Episode 93: Skeptics and Social Media

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn sits down with Lauren, Gem, and Laura to talk about some red flags to look out for when evaluating claims on social media and how nuance is impossible on the Internet.

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

Links: Don’t be evil (Wikipedia) | What everyone gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and racism (Vox) | Vox got no threats for posting Charlie Hebdo cartoons, dozens for covering Islamophobia (Vox) | Answering 16 of the Worst #JeSuisCharlie #CharlieHebdo Memes | Episode 69: Québec’s Charter of Values (LUEE) | Thoughts from the Edge (YouTube) | H.I. #7: Sorry, Language Teachers (Hello Internet) | H.I. #30: Fibonacci Dog Years (Hello Internet) | If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS (This American Life) | snopes.com: Sweaters for Penguins | Australian wildlife group says stop knitting koala mittens and start making kangaroo pouches (Telegraph)

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Episode 41: News Update

Episode 41: News Update

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Jeffrey Olsson, Donna Harris, and Greg Christensen discuss local and international news of interest to skeptics, including blasphemy cases in Pakistan and India and reproductive health issues abroad, and Greg reviews some exoplanet-related news items from the last few years.

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: Sanal Edamaruku | Pakistani Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy May Appeal | High Court Rejects Case Against Girl in Pakistan | Astronomers Spot “Super Jupiter” | Astronomers Directly Image Massive Star’s “Super-Jupiter” | Oprah Tweets Her Love For Microsoft Surface Using An iPad | Exoplanet Gliese 581g Makes the Top 5 | United Nations Declares Access to Contraception a “Universal Human Right” | What Happens to Women Who Are Denied Abortions? | The UCSF Global Turnaway Study | Record Nine-Planet Star System Discovered? | Saudi Arabian Women Tracked with System That Texts Their Husbands | Puffy Planet Poses Pretty Puzzle | World Toilet Day

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Come at me, Boiron!

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

Multinational homeopathic giant Boiron is threatening to sue an Italian blogger for publicly stating that their flagship “remedy”, Oscillococcinum, contains no active ingredient.

In a recent statement entitled Boiron, Please Sue Us, the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) invite the company to pick on someone their own size.

Boiron, you are a bunch of intellectual cowards. As Professor Frank Frizelle quipped, “Let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle.”

Boiron, your claims are mathematically and scientifically ludicrous, and completely without merit. Homeopathic remedies diluted past roughly 13C contain no active ingredient. Come at me, Bro.

Is there a problem with sexism in the Skeptic’s movement?

If you would have asked me yesterday I would have said no.

I feel like I can judge people pretty well when it comes to issues of sexism. When our skeptic group meets at the bar we talk very openly about many “feminist” issues including pornography, prostitution and female politicians(good and bad) If there were sexists among us I think I would have known. I think the first sign that the men in our group aren’t sexist is that when these issues did up; they are usually brought up by men and are never actually referred to as feminist issues. They are simply topics worth discussing.

Today my answer has changed. Like a lot of people, I base my views on what I see around me. I had seen nothing but the good side of men in the skeptical movement. I had no idea that there would be such outrage at a women who said nothing more than she felt uncomfortable at being asked out for coffee by a guy she didn’t know at four in the morning in an elevator. This says to me there is a problem…. a pretty big problem.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about Rebecca Watson was out drinking with a group of people. Around four in the morning she decided to turn in and headed to the elevator to go to her hotel room. A random guy (who was in the hotel bar she just left) followed her into the elevator and said something to the effect of “don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to go back to my room and have coffee and we can talk more?” Rebecca said that this is the kind of thing that makes her feel uncomfortable and asks guys not to do things like this. Here is the video where she talks about it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKHwduG1Frk&feature=player_embedded (It’s closer to the end)

From here controversy ensued.

I heard the response to what she had said before I had actually seen the video. It really bothered me. To me it boils down to Rebecca saying she doesn’t like this kind of behavior and she thinks many women don’t like this kind of behavior, so if you want to “have coffee” with her or other women who are like her… don’t go about approaching her in that manner. I have no idea how this = man hater.

So what’s the problem?

There seems to be an easy common ground to reach. I hope most would agree approaching a women you don’t really know in an elevator is a not a good idea, and most would agree that it would make a woman feel uncomfortable.

Lets start from there. I think that we can all agree that a women, or man, or child should be able to talk about something that makes them feel uncomfortable. I think (hope) that most people can agree with this. I also think that there are many men who fear that by asking a women out for coffee they will be branded as sexual predators. I think that this is where the problem lies.

