Canada doesn’t have a race problem

Wow, it’s been a while since I did one of these.

Remember a month ago when I talked about a campaign to get the Crown to recognize the abhorrent and racist treatment of New Brunswick’s black population?

This is an interesting bit of history that I wasn’t aware of. Apparently under the charter that created the city of St. John, its black inhabitants were not granted the rights of citizens. They were barred from living within the city’s walls or fishing in the outlying rivers. Even though they helped build the city, they were disallowed from reaping the fruits of their labour – not because of systematic, subtle racism, but because of an official decree.

The whole point of apologies like this isn’t to make people feel guilty for what their ancestors did, but to have an honest accounting of our history. Knowledge of our history allows us to put the present into context – how did we get here? The alternative is to just make up explanations that fit our prejudices (a.k.a. conservatism).

However, an element of these apologies has to be official recognition that it happened. Part of an apology is the admission that an act was wrong. Simply saying “well you got over it, so it couldn’t have been that bad” is not sufficient. Well, at least not unless you’re David Johnston:

The Governor General won’t apologize to Saint John’s black community for a 1785 decree that severely restricted where they could live or fish in the southern New Brunswick city.

Buckingham Palace forwarded the request to Gov. Gen. David Johnston so that he could consult with federal ministers. An official at Rideau Hall said in a letter to Peters that they could not meet his request for an apology.

Racism isn’t abstract or historical. It is real, and it still lives with us. I went to Waterloo while David Johnston was the president – he struck me as a good and fair person. However, to deny the black community even the courtesy of an official apology – a move that has ample precedent – smacks of racism.

I’m going to follow this story and see if I can get more information about why the request was denied, but I’m not holding out any hope for a forthcoming explanation.

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Religious “education”

Last week, Ian Bushfield wrote some thoughts on the idea of religious education in public schools:

By offering religious education/instruction, we could hopefully convince parents that the public school system is where their kids should be. Further, we can hopefully expose the children to different ideas about religion and morality, which, demonstrated by the uproar over the comparative ethics course in Quebec, can challenge the basic notions of faith as a virtue.

I happen to agree with Ian on this point (small wonder, we tend to agree with each other generally). Comparative religious education is like comparative literature or anthropology or history – presenting overlapping but non-redundant narratives presents fertile ground for developing a skeptic mind. Teaching kids that there may not always be a “right answer”, particularly when talking about humanity, invites them to consider and critique the evidence for the answers they are presented with. In the context of society, religion is something we should be particularly skeptical about.

Many atheists are wary of religious education in public schools, arguing that there ought to be an inviolable barrier between church and state. While those of us living in Canada do not enjoy that separation as a matter of law (we don’t have an equivalent of the First Amendment in the Canadian Charter), many of us still feel it would violate an important principle of a just society. Maybe those opposed to teaching religion in public schools are worried about something like this:

BBC Panorama found that more than 40 Saudi Students’ Schools and Clubs are teaching the official Saudi national curriculum to about 5,000 pupils. One text book shows how the hands and feet of thieves are chopped off…

One of the text books asks children to list the “reprehensible” qualities of Jewish people. A text for younger children asks what happens to someone who dies who is not a believer in Islam – the answer given in the text book is “hellfire”. Another text describes the punishment for gay sex as death and states a difference of opinion about whether it should be carried out by stoning, burning with fire or throwing the person over a cliff.

Well at least they’re teaching kids about their options…

I think the problem with the blanket objection to religion in schools is a failure to articulate the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. Religion, like science, or math, or art, or history, is an important subject to have a factual grasp on. I myself took a course on world religions in high school. Of course by the time I was that age I had pretty much dismissed all religions as having any claim to exclusive truth. However, learning about the historical roots of the different religions helped me better understand both the various faiths and their respective adherents.

I would argue that a proper understanding of religion requires a comprehension of world history and an appreciation for humanity’s foibles. The kind of education (for the former) and critical appraisal and mature cognition (for the latter) that is required for this kind of deep understanding might be beyond the mental capabilities of an elementary school child. However, kids can understand ethics on a more-or-less intuitive level. I would suggest instruction in ethics at that age – not simply a list of things that are right and wrong (the religious equivalent of “ethical instruction”), but instruction on how the kids can work their way through ethical dilemmas.

This would accomplish two things. First, it would help ingrain moral behaviour by equipping children with the tools to make good judgments in the absence of supervising authority. Second, it would help dispel the idea that morals come from religion, by showing the actual process by which we decide morality.

