Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Archive for the ‘Blogs’ Category

Blog entries by the cast of Radio Freethinker

RFT Rant – Ep 238 – Supreme Court and the sex trade

Posted by Don McLenaghen on January 3, 2014


Well it seem the Supreme Court of Canada has lifted the shadow that forced practitioners of a particular profession to find the most hidden seclude police free environment to do their work.

I work in computers…imagine if I had to take a valuable laptop out to a park late at night, making sure that no one can seem me, especially the police, so that I can service a client’s needs for a PC.

That’s not the end of it. I am forced to use cash because if authorities find out my source of income I could be arrested. So, I besides the valuable pc, I am also forced to carry around large amounts of money.

What happens if I get robbed to the money, a client refuses to pay for the PC and just ‘takes it anyway’, what if there is violence? Again I cannot go to the police because what I am doing is deemed illegal.

And why is it illegal? Well, the official reason is that the business is risky and poses potential health dangerous…which of course only largely exist because it is deemed illegal.

IF I could sell PC’s in the open, I could, like any other merchant, rely on the justice system to protect me from crooks.

Of course, the real reason we ban this profession is because it is deemed immoral…goes against god’s law.

Now, some of you maybe a little confused, so let me start this again…hoping lights in heads will go on.

Well it seem the Supreme Court of Canada has lifted the shadow that forced sex workers to find the most hidden seclude police free environment to do their work.


1. Communicating For The Purposes of Prostitution in a public place (section 213)

Repealing section 213, “communicating for the purposes of prostitution in a public place” allows sex workers to openly negotiate services. Removing this law means potentially allowing sex workers to no longer work in areas that are isolated and under-protected.

2. Living off the avails of prostitution (section 212)

Repealing section 212, “living off the avails of prostitution” allows sex workers to make decisions about who they want to work with and potentially remove the exploitation of sex workers by bosses.

3. Keeping a common bawdy house (section 210)

Repealing section 210, “keeping a common bawdy house” would allow workers to create their own collective workplaces run by and for other sex workers, which are potentially safer for sex workers.

A bawdy house is…was, defined as a place for “the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency”, but now it’s only illegal to practice acts of indecency. There seems to be no definition of “acts of indecency” but when mentioned in the criminal code, they are paid with rape, and child abuse.


And in a moment of eureka, the vote was unanimous.

It’s, I think, important to note, the prostitution or sex work in and of itself is not technically illegal, and these always are intended to make the practice of said profession impossible under the law.

Now those who may thing this is a bad thing, let’s go over the arguments that would hold prostitution or sex work SHOULD be illegal. I am going to start with the easy ones…

Prostitution put women (rarely is it mentioned that male prostitution is a major industry in its self)…that women are physically assaulted.


Yes and no.

Yes because this is true only because they CANNOT go to the police, if they do, they risk being arrested for prostitution. It true because they are FORCED to work in high risk areas because again the risk of being arrested for prostitution.

No, because if they could set up as a regular service…think hairdresser or masseuse…they could operate in safe areas, knowing they could…like any other citizen…they could call on the police for help if someone does endanger their safety.

Think for a moment, someone walks into a 7-11, beats up a clerk, steals all the money from the till, grabs a case of smokes on the way out…they would call the police, a warrant would be issued and steps could be taken to ensure the safety of the employee. Sex workers are…er, were denied this…they were on their own and YES, abuse occurred because they were on their own.


Prostitution force women into slavery by johns who get they addicted to drugs, beat them up and take all of their money.

Yes and no.

Yes, because if you can’t call on the police for protection, you call on whatever else is available…people willing to work in an illegal profession. So, you get gangsters and other lowlifes who will protect their ‘girls’ from the johns but of course this is still a shadow land, so who protects the worker from their pimp? Who can they call if the pimp beats them…steals their money?

No, because again if you made this a regular business the sex workers could use law abiding protection…rent-a-cop for example…


And with regards to drug addiction, studies have shown that most sex workers did not become addicts because of sex work but from other factors…think abusive parent or partner…that they turn to prostitution to feed their habit. It is one industry where anyone can make a lot of money with little effort or experience.

The studies I have read have it anywhere from 60 to 80% addicted prior to becoming sex worker. Correlation is not causation.

And before someone points to an oppositional study, I agree that prostitution AS CURRENTLY established…ie, illegal…leads to greater levels of drug use to deal with the stresses of the job. Let us not forget that one might want to take the edge off if one is working in an environment where we could be hurt and if we call the police WE would be arrested…that would drive me to drink.

And on that regard, most people tend to think that prostituted are somehow damaged…that it was addiction, child abuse or some other factor the FORCED them into sex work. The truth is that it’s easy money, its good money…in one study in Denmark, 85% said they did it for the money…and according to research a number of people are just enjoying the sex. Yes, sex works may actually enjoy their jobs…unlike the rest of us working at “respectable” industries.


In Germany, were prostitution is completely legal, the one issue that has arisen is that quote vulnerable immigrant are brought in and abused by pimps. In response to this, I point out that our foreign worker program in Canada, has created a situation…I am sure not uniquely…where a Tim Horton’s in Fernie or Dawson Creek in BC has abused a ripped of its workers. Should be make donuts illegal?

Abusive and exploitative employers is not a feature of the sex trade but of capitalism.

Another straw-man…er…maybe I should say straw-woman or perhaps straw-girl, is that if we allow prostitution to be open and legal, then the flood gates will be open for ship millions of pre-teen girls from the third-world to satisfy the pricks of Canada.

Why is that a sex trade issue?

Is it any more moral…right if they are shipped over here to work in sweat shops? The issue is not the kind of work but the exploitation. Anyone who raises this as an issue is either ignorant, stupid or just lying about their intent.

I am not saying that explosion for sex work is okay, but that exploitation for work of ANYKIND is wrong. Eye on the prize folks.

The biggie of course is that women are objectifying their bodies…that prostitution dehumanizes women and makes them into object to be used…selling your body for money is modern slavery.

Now, this argument has some merit, but I don’t see how it’s a sex trade issue but a capitalism issue.

labor_history cartoon

I sell my body every day to an employer who gives me money in exchange for me performing curtain acts. Okay, my job is not a physical as prostitution, but what if I were a model…that pretty similar.

What about gay men who are prostitutes…how does the “turning women into sexual objects and not people…leading to ALL women being objectified…denigrated”…how does that work. Male johns turning male sex workers into objects to objectify themselves??? In philosophical terms, it’s incoherent.

Just to exemplify the mental contortion one must go through to separate sex work from any other kind of work, in Germany where there is concerns about the exploitation of foreign workers…there is a move to amend the laws to…and I quote the CBC here…

“In fact, the newly elected German government is looking at revising the law to make it illegal to buy sex from women who have been forced into prostitution.”

Really? There need be a separate law? How legal would it be I were force to work at Walmart? Or is it currently against the law for an business to operate that force its employees to work at a job they do not want to work at?

I blame the pope…Jesus and the entire fecken religious morality. I sell my body 8 hours a day and I hear no uproar…it is not prostitution that is the crime…prostitution is the oldest profession…the criminal is capitalism that turns a human into a commodity.

Find out more:

Posted in Blogs | 1 Comment »

Race to the bottom – Ethical Spying

Posted by Don McLenaghen on October 30, 2013


With yet more revelations from Snowden on the spying activity of agencies such as the NSA and Canada’s own CSEC that’s stands for Communication Security Establishment Canada…well, what has made these releases different from before is the amount of spying that is perpetrated on allies. The US has been tapping the phone of, among others the German Chancellor Merkel and Mexican President Caldaron. And that this spying occurred prior to their becoming state leaders. Merkel was put on the spy list apparently because of the German refusal to join in on the Iraq War.


It has come to light that Canada was spying on the President of Brazil and the Minister of Mining and Energy. What has set this report apart is that intended purpose.

It has become common refrain that this level of spying is necessary to stop terrorist attacks. But what the evidence has been increasingly pointing to is that much of this spying is not for the state but national corporations.

The spying on Brazil’s Minster of Mining and Energy is now thought to have been done to give a leg up to Canadian based mining and petroleum corporations.


