In this Edition of Critical Links:

August Dates of Interest

  • A Conversation with Aaron Ra
  • Introducing Homo Naledi, Our Newest Relative
  • Confronting Racism Rationally
  • CFIC Welcomes Volunteers with Diverse Backgrounds

Scien ce Check

Secular Check

Think Check

Click any item in the table of contents to be taken to the website version of the article.

August Dates of Interest
August is National Immunization Awareness month . While rational science enthusiasts eagerly follow the development of a vaccine to protect against SARS-CoV-2, it’s unfortunate to see that anti-vaxxers are already mobilizing, practicing as anti-maskers.

August 6,1881, Alexander Fleming was born in Scotland. Fleming observed that contamination by a penicillium mould was killing the bacteria he was studying, and went on to develop the antibiotic penicillin. This world-changing development reminds us that though many scientific discoveries and advancements are associated with “eureka” moments, some of the most important are as a result of keen observers noticing something that is “just not quite right.”

August 20 is World Mosquito Day . On this day in 1897, British doctor Sir Ronald Ross identified mosquitoes as the transmission vector for malaria. (Though there are numerous other mosquito-borne diseases, such as Dengue fever, Yellow fever, Encephalitis, Zika virus, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by mosquito bites.)

Some notes on August’s tectonic history:

  • August 22, 1986, deadly CO2 fumes from a limnic eruption under Lake Nyos in Cameroon killed more than 1,700 people and numerous livestock and other animals.

If you celebrate any of these, or have suggestions for upcoming celebrations or observances, please drop us a line or send a picture to .

CFIC News & Events
A Conversation with Aron Ra
With so much going on in the world, CFIC is here to bring you this event, during which we will be asking Aron his thoughts on many prevalent topics.
Join us on August 7, when Aaron will discuss his thoughts on how religion influences bigotry and racism in the world, the removal of historical statues in the U.S., the factors resulting in the denial of COVID-19, and how we can become a better society of critical thinkers.
The event will be moderated by CFIC board member Rohit Mohindra. You will not want to miss it. Click here for further information and to RSVP.
Introducing Homo Naledi , Our Newest Relative
Join us on August 15 to hear John Mead tell his story about one of the greatest discoveries of the decade. John is an exceptional teacher who challenges his students to engage the world with questions and wonder. His excitement and passion are infectious and not to be missed.
RSVP on meetup is required. Click here for details.
Confronting Racism Rationally
CFIC is committed to creating public forums for civil discourse where we can learn from a variety of perspectives. Last month CFIC asked Dr. Ajamu Nangwaya and Scott Fraser to discuss anti-black racism in Canada.
On August 29 we will have Helen Pluckrose speak on confronting racism. Join us for this webinar for her take on how the anti-racism movement of today has gone astray and its connections with critical race theory and postmodernism.
Helen Pluckrose is the editor of Areo Magazine and the author of the newly released book Cynical Theories .
CFIC is committed to asking difficult questions, which can include talks on controversial subjects. Hosting a speaker does not imply agreement with their views.
CFIC Welcomes Volunteers with Diverse Backgrounds
CFIC fosters a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. We are committed to our values, including promoting diversity, to achieve more interesting conversations and more inclusive outcomes. We know that increased diversity within CFIC helps us to promote equality and social justice. Therefore we encourage humanists, including indigenous people of Canada, people of colour, and new Canadians to join us and add their voice to CFIC’s robust dialogue. 
Click here to find out more about volunteering with CFIC. Forward this to someone you think is committed to a just society based on free inquiry, science, reason, and humanist values .

Science Check
Scientific Skepticism in the Age of COVID
Doug Skeggs

Scientific skepticism was the foundation of the enlightenment and the launchpad for the age of reason. We know we can trust the scientific process as a pathway to knowledge. But science is not perfect, especially right now. We have every reason to be skeptical about information circulating, wrapped in the comforting blanket of “science” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Science operates best when it chugs away behind the scenes, never resting, methodically testing ideas in the competitive arena of academia, tethered by rigorous peer review. But in the frantic environment of a global pandemic, many of the constraints on science are removed, and that is both understandable and acceptable, as long as we understand what is happening.