I am not opposed to instruction about religion in public schools. Just like we teach the orbital model of atomic structure as a way of showing what we used to believe, we can teach religion as one of mankind’s many failed models of the world, and what we’ve learned since then.

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It’s a miracle!

Miracles are funny things. Whenever something good happens, we call it ‘a miracle’. It doesn’t matter if there is a clear causal chain that can be followed from the beginning to the end – it’s still a “miracle” when surgery fixes someone’s cancer; it’s still a “miracle” when seatbelts and safety testing help someone survive a car crash; it’s still a “miracle” when an international team of engineers develop technology to save the lives of 33 men trapped in a collapsed mine, it’s a “miracle”.

So what about when 29 men trapped in a collapsed mine just die there? Is that a “miracle” too?

New Zealand has begun to mourn 29 miners who were declared dead earlier after a second explosion ripped through the shaft where they were trapped. A memorial service was held in the town of Greymouth, and Prime Minister John Key said it was a “national tragedy”.

One of the regular readers of this site is a New Zealander, and I am sensitive to the fact that this might hit home for him, so I am going to do my best to treat this tragedy with the appropriate gravity. There is nothing funny about the death of 30 people, and my characteristic flippancy is targeted not at them, or at the people of New Zealand, but at anyone who wishes to credit the Almighty with only those events that are good, whilst simultaneously failing to take credit for the bad stuff.

So, trying to keep that in mind, here’s my question to those who called the Chilean rescue a “miracle”: why did the New Zealand miners deserve to die in the opinion of your god? Would they have been judged worthy if they had prayed harder? Were their families just not devout enough? Were 28 punished for the sins of 1 other? How about the reverse – were they just evil “on average”? How do you explain the great “justice” and “mercy” of your deity?

Those who criticize the evils of religion are commonly admonished to be fair, and reminded that people do good things for religious reasons too. Assuming that the evil that is done by religion is balanced out by the good (and I don’t think it is), then religion is a negligible factor with respect to goodness. However, the religious are always quick to claim that religion “helps people be good” or some such nonsense that are entirely unsupported by evidence.

It is this same wish to both have your communion wafer and eat it too that comes into play with invocations of the word “miracle”. If God can take credit for things that happen to trapped miners underground, then He has to take credit for both the success of Chile and the tragedy in New Zealand. He has to take credit for both the magic of a newborn child and the horrible reality of stillbirth. He has to take credit for both the majesty of a sunset and the devastation of a hurricane.

But of course we know that God isn’t responsible for any of these things. He’s just responsible for people failing to deal with reality, and cherry-picking their perceptions of the world to preserve the illusion of a just and fair world.

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Whoops, spoke too soon

Sometimes I overextend myself and make statements preemptively before I have all the facts. It can happen to any of us, and from time to time I have to walk back something I’ve said in a post here.

This is one of those times.

Yesterday, I made a statement in a post that could be interpreted as me saying that the Pope wasn’t evil:

Apparently the world is quite willing to hand an abundance of cookies over to the Pope for finally saying something that pretty much everyone else had figured out already.

But hey, at least he figured it out, right?

I’m sad to say that I have to walk back even this grudging attempt to paint the Pope in anything other than a completely negative light:

Pope Benedict XVI praised efforts of the Filipino bishops in blocking any attempts to promote contraception in the Philippines. The pontiff said the Philippine Catholic leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to confronting any attack on the sanctity of life.

“I commend the Church in the Philippines for seeking to play its part in support of human life from conception until natural death, and in defense of the integrity of marriage and the family,” said Benedict XVI.

Hmm, perhaps I should translate:

Pope Benedict XVI praised the corrupting influence in the Filipino bishops in ensuring that poor people are doomed to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy in the Philippines. The ancient decrepit virgin said that the religiotic busybodies in the Philippines have reaffirmed their commitment to preventing any attempt to improve the quality of life.

“I commend the assholes in the Philippines for seeking to dictate its beliefs to other people in defiance of human rights from conception until natural death, and in defense of bigoted and outdated definitions of marriage and the family,” said Benedict XVI.

So it is to my great chagrin that I must apologize for misleading you fine readers. The Pope is completely evil and has no redeeming qualities. He is happy to whine and cry about the “oppression” of religion in rich countries, and then cackle with Palpatine-like glee as his Church dooms entire countries to a cycle of abuse and unwanted pregnancy in the poor countries.

Tim Minchin, play us out…

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My Wikileaks response

A friend messaged me yesterday to ask if I was planning on saying something about this unfolding Wikileaks saga. I was planning on steering clear of it, but since this is a blog that is in part about free speech, it might seem particularly conspicuous if I don’t say anything at all.

