In this edition of Critical Links:

CFIC News and Events
  • Governance Updates
  • Upcoming Conferences
  • Corrections

Science Check
  • March for Science in Ottawa
  • Natural ≠ Safe

Secular Check
  • Debate Over Public Funding for Catholic Schools: Ottawa Demonstration
  • Advancement of Religion as a Charitable Purpose

Think Check
  • Phishing

Books and Authors
  • Astrology
CFIC News and Events
CFI Governance Updates

On April 7, Centre for Inquiry Canada held our annual general meeting of members. At that meeting we elected directors and following that meeting we elected a new President of the Board of Directors. Centre for Inquiry Canada welcomes Gus Lyn-Piluso to this new role. Kevin Smith (who had been President of the Board of Directors since 2012) will be staying on as Past Chair for the next year to make the transition a smooth one. Following that, we know Kevin will remain an enthusiastic member of CFIC. Kevin provided some insight to CFIC about his time as Chair and his hopes for the agency moving forward. Read Kevin's message here.

Gus comes to the CFIC board after spending the last 15 years on the board of The John Howard Society of Toronto, including 8 years as president. He is passionate about helping to create social justice movements that are firmly based on empirical evidence and sound reasoning. Gus has been a college professor for 27 years, teaching students to think critically, rationally, and to engage the world as active ethical citizens. His hope is to bring this experience to public education through CFI Canada. He is a member of the International Big History Association, the Heterodox Academy, and Humanist Canada. Gus has a Ph.D. in the philosophy of education and has a special interest in the work of American humanist John Dewey.

Coming Events

Watch for the Lives in the Balance conference taking place in Toronto on June 2. Proceeds from the conference will support a blogger who has received death threats because of his writings about religious freedom. He is seeking to relocate (along with his family) to Canada.

For those in the Calgary area on May 12 and 13, why not take in the Alberta Secular Conference? If you visit, please drop by the CFIC table and introduce yourself.

Updates from previous Critical Links

Corrections to the April edition:

Your editorial staff at Critical Links takes accuracy seriously. When we make a mistake we acknowledge it and correct it.

  • In our article “Debate Over Public Funding for Catholic Schools Heats Up” we updated you on Dr. Richard Thain’s court action against the City of Winnipeg and Pattison Sign Company regarding his inability to purchase bus ads he hoped would be seen during the grand opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. We erroneously reported that the denial was because they deemed the signs “in poor taste." In fact, Dr. Thain’s ads were denied at the last minute without anyone answering his question: “What word or phrases are, as you said, 'in violation of advertising guidelines'?"
  • In our article “On Twitter, Lies Spread Faster than Truth” we attributed a quote — “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” — to Mark Twain. One of our readers rightly picked up on the fact that while this quote is often attributed to Twain, in truth, its origins are unknown. If in doubt about the source of a quote, why not check out Quote Investigator? We will next time!
Science Check

Each year, since its inception in 2012, members of CFI Ottawa have participated in the March for Science on Parliament Hill. This year the weather did not co-operate, and the crowd was smaller (but still enthusiastic). The group marched from Parliament Hill, chanting:



Our final destination was the Byward Market, where a number of practicing scientists hosted "Science Stories" - family-friendly descriptions of their research illustrated with posters.
Natural ≠ Safe

How often have you been told that a product is good for you because it is “natural”? When you consider that botulism, arsenic, cosmic rays, and snake bites are natural and also deadly, you see the problem with this word. The world is filled with venomous animals, toxic minerals, poisonous plants, and deadly pathogens, so why would we assume that anything from nature is safe? When a salesperson uses the phrase, “It’s all natural”, you might respond, “So is formaldehyde”, or, “So is Ebola”.

Purveyors of pseudoscientific products, such as homeopathy and naturopathy, often use the word “natural” in their marketing. Health Canada even has a special section for the licensing of Natural and Non-prescription Products, which lists hundreds of categories of “complementary and alternative health care remedies.” These include everything from vitamin supplements to acupuncture and reflexology. Although some of these, such as vitamins, may have limited use when prescribed by a physician, others, such as homeopathy, have been repeatedly shown to be scientifically worthless. 

The Natural and Non-prescription Products website states that 71% of Canadians use “alternative” healthcare products and that 12% of them report adverse reactions. At best these “natural” products are a waste of money. But they can also be dangerous, as people may forgo medically effective treatments in favour of a “natural” alternative, and lose valuable time in the treatment of a serious illness. For example, it is possible that Steve Jobs, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, may have survived longer had he not wasted time pursuing “natural treatments” instead of using science-based medicine. 

Further, sometimes these products are fatal! In April 2018, a woman died from anaphylactic shock after being given acupuncture with live bee stings. The bee acupuncturist did not have epinephrine on hand, despite the fact that bee stings are one of the most common triggers of anaphylaxis. Because Health Canada does not regulate alternative medicine practitioners directly, and most of them have no formal scientific medical training, they can be very dangerous.

Another natural product news item in April concerns a child who supposedly had been bitten by a rabid dog and was exhibiting aggressive behaviour and “fear of werewolves”. He was treated by a homeopath who used a product made from the saliva of a rabid dog. Homeopaths believe in sympathetic magic, by which substances that cause illness can also cure the same (or similar) illness after they are diluted with water to the point where there is no substance left in the water.

CFIC Science Chair, Blythe Nilson, commented that the child probably didn’t have rabies. Dogs are not a reservoir of rabies in British Columbia and the disease is almost always fatal in humans, especially in young people. Also, since homeopathic products are just water or sugar pills, the “treatment” certainly had no effect on the child whatsoever. The homeopath defended herself by declaring that the saliva was so diluted there was essentially none of it left in the treatment. This makes sense to her because homeopaths believe that it is the “memory” of the substance in the water that does the curing. In other words, she admitted that her product was just water.