Now, you might…and I must stress MIGHT be able to get me to go along with the spy in every laptop if the purpose was to stop crime and terrorism…whatever that may currently mean. But when the security apparatus of the state is given to private for profit corporations who have little to no interest in the reputation of the nation…well, that just leaves me dumb struck.

I wonder if we charge them for this information. If they are spying for corporate interests, doesn’t that take them away from the job of keeping the nations safe?

So, in the first place it just strikes me as wrong that we are expending not only valuable public resource to enable private corporations to make better deals because they know what the other side is talking about but it also sullies the reputation of the nation.

Canada is known as a nice guy…or well it was. The concerted efforts of the current regime under Harper has so tarnished our name that Canadian travelers are not sewing New Zealand flags on their backpacks for fear of being discovered as being Canuck.

Now I was talking to a loyal listener of Radio Free Thinker and they mentioned that we should be appalled that we spy at all on our allies…that there should be some kind of Marquis de Queensberry rules for spying…we all agree on some basic ground rules, such as don’t spy on your friends or they may soon choose not to be your friends.

Now in principle I agree with this sentiment and since the whistle-blower Snowden’s revelations, many nations are now talking about an international treaty regulating spying.


However, into this mix I was listening to one of the many podcast I hear each week. On it I heard a very Machiavellian and cold response to this idea of playing nice. He said, dead pan and matter of fact…well, if one nations is spying for economic advantage and your nation is not…well that puts you at a strategic disadvantage…you lose.

In isolation, we could say…well, no…decent nations do not give up integrity for monetary gain, at least in the short term.

Now, the depth of the spying the Snowden has revealed has relevance in an unexpected way. He has shown that the NSA, among others…are not spying to protect the nation or weed out crime. They motivation seems to be to just get it all. If there is a system…place…person…that seems beyond their spy network, they make every effort to crack it.

Merkel is famous for her use of her phone to conduct political business. This fact alone seems to have made her a target of the NSA…it’s not do I need to spy on her, but CAN I spy on her.


Once this threshold has been reached…once nations know that the US is willing to stoop lower than anyone else. The argument made about “do you want to handicap your side by not spying” makes it a race the bottom of ethical spying.

I want Canada to take the highroad…I think in the long run that way prosperity lies…but I understand too well the pull of the dark-side. With our current leadership, I have no doubts that we are not taking the high road.

corrigan october 19 2013

Posted in Don's Blogs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Mega Myth of Mega Vitamins

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 23, 2013

Too much of a good thing can kill ya!

Okay, I am going to write about how we overmedicate ourselves with regards to vitamins. That said, I am NOT saying that vitamin supplements are always bad. In parts of the world where a balanced diet is unavailable, supplements make sense. There are people, myself included, who have specific medical conditions that prevent proper absorption of vitamins…again supplements make sense. So, please no straw men.

In an article published in THE ATLANTIC, Dr. Paul Offit makes the case that we consume way more vitamins than we need. Beyond that, this overdosing of vitamins is dangerous.

Now the name Paul Offit may sound familiar to our skeptic readers, he has been a front man in the war against the Anti-Vax movement.

A vast majority of the article focuses on the origin of what we now call ‘mega-dosing’ vitamins. Which he lays at the feet of one person Linus Carl Pauling.

I should stop and point out that Pauling was in his lifetime a great man, humanitarian and scientist. He won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering an entirely NEW chemical bond, from work he published in the 1920s. Having revolutionized physical chemistry, he then was part of a team that discovered the structure of proteins in the 1930s. In the 40s, he helped prove that ‘abnormally’ folded proteins caused Sickle Cell Anemia. He won the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his work “against nuclear weapons testing”.

Pauling is the only person to win two solo Nobel Prizes…one in Chemistry and one in Peace.

All these earlier discoveries were accompanied by proper scientific investigation. For some unknown reason, at the age of 65, that changed. Now, armchair psychologists (such as me) feel that Pauling may have a…well, developed an inflated ego, that he could do no wrong. That, in almost every endeavour, he used “unconventional” or radical thinking to find new discoveries missed by others. One might excuse what I am about to say, that he had personal precedent on his mind when promoting ideas that were not supported by the ‘establishment’

Pauling got some anecdotal evidence that large doses of Vitamin C could increase his life expectancy by 25 plus years. Pauling tried it and felt better…again anecdotal.

It also ran contrary to studies done in the 40s that showed no benefit. It is unclear why Pauling seemed to, in his waning years; abandon the scientific method…the very thing that created his career. When people said his ideas were nuts, the method proved them wrong. But by the late 60s till his death, it was not the method but his own personal belief that made things true.

Of course when Pauling started praising Vitamin C, more people did research…proper controlled studies…and again, no effect was found. We should remember, Pauling was worshiped as a genius, if he said something was good, people…scientists WANTED to believe. However, the scientific method has no room for the cult of personality.

That have been over a dozen large scale controlled experiments showing no link.

Pauling then doubled down…He claimed it also cured cancer.

This was based on a small study in Scotland, but when unbiased scientists looked at the study, they noted that the people given Vitamin C were in better health to begin with…oops. One of the foundations of a valid double blind scientific study…that can PROVE things…is that the ‘subject groups’ are equal. One could say that smart phones promote good health because people who use one have less medical issues…this of course ignores the fact that the majority of young HEALTHY people have smart phones while the ill and infirm elderly are not ‘early adopters’ of new tech.

Again, based on the ‘now’ reputation of Pauling (which is rapidly declining thanks to these quack med claims), scientists tested the effectiveness of Vitamin C on cancer and again, no connection was found.

Pauling in classic quack science mode, when he could not get peer reviewed science journals to talk about this miracle cure, wrote a book titled ‘Vitamin C and the Common Cold’ and went on the talking circuit directing people to take 3000 mg of the vitamin…50 times the recommended dose. I say TALKING circuit because the ‘lecture’ circuit already knew his ideas were bunk, however the popular press is always open to a charismatic talking head.

Again in classic Woo medicine mode, he could not accept that the science contradicted his beliefs and lashed out calling the studies against were shots at him personally…that they were cases of “fraud and deliberate misrepresentation.” He even tried to sue the scientists.

And the descent continued. Pauling started to claim that Vitamin C plus Vitamin A, E and Beta Carotene, selenium…that this cocktail, or what we now call a multivitamin….could cure almost everything[1].

By the time of Pauling’s death in the mid-1990s, vitamin supplements were a big business. One plant alone in Texas was churning out 350 tonnes a year of Beta Carotene alone.

In 1992, Time published as its cover story “The Real Power of Vitamins: New research shows they may help fight cancer, heart disease, and the ravages of aging” which parroted Pauling’s unfounded and disproven claims.

Big Supplement though loved it, National Nutritional Foods Association or NNFA, distributed a copy to every member of Congress. They described it as “a watershed event for the industry.” They had a major publication uncritically stating that MEGA doses of vitamins will, again, cure anything without any valid (i.e. scientifically verified) evidence…anecdotal from top to bottom.

It is ironic, that in 1994 a law was passed that loosened regulation of vitamins because they were not, according to law, seen as a medicine. Deregulation, of course, was great for Big Supplement and the industry skyrocketed. If the medial value of vitamins were…well, valid, then the industry should be pushing for medical validation. By having them ‘deregulated’ and putting them in the same class as pork…well, the flim-flam of the industry, its claims and its proponent seems obvious.

IF it’s medically good for you, you WANT it to be classified as a MEDICINE, if it is quackery, then you would like it classified as a ‘spice’.

Of course, one might say, what’s the harm…

  • Well, high doses of Beta Carotene and Vitamin E, causes cancer…it will increase the numbers of cancer cases in smokers.
  • Similarly, Vitamin A is linked to some forms of lung cancer.
  • A study of the Pauling cocktail in 2004 showed that in gastrointestinal cancers, mortality was UP if you took Pauling’s advice.
  • 2005, Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out that patients taking mega-doses of Vitamin E were at higher risk of Heart Failure.
  • 2007, men who took multivitamins were twice as likely to develop prostate cancer.
  • 2008, a study involving over 200,000 people found vitamin supplements increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.
  • 2011 saw two studies published. One showed that in older women, multivitamin (these included mineral supplements as well) died at rates higher than those who didn’t.
  • The second study, showed a 17% increase in the chance of prostate cancer IF you took vitamin E.
  • In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion.

