In this Edition of Critical Links:
Dates of Interest
- Alzheimer’s Awareness, National Non-Smoking Week, Ben Franklin's Birthday, Robbie Burns Day, Family Literacy Day
CFIC News and Events
- Thank You to Our Writers!
- Call for Volunteers
- Updates: Living Without Religion
- Knock on Wood: Jeffrey Rosenthal Toronto Event Followup
- January Event: “What Does it Mean to be Human?”
- How to Change a Law in Six Easy (?) Steps
- Saskatchewan Premier’s Christmas Message Goes too Far
- Boycott Palm Oil?
- Horoscopes Should no Longer be in the Star
- Even Good Research Requires Readers to Think Critically
Thank You to Our Writers!
CFIC would like to thank our group of volunteer writers for all of their contributions over 2018. This newsletter simply would not exist were it not for their writing efforts.
So, to anyone who submitted some writing over last year:
And we look forward to hearing more from you in 2019. To anyone interested in submitting a piece for CL, please contact
Call for Volunteers
CFIC Council and Board of Directors:
Are you interested in a leadership role at CFIC? We are seeking councilors and directors for 2019. Positions will start in March 2019. We’re looking for enthusiastic folks to help us in our mission to spread secularism and critical thinking.
Council members elect the board of directors and vote on significant organizational changes. Council membership is $60 ($30 of this is eligible for a charitable tax receipt). Anyone who is interested in a council membership but cannot afford the membership fee may request an earned membership. Earned council members are expected to contribute a minimum of 6 hours per month to CFIC.
Board members oversee the operations of CFIC. Board members are elected from the council members of CFIC. They are expected to prioritize attendance at CFIC board meetings (once per month by video-conference) and to take on a leadership role within CFIC. Being on the board or council is a significant and rewarding opportunity for someone who wishes to have input into the future of CFIC.
If you would like more information about becoming a director or council member, please email
(Executive Director of Development).
For more on council memberships please see the
Other Volunteer Opportunities at CFIC
If you’re not interested in leadership opportunities, there are still many ways to help. CFIC is in need of an experienced policy writer who will recommend the policies that are needed and create simple, useful policies to govern our work. Further, branches rely on volunteers for help planning and helping out at events (either with set up and clean up, or selling tickets and merchandise at the door). We can also use assistance with designing advertising materials and advertising events.
Knock on Wood
: Jeffrey Rosenthal Toronto Event
On December 4, CFIC Toronto was privileged to host the award-winning professor, author, and CFIC member Jeffrey Rosenthal for a talk about his new book
Knock on Wood: Luck, Chance, and the Meaning of Everything
. Professor Rosenthal spoke about the ways in which human beings infer connections and patterns where there may be none. His talk was educational and entertaining.
His talk was followed by a great Q&A and book signing.
The event was highly successful and Professor Rosenthal had this to say about working with CFIC: “I am grateful to Rohit and Neeraj for doing a great job arranging for me to give a talk to CFIC. They were helpful and courteous in finalizing the details with me, and they publicized the talk well, and it was a pleasant and productive experience all around. I think any speaker whose interests overlap with those of CFIC should be happy to give a talk to their group.”
You can purchase Professor Rosenthal’s book
If you missed our Rosenthal talk, you can catch him speaking
at another event
on Saturday, January 12.
Living Without Religion Updates:
December 20 saw 2018’s second meeting of the Toronto branch’s Living Without Religion support group. We had an increase in participants, two signups for CFIC membership … and cookies!
Always the third Thursday of the month, our next meeting will be January 17, at the same venue (Swansea Town Hall, Hague Room, 7-9pm). Our meetup page is
If you aren’t able to make our event, but are nevertheless interested in these kinds of discussions, there’s a similar group, meeting January 14, called Beyond Believing, put on by the Humanist Association of Toronto. Their event page is
Ottawa's Living Without Religion group meets Sundays at noon at the Fox and Feather pub. On 23 December, we held a Secular Holiday Brunch to
celebrate the holiday season and winter solstice with other free-thinkers, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, those questioning their faith, and others who are no longer part of a religious community. For more information, please check out
our meetup page
LWR Across Canada:
Interested in starting a Living Without Religion group in your area? LWR is a peer support group for anyone who has left their religion, is considering leaving their religion, or may be encountering challenges with friends, family, classmates or co-workers due to religious differences. We also welcome those who are comfortable leading a secular lifestyle themselves but would like to offer emotional support or advice, or just to enjoy a sense of social community.
Ghosts and Machines: What Does it Mean to be Human?
(live in Toronto; also available by livestream video)
“What constitutes our humanity—that intrinsic notion that separates us from other animals and machines, the essence that demonstrates we are more than the sum of our biological existence—is becoming less and less clear.”
