In this Edition of Critical Links:

June Dates of Interest

  • Update from Omer
  • Launch of Humanist Freedoms
  • Humanist Canada Essay Contest
  • Difficult Discussions: Why Secularists Disagree on Bill 21
  • Medical Research in the Time of COVID-19: Making Sense of Health Reporting
  • Living Without Religion: Virtual, Ottawa, and Toronto Editions

Scien ce Check

Secular Check

Think Check

** NEW IN THIS ISSUE OF CRITICAL LINKS: Click any item in the table of contents to be taken to the website version of the article **

June Dates of Interest
June 5 is World Environment Day, and June 8 is World Oceans Day.

Despite everything happening around us, the earth continues to rotate on its tilted axis as it orbits the sun. This year, the solstice (summer in the northern hemisphere, and winter in the southern) falls on June 20.

June 23 is International Women in Engineering Day. We can thank engineers for providing the technology that is helping to make our current isolation a bit less miserable than it could be.

Mosquitoes do not transmit COVID-19, but are still a significant threat to public health and quality of life for many people in the world. The 2020 Mosquito Control Awareness Week will take place June 21 to 27.

June 30 is Asteroid Day, celebrating the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska Event.
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
Update from Omer
Sandra Dunham

[In case you missed it: Please see Secular Rescue: Help us Help Omer for background information.]

Omer remains in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, amid this difficult situation, there was some good news. Omer has received notice from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada that his application for permanent residency has been approved. His file has now been transferred to the Canadian Embassy in New Delhi, India, for further processing.

Unfortunately, Omer still faces a long wait. The next steps include interviews and medical checks. Omer must wait for the staff from India to visit Nepal before this takes place. Based on what has happened in the past, Omer believes that the visit will happen early in 2021 and he will be heading to Canada next summer. Neither Omer nor CFIC has found any official information to confirm this timing, nor do we have any insight into how the COVID-19 crisis might affect the timing.

We have raised almost $5,000 for Omer. We have enough money in the deferred revenue account and from future monthly pledges to provide an additional six months of support. It takes $629 a month to provide food and shelter for Omer. If you can help, please consider making a tax-deductible one time or monthly donation.
Launch of Humanist Freedoms

It’s hard to be a humanist and not know the name Richard Thain. As well as being a valued supporter of CFIC, Dr. Thain has membership with a number of other national and international humanist organizations.

The story of his attempt to place ads on City of Winnipeg buses for four weeks during the period of the Gala Opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights; the rejection of that advertising campaign; and his subsequent court challenge of the issue has been reported previously in Critical Links and is the fodder and inspiration behind a new online magazine, Humanist Freedoms.
Humanist Canada Essay Contest

Humanist Canada is hosting another essay contest. The 2020 theme is “Religion and Humanism in Education.” To find out more about the contest, please visit Humanist Canada.
Difficult Discussions: Why Secularists Disagree on Bill 21
June 6, 7:00 PM EDT

Join the CFIC Virtual branch meetup on June 6, 7pm EDT, for a robust discussion of Bill 21. The event will start with a presentation about the background of Quebec’s Secular Bill and the subsequent legal challenge, followed by a moderated Q&A and discussion.

Whether you have a strong opinion about this bill (either for or against) or have watched the dialogue and not come to any conclusions, this webinar is for you.

Click here for details.
Medical Research in the Time of COVID-19: Making Sense of Health Reporting
June 13, 3:00 PM EDT

Masks? Cleaning? Hydroxychloroquine? Vitamin D?

It seems that many people who had previously rarely given a second thought to medical research have recently become "experts" in the field of infectious disease treatment and control. This session will cover the common types of health research methods, design of studies, and how results lead to health guidelines and recommendations.

Click here for details.
Living Without Religion: Virtual, Ottawa, and Toronto Editions
Physical distancing doesn’t mean we can’t meet online for social support.
No higher powers, no dogma. Free expression, empathy, understanding, without judgment. We’re here for you. We are Living Without Religion, and you can too. Come join the discussion!

(Note that everyone is welcome to attend any of the online events, regardless of the location of the host branch.)
Virtual branch

Toronto branch

Ottawa branch

Science Check
Science Takes Time: Understanding Information and Misinformation About COVID-19
Sandra Dunham

Every day I read something new about COVID-19. Some of it is clearly “snake-oil,” but some sounds very legitimate, and a host of other information seems to fall somewhere in the middle.

Should I wear a mask? Wash my groceries? Will the virus hang around in the air for days? Or merely seconds? Will there be a vaccine? Should I drink Lysol? Has anyone else noticed how many COVID-19 research papers contain the words “non-peer reviewed”? What does this mean and why is it happening? How should I interpret all of this information? A recent episode of Quirks and Quarks and a CBS news article helped me to understand what was happening.

CBS reports that social media bots are responsible for spreading a massive amount of misinformation about COVID-19. These Twitter accounts are pushing the “reopen America” agenda and sharing the various conspiracy theories that are circulating. Why? Apparently, these are propaganda campaigns, similar to others launched by Russia and China (although researchers have not yet determined the source of these bots). The purpose appears to be to create division in the U.S.