From “Dummies” website:


Overdose and Possible Effect

Vitamin A 15,000 to 25,000 IU retinol a day for adults (2,000 IU or more for children) may lead to liver damage, headache, vomiting, abnormal vision, constipation, hair loss, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, bone pain, sleep disorders, and dry skin and mucousmembranes. A pregnant woman who takes more than 10,000 IU a day doubles her risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects.
Vitamin D 2,000 IU a day can cause irreversible damage to kidneys and heart. Smaller doses may cause muscle weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, retarded physical growth, and mental retardation in children, and fetal abnormalities.
Vitamin E Large amounts (more than 400 to 800 IU a day) may cause upset stomach or dizziness.
Vitamin C 1,000 mg or higher may cause upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation.
Niacin Doses higher than the RDA raise the production of liver enzymes and blood levels of sugar and uric acid, leading to liver damage and an increased risk of diabetes and gout.
Vitamin B6 Continued use of 50 mg or more a day may damage nerves in arms, legs, hands, and feet. Some experts say the damage is likely to be temporary; others say that it may be permanent.
Choline Very high doses (14 to 37 times the adequate amount) have been linked to vomiting, salivation, sweating, low blood pressure, and — ugh! — fishy body odor.

So, in conclusion…to paraphrase Mackenzie-King, “Vitamins if necessary but not necessarily vitamins”…translation, eat a well-balanced, shyte, in Canada, even half-assed balanced meals and leave the supplements to those FEW who truly need them.

[1] heart disease, mental illness, AIDS, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, shingles, fever blisters, cold sores, canker sores, warts, aging, allergies, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, retinal detachment, strokes, ulcers, shock, typhoid fever, tetanus, dysentery, whooping cough, leprosy, hay fever, burns, fractures, wounds, heat prostration, altitude sickness, radiation poisoning, glaucoma, kidney failure, influenza, bladder ailments, stress, rabies, and snakebites

Posted in Blogs, Don's Blogs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Atheist identity…?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 12, 2013

portion of our show with Randolph. Not all of it got on the show, but worth reading. >



1) Is there an atheist identity?  The idea of not believing something should not, in itself and in isolation, constitute and identity.


I regard atheism as merely the classification of the “absence of theism,” which implies “absence of belief in deities and supernatural agents.” Nothing more. Nothing less. Exempt from carrying any burden of proof, because it makes no claims about anything, it is entirely unimposing and non-oppressive.

Although I am an atheist, I can’t agree with there being any such thing as an “atheist identity” due to the lack of any doctrine and because there are so many different factors that could be used to identify people. The problem I see with assuming that there is an “atheist identity” is that it implies conformity, which requires extending the meaning of “atheism” beyond the mere classification that it is.

Freethinking and open-minded are two personality traits among many atheists who I know that I think also make it very difficult to create any sense of “atheist identity.” Add skepticism to this list of traits and you’ve now introduced a potential divide between “skeptical” and “non-skeptical” atheists. Although skepticism certainly does play an important role for many who prefer that their choice to be an atheist be rationally justified, it’s not actually required since people can also freely choose to be atheists for non-skeptical reasons as well as for no reason at all.


Let me ask you then, isn’t, from what i read as your perspective, the concept of atheist meaningless…it holds no more meaning than saying i am a a-football-enthusiast or a-capitalist?


That’s right.  It is our conversations about atheism, and sports, and political systems that give them meaning.  It is the power granted by people to sports heroes and politicians that make them influential and effective in a way that makes their meaningfulness real.


I think i would counter by focusing on the very thing you seem to trivialize or see as secondary to atheism and that is Skepticism.

From my perspective, an atheist who does not believe ‘just because’ is making no more a statement than “i don’t like broccoli”.

That the rejection of a belief system, which is imposed upon us…more on that later…without cause, is no more intellectually honest than saying “the market will solve all our problems because it’s good” full stop!


When people say that they are atheists, the statement they’re making is that they aren’t theists, so there definitely is a statement being made.

Atheism should be trivial, but it isn’t because there are strong market forces that have designs to eliminate it.  Just as some religions try very hard to rule the world, commercial market forces seem to create more problems than they solve, and that’s probably why we have so many regulations.

However, I do think that atheism is a very large demographic, and it’s a demographic that’s growing rapidly now, and I think more access to education and information is part of the reason for this.


2) Does a religious culture force an identity on us?  For example, are there parallels between being an atheist in a “Christian” nation, or being gay is a straight nation … identity is thrust upon us because we are different.


Indeed some people do try impose identities on atheists, perhaps to vilify or isolate, just as some try to isolate people for other reasons such as the ones you mentioned, and I think it’s a shame that such intolerance is commonly permitted.


I am not sure i agree so much with the idea of “isolate” as opposed to ignore. I think one of the reasons for the ‘atheist backlash’ is not religion so much wanting to suppress atheist but atheist demanding equality.

In that context…by forcing us to demand our right. Again in parallel to queer rights or even racial equality. It is an odd conjunction of both being ‘different’ from the norm as well as demanding not only recognition but equality. Your Thoughts?


            I think people are demanding freedom, and religion often becomes an adversary to this because it espouses values and virtues that require imposing restrictions and limitations.

            I don’t think equality is a realistic possibility, but I think striving for the fair and equal treatment of people is.  I think that’s the real goal that equality advocates are fighting for.


I find it interesting…that in their attempt to both ‘pigeon-hole’ or ghetto-ize athiests, they have often attempted to use the ad hominem attacks…labeling us as a Religion or just as dogmatic as…i don’t know…the Pope.


Occasionally I also encounter the assumption that atheism is dogmatic or is a belief system that actively opposes belief in deities, and I don’t agree with this application of the “guilt by association” logical fallacy on atheists as if we’re all anti-theists, especially since there are many atheists who aren’t opposed to theism.  In case that seems a bit confusing, because certain terms suffer from varying definitions, consider that the word “theism,” which, when combined with the prefix “anti” to make the word “antitheism,” gains an emphatically “oppositional” property. On the other hand, the “a” prefix, when combined with “theism” to make the word “atheism,” merely indicates the impartial “absence” of theism.

After dividing people into different groups or fitting them into various “identities,” I find it interesting that other efforts to find similarities eventually begin to materialize. It’s as if there’s a “make work” project at play somehow, although I suspect it’s more likely a desire for human kinship and the prevention of loneliness. Although labels and identities are helpful as they are an important part of language and the free exchange of information, the use of labels for nefarious purposes can also have an equally unhelpful effect.

Instead of fostering division, I prefer to embrace diversity as an important strength that depends on personal differences, particularly on a rather large scale, which conformity tends to limit or prevent. Conformity, when escalated to reject diversity, can foster social problems by ostracizing and dividing people. If more efforts were focused on inclusion rather than exclusion, then I think society could be much healthier as a whole.

And that’s one of the beauties of atheism it doesn’t impose expectations. There are no minimum or maximum requirements in any category, aside from “not being a theist,” and since being a theist is also optional, at least in countries like Canada and the USA that value freedom constitutionally, people can choose to be atheists, theists, or anti-theists

as often as they like, and for as long as they like. The most important point is that people don’t necessarily have to accept an identity that’s been thrust upon them, and I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to try to live up to someone else’s arbitrary expectations, no matter how strongly it’s imposed.


Again, i will make the charge…yes, i am an evangelical fundamentalist atheist…the charge that if you have not become an atheist for the ‘right reasons’ you are…well a weak atheist, that if your disbelief has no foundation, then you belief may equally be found?
That without that intellectual honesty, non-skeptical atheist is just…well, a fashion choice.


            I’m not convinced that atheism needs a foundation, or any justification at all.  The expectation of “being an atheist for the right reasons” is, to me, entirely optional.  Although I have great respect for people like you for having strong, solid, rational reasons to be atheists, I don’t favour making it a requirement because, fundamentally, I don’t consider atheism to be a position that needs defending since it can stand on its own merits — of which the only one I’m aware of is the “absence of theism.”

