In this edition of Critical Links:

CFIC News and Events
  • Updates – More on Healthy Eating
  • April Dates of interest
  • Branch News
  • CFIC Annual General Meeting

Think Check
  • No Afterlife for Broken Computers – A Farewell to Stephen Hawking
  • On Twitter, Lies Spread Faster and Further than Truth

Secular Check
  • Debate Over Public Funding for Catholic Schools Heats Up
  • Residential Schools – Are Presence and Prayers Enough?

Science Check
  • Thousands of Toronto Elementary Students Suspended for Improper Immunization Records
  • Make Earth Day Every Day

Books and Authors
  • Finding Purpose in a Godless World – Dr. Ralph Lewis
CFIC News and Events
Update: More on Healthy Eating:
Thanks to one of our readers who shared this story about celebrity fad diets with us.

April Dates of interest
April 1 – April Fool’s Day coincidentally fell on Easter Sunday this year. An urban legend describes why April Fool’s Day is "The Atheists’ Holiday".

April 14 – March for Science. Please send us your photos and tell us about your March for Science.

April 15-22 marks Volunteer Week 2018. Did you know that Centre for Inquiry Canada is run almost entirely by volunteers? All of our branches are volunteer-led. Please remember to thank your local branch leadership team. To find out more about becoming a CFIC volunteer, please click here.

April 22 is World Earth Day. Read today’s Critical Links for information about why we need to do more.


Branch News

Congratulations to CFIC Ottawa on their new program “Secular Community Network: Everyone working together for good.”

The SCN is a "community working cooperatively to build a fair, inclusive and cohesive society through gaining knowledge and serving others. As a secular group, we warmly welcome everyone interested in working towards our common goals; regardless of sex/gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, or race.”

The group meets weekly in a coffee shop for social and topical discussion. Members also plan to do community service activities and fund raising.


CFIC National:
Members have previously been notified of the Centre for Inquiry Canada Annual General Meeting of Council Members by teleconference, on Saturday, April 7, at 8 pm EDT.

Not a member yet? Please show your support for Centre for Inquiry Canada by purchasing a $30 membership. Not only will it allow you to add your voice to the call for science- and secular-based decision making, but it will provide you with a discounted admission price to all CFIC events.
Think Check
No Afterlife for Broken Computers: A farewell to Stephen Hawking [by Scott Douglas Jacobsen]

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. -Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking held a special place in the hearts of many CFIC members. His contributions to science, critical thinking, and secularism were impeccably aligned with our mandate. Dr. Hawking was widely recognized as a genius by the scientific community, his academic and intellectual peers, and the public. Critical Links offers this brief memorial to a great mind.

Hawking died on March 14 at the age of 76. For decades, he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a neurodegenerative disease.

Tributes to Stephen Hawking occurred in a myriad of ways. Hundreds of people lined up to pay their last respects at his funeral. Artists in Cambridge created a  graffiti memorial to Hawking. His legacy and life have been immortalized online through photo albums and the sharing of quotes and memories. Critical Links suggests that the best way to memorialize this great man is to continue his legacy of critical thinking.

In spite of his many accomplishments in theoretical physics; Hawking never won the Nobel Prize. However, he will be honored within the halls of the scientific community and for being an ambassador for science.

After his death, Hawking made two final gestures. His final film, aptly named “ Leaving Earth: Or How to Colonize a Planet " aired, and his family made a gift of an Easter meal for the hungry of Cambridge on his behalf.

Hawking did not believe in an afterlife. He died an atheist.


On Twitter, Lies Spread Faster and Further than Truth [by Edan Tasca]

- a ttributed to Mark Twain

Have you ever wondered why there is such a proliferation of “fake news”? Recent MIT research compared the spread of true and false news items on Twitter. The researchers found that false items did a better job of spreading across the social media platform than did their true-item counterparts. False items spread to more accounts than true items, and they spread much faster.

