Category Archives: Scepticism

Woo and health charities

Charities and non-profits operate under tough conditions. There is never enough funding, staff, or expertise to achieve perfection and the demands from clients, donors, and funders often force the charity to be more flexible than it might otherwise.

Because of these limitations, you can wind up with articles like “Energy-based therapies and cancer” from Macmillan Cancer Support, the UK’s leading cancer charity.

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Skeptic with an Eh?

Seeing a gap in the Leed’s Skeptics in the Pub event for September, I volunteer to give a talk on the skeptical movement in Canada.

Here are the details if you want to come stalk me in person:

Monday, 23 September 2013 19:00 at the Victoria Hotel (28 Great George Street, Leeds LS1 3DL)

While I haven’t written down the exact notes for what I want to cover (I have all weekend), I’m basically going to discuss the 6 years I spent organizing freethought groups in Edmonton and Vancouver, and what I learned about the broader skeptical/Humanist movement in Canada during that time. Hopefully I’ll also have time to get into some of the current issues in Canada and where people stand.

I’ll try to keep gossip and my personal opinions to a minimum during the talk but I may intersperse them during the discussion afterward.

Hopefully it will be filmed so I can post a video of it later for those who want to subject themselves to that. Hope to see you there!

A pox on (some of) your houses

Recently, numerous allegations have flown throughout the blogosphere (at least, the portion that I read), identifying numerous high-profile skeptics/atheists/scientists as varying degrees of creepy to rapist. Others have jumped to their defense, crying that we ought to be skeptical of anonymous accusations and that women ought to just drink less. (See the timeline for a recap.)

For those who believe the accusations (and I see little reason not to), it can be quite disheartening. From various comment threads on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook I have seen this frustration over and over as people worry about the ability of any major freethought organization to handle the larger issues of sexism and accountability.

Yet this strikes me not only as false but counterproductive.

The “institutional rot” that many see so far has been limited to 2 or 3 national US organizations (you can name them if you like). Every non-profit with a small staff, limited budget, and few active volunteers grapples with accountability and transparency in its decisions, yet the worst cases seem fairly isolated to me.

This is especially transparent if we look at the next generation of freethought leaders. The Secular Student Alliance and the Humanist Community at Harvard are arguably the two most progressive and forward thinking major organizations right now. Neither is remotely embroiled in scandal (that I’m aware of) and both are filled with bright, young activists.

Similarly, PZ Myers recently noted:

By the way, humanist organizations in general tend to discourage the kind of behavior that asshats take as a given privilege — if you’re looking for a group of people who won’t treat you as a piece of meat, look into the humanists.

As such we see the British Humanist Association and the American Humanist Association continuing in their good work without falling prey to the closed cultures of others. I like to think the BC Humanist Association follows on that path as well but I’m obviously biased.

By writing off the entire movement, these donors and volunteers forget how many people – and I suspect it’s a sizable majority – want to see things continually improve. By solely focusing on the negatives, they write off everyone who is actively working to make things better either within the troubled institutions (many of the local groups and volunteers are equally forward-thinking) or in independent organizations.

I guess my point is that we should not be so quick to dismiss the hard work of numerous organizations that are not involved in this mess. We can demand better and ought to work to see the movement we want to see.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

A note on “Skepticism and Gypsy Stereotypes”

Hopefully you took the time to read the article I just posted entitled “Skepticism and Gypsy Stereotypes.” I want to give some backstory to this piece, separate from the article itself.

After attending Imagine No Religion 3 this past spring, I had wanted to challenge the trope of Gypsy Fortune-Tellers that was tangentially brought up on a couple occasions by conference speakers. I don’t suspect and malice or intentional racism on the part of the speakers but the myths should be debunked and consciousness should be raised.

Looking a bit into it, I discovered a 1999 article by famed skeptical investigator Joe Nickell that quotes James Randi describing Gypsies as:

an ethnic group who “essentially live outside the cultures of the countries in which they choose to reside” and who often treat non-gypsies as “fair game for their fortune-telling, curse-lifting and other superstitious ministrations” (Randi 1995).

