Episode 86: Interview with a Mariachi Ghost

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ian James sits down for a conversation with Rafael Reyes, guitarist for local Winnipeg band The Mariachi Ghost.

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: The Mariachi Ghost Website | The Mariachi Ghost on BandCamp | The Mariachi Ghost on Facebook | Conservative Leader Brian Pallister on “Infidel Atheists” Who “Celebrate Nothing”

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Write Canadian MPs to bring Clinical Trial Transparency to Canada

The fine folks at AllTrials have an important reminder for you. Act now! (Stay tuned to the next episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, when we discuss some of these issues in a bit more depth.)

We have just heard that we have a chance to improve clinical trial transparency in Canada. Bill C-17 or “Vanessa’s Law” is being considered this Tuesday and there’s a chance to get clinical trial transparency measures added to it.

We urgently need you to write to the MPs on the Standing Committee on Health to tell them how important clinical trial transparency is. A template letter is below, followed by the emails for the MPs on the committee. We’ll keep you posted about the Bill’s progress, but please send your emails today.

They have a sample letter that you can send on their website. Because I’m also concerned about Vanessa’s Law ignoring potentially-dangerous natural health products, I sent a slightly modified version, below:

Ben Lobb, Chair ben.lobb@parl.gc.ca
Libby Davies, Vice-Chair libby.davies@parl.gc.ca
Hedy Fry, Vice-Chair hedy.fry@parl.gc.ca
Eve Adams eve.adams@parl.gc.ca
Claude Gravelle <laude.gravelle@parl.gc.ca
Wladyslaw Lizon wladyslaw.lizon@parl.gc.ca
James Lunney james.lunney@parl.gc.ca
Dany Morin dany.morin@parl.gc.ca
David Wilks david.wilks@parl.gc.ca
Terence Young terence.young@parl.gc.ca

Dear members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health:

I'm writing to you regarding Bill C-17, known as "Vanessa's Law". I am pleased that Parliament is considering a number of new measures such as the power to recall drugs that will significantly improve patient safety; however, I strongly believe the Bill needs key amendments to fully protect patient safety.

Specifically, it is clear that the bill needs to be amended (1) to require that all clinical trials and observational studies are publicly registered before they begin; (2) to mandate that all trials have their full methods and results reported after completion (preferably within one year); and (3) to include provisions for natural health products (NHPs) to be recalled in the same fashion as pharmaceuticals.

Results from around half of clinical trials have never been published and many have never been registered. New laws in the United States and Europe require the registration and reporting of future clinical trials but in Canada there is no legal requirement to register or disclose the results. Information on what was done and what was found in these trials could be lost forever to doctors and researchers, leading to bad treatment decisions, missed opportunities for good medicine, and trials being repeated (at great cost). Further, the regulator's interpretation of the evidence must be publicly available when it approves, refuses or recalls a drug from the market.

Further, it's very important to ensure that information about clinical trials and observational studies is not considered confidential. This information is generated because people participate in trials in the hope of advancing knowledge. If we treat this information as private property, it ignores the contribution that clinical trial participants make.

Finally, it is my understanding that the law currently exempts natural health products (NHPs) from the same level of scrutiny that it applies to pharmaceuticals. To be clear, NHPs are drugs. They are pharmacologically active, they can be dangerous in certain circumstances, and they can have negative drug-drug interactions with pharmaceuticals. For this reason, it is vital that we not exclude NHPs from close scrutiny and potential recall simply because they are "natural".

I understand that Bill C-17, in its current form, lacks these important measures. For this reason, I'm writing to you, in your capacity as a member of the Standing Committee, to urge you to consider amending Bill C-17 to make sure Canada's drug regulatory system is transparent and to ensure that Canadians are protected from all drugs, whether they're "natural" or not. These critical amendments would ensure that the evidence base behind all drugs are open to scrutiny, physicians and other health care providers are adequately informed about the risks and benefits, and patients are better protected from harm.

Sincerely,
Gem Newman
Winnipeg

Hat tip to Ian Bushfield from Sense About Science.

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.

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.

Announcing Bad Science Watch!

Reprinted from Bad Science Watch.

PRESS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

New watchdog targets bad science in policy and regulation nationwide

Toronto, ON – Monday, July 9th, 2012 – Bad Science Watch, a new Canadian science advocacy group, has issued a challenge to the Canadian government: stick to the science in the development and implementation of important policy decisions. This group will work diligently to ensure Canadians are protected from exploitation by unscrupulous organizations peddling useless and potentially harmful products and services.

