Quack “Crisis Pregnancy Center” Hides $1 Million in Taxpayer Money

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Sorta transcript:

I’ve talked before about crisis pregnancy centers — they’re businesses the Religious Right has set up to trick women into giving birth. I know, that sounds ridiculous when you lay it out that way, but unfortunately it’s true. The centers have an air of medical professionalism but in reality many of them don’t qualify as actual medical clinics and so they aren’t even allowed to do things like pregnancy tests.

Whether they qualify as medical clinics or not, an estimated 91% of them have a nasty habit of disseminating completely made-up medical information — all the normal bullshit, like the idea that abortion causes breast cancer (it doesn’t) or depression (nope) or future miscarriage (nuh-uh).

In fact, several crisis pregnancy centers have been caught telling pregnant women that they shouldn’t bother getting an abortion because half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, anyway, which isn’t true. They do that so that women will put off an abortion until it’s too late.

It’s incredible that these centers are still allowed to operate with pretty much no oversight. But one clinic in Pennsylvania finally figured out what it takes to get shut down — not lying to pregnant women to force them into childbirth, but skimming from the state government.

You see, a ridiculous number of these fake, lying centers get money from the government despite the fact that they are run almost exclusively as religious propaganda to trick women into giving birth. This clinic in particular, called “Real Alternatives” — the “alternatives” are apparently alternatives to science-based healthcare, same as in alternative medicine — got $30 million from Pennsylvania taxpayers over five years. All that money is supposed to go to sub-contractors who provide “services” to pregnant women, mostly “counseling” that amounts to lying about abortion.

But Real Alternatives found a sneaky way to get a little kickback. They charged their subcontractors a 3% fee for every payment, which amounted to just under a million dollars that wasn’t accounted for in their financials. When Pennsylvania officials figured this out, they wanted to make sure that that money was going toward the stated purpose of aiding pregnant women, so they launched an audit. And here’s where it gets really bold: instead of submitting to the audit like any other corporation would do, Real Alternatives chose to sue Pennsylvania’s Auditor General, who says it’s the first time that’s ever happened to him.

The Auditor General didn’t necessarily assume Real Alternatives was misusing those funds, but god damn if it’s not just a little bit suspicious that rather than opening their books and proving the money is being used legally, they’re suing to keep it hidden. It’s all very…Trump-ian.

So maybe the government doesn’t mind giving money to organizations that will blatantly lie to women and endanger their health, but at least the financial guys are on their game. Let’s hope this is enough to shut down Real Alternatives, and make Pennsylvania and other state governments think twice about multi-million dollar grants to these charlatans.


“Fox and Friends”: Worst people in media

When an accomplished black woman congressperson gets up to speak seriously about patriotism, a topic Fox News pretends to care about very deeply, what do the awful Doocy and Kilmeade and their guest, O’Reilly, have to say? They mock her appearance, specifically her hair. Sneering at black people’s hair is often used as a line of attack by bigots; they might as well have declared that they couldn’t take her seriously because of the color of her skin.

BILL O’REILLY: I didn’t hear a word [Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA)] said. I was looking at the James Brown wig. If we have a picture of James, it’s the same wig.

STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): It’s the same one.

BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): And he’s not using it anymore. They just — they finally buried him.


AINSLEY EARHARDT (CO-HOST): No. OK, I’ve got to defend her on that. I have to defend her on that. She a — you can’t go after a woman’s looks. I think she’s very attractive.

O’REILLY: I didn’t say she wasn’t attractive.

EARHARDT: Her hair is pretty.

OREILLY: I love James Brown, but it’s the same hair, James Brown — alright, the godfather of soul — had.

EARHARDT: So he had girl hair.

O’REILLY: Whatever it is, I just couldn’t get by it.

Goddamnit, Maxine Waters’ job isn’t to stand up and look pretty for you goons!


By the sacred scrotum of Jesus!

What is it about the shroud of Turin that short-circuits people’s critical thinking? A recently published paper by Catholic weirdos claims to have carefully scrutinized the piece of cloth, and that they can interpret some of the patterns there as an image of Jesus’ scrotum.

Yes. You read that correctly. There are peepers trying to get a look at Jesus’ twig & berries.

I can’t get at the paper itself, nor am I particularly interested — except, maybe, as another example of pareidolia. You might as well stare at medieval paintings of a naked Jesus and then claim that you’ve acquired deep insights into the biology of a person dead 2000 years ago. Oh, wait, gosh, that’s exactly what some people are doing. Some artwork shows Jesus in feminine poses, or with ambiguous sexuality, so it’s open season on speculation.

A late fifth/early sixth-century mosaic in what is known as the Arian baptistery in Ravenna, Italy shows Jesus, naked in the river Jordan, with genitals clearly visible to the viewer. The rest of Jesus’ body is ambiguously gendered. He is depicted as clean-shaven, youthful, and even slightly wide-hipped. Some have argued that he is androgynous. Regardless of how we assess Jesus’ gender in this scene, the mosaic is pointing us to the idea that Jesus really was a human being, not merely appearing as one.