Once again, CFIC has been invited to be a co-sponsor of a discussion presented by the University of Toronto's Wycliffe College. Please join CFIC and friends on January 25, at 7:00 pm for
this unique talk about what it means to be human
, particularly in an age where the line between humanity and artificial intelligence is beginning to blur.
To attend the event in Toronto, you can purchase tickets
. (Several other CFIC branches will be gathering to watch the livestreaming of this event - contact your local branch leadership, or
for more information.)
Perhaps you received a gift certificate for a vampire facial this holiday season. The procedure is properly called a platelet rich plasma facial. The term “vampire facial” was chosen at the height of the popularity of vampire movies and TV shows to attract young female customers. Here’s what you need to know.
Platelet rich plasma (PRP) is a biological product made up of the patient’s blood, concentrated in platelets. It is supposedly rich in growth factors from the granules in the platelets. It has been used in the practice of dermatology for almost a decade and in general medicine and dentistry for almost a quarter century. PRP has been used, with variable success rates, to treat conditions such as alopecia (hair loss), vitiligo/melasma (skin pigment disorders), scarring, leprosy ulcers, diabetic ulcers, and anogenital lichen sclerosis (patchy white skin in the area of the genitals or anus).
More recently, PRP has been promoted as a facial treatment for skin rejuvenation. The idea is that platelets stimulate the growth of collagen. A patient’s blood is taken from the arm, placed in a centrifuge, and spun very quickly so that the red blood cells sink into the bottom of the tube leaving platelet-rich clear plasma at the top. This plasma is then injected into the face and neck through multiple tiny needles.
The result isn’t as bloody as the photos you’ve likely seen (photoshop, anyone?). But being delivered via needles, it can be very painful. Other side effects are infrequent, but have included worsening of the skin condition, painful swelling of lymph nodes, serum sickness (an immune response similar to a severe allergic reaction), and infection (Hepatitis, HIV, and other blood-borne organisms).
Recently a spa in New Mexico was shut down due to concerns about risk of infection of PRP facials. However, the procedure is generally considered safe if optimal setup and expertise are ensured. Ideally the treatment should be administered by a board-certified physician in a sterile medical setting.
Unfortunately, there is little to no good evidence that PRP is beneficial for facial rejuvenation. For example, the authors of a randomized clinical trial published in the December 2018 edition of JAMA Dermatology concluded that “[b]oth participants and raters found PRP to be nominally but not significantly superior to normal saline."
The cost is about $1000 per treatment and three to four treatments per year are usually recommended. So, you decide: Are vampire facials bloody worth it?
Check out the JAMA study
How to Change a Law in Six Easy (?) Steps
That Canada had, until earlier this month, a law prohibiting "blasphemous libel,” punishable by up to two years in prison, boggles the mind. I, and CFI Canada, played a role in ensuring no one will ever again be charged with blasphemy in Canada. I'm a father with a full-time job and four young children. I keep abreast of current events but am not politically active nor have I ever been a member of any political party. How can a person who is about as far as possible from being a professional lobbyist go about repealing an obsolete law that no one seems to care about?
Here's my advice for fellow "nobodies" seeking change through legislative means.
Wait for an opportune time.
The road to repealing Canada's blasphemy law started in September 2016 when an Alberta judge
cited a section of the Criminal Code
that the Supreme Court had declared to be unconstitutional in 1990. In response to this embarrassment, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould
that she had ordered a review of Criminal Code provisions found to be unconstitutional. This was clearly the time to take action.
Build a coalition.
Politicians answer to Canadians writ large. Bureaucrats answer to politicians. If you are speaking just for yourself, no one in power will want to speak with you. But when representatives from three of Canada's leading non-religious organizations —
Centre for Inquiry Canada
Canadian Secular Alliance
(HC) — presented a joint request, we were granted a meeting with the Senior Policy Advisor in charge of the Criminal Code at the Justice Department.
Marshall your arguments.
Ensure you know your material. You will want to leave a positive impression with whomever you're speaking with, so you cannot waste even a minute of their time. CFI, CSA, and HC met in advance to agree on the major talking points and the more detailed rationales for each position. Because everyone from the three organizations was familiar with everything we wanted to convey, there was neither repetition nor contradiction when any of us spoke.
Do your research.
Stating a reasonable philosophical position is a good start, but it’s not enough. If the benefits or harms are merely theoretical, it may make for an interesting chat, but it will not drive change. Ensure your carefully constructed arguments are backed by evidence, references, and (especially with politicians!) media pieces. You needn't cite every article in conversation, but be sure to have them at the ready if asked or challenged, and offer to leave a full package behind before you leave.
Tailor your presentation to your audience.
