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Battling the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 20, 2013

It’s been a busy month for skeptical activists in Vancouver. I wanted to write about some of the recent news regarding an anti-vaccination conference that was held at the Simon Fraser University, here in Vancouver.

The anti-vaccination conference was organized by this group: the Vaccine Resistance Movement. When we learned of it, myself and the volunteers at the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver decided to put together an open letter to the president of SFU, Andrew Petter.

We then canvased for signatures from those within CFI but also medical and scientific experts at UBC and SFU who could add their credentials to the letter. We were impressed by how many were willing to sign it. Once the letter was complete, we sent it to the president, and published a press release regarding the conference and letter.

Additionally, the department of health sciences at SFU also issued a strongly worded letter regarding the anti-vaccination group speaking at SFU.

Once news of this started to spread, the story went viral (no pun intended) and I did a number of interviews with the press regarding this issue.

The story appeared in print in The Province newspaper “SFU urged to block anti-vaccine gathering

I was also on CBC Radio On The Coast to discuss the issue, as well as CBC News, which did a great job covering the story.

cbc interview

Additionally Global BC covered the story, as well I appeared on Sun Media, on the CKNW radio station, BCIT’s radio station, French CBC, and another CBC news story. In short, there was a lot of media interest for this story.

Given all this, I wanted to take some time to discuss some of the finer points of concern we had with SFU renting space to the anti-vaccine group, as well as some of the remarks concerning free speech and academic freedom.

We’ve discussed some of this at length. You can check out recent episodes of Radio Freethinker for more details, including a blog post Don wrote about free speech.

Our Concerns

The motivation behind everything we did was our concern that the anti-vaccination movement is dangerous. This is the reason we felt it inappropriate that SFU was renting space to them, this was why we felt it inappropriate to let this event happen without raising our concerns to local media, and this is why we felt it necessary to reach out to the scientific community.

I don’t think I need to convince many readers here of the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement. We are, after all, talking about a medical invention that has saved millions (if not billions) of lives and helped to eradicate dangerous infectious diseases and forms one of the foundational pillars of public health the world over.

Since SFU is a prestigious university with a reputation for science, education and higher learning, their approval of the anti-vaccine conference can lend tacit approval of their message. Essentially, giving space can be seen as SFU saying “these ideas have merit”.

It should come as no surprise that we at CFI took issue with that. There is the added danger that while a scientifically literate person would rightly chalk up the claims made by the anti-vax movement as ludicrous or conspiracy theories of the extreme level. But for a person with no prior scientific background to hear about a conference being held at SFU, they could naturally assume that SFU at least considers these ideas valid and when they see these ideas presented in a university setting, with supposed experts giving talks, it could very easily appear to have the markings of truth.

Vancouver recently had outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) and outbreaks of measles has occurred in the Fraser valley. Measles, whooping cough and other infectious diseases have seen outbreaks across North American and several have been located in Canada.

In order for herd immunity to be effective (the process by which a large number of people who are immunized protect those who can’t be) needs to be around 90% for whooping cough. However, in BC, those levels are between 60 – 70% making an outbreak potentially a catastrophic public health risk.

What about free speech?

The defence of free speech was almost immediately brought up by SFU once this story began to make the rounds. Disappointingly, it was also taken up by a number of skeptics as well. Before getting into this, we need to define what free speech is and why this particular case isn’t a free speech issue.

First, the point of free speech is to protect new ideas. The whole point is allow a “free market place” of ideas. By freeing ourselves from censorship, we allow new, potentially revolutionary ideas to be explored. Is the anti-vax movement a new, revolutionary idea?

Unpopular, unpleasant, or controversial claims are protected under free speech because these ideas could spur on new innovations, social change, or improvement. Is there potential for new innovations, social change or improvement brought about by the anti-vax movement?

Free speech is important because the airing of unpopular or controversial ideas is often difficult and can cause trouble for authorities. Therefore, criticism of the government, police, universities, scientists, sports teams etc are protected.

A science controversy vs free speech?

The anti-vax movement is a series of lies or what I call a “manufactured controversy.” Initially, under the guise of science, concerns about the safety of vaccines were brought to light. It turns out that the claims about vaccine safety were unfounded. Worse, the evidence for these claims was revealed to be fraudulent. There were conflict of interests that cast serious doubts into the motives of the people involved. In short, there were no grounds for a scientific controversy.

In the same sense there are no grounds for a scientific controversy over evolution, a flat earth or climate change.

However, through lies, fraudulent research and ethically dubious methods, a controversy was presented to the public built on foundations of misinformation.

Science, unlike other arenas of public discourse, is not a free democracy of ideas. Something is true or it isn’t. Gravity exists or it doesn’t. You evolved or you didn’t. Vaccines work or they don’t work.

Unlike other social issues where there is often two sides of a problem, science isn’t structured this way. There are not two sides to the theory of gravity for example.

The term “academic freedom” has been used in the past by creationists trying to teach creationism and/or remove the teaching of evolution in public classrooms. This tactic relies on the misunderstanding that science is like other issues where there are two sides and to not air all opinions amounts to censorship. Of course this view ignores the fact that its unethical to present incorrect information as though it were true.


Censorship occurs when free speech is stifled or suppressed. For example, if the Harper government were to have me arrested for speaking about climate change, or revoke resources from scientists for speaking out about climate change.

However there are certain circumstances were we except censorship. The often used example is shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. And yes, that’s actually happened. In Canada, we also have hate speech laws that restrict what you can say (these laws are controversial obviously, but important to point out as they set legal precedent)

Most of us are willing to accept some limitations on free speech that directly contributes to public harm. If you think about it logically, some restrictions make sense, phoning up 911 for chit-chat, yelling fire in a crowded area, bullying, harassment etc.

However, the anti-vaccination moment, in my opinion, does not fall into the category of censorship of speech at all. And in fact, we weren’t calling on them to be “censored” anyway.