The “science” information circulating on COVID-19 is not pure. There are three main factors that fundamentally weaken public communications about science during this pandemic: the rush for breakthroughs on a vaccine and effective treatments, the politicization of science, and the commercialization of science.

In the rush for breakthroughs on a COVID-19 vaccine and effective treatments, the normal checks on science are removed. Studies with clear methodological weakness that would normally be challenged and caught during the peer review process, are published and reported by news media as “promising new breakthroughs.”

The best example of this is probably the comprehensive study published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet . The article was subsequently withdrawn by the authors after strong protests from scientists around the world.

Much of the “science” we are presented with in the news is also heavily politicized. For example, at the very end of March, Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told Canadians , “There is no need to use a mask for well people.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., gave Americans the same advice: “You don’t need to wear a mask.” Dr. Fauci has since retracted that advice, admitting that his goal was to protect the limited supply of masks for front-line healthcare workers at the time, clearly superseding basic science.

The benefits of mask use continue to be misrepresented by “experts” and the media. There are three benefits of wearing a mask during this pandemic. One, it limits the spread of the virus by infected people. Two, it provides some protection for anyone who may be exposed to the virus. And three, a mask can limit the inoculum (the virus load) you receive if you are exposed, which gives your immune system a chance to respond to a smaller infection before the disease takes hold.

Money also plays a big role in public communications about science during a pandemic. You can be certain that Big Pharma, the commercial labs working on vaccines and treatments are ecstatic over the profits should they achieve a COVID-19 breakthrough. But non-commercial and less commercial labs also need funding to do their research and continue with expensive and comprehensive studies as they track towards possible breakthroughs. All of this commercial pressure leads to a level of hyperbole in public announcements about their work.

So when you hear a news announcer say something like, “Scientists say they’ve made an encouraging breakthrough in COVID-19 vaccine research,” of course be hopeful. But understand the environment in which that “scientific” information is circulating, and apply a healthy level of skepticism.

My go-to mantra on this is a piece of advice Christopher Hitchens offered the skeptical thinker: “Picture all experts as if they are mammals.”
Stab Everyone You Love
Leslie Rosenblood

Vaccinations are one of humanity’s greatest medical innovations, saving over ten million lives since 2010 alone. Given their decades-long track record of preventing illness in billions, why are so many skeptical about their safety and efficacy?

Ten years ago, I made what I thought was an innocuous Facebook post that linked to this brief Penn & Teller video . I did not realize at the time that there was an anti-vaccination movement, and one of its members engaged me in a months-long debate in the comments (and then over email). I started my blog, Opinions and Questions , in the hopes that my review of a particularly dishonest book about vaccines would reach a wider audience.

As a result, I learned a tremendous amount about anti-vaxxers, their arguments, and why they hold these beliefs. In my talk, I will distinguish the denialists from the vaccine-hesitant, provide some dos and don’ts on how to engage (should you choose to do so), and what the results were of my online debate about vaccines. I will also delve into human psychology and cognitive biases, how to distinguish between objective information and propaganda trying to masquerade as such, some considerations about a potential vaccine for COVID-19, and what you can do to educate those in your social circle (in real life or online) on this topic (and many others).

I have been a volunteer for CFIC almost since its inception and am proud to serve on the Board as its treasurer. I hope you will join me on August 20, at 7PM EST, for my first virtual public presentation. Please register on Meetup .

Secular Check
The Turkish Government’s Last Card: Hagia Sophia
Ateizm Dernegi (Association of Atheism, Turkey) Volunteers

When converting the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque was added to the agenda of the Turkish government , we worried that this would be a sign of the governmental system being converted into a religious system. More precisely, if Hagia Sophia were opened for worship, one of the symbols of the secular system would be demolished, and the Turkish republic would lose one of its secular footholds that has held since Hagia Sophia was converted from a mosque to a museum in 1934.

The opinion of law experts is that the annulment of a certain judgment made in the past by using the State Council as a stooge is unlawful. The means and extraordinary speed of the decision of the State Council suggests that the constitution of Turkey holds no power anymore. This decision, which will lead to a new division and deeper crack in society, at a time when Turkey is already going through a difficult period in terms of both internal and external issues, was made without the existence of social demand, and is completely political.

