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.


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] 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.

Continue reading California Rejects GMO Labeling, and why I approve

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.

Announcing Bad Science Watch

The promoters of science-based policy in Canada have a new defender.


Bad Science Watch, a new Canadian science advocacy group, has issued a challenge to the Canadian government: stick to the science in the development and implementation of important policy decisions. This group will work diligently to ensure Canadians are protected from exploitation by unscrupulous organizations peddling useless and potentially harmful products and services.

The group is being led by former CFI Vancouver executive director Jamie Williams and former CFI Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism co-chair Michael Kruse. Their advisory panel and board of directors includes a number of scientists and doctors from across Canada. I was involved early as a part of the steering committee (those responsible for vetting projects for BS Watch) but stepped out due to my other commitments (there’s just not enough hours in the day).

Noting the need for a professional advocacy organization in Canada, dedicated to finding bad science in our policies, this group hopes to only take on projects where they can make a measurable difference in Canadian’s lives. This means no tilting at windmills as they actively strive to make substantive policy changes when it comes to health, consumer advertising, and public policy.

Their first campaigns include “targeting bogus food-intolerance testing in Canadian drugstores and an intensive investigation into the state of the Canadian anti-WiFi lobby.”

Edmonton skeptic and host of Skeptically Speaking Desiree Schell did the voiceover for their fantastic kickoff video:

Please consider signing up for their Action Alerts Newsletter and making a contribution to their Peerbackers Project.

It will be exciting to watch this project grow and gain momentum as it affects real change on important issues.

Vancouver’s Freethought Movement Grows

Today was a very good day.

This morning the trend of increasingly successful BCHA meetings continued, with just over thirty humanists gathering at the Oakridge Seniors’ Centre for a discussion on Neuroscience and Memory. Four-year-old Addysen was perhaps one of the youngest attendees to one of our meetings yet – although I think she was too advanced for the discussion and preferred to go to the Lego Store.

Afterwards, I headed to New Westminster for a new Skeptics in the Pub meetup, organized by Peter Naugler. This event was organized on about a week or two notice, yet still brought out another thirty skeptics (with very little overlap from the BCHA meeting) due to the convenient location.

Peter didn’t realize how successful this event would be, otherwise he would have called ahead to ensure that The Met Pub had adequate staff. Still, the one waitress that was working was quite efficient and patient with our large and loud group that descended on her Sunday afternoon without warning.

It was fantastic getting to meet so many new people and I got a number of new ideas for programs and events to try to reach broader and wider audiences in the future. It’s going to be an exciting summer!

Quacks invade Richmond City Council

Richmond’s city council recently approved a motion to ban genetically-modified crops from being planted in their municipality. Richmond is likely the largest municipality in BC to pass such a ban and is one of the few with a large area of agricultural land. The motion was largely symbolic, as crop seeds are regulated federally.

Last night, the council held further hearings on the issue and by the reports from a couple skeptics who attended, the presenters were predominantly misinformed and anti-GMO. Two people spoke against the motion (in favour of GMOs), out of more than twenty. One of the pro-science advocates was a farmer, but by the reports it sounds like their pleas for rationalism fell on councillors that had already made up their mind.

Most of the anti-GMO crowd conflated their disgust at some of the extreme and unethical business practices of Monsanto with genetic engineering technology, which unfortunately disposes of all the advantages offered.

I don’t have much more to add to this story. It would have been nice to have had more warning that this issue was coming up but given the recent disarray of Centre for Inquiry Vancouver, the local skeptic movement has lost much of its organizational ability. While I strongly believe that skepticism is a vital branch of Humanism, to date the BC Humanist Association has not had much involvement in these types of campaigns. Furthermore, moving into this realm would be an expansion of our mandate, which may water down our core mandate – i.e. trying to be all things to all people.

No, I don’t

Look at this photo.

Herald reader L. Wolanski submitted this photo from Saturday's super moon in Calgary, pointing out the "Jesus-like" Face in the clouds. What do you think?

What do  you see?

I see the moon, some clouds, a tree, and an over-exposed light post in the foreground.

The Calgary Herald wants to know if you’re as pareidolia-susceptible as their reader L. Wolanski and see Jesus in the clouds.