Bad Science Watch strives to serve as a key Canadian lobbying organisation, dedicated to challenging lax consumer protection measures and fighting for the rights of Canadians to accurate information when making decisions which affect their health, prosperity and well-being.

“The Canadian public has been poorly-served by a government which displays little respect for objectivity and science,” said Bad Science Watch Executive Director, Jamie Williams. “Consequently, weak consumer protection regulations allow the sale of products and services that don’t work, and Canadians are exploited by the unscrupulous or misinformed.”

Bad Science Watch will announce details of its first projects in the coming weeks. Among them: targeting bogus food-intolerance testing in Canadian drugstores, and an intensive investigation into the state of the Canadian anti-WiFi lobby.

“Bad Science Watch will fill a unique role as the only national organization in Canada with a focus on strengthening consumer protection against bad science,” explained Chair of the Board of Directors, Michael Kruse. “With a strong commitment to the most professional and transparent non-profit practices, our experienced Board of Directors, Steering Committee, and Executive are striving to create the most effective and consistently successful force countering bad science in Canada.”

Canadians interested in volunteering and donating to Bad Science Watch can find more information at www.badsciencewatch.ca. Bad Science Watch can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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 25: Curiosity and the Love of Science

Episode 25: Curiosity and the Love of Science

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, the LUEE hosts take the day off to enjoy a wonderful Canada Day, which allows hosts Robert Shindler, Richelle McCullough, and Gem Newman a chance to look back at the past year to share with you a couple of presentations from our vault.

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 | Science and Media: A Love Story | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg | SkeptiCamp.org | Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat | TEDxManitoba | TEDx | TEDx Talks on YouTube

The recording of Gem Newman’s TEDxManitoba talk is owned by TED, and was released by TEDxTalks under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Contact Us: Facebook | Twitter | Email

Listen: Direct Link | iTunes | RSS Feed


Correction: July’s Drinking Skeptically will take place at Smitty’s Lounge, 1017 St. James Street, instead of the usual location at the Norwood Hotel.

Prayer at City Hall

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

On Tuesday, I was contacted by a producer with Radio-Canada (the French division of CBC) for an interview. They were putting together a téléjournal (television news) piece about prayer in Winnipeg City Council meetings, and were hoping for comment from the Winnipeg Skeptics. I agreed to speak with them, and also attempted to put them in contact with Jeff Olsson of the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba and Robert McGregor of the Winnipeg Secularists (who, I informed them, had put together a petition on precisely this subject).

Robert McGregor speaks to Catherine Dulude. Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Winnipeg City Council generally starts the day with a prayer—see, for example, the minutes from the City Council meeting on 25 April 2012. (The minutes of all City Council meetings can be found here.)

There were several points that I stressed in the interview, which I’ll summarize here.

First of all, while the Winnipeg Skeptics has no official position with regard to any particular religious claim (except for those that relate to science, such as creationism), the organisation is supportive of secular government over sectarian government.

It is true that Canada doesn’t have a constitutional separation of church and state; indeed, while we have no official religion, our head of state is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That said, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion.

I have no problem with members of City Council praying privately. I would never ask a politician to “check their religion at the door”. But when religious observance is carried out by an elected body that is meant to represent the people, that religious observance is effectively being carried out on behalf of the people. Canada’s government is committed (nominally, at least) to multiculturalism and religious pluralism. It seems to me that, in such a nation, governmental entanglement with religious practice (such as prayer) should be minimized.

Even the most benign, vague, and seemingly inoffensive prayers can be divisive. A simple prayer to “God” may be offensive to a deist, who may not believe in an interventionist god, or to a Hindu, who may believe in many. Members of minority religious or cultural groups may see governmental prayer as another way in which they are marginalized.

As is to be expected, the five-minute discussion that I had with the journalist was cut down to a single soundbite—but one that accurately represented my position—while Robert McGregor was (appropriately) given a more extensive interview. I thought that the finished piece (which is a distinctly Manitoban combination of French and English) was very good, and you can view it here.

Image from CBC. Used under fair dealing.

Less good was the online article summarizing the téléjournal piece, which identified me as the organiser of the Winnipeg Secularists and seemed generally convinced that Robert and I were the same person. This has since been corrected, but until about an hour ago still listed my name as “Greg”.

If you don’t read French, feel free to have Google translate the article for you. Alternatively, there is a similar article (bereft of any reference to yours truly) on CBC. The usual caveats against reading the comments section apply, of course.