For the most part so far, it seems that most of the things that were leaked were diplomatic cables wherein people bitch about other world leaders. It’s the equivalent of someone printing out copies of a high school girl’s diary so that everyone finds out what she really thinks of them. I think Wikileaks is a good idea, since people in this hemisphere seem to be happy to ignore the hellscape that is our middle eastern foreign policy, but this particular document dump doesn’t seem to tell us much we don’t already know, and has instead raised people’s backs.

So much of diplomacy seems to be about appearance rather than substance, and it’s rather depressing to think that some of these leaked cables (which have little to no substance) will give recalcitrant states some puerile justification for throwing a tantrum on an international scale. Then again, it’s not like there’s a way for things to get much worse short of dropping actual bombs, and I saw very little evidence that things were getting any better.

But, as I am not a person with a background in international relations, or in possession of a great deal of knowledge about peace & conflict, I am happy to side-step this particular story. There are enough better commentators out there to give you an informed opinion on the subject, rather than my superficial from-the-hip analysis.

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Do me a favour?

I have heard that Ms. Tinkham has died of her cancer as of 3:30 pm PST. I am deeply saddened by this, more so because this death was, in all probability, preventable.

I enjoy blogging, I really do. However, sometimes it’s a struggle to find the inspirado to write. Since I started this for serious back in March, I’ve posted at least one new story every morning at 6 am (Vancouver time). Mondays I have reached deep into my psyche and pulled out a completely organic essay (what I’ve taken to privately referring to as my “think pieces”), and Fridays I have scoured the interwebs to find you a pithy or humorous video to entertain you.

I have yet to miss an update (I came perilously close this past Friday, but I still got it out).

I love blogging, but on those days when I just don’t feel like writing, I am spurred on by the thought that somewhere out there in the world, there is someone (maybe even a few someones) who read these things and get something from them. Maybe it’s just mindless entertainment as part of your morning routine, maybe it means something more than that; regardless, the thought of you going “where the fuck is today’s article?” is what chains my ass to the desk and gets my fingers a-typin’.

I say all this because the time has come for me to ask a favour from you. Over at Respectful Insolence, Orac has put out this plea:

I’m still perturbed that a cancer quack was able to convince a woman who had everything to live for that he could cure her of her breast cancer without surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. I’m still perturbed at this particular cancer quack’s attitude, where he tried to claim that he didn’t know the woman who is dying, Kim Tinkham, and imply that her cancer recurred because didn’t follow his regimen carefully enough, that she had stopped living the quack’s “alkaline diet.” I thought of my mother-in-law, who died in 2009 of metastatic breast cancer, and watching her decline.

And then I thought of Oprah Winfrey and her role in what ultimately happened to Kim Tinkham.

Oprah needs to know what can happen when people choose quackery and woo instead of effective science-based medicine.

Because I know how hard Orac works to get his lengthy and in-depth analyses of science-based medicine and medical skepticism out there, I was happy to contribute my voice to what I hope is a chorus of people saying the same thing: people who give bad advice about medicine have to live with the consequences of their words. This Kim Tinkham woman was told that cancer was an “acid” that was caused by feelings of resentment – a steamier pile of bullshit there has never been. Based on this faulty premise, the exposure and publicity that she got on the Oprah show, and Oprah’s whole-hearted endorsement of nonsense like The Secret, Ms. Tinkham eschewed conventional treatment and attempted to “alkalize” her body to get rid of cancer.

To be sure, with a stage III cancer she had roughly 50% odds of succumbing to the disease even with conventional treatment. However, that is a full 50% better chance than if she just slowly lets the cancer kill her. If we found some other treatment that improved your odds of surviving cancer by 50%, we’d be trumpeting it from the skies. Ms. Tinkham, with encouragement from Oprah, decided to opt instead for witch-doctor treatment from a quack who thinks that cancer is made up of acid. I have, with my own two eyes, seen a cancerous tumour – it looks nothing at all like acid. Furthermore, I have seen positive, happy, well-balanced people die of cancer – to suggest that it’s their own fault for having too much “resentment” is a disgusting insult to anyone who has seen a loved one die of cancer.

And so I am asking you, my dear readers, for whom I work so hard to provide regular (and hopefully interesting) content 5 days a week, to do me this favour: please write in to the Oprah show and tell them that it’s not okay to encourage vulnerable sick people to slowly commit suicide under the “care” of people who would exploit them first, then blame them later when their voodoo “cures” don’t work.