Health Canada was concerned that if there was any residual rabies virus in the treatment it would be a serious health hazard. Since homeopathic preparations are not regulated in Canada the way drugs are, we cannot rely on their dilutions being done properly, so Health Canada’s concerns are valid.
Considering all the evidence that homeopathy is just water and “natural” products are not necessarily safe, why does the government continue to give them credibility by licensing them and allowing them to be displayed next to real medication in drug stores? And why do taxpayers foot the bill when people claim the cost of these pseudoscientific products against their taxes? Public support is the reason; naturopathy and homeopathy have enjoyed long and very successful lobbying campaigns.

The only way to stop the quackery (and the concomitant tax drain) is to speak out consistently and rationally about the ineffectiveness and danger of these alternative “natural” therapies. The next time your friend or neighbour suggests using one of these treatments, engage them in a respectful discussion and ask them how they feel about tax deductions for unregulated, ineffective, and potentially dangerous products. Join CFIC in public education, leading to effective change.
Secular Check

Demonstration on Parliament Hill to Protest Continued Funding for Catholic Schools
Three provinces in Canada continue to fully fund Catholic Schools: Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

On April 12, a number of groups assembled to show support for "One Public Education Now", and calling for an end to public funding of Catholic School boards. (More information available in the April 2018 edition of Critical Links)

Advancement of Religion as a Charitable Purpose
Leslie Rosenblood, CFIC Councillor

The Canada Revenue Agency has long held that an organization must meet at least one of four criteria in order to be officially recognized as charitable:
  • relief of poverty;
  • advancement of education;
  • advancement of religion;
  • certain other purposes beneficial to the community in a way the law regards as charitable.

That evangelism in and of itself qualifies as charitable has long offended those who do not belong to a faith creed. Fortunately, an opportunity has arisen that may result in significant changes to Canada's charity law. The Senate of Canada has recently formed a Special Committee on the Charitable Sector. It is due to submit its recommendations by the end of 2018.
This has not gone unnoticed. The Canadian Council of Christian Charities, for example, noted that the UK recently eliminated the presumption that religion inherently advances the public good. Charities there must now provide “an identifiable, positive, beneficial moral or ethical framework that is promoted by religion which demonstrates that the religion is capable of impacting on society in a beneficial way.” The CCCC issued a call for papers earlier this month to defend religion's traditional privilege in Canada.
Leslie Rosenblood, CFIC Councillor and policy advisor for the Canadian Secular Alliance, has requested to appear before the Special Committee to argue that advancement of religion on its own should not be considered a charitable act for public policy purposes. 
We will keep you informed of developments on this issue.

Did you know: Centre for Inquiry Canada is an educational charity. As such, we issue charitable tax receipts for all donations. If you would like to contribute to a cause that educates the public about matters of critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and secularism, please consider donating to CFIC.
Think Check
"The attempt to obtain sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details, often for malicious reasons, by disguising as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication.”
- Wikipedia

Have you ever been a victim of phishing? Have you deleted an obvious fake despite worrying that you might have missed something important? Has anyone fallen for the scam of receiving millions just for helping someone get money out of a foreign country? Phishing seems to be big business for criminals and we seem to have little in the way of enforcement.

A study entitled Valuing Information Security from a Phishing Attack explores the relationship between technology users’ perception of their personal information and the things they are prepared to do or give up in order to protect it. The authors propose that the results of their study provide valuable information for creating information security systems. Unfortunately, this information might also prove valuable to individuals seeking access to personal information.

If you believe that you are too smart to fall for a phishing scheme, or if you are worried that you are not, you can check your knowledge on any of hundreds of phishing tests. Just search for “phishing test” and choose any of the results that show up. 

If you would like more information about phishing and protecting yourself (either before you challenge a test or afterwards when you’ve discovered you need more information), check out CFIC’s own Vice-Chair Seanna Watson’s blog on Cyber Hygiene.
Books and Authors

What's your astrological sign? Most people, even skeptics, will immediately be able to answer this question. Though results tend to vary widely depending on just how the question is asked, research has shown that between 25% and 50% of people surveyed in the U.S., Canada, and the UK believe that horoscopes have at least some scientific validity. Granted, on the one hand, astrology is not as dangerous as many other pseudosciences. But on the other hand, it can be a gateway to more "woo" (or more hopefully, perhaps, with the help of this book, a gateway to better critical thinking).

Like most pseudoscientific beliefs, astrology seems plausible on the face of it. The study of physics tells us that everything has a gravitational field. We learn that the change in the pull of gravity of the sun and moon can even make the oceans rise higher, so wouldn't it make sense that there might be a similar effect on our own bodies, which after all are mostly water? And of course the belief in astrology is ancient and venerable. So many people have believed it for so many years — they can't all be wrong, can they?*

Written for a younger audience (preteens/young teens), this book provides a wealth of scientific information in a way that is accessible without being condescending. There are clear explanations providing alternate explanations for "evidence" cited by astrologers and their disciples, including hands-on experiments for readers to do individually or with others. Along the way, there are lessons in analysis and critical thinking, as well as numerous interesting facts and anecdotes about astronomy, the history of science, and the scientific method. 

The late Carl Sagan said, “If science were explained to the average person in a way that is accessible and exciting, there would be no room for pseudoscience. popular culture the bad science drives out the good.” The accessible and exciting Horoscopes: Reality or Trickery is the first of a series of books in which the author (Kimberly Blaker) explains science to young readers, equipping the next generation with the tools they need to crowd out pseudoscience.

* Actually, they can. This is an example of two informal logical fallacies: "Argument from Antiquity" and "Argument by Popularity".
Centre for Inquiry Canada | 613-663-8198| |