Online Skeptical Activism: Does It Work?

The Winnipeg Skeptics is first and foremost about community: until 2010, skeptics, critical thinkers, science enthusiasts, and curmudgeons in Winnipeg didn’t really have a group to call their own, and so we created one. But many of us also care passionately about skeptical activism—and one of the easiest places to “do skepticism” is online.

In addition to our Facebook page (which you should “like”, by the way), we also have a Facebook discussion group (which we welcome anyone to join). I always enjoy engaging in critical discussions on scientific topics in the comments section of the blog, where I recently had an extended conversation about the purported dangers of radiofrequency EMF. (It’s worth noting parenthetically that “how do i start an anti wifi group” is currently one of the top web searches that leads to the Winnipeg Skeptics site.)

But one of the questions that I frequently encounter when discussing online skeptical activism is simply: Does it work?

I believe that it’s important to counter misinformation wherever and whenever we find it (especially when it seems likely that those who are misinformed may come to serious harm), and confronting pseudoscience on social media serves a valuable role. While you may not persuade those with whom you’re arguing directly (not immediately, anyway), you can prevent bystanders and passers by from being convinced by shoddy evidence, and you can help curtail the spread of bad science.

Members of the Winnipeg Skeptics are always doing battle against pseudoscience, and so I thought that I might share some of our recent social media escapades. I’ll note that a few of the snippets that I’ll present have been reordered slightly. This is because in some cases many people were posting to a thread simultaneously and responding to each other’s comments, and I’d like to present sufficient context for the discussion without forcing the reader to wade through every single comment. I’ll also link to a full screenshot of each discussion for those readers who would like to see each comment in its original context. I have also redacted the names of those participants who I don’t know to be “out” as skeptics. On the one hand, that’s sort of a shame, because there were a fair number of very solid points made and credit should go where credit is due. On the other hand, I feel that leaving these people’s names in there without permission would be rather rude.

We’ll start off with a discussion on the Little Remedies Canada Facebook page from a couple of months back. In their original post they claim that, flu season having arrived, squeezing a clove of garlic into your child’s food would give their immune system a “super boost”. (Full discussion.)

Little Remedies Canada, Image 1Little Remedies Canada, Image 2Little Remedies Canada, Image 3Little Remedies Canada, Image 4Little Remedies Canada, Image 5Little Remedies Canada, Image 6Little Remedies Canada, Image 7

Next, I’ll present a brief exchange that Richelle had with the proprietor of Calgary’s The Naked Leaf tea house, in which they slyly claim-without-actually-claiming that their tea treats high cholesterol and high blood sugar. (Full discussion.)

The Naked Leaf, Image 1The Naked Leaf, Image 2The Naked Leaf, Image 3

The response is classic: they promote nonsense, they’re called on it, and they responded with the old, “Well now, we’re not making any claims! We’re just letting other people make claims on our behalf!” (This is standard operating procedure for multilevel/network marketing schemes, incidentally.)

The last discussion that I’ll cite in detail comes from the Facebook page of Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region. At the end of last month they announced, “Planned Parenthood is proud to be hosting ‘Night with a Homeopath’ on Tuesday February 26th … [to] discuss what a homeopathic practitioner is and what they can do for us.” PPWR described the event as a great chance to learn about “alternatives to ‘modern medicine’.” The skeptical response was swift and decisive, with Rebecca Watson and members of the Winnipeg and Ottawa Skeptics spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. (Full discussion.)

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 1

That first comment pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 2Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 3Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 4Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 5Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 6Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 7Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 8Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 9

All of that took place within an hour of the announcement. It seemed like Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region wasn’t going to back down, given the fact that they opened with the “you’re not being open minded” gambit, entreating us to just hear the homeopath out. But we were determined to spread this story far and wide, and just a few minutes later links to the announcement returned this:

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 10

And this announcement followed soon after:

Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region, Image 11

How’s that for a win?

And this news came just a few days before it was announced that the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation had dropped notorious anti-vaccine crank Jenny McCarthy from their Bust a Move charity fundraiser in response to pressure from groups like the Ottawa Skeptics and Bad Science Watch. The #dropjenny campaign, spearheaded by the Ottawa Skeptics’ Chris Hebbern, took place almost entirely on Twitter.

So, online skeptical activism: Does it work?

It certainly seems to.

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Episode 46: Home Birth

Episode 46: Home Birth

Trigger Warning: There is a discussion of “birth rape” 42 minutes into this episode.