There are no contemporary accounts or images of Jesus. The portrayals you seen now, or in the fifth century, or in the Medieval period, or during the Renaissance, were all artistic renditions that more reflected the culture and concerns of the artist than anything about the dead guy on a stick. It’s fine to talk about the values of 5th century Ravennans in the context of the art they made, but it is utterly bonkers to use that to discuss the biology of someone who died 500 years before, in another part of the world.

In 2014, Dr. Susannah Cornwall, who teaches at the University of Exeter, caused a stir when she published an academic article arguing that the sex of Jesus was simply a best guess. She wrote, “It is not possible to assert with any degree of certainty that Jesus was male as we now define maleness.” Correctly observing that it is difficult to speak definitively about the genitalia of an unmarried person with no children, she added, “There is no way of knowing for sure that Jesus did not have one of the intersex conditions which would give him a body which appeared externally to be unremarkably male, but which might nonetheless have had some ‘hidden’ female physical features.”

There is no way of knowing is the operative phrase there. I’m fine with the idea that Jesus’ masculinity was a rather irrelevant part of the myth, but annoyed with the baseless dissection of genitalia that aren’t there. But then, it’s also the case that we don’t know that Jesus had a beard, or long hair, or a fine Aryan complexion, so all we’ve got is cultural bias on those trivial details.

But now some unhinged people are excited that they might have a “photo” of Jesus’ crotch.

Newly published scientific investigations into the Turin Shroud have identified the outline of the scrotum and right hand thumb of the man outlined on the cloth. If the Shroud is authentic, this would seem to supply clear evidence that Jesus was, in fact, male.

If the Shroud is authentic, but, as the article points out, it isn’t. And if this picture were accurate, then Jesus rode a dinosaur.


The “ifs” are strong in this article.

An authentic foreskin relic would do a lot more than establish the sex of Jesus. If, in our twenty-first century, we had a piece of Jesus’ body, the problem would no longer be heretical claims about his gender or non-divinity, but rather the potential for sacrilege. If we had the DNA of God it would only be a matter of time before somebody wanted to clone him.

If we had a tiny scrap of human tissue from the first century, I’d think the first question to ask would be how you know it came from a specific individual (let alone one with magic powers), so I don’t see how any of this creative speculation allows you to say anything about the prophet who supposedly founded the Christian faith.

But then, this is a subject that does seem to scramble even relatively intelligent minds.


FFRF going after Ken Ham?

Well, good. Answers in Genesis is a colossal scam.


Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Wicked little baby

Lionfish sure are pretty for an invasive species.


But the Chordettes knew nothing about CRISPR/Cas9!

Don Kane just had to drop this earworm on me. <shakes fist in the direction of Michigan>


Are Atheists Scared of Death?

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Sorta transcript:

Researchers at Oxford University have conducted a meta-analysis in which they examined 100 studies concerning fear of death, looking for correlations with religiosity. They found some surprising results about atheists when compared to the very religious.

I’ve always thought of religion as something that is so popular, in part, because it tells us a nice story about what happens after we die. It gives us some hope that after death, we might be able to keep being ourselves, and we can still see all our loved ones. That’s overly simplistic, of course, especially considering the popularity of religions that didn’t even start with much of an idea of any afterlife at all. Even the ancient Jews didn’t have a “heaven” so much as a dark, shadowy pit where everybody probably ends up. It wasn’t exactly a happy story and even then, not every sect believed it. That’s why if you read the Old Testament, no one comforts anybody who is dying to tell them they’ll end up in heaven soon. God genocides the entire planet but no one discusses whether anyone will end up in a “better place,” except Noah because he gets the info he needs to live. And eventually Noah dies and guess what? No one talks about how great it is that he’s in heaven now.

But still, when I realized I was an atheist, the hardest thing to accept was that I am going to die one day and there’s nothing I can do about it and I will completely cease to exist as the person known as “Rebecca.” Forever. A huge part of me wished I could still believe in a god with a heavenly post-death playground, just so I could sleep at night.

That’s why it surprised me that a number of studies in the meta-analysis supported the idea that the people who fear death the least are the extremely religious true believers AND the atheists. The people with the most death anxiety were the ones who were in the middle — people who are religious but mostly because of the social and cultural benefits, for instance.

In fact, not only did 10 of 11 relevant studies support the U-shaped graph of very religious and nonreligious people being the least afraid of death, but 18% of all the studies in the meta-analysis found that nonreligious people are less afraid of death than religious people.

It’s worth remembering that there is a correlation/causation issue, here: maybe it’s not that people don’t believe in god and find comfort in that as it concerns death, but maybe it’s that people who already don’t fear death don’t feel the need to find comfort in religion, so they drop it or just don’t seek it out in the first place.

I also, though, wonder how much of this is grandstanding. There’s no way to get this information without self-reporting, so we have to rely on people to be honest about their feelings. As an atheist, I’ve had religious people mock me for not believing in an afterlife, and goad me with the idea that I’m just going to rot in the ground one day. It’s hard to say, in the face of a mocking majority, “Yeah, it’s actually really scary.” Because if religious people know you’re scared, they might think that’s a weak point where they might convince you to join their particular religion. They can also use it as a way to convince their flock that atheists are sad and miserable.

