Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Podcast for Inquiry S01E10: William B. Davis: On Acting …and life.

William Davis is best known as the Cigarette Smoking Man on the popular TV show The X-Files. He is also the founder of The William Davis Centre for Actors’ Study and has just published a new book On Acting…and Life. William and I discuss how his presence on The X-Files expanded from the silent portrayal he gave in the pilot to the series’ most frequent recurring role, the importance of seeing the world from the perspective of the character you are portraying, and how William’s undergraduate education in philosophy informed both his career and his worldview. We discuss many tips, tricks, and traps to help any aspiring actor, and William shares a few insights that did not make it into the book. 

Listen to our conversation here:

A video recording is also available:

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

I've been censored!

On February 20 2020, I gave a public talk at Nerd Nite Toronto called Stab Everyone You Love. It was about the "ZYX of Vaccine Denialism" (because anti-vaxxers get everything backward). At the time, we knew that there was an outbreak of some disease in China, but not that it would soon become a global pandemic.

My son recorded my speech, which debunked several myths about the supposed dangers of national immunization programs. I uploaded the video to YouTube one day after my talk, and posted the video (and the subsequent Q&A session) to this blog the following month. 

One pandemic and two years later, on April 26, 2022, I received a letter from YouTube. It stated that they think my presentation violated their "medical misinformation policy", and thus removed my video from YouTube. 

YouTube has an appeals process. I clicked on the link, and wrote that my presentation debunked medical misinformation - I explained several erroneous beliefs about vaccines in my presentation so my audience would be more effective at rebutting them. 

Seconds after submitting, YouTube sent a second email stating they had "reviewed your content carefully, and had confirmed that it violates our medical misinformation policy. [...] We won't be putting your content back up on YouTube." Clearly, this was an automated process - there was no time for a human to read my appeal before I received the email stating it had been denied.

This experience highlights several problems with any censorship (or "moderation") regime:

  1. Who decides what's acceptable?
  2. How do you ensure none of the bad stuff escapes your filter?
  3. How do you ensure none of the acceptable stuff gets caught in your filter?

I'm pretty sure I'm an accidental victim of 3). I doubt that anyone at YouTube watched my presentation. It probably contained enough keywords that an algorithm determined it was "medical disinformation" based on a machine-generated transcript. I wasn't peddling medical misinformation, but no one at YouTube will watch the video to find out. And now, nobody else will, either.

I presented Stab Everyone You Love for the Centre for Inquiry Canada and Toronto Oasis virtually later that year. Those videos are still online - so far. It may just be a matter of time before they are taken down as well, for the same reason. 

Take care before endorsing censorship regimes. They tend to target the very communities they were ostensibly set up to protect.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Podcast for Inquiry S01E09: Howard Doughty on Academic Freedom and Post-Secondary Education

Howard Doughty has been a college professor for over 40 years and has grave concerns about the changes he’s seen in colleges and universities. Howard describes the nature, scope and limitations of academic freedom, and how that has changed over the decades. The increasing corporate influence in universities has in some cases supplanted the original purpose of the university, according to Howard. We discuss how students are different today than when he started teaching, and whether they should view their post-secondary endeavor as an educational opportunity, or a glorified job training program.

Listen to our conversation here:

A video recording is also available:

Saturday, April 23, 2022

CFIC's Cost of Religion in Canada series of reports is complete!

Over the past year, the Centre for Inquiry Canada has published a report series called The Cost of Religion in Canada. The final report, More Than Just The Money, was released earlier this month.

CFIC obtained data from Canada Revenue Agency about charities that self-identify as existing for the primary purpose of "Advancement of Religion". While several religious organizations support genuinely charitable activities such as soup kitchens or English as a second language classes (among others), the vast majority of funds collected by religious charities go to maintaining houses of worship and proselytization. The societal benefit of this government policy is, at best, questionable. 

Furthermore, the cost is enormous. Combined with the fact that houses of worship are exempt from paying property taxes in every province and territory in Canada, the cost comes to $5,400,000,000 - nearly five and a half billion dollars, every year.

Read the report series, and join me and CFIC Executive Director Sandra Dunham on Sunday, April 24, 2022 at 3 PM ET for a webinar that will summarize our findings and describe the important implications for Canadian society. Registration is free

I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Podcast for Inquiry S01E08: Feminism for Women with Julie Bindel

Julie Bindel (@bindelj) is a journalist, writer, broadcaster, and researcher. She joins Podcast for Inquiry to talk about her new book, Feminism for Women. Julie covers previous and current waves of feminism, the lie young women have been fed about feminism, and why she believes marriage can never be a feminist act. We discuss men’s role in the feminist movement, Julie’s position on prostitution, and what’s next for the feminist movement. Feminism for Women is currently available in North America as an e-book and the paperback edition will be released on September 27, 2022.  

Listen to our conversation here:

A video recording is also available:

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Humanist Perspectives publishes an egregious editorial

When I read Weld's editorial in Humanist Perspectives back in December or January, it disturbed me so much I had to write a refutation in order to stop it churning around my brain. Just before publishing it here, I asked the editorial board of Humanist Perspectives if they would run the piece below as a Letter to the Editor. To their credit, my response was published in full in the subsequent issue of the periodical. You may read it on the Humanist Perspectives site or below.