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Richelle McCullough, Laura Creek Newman, and Dr. Laura Targownik talk about home birth, “natural” childbirth, and other pregnancy-related topics from a science-based perspective.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Home Births Rise Despite Higher Neonatal Mortality Rate | Orgasmic Childbirth | Benefits of Natural Childbirth (SheKnows Parenting, JustMommies, Attachment Parenting Advice, allParenting) | Natural Childbirth, Pain, and Shame | In Passionate Support of Caesarean Births | A Plan For Natural Birth: Hold The Drugs, Please | Yes, There Was Pitocin: A Birth That Didn’t Quite Stick to the Script | Home Birth with Midwife Safe as Hospital | What is “Birth Rape”? | Women’s Health Clinic Principles of Service for the Birth Centre

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

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Episode 43: News Update

Episode 43: News Update

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn Noble, Donna Harris, and Mark Forkheim discuss local and international news of interest to skeptics, including Palestine’s admission to the United Nations, a study demonstrating the benefits of flax, the Pope’s new Twitter account, and more.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Apocalypse 2012: The End of the World Party (Facebook Event, Meetup Event) | Flaxtastic! | The Palestinian UN Bid: What Happened and What Changed | Everyone Can Benefit from Naturopathic Care (apparently) | Pope Gets More Than Half a Million Twitter Followers Without Sending a Single Tweet | Cambridge University to Open Centre Studying the Risks of Technology to Humans | What If? The Robot Apocalypse

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Episode 30: To Vaccinate, or Not to Vaccinate?

Episode 30: To Vaccinate, or Not to Vaccinate?

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman discusses the science (and pseudoscience) associated with vaccines with Dr. Laura Targownik, Richelle McCullough, and Laura Creek Newman.

This episode was recorded over Google+, so the audio quality is occasionally inconsistent. We’re working on correcting these issues moving forward.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2012 | Todd Akin and “Legitimate” Rape (Coverage on Gawker, Kirk Cameron Defends Akin, “Legitimate Rape” – A Medieval Medical Concept) | Natural births, Not C-sections, Trigger Brain-Protecting Proteins | AAP Changes Circumcision Policy (New Policy Statement, Further Details, Canadian Paediatric Society Policy) | Whooping Cough Outbreak Worst in Decades | Bad Science Watch Targets Homeopathic “Vaccines” | Natural Health Products in Canada – a History | Andrew Wakefield – an Elaborate Fraud | Brian Deer Investigates Andrew Wakefield (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) | What Is Thimerosol? | Ethylmercury | Methylmercury | Universal Vaccine Could Eliminate Annual Flu Shots | Government Undermines Its Vaccination Message | Myths About the Seasonal Flu Vaccine | Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated | What’s the Harm?

What Are You Reading? The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely | The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker | 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa, by Stephanie Nolan | Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman | Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut | American Gods, by Neil Gaiman | Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, by Greta Christina

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Bad Advice from Truther.org

The following is a guest post from Brendan Curran-Johnson, who was one of our presenters at last year’s SkeptiCamp. Here, Brendan responds to a few of the claims made in an image that’s currently circulating on Facebook, which originates from the hilarious den of conspiracy nuttery that is Truther.org.


While I certainly support people learning more about vaccines (because science and learning are awesome), avoiding vaccines has very real health consequences that affect more than just the people not taking the vaccines. In the past few years there has been a resurgance of a number of diseases that we had under control (pertussis, mumps, measles, etc.).

Most people cite the MMR/Autism connection when talking about the harms of vaccines, but the truth is that the study that is based on (the Wakefield study originally published by the Lancet) is not a valid study. The Lancet retracted it, and Wakefield was actually accused of deliberate fraud.

There certainly have been cases of drugs turning out to be harmful (thalidomide being the most obvious example), the process which the FDA and Health Canada use to screen drugs is very rigorous. The process is not perfect (no system could be 100% effective), but it is the most reliable system that anyone has come up with.

This is in stark opposition to homeopathy, which this photo advocates (kind of—marijuana and refusing prescription drugs have nothing to do with homeopathy). Alternative medicine (which is what they really are trying to advocate) suffers the problem that it has either not proven to be effective, or has been proven to not be affective (alternative medicine that has been proven to work is called medicine).

Homeopathy in specific is one of the silliest ‘medicines’ that exists. The two basic precepts of homeopathy are that like cures like (e.g., if someone is having trouble breathing, the proper medicine would be something that also restricts breathing), and that the more you dilute something, the stronger it gets. The typical dilution of homeopathic medicine is 30C. The system works as follows: take 99 parts water and 1 part ‘medicine’. That would be 1C. To make 2C, take 99 parts water and 1 part 1C ‘medicine’. The amount of dilution is 1 part per 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. If you were to make a sphere of water that stretched from the earth to the sun, you would add just one molocule of ‘medicine’ (that statistic is taken from Dr. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science).