Earlier this year in Winnipeg there was a case (that in spite a 1988 Supreme Court ruling that said women do not invite sexual assault through their appearance) in which a man got a lighter sentence because the women he raped was drinking and dressed in a tube top with no bra, high heels and makeup, I should also mention that the assault took place in 2006 and the sentence is now being reconsidered again… in 2011. Men who are afraid of being thought of as sexual predators need to keep this in mind when they look at what should and should not make a women feel uncomfortable.

I think we all need to look at the reality of the situation. Things kind of suck if you’re a girl, I think that most men would agree. I also think that women in our attempts to protect ourselves sometimes will view men as sexual predators when in all likelihood they aren’t, and that isn’t fair to that man.

So what’s the solution?

I don’t think that this is a male/female problem. I think this is a “no one want’s to be treated unfairly” problem. I think it’s unfair of women to assume every man is a potential rapist and I think it’s unfair of a man to think it’s unfair for a women to assume a man is a potential rapist when he puts her in a situation that makes her feel uncomfortable. Yea, I know that might have not maken much sense, let me try that again.

So what’s the solution?

Maybe we should focus on the justice system. If we had a supreme court ruling that said women do not invite sexual assault through…. no… wait. I guess we do have that ruling…. lets try one more time….

So what’s the solution?

Maybe it’s the men who need to be the bigger man. If they could talk to their friends and sons and the guys at work about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, women wouldn’t have to say it as often and then be accused of “bragging” when we talk about guys hitting on us, and how we don’t like the ways we go about it. A lot of the men I know do this. Men are always going to have boy talk and women will always have girl talk…. if men would start shooting their buddies down for being creepy, I think that would stop a lot of the girl talk. A lot of the men in my life do exactly that.

I have a feeling that a lot of the men in our skeptics group have also had conversations with their buddies that went to that effect. Maybe that’s why we have so many women in our group compared to other groups.

Maybe all women should always wear tube tops with no bra, high heels and make-up. If we all dress the same judges can’t say we invited the situation anymore than any other women… I don’t know how that would go over with my safety rep. who says I need to wear a safety vest and steal toes at all times… I did find one place that sold steal toed high heels, but heels don’t work well with freshly laid sod….. ahhh that won’t work either…..

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know.

I hope there is a solution. I’m pretty sure that whatever the solution is it involves no one over reacting… No one throwing out accusations…
I know it involves better communication.
I know it involves both sides letting things go.

I also know it starts from setting an example.

If anyone has made someone else feel uncomfortable in our skeptics group it would be me. So I will apologize.

At a semi-recent bar night (after a totally innocent comment by a male member of the group that went something to the tune of “What would be the point of X-ray glasses? So you could see some chicks bone structure?”) I am the one who said I would love it if there were glasses that could only see through cloths because my breasts look much better in a push up bra than they do when they are just hanging loose. I am sorry for my comments and I am sorry if I made anyone feel uncomfortable.

I am also the one who went up to two female members of our group and started stroking there hair. Just because one member had gotten a short(er) hair cut and the girl sitting next to her had long curly hair and I wanted to see if there was a different texture in there hair… that was pretty creepy of me; I’m sorry to both of you.

I’m sorry for announcing at a very early meeting that I watch a lot of porn… no one needs to think about me watching porn.

And I’m sorry that at a recent filming I told the gentlemen who seemed nervous about accidentally touching my cleavage when putting on my mic. that the reason I wore that dress was that I was hoping for a cheap grope. I’m sure I made you more uncomfortable and I’m sorry.

Prayer in Manitoba’s Public Schools: Here to learn, except when you’re not

Cross-posted from Subspecies

The Free Press (why do I read the paper?) is reporting that numerous schools in Manitoba still have students recite the Lord’s Prayer. This makes me especially sad as many of the schools listed are ones that myself or my brother have attended. I have no recollection of this, to be honest, with the exception of at J.A. Cuddy in Sanford. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t always been the case, but I’m sincerely confused because I attended Oak Bluff for a few years, and don’t ever remember doing it. Perhaps it blended so seamlessly into my expectations that I never thought it notable enough to remember.

In any case, everyone knows the entertainment in news stories comes from the comments. There are plenty of people spewing venom at this devious, atheist lawyer who is asking the schools to respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There are a few main themes for this objection:

Kids today are worse than they used to be! This is because they took prayer out of schools! Umm, I’m pretty sure the point of this article is that prayer is still in schools even though it’s not supposed to be. Most likely, you have a nostalgia bias, and remember things better than they were, and any real decline in good behaviour at school is due to other factors.
This country was built on Christian values! WTF, really? First of all, the argument from tradition is one of the worst fallacies. Second of all, this country has committed numerous atrocities based on those same Christian values. Xenophobia, racism and superiority lead to residential schools, Japanese internment camps, anti-Semitism, lack of women’s rights, etc. If those are the sort of values you think we should value and that Christianity promotes, you freaking suck, and Christianity sucks harder.
If you don’t like it, you should go to a country that doesn’t believe in God. Um no, first of all, a country cannot believe in God, only its people can. Furthermore, this particular country enforces the freedom of religious belief, INCLUDING atheism, agnosticism, and all other religions. There are very specific rules for how religion can enter public schools, and it is not allowed to be on school time. If you would prefer a country that does enforce such things, as pointed out by another commenter, I hear Iran is really nice for religious fundamentalism this type of year.
The Lord’s Prayer says nice things that all children should hear, regardless of their religion. First of all, no it doesn’t say anything that is worth saying. Talking about heaven on earth and being forgiven are explicitly Christian sentiments which are not universal. As for the bits about not doing or suffering from evil, isn’t that a given? Why do we need to teach our children, using religious doctrine, not to do evil? Do we need them to pray to an invisible man when someone has done wrong to them, or should we be encouraging them to actually do something about it?
“Who is Chris Tait? Who is he to dictate to others that they can’t pray in school? So schools are [sic] suppose to drop the Lord’s Prayer because some atheist lawyer says so?” No, schools are not supposed to use the Lord’s Prayer because our CHARTER says so. It is the law, the lawyer is reminding them of it!
“Heaven forbid, no pun intended, that the kids of today start their day being thankful, by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s not have them learn about empathy either. However, if a dissident from an obscure tribe wanted part of their ritual ackowledged or believes read that would be ok, right.” Honestly, I don’t read any part of being thankful in there. I hear praise to God, which is quite different than, golly gee whiz, I’m sure thankful I am a Canadian kid who has rights and laws protecting me like freedom of speech and education! Furthermore, the law is quite clear, it doesn’t matter who you are, you are not allowed to promote religion in school. True, we do teach kids about Native history (grade 6, I think) but I also distinctly remember learning about the Reformation during European History in grade 7. It’s okay to learn about such things for the purposes of knowledge. Just because we made bannock in grade 5 doesn’t mean that the school division is promoting being a Voyageur! There is a difference between knowledge and promotion.
If we don’t allow God in our schools, where will he be when things go wrong? We do not need God to deal with our problems. We deal with problems. If someone is about to be raped, are you going to stand there and let God intervene, or are you going to call the cops?
A Christian agenda teaches love and forgiveness! No, a Christian agenda is a Christian agenda, and as such you cannot teach it in public schools. What is so difficult about this? Can someone seriously argue with me that you cannot teach someone what love is without talking about God? That it is impossible to forgive someone for a wrong without them pleading their case before a man in the sky first? Seriously?
Why don’t people deal with more important issues? This is irrelevant! While it may be true that there are serious issues that require attention, that doesn’t negate the fact that the law is being broken. Should we ignore drunk drivers because there’s a serial rapist? Should all the police in the city work in the North End, because it has some major crime issues, and ignore the rest? Just because X is not as popular as Y doesn’t mean it deserves to be ignored. A similar issue is happening in research. A lot of women get breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need money for Parkinson’s Disease or Huntington’s.
This is an atheist deception! What? How? What? Saying atheists are deceiving you, and then listing a bunch of bad things that happen (including in schools that have 100% compliance with the prayer!) is not an argument, it’s a non sequitir.
Children in schools have to hear pro-choice, pro-homosexuality and pro-evoution lectures! This is infringing on our religious freedoms just as much!! No, the charter guarantees that everyone will be treated equally and fairly. Imposing your religious beliefs on everyone is very different than being provided with information that disagrees with your bigoted religious beliefs. The Charter does not protect your right to be an asshole.

Sorry, WFP commenters. If fallacies and false equivalences are all you’ve got for me, I remain unconvinced. Kids go to school to learn information and to learn how to think critically. They spend all day saying, here kids, figure this out! Then they say, okay, now shut off your minds, and talk out loud to a man in the sky. It’s not learning, it’s brainwashing. Don’t get me wrong, if it’s your kid, that’s your own choice, but if you want to brainwash for Jesus, there are plenty of schools that are more than willing to oblige you.

Atheism and Skepticism: Fight to the Death!

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

I’m a little tired of this.

Jeff Wagg’s article Are Atheists Delusional? Thoughts on Skepticon3 started the firefight, with answering volleys from P.Z. Myers and Jen McCreight, with the Matt Dillahunty, Russell Glasser, Shilling Cadena, and Dennis Loubet of The Non-Prophets soon joining the fray.

Needless to say, I’m on the everyone-but-Jeff-Wagg side.

Skepticism ≠ Atheism

Jeff Wagg makes this point several times, and I agree!