Nevermind how angry this story about the supermoon will make Phil Plait, if anything the face in the clouds (which I didn’t even see at first), reminds me not so much of a mythical Jewish carpenter as a different famous face.

I’m continually amazed at the religious pandering that the Calgary Herald will succumb to.

Canada is screwed in the long term

I’m not found of believing in miracles, but imagine for a second that one happens and after 2015 we have either a NDP or Liberal majority, or even some coalition arrangement of the two.

Either case will be better then what we have now, obviously, but in either case we’re still stuck with these schmucks in our chamber of “sober second thought.”

Some of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s newly-appointed senators are emerging as global-warming skeptics in the wake of aggressive government positions to abandon the Kyoto Protocol, slam environmentalists and downplay potential damage caused by Canadian oil and gas exploration.

“I felt like it is kind of an insult to be a denier for a long time,” said Sen. Bert Brown, last month at a parliamentary committee studying energy policies. “It feels pretty good this morning.”

“I have to admit that what I read tells me that there is not a consensus among scientists,” [Senator Nancy] Greene Raine, another senator appointed by Harper, told the committee when it heard from Environment Minister Peter Kent, earlier last fall. “There are many different points of view and different kinds of research happening out there. One of the things that I am starting to see now is quite a few studies showing that we may be heading into a period of global cooling, which would maybe be a lot more problematic for Canada than global warming. Our country is on the cool side.”

Imagine for a second that a progressive government gets in to the House of Commons and passes the Jack Layton Climate Change Accountability Act. Once again, we’ll have to suffer through this ineffectual body blocking the legislation that could actually put some science-based targets on our emissions.

The only thing that may save our country is Harper’s own Senate-reform legislation that may force these senators to resign after 9 years.

Of course, then we may run into the situation where the senators realize the law has no teeth without a constitutional amendment and they refuse to step aside.

I don’t have much else to add. Basically we’re screwed.

Brand politics

Dan Gardner’s latest article compares the success of the Conservatives and failure of the Liberals in terms of their basic branding message.

He argues that one of the keys to the success of the Conservatives is that they have identified and sold their brand as “small government and individual liberty.” He rightly notes that their actions often contradict their own brand, but in marketing beliefs matter more than reality (this is why people still equate fiscally conservative with fiscally responsible).

He goes on to note that the only brand the Liberals have been holding onto is “the party that governs.” This worked fine when the Liberals were in power, or even in Official Opposition, since they were the natural alternative. Now, as a third-place party, though, the Liberals continue to look arrogant and like they stand for nothing.

He finishes by arguing that the Liberals should adopt a core theme of being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” to differentiate themselves from both the Conservatives and the NDP. Gardner otherwise ignores the NDP in this piece, so it’s up to us to come up with what their key message is, perhaps “progress through cooperation” or more cheekily “The party that Jack built.” Going through the NDP’s preamble leaves it a bit ambiguous what the key message should be.

And here’s where the first chip in Gardner’s article appears.

While the idea of branding is pushed hard by marketing execs and gurus, it remains unclear if the evidence actually supports the notion that having a solid brand will improve your sales or whether the converse is the case.

In Hard Facts…, the evidence-based management book I recently reviewed, the authors are quite sceptical of claims that establishing a concrete strategy will lead to organizational success. Instead, they declare it a dangerous half-truth, noting that while strategy is important, leadership and effective implementation is often far more critical.

This point can be demonstrated in the Liberals where Bob Rae’s (interim) leadership has generally been seen as quite successful so far in revitalizing the party, including recent spikes in poll numbers.

Gardner somewhat acknowledges this point near the end of his article when he says

But it takes more than grassroots gab sessions to cultivate an identity and craft it into a brand. It takes calculated leadership of the sort that Stephen Harper deployed to make “small government and individual liberty” the Conservative standard.

I generally like Gardner’s work, and while there is some to like in this piece, it comes off as a weak argument to me, since he failed to really bring in any evidence for his assertion. He cites one example of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives as where effective messaging has worked, but with so many confounding variables (fundraising ability, willingness to smear and lie, increasing the vitriol, never-ending campaigning, centralizing all messaging, etc.) it’s a really weak case. If anything, the Conservative example shows us that strong leaders are more important than simple messages, perhaps the Liberals should keep looking for their next messiah leader (i.e. someone who can communicate).