More specifically, true items took approximately six times as long to spread to 1500 accounts than false items took. Further, false items were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than were true items. Such effects were seen across multiple topics of news, but the effect was most pronounced when the news items involved politics.

And the effect isn’t driven by bots (fake, non-human accounts), as one might suspect. The study used a bot-detection algorithm to weed out non-human accounts. Nevertheless, false items continued to spread more quickly, showing that the effect is very much human in origin, rather than the result of bad actors programming fake accounts to purposely spread lies. The researchers hypothesize that the effect is largely based on the false items’ being more novel, inspiring surprise, fear, and disgust.

It is important to keep in mind that not all falsehoods are lies. Sometimes falsehoods are the product of misunderstanding rather than deceit. Consider the recent story about the identical twin astronaut, Scott Kelly, whose DNA was altered by a year in space, enough that, according to most reports, he was no longer identical to his (apparently former) twin, Mark Kelly (also an astronaut). This isn’t true, but it wasn’t spread as a lie.

The problem was a misunderstanding of the results of NASA’s study of Scott upon return. News items reported that, after his year in space, Scott’s DNA was 7 percent different from Mark’s. In reality, it was how the genes were expressing themselves that had changed. Gene expression can be altered by many factors, such as stress and exercise. The twins’ DNA continues to be identical.

Please help us stop the spread of fake news:
Secular Check
Debate Over Public Funding for Catholic Schools Heats Up

Three provinces in Canada continue to fully fund Catholic Schools: Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan. We hope to provide quarterly updates on what is happening in these three provinces and invite our readers to submit news about what is taking place in these three provinces.


Halton Catholic School Board Fights Back : In a controversial move, the Halton Catholic District School Board passed a motion prohibiting their students from fundraising for charities which support (directly or indirectly) abortion, contraception, sterilization, medical aid in dying, or embryonic stem cell research. Is this in response to the federal government decision to withhold summer job grants from employers whose core mandate violates the rights of Canadians? ( See March Critical Links ) Homa Arjomand and a group of activists representing a number of Canadian organizations think it is.  As a result, they will hold an event on Parliament Hill on Thursday, April 12, (noon to 1:00 pm) at which they will be urging Canadians to speak out in support of one publicly funded secular school system.

Billboard Campaign: Dr. Richard Thain of Ottawa has publicly protested public funding of Catholic school boards as a violation of human rights for several decades. In 2014, he led an attempt to launch a billboard campaign at the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Manitoba. The proposed billboard campaign was turned down by Pattison Sign company who deemed his advertisements “in poor taste.” Recently, however, this campaign has had more success with this advertisement being displayed on dozens of electronic billboards in Toronto beginning on March 19. The two-week campaign will result in over 6.6 million viewings. (Read more about Dr. Thain’s efforts in Manitoba and in Ontario here .)


Human Rights Violation? Is public funding of religious schools a violation of human rights? In Saskatchewan, Catholic school teachers and support staff must undergo screening, which includes a letter of reference from a priest. Speaking poorly of the Catholic church is grounds for disciplinary action (see priest’s reference).

Legal Challenge: In Saskatchewan, “minority religion” schools are funded. For more than 10 years, the Public Schools of Saskatchewan has been battling in court against the Government of Saskatchewan and the Theodore Roman Catholic School Division over public funding of non-Catholic students attending the Catholic school in a small Saskatchewan municipality. So far, this court battle has cost almost $1 million. At this time, the government and the school board have been ordered to pay costs. It appears that this will not be the final word, however, as appeals are in process. Read more here .


Dave King was Calgary’s Education Minister from 1979-1986. He launched Calgary’s Inclusive Diverse Education for All (IDEA) website in March 2017. A PUPIL ( Alberta Parents for Unbiased Public Inclusive Learning ) promotes the “equal and inclusive education of students without religious preference, segregation or exclusion.”