To the editors of Humanist Perspectives

I read your editorial entitled, "A Prescription For Dealing With The Pandemic: Less Fear, More Reason" in your Winter 2021/2022 issue with some interest. I favour addressing pressing issues with reason over fear, and the subject matter is of particular interest to me: in February 2020 (just before the pandemic reached North America) I gave a talk about how to talk to anti-vaxxers called Stab Everyone You Love. I have been a secular activist for over 15 years and had previously heard of Humanist Perspectives but never read it. I looked forward to correcting that lacuna with the article written by Madeline Weld, co-editor of Humanist Perspectives and vice-president of Canadian Humanist Publications. Unfortunately, her essay is polemical propaganda, filled with falsehoods presented as facts and logical fallacies sufficient to undermine her thesis. If Weld's composition is indicative of Humanist Perspectives' editorial quality, I am unlikely to read much else from the publication.

The first sign that the piece does not hew to its promise of "less fear, more reason" is its regular use of loaded language. A few examples:

  • "government-mandated discrimination" 
  • "mainstream media’s suppression of dissenting viewpoints on Covid vaccines and lockdowns" 
  • "Does anyone remember the Nuremberg Code? Apparently not the Ontario Human Rights Commission" 
  • "mass hysteria is being fomented [...] as they tighten their authoritarian grip on society"

This is hardly the tone to set if one is seeking to foster rational discourse. It is, however, pitch perfect if one's goal is to provoke outrage.

Weld's opening anecdote is about a downtown Ottawa restaurant. At a rally "against coerced Covid vaccines and rolling lockdowns", she heard a rumour about a food establishment that served the unvaccinated. When it tells her their policy was "no vax, no service" she concludes that "government inspectors must have gotten to them", rather acknowledging that a restaurant may quite reasonably insist on operating within the law. 

Throughout the editorial, Weld shows a worrying disregard for facts and logic, despite her professed commitment to reason. She seems to prioritize subjective impressions over objective observation: "What I don’t like about the Covid vaccines is that they force a person’s own cells to make a protein that their own immune system will attack. To me, that sounds like asking for trouble." In other words, according to Weld, there is no need to understand immunology, examine the relative risks of vaccination vs. remaining unvaccinated, or look at any scientific data. "Foreign genetic material" sounds sketchy to her, so the vaccine mandate must be immoral.

She writes, "The death rates in various countries have not shown a year-to-year rise because of Covid". She chooses a bizarre statistic to defend this contention: "According to Statistics Canada, in 2019 (i.e., pre-Covid), the average age of death was 76.5 years, while the average age of Canadians who died of Covid in 2020 was 83.8 years." While the linked page does contain those data points, they do not support her claim that Covid did not cause the death rate to rise. In fact, the very same paragraph also states "COVID-19 caused over 15,600 deaths in the country in 2020". Furthermore, Weld is wrong. The death rate in Canada spiked to 691.4 per 100,000 in 2020, from 654.6 in 2019. This was the highest death rate since 2012. From StatsCan: "Overall, increases in the mortality rates in 2020 were closely aligned with mortality rates directly attributed to COVID-19." It's hard to characterize Weld's statement that Covid has not increased death rates as anything but a lie. 

Regrettably, the inaccurate presentation of data does not stop there. Weld writes, "it has long since become obvious that the virus presents little risk of severe illness or death for those who are not elderly and do not have comorbidities." This is little more than wishful thinking. Harvard Medical School tells us, "Adults in the 18 to 39 age range account for about 2.4% of COVID deaths [...] And they may be among the long haulers — people who continue to experience fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, or other symptoms weeks and months after their illness."

Weld declares, "Vaccination does not stop the transmission of the virus; it merely reduces the symptoms." This is highly misleading. While it's true even triple-vaccinated adults can contract and spread Covid, unvaccinated adults are 13 times more likely to test positive for covid-19 and 68 times more likely to die, according to the CDC. I question the appropriateness of Weld's use of "merely" to describe these results; we should celebrate the order-of-magnitude reduction in transmission that vaccination brings, and the even larger reduction in mortality. But for Weld, it seems, anything short of perfection renders the entire endeavour ineffective. 

I encountered this sort of "logic" a decade ago in a breathtakingly unreliable book

Weld draws on questionable sources to support her argument. 

  • She cites the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in her essay, which has launched a "constitutional challenge in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice [against] the province’s Covid-19 vaccine passport mandate". This is an organization that hired a private investigator to follow the Manitoba chief justice. Its founder and president, John Carpay, has compared pride flags to swastikas
  • In her criticism of Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, Weld links to a Breitbart article, a site that Media Bias / Fact Check states has "extreme right-wing bias, [publishing] conspiracy theories and propaganda as well as numerous false claims." 
  • Weld refers to the "20,244 Covid vaccine-related deaths reported to the US Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)" without mentioning that "VAERS data cannot be used to determine if a vaccine caused an adverse event." Indeed, research has shown "More than two-thirds of the common side-effects people experience after a Covid jab can be attributed to a negative version of the placebo effect rather than the vaccine itself".
This is not how one restores reason to public discourse.