As a matter of fact, the number of mosques in Istanbul is much higher than what the the people require for worship. The government is trying to create an artificial tension, using religion to meet the demands of their supportive religious cults. In an environment where the fierce criminals are released by the government, where the journalists and intellectuals are silenced and imprisoned, where law societies and associations struggling for the independence of the judiciary are turned into justice beggars on the streets, where people commit suicide due to financial difficulties, where liberties are restricted and traumatic problems are experienced in every aspect of social life, turning Hagia Sophia — and its universal and cultural heritage — into a mosque points to the desperation of a political power that leaves all these socioeconomic problems unresolved.

The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, announced a written statement , sharing her serious concerns with the Ambassador of Turkey to UNESCO:

"This decision announced today raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value. States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories. UNESCO must be given prior notice of any such modifications, which, if necessary, are then examined by the World Heritage Committee.These concerns were shared with the Republic of Turkey in several letters, and again yesterday evening with the representative of the Turkish Delegation to UNESCO. It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was made without any form of dialogue or prior notice."

Any intervention to the Hagia Sophia Museum is an open attack not only on the site’s historical value, but also on the principle of secularism. When the opening of the Hagia Sophia to worship became an issue in the past, none other than Tayyip Erdoğan said “First fill Sultan Ahmet Mosque, then we can look further. They are talking about converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. This folk will never allow it, as long as I stay alive.” He is now willing to destroy a valuable cultural heritage, for the sake of collecting votes.

This path taken with concerns of political interest has no way out. Fundamentalists who produce new reasons to gain supporters and close the ranks in the “holy war” against secularism are swimming against the flow, and are in fact headed for their own fall. Those who attempt to take this road of religious uniformity are doomed to fail, and will have to hide their faces from future generations.

Our very greatest need is a state of law, in which human rights are under legal protection. The basis for this lies in being a secular and social state of law, as stated in Turkey’s constitution.

In the 21st century, it is tragicomical to applaud the decision of converting Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque, acting as if secularism has been overrun and “the infidels" have been defeated. This applause points to a deceived folk, and is only the sound of the footsteps of an incurable defeat.

Think Check
Racism at Home
Brian Campbell

With everything happening in the United States, the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, the subsequent protests, the reaction of the U.S. President, and the response from the rest of the world, I feel obliged to tell a story of a time I witnessed a blatant example of racism, right here in Manitoba. This event happened in the late 1980s, in a bar in my home town. I won’t mention who I was with. That is their story to tell, not mine.

I was home, visiting family, and decided to go out to the local bar for a drink. It was Saturday night and the bar was busy, everybody drinking and having a good time. Later in the evening, an Indigenous baseball team came in and pulled together several tables to make one long table, right in the middle of the bar. They had obviously won a big game and they were excited and celebrating, many trying to talk at the same time, raising the volume of an already loud bar.

One of them stood up at the head of the table and tried to quiet them down so he could say something. “Hey,” he said. “Everybody shut up for a second.”

A white guy next to me whose name I cannot remember yelled out, “All you f-cking Indians should shut up.”

The guy at the head of the table of Indigenous players turned and looked straight at me. I was caught off guard and started to say that it wasn’t me, but before I could say anything, the guy beside me jumped up and sucker punched the player. Within seconds, the whole bar exploded into a massive fight, whites against Indigenous. I backed against the wall with the people I came with and watched in horror.

The white people in the bar greatly outnumbered the Indigenous, so it wasn’t a fair fight from the get-go. On top of that, several of the white people, led by the guy that started the whole thing, had gone outside and had one person step back inside to harass and tease individual Indigenous men and lure them to step outside, where they would be ganged up on and beaten up.

The RCMP were called, but they never came anywhere near the bar. I found out later that they had parked their cruisers at either end of the main street and arrested every Indigenous man they caught running away from the bar, many of whom had already been beaten up before escaping. Some of the Indigenous were even tracked into people’s backyards. Not once did the RCMP come into the bar to ask what happened or who started the fight.

Eventually, I got out of the bar and went home. The next morning, my mother told me that everyone was talking about how an Indian baseball team had started a fight in the bar. I told her what really happened, but I’m not sure that she believed me.