On May 15, Bob McDonald of Quirks and Quarks interviewed associate producer Amanda Buckiewicz to discuss scientific "pre-prints" (i.e., non-peer reviewed papers) and the questions they raise. According to this article, the international research community is very engaged in finding out more about COVID-19. In fact, there are already over 7500 published scientific papers on the virus.

Because of the demand for information and the desire to share preliminary findings to expedite further research, papers are published without peer review. Since peer review takes time, publishing preliminary findings allows scientists to quickly share what they are learning. While other scientists understand the limitations of these studies, for many of us, these pre-prints are problematic. We read a preliminary study, or worse, only the headlines for a preliminary study, and then jump to conclusions.

Michael Woodside is a biophysicist working out of the University of Alberta, trying to develop a treatment for COVID-19. Woodside cautions: “We have to try as many things as possible because we just don't know which approach is going to end up being most successful. There's a danger if we try and move too fast, which is that you end up with a lot of data that are not as solid as you'd like. And then the conclusions that are drawn from that are also not solid.”

Perhaps one of the commonly held beliefs is that a vaccine will be the quick route out of this pandemic. Many people are cautioning that it will take 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine. According to Amanda Buckiewicz, the quickest we have ever developed a vaccine is four years. She also reminds us that scientists have been searching for a vaccine for HIV for over 40 years.

So, what’s the average person to do?

Please read the entire article, recognize the limitations of non-peer-reviewed articles, and understand the limitations of the study. There are no “quick fixes.” More than ever, it is important for critical thinkers to call out misinformation and clarify the limitations of scientific studies that are not yet peer reviewed. The science is important and will provide the answers, but we need to allow the process to take the time required to produce reliable and valid information.
Learning About the Effects of COVID-19
Sandra Dunham

Alongside the medical research being conducted about COVID-19, there are a number of studies being carried out about the psychological, sociological, and mental health effects of the pandemic, social distancing, and closing of economies around the world. Many of these studies look at the effects of religion on the pandemic. It is important that the secular community be included in this research.

Here are two Canadian studies currently underway.
The Non-GMO Project
Andrea Palmieri

It seems like there are endless ways companies can use labels to promote their food products — sometimes, it can even take up most of the real estate on the package. Labelling the absence of ingredients is in right now: gluten-free, MSG-free, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, carrageenan-free, soy-free… the list goes on. Many of these claims make sense and are mandatory to declare, such as having the list of major allergens present or whether there are trans fats in the product. But there are some labels, paired with certain products, that can seem redundant and borderline misleading.

There is an abundance of products at the store labelled as GMO-free — I challenge you to look in your fridge or cupboard and I guarantee you will find it on something. From salt shakers to shampoo bottles, you can spot the notorious butterfly logo indicating it has been certified by the Non-GMO Project — a non-profit organization that aims to “educate consumers and the food industry to help build awareness about GMOs and their impact on our health.”

Companies can brand their products with this label, which appeals to the all-natural organic crowd, as well as adding confusion for everyone else. What this label does is perpetuate the stigma of GMOs, advertising that non-GMO products are safer or more nutritious than their genetically engineered counterparts, which isn’t the case. It also makes it seem like a GMO is a thing added to food, when it’s really a farming method and/or breeding technique.

According to Canada’s Food and Drug Act, “no person shall label...sell or advertise any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety” (italics ours). In my opinion, the non-GMO seal seems to violate this stipulation by implying that a non-GMO products are safer and more nutritious than products that contain ingredients derived from genetic engineering technology.

Unfortunately, these products can be viewed as compliant with the law since it is truthful marketing to a degree. Tomatoes are indeed GMO-free and can be labelled as such since there are no GMO tomatoes on the market (despite the myths out there). In the absence of specific laws and guidance surrounding the labelling of GMOs in Canada, it can be challenging to legally counter the use of the logo, even if it fits a definition of misleading in some form. Companies can use this to their advantage to further differentiate their products and gain an edge on their competitors, which the certification programs suggest it can do for their brand.

The Non-GMO project has been certifying North American companies against their standard since 2010 and has verified over 60,000 products raking in over $26 billion in annual sales. They work with more than 14,000 retailers and millions of consumers to “provide education about GMOs and to drive awareness of the importance of Non-GMO Project Verified products.”

Their primary source of revenue comes from the fees charged for their Product Verification Program. They are the leaders in advocacy against GMOs, using the guise of “transparency and right to know” rhetoric. Their whole brand is based on the false premise that GMOs are bad, and their website is littered with myths and un-reputable sources. Their "GMO facts" page claims that there is no scientific consensus that GMOs are safe, claims that most of the studies have been industry-funded, and cherry picks a review that raises concerns about the safety of GMOs. Their one source? Center for Food Safety, another organization that is notoriously against GMOs. The scientific consensus is clear and is made up of more than 280 independent science bodies from around the world: Genetically engineered crops are just as safe as conventionally bred crops and just more precise versions of crops manipulated by humans over many centuries.