From misrepresenting facts and relying on questionable sources, Weld pivots toward pseudoscience. "The political and medical opposition to the therapeutic and preventative use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and Ivermectin seems incomprehensible," she writes. Weld's stand against Covid vaccines ("I am not an anti-vaxxer," she claims) is due to "no long-term studies assuring us of the safety of the vaccines." Why, then, is she jumping on the bandwagon for other drugs that have, at best, ambiguous results in Covid studies to date? Is Weld aware that there are often vast differences in drug efficacy between lab and animal studies and its effects in humans? Why does she dismiss the recommendations, based on a review of all available data, against the use of hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin for Covid-19 from the National Institute of Health? Weld is either woefully ignorant or deliberately dishonest. 

Finally, she ends the article by approvingly quoting a German doctor claiming it is "wrong and dangerous to speak of a pandemic of the unvaccinated," because "vaccinated people also play a significant role in transmitting the virus". Once again, Weld misleads her readers. We *do* have a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are more sick, require more care, and spread this disease at far greater rates. Hospitals are not overloaded because there has been a sudden surge in traffic accidents - emergency wards have been over capacity for nearly two years because of the large numbers of unvaccinated patients suffering from Covid. As a result, "elective" procedures (brain surgery, hip and knee replacements, heart bypasses, etc.) are being postponed, contributing to excess deaths (though not directly from Covid-19). To Weld, claims that the unvaccinated "place an inordinate burden on the healthcare system" is "fear-mongering". She is wrong. 

I do agree with Weld's final sentence: "Surely this is an issue that humanists and their organizations could weigh in on, on the side of reason." I hope humanists and their organizations unite to oppose Weld's shoddily-argued and poorly referenced editorial. 

Podcast for Inquiry S01E07: How to Have Impossible Conversations with Matthew McManus

Matt McManus (@MattPolProf) is a lecturer at who discusses conservatism from a progressive standpoint. We talk about seeking out those who disagree with you while being open to new arguments, evidence, and perspectives. Not everyone is willing to argue in good faith, but fortunately there are “tells” that signal this disposition before one makes a significant investment of time and energy engaging. There are pitfalls involved in such an effort, and Matt examines ways they can be avoided.

Listen to our conversation here:

A video recording is also available:

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Persecuted atheists are now treated equally by Canada

Starting in 2018, those coming to Canada fleeing religious persecution in their home country could claim refugee status under the Less Complex Claims program. LCC is an expedited process that allows certain people to be recognized by Canada as refugees without a hearing. This is a good initiative, doing away with bureaucratic processes where they have been determined to be unnecessary. There was, however, a glaring gap in the program's coverage.

Atheists being persecuted for their non-belief were not eligible to apply to the Less Complex Claims Program.

In response to this injustice, Secular Connexion, in partnership with the Centre for Inquiry Canada, Humanist Canada, and the Canadian Secular Alliance (and with support from other Canadian humanist organizations), launched a petition with the House of Commons, calling for the government to "to ensure that non-believers are included in the list of people eligible for any special refugee status". 

The petition was presented to the House of Commons on February 8, 2022, and the government tabled its response on March 24, 2022. 

The response by the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship explicitly stated that Less Complex Claims applies to "claims from those who have chosen to be disassociated from a religious denomination or community, or those who hold no religious conviction, including non-believers."

This is a significant policy change that makes Canada's expedited refugee acceptance program more just and inclusive.

Bravo to SCS, CFIC, HC, and CSA for making Canada a fairer, more moral country.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Podcast for Inquiry S01E06: James Turk on Free Expression: A Defense with Limitations

I speak with James Turk (@jameslturk), Director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, in Podcast for Inquiry's sixth episode. James and I discuss the importance of free expression in a democratic society, the futility and counterproductive nature of censorship, and what limits on expression are reasonable and justified. We also talk about the “marketplace of ideas” and how it informs free expression, and the surprising connection between monopolies and the stifling of speech.

Listen to our conversation here:

A video recording is also available:

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Podcast for Inquiry S01E05: The State of Democracy in the World with Mariam Mufti

I speak with Dr. Mariam Mufti, an Associate Professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, in the fifth episode of Podcast for Inquiry. We discuss the various waves of democracy in the past century, and the backlash to them. We talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and how most democratic countries have united against it (at least so far). We also look at what has led to the recent decrease in trust in public institutions, and why democratic voters support authoritarian leaders like Bolsonaro, Modi, Erdogan, and Duterte. Mariam provides suggestions on what citizens and countries can do to protect democracy, and discusses whether there is an inherent contradiction between Islam and democracy. Miriam does her best to convince me that, despite recent setbacks, democracy is not a lost cause around the globe.

Listen to our conversation here:

The episode is also available on YouTube (due to a technical glitch, video is not available):