Pope will not Apologize for Residential Schools

Canada’s residential school legacy is, perhaps, the greatest proof of the damaging and long-lasting impact of mixing religion and government.

For well over 100 years, Canada’s residential schools attempted to “assimilate” indigenous children into Western culture. Recognition of the horrors these children faced, and the multi-generational legacy of this cultural genocide, led Canada to create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to attempt to find ways to redress the wrongs of the past.

The Commission released a report containing 94 recommendations. Recommendation #54 calls for an apology from the Pope for the role of the Catholic Church in committing atrocities in the name of educating indigenous children. This recommendation even provides precedence for the apology, asking that it resemble an apology made in 2010 to Irish victims of abuse.

The issue of a Papal apology was raised when a delegation of Western Canadian Bishops met with the Pope for the first time in more than 10 years. Regina Archbishop Don Bolen asked that the Pope visit Saskatchewan to issue this apology. Saskatchewan has been deeply affected by the residential school legacy. It had more residential schools and more residential school students per capita than any other province. It also was the location of the last of the residential schools ( Gordon Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan ), which finally closed its doors in 1996). 

The Catholic Church operated more than 75 percent of Canada’s residential schools . Although Pope Benedict XVI expressed “his sorrow” in 2009, the Catholic Church has never issued an apology.

While the Catholic Church “continues to support and pray for the process of reconciliation and healing” and invites its members “to participate by your prayers and your presence “ ( ), its leader, Pope Francis has declined to issue a Papal apology.
Science Check

As 2017 was closing, according to records assessed by Toronto Public Health between July and the end of December, over 5000 Toronto elementary school students were suspended because of incomplete immunization records. All the students were allowed back in school once their records were sorted out.

Ontario is one of only two provinces — along with New Brunswick — that require immunization records for school attendance. (Manitoba until recently required proof of the measles vaccine. The province dropped this requirement in 2014.)

Anti-vaxxer denialism seems not to be the major culprit. By far, the driver of the problem has been a complicated and outdated system combined with parental ignorance/negligence, whether about knowing when to take their children for the relevant vaccinations or about offering a valid exemption from the vaccine.

This prompts a question that’s sneakily political. Where should responsibility lie for keeping students’ immunization records up to date? Should we take a libertarian approach and leave the responsibility to parents? It seems that this approach has been a huge part of the problem. So is a more socialist approach appropriate? If so, should we lean on the healthcare system, the school administrations, or a combination of these to take on the responsibility of keeping everyone informed and all records up to date?

Read more here , and let us know what you think on our discussion forum .

Make Earth Day Every Day

April 22 is Earth Day. The first Earth Day was held in 1970 in the United States according to Earth Day Network. Earth Day Canada got its start a little later, in 1990. We wish we could report on great environmental successes that have occurred in the past 50 years, but this is not the case. Perhaps we need to stop making Earth Day a one-day-per-year event and think about our planet every day.

Recently, there has been some very discouraging environmental news. The World Wildlife Foundation is predicting a significant loss in the number and range of many species by the year 2100 if climate change is not slowed. Climate scientists are very concerned about severe increases in Arctic temperatures that are becoming much more frequent. Perhaps most worrisome is that more than 15,000 scientists from around the world signed a paper warning about the catastrophic impact of climate change. 

In a peer-reviewed article entitled “ The implications of the United Nations Paris agreement on climate change for globally significant biodiversity”, published in the Journal for International Climate Change, researchers predict the impact of global warming on the number and distribution of species in the world. They investigate the impact of warming of 4.5°C and of a less severe, but still significant, increase of 2°C. 
While climate change deniers might scoff at predictions of a 4.5° increase in mean temperature, the recent “ heat wave” in the Arctic, in which February temperatures increased to above the freezing level, is just one indication that the world is warming, including winter warming caused by storm surges, snow, and wind. More concerning than a single occurrence is the discovery that these storms are increasing in frequency and duration. Read about this here.

