophy Wife) about my own history as a religious person and how to talk to those of us we are close to who still believe.

One of the things I was most struck by was the gender ratio at the talk. There is a general view of the skeptic movement that it is predominantly white males. As a black guy, I have observed this to be the case at many of our skeptical events. However, both the talk and the reception were evenly attended (still mostly white people, but this is Canada). One attendee, when I pointed this out, said that PZ’s decidedly pro-feminist stance on issues was a factor which helped her decide to show up. Skeptics take note: if you want to balance the gender scales, reach out to women.

I am looking forward to seeing the full video available online, as it is a much higher quality than I was able to take on my little camera. As I said above, I will be pushing on whoever I need to push on to get it up and running as soon as possible. For more (and better) photos, be sure to check out Fred Bremmer’s Flickr page.

Thanks to PZ for linking to this page! Welcome to all Pharyngulites.

Vancouver Skeptics in the Pride Parade

It was a big weekend for Vancouver skeptics. On Friday, July 30th, we hosted biology professor, speaker and celebrated science blogger PZ Myers. Sunday, August 1st saw us marching (“dancing” would be a more accurate term) in Vancouver’s Pride parade.

UPDATE: You can now follow me on Twitter, you lucky people!

Yesterday, skeptics from the BC Humanist Association, the SFU Skeptics, and of course CFI Vancouver gathered at Robson and Thurlow to take part in Vancouver’s annual Pride parade. This parade is ostensibly intended for members of the gay community to stand up and be seen without fear. Over time, it has become a venue for community groups to show their solidarity with the gay community.

What were we doing there?

Humanists have long been in solidarity with the gay community. The central tenet of humanist thought is the idea that the ultimate good is for human beings to be able to determine their own lives. A corollary of that is the belief that the way to judge the morality of an action is its consequences to humankind. Demonizing homosexuals makes no sense to humanists, since being openly gay makes people happy, and hurts nobody.

In addition to our philosophical allegiance to the gay cause, humanists and skeptics see a meaningful similarity between the gay community and our struggle for mainstream acceptance. It’s barely been 31 years since the Stonewall riots, which one might call the beginning of the gay movement. In that short time, we’ve seen major social progress for gay people in North America and Europe, and we’re seeing progress in places like South America and Africa.

Atheists face similar discrimination and misunderstanding in the face of hyper-religiosity worldwide. Luckily, thanks to vocal mainstream atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, and of course PZ Myers, atheists have entered the public domain and are actively taking part in the conversation. Our presence at the Pride parade was, for us, one more step towards mainstream recognition and acceptance.

What did we do?

About 15 skeptics (sorry, I should have counted and I didn’t) met in the staging area for the parade, with bright colourful clothes, face paint, signs, banners, a recumbent bike, and a great deal of optimism and energy.

In addition to the BC Humanists and CFI banners, we carried a large banner with the now famous slogan “There’s Probably No God, Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life” from the Atheist bus campaign. The virtue of this slogan is that while it is definitely an in-your-face proclamation of our position, it is about as inoffensive and positive as any such a slogan could be.

We marched the prescribed parade route in between Worksafe BC and an anti-bullying campaign. Sadly, we were not able to march alongside the religious groups, or what I termed the Cognitive Dissonance Squad:

How did the crowd react?

Honestly, I was expecting the crowd to be either indifferent or hostile. Vancouver is a city with many faiths and many churches, and where people don’t often challenge each other’s beliefs. We were mounting a fairly aggressive and open, unashamed assertion of our position, much the way we did previously with Deepak Chopra.

Once again, however, the people of Vancouver surprised me. Far from being merely tolerant, we had an overwhelming amount of support from the crowd. Everywhere we went, we were confronted by cheering, applause, and people laughing as they read the banner, eagerly pointing it out to their friends. Many (I assume) atheists in the crowd shouted their assent, seemingly grateful that there was a group there supporting their beliefs. You can see what I mean in the following video:

The crowd shots I’ve included in that video are not cherry-picked – they are a fair representation of the entire crowd at the event. The response was unbelievably and uniformly positive. Please forgive the shaky camera work – I was dancing my skeptical ass off.

Some summarizing thoughts

What we have seen in our past forays into ‘skeptivism‘ is that people are generally receptive to new ideas. While I personally fall more on the confrontational side of the confront/accommodate debate, I recognize that a variety of methods are needed, since each individual is different. The city of Vancouver acted, to my eyes, like a group of people who were ‘closet’ atheists, and who were waiting for someone or some group to stand up and say “we’re here, we’re skeptics, get used to it.”

The past few months have seen major growth in the skeptic community here in BC, with the addition of a third Skeptics in the Pub site in Richmond, and the start of a branch of CFI in the Okanogan. We’ve picked up a great deal of steam and visibility thanks to our presence at Pride, and we hope to continue this momentum into the fall. We hope that other skeptic groups, particularly our comrades in the USA, undertake similar acts of open skeptivism, and that they receive the same positive response we enjoyed.

Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for linking to this post! Welcome to all Pharyngulites.

Movie Friday: Billy Connolly

Today’s movie Friday features someone who can literally claim credentials to the title of greatest stand-up comedian of all time. I can’t say he’s my favourite, but I am not the grand arbiter of all things funny. Billy Connolly is a Scottish comedian who may be most recognizable for those of us not into stand-up as “Il Duce” from the dynamite movie Boondock Saints. When he’s not instructing his sons on methods of death-dealing, he’s a wildly funny comedian and actor.

This whole week’s been about race, so I figure I’m okay to let Billy beat up on religion a bit:

The thing about 53 virgins is spot-on. I’ve been with virgins – they’re much less fun than someone who knows what she (or he) knows what she’s doing and is into it big time.

And while we’re at it, let’s rip on “alternative medicine” too:

Interestingly, Billy was in a movie called The Man Who Sued God which is a great indictment of the role that religious superstition plays in secular society. Well, it is until about 4/5th of the way in, at which point it becomes weak dithering pablum. Despite its lackluster ending, I liked the movie and think it’s worth watching. Anyway, enjoy the videos!

I have a perfect face for radio!

Yesterday I was privileged to join Ethan Clow, the Vancouver chapter president of CFI Vancouver (the handsome devil you saw talking to Deepak Chopra) on his radio show “Radio Freethinker” on UBC’s campus radio. This is a weekly skeptic podcast that looks at skeptic issues in the news and discusses various salient skeptic topics. I was present as a special guest, along with Jakob Liljenwall, head of the Simon Fraser University Skeptics group.

We discussed, among other things:

  • Belgian police raiding a Catholic Church;
  • Organic pesticides being worse than synthetic for the environment;
  • The G8/G20 events; and
  • Confrontation vs. Accommodation in the skeptic movement

Of course Ethan, Jakob and I have similar views on things, but we had a fairly lively discussion nonetheless. As you listen to the podcast, you’ll immediately notice two things:

  1. Some of the things I talk about have appeared (or will appear, depending on when you’re reading this) on this blog, and
  2. There is a reason I prefer writing to speaking – I backtrack a lot while trying to explain myself.

So if you’ve ever wondered if I have a sexy voice, or you’re a friend of mine and you miss my sexy voice, give “Radio Freethinker” a listen. If the subject matter interests you, check it out Tuesdays at 3:30 on CITR 101.9 FM in Vancouver.