Keeping in mind what I wrote about scientific controversies vs manufactured controversies, we can see how the anti-vaccination movement is making claims. Specific, testable, claims about vaccines and public health. In much the same way that Health Canada of the FDA would prevent drug companies from lying about what their medications can cure, so to should the anti-vaccation movement be limited in the medical claims they can make.

No one would deny that its important cigarette companies are prevented from lying and saying smoking will make you healthy or that fast food companies are prevented from lying about the health benefits of burgers and fries.

If I started telling people that drinking paint would cure cancer, should I not be held responsible for my opinions? Should there not be consequences for lying to the public and endangering public health?

Of course, the “limitations” I’m suggesting are mitigated by the circumstances of such claims. If someone wishes to use snake oil medications, that’s their call. We don’t want to ban homoeopathy, only have honest descriptions of what the product is.

With the case of the anti-vaccination movement, using SFU as a venue is a similar situation. SFU is like the bottle the snake oil comes in. It provides the legitimacy and the veneer of scientific credibility. And this is why we were so disappointed and concerned. Had SFU reviewed the request for a room booking and decided (on the grounds I listed above, that this is presenting a manufactured medical controversy and is unethical) to turn down the group, we would have no issue.

Why Not Protest

Some people asked us why we weren’t protesting this event as we’ve done for other pseudoscience events like when Deepak Chopra came to Vancouver.

In our experience of doing this sort of “protest” we’ve learned a few things as to what factors can make them successful. And in this case, it doesn’t look like such a “protest” would work.

Choice of venue is really important for such an event. Since the venue is inside the university, we would immediately be shown out once we start annoying the attendees. We’d only be allowed on the sidewalk, which is far away from the entrance and people would just walk around us.

Given that they had extra security there, we expected they would be looking for trouble. Also, the anti-vaccination people can be a very hostile bunch and its likely loud aggressive arguments would break out. This actually happened to me the last time I was at an anti-vaccination event.

The other problem is confronting attendees with counter information will likely only entrench them deeper in their conspiracies. Generally speaking, the goal of such a protest would be to encourage critical thinking in fence sitters, people who haven’t made up their minds. Yet, the people likely to be attending this conference don’t fall into this demographic.

Any such protest needs to be carefully planned with a strict understanding of what the goals and objectives are. In this particular case, we really couldn’t guarantee any of our objectives would be met, and if anything, we might just hurt our cause in the process.


Overall I’m very happy with the way things turned out. There was some concern that we would be giving the anti-vaccination movement free publicity but after watching and listening to media that covered the event, I realize that they did an excellent job of showcasing the harm of the anti-vax community.

I think that shining a light on the dangers of pseudo science is a major objective for the skeptic community. If more people are made aware of the potential harm that anti-vaccination propaganda can do, they might be a little safer.


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Saturday Stub: And Another Thing That Bugs Me…

Posted by Ethan Clow on February 4, 2012

While we’re on the subject.

The other day was waiting for a bus in Vancouver. It was a typical day, the sun was out, it was still cold but it was one of those brisk late winter days where the sun is shining and people were in a good mood. I was waiting for a bus and quietly trying to think of a more efficient bus system that I could give to Translink because this particular bus is/was always late.

Anyway, there I’m standing, watching the cars drive past and people walk about when I see this shiny little black car pull up next to the bus stop. I glance over and notice something curious on the side of the door. On the door it has a logo with the slogan “Stop Religious Violence”

Well, that got my attention!

I took a step towards it and that’s when the freaking bus decides to show up.

Quickly, since the bus is already pulling up, I pull out my phone and queue up the camera app and take a quick picture of the car, hoping there’s website or something to follow up on. However, I didn’t catch it. The bus had arrived and people were hustling on and I had no time to run over and chat with the driver of this awesome car.

I did snap this picture as I was getting on the bus. The top part reads “My Spiritual Leader Licks my Face” and below that is the slogan “Stop Religious” The license plate reads “Evolv”

I was kicking myself because I really wanted to ask the driver about his car, I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t just some decoration he put on their but was actually some sort of advertising for either a website or organization. At least, I think it was. The web address doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Perhaps the site hasn’t been created yet or it’s just temporarily down. I also found this comment thread on Reddit with a picture of the same car.

If anyone knows this fellow or his car give me a shout. I’d like to invite him to a skeptics in the pub one night.

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CFI says no to “Reasonable Women”

Posted by Ethan Clow on November 7, 2011

<Update 13/11/11 : CFI Vancouver has now issued a statement about this situation. I have edited this post to include it and a link to the on-going discussion.>

It’s been reported that CFI Vancouver, and presumably CFI Canada, have decided not to sponsor feminist-skeptical meet ups. Notably, the Reasonable Women group here in Vancouver, which began as an initiative by some local volunteers of CFI Vancouver.

Reasonable Women organizer Natalie Nikolaeva is quoted:

“We are no longer affiliated with CFI Canada, as of today. This changes some things for us when it come to financial support, organization of future events, recruitment of new members, etc. I think this is both a small set back and a great opportunity to help us redefine our goals, aims and procedures. As I stated at our previous meeting, we need to create something like a board of directors or a committee to help us manage Reasonable Women better. I would be in favour of an egalitarian, vote-based system, where all members participate.”

So far, CFI Vancouver has not issued a statement nor has CFI Canada. CFI Vancouver has now (as of 13/11/11) issued a statement as mentioned above. Here it is:

–Regarding Centre For Inquiry Vancouver’s ‘Reasonable Women’ Initiative–

Reasonable Women was the working name given to a new initiative for a women’s skeptical discussion group run by Centre For Inquiry Vancouver. As Executive Director for CFI Vancouver I approved the initiative because I accepted the proposal of a local volunteer that this sort of event would be a useful way to appeal to women new to the community who might not yet feel comfortable at other skeptic/atheist events.

After only two meetings it quickly became apparent that the interest and direction that the organizers and attendees of the event wished to go in went beyond the scope of the socially-focused discussion series that I approved. The series was erroneously described as a feminist sub-group of CFI Vancouver. CFI Canada does not have ‘sub-groups’, and advancing feminism or performing any type of activism or advocacy work was not the agreed-upon purpose of the initiative. In addition, a film screening was planned and advertised, and represented as a CFI event without notice, consultation, or approval of the branch executive. Both the change in description and the unapproved event were breaches of the protocol observed in organizing all of CFI Vancouver’s activities.