What I know is that never in my life have I ever felt so embarrassed or disgusted to be white.
Racism in Canada
Doug Skeggs

The four pillars of CFIC are secularism, scientific skepticism, critical thinking, and community building.

You will note that human rights and anti-discrimination are not overtly referenced there. But I think the protection, promotion, and defence of human rights and social justice are inherently part of what it means to be a humanist, an atheist, an anti-theist, a secularist, a critical thinker, or whatever labels we or others apply to what we care about.

So I was very pleased and proud to see CFIC actively engage in the recent explosion of protest over systemic racism with an anti-racism social media campaign. CFIC also joined Humanist Canada and Dundurn Publishing to sponsor an anti-black-racism online webinar July 20, featuring activists Scott Fraser and Dr. Ajamu Nangwaya.

As a Canadian, it seems easy to just shrug, look the other way, and dismiss racism issues as “something that is a problem south of the border.” But Canada has very real racism issues and it is time we had a very public conversation about it.

Just this week Global News published the results of an Ipsos Reid poll on racism in Canada. The poll indicates that 60 percent of Canadians believe we have a serious racism problem in this country. Global News gave the story a slightly positive spin by saying this is up from only 47 percent one year ago.

I guess we can take some comfort in the fact that more than half of Canadians are now aware of racism in this country and its impact on Canadians. But what I take from this is: If I’m in a room with nine other random Canadians, four of them, either intentionally or otherwise, are completely oblivious to the problem of racism in Canada. And that is not good enough.

I can’t say that I understand what it is like to live on the receiving end of overt personal or pervasive systemic racism. But I am trying to understand. Personally I have adopted the advice of a black activist in the U.S. who said, “Right now, as we have this conversation about racism, white people need to shut up and listen.”

But I do have personal experience with the other side of that coin … privilege. As a financially secure older white guy, I have white privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, and age privilege. I know that. I recognize it almost every day.

I like the way Michael Enright recently used a baseball analogy to explain privilege on CBC Radio. “Privilege is being born on third base and living your life thinking you’ve hit a triple.”

As we work through this, and strive to build a better society that respects and protects the rights of all Canadians regardless of their skin colour or ethnicity, let’s not forget about perhaps the most pervasive, deeply entrenched form of racism in Canada: the deplorable, historic, and systemic marginalization of Indigenous people.

Thank you to CFIC for stepping up and taking a public stand against racism in Canada.
Keith’s Conundrums: Hilbert's Hotel
Keith Douglas

To recap from last time , Democritus’ cone, as it is called, can be used (as have many of the conundrums) to reflect on idealizations, the relationship between math and the world, etc. I especially like it for the latter, because it shows actually that much of what we learned in math classes (particularly quantitative geometry and trigonometry) was actually protophysics.

Something new, then.

Hilbert’s Hotel

Many summers, I like to take trips to this conference or that, to talk to people working on familiar yet different problems and interests, to see the sights and enjoy some new foods. This summer, since I'm not likely to go very far for the reasons you might sadly realize, I'm thinking of a certain special hotelier who has been important to me in the past, a Mr. D. Hilbert.

It turns out he was once trying to accommodate a large number of guests in his wondrous facility (try the vegetable stew!). Normally he puts guests sequentially into available rooms as they arrive: the first in the first room, the second in the second, and so on. But once, so many guests arrived that the line at the desk was ended by a guy whose ticker-tape serve number read “omega + 1.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Hilbert wanted the business of all these people. Since there were so many, he offered a massive discount to all. He put them all into rooms, even offering a spare room between each pair of guests, and charged them the reciprocal of their room number in dollars per night.

Hilbert's hotel has rooms starting at 1 and going up from there. Ever since that wonderful night of backgammon, chess, and those little crackers with salmon (not to mention Twister), Mr. Hilbert has been a very rich man indeed. I understand he's looking to retire and put his sizable fortune into musical performances, focusing on symmetry of exposition and pieces which require diophantine analysis to play. My favourite musicians could use the money! I hope a good amount goes to them! (But can one play a diophantine piece on the cello? Hmmmm!)

(Your mission is to comment on my admittedly fanciful tale of Mr. Hilbert, including to guess his given name, which oddly I am not sure I remember.)
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