            To say that it is “without intellectual honesty” is okay with me too because I assume that “dishonesty” is not intended since you very cleverly didn’t call it “intellectual dishonesty.”  As far as non-skeptical atheists are concerned, although I feel that skepticism is a valuable skill that all people should learn because it is so valuable, I see no reason to bar people from using something akin to a mere “fashion choice” to justify atheism.  I think people should have the freedom to make this choice.


But what about being “lumpted in”. Some skeptics and free thinkers do not like that term not because they do not believe in these concepts but because some people also call them selves skeptics, for example, but express that term to support that 9/11 was an inside job. Valid guilt or tarnishment by association. If you use that label, is it not in your own best interest that the word maintain its true meaning?


3) Do atheists practice the Golden Rule?


Many try to, but I think the Golden Rule is flawed. The rule that I live by is to “intend to treat others as they prefer to be treated.” This is very different from The Golden Rule, which emphasizes YOU treating others as YOU wish to be treated, which I regard it as flawed because people have different preferences which are sometimes so varied that treating others based on our own standards is actually problematic. For example, consider sexual preferences: The range of interests is so vast from one person to the next that even sexual orientation can seem like a minor point, and this is where The Golden Rule doesn’t work very well, particularly between a straight couple since each partner is attracted and satisfied in different ways.


I would add to that affirmative action and race equality…or economic inequality.


To me, “human solidarity” is most important, but unfortunately division, discrimination, and intolerance work against it. To be human typically includes the ability to question, to think, and to judge, all of which flies in the face of conformity, and this solidarity also notably includes options to celebrate and otherwise enjoy the benefits of being oneself in any manner as one sees fit. As long as that doesn’t include oppressing or harming others against their will, it could be a utopia. I believe that this is where empathy and compassion become major factors, and are also what I’d regard as common traits in human identity which atheism clearly doesn’t try to limit or control.

The values that I hold dear include not oppressing or exploiting others, but trying to be helpful when they need help, offering friendship when they’re alone, and protecting them when they’re in need of nurture. These are all traits that I suspect come naturally to many people, which I regard as some of the finest hallmarks of humanity, and which my alternative to The Golden Rule wholeheartedly embraces the “intent to treat others as they prefer to be treated.”


4) Hypothetically, could atheism ever be eradicated?  Why or why not?


No, not without ending all life. The reason for this is that the alternatives to atheism, theism and antitheism, requires effort by their followers, preachers, and other advocates to practice, protect, and promote it. Atheism is a natural characteristic of life and consciousness, and since consciousness begins without knowledge so it is that atheism persists naturally, at least initially, and as a matter of course regardless of whether it’s labeled. One can deviate from it by becoming a theist, but it will always be an option that is easy to fall back on at any time. On the other hand, every theism is always at risk of being eradicated, even if only by attrition.

Martin Luther once said that “all belief systems ossify over time.” This has happened throughout history which shows examples of religions that have disappeared, for various reasons, including being replaced by other religions. Although I’ve heard that some are making a comeback recently, such as Hellenic Polytheism which worships Zeus and Apollo, and the other Olympian deities, and Asatru which worships Thor and Odin, and so on, it doesn’t appear that these are major trends.

The reason that theism is at risk of being eradicated and atheism isn’t is that any belief in deities requires having knowledge of deities, which must first be learned or invented. It’s required by theism and, to a degree, antitheism, yet atheism is free of these requirements each person starts their life as an atheist without even realizing it, and only truly becomes aware of what it means to not be a theist after learning about theism.

So … the “atheism” label is mostly only necessary when identifying those who aren’t theists, and most likely wouldn’t even recognize it if there weren’t any theisms in the first place. Would that change the fact that every person starts out as an atheist? Obviously not, but this fact also wouldn’t be important, relevant, or significant in the absence of a suitable concept like theism to compare it with, and so atheism will always be immune to eradication.


So how do you explain “natural” religion?  As much as it is a pebble in the shoe of atheism, it is undeniable that some form of ‘supernaturalism’ seem to be, forgive the irony, natural. I think we agree that children are born atheist, but it is also true…based on the history of humanity, that we have a predilection to beliefs in supernatural forces…be it Jesus or simply the thunder god of lightning or the rain..


            I recall a debate wherein Christopher Hitchens pointed out that humans are pattern-seeking mammals.  I think he’s right, and that there’s a tendency for people to seek explanations and default to assumptions instead of leaving questions unresolved.

            Religion is an example of one such assumption, and I regard it as man-made.  The various stories about Jesus Christ, or Thor and his glorious hammer, are two examples of stories that gained a lot of popularity.  The desire for a “higher power” probably helps many people feel less alone in the universe, but it’s not one that I find necessary in my life.


5) Do you think that atheism is good for children?  If so, why?  How does it factor into parenting?


Yes, atheism is definitely good for children. This is because it leaves children free to question everything without intellectual limits, to learn about the world without inhibitions, to be creative without arbitrary boundaries, to enjoy life without irrational fears, and to make friends without irrelevant expectations that are handed down by some ancient tradition based on superstition or a phobia of the unknown.

As a parent, I am convinced that it is my duty to ensure that both of my daughters are really good at learning and problem solving, to inspire them to explore and discover the world around them, and most importantly to also understand themselves although only they can do that honestly, as a parent I am in the ideal position to encourage them and try to guide them in this direction while also nurturing critical and independent thinking skills.

Teaching children to respect themselves and develop their own set of expectations, instead of living up to a set of values and virtues espoused by an imagined authority that relies on guilt trips and scare tactics to force its will upon others, is how atheism factors into parenting. If my children become theists later in life, it won’t change the fact that I still love them as my children, and they know this; our older daughter even asked us about this during dinner one night, and that was our answer. To me, this is also how atheism factors in to parenting, not as tolerance, but as care and acceptance, and respect for children to think freely for themselves.


Some would argue…okay, i would argue, that its not ATHEISM that one should teach children but SKEPTICISM…that is they have their rational tool kit…the baloney detector…that a) atheist will be evaluate but also they will be better educated to deal with a world of dubious claims and charlatans?


            Yes, you’re right, and I agree that skepticism should be the focus because atheism alone doesn’t inspire skepticism.  I regard atheism as “incidental” to skepticism, although, as Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience once observed, “skepticism ultimately leads to atheism.”

Being armed with critical thinking skills is, in my strong opinion, one of the best defenses against the charlatans and quack medical practitioners, and so on, but as it is with most things, skepticism is a skill that requires practice, and it’s one of the reasons Radio Free Thinker is so important – because it provides real-world examples of how to be skeptical, or at least that’s the main reason I’ve become a fan of the show.


6) Can you expand on how you teach your own children about ethics and morals, etc., without religious guidance?


I think it’s wrong. Creationism isn’t science, it’s mythology, so teaching it as if it were science is inappropriate, especially considering the mountains of evidence and logical explanations available that have been gained from its science-based adversary, the Theory of Evolution.

What has been discovered by studying and further developing Charles Darwin’s contributions has helped humankind tremendously. It has even lead to medical scientific advancements like evolutionary medicine that help develop better medicinal remedies in a more adaptive, and possibly predictive, manner. Although I have to admit that this isn’t one of my areas of specialization, it strikes me as wonderful that our species has come this far, and also that we’re still making new discoveries. It’s one of many truly exciting frontiers, and I fear that this constant demand to invade childhood education with religious proselytizing will seriously jeopardize the future, especially if it results in the complete removal of skepticism from the curriculum.


7) Some people credit their deities as the source of morality, and claim that without religion people can’t know what is moral. Can you expand on how you teach your own children about ethics and morals, etc., without religious guidance?


Children, particularly the younger ones, tend to want to please the adults in their lives, and so I feel that it’s very important to teach them “how to think for themselves” rather than “what to think” as dictated by others. Although my wife and I teach them values such as honesty and skepticism, which are complimentary, along with many other virtues that we think will be helpful to them in the future, we also teach them the importance of trying to understand what the possible future consequences of their choices may be, and to also try to consider other options even when the immediate choices facing them seem correct or reasonable.