While I couldn’t track down Randi’s ‘95 reference, it appears he makes a fairly extreme claim about an entire ethnic group without evidence.

This is called racism.

So I started looking wider into the issue, and given my extremely limited background in social sciences, I recruited Edwin Hodge, the skeptical political sociologist, to assist me. Together we drafted the article over the course of a couple months (we’re both really busy) and submitted it to a leading skeptical magazine.

We were advised that it was a good topic to cover, we should shift the tone from an editorial to a more research-based piece (a legitimate request and expected given all of my writing is editorial). However, given recent concerns about the leadership of the various organizations which publish the major skeptic magazines, we opted to publish the article electronically as-is instead.

I hope you’ll share the article as you can. The Roma face a ridiculous amount of discrimination, especially from the Canadian government who, Jason Kenney in particular, view them as dirty thieves.

Skepticism and Gypsy Stereotypes

By Ian Bushfield and Edwin Hodge

At a recent skeptics conference and during a discussion of the sorts of charlatans and frauds that are best known for peddling woo, a couple of speakers drew upon the image of the ‘conniving Gypsy fortune-teller,’ a stereotype that has frequently been used to describe – and villainize – the Roma people for almost as long as they have lived in Europe.

The story is an old one: a caravan of vagabonds arrives at the edge of town. An elderly crone sets up her shop in a dimly-lit wagon, eager to part the townsfolk from their hard-earned wages. Lured from the safety of the city by the bright lights and raucous music of the travellers’ camp, a local approaches the wagon and is invited in, motivated by a hope of connecting with lost relatives, or eager to learn the secret of gaining wealth, power, or some other desire. The Gypsies, due to their nomadic nature, won’t stay long; just enough perhaps, to swindle the locals and perhaps steal a child or two.

Over time, suspicion  grows, and the townspeople begin to accuse the Roma of bringing crime to the community, or of leading their children astray. Suspicion soon turns to resentment, then threats of violence, and the Roma are driven out of town.

Yet like myths of revealed religions, skeptics ought to question whether this Gypsy stereotype truly holds up for the Roma people. This question becomes especially pertinent in Canada and the United States where many Roma are applying for asylum after facing persecution in Eastern European countries. In Canada, and in light of the growing number of asylum seekers, the Harper Government has recently taken drastic efforts to curb what it considers “bogus” claims by Roma refugees. Yet for all this, few people actually know much about the Roma, and fewer still know anything with any certainty about their history.

The term Gypsy derives from Egyptian, yet the best available evidence suggests that the more accurately termed Roma people emigrated from Northern India toward Europe around the twelfth century.

The Roma remained nomadic into the 15th century as they migrated into Western Europe. As local cities linked rising crime with the influx of Roma, anti-Gypsy laws began to be drafted, marking the start of centuries of persecution.

The historical accounts of the Roma and their activities deserve proper skeptical consideration; given the almost equally long history of anti-Roma prejudice and bigotry the Roma have faced. History, it is often said, is written by the victor, and like other ethnic and cultural minority groups throughout European history, the Roma have had precious few opportunities to write their own.

Even accepting the traditional accounts of Gypsy crime, one cannot discount the xenophobia that existed across Europe that would have prevented the Roma from attaining productive employment. Such systemic bias creates a negative feedback loop where people are forced to turn to begging and crime when no one will hire them because they believe they are by nature beggars or criminals.

Similar cycles exist in most marginalized communities, whether it’s African Americans or the indigenous people of North America.

Through the 15th to 17th centuries the Roma faced increasing legislated persecution across Europe, with penalties ranging from expulsion to death for even “befriending a Gypsy or Bohemian.”

The persecution of the Roma people arguably hit its peak during the Holocaust. Facing a similar fate of Jewish Europeans, the Roma were viewed as racially inferior and upwards of a quarter million were murdered by the Nazis. It was only in 1979 that the Parliament of West Germany found that persecution of the Roma by the Nazis was racially-motivated, years too late for many survivors who had died in the interim.

Roma in Europe today have largely settled, with only a few nomadic caravans remaining, and among the settled Roma, many have opted to bury their cultural heritage – even going to far as to change their names – in order to escape the anti-Roma bias that has come to permeate many European societies.