I’d much rather say, “I don’t fear death because I know it’s inevitable, and in fact the looming specter of death makes me appreciate each day of my life all the more, and I’m grateful for that.” That’s a strong, positive statement but it’s also a bit of hyperbole. My personal truth would be more like this: “I find my eventual non-existence terrifying but inevitable, so I try not to think about it while instead focusing on making the world a better place for me and everyone else, and while I try to remember that this is the only life I have to live I still want to spend a significant portion of it playing video games.

But that’s just me! I’m sure there are plenty of atheists out there who really don’t worry about death at all. I’m interested to know what you think…are you an atheist who really doesn’t fear death? Or a True Believer who is terrified of it? Let me know in the comments!

new humanist blog

Why physics isn't dead

Relativity and quantum theory help us make sense of the universe – but physics still has huge mysteries left to unravel.
school of doubt

Where to Begin Thinking Critically?

I realize almost no one will read this, but for the few who do, I have question. (I’ll keep this post short.)

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the most basic aspects of critical thinking: where to start a primer for students who have never really encountered it before. While “critical thinking” is a common buzzword, most people, including many teachers, don’t seem to actually understand what it is or use the term correctly (as I’ve written about before).

When it comes to teaching students, there’s big question of where exactly to begin. Critical thinking has so many important aspects, and while skeptics (myself included) like to focus on a few specific ones, like logical fallacies or quoting Carl Sagan, there really is a whole lot there to delve into.

What interests me the most in teaching is finding ways to ignite a spark of interest in my students, but most of the skills in thinking critically are very difficult and require a lot of mental energy even at the best of times. A good starting point can help students who might not otherwise be interested, but the best I can come up with is “Some information is unreliable, here is proof of that, here is what can happen if you believe it, and here are some ways to check it.”

Do you have a better starting point for teaching critical thinking skills?


It’s the Skepchick Sundaylies! Wasting Water, Print Your Own Congressperson, Diversifying Music Education, and more!

Sunday Funny: Color pattern (via xkcd)

Mad Art Lab

Why Waste Water?
Using art to draw attention to our global water crisis.

Art Inquisition: Could You Be Our Next Winner?
What, if anything, makes a design contest OK?

Make a Member of Congress
Have you been ghosted by your member of Congress? Be like Celia and make your own!

School of Doubt

Who is This Music For, Anyway?
Dan wonders how the early music curriculum could be diversified.

Look to Labor Law to Solve Student Association Conflicts
Matthew thinks student associations should look to labour unions as models for managing their disputes with universities.

Featured image credit: Enid Martindale via Flickr


The Feel Good Bar and Grill A Book About Robots You Can Color

You guys! I made my first book! It’s called The Feel Good Bar and Grill and you can color it if you want!

From my Book Baby page:

The Feel Good Bar and Grill is a fictional, illustrated story for all ages about a robot named Lina who builds a restaurant on the moon Enceladus. The Feel Good Bar and Grill is a stopping off point for weary travelers heading in and out of the galaxy. The book can be read as a stand alone story and/or colored in. The book combines elements of science fact with fun fictional robots and environments. The black and white illustrations are perfect for creative coloring and the story by itself encourages kindness, environmental awareness and science education. The book is great for adults and kids alike and is intended to bring awareness to treating all humans and animals with kindness as well as being aware of environmental factors that effect the worlds we inhabit. The book also encourages finding and creating your own happy place and therefor touches briefly on the topics of happiness and depression.

I’m so proud about this project. Special thanks to our very own Donna Mugavero who did the design and layout for me!

Please pick up a copy for you and someone you love and share some happiness!

It’s currently available at Book Baby and on Amazon.

I will also have the book at any events I do this year. This weekend I will be at WonderCon in Anaheim.



Birth Control Should Be Cheap and Easy, Over the Counter!

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Sorta transcript:

A new metanalysis has been published outlining the evidence that oral birth control pills are safe and effective even for teens to take over the counter, meaning without a prescription from a doctor. This isn’t actually surprising at all, considering that ob-gyns have been saying this for years now and two states have already passed laws allowing pharmacists to write the needed prescriptions on the spot for women who want birth control.

In fact, birth control is one of the few drugs that’s safer for younger women compared to older women, considering that the hormones in oral contraceptives increases an older woman’s risk of heart problems, stroke, or blood clots. For most teenagers, the side effects of birth control pills are things like less bleeding on your period, clearer skin, and not having to give up on all your dreams in order to have an unintended baby. Ooh, scary! So glad we make those pills hard to access!

The danger of hormonal birth control is nothing compared to other over-the-counter drugs, like Tylenol. Tylenol is just acetaminophen (its name in the US…paracetamol in other countries), a pain reliever that actually doesn’t really do much to relieve pain, as more and more studies have shown in the past few years. It doesn’t work for back pain, or for neuropathic pain, or for cancer pain, and it barely works better than placebo for osteoporosis, migraines, and postoperative pain.

Meanwhile, Tylenol is known to correlate with a lot of deaths, probably more than any other over-the-counter drug (and not just because of people using it to commit suicide). It is known to completely fuck up your liver, which can make it particularly deadly when taken in combination with other drugs or alcohol. It can damage your kidneys as well, and it’s also associated with heart and stomach problems.

Even worse, the approved limit for Tylenol is 4 grams in a day, but doctors have reported overdoses from as little as 2.5 grams in a day.

