In this Edition of Critical Links:

January Dates of Interest

CFIC News and Events
  • Yasmine Mohammed: CFIC Book Tour
  • Living Without Religion: Virtual Branch Edition
  • Grasshoppers!
  • Ottawa Event: A Discussion with Dr. Qais Ghanem

Science Check
  • Peer Review Works
  • Vaccine Roundup

Secular Check
  • Church of Atheism Denied
  • BC Atheist Beats Mandatory AA

Think Check
  • How Do You Choose a Charity?
  • Does Social Media Drive Us Toward a Digital Version of the Dark Ages?
  • Keith’s Conundrums: What Is There More Of?

January Dates of Interest

January is Alzheimer’s Awareness month. Check out some facts here .

January 6 is the birthday of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. Though most people think his famous ability to solve mysteries used techniques of deduction , his methods are actually using the principles of induction .

In case you don’t feel old, know that January 15 is Wikipedia’s 19th birthday . It can vote and buy booze now.

On January 28 , Canada and many countries around the world celebrate the timely Data Privacy Day , which highlights the impact technology is having on our privacy rights and underlines the importance of valuing and protecting personal information. Read more here .
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
Yasmine Mohammed: CFIC Book Tour

CFIC is proud to sponsor a book tour featuring Yasmine Mohammed, author of Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam , about which our reviewer wrote , “This is not an easy book to read, but it is also not an easy book to put down.”

The book tour will kick off in Victoria, BC, on Sunday, January 19. Stay tuned for details about additional stops in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Living Without Religion: Virtual Branch Edition

CFIC will be making Living Without Religion (LWR) available to all Canadians, regardless of their location. LWR aims to provide people who are questioning or who have left their faith with the social support to help them through such a profound shift in their lives, as they explore a new paradigm of living without their faith and faith community. LWR has been offered in Ottawa and in Toronto, but it is challenging for people from smaller communities to find a similar support group.

LWR is a facilitated peer support group. The discussion is led by participants. LWR offers a social connection to like-minded people. Members provide support and also useful tips about things like connecting with friends and family who are religious, creating new networks of support, and dealing with holidays and family traditions in a new way.

The inaugural meeting of the virtual LWR will be held on Thursday, February 6, at 8 pm Eastern time. (Click here for help converting this to your time zone.) The meeting will be held by Zoom. Simply click this link when the meeting is scheduled. Please check that your computer has audio capability. Otherwise, you may join by phone by dialing +1 647 558 0588 and using the following meeting ID: 389 025 059.

If you are curious, just pop in by Zoom on February 6. If you would like to participate in LWR but cannot make it on the 6 th , please email Onur Romano , CFIC Virtual Branch Manager and let him know the times that would work for you.

No higher powers, no dogma. Just free expression, empathy, understanding, without judgement. We're here for you. We are Living Without Religion, and you can too. Come join the discussion!

Dan Johnson, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Lethbridge, has created a 2020 calendar with stunning photos illustrating the diversity of grasshoppers, with notes about their importance to ecology and agriculture. Download yours here .
Ottawa Event: A Discussion with Dr. Qais Ghanem

On Tuesday, January 21, CFIC Ottawa will be hosting a discussion with author Dr. Qais Ghanem who will discuss his recent book Democracy, Deity, and Death. The novel describes a series of discussions among four Arabs with completely different religious backgrounds and beliefs, who meet regularly at a London café.
Volunteers Needed!

If you are interested in becoming a part of the CFIC volunteer team, please complete a volunteer application .

Science Check
Peer Review Works
Sandra Dunham

CFIC member and retired accountant John Manuel took the raw data provided in CFIC's first report on the cost of religion in Canada, and concluded that our numbers understated  the tax savings for donations to charities whose self-declared primary purpose is “Advancement of Religion.” Mr. Manuel and I reviewed the numbers and determined that the more realistic estimate of the value of tax credits for donations to religious charities is $3 billion (previously reported to be $2.6 billion). 

This is how science works. When findings are published with full data and detailed methodology, the results are verified by independent others and any mistakes are corrected. Knowledge increases, and we move forward. CFIC thanks Mr. Manuel for correcting the error that went unnoticed during the review process. 

The revised report is available on the CFIC website
Vaccine Roundup: January 2020
Seanna Watson

Polio eradication: Two down, one to go. Let's start with some good news. A wild poliovirus strain has now been declared eradicated. Poliovirus Type 3 was officially declared eradicated by the WHO in October of 2019, four years after the eradication of Type 2. Only Type 1 still remains in the wild. (Read more here .)

