The Cross-Canada Skeptical Smackdown!

The Cross Canada Skeptical Smackdown is back! CCSS is an annual pub quiz that’s held in multiple locations across Canada, with local and national bragging rights at stake. Teams of four(-ish) will compete in a series of trivia rounds to see whose knowledge of all things skeptical will reign supreme!

Last year's CCSS.
Last year’s CCSS in Winnipeg.

If you want to participate, form a team of up to four players and come down to the closest event near you. And if you don’t have a team, don’t worry about it! Single players will be placed into new or existing teams upon arrival. If you decide to come down, I will personally guarantee you’ll have a great time!

Our event in Winnipeg will be held in the Wood Tavern at the Norwood Hotel (112 Marion Street) on Friday, 26 April 2013 at 7:00 pm. You can RSVP at our Meetup site, or you can just show up! Make sure you invite your friends!

But if you’re not in Winnipeg, you can attend one of the other events across Canada.

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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.

Episode 42: Skepticon 5, Part 2

Episode 42: Skepticon 5, Part 2

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Mark Forkheim, Ashlyn Noble, Laura Creek Newman, Brendan Curran-Johnson, and Gary Barbon conclude their discussion of Skepticon 5, and the LUEE crew reflects on 42 episodes of Life, the Universe & Everything Else. This episode also features interviews with Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience and Jen McCreight of Blag Hag.

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) | Skepticon | Skepticon Videos | Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) | Dawkins Quotation (from The God Delusion) | The Atheist Experience (website, blog) | Matt Dillahunty vs. Kristine Kruszelnicki: The Right to Abortion | Blag Hag | Boobquake | Atheism+ | Jen McCreight: Diversity in Your Group

Our Favourite LUEE Episodes: Leaving Faith Behind, Part 1 | Leaving Faith Behind, Part 2 | “Thrive” | Zombies! Part 1! | Zombies! Part 2! | To Vaccinate, or Not to Vaccinate? | Common Creationist Claims, Part 1 | Common Creationist Claims, Part 2

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What Does Creationism Say About Our Culture?

Cross-posted from Skeptic North.

According to a 2007 Angus-Reid poll, 59% of Canadians accept evolution and common descent, while 22% are convinced that God created human beings within the last 10,000 years (with acceptance of evolution being correlated with youth and with higher levels of education, and belief in special creation being more prevalent on the prairies). While it can be tempting to dismiss those who claim that evolution is a religion or that there are no transitional fossils as backward or fringe, the truth is that the prevalence of these beliefs (even in high places) is actually an interesting phenomenon.

As any skeptic can tell you, simply correcting misinformation—supplying the relevant facts, highlighting a logical fallacy, whatever—is nearly never enough to dissuade a believer. Why? Because beliefs don’t stand and fall simply on their own merits. Understanding why people believe things that are sometimes downright odd can provide us with important insight. It seems to me that this sort of context can not only tell us how we might go about winning the argument, but it can give us insight into what the argument is really about.

Look, it can be great fun playing whack-a-mole with creationist claims (I’ve done it many times myself)—we can say that evolution is the cornerstone of modern biological sciences until we’re blue in the face—but when you get right down to it, belief in creationism seems relatively benign when compared to (for example) the conviction that lemongrass makes a good cure for pancreatic cancer. But it’s important to understand that pseudoscientific beliefs do not exist in a vacuum, that they are instead part of a larger cultural context: and that context should be of great interest to skeptics.

I’m sure that many of our readers remember that in a 2009 Globe & Mail interview Gary Goodyear (our Minister of State for Science & Technology, for those of you who were about to check Wikipedia) refused to answer a question about his stance on evolution, stating “I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.”

While many people were justifiably appalled that Canada’s Minister of State for Science & Technology confused a question about his position on an important scientific issue with a question about his religion, I’m inclined to think that Goodyear may have simply been engaging in a rather artless attempt to dodge a question that he may have considered politically awkward (recognizing that his position is probably not in line with the overwhelming scientific consensus). Regardless, countless people swarmed to Goodyear’s defence, with National Post columnist Jonathan Kay characterizing the Globe & Mail article as a “witch hunt”.

So what does the prevalence of creationism (or at the very least, the hesitation to accept the strong scientific consensus) say about our culture?