But similarly:

rectangle ≠ square
oval ≠ circle
human ≠ mammal

Many people arrive at their atheism as a result of their skepticism, and I would contend that atheism is a skeptical position. In most cases, atheism is a subset of skepticism, as squares are subsets of rectangles.

Can Skepticism Address Religious Claims?

Jeff Wagg’s position seems to be a (qualified) “no”:

I believe that if you equate skepticism with anything other than science, you’ve missed the point. As for Christianity, skepticism has nothing to say except about testable claims associated therein. Bleeding statues? Yes, skepticism comes into play. Jesus rose and is in heaven? Seems unlikely, but there’s not a lot more to say.

But evidence is not the only thing in our skeptical toolbox. As I’ve explained before, we look for many things, including (but not limited to):

  • Plausibility: How well does this idea fit with what we currently know about how the universe functions?
  • Falsifiability: Is the claim well and rigorously defined? Is there a way to prove it false, at least in principle?
  • Evidence: Has the claim been previously investigated? If so, what were the results of the investigation?
  • Sound Reasoning: Does the claim rest upon logical fallacies or cognitive biases?

Here’s what Jen has to say:

But to those of us who came to atheism through skeptical analysis of religion, it was literally inconceivable how skeptics couldn’t be atheists. The only explanation the panelists could think of for this current debate was that it was based on public relations, not intellectual merit – that yes, skepticism leads to atheism, but please hush about it so we don’t scare away the religious members. Yet there’s another explanation often given – that you can’t directly test the God hypothesis, therefore please hush about it.

And that’s where I must call bullshit.

Agreed! I’ll just quote something that you’ve probably seen before:

In cases where no unambiguous evidence is forthcoming, the burden of proof dictates the default position. There are two possible default positions for belief in a proposition when evidence is absent: (1) believe every proposition until proven false; or (2) withhold belief until propositions are proven true.

The problem with the first option is that it is logically inconsistent. I’ll illustrate by way of example.

Proposition 1: “Leprechauns place a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.”
Proposition 2: “Leprechauns do not exist.”

With no evidence forthcoming, option (1) forces you to accept both propositions, even though they are mutually inconsistent.

For this reason, we accept option (2), and conclude that the burden of proof lies with the claimant. If you claim that a deity exists and it created the universe, you bear the burden of proof.

The Skeptical Litmus Test

Jeff sez:

I’m convinced that a litmus test over who’s a skeptic and who isn’t based on religious belief is harmful to both movements.


No one said there should be a skeptical litmus test. Well, maybe someone has, but if so that person is an idiot. Imposing such a test would be very counterproductive, indeed inimical to the freedom of expression for which the skeptical community strives.

Of course you can be religious and still be a skeptic. But you can also believe that homeopathy works and still be a skeptic. You can believe that George W. Bush is a reptoid alien and still be a skeptic. You’re just not universally applying your skepticism. We’re probably all guilty of this from time to time—we probably all have our sacred cows—but, as skeptics, we should try really hard to recognise these tendencies in ourselves and eliminate them where we find them.

Freedom of Thought and Expression

Although I disagree with Jen when she says that “[r]eligion is one of, if not the most important issue [sic] people should be skeptical about”. I think that alt-med probably wins out—but it’s debatable. That said, I’m of the opinion that religion is probably the most interesting topics that we can discuss.

It seems to me that this is mostly a public relations issue. People probably want skepticism to keep its hands off of religion because religion is the superstition of choice ’round these parts. In trying to grow the skeptical movement, many vocal skeptics don’t want to offend the public’s deeply held convictions, because it will make us less popular.

And I can understand that.

But I think that the idea that all propositions are open to question is fundamental to skepticism. Freedom of expression is important. Regardless of whether or not they have come to the same conclusions, I think that it behoves skeptics to be open to questioning these sorts of ideas.

The Winnipeg Skeptics is not an atheist organisation. In an email exchange that I had with John Feakes of Winnipeg’s creation museum a few months ago, I had to clarify this:

The Winnipeg Skeptics is not an atheist organisation. It is dedicated to a method of inquiry, not to any conclusions. The reason that it has the “atheist” Meetup tag attached to it is that it’s the sort of organisation that appeals to many (but not all) atheists, and many skeptics find it via Meetup’s search functions. Although it’s true that the majority of our members are atheist, deists and even Christians have attended our meetups in the past and are always welcome. There is no skeptical litmus test that one must pass to be a member.

And that’s the way that it should be.

Hat tip to Pharyngula, Blag Hag, and The Non-Prophets.

Simon Singh wants you to sign something.

And so do I! English libel laws are as absurd as they are far-reaching. I’ll let Simon explain.

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particular dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign