In this Edition of Critical Links:

September Dates of Interest

News & Events
  • CFIC Toronto Event: Is Society Making Moral Progress?
  • CFIC Victoria Event: Protecting Blasphemers
  • CFIC Virtual Branch Launches!
  • CFIC Ottawa at Capital Pride
  • CSICon 2019
  • Toronto and Ottawa: Enlightenment Under Attack - Defending Secular Values Against Religious and Political Extremism
  • Correction to August Critical Links
  • Volunteer Opportunity


Science Check
  • Multi-purposing a Common Science Tool for Critical Appraisal

Secular Check
  • A More Secular Government is Up to Us

Think Check
  • Florida Clean Energy Company’s Hydrogen 2.0 Claims Stirring Doubt and Skepticism in New Brunswick
  • Keith’s Conundrums: A really useful machine

September Dates of Interest
On September 3, 1803, English scientist John Dalton (whose birthday is also in September) started using symbols to represent the atoms of different elements, one step on the way to the Periodic Table, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year .
 
September 10 is world Suicide Prevention Day .
 
September 14 is World First Aid Day . Brush up on your emergency skills with a course, or if you prefer to outsource such things to your smartphone, you can download an app .
 
September 30 is the tenth annual International Blasphemy Rights Day .
 
And though there are likely very few triskaidekaphobics among our readers, we'd like to point out that the first Friday the 13th of 2019 is in September. A good day to spill salt, walk under ladders, open umbrellas indoors, and cuddle black cats!

If you celebrate any of these, or have any suggestions for upcoming celebrations or observances, please drop us a line or send a picture to CriticalLinks@centreforinquiry.ca .

News & Events
Is Society Making Moral Progress? A Conversation with Dr. Christopher DiCarlo and Dr. Richard Carrier

Dr. DiCarlo and Dr. Carrier will discuss such topics as how to objectively know if societies are making moral progress, who defines moral progress, how we reconcile the fact that different societies have different standards, and whether some standards can be deemed better than others. Much of the conversation will also focus on the concept of free will and the freedom (or lack thereof) that humans have in making ethical decisions.

The dialogue will be conducted through the use of critical thinking and rational thought in an effort to come to a better understanding about the future of ethics. A Q&A and book signing will follow.

The event will take place on Friday, September 13 th , at 7 pm, in the Northern District Library. Discount tickets can be purchased in advance here .

Come join the discussion!
Protecting Blasphemers: Is Blasphemy Progressive for a Society?

CFIC Victoria is happy to offer this panel discussion on September 18. Speakers Gail Miller of Atheist Alliance International, Armin Navabi of Atheist Republic, Onur Romano of Centre for Inquiry Canada, and Robert Light of Victoria Secular Humanist Association, will discuss topics such as the utility of blasphemy, whether it’s endangered, the possible role of secularism and humanism in the Middle East, how can we better help asylum seekers, and many others, including an introduction to the incoming Atheist Refugee Asylum Program coalition.

You can purchase tickets here .

(Note: CFIC Victoria hosts monthly round table discussion events on the third Wednesday of every month starting in October at 7pm at Quality Foods Board Room 27 Helmcken Road, Victoria, BC - check us out on Meetup )
CFIC Virtual Branch Launches!

Our new baby CFIC Virtual Branch is ready for your attention! The Virtual Branch's mission is to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. We aspire to provide a nationwide virtual community for members and patrons, particularly those in rural and remote areas. You can tag us on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram , and find us on Discord

CFIC Virtual Branch welcomes volunteers who wish to help keep our online platforms up and running. Help us promote Youtube shows, podcasts, TED/TEDx talks, and various videos. Email us your suggestions here .
Ottawa Pride!
Diane Bruce

CFIC Ottawa has been marching in Ottawa Pride since 2009. Perhaps some people have become complacent about the reasons we march. There is still religious-based bigotry out there and it was demonstrated vividly this year when a drag queen storytelling event was marred by religious protesters yelling at children and parents a few weeks before the Ottawa Pride march itself.
 