After careful consideration and discussion with the volunteer organizing the group, Natalia Nikolaeva, it was decided that CFI Vancouver would stop the ‘Reasonable Women’ discussion series after only two meetings. I understand that Natalia is interested in creating a group in Vancouver to continue the meetings and she has my full support in doing so. There is no doubt that such a group has an important role to play.

This decision should in no way be interpreted as indifference or lack of support on CFI Canada’s part with regards to efforts to see greater diversity in our communities, women’s rights, or gender equality in general. CFI Canada is very concerned about making our events welcoming to all people (and I welcome any and all comments and suggestions for continued improvement), and any instance of volunteer or staff acts of discrimination are treated as extremely serious.

While we do hope to see increased diversity in the wider movement over time, it is important to acknowledge that CFI Canada cannot be all things to all people, and pursuing this particular goal is not the focus of our activism and advocacy. Our national efforts are currently directed towards combating issues such as the regulation of ‘Natural Health Products’ (including homeopathic preparations) by Health Canada, climate change denial, and the incursion of pseudoscience and religion into public policy.

CFI Canada enjoys a healthy amount of diversity within its membership and volunteer groups across the country. We encourage anyone who would like to find out for themselves to join any one of our dynamic volunteer teams and committees.

Thank you for your continued support and understanding.

Jamie Williams
Executive Director
Centre For Inquiry Vancouver

This message was posted to the CFI Vancouver Facebook group. Here is a link to that statement where there is an on-going discussion, including comments from Reasonable Women chair Natalie Nikolaeva.

<Original post as follows>

Much ink will undoubtedly be spilled over this issue and debate over whether this a good thing or bad thing or whether such a group like Reasonable Women falls under CFI’s mandate or mission operandi or not will go on for a while.

I think that’s a good debate to have considering that the reason I find this development so concerning is that I can’t figure out what CFI is doing.

The mandate of CFI Canada (or at least, what they wrote on their website) is:

“The Centre for Inquiry promotes and advances reason, science, secularism and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavour.”

How does a Reasonable Women group not full fill that mandate?

For the record, I don’t want to put words in people’s mouths or anything like that. I honestly don’t what CFI’s reasons are for this change and I’m really not interested in throwing out wild speculation about that. I don’t have the information to go on, I haven’t been invited to meetings or planning sessions so I don’t know what’s being said behind closed doors.

What I can say is why I’m really upset about this latest development.

First, it stinks. Literally, this stinks of hypocrisy. The Center for Inquiry Transnational (the CFI in America) is hosting the “Women in Secularism” Conference next May in Washington DC. It features an impressive line up of feminist skeptical humanist speakers like Lauren Becker, Ophelia Benson, Jamila Bey and Greta Christina and more.

How does holding a whole conference on feminism and skepticism work for one version of CFI and a woman’s skeptical meet up not work or another?

In addition, we all witnessed Elevator-gate right? We all know that the skeptical movement has a problem with making people who aren’t white, middle class, white dudes with university degree’s feel welcome, right?

We should also all know the old adage that the definition of insane is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The skeptical movement has more or less been hammering away at a lot of the same old topics for decades now. Big foot, homeopathy, alt med, religion etc. We’ve made a remarkable amount of progress growing our movement by hammering on these old hats. And don’t get me wrong, we need to hammer on these hats because they won’t go away on their own. But there’s this notion that we in the skeptical community really need to grow if we’re going to have the success we want, and that means finding new people, people who perhaps don’t care as much about big foot and homeopathy.

This is where I think CFI has a big advantage over other groups out there. CFI is duel mandated to promote skepticism and secular humanism. And under the wonderful umbrella of humanism is this notion of advancing the equality and life of everyone on this planet. Guess what? That means that humanists should care what feminists have to say.

Over the last few years I’ve seen a wonderful surge of amazing content previously unseen in the skeptical community. Blogs about science an politics, race and poverty, feminism and biology, all of them taking as a foundation a firm grounding in skeptical methodology and critical thinking.

Here on Radio Freethinker we dive into topics like crime and punishment, economics, history and sociology. Do we shrink away when these fields lack the black and white/yes or no answers you see in science? No. We roll up our sleeves and get to work. You look at the evidence that is presented, you evaluate it and put it into context. You do your homework. It isn’t always easy and sometimes the answers are a bit to gray for my liking but we make an effort.

By bringing new topics in our debate bag and making our presence known to those who care passionately about them, we can grow our influence and perhaps cross pollinate a bit. We find someone who doesn’t really care about vaccines but does care a lot about drug policy. By coming to our events about drug policy, they might like us and come back when we talk about vaccines.

Getting back to Reasonable Women and CFI. I personally think the Reasonable Women’s group will do fine. They’ve built up a lot of momentum and have really tapped into a previously untapped vein in the skeptical community. I’m less optimistic about CFI. Saying no to Reasonable Women is a really troubling development and I understand that at the moment CFI Canada is preparing a massive overhaul of its mission statement and structure. However that overhaul is happening behind closed doors and I don’t know what exactly they are defining skepticism and humanism as since Reasonable Women would fall exactly in those categories. It’s kind of odd as well since last I checked I was an advisor and associate member of CFI Canada and yet no one’s consulted me over any of the changes.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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How Vancouver will Meet its Doom: The Big One

Posted by Ethan Clow on September 23, 2011

Growing up in the Vancouver area, I’ve often heard warnings of the “big one” an earthquake that would level the city and liquefy Richmond. At first I thought this was standard media hysteria and hardly likely to happen. After all, the media loves the chance to say “we’re all doomed!” so I generally wrote it off.

However I decided to do some research to see exactly what, if any, danger there was. Was Vancouver due for a massive earthquake and would it spell the end of the city?

It turns out that this might be a rare case where caution and perhaps even a bit of fear is warranted.