The advice being given here isn’t just wrong, its actively dangerous (also counter to point 8: avoid fear, propoganda, disinformation). Medicine is far too important a subject to allow misinformation to be spread unchallenged.


Thanks, Brendan!

Bad Science Watch to Health Canada: De-register Homeopathic Vaccines

Reprinted from Bad Science Watch.

PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Bad Science Watch to Health Canada: De-register Homeopathic Vaccines

Toronto, ON – Wednesday August 1st, 2012 – Today, the new Canadian science advocacy group Bad Science Watch announced plans to convince Health Canada to de-register homeopathic health products that are offered as unproven replacements for childhood vaccinations. This project will combat the anti-vaccine camps within homeopathy that offer these so-called “nosodes”; the sale of which directly contradicts Health Canada’s own efforts to promote childhood vaccinations.

Nosodes are ultra-dilute homeopathic remedies prepared using diseased tissue, such as blood, pus, and saliva, that are based on the unsupportable “like-cures-like” hypothesis where you give someone a very low dose of the offending substance to then cure or prevent the disease in question.

Homeopaths in Canada are offering these nosodes for a variety of childhood diseases, like pertussis, or whooping cough, a deadly disease that is currently afflicting more Canadian children, mostly infants, than it has in the past 50 years. The anti-vaccine messages spread by homeopaths have caused parents to needlessly question the usefulness and safety of vaccines and as a result the level of vaccination in Canadian communities has dropped to as low as 62%. A level of 80% or higher is needed to have proper protection from pertussis in the community.

“The un-scientific approach of homeopaths is a real threat to parents who just want their child to be healthy and safe,” said Jamie Williams the Executive Director of Bad Science Watch, “and Health Canada, through their approval of these products, is complicit in this message. We will show that the policy of approving nosodes is working against the best interest of public health and we demand that Health Canada review these products and have them pulled from the shelves.”

Even a cursory search of the Natural Health Products Directorate, the agency that oversees the approval of non-orthodox alternative medicine products, brings up remedies purporting to prevent or treat such diseases as measles, polio, and mumps, three diseases that can be life-threatening in children and that vaccines have been effectively suppressing for decades.

“These nosodes may not directly injure a child, as they are so dilute as to contain none of the original substance,” said Michael Kruse, chair of the board of Bad Science Watch, “but they can give a very false sense of security. The basic tenets of homeopathy contradict basic chemistry and physics and there is no good evidence for its use in the prevention or treatment of disease.”

To get involved in the promotion of good science and help stop the spread of the anti-vaccine message, please contact info@badsciencewatch.ca.

Further Reference:

Evidence for Homeopathic Medicines Guidance Document – Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodnatur/legislation/docs/ehmg-nprh-eng.php

Pertussis Outbreak in Alberta
http://www.edmontonjournal.com/opinion/fashioned+killer+puts+Alberta+children+risk/6989299/story.html

Nosodes for Major Communicable Diseases Approved for Sale by Health Canada
http://www.badsciencewatch.ca/bad-science-watch-asks-health-canada-to-stop-approving-homeopathic-vaccines/

For media enquiries, or additional information, please contact:

Jamie Williams
Executive Director
Bad Science Watch
jwilliams@badsciencewatch.ca
1-888-742-3299 x 102

Bad Science Watch
180 Danforth Avenue
Toronto, ON M3K 3P5
Tel: 1-888-742-3299
Fax: 1-888-813-3569
Email: info@badsciencewatch.ca


Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization that provides analysis of dubious scientific claims to Canadians, our government, and the media, promotes objective critical thinking and advocates for the enforcement and strengthening of consumer protection regulation.

Bad Science Watch is funded by individual donations, and is committed to organizational transparency.

Episode 27: The Benefits of Religion

Episode 27: The Benefits of Religion

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Leslie Saunders discusses the purported benefits of religion with Greg Christensen and Robert Shindler.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Drinking Skeptically | Microsoft Adds “Big Boobs” to Linux Kernel | 10 Benefits of Religion | Will the Earth Survive the Sun’s Death? (National Geographic News, New Scientist) | The Nonbelievers’ Beliefs | The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by Robert Crumb | Unwin Formula

Also on this episode, the third instalment of Where’s My Jetpack? This week Old Man Newman asks, “Where’s my cure for cancer?”

Where’s My Jetpack? Links: Cancer Fact Sheets (World Health Organization, National Cancer Institue) | Cancer Statistics | Dichloroacetate (Dr. Steven Novella, Orac) | Genetically Modified T Cell Therapy | Thioridazine Cancer Treatment

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