This further led to the organizers of The Ten Oaks Project, a group for 2SLGBTQ children, to call for volunteers to protect the upcoming Family Pride Picnic from disruption and abuse of their children. This resulted in volunteers from CFIC Ottawa joining the effort to help keep this picnic safe.

CFIC marches in Pride Parades to demonstrate that rationally speaking there is no reason for this bigotry. This year’s march happened to be on a beautiful day for marching and was one of the biggest yet for Ottawa. Our marchers marched with signs and shirts reading “Stop Faith-Based Bigotry,” which drew loud cheers from the spectators. We blew bubbles and we handed out “Stop Faith-Based Bigotry” buttons. Many were interested in the T-shirts we were wearing and we were often stopped and asked where they could get one. (They are available at the CFIC store on our website.)
Volunteer Opportunity (CFIC National)

Do you love meeting new and interesting skeptics and rationalists from across the country? Are you friendly and outgoing? Would you be interested in a volunteer opportunity that has a flexible schedule? If you answered yes to all of these questions, please consider volunteering to be CFIC’s new volunteer coordinator.
 
Our volunteer coordinator:
  1. Maintains a list of CFIC volunteer needs;
  2. Receives applications from CFIC members across Canada by email;
  3. Schedules an interview using our on-line video conferencing equipment or telephone;
  4. Helps prospective volunteers find opportunities that appeal to them;
  5. Connects new volunteers with others working in their area.
 
This position typically requires about 1.5 hours per week, however there will be busier weeks and weeks in which there are no new applications. If you would like to explore this or other CFIC volunteer opportunities, please apply to be a CFIC volunteer by completing our on-line application form.
CSICon 2019

If you need an excuse to visit Las Vegas, why not consider attending CSICon 2019. The Center for Inquiry U.S. annual conference will be held in Las Vegas from October 16 to 20. This year there will be presentations on climate change, pseudoscience, filing suit against homeopathy, and much more. Please visit csiconference.org for more information or to register.
Enlightenment Under Attack - Defending Secular Values Against Religious and Political Extremism

September will see two exciting events put on in part by the Humanist Association of Toronto, the Humanist Association of Ottawa, and Atheist Republic. Armin Navabi, author of Why There Is No God , will be giving a talk about right- and left-wing extremist attacks on Enlightenment values such as free speech, scientific inquiry, reason, and secularism.
 
Armin Navabi is a secular Muslim from Iran and founder of the non-profit Atheist Republic, the world’s largest atheist network with over 200 consulates worldwide. Atheist Republic is dedicated to offering a safe community for atheists around the world to share their ideas and meet like-minded individuals.
 
Tickets for the talk are limited. You can order here .
Atheist Refugee Assistance Program (ARAP)
Onur Romano

CFIC would like to congratulate the Association of Atheism, Turkey (Ateizm Dernegi - AD) on receiving a grant to support atheist refugees trying to settle in Turkey. AD is the first and only legally recognized atheist non-government organization (NGO) in the Middle East.

Turkey has the highest number of refugees on the planet, many being atheist refugees escaping persecution, and sometimes execution. While the UN and EU consider Turkey to be a "safe country" for atheists, it is a Muslim majority population and has been led by a pro-Islamic administration for decades. This creates challenges for many atheist refugees.

In today's Turkey, it is very hard for non-theist refugees to settle, due to a lack of affordable and accessible legal help, accommodation, and employment. This is especially difficult for refugees who do not speak the language.

AD has received a grant from five international organizations; Atheist Alliance International, Centre for Inquiry US, Atheist Republic, Humanists International and The International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, to implement ARAP. This program will support atheist refugees in Turkey by providing legal aid and assistance locating accommodation, and job solutions. AD plans to hire a full-time employee who is fluent in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and English for this program. ARAP will officially launch in January 2020.
Correction to August Critical Links
Seanna Watson

Thanks to alert reader Hilmar Krocke, who brought to our attention an error in our German usage and grammar in our August edition. Referring to the humanist/freethought organization "BFG", we incorrectly used the Anglicization "Munich". The correct name of the organization is Bund für Geistesfreiheit München. Our apologies for the error.