Recently, the U.S. FDA (which requires mandatory labelling of GMOs) released a set of recommended guidelines describing how non-GMO and GMO-derived products should be labelled in order to better comply with federal law. The agency outlined what would constitute as "false or misleading" labelling regarding non-GMO labels, like marketing products that are not or cannot be genetically modified as non-GMO. This potentially makes thousands of Non-GMO Project foods non-compliant with the law!

We need this policy to live up to the science-based standards that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada hold themselves to.

Secular Check
Why Secularists Disagree on Bill 21
Sandra Dunham

Has there been a more contentious issue for secularists in Canada than Quebec’s Bill 21? At CFIC, we’ve seen that this issue has been divisive for our secular community. We think that it is important to have a discussion about this topic, not to change minds, but to enhance our understanding of differing perspectives.

Join the CFIC Virtual branch meetup on June 6 for a robust discussion of Bill 21. The event will start with a presentation by Catherine Francis about the background of Quebec’s Secular Bill and the subsequent legal challenge, followed by a moderated Q&A and discussion.

Whether you have a strong opinion about this bill (either for or against) or have watched the dialogue and not come to any conclusions, this webinar is for you.

This is part of a series of presentations about topics that our members disagree on. We recognize that while we all are aiming for a more just, secular society — we may have different views on how to get there. What we do know is that as secularists, we must stick together on the big issues such as the funding of religion, elimination of blasphemy laws around the world, and the use of science rather than superstition to solve the world’s biggest issues.

About Our Presenter:

Catherine Francis was called to the Ontario bar in 1987 and is a partner in the Litigation Group and Bankruptcy and Insolvency Group of Minden Gross LLP, a Toronto law firm. Her practice is devoted largely to corporate/commercial, real estate, banking, and insolvency litigation.

In her spare time, Catherine is a member of several secular organizations and serves on the steering committee of the Humanist Association of Toronto. Catherine has frequently presented to Toronto Oasis, a community for freethinkers to celebrate the human experience, on legal issues of interest to the secular community.

Think Check
Oh You Think You’re So Smart!
Doug Skeggs

What a bizarre world we have woken up in.

Just in the past couple of days Twitter decided to put a fact-check warning on a couple of posts by the President of the United States. And the president has responded with freaky threats against the platform and others.

In this information-overloaded, post-truth world, we are bombarded with unprecedented levels of aggressive attempts at agenda-driven persuasion. For skeptics — those seeking to believe as many true things and as few false things as humanly possible — the fake news, misinformation, purposeful disinformation, and outright lies seem to outweigh the facts and truth, by orders of magnitude.

Clearly, in what has been called the “new normal,” critical thinking, one of the pillars of CFIC’s core purpose, is an indispensable tool, perhaps more so now than at any time in human history. The threat is so ominous and so imminent.

Comically, one response you sometimes hear when advocating for critical thinking is, “Oh you think you’re so smart!”, as if critical thinking is somehow umbilically connected to intelligence.

It isn’t.

Critical thinking is a learnable skill. Intelligence does not necessarily come equipped with an infallible, critical thinking tool belt. In fact, some research suggests that being smart may make you more prone to cognitive error.

Skeptical Inquirer , a bi-monthly glossy print magazine published by our American partners, the Center for Inquiry U.S. , explores this reality in the May-June edition cover story, The Nobel Disease: When Intelligent Scientists Go Weird . In the article, authors Candice Basterfield, Scott Lilienfeld, Shauna Bowes, and Thomas Costello highlight eight examples of Nobel Prize winners who have believed and sometimes promoted some head-scratchingly outlandish ideas.

Their intro to the article states: "A surprising number of Nobel laureates in the sciences appear to have embraced decidedly weird ideas. The story of the so-called 'Nobel Disease' bears intriguing implications for the field of skepticism."

And their list includes some interesting and famous names. For example, James Watson, a 1962 Nobel Prize winner for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA with Sir Francis Crick, has advanced highly dubious claims about race, maintaining that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites. And this is not a belief he has discarded, perhaps as a decades old, youthful failure. He reiterated this view in a 2018 documentary. Watson has also suggested that obese people lack ambition and that exposure to sunlight in the tropics and higher levels of melanin (dark skin) increase sexual desire.

From the article: “…the capsule case histories we present strongly suggest that intellectual brilliance can coexist with yawning gaps in skeptical thinking.” The authors go on to suggest that intelligence may even come with underlying potential for cognitive failure. “Preliminary evidence further suggests that intelligent people may have a somewhat larger 'bias blind spot' than other people, meaning they are less aware of their propensity toward biases.”

Which brings us back to the “Oh you think you’re so smart!” thing. “Unrealistic optimism occurs when people believe that because they are smart, they need not worry about intellectual errors…especially if they are not intellectually humble.”

The article is a great read for any skeptic interested in the mechanics and potential pitfalls of critical thinking.

Skeptical Inquirer is published six times a year. The magazine is available through the CFIC website (CFIC members $45, non-members $60 per year).
Keith’s Conundrums: A River of Coca-Cola?
Keith Douglas

This month’s riddle will be a simple question that was posed a few issues back:

Is there anywhere — not on Earth — where there exists a river of Coca-Cola?
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