You see, there are often “grey areas” that are left out when one is presented with a limited set of options, and we believe that making sure children are aware of this fact before they reach their teens ultimately helps them to make better and more intelligent decisions when they’re older.

By thinking about the consequences of one’s choices, and being aware of what’s commonly expected in society, morality comes naturally as a self-determined exercise in free will influenced by empathy and the desire to get along well with others. Religions, on the other hand, provide rigid predetermined sets of values and virtues, but I don’t think that makes them universally moral, contrary to the same common claims that morality is a universal teaching that requires religious guidance. Morality varies depending on a number of factors, including most notably the expectations of society, and I find that religion is inflexibly out of step with this primarily because it seems to be based on teachings from a time that posed very different challenges compared to what people face today.

A few years ago our older daughter’s schoolmates talked about their religious beliefs at school, sometimes as part of their school assignments that are presented to the class. Since they didn’t try to convert anyone, I suspect they probably just talk about their beliefs because religion is emphasized at home.

So, we Googled the internet for information about the different religions her schoolmates talked about. After learning some of the more general points of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and a few others, and how they differ, she wondered how many religions there are and so we found a few web sites that listed a lot of them. I also introduced her to Pastafarianism, heheh, and that Flying Spaghetti Monster with the Invisible Pink Unicorn were instant hits not only with both our daughters but also with their friends that they both mentioned them to. There’s something about a spaghetti and meatballs deity flying around, and also invisible pink unicorns, that appeals to children, probably because in addition to seeing it as “ridiculous” they also see it as something fun, like a playground made of giant spaghetti built for climbing and carnival rides that have a few unicorns.

For children to gain a basic understanding of the various religions, especially when introduced while questions are being asked about it, makes it more meaningful as a way to develop a better understanding of how others view the world. Turning this into a lesson about why people have different moral standards also helps children to realize one of many reasons why people can’t always find agreement on certain matters, and why some probably never will.

In the end, the most important value we taught was the distinction where we respect everyone’s right to hold any opinion, no matter how awful or wonderful that opinion might be. We also teach our children that opinions themselves don’t necessarily deserve respect and should be open to any form of interrogation, scrutiny, and even ridicule. Separating the opinions from the people who hold them is essential to clear discernment and the nurturing of critical thinking. With this kind of clarity in a child’s intellectual toolset, I firmly believe that self-determined morality has a greater potential to foster an attitude of finding value in others in a way that can make life more meaningful and satisfying for everyone.

The following is point I made in a similar discussion last year, and I think it’s appropriate here:  “The greatest gift that we can give to future generations is progress.”

With the passage of time, society changes, and morality that adapts with change is more useful and helpful to a given populace. This is one significant reason why an “objective morality that comes from some inflexible deity” is a fallacy, and preparing the younger generations to think more intensely about decisions and consequences is, I believe, essential for progress to flourish and for survival to become a minor issue in our ever-changing world in the long run.


Thank you dropping by. You can check out Randolph’s thoughts, resources and links at:
The End!

<Randolph would like it to be know that he scripted his answers not because he is a conscientious guest, which he is; nor because he wished his answers were thoughtful and well presented, again a true characterization. No, he worried that the weight of our listeners ears may have clouded his mind and tied his tongue. As our listeners already know, that was not the case. Thanks again Randolph for a wonderful interview>

Posted in Blogs, Don's Blogs | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

RFT Ep 224 – Carl Sagan Association Edition

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 10, 2013


This weeks rant is about how stupid do you have to be not to get that ‘no consent’ is not good for team building. Don discusses the resent controversy over Frosh week.


Find out more:

This week an interview with Jason Fernando from the Carl Sagan Association for the Communication of Science. Who is Carl Sagan, why an Association and just how do the plan to communicate about science and more specifically to science community.


Find out more:

Download the episode here! 

Next week, host emeritus Daniel Gipps will join me as we tackle some economic myths.


Posted in Blogs | Leave a Comment »

Best of RFT – the 210s

Posted by Don McLenaghen on August 6, 2013

Hanging technology

This week a recasting our some of our best bits from episodes past:

  • Ant-GMO fallacies,
  • Faith in Science,
  • Irished Water
  • The Good of Big Data

Download the episode here!

Ant-GMO fallacies

teosinteIn the light of recent protest, we look at some of claims of the anti-GMO movement and some better reasons to hate Monsanto. Find out more:

Faith in science

vetenskap_vs_tro_vykort-re14a53ee849740d4b445e7b307529e3a_vgbaq_8byvr_512Religious people have often lament about us Atheists…that without a belief in god, we are somehow diminished. One area that religious faith seems to have no secular equivalent is in times of stress or in confronting our mortality, we have no source of comfort. Some have suggested that, in the absence of religious belief, secular beliefs such as Humanism and various political ideologies can replace religion as a source of comfort and meaning. images (2)

New research shows that non-believes show greater faith in science under stress or existential anxiety. That belief in the value of science as an institution and in its superiority as a source of knowledge can offer reassurance to secular individuals in threatening contexts.

Find out more:

Irished Water

i-ac25dbfdf1f593ea6bd09b5f8d5c176f-a9 manic depressive cartoonDon talks about a proposal to test the effects of purposefully adding lithium to the drinking water in Ireland in an attempt to fight the growing epidemic of depression and suicides that has plagued that nation.
We take a look a number of studies that looked at geographic regions with higher natural lithium concentrations in drinking water and the effect this has on the subject population.

Find out more:

The Good side of Big Data

Big Data is BIG and its growing and becoming an ever more important part of our every day life. In the first part of a 2 part series on Big Data, we look at the good Big Data has brought to the world.

the internet over an average 24 hours in 2012—higher usage in yellows and reds; lower in greens and blues

Find out more:

Posted in Best of RFT, Blogs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Candle is Out

Posted by Ethan Clow on August 2, 2013

Carl Sagan, my personal hero, wrote a book called the Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It’s a book that had profound implications on my life. Upon reading it, the foundations of skeptical activism were set, and while it would take some time, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

In the book, Sagan uses the analogy of a candle to describe the predicament of our civilization. Science is that faint glow of light holding back the darkness of superstition, pseudoscience, backwards thinking – and if we want to extend that analogy – homophobia, sexism, intolerance, dogmatism etc.

Last month I announced my resignation from CFI Canada and since I know people are curious, I’d like to explain some of my thoughts on this and why I decided to go in this direction.

The truth is, I’m not just resigning from CFI Canada, but skepticism in general. I’m not going to be blogging or podcasting. I’m not going to attend events like skeptics in the pub or lectures or engage in online discussions about the nature of skepticism or humanism.


For me, the candle is out.

A Hobby

I’m not going to dive into worthless gossip and give credence to half truths and other clock and dagger silliness. This is strictly my point of view and strictly about me. Take it for what its worth.

Skeptical activism has long been a kind of wonderful hobby for me. I could sit down, read some articles, do some research, write a blog post or a segment for Radio Freethinker and feel content. Likewise with CFI, I always felt energized after a good meeting or event. I loved to chat with other group leaders and discuss strategy. I felt like I was doing something that made the world a better place. I saw it less as a job and more like some awesome thing I got paid to do.

When my personal life started to get very stressful and unpleasant, I saw CFI and skepticism as my escape. I could forget about my worries and dive into a new project. I knew in the back of my mind that sooner or later I was going to have to deal with life and so I would occasionally take breaks and let the talented volunteers handle things here and there.

Things were going along nicely. I was still riding a high from the Imagine No Religion 3 conference and my head was buzzing with ideas and projects and we were eagerly getting started on some of them. Then news from the board of directors hit and I found that Michael Payton, the National Executive Director of CFI had been relieved of his duties.

I was floored. Michael had been doing a fantastic job and his removal was like having the rug pulled out from under me while I was moving a piano.

After a long week of emails, phone calls, and discussion – I was no closer to understanding the reasoning behind removing Michael than I was when I first heard the news. I disagreed with the board’s decision, I disagreed with their method of arriving at that decision and I disagreed with their vision of moving forward.

Through this process I arrived at the conclusion that while I don’t think the board of directors were/are a bunch of cartoonish villains twirling their mustaches, their vision of CFI Canada is not one that I share or particularly see myself a part of.