As much as possible, learn in advance about who you are talking to and what they might want from you. This doesn't involve any kind of spying or other forms of skulduggery. Simply by looking up someone's profile on LinkedIn and understanding where they fit in the organizational hierarchy, you can gain valuable insights into what might motivate them. You should be familiar enough with what you want to communicate that you can alter the order or emphasis based on the flow of the conversation. Our meeting in December 2016 was with a lawyer with impeccable credentials — so we ensured we demonstrated knowledge on the topic of blasphemy without claiming to have legal expertise. We tied our goal of repealing Canada's blasphemous libel law to the (very public) review commissioned by the Justice Minister a couple months earlier. While we acknowledged that it had never been tested by the courts, we argued Canada's blasphemy law almost certainly violates the right to freedom of expression enshrined in section 2 of the
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
, which made it within the scope of the review. The government could avoid a potential future embarrassment by removing a law before a judge referred to it in a conviction, only subsequently to have both the conviction overturned and the law struck down.
The wheels of government (in fact, of any large organization) turn slowly. We met with representatives of the Justice Department on December 16, 2016. On March 8, 2017, the government introduced Bill C-39, which would remove from the Criminal Code
those sections previously struck down by the courts. After an initial bout of disappointment, we took heart from Minister Wilson-Raybould's statement that this was only a "
". Sure enough, three months later, on June 6, 2017,
was brought before the House of Commons. It was an
that, in addition to repealing Canada's blasphemy law, repealed sections related to (among other things) challenging someone to a duel, practicing witchcraft, and impersonating someone during a university exam. But the main changes in the bill were updating provisions related to consent and admissibility of evidence in sexual assault trials. For this reason, it was carefully studied by both the House of Commons and the Senate, taking over 18 months before it received
on December 13, 2018, nearly two years after CFIC, CSA, and HC met with the Justice Department to press our case.
If someone like me — no one in particular, with zero public profile, no insider connections, and no experience trying to influence the legislative process — can play even a small part in achieving the repeal of a manifestly unjust law, so, with appropriate prioritization and persistence, can you.
Saskatchewan Premier’s Christmas Message Goes too Far
Anonymous CFIC Member
I've been a Saskatchewan resident my entire life. I was born Catholic, did all my sacraments, went to a Catholic school, but began to doubt as early as grade 8 or 9 and eventually was an atheist in university. That journey was hard for me, like it is for many others who "de-convert" from a faith. In my time as an atheist, I've spent a fair chunk with CFIC helping to organize outings for fellow atheists where they can share their stories. Through sharing, the pain and shame of what happened to them in the past can be released. These efforts have also led me to realize just how many atheists there are, including some in our government who are fighting for secularism as best as they can in the political climate in Saskatchewan.
That is why it hurt me deeply to hear our unelected Premier, Mr. Scott Moe, use his public office to give a sermon on Christianity over the holidays. In particular, he says “…on behalf of my family, and my colleagues in the government of Saskatchewan" in the closing deliverance of his message. I know there are Muslim immigrants who have come here to escape theocratic governments. I know there are atheists who have been deeply hurt by their religion. I know specifically of Members of the Legislative Assembly who are not Christian and thus would not support giving a message of Christian superiority.
Other religious believers may tolerate this because they see it as being able to publicly practice one's faith free from persecution. However, the only reason that Mr. Moe feels like he can do this is because Christianity is currently the majority in Saskatchewan, and a large percentage of his voting block. As Saskatchewan’s demographics change, do we want to see the Christian culture that permeates our society be changed into Islamic culture? The best way to keep our country strong, safe, and secular is through separation of church and state. Mr. Moe should be free to believe and practice his faith whenever he wants, but he should not use the public office to deliver Christian propaganda and claim that it is on behalf of his entire government, because it is very exclusionary and frankly just not true.
You can view or read the address
For many people, thinking about palm oil conjures up images of rainforest deforestation, loss of wildlife, the exploitation of communities and workers, and climate change. Simply googling the product brings up a plethora of sites urging readers to take action and avoid buying it because of its devastating effects on the planet. A
produced by a UK-based supermarket chain called “Iceland,” in collaboration with Greenpeace, dramatized these environmental and social impacts, showing an animated baby orangutans’ home being destroyed by palm oil production. The message conveyed was “until all palm oil causes zero rainforest destruction, we’re removing palm oil from all our own label products” — a statement that highlights palm oil’s major sustainability issues, and also encourages a boycott of palm oil products. Is this the answer to curb rainforest destruction?
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit grown on the African or Asian oil palm tree, and is found in 50 percent of the world’s consumer goods: from shampoo to cookies and biofuels to detergents. It is grown in tropical regions across the equator on the
continents of Asia, Africa, and South America, with Indonesia
being the top palm oil producing nation.
Accounting for 35% of the world's vegetable oil market
, it is a product of high demand globally because of its versatility: It functions well in food products, it is free of trans fats, it is inexpensive, and its production is highly efficient. Harvested all year round, it
offers a far greater yield at a lower cost of production and requires 10 times less land than the other major oil producing crops
such as soy, rapeseed, and sunflower crops.