When a person finds that an opinion (even if said opinion is a deeply held religious opinion) is contradicted by the scientific evidence, most reasonable people would probably agree that this person has two real options: to impugn the evidence or to change the opinion. The choice that an individual makes may be in some sense mediated by the answer to this question: Does this person think that the evidence is contradicting the belief, or do they think that the belief is contradicting the evidence?

However, there is a hidden third option: to blithely ignore the conflict. Whether it takes the form of treating science as just another social construct, no more valid than any other, or of simply denying the necessity of basing one’s beliefs on evidence, this seems to be an increasingly popular tactic for coping with cognitive dissonance.

The fact remains that we now live in a culture in which personal opinion and scientific evidence are, in the eyes of many, given equal weight. We live in a culture in which it is commonplace for a person, upon finding that established science contradicts their personal opinion, to say, “All the worse for science!” This is troubling.

It seems that many people treat their opinions about science (or politics, for that matter) in the same way they treat their preferred sports teams. These opinions are strongly influenced by social and geographical factors, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from strongly and cheerfully proclaiming the superiority of their side of the argument—and in both cases, people are unlikely to be swayed by the evidence (sorry, Maple Leafs fans).

In fact, for people who hold strong opinions on any subject, evidence that contravenes the opinion is actually likely to strengthen the opinion, rather than erode it. This phenomenon is known as the “backfire effect“. A widely reported study on the subject (as it relates to factual claims in politics) was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and Georgia State University in 2006, and it concluded that “corrections fail to reduce misperceptions for the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases.”

No one can be completely immune to the backfire effect (or to any other cognitive bias). But if your primary conviction is to the method rather than to the conclusion, then perhaps you will be better equipped to recognise that it is your opinion that is in need of correction.

So what does creationism say about our culture? That, at the very least, we must remain vigilant.

Episode 40: Skepticon 5, Part 1

Episode 40: Skepticon 5, Part 1

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Mark Forkheim, Ashlyn Noble, Laura Creek Newman, Brendan Curran-Johnson, and Gary Barbon discuss their trip to Skepticon 5. This episode also features interviews with Skepchicks Rebecca Watson, Surly Amy, and Kammy Lyon, and with Lauren Lane, one of the founders of Skepticon.

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: Skepticon | Episode 4: Skepticon 4 Recap | Skepchick | It Stands to Reason, Skeptics Can Be Sexist Too | The Humanist Community Project

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Episode 36: Common Creationist Claims, Part 2

Episode 36: Common Creationist Claims, Part 2

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Ashlyn Noble, Greg Christensen, and Ian Leung provide more evidence for evolution, and discuss some of their favourite silly creationist arguments.

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: On the Origin of Species | Index to Creationist Claims (Full Index, Giraffe’s Circulatory System, Paluxy Footprints, Fossil Sea Creatures on Mountaintops) | Evidence for Common Descent (Talk Origins, Wikipedia) | Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve | The Problem of Induction | Dear Emma B | Species Distribution via Plant Rafts and Tree Bridges | Point of Inquiry: The Debunking Handbook | Feakes’ Pamphlets | Neo-Darwinian Synthesis | The Lapine: Atheist Suicide Bomber Kills Eighteen Agnostics | John Scalzi Visits the Creation Museum (Part 1: The Photographic Tour, Part 2: On the Creation Museum)

What Are You Reading? The Wheel of Time Series | A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson | Have a Nice Day!, by Mick Foley | Foley Is Good: And the Real World Is Faker Than Wrestling, by Mick Foley | Chronicles of the Shadow War | Shadow Moon, by Chris Claremont | On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin | Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein | Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

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Episode 34: Common Creationist Claims, Part 1

Episode 34: Common Creationist Claims, Part 1

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman discusses and rebuts common creationist arguments with the help of Ashlyn Noble, Greg Christensen, and Ian Leung.

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: On the Origin of Species | In the Beginning | TalkOrigins.org | An Index to Creationist Claims | Neo-Darwinian Synthesis | Debating Creationists | The Evolution of the Eye (Wikipedia, Dawkins Explains Here, and Here, and Here) | Irreducible Complexity (Iron Chariots, Wikipedia) | Examples of Transitional Fossils (Tiktaalik, Archaeopteryx, Eohippus/Hyracotherium, Ambulocetus)

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