Please also feel free to copy and paste your submission to Oprah in the comments section.

Like this article? Write in to the Oprah Show then, dammit!

P.S. WordPress helpfully tracks the number of clicks the links that I post yield, so if you read this and don’t write the show, I’ll know.

Pope does something marginally decent

…and everyone loses their shit.

Of course this news is a bit dated now, and many of you have probably already heard this story:

Using a condom is a lesser evil than transmitting HIV to a sexual partner — male or female —even if that means averting a possible pregnancy, the Vatican said Tuesday, signalling a seismic shift in papal teaching as it further explained Pope Benedict XVI’s comments.

So the Pope has finally hit on the idea that it might be less evil to protect yourself and your sexual partner than it is to have sex without trying to make a baby. A few questions come to mind:

  1. What about papal infallibility? Were you wrong before, or are you wrong now?
  2. How is it that the moral “leadership” provided by the Catholic Church is about 100 years behind everyone else?
  3. How did it take you this long to figure that out?

Life is not a dichotomous state – there is no such thing as ensoulment or some kind of spontaneous creation of “life”. Ever since Friedrich Wöhler first synthesized crystals of urea, a feat that was supposed to be impossible (organic matter from inorganic components), the philosophy of vitalism has been rapidly dismantled. All of the evidence suggests that “life” is a continuum that reaches back millions of years to the first self-replicating molecule, which was itself made up of “non-living” materials.

In this way, wearing a condom is not “preventing life” anymore than masturbation is mass murder. You’re simply inhibiting a specific chemical reaction that will result in a fertilization. To even consider the suffering of a living, feeling human person equivalent to the prevention of a chemical reaction – to even put those things in the same moral ballpark – takes a particularly craven mind.

And so people began bending over backwards to congratulate the Pope on not being entirely boneheadedly evil:

Catholic reformers and groups working to combat HIV have welcomed remarks by Pope Benedict that the use of condoms might not always be wrong.

I’m reminded of a Chris Rock sketch, where he derides some black men for their perceived tendency to brag about things that aren’t accomplishments, like raising their kids and paying their bills. To this completely unwarranted bragging, Rock retorts: “what do you want, a cookie?” Apparently the world is quite willing to hand an abundance of cookies over to the Pope for finally saying something that pretty much everyone else had figured out already.

But hey, at least he figured it out, right?

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the Pope was speaking about “an exceptional situation” in one of the interviews in the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, which is being published on Tuesday.

“The Pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality is a real danger to the life of another,” said Fr Lombardi. Benedict used the specific example of a male prostitute using a condom to illustrate his apparent shift in position.

Come the fuck on, Ratzinger! Condoms are only appropriate in exceptional situations? Apparently in the Pope’s world view, it is better for a woman to become pregnant with a child she does not want and cannot afford to raise than it is for her to protect herself during sex. It’s better for a man to become inextricably yoked to another person for the rest of his life than it is for him to use a piece of latex.

And why is it a male prostitute?

Not all sex results in pregnancy (and I thank my lucky stars for that fact), but there’s always a chance. Many people want to have a child, for whatever reason, and are in a position to provide for it. Using condoms, unlike implants or hormone therapies or other intrusive forms of birth control, do not prevent people who want to have children from doing so. It is a simple technology that harms nobody (unless you count sperm, which I don’t).

Whatever claim to some kind of moral insight or authority that the Catholic Church pretends to have is repeatedly undermined by the ethical stupidity that is repeatedly on display from the Vatican.

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An apology

Regular readers here (numbers have taken a spike in the past couple of weeks – anyone have some insight as to why?) may notice that, after a glut of posting, my posts are becoming less frequent and smaller. Please interpret this as a lack of free time, rather than a lack of interest. As I write this I am getting glared at by the instructor of the workshop I am attending for being the only person typing on his computer. I’m also writing this 6 days later than usual, thus running the risk of missing a post (due to a lack of my usual buffer).

I can’t promise that this will change soon – I will be on vacation over the Christmas break, but I may not feel much like blogging once my schedule changes. After the New Year I should be back to normal.

Why do all the black kids sit together?

I attended a conference in Ottawa last week that was related to work. I arrived early and picked a spot at the row of tables completely arbitrarily. Other people filtered in a bit later, and when I looked up from my computer, I realized that all of the black people in the room (well, there were only three so maybe ‘all’ is a bit misleading) were sitting in the same area as me.

It’s a phenomenon that you can observe pretty much anywhere, where members of a minority group tend to flock together. It even spawned the title of a book on racism and psychology.

Okay, and?