Unvaccinated healthcare workers put patients’ lives at risk. Dismal statistics about caregivers for some of the most vulnerable patients in Massachusetts : In the 2019 flu season, many clinics, ambulatory care facilities, dialysis centers, nursing and rest homes, and adult day health centers reported worker vaccination rates well below 90 percent, some as low as 61 percent.

Amazon-owned Whole Foods sells anti-vaccine propaganda in its checkout aisles. Several magazines available at Whole Foods locations have included articles raising unfounded concerns about the safety or efficacy of vaccines, and touting non-toxic alternatives to vaccination.

Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent research has been thoroughly discredited why is it still widely cited? Retraction Watch investigates the causes, and suggests changes in science communication strategies.

Secular Check
Church of Atheism Denied
Leslie Rosenblood

All Canadian charities must declare their primary purpose when they register with the Canada Revenue Agency; approximately 40 percent of Canadian charities exist for the “advancement of religion.”

The Church of Atheism of Central Canada applied for charitable status under the “advancement of religion” category. Its request was denied by the CRA, and  this decision was upheld  by the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal. It is possible this will go to the Supreme Court, but that remains to be seen.

The  core of the decision  is: “Fundamental characteristics of religion include that the followers have a faith in a higher power such as God, entity, or Supreme Being; that followers worship this higher power; and that the religion consists of a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship.” The Church of Atheism of Central Canada lacks belief in a deity, and therefore cannot revere a Supreme Being, and does not have a system of worship, according to the Court. (That Buddhism is eligible for charitable status while also lacking belief in a God failed to persuade the Court that the Church of Atheism should also be considered a religion for charitable purposes.)

The Court also stated that charitable registration is a privilege, not a right, so no Charter considerations come into play.

Mark Blumberg, a lawyer specializing in charity law,  writes , “Ultimately the courts are not planning on changing the status quo In the absence of legislative reform.’” This is likely a correct prediction. In my opinion, removing “Advancement of Religion” as a criterion sufficient to gain charitable status is preferable to including atheism within the definition of religious belief and practice.
BC Atheist Beats Mandatory AA
Leslie Rosenblood

In the  July 2019 edition of Critical Links , we told you about Byron Wood, an atheist nurse and alcoholic. He wanted to attend a rehabilitation program that was non-theistic in nature. His union did not provide one, and when he did not complete the Alcoholics Anonymous program because he refused to turn his life “over the care of God,” he was fired. (Half of AA's  12 steps  directly refer to God or a Greater Power.)

Though popular, AA and similar programs do not work for everyone. How effective they actually are is a matter of considerable dispute, with  AA claiming  “up to 75 percent of its members maintain abstinence,” while  addiction specialists “cite numbers closer to 8% to 12% for sobriety by [AA] members after the first year.” Gabrielle Glaser in the Atlantic  writes , “In 2006, the Cochrane Collaboration, a health-care research group, reviewed studies going back to the 1960s and found that ‘no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or [12-step] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.’” A  2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University stated, “The vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care.”

For many addicts, other treatment methods — including medication, counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, and  deep-brain stimulation — have proven to be superior to the more well known 12-step program.

Mr. Wood launched a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in 2015, with support from the Centre for Inquiry Canada and the  BC Humanist Association (among others). He  reached a settlement with Vancouver Coastal Health in early December 2019. Though the details of the settlement are confidential,  Wood writes , “I'm really happy about the outcome — it means that VCH [Vancouver Coastal Health] employees are not required to attend 12-step rehab centres, 12-step meetings, or participate in any 12-step activities if they object for religious reasons. It’s what I've been fighting for, for the last six years.”

As a result, the 14,000 employees of VCH will no longer have to attend AA “if that approach to treatment conflicts with their religious or non-religious beliefs.”

The agreement is a settlement between Mr. Wood and VCH, not a ruling by the BC Human Rights Tribunal. As a result, its terms are not binding on other organizations. However, CFIC hopes that other employers realize the intrinsic theistic nature of 12-step programs, accept the principle that attending any religious gathering should never be a requirement for employment, and provide an option for secular addiction rehabilitation services to their employees.

CFIC salutes Mr. Wood's courage and stamina in his fight to have secular approaches to sobriety be recognized by his former employer. Mr. Wood is applying to have his nursing license reinstated, and CFIC wishes him luck in his future endeavours.

Read more about AA on the CFIC website .