Even in an age when news organizations strive to maintain standards of ‘objectivity’, or ‘neutrality’, anti-Roma sentiment continues to creep in, as media outlets – perhaps unconsciously – grant greater weight to reports or accounts that reinforce the majority opinion, in this case the opinion that the Roma are not to be trusted.

One of the most pernicious forms of bias that manifests in discussions about the cultural or behavioural practices of an alien or ‘other’ group or culture is the belief that the crimes, faults, or failings of an individual from that group is indicative of a widespread cultural, or even a genetic failing within the group as a whole. This bias is known as the ‘outgroup homogeneity bias’, and it is used against many different groups, not just the Roma. If someone ‘like us’ commits a crime, we do not feel that we are culpable; their crimes are theirs alone and have no bearing on how someone ought to treat the rest of ‘us’. But when dealing with groups that we know little about – like the Roma – we tend to generalize. We see the crimes or failings of one member as the crimes or failings of the entire group. In the United States for example, crimes committed by African-Americans are frequently blamed on a “black culture” that stereotypically prizes “violence and criminality”, but whenever a white person is arrested for murder or some other crime, rarely do media outlets question the role of “white culture” in the motivations for the crime. And as atheists, this sort of shoddy thinking should matter to us as well.

Atheists, having been subjected to millennia of persecution at the hands of the religious, should tread lightly when discussing a demographic as maligned as the Roma. Our approach should be based on a commitment to compassion and human dignity. We must recognize that no person ought to be characterized based on myths about their ethnicity, whether those stories have any basis in reality.

By unskeptically repeating stories of Gypsy fortune tellers, we empower the racist stereotypes that continue to oppress millions of innocent people.

As skeptics and humanists we must do better.

References

Erjavec, K. 2001. “Media Representation of the Discrimination against the Roma in Eastern Europe: The Case of Slovenia.” Discourse & Society, vol. 12, no. 6, pp. 699-727.

Goldston, J. 2002. “Roma Rights, Roma Wrongs.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, pp. 146-162.

Livingstone Smith, D. 2012. “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others”, St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY

Mendizabal, Z. et. al. 2012. “Reconstructing the Population History of European Romani from Genome-wide Data.” Current Biology, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 2342-2349.

Petrova, D. 2004. “The Roma: Between a Myth and the Future.” European Roma Rights Centre, May, [Online] http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=1844. Accessed: 10 June 2013.

About the authors

Ian Bushfield is the outgoing executive director of the British Columbia Humanist Association and has a master of science in physics. Edwin Hodge has an MA in Political Science and is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Victoria with an interest in hate groups, race, and gender.

California Rejects GMO Labeling, and why I approve

You may have missed it, but Barack Obama won re-election Tuesday in what the media wrongly called a very close race. While Mitt Romney was able to score over 70% of the vote in Utah, he failed to achieve either the popular vote nationwide or the only one that matters – the electoral college vote.

But what I found more interesting than the presidential election that was essentially pre-determined (at no point did Nate Silver’s 508 analysis give Romney a leading chance), was the array of ballot initiatives across the USA.

Obviously, I’m happy to see a number of states approve gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. There were many more smaller ones though. For example, Florida voters rejected two proposals, one that would have made it legal for the state to give money to religious organizations and another that would have made it illegal to provide state funding for abortions. These results also make me happy.

I’m disappointed that California upheld the death penalty and probably have to read more about the failed Alabama proposition that would have removed racist language from the state constitution, which was opposed by black legislators (I think because it would have removed education as a right as well).

But today I want to talk about GMO labeling in California.

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I get email

I don’t get much email (perhaps luckily) but I still get the occasional crank.

Floride is poison to ingest and bath in.What part of” fresh, clean water” do they not understand. Mike

I’m not entirely sure what provoked this. I only have two posts that mention fluoride – an article I wrote for The Peak (which was mainly about anti-wifi hysteria) and one about skepticism in dentistry. The only other thing I can thing of is that a while ago I gave a Cafe Inquiry on the safety and efficacy of water fluoridation.