Read the report “ World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” in which more than15,000 scientists signed a report reinforcing a message issued in 1992. Scientists direct us to “demand that our governments take action, limit reproduction and diminish 'per capita consumption of fossil fuels, meat and other resources.' ”

There are a few bright points in the report. Our collective action has resulted in a decline in ozone depleting substances, fewer people are living in extreme poverty, fertility rates and deforestation are declining in many regions, and the renewable energy sources are growing quickly. Yet a recent poll showed that nearly a third of Canadians doubt that climate change is caused by "human activity and industrial activity such as burning fossil fuels ", so there is still a lot of room for improvement in the area of climate change education.

This year, let’s not just think about saving Earth on April 22. Consider the many ways that you can help to slow the speed of global warming and the speed at which we lose species that are innocent victims of our action all year round. Commit to being part of the solution.
Books and Authors
Purpose without God? [by Ralph Lewis, MD]

How do you answer a religious person who challenges you as to how you find purpose and meaning if you as an atheist believe the universe is random? Why should people care about anything, and about each other, they might ask you? Come to think of it, how do you even explain how purpose arose at all in a purposeless universe that began in a state of random energy? And what comfort or consolation can we as atheists with our random materialist worldview offer someone who is suffering terrible adversity?

As a psychiatrist, I find myself preoccupied with the human condition, especially questions of purpose and meaning. I have counseled many people whose experiences with illness or calamitous life events have shattered their belief in a benevolently purposeful universe and left them struggling to come to terms with the randomness of life .

A random world, which according to all the scientific evidence and despite our intuitions is the actual world we live in, is too often misconstrued as nihilistic, demotivating, or devoid of morality and meaning. It needn’t be so.

Our sense of purpose and meaning and our assumptions about the origins of morality are entangled with the mistaken human assumption that life events happen for an intended reason and that the universe itself is inherently purposeful. Humans are strongly predisposed to over-attribute pattern and conscious intention to events (a normal tendency magnified more obviously in mental disorders). These tendencies most likely evolved as by-products of our highly-attuned capacities to detect predators and prey and to cooperate as social animals by readily identifying patterns and inferring other beings’ intentions from those patterns. The unreliability of human subjectivity and intuition (again, a general human ‘bug’ writ large in mental disorders) are the reason why we need the scientific method — including the crucial component of critical peer review — to probe reality more objectively.

Although modern Western societies have become increasingly skeptical and secularized in our scientific era, most people still believe at least vaguely in a higher power and higher plan. Many educated people are also perplexed as to how spontaneous, self-organizing processes could explain our highly complex world, and they consider this exceedingly improbable. Even a significant minority of high-level scientists are religious, tending to emphasize what they consider enigmas or cosmic coincidences unexplainable by science, such as why the laws of physics appear fine-tuned for the purpose of enabling life to evolve. More enigmatic still is the question of how random unguided processes could have produced our conscious, seemingly non-material, caring selves out of the material ‘stuff’ of the universe.

Yet in a single generation, multiple paradigm-shifting insights have emerged in disparate scientific fields that, taken together, can now show how not only the universe itself, life, and, consciousness could have emerged and evolved spontaneously and unguided, but so too could purpose, morality, and meaning.

Coming to terms with randomness, while initially frightening, can be liberating and empowering. People do in fact cope resiliently with random adversity without recourse to supernatural belief. It turns out that realizing that the universe is fundamentally random does not usually cause nihilism, apathy, or feelings of pointlessness about life. Those who have embraced science, not only as a profession but also as a worldview, tend to be among the most inspired and purpose-driven members of society. The scientific worldview of an unguided, spontaneous universe can be awe-inspiring and foundational to building a more compassionate society.
Dr. Lewis is a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a psycho-oncology consultant at the Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto .

Dr. Lewis's book, Finding Purpose in a Godless World – Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t , will be released later this year. Watch Critical Links for information about an upcoming CFIC event with Dr. Ralph Lewis
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