Science Check
Multi-purposing a Common Science Tool for Critical Appraisal
Zack Dumont
 
Healthcare and medical literature is fraught with limitations: It’s complex, vulnerable to various interpretations, and ultimately not well served by fleeting headlines. To effectively translate the knowledge uncovered in a research study into clinical practice, one must first determine whether the research methods are valid (i.e., did they conduct a good study?) Sadly, the answer is often no.

Next comes assessing the meaning of the findings (i.e., what might these numbers suggest?) Sadly, the answer is often not much, or worse, unclear. Finally, we try to apply the information back to the care provided to a specific patient (i.e., does my patient care about what this study tells us?) Sadly, the it’s often unlikely … despite what the author stretches to conclude.
 
There are textbooks, expensive web tutorials, and even entire university courses (!) dedicated to honing the skills required to critically appraise medical literature. As a teacher of evidence-based medicine and critical appraisal for the last decade, I’ve worked mostly with busy clinicians — e.g., physicians, pharmacists, nurses — who challenge my every ounce of empathy when they say something akin to “The activity of critical appraisal is simply not practical. I’m just going to have to take a leap of faith on the author’s conclusions.” This is usually stated in a moment of frustration and I understand where they’re coming from; however, given the complexity and what’s at stake, taking a leap of faith is not an option that our patients can afford for us to take

After being repeatedly thrust into what felt like a crossroads — to teach the full technical critical appraisal process all at once, or to just give up — I’ve found there’s another path: Teach some aspects of critical appraisal, and keep it simple. Get the learners into the ballpark with a few simple tools, and build on these foundational skills over time.

One foundational approach I’ve found effective is to lean on a tool that I believe everyone, scientist or not, can use. This tool is heavily embedded into science-based and research curricula : the PICO format. PICO is an acronym for “patient/population,” “intervention” (i.e., a new medication, medical device, procedure, etc), “comparator” (e.g., placebo, Drug Y, etc.), and “outcome.” It’s a framework for structuring questions before digging into the available literature.

Think of a Google search: While someone might ask, “Should I take Drug X to prevent myself from having a heart attack?”, the search results will be of much poorer quality than if the question were asked using the PICO format. Using PICO, the search question might look more like, “For an otherwise healthy person in their sixties (patient/population), does Drug X (intervention), compared with placebo (comparator), reduce my risk of heart attacks (outcome),” which will likely bring up higher quality evidence. PICO can be used, and is sometimes force-functioned, in very sophisticated search engines that healthcare providers use. Since the acronym is so well engrained, I’ve leveraged it to help those new to critical appraisal to think more critically. I think everyone can apply this technique.

Though it does not align with the original intention of PICO, when looking at a scientific claim you can ask yourself the following.
 
  • P — Did they study this product/service in people who are like me? Unfortunately, studies are often conducted in relatively “simple” patients with single ailments; their health status certainly doesn’t fit the large part of the bell curve. For example, in a study of a medication for people with a heart condition, the researchers will exclude people with depression and anxiety; in the real world, heart health and mental health very often walk hand in hand.
  • I — Is the product/service practical and implementable in the real world? Often interventions are studied only in certain geographical regions and/or include intensive follow-up that simply isn’t achievable in the real world. For example, a study for a medication that lowers your risk of death also increases the amount of potassium in your blood, which, when high enough, can carry severe consequences. Your potassium levels can be measured, but the frequency of monitoring and the required assessment is time- and resource-consuming and relies on an imperfect healthcare system.
  • C — Has the product/service been compared to the gold standard? For example, omeprazole is effective at lowering stomach acid levels and, therefore, used to treat heart burn; but if the study compared omeprazole to placebo rather than other treatments we can use for heartburn (e.g., other medications, weight loss, trigger avoidance, etc.) then the argument that it works is certainly less compelling.
  • O — Has the product/service been shown to increase the likelihood of outcomes that I care about? For example, I’m sure many patients with type 2 diabetes want their blood sugar levels lowered. Did you know that we have multiple medications that lower blood sugar, but compared to placebo, do not positively impact the rate of heart attacks, strokes, and other bad outcomes associated with diabetes? Scientific claims should always be backed by evidence of having an impact on patient-valued outcomes.