Forget the debate over whether a medicine should be available over-the-counter or by prescription — all this makes a person wonder why Tylenol is even sold at the pharmacy at all.

So why can’t we get oral contraceptives over-the-counter? Simple: the ridiculous ongoing control of women’s bodies by the government. In the US, the FDA has to make determinations on what can be sold over-the-counter, and to date they continue to rule that birth control needs to be prescription-only. But not only does that not improve the health and safety of Americans, it actively undermines their health and safety. Making birth control difficult to access means more unintended pregnancies, which means an increase in both maternal illnesses and deaths as well as an increased need for abortions. And as we also make abortions more and more difficult to access, that means an even greater increase in maternal deaths as women seek illegal and unsafe back alley abortions.

Throughout the past decade, we’ve made good progress on making birth control more easily available, despite the best efforts of the Religious Right. That includes making Plan B available over the counter back in 2013, which, I hate to tell you, is just a megadose of regular old oral contraceptives. This has led to a clear improvement in the lives of Americans. Making regular, boring old “Plan A” birth control pills available over-the-counter will only make things better.


sam harris

The Russia Connection

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Anne Applebaum about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. Presidential election and Trump’s troubling affinity for Vladimir Putin.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post and a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. She is also a visiting Professor at the London School of Economics where she runs Arena, a program on disinformation and 21st century propaganda.

Formerly a member of the Washington Post editorial board, she has also worked at the Spectator, the Evening Standard, Slate, the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, the Economist, and the Independent. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, Foreign Affairs, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard, the New Republic, The National Review, The New Statesman, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other journals.

She is the author of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, which describes the imposition of Soviet totalitarianism in Central Europe after the Second World War. Her previous book, Gulag: A History, won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2004.

school of doubt

Who is this music for, anyway?

Not long ago I was talking to a colleague of mine who was teaching an undergraduate course on early music, which is the term academics generally use to refer to Western European art music from before 1750. Some time previous to our conversation one of the music majors in his class, who was black and had more academic interests in popular and non-Western musics, mentioned to my colleague that the course was not “speaking” to him, because it focused almost exclusively on dead white men. My colleague rightly took this as an opportunity to think about ways in which the early music curriculum could be diversified to accommodate a broader spectrum of voices.

Thanks mainly to the efforts of feminist music scholars over the last few decades, we now have a fairly substantial roster of women who were composers, performers, or patrons of music in the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, and more are being identified all the time. Several of the most prolific and influential of these women now frequently make their way into the early music curriculum for undergraduates, especially Hildegard of Bingen, Maddalena Casulana, Barbara Strozzi, Francesca Caccini, and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.

But, of course, these women were all white. Indeed, to my knowledge, we simply don’t have any examples of non-white composers working in the European tradition prior to 1750, and this is so for what should be fairly obvious structural reasons. The earliest composer of colour I have ever heard of is “le Mozart noir” Joseph Bologne, who was born on Guadaloupe in 1745, just a bit too late for the period under discussion.

I freely admit, of course, that my knowledge is limited–indeed, there are many thousands of documents out there in the archives that no one has even looked at in several hundred years, not to mention all the material that has been lost over the same amount of time. It is certainly possible that there is an example out there and I don’t know it. That said, I’m a Venetianist, and it seems to me that if we can’t find an example of a composer of colour in what was for many years one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant cities in the world (not to mention the centre of the music printing industry for much of the early modern era), chances are we’ll be looking for a long time.

It’s hard to deny that our personal histories can have a huge impact on the topics that interest us as scholars and musicians. I took Italian in school largely because of my own Italian ancestry (and the related desire to be able to speak with my still-living family in Italy). My scholarly work on musical depictions of Greeks in Venice was also no doubt inspired by my own experience as an immigrant and many years living as part of a linguistic minority in my new home. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people can and should devote themselves to  scholarly and artistic pursuits that resonate with them on a personal level.

At the same time, I now live in what is routinely lauded as the most ethnically diverse city in the world, yet the Renaissance choir I sing with is overwhelmingly white. This is a problem with “Classical” music generally, and much of it can be attributed to structural inequalities in the availability of music education and economic inequalities that reduce the ability of visible minorities to participate in the arts more broadly. Many of these factors are in play long before students get to university, and of course many of these same factors keep students from making it to university in the first place.

So what can university music educators and early music performers do to make this repertoire “speak” to a broader cross-section of society?

In terms of curriculum, while it may not always be possible to include works by members of certain underrepresented communities, it is often much easier to find works that depict members of those communities. Including such depictions can, at the very least, prompt class discussions of those (often very problematic) depictions and the cultural environments in which they were generated. There is also, of course, the role music played in early modern European projects of colonisation and conversion in the Americas, India, and East Asia.

We can also work to make students more aware of the contributions of scholars from underrepresented communities to our field. The process of scholarship and the creation of knowledge is often opaque to students at the undergraduate level. This is especially true of historically oriented disciplines, in which survey texts can seem to students like a string of dates and facts handed down from nowhere in particular. Even in more advanced courses, the authors of articles and other course materials can seem more like abstractions than real, living people with their own ideas, personal histories, and world views.