That’s fine. People have different ideas of how to do things. Reasonable people come to different conclusions all the time. But (sparing you the details) this method of doing things didn’t sit well with me.

You might be surprised, but I think I could probably have worked through all that. Several people I respect, are going to do just that. Building something like this takes time and there will be setbacks along the way, and this is a major setback, but people intend to fix it and move on to the next challenge. Good for them.

For me, the problems run deeper than that. I’ve always said this type of work; skeptical activism, is a thankless job. Whenever I interviewed new volunteers, I would reiterate this to them. “When you make a mistake, expect someone to call you out on it. No matter how small or mundane it might be, someone will try to spin it like its the worst thing you’ve ever done.” They would usually smile and assure me they’re ready for it.

A Reactionary Movement

“Skeptics are mean.” A volunteer from a different organization once remarked to me. And not in those exact words, but I’ve heard similar issues from volunteers. They want to help out, but quickly feel embattled and leave.

I’m not trying to disparage anyone or any group, but I think its worth pointing out that this sort of issue is real and I’ve seen it personally.

Here are some examples:

It’s common for me to receive forwarded emails between people planning things, when it comes time for my contribution the whole conversation is sent to me. On one such occasion, the conversation began with “I knew Ethan would screw this up…”

While going through some old documents, looking for accounting information, I found a note written by an individual makings some pretty libellous assumptions about me. Later, I found another note by someone else complaining about mean-spirited gossip being spread around.

Other situations that I’ve been told about include:

– Volunteers being called up early in the morning and yelled at.

– Explosive arguments over mundane topics that result in vows of “I will not work with this person until they are kicked out!”

– Skeptical activists trying to organize boycotts of other skeptical organizations because the said group has a policy etc. someone doesn’t agree with.

I could go on but let’s stop there.

In the past I’ve talked about the skeptic/freethought community being overly reactionary. I would use the term in the sense that skeptics typically have knee-jerk responses to problems, but you could also imply that the movement is built on reaction itself. Consider, what are the principles of the freethought movement? Do we have positional statements or end goals or is our entire policy tree growing on the concept of reacting to other ideas?

“You can’t treat X with homeopathy”

“You can’t put the ten commandments there”

“You can’t find Bigfoot”

“Those aren’t UFO’s”

“That’s not a picture of a ghost”

It would seem that all of our core positions are actually reactions to other beliefs and policy positions. In theory there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if this hasn’t created some kind of feedback loop for the movement.

I lamented in a previous blog post (All You Need is Love (and Skepticism)) that many (if not all) of our internal “deep rift” disagreements could be solved by having a different internal communication strategy. Instead of making our disputes public – we should first try private communication, a phone call or email.

Dan Dennett has a system where if he takes issue with something someone has said, he first contacts them and summarizes their point to them “is this what you meant to say?”

Quoting Dennett:

Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’

A Professional Movement

The running gag has been that organizing skeptics is like herding cats. An expression I’ve heard is “the best thing about freethinkers is that they’re free thinkers and the worst thing about freethinkers is that they’re free thinkers.”

I’ve debated whether there actually is a discordant element in the community or if that’s just confirmation bias. There does appear to be plenty of reasons why freethinkers might be so hard to organize. There is a certain element of intellectual arrogance inherent in skepticism – a slight tendency towards know-it-all-ism. This could create a situation where the average skeptic just doesn’t accept that someone else could know better than they could.

Other explanations could be an anti-organizational or libertarian philosophy, an embattled personality, or an unwillingness to work together.

Another possible explanation which recently I’ve come to consider quite carefully is that a large group of skeptics don’t consider themselves a “professional movement.” What I mean by this is that for many people, the free thought movement exists in the social sphere of extended hobby. It’s an opportunity to get together, have a few drinks and discuss like-minded interests. And that’s about it. Taking the next step from discussing such interests to actually organizing around them, is not something everyone is keen to do.

And of course, that’s fine. I enjoy playing and watching hockey, that doesn’t mean I’m going to try out for the NHL.

The problem is, you have professional organizations, many of which are incorporated as non-profits or charities, they ask for donations, they put on events and preform activism. There are some that operate with volunteer staff and others that employ people and pay rent for buildings.

As I see it, there is a severe disconnect between how these organizations operate and who they serve. Since I’ve personally run the gauntlet of working within such groups, as a volunteer, as a staff member, as a person in leadership roles, or in administrative roles or in policy making roles, I feel like I have a strong understanding of this disconnect.

Roughly speaking, its a circular problem.

While there are a lot of hard working volunteers and staff people out there, these groups generally have limited experience in non-profit management or business. And while most are great at punching above their weight class, there’s a lot of unrealistic expectations that are being sold to donors and the skeptical community.

Unfortunately the community is littered with the bones of reformers who have tried to come into the movement and reshape some of the larger organizations to put them more in line with other non-profits. Advice about communication and public relations have largely fallen on deaf ears and this can be seen in the relatively small size of the movement. Estimations of the number of non-believers, atheists, agnostics around the world is considerably higher than what you would expect looking at the membership lists of the groups in the free thought movement.

Lots of people have read books by Dawkins, Sagan and Hitchens, yet the movement has failed to pull many of these people into the fold. Many of the skeptical “celebrities” that exist in the movement are relative unknowns in the large social milieu.

Essentially, you have organizations (which lack the expertise they need) who have expectations that aren’t realistic and worse, given their size and situation, usually aren’t what they really need. Meanwhile, you have the supporters of such organizations who have equally unrealistic expectations for the groups they support, of which most are ambivalent to what the supporters actually want and don’t want to spend the time necessary to inform them of what is realistic. (Assuming they know what is.)

The sheer number of groups and organizations that exist to the serve the free-thought movement is evidence of these facts. That many of these organizations got their start as fractured arguments between leaders of one organization who then took their ball and went home, is an unwelcome sign of these unrealistic expectations having disastrous effects on our community.

I want it all and I want it now

In talking with other activists and people involved in other non-profit causes, the mantra for success seems to be pragmatism. Charities, as a matter of necessity, ask for the moon. This is because they need to galvanize their supporters and present an appealing and hopeful outlook. Behind the scenes, this is often at odds with a careful strategy of baby steps and achievable objectives.

I liken this to the anti-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Sure, we say we want all the nukes gone…but if they offered to remove 25%, we’d take it.

I’ve already mentioned the issue of realistic expectations, but there’s another way that pragmatism needs to be reflected. The ability to put aside disagreements and work to common cause, which has been the Achilles heel of many organizations.

I want to tell a story (so unbelievable that people will think I made this up but it actually happened) I was involved in a meeting of various skeptical activists and we were tossing around ideas for projects and potential group efforts. A particular idea was being discussed when one participant spoke up, to paraphrase: “I don’t like this idea, and if we go forward with it, then fuck it. I won’t help or be involved.”

In discussing this problem with others, I’ve come to wonder if it’s a feedback loop caused by the fact that those most likely to volunteer and take on leadership roles, also have strong personality types that make working with others difficult. Another possibility is that leadership positions in skeptic/free thought groups often fall on the person with the most time and energy and not necessarily the best training or experience (in things like time management, human resources etc)

Unfortunately I’ve seen this issue repeat itself time and again. Individuals who won’t work with other individuals for unrelated reasons. And I’m not talking about things like “I don’t want to work with X because he gropes people.” I’m talking about people saying “I won’t work with him because he supports a different political party” or “I just don’t like her.”

The People’s Front of Judea

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. I’m very proud of the accomplishments I made as a skeptical activist. I feel perfectly at ease hanging my hat on them and I consider the hard work that was put into them – time well spent.

I don’t want people to walk away thinking that I feel like I wasted my time or resent the community of freethinkers. In fact, my time working with CFI, doing Radio Freethinker, getting involved in the community and attending conferences was great fun.

But even when you have fun, you notice the ways things could get better. Unfortunately, I don’t really know how to fix any of these problems. I’m not entirely sure they’ll ever get fixed because I know that there a plenty of people who will deny they exists till their blue in the face.

