SkeptiCamp Winnipeg: Robert Lancaster: Skeptical Hero

Embedded below is Donna Harris’s talk from SkeptiCamp Winnipeg 2013. Donna Harris holds an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Manitoba, writes book reviews for the Winnipeg Free Press, and helms the Manitoba Humanist newsletter in her meagre spare time. A life-long science nerd as well as a non-believer, her activism was only engaged after attending the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Amaz!ng Meeting 4. She is president of the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba, and is happy to call herself humanist, atheist, and skeptic.

SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is a conference for the sharing of ideas. It is free and open to the public: anyone can attend and participate! Presentations and discussions focus on science and free inquiry, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas. You can visit our SkeptiCamp page for information about upcoming events and links to past SkeptiCamp talks.

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.

Episode 44: War on Christmas (2012 Edition)

Episode 44: War on Christmas (2012 Edition)

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn Noble, Greg Christensen, and Mark Whatman talk about the (supposed) War on Christmas, and Jeffrey Olsson interviews A.J. Johnson, the Director of Development for American Atheists.

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) | Bill O’Reilly’s War on Christmas Montage | Fox News: War On Christmas | 3 Ways the “War on Christmas” Is Way Older Than You Think | Jeremiah 10:2–4 | American Atheists

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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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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 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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The Dangerous Truth Behind Cooked Food

Brevity is not one of my strengths. For this reason, what often begins as a minor correction or a response to a question in the comments section often becomes its own blog post (the character limits imposed by various blogging platforms also plays a role).

This is a follow-up to a post from several months ago, in which I discuss the shortcomings of an article from the hilarious TruthTheory.com: The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves. Here, I respond to some criticism that I received.

This blog is no more an authority than the ones you mocked.

Excellent.

Seriously, that’s great! I’m just some beardy dude who likes science and occasionally has the opportunity to do science, but my specialty is in artificial intelligence (although recently I’ve been helping out with research in robotics and psychology). I make no claim to either authority (something that’s pretty much worthless in matters of science) or expertise (something that’s a little more relevant) in this (or any) subject. I’m trying to instill in people an appreciation for science and critical thinking generally. If you think that I want people to consider me an authority on matters scientific in any domain, either I’m not getting a properly skeptical message across (certainly debatable) or you’re not paying attention.

Firstly, lets define “harmful”: carcinogens are harmful…

Granted.

…as well as, destroying phytonutrients that the body needs to sustain itself and strengthen defenses.

I do not grant that the reduction of phytochemicals in food is harmful. Stipulating that the compounds in question are healthful, it does not stand to reason that reducing the phytochemical content of a given food is harmful unless it is also established that the subject has a deficiency.

To illustrate by example: I would not consider a carton of pasteurized orange juice to be “harmful” (although its high sugar content may be problemmatic for some), despite the fact that the pasteurization process destroys much of the vitamin C content in the juice (and not all manufacterers add supplemental vitamin C to their juices)—unless, of course, the person consuming the product were deficient in vitamin C and counting on the orange juice in this regard.

Returning to the point about carcinogenicity, I’ll remind the commenter that many common methods of cooking are implicated as cancer-causing, to some degree or other, including pan-frying, grilling, or barbecuing meat (source), smoking meats, roasting coffee beans, or even cooking with vegetable oils (source), or simply heating carbohydrate-rich food by means other than boiling (source).

This is complicated by the fact that several foods contain both compounds found to be carcinogenic and anticarcinogenic compounds.

What’s worse, these phenomena are much better established both epidemeologically and from a basic science standpoint than the carcinogenicity of some microwaved foods. So why the outcry over microwaves? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because they’re scary and new and complicated, and people tend to distrust things that they don’t understand. Luckily, I’m under no obligation to hazard such a guess, so I won’t.

Name the evidence that would be good enough to convince you there is “proof”?

The word “proof” is in scare quotes, as though to imply I’m asking for proof. I’m not. Science doesn’t deal in “proofs”: it deals in evidence, and no level of evidence constitutes “proof” in any sense but the colloquial.

But here’s what I think would qualify as good evidence that microwaved foods are harmfully carcinogenic (for example): Replicable (and replicated), peer-reviewed studies establishing from a basic science standpoint that carcinogenic compounds are formed in foods heated or cooked in microwave ovens (and that these compounds are not formed in foods heated by other conventional methods), followed by epidemiological studies showing both statistically and clinically significant correlations between microwave use and cancer incidence.

That’s a lot to ask for, of course, but I’d be happy to give my provisional assent to the proposition if it looks like a consensus is forming in the literature. It would also help if the IARC recognised microwaved foodstuffs as even potentially carcinogenic (Group 2B); but, as it stands, microwaved foods don’t even make the list of things that the IARC can’t rule out.

Is it possible that some foods are less nutritious when microwaved? Of course! I’d say that it’s likely! But the same could be said for boiling, for frying, or for just about any other method of cooking, depending on the food.

Is it possible that some foods are carcinogenic when microwaved? Again, of course! But let’s look at the specifics, and let’s not forget (while we make sweeping generalizations), that the same is also already well established for many popular methods of cooking.

Do these admissions run contrary to my previous article on the safety of microwaves? Hardly. Even if it were (somehow) conclusively “proven” that microwaved food was harmful, that would not make the article I was critiquing “true” in any meaningful sense!

As I’ve said several times now, my problem with the original article had nothing to do with its conclusions and everything to do with the fact that it put ideology first and evidence second. It was horrendously sourced, made sweeping generalizations, got the basic science wrong, and cited as sources sites that were (to put it very mildly) disreputable and dishonest.

Episode 26: “Thrive”

Episode 26: “Thrive”

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman, Gary Barbon, and Mark Forkheim discuss the online conspiracy film “Thrive” with Robert Shindler, Richelle McCullough, and Greg Christensen.

This episode was recorded over Google+, so the audio quality is occasionally inconsistent. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, Greg, Richelle, and Robert had to drop out of the show early, but Mark, Gary, and Gem soldiered on!

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.

News Items: Bad Science Watch | Students at Quebec School Have Adverse Reaction to Hypnotist Act | Hypnosis (Wikipedia, The Skeptic’s Dictionary) | Obese Father Loses Custody of His Children | Do Atheists Have a Sexual Harassment Problem? | Freethought Blogs Roundtable (Harassment at Conferences, Why Talk About Social Justice?) | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg | Winnipeg Skeptics Anti-Harassment Policy | New NSA Docs Contradict 9/11 Claims (Salon, National Security Archive) | Prometheus: It Sucked

Addressing Some of Thrive’s Claims: Thrive | Entropy and Life | Graphical (Linear) Projection | The Flower of Life | Skeptoid on UFOs | SkeptiCamp Winnipeg: Perpetual Motion and Free Energy | The Hutchison “Effect” | The Death of Eugene Mallove (Suspects Arrested, Schaffer Enters Guilty Plea) | Interviewees Repudiate Thrive (Interviewees Distance Themselves from the Film, John Robbins Speaks Out Against Thrive) | Thrive Debunked (Index, Ancient Astronauts, Crop Circles, “False Flag” Attacks, Global Domination)

What Are You Reading? Hitch-22 | Against Intellectual Monopoly | Hegemony or Survival | Fundamentals of Computational Neuroscience | Going Solo | Singlism | Dying of the Light | John Dies at the End | Redshirts | I Am Legend | Why Are You Atheists So Angry? | Before Watchmen

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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.

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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.