When I was in graduate school I was very fortunate to have the opportunity (and funding) to attend a lot of academic conferences, and in so doing I was able to meet and develop personal relationships with many of the leading scholars in my field. This experience is absolutely invaluable. Even at the very basic level of being able to link a name with a face, this kind of familiarity not only changes how you read, but also makes it that much easier to understand and keep track of where certain knowledge has come from. I think we can do more to provide students with this kind of familiarity. While it might be impractical to send a whole class to a far-off conference somewhere, we can certainly try to do more to humanise the sources of our class materials, whether with invited talks, Skype guests, recorded lectures, or even just personal anecdotes about the people whose work they are reading. Like most other academic disciplines, music scholarship has its own diversity problems, but at the same time many of our field’s greatest luminaries have been queer, women, and people of colour, and it certainly couldn’t hurt to make students more aware of this fact.

Lastly, early music performers of all stripes could always do more outreach with underserved communities. My own interest in early music was awakened by seeing a single performance of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea. Early music is also uniquely accessible in the sense that there is an enormous amount of repertoire intended for unaccompanied singers. Anyone who can read music can perform early music, and in fact I make considerable use of early repertoire when I teach basic musicianship and music literacy skills to non-musicians. In an era where music education seems to be facing ever-increasing budget cuts and many public schools can’t afford expensive instruments or other specialised equipment, it may well be that all this music from hundreds of years ago could be more relevant than ever.


Featured image: Etching of Joseph Bologne (1745-1799) by William Ward (1766-1826) after a painting by Mather Brown (1761–1831)

new humanist blog

Book review: The Battle for British Islam

Sara Khan's book is essential reading for those who care about building and maintaining a peaceful, plural society.
school of doubt

Look to Labor Law to Solve Student Association Conflicts

A few years ago, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the University of Windsor was withholding the health and dental insurance money that it collects on behalf of the University of Windsor Student Alliance. Allegedly, the university was fretting about the governance of the student association.

The story sounds similar to incidents that have occurred at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, McMaster University, and Carleton University over the past decade. In each of those cases, the university administrators collected student fees owed to their respective student associations, but did not pay them out, citing governance and fiscal transparency issues. The administrators presented themselves as protecting students’ money from unaccountable organizations, but the student associations countered that the universities had no business interfering in their internal affairs. The students also pointed out that the administrators were in a conflict of interest: they were depriving the student associations of the resources that they needed to fulfill their mandate, which can include representing their student members to the university bosses themselves, who are not always sympathetic to the wishes of students.

I have not heard a story about student fees like this for some time, either in Canada or the United States, but another one is bound to come up sooner or later. They feed the media’s desire for campus controversy.

Student associations are supposed to be democratic and representative of their members, and they usually are. The larger associations are independent, non-profit corporations that add great value to the university experience. Though they rely on their colleges and universities to collect their fees for them, they are not subdivisions of those institutions. University and college administrators therefore have no right to interfere with them.

On the other hand… what happens when the student associations are not, in fact, democratic and representative? As with any other organization, things can go wrong and lead to governance crises. Surely, when these crises do emerge (however rare they may be), administrators are right to step in and protect students from an organization that they have lost control over?

There is a better solution that both sustains the independence of student associations and offers recourse to their members who feel that they are not being properly represented. This solution borrows from a model that has worked for over a century: labor relations.

There are many similarities between student associations and labor unions. They are both governed democratically by their members, they both host social events and offer services to their members, they both represent their members to powerful people (respectively, administrators and employers), and they both (mostly) rely on those powerful people to collect their dues for them. There are differences too, and the most significant of these differences is that labor unions operate under a clear and rigorous legislative framework. Unions have the legal right to fulfill their mandate without interference from employers, but they also have the legal responsibility to represent their members properly and to take good care of their money. Good labor law grants unions and employers the opportunity to resolve their differences amongst themselves, while offering a Labor Board to mediate between them.

Having a labor board or some sort of equivalent mediate and, if necessary, judge between administrators and student associations would eliminate the threat of conflict of interest. The presence of such a board would also protect students from rogue student associations: just as any union member can complain to the labor board if their union is not fulfilling its mandate, so disgruntled students could petition to this third party without relying on administrators.

A labor board model could also help with some of the conflicts between local student associations and umbrella organizations like the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). The CFS bylaws state that student associations may begin the process to disaffiliate from the federation if members of the association in question deliver a petition requesting that a referendum be held on the issue. Various associations have successfully petitioned to leave the CFS, but others (including, recently, the Laurentian and McGill graduate student societies) have sent in petitions and claimed that the CFS refused to accept them. The CFS, for its part, maintains that it simply never received the packages in the mail. The truth lies in the eye of the beholder — and that should not be the case. In the world of labor relations, disputes like this are handled by a neutral third party. It does not make sense that an organization like the CFS is responsible for documents that are arguably against its interest.

British Columbia and Quebec have legislation that enshrines protections for student associations while laying out minimum standards of governance. In Ontario, the MPP for Ottawa-Centre, Yasir Naqvi, tabled a bill (then titled Bill 184) in April 2011 that would have done the same thing, but the bill did not survive the election that year. A specific law like that suggested by Naqvi could fix the problems associated with student association governance and independence, but another option would be to create a new bill based on labor law, or even expand labor law to include students and their organizations.