So next time you see or hear a scientific claim, try to apply the PICO tool to test if you can poke holes in it. Critical appraisal isn’t always about finding the truth, it can also be about identifying when others (intent aside) might be off the mark.

Secular Check
A More Secular Government is Up to Us
Sandra Dunham

Often, we think that government could change the way a country thinks, acts, and behaves, by amending or passing legislation. It seems to me that the opposite is true. Citizens change the way they think, act, and behave, and then government changes legislation. Why do I put this hypothesis forward? Because the number-one goal of government is to be reelected. If government passes unpopular legislation, they will be ousted from office.

Other than legislation, the government has financial and public-relations tools at its disposal to change behavior.
 
On the financial side, they can choose to tax behaviours that are deemed to be negative (e.g., sin taxes). They can issue tax credits for behaviours that are deemed to be positive (e.g., allowing tax relief for charitable deductions). Or they can spend money on programs or services deemed to be in the public interest (e.g., health and education).

However, before the government ever passes legislation or enacts changes to fiscal policy, it must convince Canadians that the change will be beneficial. The easiest demonstration of government using all three tools of change is tobacco use.

Had the government banned smoking in public places in 1960, it would have been ousted from office by the majority of Canadians who smoked. Along with many public interest groups, the government publicized studies showing that smoking was a health hazard. The government slowly began to make cigarettes less affordable to Canadians by increasing taxation. It also began helping Canadians quit smoking by publicly funding agencies that offered smoking cessation programs. As more people voluntarily gave up smoking, the government helped to promote studies demonstrating the harmful effects of smoking on non-smokers (i.e., secondhand smoke).

This was the point at which legislation was being passed at different levels of government, including issuing limits on where people can smoke. However, even after almost 60 years of changing public opinion, using fiscal policy to influence change and using regulation and legislation to limit a behaviour, smoking remains legal in Canada.

When CFIC considers the desire for a more secular Canada, in which government neither promotes nor restricts religious practice, the first change we need to see is a change in public behaviour. When the majority of Canadians oppose legislation which p romotes or restricts religious practice and supports government decisions which are based on logic and science, we will begin to see the rules of government change.

CFIC supports the democratic process, and we strongly encourage our membership to become educated voters and to cast their ballot in the upcoming federal election. To that end, we have conducted a poll asking our members to identify what they view as the most critical issues we need to speak to in the election.

We are working on a report that will list the five most important areas of concern identified by CFIC members. We will also provide a list of suggested issues and questions members and others can raise with candidates from all political parties.

We’ll have a summary in the October issue of Critical Links, with the full report available on the CFIC websit e.

Think Check
Florida Clean Energy Company’s Hydrogen 2.0 Claims Stirring Doubt and Skepticism in New Brunswick
Allan Carter

NB Power, the province of New Brunswick’s power utility, has been raising some eyebrows over a decision to invest in a technology with unproven claims that it will produce clean energy through a new hydrogen-energy process called Hydrogen 2.0. 

According to CBC News, NB Power has invested $13 million in licensing fees to Joi Scientific, based in Florida. News of the deal has prompted many critics to question some of the claims made by Joi Scientific and whether a public utility should be investing in a private company.

One major concern is a claim made in Joi Scientific’s patent that the process generates “200 per cent” of the energy put into it. Quoted in an article by the CBC News, the patent says , “For one watt of input energy, two watts of energy in the form of hydrogen gas is achieved.” Vancouver energy consultant Michael Barnard told CBC News that several of the claims would violate one of the fundamental laws of thermodynamics: In a closed system, energy can only be transformed, not created or destroyed.