As most of us know, earthquakes are caused by plate tectonics. What is this? Plate tectonics is the scientific theory that explains how the continents on Earth move about and how new crust for the planet is created and destroyed. You might think of the plates as conveyer belts on top of which sit the continents.

Various plates

Interactions between tectonic plates creates friction and stress, this is a form of potential energy, which can ultimately lead to strain or deformation of the crust, which is the principal cause of earthquakes.

How does this affect us in Vancouver? The province of British Columbia is located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volatile region of active volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates.

To make matters worse, Vancouver is located right above two tectonic plates, the Juan de Fuca Plate and the North American Plate. What this means is that we could be looking at a Megathrust earthquake. These occur at subduction zones where one tectonic plate is forced under (subducts) another plate. As we mentioned, this will obviously cause a great deal of friction and stress, creating energy. In addition, because of the shallow dip of the plate boundary, large sections tend to get stuck, as pressure builds, the plates are eventually forced through and all that built up energy is released as a Megathrust earthquake. These quakes are among the world’s largest, with moment magnitudes that can exceed 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Since 1900, all six earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater have been Megathrust earthquakes. No other type of known tectonic activity can produce earthquakes of this scale.

Juan de Fuca plate

Guess what the Juan de Fuca Plate and the North American Plate are doing? That’s right, subducting. Juan de Fuca is subducting under the North American plate and this is what caused the massive earthquake in 1700, known as the Cascadia Earthquake. It’s also been suggested that the Cascadia Earthquake might have been a causal agent in the 1750’s volcanic eruption of the Tseax Cone, a volcano near Terrance, British Columbia.

So, these Megathrust earthquakes have happened in the past, can potentially happen again, and have disastrous consequences, are they likely to happen again? If we look at the historic record of when megathrust earthquakes happen in the Vancouver area we can see an interesting trend. According to some research, megathrust earthquakes occur on a frequency of about once every 600 years.

Does this mean it’s likely to happen? The consensus appears to be that over the next half century, experts say there is a one in 10 chance that a Big One will hit somewhere in the province.

Part of the reason it’s so likely is that the Pacific Northwest also has a number of different plate boundaries that could prove problematic – the destructive plate boundary (caused by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate and the North American Plate) which stretches from Vancouver island to Northern California. – the divergent boundary (caused by the Explorer plate, which was once a piece of the Juan de Fuca Plate until it broke off, and it’s about 241 km west of Vancouver Island.  – there is also a Transform fault, running along the west side of the Juan de Fuca Plate and between the Pacific Plate.

Given all these hazards, a earthquake is considered very likely.

The result of an earthquake would cause extreme damage to the city of Vancouver as many of the buildings here are not earthquake proof. In the Vancouver area, cities like Richmond and Delta are built on lowland sediment, which would put them in danger of landslides and liquefaction.

You can see examples on the internet of liquefaction where water and sand geysers up from the ground, or see large areas of land float on water that’s been shaken up by the earthquake.

So as it turns out, there actually is a sizable amount of evidence that a large earthquake is likely to strike the Vancouver area. If we take the previous records as any indication, the last major quake was 1700, so it’s been over 300 years since another. This puts us in the danger zone, so to speak. Basically within the next 50 to 100 years the probability for a megathrust quake is anywhere from 10 to 37%.

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Become a Speaker for Vancouver SkeptiCamp 2011

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 27, 2011

Vancouver will soon be hosting its unprecedented fifth SkeptiCamp. And no, that has nothing to do with actual camping. No tents or campfires.

SkeptiCamp is a grassroots, informal, open conference modeled after BarCamp.

SkeptiCamps are designed to be informal, community-organized conferences for the purpose of people sharing and learning in an open environment. Everyone from casual skeptics to the experienced are encouraged to participate, by which we mean give talks and get to know each other.

A SkeptiCamp is not your typical skeptic conference. It will differ in three key ways:

1. Openness – anyone with something to contribute or a desire to learn is welcome and invited to participate. Topics are chosen not by the organizers, but rather by their presenters.

2. Participation – because admission is free we ask that everyone contribute in some way, either by giving a talk or helping to put the event together. At the very least we ask that attendees interact with speakers and other attendees.

3. Collaboration – by distributing the organizing effort amongst many, no one person carries too large a burden. By sharing one’s experiences as an organizer we can avoid repeating mistakes and instead build upon our successes.

Learn more about Vancouver SkeptiCamp 2011 here. At that link, you’ll find out all the details, including the date, August 6th 2011, the location: UBC’s Victoria Learning Theatre Irving K. Barber Learning Centre. In addition, you’ll be able to register to attend or give talks.

If you’re interested in volunteering to help run SkeptiCamp, there is a facebook group you can join, located here.

This year I’m volunteering as the speaker wrangler. Ideally we want about 18 speakers (that number isn’t set in stone) and each speaker would give a talk around 10mins in length with another 5mins of answering questions from the audience.

As I said, the event will take place at UBC, the room is already booked up, and we’d really like to get speakers confirmed with enough time that they can work on their talks and such. Hopefully we won’t have any last minute cancellations but in case we do, we’re going to try have back up speakers, possibly the organizers, to step in on such a cancellation.

I have already spoken with a number of people who have expressed interest in speaking, that’s great, we look forward to having you talk. Please talk to your skeptical friends and co-workers and encourage them to speak at the event. We are going to try to feature as many speakers who haven’t already given a SkeptiCamp talk before. We’d also like to increase participation from women. Our last SkeptiCamp had only one female presenter.

So, I’d like to get as many speakers coming forward as possible. Please let me know if you’re interested.

If you would like to sign up as a speaker please Email me! When emailing please let me know:

Contact info (phone/email):
Topic of talk (if you have one in mind, if not that’s okay) :
Any scheduling requests (if you’re only free in the morning or afternoon etc):
If you’d like to participate in some kind of rehearsal event before the SkeptiCamp:

Remember, this is an informal open conference. You don’t need to be an expert. The audience is one of the friendliest you could hope for and it’s a great place to practice your skills at public speaking and really engage in some great conversations.