I know that some people will read this, roll their eyes and say “whatever.” I know that there are people who have written me off paragraphs earlier. And since I’m not offering any real solutions, I don’t exactly blame people for dismissing this. But at the same time, I feel like my involvement with the skeptical movement is worth some consideration. These are problems I have noticed repeatedly and I’m starting to hear other people mention them as well.

This leads me to believe that I’m on to something here.

I realize that for someone reading this, it all seems a bit vague and obtuse. I don’t cite specific examples or name names or anything like that. In reality, I could. I have emails, I have documents, I could share it all and let it hit the fan.

But, given the serious nature of such claims, I won’t. I’d don’t need lawyers knocking on my door or accusations that could damage my career or the careers of others. So whether you decide to take my ramblings with a grain of salt or consider them deeply, the choice is up to you.

These are my thoughts, and if they can have some impact on the movement, that’s enough for me.

Posted in Blogs, Ethan's Blogs | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

True North Surveilled and Free?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 17, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 6: CSEC – don’t know them? They know you…


Now, some people may say, “well, I have nothing to hide”…and that may be true.

But much can happen when the government is storing your data for years…decades?

What if your name is similar to an actual suspect…or there is a typo…or someone just guesses wrong?

They then can get the warrants needed to go back through this data and then you have what we skeptics call anomaly hunting.

For example;

Did you know when you bought that latte at Starbucks, the head of the Gambino Family was also enjoying a coffee there?

And how can you explain that you bought a propane tank just 2 days before one was used to kill a Gambino rival?

On November 3rd you said you received a call from a wrong phone number? Or was that a kill signal from a burner phone…and so it goes.

1144ckCOMIC-chagrin-falls---open-bookAll of this available because of meta-data gathering and co-mingling of information corrupted thru government/private contracting practices as mentioned in Parts 3 &4.

In the world of “Boundless Informant” and “Total Information Awareness”…innocence and ‘nothing to hide’ may only be seen as the lame excuses of someone committing pre-crime.

Now, we have focused on the US because…well it’s out there everywhere. Snowden, Manning and many others have exposed what is going on there. I would like to believe that such things do not happen here in Canada…but I think that would label me naive. Regardless, as I have said before, what happens in the US will happen here within a decade or so…the robocalls are such a vindication of that thesis.

Well according to the Globe and Mail, we are not immune. They reported on our version of the NSA, the Communications Security Establishment Canada that there is:

“An ultrasecretive electronic-eavesdropping agency, Communications Security Establishment Canada, has been authorized to collect data trails – phone logs, Internet Protocol addresses, and other ‘metadata’ – associated with Canadian telecommunications. This is being done as part of a continuing effort to pinpoint Canada’s adversaries in the wider world”.

What qualifies as a Canadian adversary? Just last year, the Harper government labelled environmentalists…like the World Wildlife Federation…as terrorist groups.

The program was started in 2005 and reauthorized in a “top secret” directive by Peter MacKay in 2011.

Unlike in the US where they still technically have to approach the court to get a warrant, however vague and broad…to get their data, not so here in Canada where a liberal interpretation of law makes warrants unnecessary.

Here in Canada, the CSEC’s metadata collecting rests on a foundational legal assumption by the Minister and CSEC. They believe that metadata telecommunications are legally different from private communications, such as the content of e-mails and phone calls, which can’t be intercepted without a warrant. So, it’s all fair game.

Frustratingly, the issue of oversight is well …twisted. Most parliamentarians cannot review the operations of CSEC because they lack the top secret clearance. However our Privacy Commissioner does have that clearance.

So, where our elected representatives are left it the dark, at least our civil servants are on the job.

The privacy commissioner stated…privately of course because the program was top secret…that because metadata can reveal important things about people, it should be classified as personal information. A recommendation the government has chosen to ignore…wonder why?

Perhaps we can take a  lesson from history ; during the the Weimar Republic the German equivalent to Prime Minister, for very good reasons, ruled by President’s emergency decrees because they saw the nation in a state of crisis (economic) and no other way to defend the German economy. What they did not know was that they provided the legal precedent for Hitler to seize power a few years later.

So, even if you trust Obama, or Sagan forbid Harper…that they will not abuse these powers…well history has shown once power is available it is only a matter of time before someone of unscrupulous intent has the opportunity to abuse them.

For many American readers…I hope you remember the whole reason the FISA courts were created was because of the rampant abuse of surveillance under Nixon (and his predecessor).  Check out the Church Committee report.

It is also ironic, to my Canadian ears; that Americans will fight tooth and nail to prevent the government’s keeping track of missing guns from guns shops because they believe the government will track them down and create a police state…

Yet, these very same people will roll over and give up all their 4th Amendment rights and allow the government to know and track EVERYTHING else but their guns. Don’t they know that your gun app marks you as a gun owner? When the jack boot state comes down on America, only then will they realize that it’s not guns that will keep you free, but information…which ironically will also enslave you.


Posted in Blogs, Don's Blogs | Leave a Comment »

The blurring of the Big Data lines

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 15, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 5: Whose data is whose?


Of course another thing that has blurred the lines between Government Big Data and Corporate Big Data…the Bad Big Data is the interconnectedness of these two groups.

As should already be obvious, even if we assume corporations are collecting our data for the relatively harmless intent of selling us more products…that data can and has been laid at the feet of the state.

Google, and a few others, have attempted to at least let people know when the government has requested data, but under secret warrants, who knows how many times they have LAWFULLY BUT SECRETIVELY forked over mountains of our information?

There is another ominous link; it is that a large amount of surveillance is not actually done by the government but by corporate contractors.

As I mentioned earlier an agent with authority could ‘check out a book’…well, what Snowden actually said was a privately employed agent…such as himself…could undertake any form of surveillance (he used wire taping as an example) that he had access to on their own authority…perhaps based on nothing more than a hunch.

This brings up three big threats from Big Data…first, in order to have Big Data you must first collect that data. In this regard, the recent revelations have shown how privacy and civil liberties were swept aside in the pursuit of attaining big data.

In most ‘civilized’ countries, a warrant must be issued by a member of the judiciary before an individuals privacy can be violated.

Typically a warrant is FOR something…I want a warrant to search Tony Soprano’s house because he is suspect in the murder of Matthew Bevilaqua. This is done because it is generally considered that privacy is a right. The US 4th amendment states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The warrant (reviled by Snowden that allows the ‘collecting’ of everyone’s phone data) simply says collect (almost) everything from everyone just-in-case…it is not even for a specific case. The probable cause? Because of 9/11 terrorism, we need a warrant on anyone and everyone who might do terrorism…as to what qualifies a terrorism can be almost anything (including thought crime)…does that not make warrant meaningless?

When a court authorizes a warrant, how broad is that warrant? This is where judicial oversight is supposed to ensure there is no abuse of individual privacy by the state. The warrant, that allowed for the collection of all phone meta-data, authorized the collection of any “tangible thing…all telephony metadata…between the US and abroad or wholly within the US”.

surveil-cartoon-and0228color-600x446The judicial oversight comes from something called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Courts. They issue these warrants in secret. However, reports and leaks have shown that there is no effective oversight.

The judges are not federal judges (which a normal warrant would require) but a separate secret court system. These judges are appointed by the Chief Justice but must be vetted by the very security agencies they are supposed to monitor thus these judges tend to be very conservative (in the bad sense of the term) and friendly to the security agencies.

In the courts 38 year old history, of 33,949 requests only 11 were refused…that’s a rejection rate of 0.03% and none have been rejected under Obama’s watch. To put that into context, that’s 5 warrants a day or one every 4 hours in 2012 with a rejection happening every once 3 1/2 years.

The next threat is what if an agent holds a personal grudge…they have at their fingertips the power to make someone’s life hell…an ex-lover, a high school bully, the guy who cut him off on the freeway…whatever.

Lastly, there is the cross talk. That is, the companies that have been contracted out to do surveillance for the government also have contracts with other corporations. Remember this kind of work is really just the collection of lots of data and analysing it…be that data your phone calls or stock trading. This has resulted in a twofold blurring of lines.

You have the line blurring between government and contractor security activities…private corporations that are given unprecedented authority to perform surveillance while given access to the deepest secrets of the state.

unfreepressThese private corporations must lobby the government for contracts…the same government whose secrets they know. The conflict of interests are obvious, scary and seen in the behavior of politicians.