Student associations (or as some call them, student unions) are a part of life at North America’s post-secondary institutions, and they deserve the legal recognition to do their job and to be protected from university administrators and from conflicts with fellow student unions. After all, it’s a deal that labor unions already have.

new humanist blog

What Silvio Berlusconi tells us about "post-truth" politics

Donald Trump’s populism has a striking precedent. So what can we learn from the Berlusconi era?
sam harris

Reality and the Imagination

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Yuval Noah Harari about meditation, the need for stories, the power of technology to erase the boundary between fact and fiction, wealth inequality, the problem of finding meaning in a world without work, religion as a virtual reality game, the difference between pain and suffering, the future of globalism, and other topics.

Yuval Noah Harari has a PhD in history from Oxford University and is a professor in the Department of History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specialized in World History, medieval history and military history, but his current research focuses on macro-historical questions: What is the relation between history and biology? What is the essential difference between Homo sapiens and other animals? Is there justice in history? Does history have a direction? Did people become happier as history unfolded?

He is the author of two blockbuster books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

school of doubt

Ed news highlights, Trump budget, fewer international applicants, general ed, and more: Required Readings, 03.16.17

For those interested in more general education news roundups, NPR is now providing a weekly discussion of top stories. Here is the most recent version. The Atlantic is doing the same. Meanwhile, if you or the institution you work for is a subscriber to the Chronicle of Higher Ed, you can sign up for a daily briefing.

Speaking of whom, here are the Chronicle’s thoughts on what the new Administration’s budget proposal, released today, might mean for higher education. Not mentioned in this article is the elimination of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, a grant-funding agency that supports everything from STEM education to resource sharing consortia to the Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped.

A recent survey of U.S. colleges reports that 40% of respondents are seeing a decline in international applicants for Fall 2017. I couldn’t imagine why.

And could this be how we got to this point: Whatever happened to general education?

Looking for images to accompany your lecture materials? Try the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s digital collections, which were recently made open access for unrestricted re-use.

In more pleasant news, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center won a major victory in Joplin, Missouri, regarding public school field trips to a Christian sports ministry.

h/t to the Skepchick mothership for bringing this to our attention: Housekeepers vs Harvard

The University of California system is developing a plan to limit out-of-state enrollment.

Share your Required Readings with SoD via our contact form.

new humanist blog

Will progress kill humanism?

Yuval Noah Harari’s new book explores the idea that scientific knowledge might one day undermine democratic values.
sam harris

Meaning and Chaos

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson discuss science, religion, archetypes, mythology, and the perennial problem of finding meaning in life.

new humanist blog

Derrida vs. the rationalists, truth in the age of bullshit, and the politics of humanism

The best long-reads from the New Humanist this month.
school of doubt

Critical Thinking: Then and Now

Once again, I am writing about Richard Paul’s work on critical thinking. He wrote a whole lot about it and had excellent things to say. I would strongly recommend checking out the source of what I am briefly touching on here, because he goes into much more detail and depth than I can here.

There’s a form of the argument from antiquity that I hear which goes along the lines of “If it worked for us in the past, why should we change it now?” Often said in reference to a historical or “evolutionary” (evolution in this case being used as a justification by non-evolutionary scientists to justify some cultural practice they ascribe to) behavior, it does nevertheless bring up useful questions. Why did we change the way we did things, and is our current way really better?

When it comes to critical thinking, Paul explained in Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World, “We are not truth seekers by nature but functional knowledge seekers.” Historically, schools taught functional information, regardless of whether it was true or not. If everyone in a given society believed the same things, regardless of those things’ truth or bias, societies tended to function.

Granted, there have always been problems, and always been some who dared to think critically about the situations they found themselves in. But on the whole, “belief” and “truth” rarely needed to be distinguished because they were viewed as the same thing, even when they really weren’t.

So what changed? And why do we need critical thinking now?

Globalization and its causes are big reasons for that. In the past, localized events affected things on a local scale, but now there is a much bigger potential for local situations to become international affairs. As Paul describes, interdependence has played a significant role in this.

The mere existence of intercultural communication means that we can no longer afford to take our cultural beliefs for granted. We can’t just all agree to hold mutually exclusive beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality and expect to function as a society. Whether we like it or not, our local cultures are diversifying. We can no longer accept arguments from authority and mere “beliefs” as our truths. We need critical thinking, and schools are in a unique position to facilitate it for our future.

(Though this seems like an obvious point to make. My teachers’ failures to give satisfactory answers to questions like this when I was younger drove me to seek out answers in all the wrong places and caused me to spend years as an adult untangling my beliefs from a lot of nonsense I had learned. Had I only been introduced to Paul as a teenager, I may have avoided years of belief in BS and all the harms it caused.)

sam harris

Living with Robots

In this Episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Kate Darling about the ethical concerns surrounding our increasing use of robots and other autonomous systems.

Kate Darling is a leading expert in robot ethics. She’s a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, where she investigates social robotics and conducts experimental studies on human-robot interaction. Kate is also a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Yale Information Society Project, and is an affiliate at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. She explores the emotional connection between people and life-like machines, seeking to influence technology design and public policy. Her writing and research anticipate difficult questions that lawmakers, engineers, and the wider public will need to address as human-robot relationships evolve in the coming decades. Kate has a background in law & economics and intellectual property.