I look forward to seeing you all there!

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Who’s to blame when a riot breaks out?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on June 25, 2011

Psychology of a riot

As everyone listening to our show should know; after the devastating loss of Vancouver in game 7 for the Stanley Cup a riot erupted downtown. I thought this a good opportunity to turn a negative event into a learning opportunity and examine the psychology of riots. There are some issues that may arise later that may also be of interest, such as the preparedness of the city or the response (over or under) of the police force, but for now we shall limit ourselves to psychology.

Physical pre-conditions

Before we start with the psychology we should first address the physical conditions that help create the conditions for the riot. First we had a highly charged emotional event; we had a large number of people concentrated in a very small space; and we lacked a path for the rapid dispersal of this group after the game.

Group identity

Sporting games, more so than any other activity in our modern society, glories in group identity. We looked around as the final games approached and you could see everyone wearing their ‘team’ jersey (not its special name, not a shirt but a jersey; further emphasizing its purpose not as a fashion statement but as a signal of group identity). At the game itself, face painting the team colours, the group activities such as “the wave”, “towel waving” and the like; all serve to strip the individual’s identity and replace it with that of the group…we are no longer one but many.


These factors that create the group identity also create a situation of de-individualization; where the individual no longer feels personal responsibility for their actions but accepts the diffuse, and illusionary, moral responsibility of the group…which of course is now more a mob.

Perceived injury to the group

Obviously the identity was provided by the Cunucks…the growing sense that this team was OUR team and their wins were OUR wins. This allows for an USE-vs.-THEM condition to exist. Then the perceived injury occurred…i.e. we lost or were robbed of the Stanley Cup…this now unified group felt the instinctive urge to defend “us” from “them” and because the them had not real physical cause, it was directed at whatever was handy…the city itself. I point out that irony here, a team that they have no control or actual ownership of seems to be more apart of them than the actual city they live, work and actually own/control (as in property or via elections).

Emotional relevance

Now, we often have group identity…during our last election we were “NDP” or “Green” or “Liberal” or “Evi…er conservative” and yet, at least in our society, this did to rioting in the streets. Most events are either not that important to our lives (sadly hockey seems more important that the governance of our country) or less sustains (the Olympics were ‘important’ but ‘team Canada’ really only existed for weeks, were as the Cunucks have been ‘our team’ for decades) or less dramatic (many other sports games have the “big game” but a set game, because of the ‘best of 7’ nature of the Stanley cup, each ‘extra’ game ramps up the emotional fervour.

So we have Game 7, Stanley Cup, home game, possible first win ever…the emotional stakes on this game were extremely high. Add in the escapist elements…i.e. we hear of war, declining economics, job insecurity, reality…the desire to, if only for a while, to feel like you and YOUR team are the best in the world only increased the level of emotion. Of course the level of emotion people feel for the game varies for individual to individual; however those downtown had taken on the group identity, in such an environment emotions becomes very contagious.

Emotional chain reaction

Humans are pack animals; as such we are very much in tune with the emotions of those of our group. We have specialized cells in our brains, called mirror neurons, which not only allow us to see what others are doing but to feel as though we were the ones doing it ourselves. These emotional link is what has allowed humans to create such interconnected and complex societies…it also means that when a certain number of people have a strong emotion in one direction, that emotion will sweep through the group like a nuclear chain reaction…every member, although perhaps reacting in different ways, feels that strong emotion which intern amplifies and perpetuates it.

The loss of the Cunucks created in some more than others a sense of anger and a need to ‘retaliate’, because of the number of people concentrated downtown, this group formed a critical mass which resulted in the explosive riot.

False consensus

When we see someone express a strong emotion we empathize with that person…we also project our own reasons for that expression. So, one person is upset about the game, another is angry for they think the whole cup is a fixed game, another lost money on a bet, another upset at being a loser again, another upset about the rich getting rewarded even when they lose, another…and so on and so on. Although there may be an infinite number of justifications for each individual to react violently, they project their personal reasons on the mob as a whole and a feel justified in their feeling, which created a feedback loop.

The more isolated the group and ironically, limited in size, the strong this feedback loop becomes. When we look at riots it is rarely actually thousands acting violent but small ‘bands’ that actually perpetrate the acts. Think of these as eddies or tornadoes in the larger storm, who are feeding off the local emotions of the ‘band’ while feeling embolden by the passive acquiesce of the larger group that are bystanders to their actions.

Bystander effect

Now we should step back and remember that the number of people who actually participated in the violence was a small fraction of the number of people who were actually present. From the fall-out afterwards, it seems apparent that the vast majority of people who were a part of ‘the mob’ thought the violence unacceptable and yet little was done by this majority to stop the bands of aggressors. How could this happen?

This is a result of the bystander’s effect. Ironically enough, the larger the group of people the less any individual feels responsible to act.  In the same way people who do the violence do not feel personally culpable because moral responsibility is given up to the crowed; so also the bystander assume that someone else will act (call the police, physically intervene, etc.) to stop the action. No one like to be first and the greater the group the greater the peer pressure is to NOT stand out; thus the ‘non-violent’ crowed stands by and does nothing.

The Celebrity Effect

One of the new elements in a modern riot is the ever present social media…be it the 24/7 news cycle or the ubiquitous cell-phone cam. The effect of this is to almost goad people into ‘performing’ for the camera’s…a ready-made audience of the YouTube universe waiting for the person or group to do that ‘memorable’ thing be it jumping over an ad-hoc bomb fire in the street, through a brick through a store front or just lie down on the street and make-out like there was no tomorrow.


It is interesting that after a riot, there is almost always a collective sense of guilt and remorse by the city/group for the actions that happened. The population in mass cannot understand how their own people could perpetrate such violence in their own city…this also leads to a degree of vengeance by the population on those they blame for ‘causing’ the violence. This is where we hear about how the riots were ‘organized by anarchists’ or the like.