My job straddles a line between epidemiology, statistics and economics. While I can’t really claim to be an expert in any one of those fields individually, I can at least speak semi-intelligibly about them. A central concept in economics is the idea of an “incentive” – decisions are made by rational agents to gain something they value. By increasing the value gained by making a particular choice, you make that choice more appealing. For example, if you have the choice between two hamburgers, and I slap a piece of delicious bacon on one (but not the other), you’re more likely to choose the one with extra value.

The converse case of incentives are what are termed “disincentives” – additional features that make a rational agent less likely to make a choice. Suppose you are a vegan, and you are forced to choose between those same two hamburgers. All of a sudden, the addition of delicious bacon makes that sandwich less appealing.

This is an incredibly simplistic description of the concept, obviously, but hopefully it is clear.

Wait… what?

There is an illusion that we carry around in our minds that we have a “true self” – that we have a personality that is the “real me” version. The fact is that our personality is more strongly determined by the surrounding social environment and other external stimuli than it is by our intentions. As a result, when our environment changes, different aspects of our “self” become more apparent.

There is a classic example of this called “stereotype threat“, in which a person’s performance is (positively or negatively) affected by making a stereotype about them apparent. This is commonly seen when discussing the differential performance of women in science and mathematics. Women were inundated with a prevailing stereotype that “girls are not good at science”. As a result, when women are reminded of their gender before testing, they do worse than if they are not made aware.

What does this have to do with anything?

Social pressure exists. The presence of others is a real environmental cue, that will cause us to be aware of various aspects of our identity. As a direct result, we will switch over to one of our various “selves”. At this workshop, everyone in the room was similar in most ways – we all have similar careers, similar education, probably similar interests. However, my presence in the room reminded the other two black guys of their “black guy self”, creating an ad hoc group. This happened completely passively – I didn’t walk up to them and say “welcome, fellow black man.” It happened all by itself – all they had to do was notice that there was another black person around.

There’s another level that this operates on though. Imagine the converse – you are a physicist in a room full of actors. You are trying to have a conversation about beauty, but every time you slip into physics-speak, you are met by blank stares. Another physicist joins the conversation – your life immediately becomes easier. Even though you might not ordinarily gravitate toward this particular person, this arbitrary similarity makes her/him highly attractive to you.

It’s the same way for members of any minority group – when they feel different from the rest of the group, they are more likely to gravitate toward those who are similarly different.


This ability to make certain identities more apparent can be used as an incentive to make decisions. If I would like you to donate to my women’s rights charity, I might do well to remind you that you have a sister, or a mother, or that you are a woman yourself. By bringing an aspect of your “self” to the foreground of your mind, I am able to influence you (as a rational agent) into making one decision (donating your money) rather than another (keeping it).

It is for this reason that things like the Atheist Bus Ads and the Out Campaign are useful – not for antagonizing the religious (although that is certainly what the faithful are claiming), but for bringing atheists out into the open. By making nonbelievers aware of their nonbelief, it brings that aspect of their “self” more apparent and helps motivate their behaviour.

Why is that good? Shouldn’t everyone consider themselves equal?

This kind of counterexample is appealing, and commonly used to blame those who talk about racism as “the real racists”. After all, by pointing out that there are treatment inequalities between different racial groups, aren’t you reinforcing the idea that races are different?

Describing reality is not the same as creating that reality. My usual go-to example is blaming someone for yelling “look out!”, and thereby causing a passerby to get hit by a bus. The bus was there to begin with, and would have hit the person regardless of the warning. The purpose of the warning is to make the passerby aware of the problem so she/he can take steps to avoid or fix it.

Atheists who are reminded of their atheism aren’t suddenly turned into atheists – they were already. Making that reality more apparent is not creating a difference, it’s just highlighting it for the explicit purpose of motivating people to consider their “atheist self”.

The bizarre thing about this whole phenomenon is that we often aren’t aware that these social forces play such a role. It was until I commented on our seating arrangement that the other two guys smiled and said “oh yeah”. Once aware of it, we can recognize it intuitively, but sometimes it happens without our even knowing.

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Movie Friday: NiqaBITCH

Satire has never looked so good:

The fundamental difficulty I have with the niqab is that it’s impossible to completely tease out the coercion and brainwashing that goes into religious and cultural education. I can’t understand why anyone would want to cover themselves with a thick cloth, but does that give me the right to pronounce it ethically wrong?

At least these women are showing that the debate shouldn’t be taken too seriously. There’s a bit more background to be found in The Guardian, but there’s not much more to be said about it.

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