Many people in the developing world rely on palm oil production
as a cheap and available source of food; as a contribution to their livelihoods; and to economically support their communities and countries.
The palm oil problem is a double-edged sword, and in reality, the benefits do not counter the negative impacts its production has on biodiversity such as deforestation. Indeed, all types of agriculture have negative consequences on the environment; for example, animal agriculture
greenhouse gas emissions than the transport sector and is a major source of land and water degradation. Like palm oil production, rearing animals for food is considered a highly unsustainable practice that needs serious action to remedy the damage being done to the earth’s precious resources. But is the solution to boycott or ban production?
According to a
by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, banning palm oil may make the situation worse by most likely increasing the production of other less efficient oil crops to meet demand for oil, displacing rather than halting the significant global biodiversity losses caused by palm oil. The oil crops replacing palm oil would shift more production to the amazon, requiring more land, consequently leading to more deforestation and causing different natural ecosystems and species to suffer. Soybean production ranks as the highest agricultural crop associated with deforestation worldwide, double the amount of palm oil, with maize production a close second, and would likely be the crops responsible to compensate.
One approach that has the potential to improve sustainability is certification schemes: voluntary programs that set out stringent production practices and requirements for industry supply chains to implement and be assessed against to provide assurance to customers that the standard of production is sustainable.The
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)
is a large, international group of palm oil producers, palm oil buyers, and environmental and social NGOs whose mandate is to “transform the markets by making sustainable palm oil the norm.” The RSPO seeks to certify practices that meet sustainability standards of international watchdogs, like the World Wildlife Fund, and has a robust accreditation framework using third-party verification to ensure credibility and transparency.
Conservation scientists are working
with certification bodies and producers to improve how palm oil cultivation affects biodiversity, and eliminate incentives for palm oil production that lead to the destruction of forests.
Supporting certified palm oil, rather than boycotting it altogether, will have a greater effect on reducing the amount of damage being done to rainforests and wildlife. Improving consumer, retailer, and producer awareness around these programs can help increase demand for environmentally friendly palm oil, and hopefully move closer to the reality of zero rainforest destruction.
Horoscopes Should no Longer be in the
After reading an article in
The Toronto Star
about how 96% of all species became extinct at the end of the Permian Period, I happened upon a section with horoscope advice. So, a scientifically backed “Horrorscope” (a serious warning about our current climate change crisis) is competing for space devoted to advice that, if you were born between October 23 and November 20, you should “Return important calls quickly before solidifying your plans.”
Some people might argue this is harmless entertainment. Unfortunately, it is also perpetuating the kind of thinking that
The Toronto Star
exposed with a feature on fortune tellers
who have scammed thousands of dollars out of vulnerable individuals. So why legitimatize this unscientific reference point that primes the gullible to be prey to nefarious charlatans?
We have learned from the #MeToo movement that ingrained attitudes have been a potent weapon allowing men in power positions to sexually harass women in the workplace with impunity. A lot of us are trying to sort out how to be fair to women. For example, not suggesting harmlessness via “boys will be boys,” when a woman is sexually abused by an entitled man. Similarly, when so much unscientific thinking is driving our politics about our future, maybe a regular column forecasting events in our lives based on the position of the stars when we were born is not just innocent fun. That is especially true when there are voters who are serious about that information while disregarding science-based warnings.
I’m not sure if the horoscope is a big moneymaker for
The Toronto Star
, but its removal would be a noble New Year’s resolution. After all, it is fake news.
Even Good Research Requires Readers to Think Critically
Earlier this year,
brought you advice about how to
identify predatory journals
. We outlined how some journals looked real but did not publish legitimate peer-reviewed research. These journals publish unsubstantiated claims for a fee. People who are legitimately trying to fact check may see an article in what appears to be a legitimate journal and inadvertently share misinformation.
The December issue of
, one of the world’s oldest and most established medical journals, contains a spoof research article called "
Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial
." It provides the implausible assertion that “our findings should give momentary pause to experts who advocate for routine use of parachutes for jumps from aircraft in recreational or military settings.” The study is described in detail and proves its assertion beyond a doubt. However, the conclusions provide the lighthearted caution (and explanation) that “the trial was only able to enroll participants on small stationary aircraft on the ground, suggesting cautious extrapolation to high-altitude jumps.”
The article is a fun reminder that even well-conducted research is limited in its generalizability. Because the assertion in this research is so obviously erroneous, the reader is compelled to read carefully to understand the context. However, there are many less obviously misleading headlines that cause people to take ill-advised action.
Make a commitment to think check what you read in 2019!
Books and Authors
Have you read a good book lately? One that made you think more critically? One that changed your outlook? Something that used science to call into question misinformation?
Critical Links is looking for book reviewers to share their thoughts on books that other members will enjoy.