Twitter: @grok_

sam harris

Meme #6

bad science

How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
bad science

“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]
bad science

You should totally watch this entire day of the IJE conference

Today marks the end of an era. The International Journal of Epidemiology used to be a typical hotchpotch of isolated papers on worthy subjects. Occasionally, some were interesting, or related to your field. Under Shah Ebrahim and George Davey-Smith it became like nothing else: an epidemiology journal you’d happily subscribe to with your own money, and read in […]
bad science

An audio interview with The Conversation, on smashing the walls of the Ivory Tower

The Conversation is a great media outlet, because it’s run by academic nerds, but made for everyone. I had a nice time chatting with them last week: we discussed transparency, data sharing, statins, research integrity, risk communication, culture shift, academic activism, and why we should kick through the walls of the ivory tower. Caution: contains nerds!
bad science

Sarepta, eteplirsen: anecdote, data, surrogate outcomes, and the FDA

The Duchenne’s treatment made by Sarepta (eteplirsen) has been in the news this week, as a troubling example of the FDA lowering its bar for approval of new medicines. The FDA expert advisory panel decided not to approve this treatment, because the evidence for any benefit is weak; but there was extensive lobbying from well-organised patients and, eventually, the FDA overturned the opinion of its own […]
richard dawkins foundation

James Shapiro goes after natural selection again (twice) on HuffPo - Jerry Coyne - Why Evolution Is True

I hate to give attention to my Chicago colleague James Shapiro’s bizarre ideas about evolution, which he publishes weekly on HuffPo rather than in peer-reviewed journals. His Big Idea is that natural selection has not only been overemphasized in evolution, but appears to play very little role at all.  Even though he’s spreading nonsense in a widely-read place, I don’t go after him very often, for he just uses my criticisms as the basis of yet another abstruse and incoherent post. Like the creationists whose ideas he appropriates, he resembles those toy rubber clowns that are impossible to knock down.  But once again, and for the last time, I wade into the fray. . .

In his post of August 12, “Does natural selection really explain what makes evolution succeed?” (the answer, of course, is “no”), Shapiro simply recycles some discredited arguments used by creationists against evolution. The upshot, which we’ve heard for decades, is the discredited idea that natural selection is not a creative process. I quote:

“Darwin modeled natural selection on artificial selection by humans. He ignored the inconvenient fact that human selection for altered traits has never generated a truly new organismal feature (e.g., a limb or an organ) or formed a new species. Selection only modifies existing characters. When humans wish to create new species, they use other means.”

This is the old canard that artificial selection doesn’t create “new features.”  His definition of a “new organismal feature” is, of course, one that hasn’t been generated by artificial selection, so it’s all tautological.  Of course we haven’t seen whole new organs or limbs arise in the short term, for people have been doing serious selection for only a few thousand years, and have not even tried to create new organs or limbs. But we can create a strain of flies with four wings, breeds of dogs that would be regarded as new genera if they were found in the fossil record, and whole new biochemical systems in bacteria.  Both Barry Hall and Rich Lenski, for example, have demonstrated the evolution of brand new biochemical pathways that have evolved to deal with new metabolic challenges. Now that is a “new organismal feature”!

Often new species are created by hybridization, but Shapiro forgets that that hybridization is often followed by either natural or artificial selection for increased interfertility of the new hybrid form, so it truly becomes an interbreeding population that characterizes a species.  And that, of course, gives a crucial role to selection, as it did in the experiments of Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues on hybrid sunflowers.

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richard dawkins foundation

Viewpoints: Why is faith falling in the US? - - - BBC News

A new poll suggests that atheism is on the rise in the US, while those who consider themselves religious has dropped. What's the cause? Two writers debate.

Thousands attended an atheism rally in Washington DC this March

Recently, researchers conducting a WIN-Gallup International poll about religion surveyed people from 57 countries.

The poll suggests that in the US, since 2005:

What's behind the changing numbers? Is the cause churches that chase modern trends at the expense of core beliefs? Or are those who have always been ambivalent about religion now less likely to identify as Christian? We asked two writers for their take.

Rod Dreher: Progressive churches fuel apathy

As a practicing Christian of the Hitchens sort (Peter, the good one), I welcome the news that more Americans are willing to identify as atheists. At least that clarifies matters.

I respect honest atheists more than I do many on my own side, for the same reason Jesus of Nazareth said to the tepid Laodicean church: "because you are lukewarm - neither hot nor cold - I am about to spit you out of my mouth".

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richard dawkins foundation

From Bible-Belt Pastor to Atheist Leader - Robert F. Worth - New York Times

Late one night in early May 2011, a preacher named Jerry DeWitt was lying in bed in DeRidder, La., when his phone rang. He picked it up and heard an anguished, familiar voice. It was Natosha Davis, a friend and parishioner in a church where DeWitt had preached for more than five years. Her brother had been in a bad motorcycle accident, she said, and he might not survive.

DeWitt knew what she wanted: for him to pray for her brother. It was the kind of call he had taken many times during his 25 years in the ministry. But now he found that the words would not come. He comforted her as best he could, but he couldn’t bring himself to invoke God’s help. Sensing her disappointment, he put the phone down and found himself sobbing. He was 41 and had spent almost his entire life in or near DeRidder, a small town in the heart of the Bible Belt. All he had ever wanted was to be a comfort and a support to the people he grew up with, but now a divide stood between him and them. He could no longer hide his disbelief. He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?” DeWitt told me.

