Humanist Hustings–Europe Votes 2014

Moving to London (details eventually coming) has allowed me to attend more great events. Last night, I attended the British Humanist Association’s Humanist Hustings all-candidates forum for the upcoming European Parliamentary Elections. The event was held in Conway Hall, London’s freethought home.

To my mind, no humanist group in Canada has ever hosted a similar event, but the first major difference here was how, in their opening speeches, nearly every candidate identified as either being a member of the BHA or an atheist. This was especially surprising for some as all major parties, including the Tories and UKIP, were in attendance.

I live tweeted the event, so you can find my reactions under #HHEP14. I thought I’d just post some additional thoughts here.

First, the strongest speaker was, by far, UKIP candidate Tony Brown. Faced with a largely antagonistic audience, Brown made his best case to connect with the audience, discussing his upbringing in an “atheist family” and noting his admiration for Richard Dawkins. He repeatedly tried to draw a link between the EU, and particularly the large European People’s Party (representing numerous Christian Democrat parties), and the Catholic Church. It was a fairly novel argument and could appeal to a nationalistic secularist. Nevertheless, his line that “I’m not a climate change denier, the climate has always been changing” and subsequent denial of man-made climate change was met with heckles.

The other stand-out speaker was Caroline Allen of the Green Party. Her smartest line was to admit that the Green’s science policy had been pretty weak in the past but that they’ve done a lot of work on it and people should give it another look (I will, the link is here). Unfortunately, she lost some credit on this front (in my mind) by maintaining the party line against fracking and GMOs.

Otherwise, the Liberal Democrat, Matt J McLaren, and Tory, Caroline Attfield, both sounded a bit nervous, although McLaren caught his stride near the end and made a strong argument about secularism as a core Lib-Dem value. Attfield, meanwhile, went off policy on a couple points, suggesting that Europe could play a bigger role on security issues (she clarified that she meant foreign policy when probed) and that the role of the Church of England is shrinking.

Dr Louise Irvine of the National Health Action Party made a spirited defense of the NHS and represented her single issue party well. On other issues, she sided between Labour and the Lib Dems (ironically also where she was seated).

Finally, Mary Honeyball, representing Labour and the only sitting MEP at the debate, gave a decent defense of her party, but I got the sense after that she didn’t really inspire anyone. Whether she was aiming to play it safe or not, I think there was a missed opportunity by Honeyball.

My question, prefaced with a thanks to the parties that voted for recent clinical trial regulations (#AllTrials), was on how the candidates would involve evidence in their decision making in the future. Each gave a relatively predictable answer (evidence is widely seen as a good thing), with Dr Irvine mentioning the value of publishing all clinical trials and Brown admitting that the UKIP vote against the regulation was about keeping the policy within the UK, rather than being personally against the idea.

I realised later I should have asked if the candidates would publicly change their mind if evidence proved them wrong. When I asked this to Brown after, he pointed out that Nigel Farage has repeatedly done just that, in particular, noting where his party has been far off.

After the event, I went for a couple drinks and finally managed to meet Andrew Copson, the BHA’s Chief Executive, who very expertly chaired the evening.

Nature blasts Swiss anti-immigration referendum

As part of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, Swiss voters recently approved immigration caps by a narrow margin. This means that the country, which has remained independent of the European Union, will no longer be able to continue to allow the free movement of labour with its neighbours (a fundamental plank of the EU).

It’s not clear yet how much the Swiss government is going to clamp down on immigration but the vote has already attracted condemnation from the editorial board of the leading scientific journal, Nature. They note that the move was fuelled by xenophobia rather than rational debate:

But direct democracy becomes problematic if it is driven by populism and irrational fears, such as those over unemployment and crime (Switzerland is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world, and the current unemployment rate is barely 3.5%). Certainly, immigration there has increased over the past decade — but this is in large part because the economy and health system rely heavily on the services of foreign workers. Ironically, the initiative to ‘stop mass immigration’ got the highest level of support in rural areas, where there are relatively few foreigners. In cosmopolitan cities, such as Zurich, Basle and Geneva, a majority of voters rejected the initiative.

I’m encouraged to see Nature weigh into this debate. Often scientists are wary of stepping into political debates – either for pragmatic reasons (you need to keep everyone happy to keep funding up) or personal disinterest (they’d rather focus on their experiments). But in USA under George Bush and in Canada under Harper, we see a continued assault on science and pure research by those who would rather focus on industry and climate change denialism.

Similarly, immigration debates have a huge impact on the exchange of ideas. Here in the UK, there are many stories of professors, professionals with PhDs, who are unable to secure the proper visa to begin employment, due to draconian anti-immigration laws.

Discriminatory engineers?

One of my undergraduate classmates linked to an article on a recent Alberta Human Rights Commission tribunal finding that Alberta’s professional association for engineers (APEGA, formerly APEGGA – which it’s referred to in the decision) discriminated against an international applicant. APEGA is already planning to appeal the decision.

The 67 page decision is available on the APEGA website.

So what happened?

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Is the Humanist brand dying?

It’s no secret that the term humanism (or secular humanism) have never really taken off. Simply ask a random sampling of people on the street and you’ll likely be met with blank stares.

Now regardless of the utility of a word, I think it’s important for organizations to choose language that will be widely understood. If a word has little cultural understanding, then it may be too difficult for any one organization to aim to reclaim it or to bring it to prominence.

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