The irony is the very same mob psychology that created the riot also plays its role in created the scapegoat. We as a people do not like the idea that we are capable of such meaningless violence…the ‘us’ is the city and the ‘them’ are the rioters…the injury the riot itself…and so it follows the same mob logic down to the point where people are fired from jobs for just being photographed on the scene; no trial, no attempt to understand the how or the why…guilt by association.

Human psychology is weird.

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“Declare Your Agenda!”

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 20, 2011

As we mentioned on Radio Freethinker 115 in our skeptical highlights, there was an interesting talk in Vancouver called “Vaccination Science and Politics: What Should We Believe?” I attended this talk along with some local skeptics. We weren’t sure what to expect but we thought we were ready for the worst.

I don’t think we brought enough tin hats, sadly.

The evening started off on a odd note. I arrived early to the Unitarian Church, where the event was taking place. However when I asked the staff where the talk was happening, they didn’t know anything about it. In fact they even wondered if I had the wrong church. I showed them the ad in the Georgia Straight and they said they would look into it.

Even the speaker for the event, Lucija Tomljenovic, didn’t know where the talk was taking place. However once that was sorted out the small room quickly started to fill up.

The event was hosted by the World Federalist Movement, which if you read their website, is a non-profit membership based group that advocates for world democratic governments. From their website:

World Federalists support

  • strengthening international law,
  • an effective International Criminal Court,
  • reforming the UN to make it a more effective peacekeeper,
  • reforming the operations of the WTO to create democratic input and accountability,
  • creation of appropriate global parliamentary assemblies for the WTO and the UN,
  • and the design and implementation of treaties, eg.,
  • the landmines treaty,
  • disarmament treaties,
  • arms trading restrictions,
  • ecological environmental treaties,
  • and treaties to protect diversity and local authority.

Sounds reasonable. However, after the three or four hosts who came up to talk about the group and their mandate, I began to get skeptical. The language they used when talking about their goals and initiatives is very similar to the way people talk about conspiracy theories like a new world order or the illuminati or something.

I was equally skeptical of the speaker Lucija Tomljenovic, she’s a member of Chris Shaw’s lab at UBC. For listeners that remember, we had Dr. Shaw on the show to debate the H1N1 Vaccine with Dr. Rob Tarzwell. Unfortunately that episode coincided with a technical error at CiTR and we weren’t able to podcast it.

The monkeys will make my point for me

Shaw has been referred to in a number of dubious anti-vaccine articles for the Georgia Straight, including  “Vaccines show sinister side” and “What’s in your H1N1 flu vaccine?” he’s also done a number of talks and articles about the toxins in vaccines, which you can find on your own. Now, aside from the repeated science fails that the Georgia Straight seems to trod out on a regular basis, Shaw is a crank in my opinion. Most, if not all of his claims about vaccines have been debunked ages ago and with some diligent work, anyone can learn about them. I suggest starting with Science Based Medicine, What’s the Harm and Respectful Insolence.

Perhaps Tomljenovic would provide some reasonable evidence and this would actually be a very good talk. No such luck.

She hit on all of Shaw’s main points. Aluminum in vaccines, just because a scientist says something doesn’t make it true (she should take her own advice), why are there no animal tests, what about sudden infant death after vaccines, and on and on.

At every point when I or another skeptic in the audience raised a question, she would immediately say she was going to address that exact claim and then proceeded to do a gish-gallop presenting studies and graphs that “proved” her point. In reality, she showed only the titles of these studies, and only quoted from the abstracts and even then, only selected points completely out of context. If she had wanted to suggest that her research is supported by the scientific evidence, she should have focused on one or two studies and gone in-depth with them.

A few times we caught her making gross exaggerations. At one point she complained that a new vaccine was being tested against another vaccine and not an inactive placebo. What she repeatedly failed to grasp is that the study wasn’t trying to determine if the vaccine being tested was having any effect (in such a case an inactive placebo would be used) but rather that it was being tested to see how effective it was COMPARED to a tried and trusted vaccine.

She also completely failed to grasp why in a safety study of vaccines, people who had adverse reactions to the vaccine immediately after taking it were excluded. The answer is because many people are allergic to ingredients that go into vaccines, eggs for instance. These people require specially prepared vaccines or else they could go into anaphylactic shock from taking one that has an allergen in them. In order to get a clear control group for determining adverse reaction, people who are allergic to the ingredients must be excluded. After all, it’s not the vaccine that’s causing their adverse reactions, in order to figure out what is, you need a group where people were taking the vaccine long enough to study.

However, the audience didn’t appreciate these points being raised. One person loudly demanded that we “declare our agenda”, this was followed by a chorus of agreement. One fellow wanted to know who was funding us.

It quickly became apparent that the crowd was just as conspiracy laden as we thought. Throughout the talk, dirty words were “The World Health Organization“, “Paul Offit“, “FDA” and more. Shocked? Didn’t you know that the World Health Organization (the WHO) are secretly trying to poison the world? Of course they are!

Won't someone think of the children??

But it also dawned on me how negligent Tomljenovic was in her science. It’s a damning condemnation on the University of British Columbia when their researchers are this misinformed. She showed a series of graphs to indicated how vaccines weren’t effective at saving lives. What she did was show the death rates of diseases: polio, measles etc, and then when the vaccine was licensed and when it was released. What she didn’t do, most likely on purpose since I can’t imagine any scientist being so utterly incompetent, was combine various vaccines like MMR, which came out well after the original measles vaccine. We of course made this known and what a surprise, when taken into account the drop in cases of polio started to exponentially decline right when the original vaccine was released and not the updated combination version came out.

At one point the presenter was talking about the WHO and I tried to explain why the WHO might overact to the H1N1 scare. My argument was that they are charged with being prudent. If they think a risk might happen, they should raise red flags to prevent it. If they don’t, and a disaster happens, everyone would be saying “why didn’t the WHO warn us?” This of course didn’t go over well. I then got into a protracted debate about how a virus evolves. Before I could finish my thought, a woman in the back yelled out that the H1N1 was created in a lab and was genetically engineered.