As his wife slept, he fumbled through the darkness for his laptop. After a few quick searches with the terms “pastor” and “atheist,” he discovered that a cottage industry of atheist outreach groups had grown up in the past few years. Within days, he joined an online network called the Clergy Project, created for clerics who no longer believe in God and want to communicate anonymously through a secure Web site.

DeWitt began e-mailing with dozens of fellow apostates every day and eventually joined another new network called Recovering From Religion, intended to help people extricate themselves from evangelical Christianity. Atheists, he discovered, were starting to reach out to one another not just in the urban North but also in states across the South and West, in the kinds of places­ DeWitt had spent much of his career as a traveling preacher. After a few months he took to the road again, this time as the newest of a new breed of celebrity, the atheist convert. They have their own apostles (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) and their own language, a glossary borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible and gay liberation (you always “come out” of the atheist closet).

DeWitt quickly repurposed his preacherly techniques, sharing his reverse-conversion story and his thoughts on “the five stages of disbelief” to packed crowds at “Freethinker” gatherings across the Bible Belt, in places like Little Rock and Houston. As his profile rose in the movement this spring, his Facebook and Twitter accounts began to fill with earnest requests for guidance from religious doubters in small towns across America. “It’s sort of a brand-new industry,” DeWitt told me. “There isn’t a lot of money in it, but there’s a lot of momentum.”

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richard dawkins foundation

Does this set a record for smug nastiness? - Richard Dawkins -

Tony Nicklinson died today. His appalling suffering is now at an end, no thanks whatsoever to our judges or our parliament. Obviously all decent people will feel glad for him, but I would add sorry that he failed to win a precedent that might benefit others. Indeed, it was precisely the fear of such a precedent that motivated the High Court to hand down its callous judgment. Let’s continue his fight for a more humane approach to the right to die.

In pursuing that fight, we need to take full measure of the opposition, where it is coming from, and in some cases the sheer depth of its unpleasantness. The article posted below was written before Tony Nicklinson’s death but after the High Court turned down his request to be allowed to die. The author, Richard Carvath, describes himself as a British Conservative political activist. I have never met him and have no wish to do so, nor had I previously heard of him. But I think his article could perform a useful service in laying out, clearly and relentlessly, the full extent of the nastiness of which people of his persuasion – we inevitably get to the love of Jesus before we are through – are capable. As often on the Internet today, you have to wonder whether it is satire, but on balance I am persuaded that this one isn’t. This is the real McCoy. Read it and marvel at the depths to which the human mind can sink, when its moral sense is sufficiently disabled by religion.
Richard Dawkins

For the Love of Tony Nicklinson

Richard Carvath

Poor old Tony Nicklinson.  His wife wants to kill him, his family want to kill him, his barrister wants to kill him, the mainstream media want to kill him, the euthanasia lobby want to kill him and a vociferous mob of Twitter followers want to kill him.  It’s enough to depress anyone to the point of despair.  In a recent tweet, Cheryl Baker (yes, she of 1981 Eurovision Bucks Fizz fame) seemed to sum up the general attitude of the misguided ‘Kill Tony’ mob when she wrote: “My heart cries for Tony Nicklinson.  If he was a dog there would be no ethical or moral decision to be made, just whatever is best for him.”  But Tony is not a dog.  Tony is a human being.  Last week, thankfully, Tony failed in his attempt to change the law which serves to protect us all from murder.  The upholding of the law was applauded by champions of justice and pro-life defenders of the disabled – and rightly so.  Tony Nicklinson isn’t terminally ill; he is severely physically disabled but he is not dying; Tony has a life to live.

There are many forms of human suffering and we each suffer something at least once in our lives: severe illness; injustice; betrayal; loneliness; poverty; unemployment; crime; childbirth; bereavement; unfair discrimination etcetera.  Sometimes our suffering is our own fault and sometimes it’s the fault of others.  Suffering is inevitable and what matters is how we respond to suffering.  Do we help ourselves or are we our own worst enemy?  Do we wallow in self-pity or do we resolve to think positively? 

Read on

richard dawkins foundation

Missionaries of Hate - - - Top Documentary Films

Thanks to Mike for the link

Correspondent Mariana van Zeller travels to Uganda, where many question whether the growing influence of American religious groups has led to a movement to make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. As an anti-gay movement spreads across the continent, gay Africans and their families face an increasingly uncertain future of isolation, imprisonment or even execution.

The film makes it much easier to understand why the general Ugandan public is so eager to send their peers to jail. If the most prominent spiritual leader in your community made it his life purpose to convince you that there were people coming to eat your poop and recruit your children, you would be against them too. They are only hearing one side of the story and it is the origin of their information that is truly infuriating.

Although Ugandan leaders are deeply offended by the notion, the facts definitively show that American evangelists have played a central role in defining the nation’s hard line against sexual minorities. The documentary focuses on American evangelist Dr. Scott Lively, who is widely credited with installing the dominant notion that homosexuals are after your children.

Read more and see the full playlist