Another blurring occurs when the very same surveillance contractors are also contracting out to other private corporations. Thus creating a conduit for a…let say Citi Bank to have access (indirectly) via the contractor to the ‘deepest state secrets’…like investigation into Citi Bank wrong doing?

I remember this one ‘conspiracy theory’…that does not sound so crazy now.  Apparently there was a New York Attorney General who was pushing for significant criminal charges against major corporate and financial institutions.

This particular AG, Elliot Spitzer, used an almost forgotten law from the 1920’s that allowed him to subpoena witnesses and company documents pertaining to investigations of fraud or illegal activity by a corporation. He famously used this power to help expose the Enron scandal and threaten civil actions against financial institutions that were Enron’s co-conspirators.

When Spitzer ran for Governor of New York…as a reformer…he was elected in 2007…less than 13 months later, revelations came out that he frequented prostitutes. He resigned days later.

The conspiracy arises out of the fact that Home Land Security (HLS) shared offices in Wall Street with major trading and financial institutions.  And by HLS offices what I mean is private corporate contractors doing surveillance for HLS.

mst0051lThese very same contractors also had work with Wall Street firms, to save overhead they used the same office space for both parties. So, the private surveillance contractors had employees working both for the government…seeing all the data that operation provided…and for the corporations…where they were supposed to forget what they saw on the other side.

Remember what the contractor can surveil for HLS is far more reaching than what they are allowed to do for ‘private’ customers.

Well, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks noted that the revelations about Spitzer’s connection to prostitution arose from Spitzer spending habits…that by the tracing of where Spitzer was spending his money led to the discovery that some of that money was going to hookers…But how did this information get out?

It’s almost as if someone had inside information on the financial transactions of Spitzer…let’s say by HLS’s monitoring of all financial transaction to trace ‘terrorist’ money laundering/transfers. That maybe someone in the Wall Street side of the office overheard some gossip from the HLS’s side…gossip which mysteriously found its way to the press.

Or more nefariously, a ‘private’ client asked their surveillance contractor if they could ‘dig up a little dirt’…and when this contractor ALSO has access to HLS data…well, conspiracies write themselves.

Whether this is a real conspiracy or not, it illustrates the real and present danger Big Data poses to our democracy.

Whenever someone has access to Big Data, everyone…Prime Minister all the way down to yours truly, there is something to be found that could be used to manipulate or ruin that person.

ron-cob-1968-anarchycartoonI was watching a docu about this issue and they contrasted it with East Germany and the Stasi (the state secret police)…how most people in that society accepted the surveillance.

Regular people had learned to deal with it. If you had something private to say, you would go out to the park to talk. You would use the public telephones to make calls so they could not be traced to you.

Oddly enough…they were more ‘free’ than we are now.

Because technology has become such an embedded part of our very being…think of how often the under 20 something’s are without their cellphones…how long any of us can go before ‘checking in online’…and that is only voluntary surveillance.

As a number of readers may recall many months ago there was a great scandal at a school in the US because a Tech for the school figured out how to remotely turn on students’ webcams and monitor without them knowing.  The tech makes it possible…practically anyone could do it…the only thing holding them back are laws (weak), oversight (weak) and whistleblowers (vilified).

In the last part of this series we bring it all home to Canada…True North Surveilled and Free?


Posted in Blogs, Don's Blogs | Leave a Comment »

Data mining democracy

Posted by Don McLenaghen on July 14, 2013

An extended look at the ‘bad’ of Big Data…its dark side. This is a Six Part Series based on my discussion on Radio Freethinkers broken down into bite sized pieces.

Part 4: How big data has created a surveillance state…


I would like to say that the latest revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden were new, but he is only the latest in a long list of people who have attempted to show what a surveillance state the ‘free world’ has become.

Snowden has exposed to the public several US programs where they, among other things, are storing every phone call made in the USA…or routed through the USA…well not every conversation but what is called meta data (the importance of which we discussed in Part 3).

kipLyallCartoon_NSA_72dpiDemocratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi let slip that this bulk vacuuming up of data has been going on since 2006.

News reports also confirm that the Postal Service is recording the ‘meta-data’ of snail-mail including taking photos of the letters/packages. (At least in the USA, but I don’t think it would be different here…)

It has also come to light that a ‘drop box’ of some sort is being used by the NSA (National Security Agency) to duplicate and transfer internet traffic from all the major internet companies…Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.

The corporations are quick to point out they have not broken any law…and they seem to have not. That said, what makes this very Kafkaesque is the fact the legal justification for this Big Brother surveillance is itself secret.

Is the government saying that what they are doing is legal but they can’t show you why it’s legal because if they did, well that would be illegal?

In an exchange where General Keith Alexander, the NSA chief, told a Senate panel the surveillance program had stopped “dozens” of terrorist events. How many, exactly? The number was classified, he said.

When Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley held up his cellphone and asked, “What authorized investigation gave you the grounds for my cellphone data?” Gen. Alexander said the matter was classified.

cbe0607cd-verizon-and-the-nsa-500So, just to parse that, a Senator…responcible for the public and legal oversight of the NSA’s activities…he asked why they were collecting HIS phone data (implicitly confirming that EVERYONE’S data is being collected), the General, refused to answer. How can there be proper democratic oversight when even the people responsible for said oversight are kept in the dark?

A few weeks ago when the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing…and I quote “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

He answered and again I quote “No, sir,” and added “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

With the revelations of Snowden, we now know that was a lie…when confronted about this lie he responded “in what I thought was the least untruthful manner”.


As Republican Justin Amash put it “Congress can’t make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements,”

Now I looked up the meaning of wittingly…and it has two meanings…one definitely a false hood…that meaning is defined as “Aware or conscious of something” which it was painfully obvious at the time he knew that not to be true.

The other meaning “Done intentionally or with premeditation”…which could fit here, if we accept that I put a bunch of rocks into the river to make a bridge (this is the “we are collecting phone call data to catch terrorists”) and had no intention of causing a flood by the now blocked river (this is the vacuuming up of ALL phone data to go back and find the terrorist calls).

NSA-Like-MeAnother point of semantics is the word “collected”…to explain the meaning of this term, the USA security forces use a library metaphor. Let’s assume the phone data is like a book, the caller/called are the authors and the data warehouse is a library…note that Clapper is admitting they have been storing it all (and presumably still are).

An Agent…and who qualifies as an agent is something to be brought up later…an Agent has a library card that allows him to take out only select books. If he picks up a book and its cover says one of its ‘authors’ are foreign, he can ‘read’ or surveil the book/data. If the authors are American citizen then he must put it back and get a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court order to look at it.

Now it’s important to note, another thing we have learnt from the Snowden whistle-blowing, is the threshold for ‘foreign’ is a 51% confidence…that is there is a check list (let’s say a 100 points) that determines if the ‘author’ is foreign. If you check 51 points…then according to the NSA you are not an American citizen and they can ignore your privacy.

So to the US government’s “collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it”…and that they claim not to have done en mass.

nsa-spy-cartoon-3The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out ‘data acquired by electronic means is ‘collected’ only when it has been processed into intelligible form.’…so processed now means collected and collected means what again?

They go on to say that “In other words, the NSA can intercept and store communications in its database, then have an algorithm search them for key words and analyze the metadata without ever considering the communications ‘collected’. Only when an actual person looks at the data is it considered ‘collected’.

What an excellent example of ‘double speak’.

Let’s have one last word here to point out that the initial investigation is not done by a person…it is automated data mining of vast quantities of data…the epitome of Big Data.

pol_boozchart25_950I have not mentioned it previously, but it’s important to point out that the apparent vast majority of the government data collection is not the government. That is, this task has largely been outsourced to private corporations. That is how Snowden was able to get the depth and breadth of information he could without being a member of the government. It is this privatization of government surveillance and data collection that makes our next segment possible.

In Part 5 we will take a look at what would have been ‘crazy conspiracy theories’ but suddenly seem to have (at least the whiff of ) plausibility as the lines between corporate and goverment big data blur.


Posted in Blogs, Don's Blogs | Leave a Comment »