At this point Tomljenovic, reluctantly, admitted that virus’ do evolve BUT that doesn’t mean they can’t be genetically engineered. (Again, cheers to the UBC on such great researchers)

But getting back to the crowd. At several points they grew uneasy with our skeptical questions and this resulted in one of the organizers actually having to step up and inform the audience that we were allowed to ask questions and belligerence against us wouldn’t be tolerated.

After the talk I spoke with the organizer about this, I was amazed when he told me that it was common for dissenting views to cause trouble. Occasionally they’ve had to call the police because things have gotten so heated. I remarked that they should consider re-wording the name of the event to something other than “forum” because what we experience in there was hardly an open discussion.

Afterwards several of the audience members came up to us to essentially say how they couldn’t understand our skepticism. The woman who claimed that H1N1 was made in a lab accosted me and essentially accused me of being a shill for big pharma. At this point, I didn’t care and replied “you’re right, I am in the pocket of big pharma, I drive a Ferrari and everything.”

I’ve come to learn a few things about the anti-vaccination movement and what sets them apart from other such groups.

Anti-vaxers typically rely on a gish-gallop method in debates. They try to overwhelm you with “evidence” which in this case were studies only showing the titles and selected quotes from the abstracts. This is designed to give the impression of having lots of evidence at your disposal, but the reason you “gallop” through it is that it’s not good evidence at all and your opponents have to wade through it all to show how worthless it is.

Anti-vaxers typically have some “grudge” story about drug companies or something. Maybe their funding was cut off or they couldn’t get grants. From my experience talking with doctors and scientists in the skeptical movement, this “screw off” attitude to drug companies is very common, especially among young doctors working their way through school, they want to “fight the system” and such. Sometimes they grow out of it.

Anti-vaxers typically see conspiracies everywhere. During her talk, Tomljenovic listed a bunch of reasons why anti-vax studies don’t get published. What she neglected to say is that every one of those reasons is a legitimate objection to a study (in any science) the vast majority of studies don’t get published for these reasons, which is why the peer-review method is effective at weeding out the bad science from the good science.

Anti-vaxers typically depend on having a vocal core of supporters who have bought into their conspiracy theories hook, line and sinker. These supporters won’t bat an eyelash at sending death threats to pro-vaccine scientists or using methods of intimidation to silence skepticism.

Of course, the crazy didn’t end there. At one point Tomljenovic cited a paper by Andrew Wakefield. Yes, the guy who’s being charged with negligence and is being stripped of all his medical credentials for being a public health menace.

Tomljenovic also was sympathetic to the use of homeopathic vaccines and alternative medicine as well. Although she didn’t actually endorse them, someone in the audience brought it up and she didn’t indicate any objection to them. Perhaps she should watch more CBC Marketplace

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Skeptical Questions for Politicians and their Answers

Posted by Ethan Clow on April 22, 2011

Last week we sent out a quick ten question survey to all the candidates in Vancouver’s five federal ridings. Stay tuned to this post for updates including when and how each candidate answers. UPDATED

Read the rest of this entry »

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Skeptical Questions for Political Candidates

Posted by Ethan Clow on April 17, 2011

With an federal election quickly coming upon us here in Canada, we at Radio Freethinker decided to take the opportunity to send off some questions to local candidates to see what they think about a few skeptical/atheists issues.

A number of other skeptical organizations have been doing just this and I think it’s a great idea. Not only does it give the candidates a chance to see another constituency out there, but it also lets them know that freethinkers have concerns and they want them addressed.

We decided to go with ten questions. While we could have asked hundreds, ten is a small, easily manageable number and any person running for political office surely will have the time to answer ten quick questions. We tried to include two questions from each of the main “battlegrounds” that skeptics deal with.

Those being: two questions on religion, two questions on alternative medicine, two questions on the supernatural, two questions on science, and two questions on evolution.

Here are the questions in full:

1. Canada is a ‘Christian’ nation.

2.  Religious belief should be legally protected from ridicule.

3. Complementary and alternative medicine (such as naturopathy, chiropractic medicine, herbalism, biofeedback, hypnosis, homeopathy and/or acupuncture) should be given equal support in our public health system

4. Childhood vaccinations should be mandatory

5. Law enforcement should be barred from employing psychics in investigations

6. The evidence for alien visitation is “overwhelmingly positive”

7. Science is just one way of “knowing”

8. Scientists who work for the government should not be curtailed or censored in any way if they want to take their findings to the media or wish to publish their findings in scientific journals or periodicals.

9. Human beings have evolved over time in a random process absent of any control or design by a higher power

10. The age of the Earth is around 4 billion years.

We sent them to all the candidates in the five federal ridings of Vancouver.  Those ridings, with their candidates are as follows:

Vancouver Centre

Adriane Carr  (Green Party of Canada)

Jennifer Clarke  (Conservative Party of Canada)

John Clarke  (Libertarian Party of Canada)

Hedy Fry  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Michael Hill  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Michael Huenefeld  (Progressive Canadian Party)

Travis McCrea  (Pirate Party of Canada)

Karen Shillington  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Vancouver East

Roma Ahi  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Libby Davies  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Anne Jamieson  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Douglas Roy  (Green Party of Canada)

Irene C. Yatco  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Vancouver Kingsway

Louise Boutin  (Green Party of Canada)

Kimball Cariou  (Communist Party of Canada)

Don Davies  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Matt Kadioglu  (Libertarian Party of Canada)

Trang Nguyen  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Donna Petersen  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Wendy Yuan  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Vancouver Quadra

Victor Edward Elkins  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Deborah Meredith  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Joyce Murray  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Laura-Leah Shaw  (Green Party of Canada)

Vancouver South

Charles Boylan  (Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada)

Ujjal Dosanjh  (Liberal Party of Canada)

Meena Wong  (New Democratic Party of Canada)

Wai Young  (Conservative Party of Canada)

Jean Hakizimana (Green Party of Canada)

The Questions we asked are based on a five-point scale system. A candidate can answer between Strongly Disagree and Strongly Agree. In addition we tracked down as many direct email addresses as we could but in some cases we’re sending this survey to their campaign  centres. In a few cases we couldn’t locate a suitable email address and therefore we sent it to the party headquarters. We do understand that some candidates will be extremely busy and probably get many such questions sent their way. We also included the email addresses of the National Party headquarters as well.