Think Check

How Do You Choose a Charity?
Sandra Dunham

December is the unofficial month of giving. Many people give in December, possibly because they are in the giving mood. Or because they are trying to make their donation when the promise of the tax saving is more imminent than at other times of the year. Or maybe the hype of Giving Tuesday has reminded them of the importance of charity in the social fabric of Canada. Whatever the reason, people often look for advice on what charity to donate to.

Blumberg’s Canadian Charity Law, December edition, offers some thoughts on choosing a charity . The abbreviated message is that there is no easy way of choosing. The longer message, however, is that the “simplified” methods do not work.

Blumberg reminds us that there is very poor information available about charities and that much of the information that is available is not reliable. Charities are required to file a report annually; the T-3010, and that information is publicly available . However, the information is notoriously inaccurate, it misses asking really important questions, and the interpretation of the results is far less simple than many would have us believe.

Blumberg points out that one key to understanding charities that is missing in this filing is understanding its volunteer program. He advocates for adding a question about the charity’s volunteer program to the T-3010.

For advice on factors to consider (and not to consider) when choosing a charity, Blumberg points out that the answer is different for everyone. He also suggests that the very best way to understand a charity is to volunteer with it. This allows you to explore its culture, the work it does, and the people who operate it.

Canadians donate over $18 billion each year to charities. This money does an amazing amount of good. Shouldn’t we be sure that we are giving to the right causes? For more information about choosing a charity, see Blumberg’s guide to smart giving .
Does Social Media Drive Us Toward a Digital Version of the Dark Ages?
Gleb Lisikh

As the World Wide Web grows, uncensored and unfiltered information becomes more accessible even to the most isolated and censored parts of the world. This should contribute to learning and education in masses, as well as promote open-mindedness and tolerance, right? Well… there seems to be another side to this.

The social media machines (Facebook, YouTube, and the like), learning from our emotional responses, can have a completely opposite effect, fueling bigotry and prejudice. They thrive on our confirmation bias and effectively exploit our limbic system , promoting bias and shutting down reasoning in many cases.

To use Facebook as an example, its algorithm works by prioritizing posts that can display on its News Feed, based on how likely a user will have a  positive   reaction to a given post. The goal is to “show stories that matter to users.” Without overanalyzing the details, the gist is that  positive   comments, replies, likes, and shares define what matters to a user,   and are therefore what make it into the feed. In short, if you like something, you will get more of it, regardless of its quality. And it snowballs...

The results of having platforms that allow not only publishing all kinds of scandalous falsehoods, but that also have an effective mechanism of promoting them through such algorithms, have been very well articulated by the creator of Ali G and Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen. In his  speech to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the comedian criticized “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (i.e., social media giants) and offered how to fix it.

There is such a thing as objective truth,” said Cohen. “Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”  

But where is that line in between freedom of speech and spreading harmful lies and ideas? What is the right balance in between freedom of expression and censorship? More questions than answers here, in my opinion, but those questions made me rethink some of my own preconceived notions about the subject.

Cohen pointed out that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach. “I believe that it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies,” he said. “Voltaire was right. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities — and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people.”

On Facebook’s decision to stick to its position of allowing politicians to pay it to spread lying, hateful propaganda, Cohen also commented: “Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’” 

Are we heading toward a digital version of the Dark Ages? Maybe... What seems to be the case is that human emotions and biases are making their way into the digital realm of the World Wide Web, and we need to deal with that sooner rather than later.
Keith’s Conundrums: What Is There More Of?
Keith Douglas

In this column I will pose “funny problems.” Some will be paradoxes; some will be weird things to think through. Generally they will have a popular science and philosophy feel, though some are taken from undergraduate-level discussions as well. Feel free to write back with comments, questions, and any feedback you wish. You can email me at , or post a comment on the CFIC website . In each column, I will discuss the feedback and more details about the previous problem and introduce a new one. 

About last month’s puzzle , one reader pointed out that I should have said “infinitely thin” (now corrected in the request for reading I made in the discussion of “Joan and the Single String.” I have not received any other feedback as yet.

The Single String thought experiment was intended to provoke discussion about how it seems weird that in order to understand any non-trivial aspect of the world, one needs to first deliberately misrepresent it. (Otherwise one never stops!) Does this violate the principle of realism? Arguably not, and this is why the puzzle is interesting to me. The idea is that one is using a *controlled* falsehood, to eventually, as needed for “deeper” understanding, add to. What is “deeper”? That's for another time, or treatise.

Meanwhile, a New Year's brief question that will lead to something else later...

What Is There More Of?

Are there more possible a) pieces of Western-style music (in standard notation), b) books written in English, c) genomes for living things on Earth, or d) games of chess (FIDE)? Show your work! (And beware the type-token distinction!)
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