There is little over two weeks until the election. We hope that the candidates can find time to answer these questions before election day. I do wish we had been able to send this out sooner but to my surprise, tracking down contact information for the candidates proved exceedingly difficult. In addition, Elections Canada did not confirm the final list of those running until the 14th of April. Since then, I was spending as much time as I could spare tracking down how to contact each candidate or party.

Hopefully something comes of this. We will of course keep you informed as things develop.

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A problem with Polygamy law

Posted by Don McLenaghen on December 19, 2010

Okay, I am an open-minded kinda guy. I think love and lust are not necessarily the same things; that people will form various kinds of unions and that if consenting and fulfilling no limitation should be applied. Now if you asked me if I believe that polygamy was good or bad, I probably would have said “do you mean the Mormon kind or the hippy kind”. You see, as a good atheist and a product of my society, Mormon polygamy was wrong on two counts 1) it was abusive to women and children and 2) it was religious dogma. The hippy kind (to date my imagery) was a union of equals to express both pleasure and non-conformity.

However, in doing some research for the show I discovered such simplistic (yes, I can be simplistic at times…sorry) views I held were both optimistic and not reflected in our legal system. First I should clarify some terms:

Polygamy: a marriage in which a spouse of either sex may have more than one mate at the same time

Polyandry: the practice or condition of having more than one husband at one time

Polygyny: the practice or condition of having more than one wife at one time

Now technically, the Mormon type would be strictly limited to polygyny. This issue came my attention because of a court case currently making its way through the BC legal system destined for the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).

Recently an unsuccessful attempt to charge two Mormon men in Bountiful, BC with polygamy failed. This prompted members of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church) to mount a constitution challenge holding that the laws against polygamy are unconstitutional and should be struck down.

As I have talked about before with regards to free-speech, prostitution and other issues; in Canada our constitution allows for the limitation of fundamental rights provided they pass the “Oakes Test”. The Oaks test (from the SCC ruling on the Oaks case) holds that limitations must be minimal, pertinent and remedy proportional harms to society.

The law, section 293 of the Criminal Code, states that “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage” is guilty of an indictable offence. Further that anyone who “celebrates, assists or is a party to a rite, ceremony, contract or consent that purports to sanction a [polygamist] relationship” are likewise guilty of a indictable offence.

That’s the law; however the harms that are most often cited, that are ‘eased’ by this limitation of liberty, are child brides, forced marriage and spousal abuse (more often the abuse is seen as economic or psychological). If we look at this list though we can already remove the last one, because spousal abuse (sadly) is common in monogamous marriages. However, little evidence shows polygamist unions are innately more significantly abusive (although I am open to evidence showing my cursory investigation to be wrong).

Living in Vancouver with several strong Asian cultures with ‘traditions’ regarding arranged marriages, we are aware there is a disconnect between polygamy both forced marriage and child betrothed. In these arranged monogamous marriages often the betrothed are children and have little or no choice in the matter (in the worst of these cultures, violent punishment is exacted on reluctant participants) – that is there is no necessary connection between child brides or forced marriage and polygamy.

So, it seems that the harms that are supposedly addressed by this law, although real are not connected to polygamy. In applying the Oakes test we agree that there are harms that should be addressed however it seems to fail to show the pertinent connection between the harms and polygamy.

However, let’s continue our thought experiment. If we assumed that what we wanted to restrict was religious polygyny because it has been associated with substantial and pertinent harms, does the law restrict our freedoms in a minimal way. The law as stated is extremely broad. This law would include my hippy polygamist; in fact if you were gay living with several roommates in a ‘close’ relationship, you could be charged under this law. Further, if you went to a house warming for this common-law type relationship to celebrate their ‘union’, you could be charged.

The law as stated is EXTREMELY broad. There is a local group, VanPoly (along with CPAA) which is working to have the law struck down because they fear they could be charged even though their relationships have nothing to do with the LDS, child brides or forced marriage.

So, why do we have these laws then when they seem overly broad and not really aimed at the social harms we have cited? In fact, when the anti-polygamy laws were first enacted the concept of spousal abuse was non-existent and child brides (at least mid-teens) was not uncommon in monogamous marriages.

Much has been made as to the religious turf war being the root of the North American experience. The Mormons, the new religious, had as a main tenet of their belief system polygamy since 1843. The US made polygamy illegal in 1863 and the Mormons moved west and north (to Utah and western Canada). In 1890, to gain statehood, Utah banned polygamy leading to a second wave of exodus. Canada also banned polygamy in 1890 and saw its one and only successful convictions in 1899, in fact Mormonism was explicitly used in the law until 1950s.

The criminalization of polygamy drives its participants to separate themselves from mainstream society and it is here that the harms arise. If your neighbor showed up one day with an 11 yr. girl and said it was his new wife you’d likely call the cops; if we suspect spousal abuse, as a society we are getting better at recognizing it and would come to the assistance of the abused. However when these actions take place in a ‘like-minded’ community isolated from the ‘masses’, this social safeguarding system breaks down and abuse can occur.

Do I think there is harm being done to the women and children of Bountiful, BC (and similar communes)…yes. Do I think this harm is originated in polygamy…no. I believe the root issue, the source of the abuse, is not multiple marriages but patriarchal authoritarian religion. With regards to the law AS IS, it fails the Oaks test both in the fact that the practice is not directly linked to the stated harms to be remedied (i.e. there is nothing innately abusive in polygamous relationships) and the level of minimal limitation of freedoms (i.e. even if we assumed LDS style polygyny were harmful, the law encompasses any type of polygamy including lesbians in a multi-partner relationship etc.).

On a last note, I is funny that our society seems to frown so strongly on parallel multiple marriages and yet has come to terms to serial multiple marriages; that is there are millions of people in the US and Canada who  have many spouses but not at the same time. If we look back a century or two, we see how that was seen as immoral and harmful to society. Why is it okay to have many spouses over time but not at one time?

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