Additionally, two New Brunswick scientists, Olivier Clarisse and Abdelaziz Nait Ajjou, professors of chemistry from the University of Moncton, have expressed skepticism over Joi Scientific’s claims. 

While Joi Scientific has been tight-lipped on the details of the process, patents that the company has filed have continued to generate more questions than answers. According to the New Brunswick Francophone newspaper Acadie Nouvelle , the patents contain details on the device. The patent states it extracts significant amounts of hydrogen from seawater using a pulsed electric current and a magnetic field.

Clarisse is wary of this claim, because using an electric current to extract hydrogen from water is not a new technique. He explained to the Acadie Nouvelle that this technique is already happening, but it is not cost-effective from an energy point of view. 

As far as Clarisse and Ajjou know, the efficiency threshold of 100% — as much energy produced as energy used — has not yet been passed by anyone. Ajjou notes the best processes to date, to his knowledge, produce around 60%, which means that you lose 40% energy. However, Joi Scientific claims to have achieved an efficiency rate of 200% and even 300%. 

Yet, despite the skepticism on many fronts, NB Power is not the only one willing to invest in the Florida-based energy company. MarineMax was the first licensee of Joi Scientific’s Hydrogen 2.0 production technology in 2018. According to Trade Only Today , MarineMax believes the technology will transform the boating industry — and possibly the world of maritime transportation.

New Brunswick Green Party leader, David Coon, is also skeptical about the claims made by Joi Scientific. However, he has other concerns as well. He told CBC News in March that NB Power “has no mandate as a public entity to be spending ratepayers’ money on [research and development], to be acting like an angel investor in someone's project in Florida.”

Meanwhile, this past June, Joi Scientific was recognized as a 2019 Red Herring Top 100 North America winner . The annual award recognizes the region’s most promising private technology ventures. The company has included Joi Scientific in the top 100 for “its innovation Hydrogen 2.0 technology business model and strong market impact potential.”
Keith’s Conundrums: A really useful machine
Keith Douglas

In this column I will pose “funny problems.” Some will be paradoxes; some will be weird things to think through. Generally they will have a popular science and philosophy feel, though some are taken from undergraduate-level discussions as well. Feel free to write back with comments, questions, and any feedback you wish. You can email me at conundrum@centreforinquiry.ca , or post a comment on the CFIC website . In each column, I will discuss the feedback and more details about the previous problem and introduce a new one.  

Last month’s Conundrum got a bit of discussion going about trying to extrapolate, interpolate, etc., the patterns of numbers I proposed. I saw some rather ingenious mathematics here. Nice to think in exact terms, but the first thing one should do is ask, What is being modelled?

The reason I mentioned aptitude testing is that the “complete the sequences” test items are always underspecified: They need a model of a real (or “non-mathy”) situation to make any sense. Consider the following sequence (where the first in the pair is x , the second y ):
 
{(0,1),(1,3),(2,5),(3,7),…}
 
Naively one might think that y =2 x +1 generates the sequence of pairs. But, so does this one:

y =2 x +1+ x ( x -1)( x -2)( x -3)

And literally any number of other possibilities. And so on.

The model of the system then tells you something, which you can use in understanding the second of the tables. Until one explores that, one cannot say what is likely to be the next item. For example, Hooke’s law, F = - kx — where k is a property of the spring (a stiffness, called the spring constant), x is its extension/compression, and F is the force needed — is only true for springs within a given range of forces. To demonstrate this, get a really big weight and attach it to a spring you are willing to destroy. (Not a poor Slinky!)

Lesson: Remove the aptitude test items like this, and so on, and encourage modelling of real systems rather than “math puzzles” in schools. Formal skills complement factual ones.

I would like to credit my undergraduate professor in the philosophy of science, Mario Bunge, for first exposing me to this conundrum 20 years ago.

Let’s now look at the next problem. This one is especially tricky!

A really useful machine

The other day someone came to me and asked my advice concerning the potential purchase of a new machine. It was meant to help with the following problem: Software often gets into a state in which people do not know whether certain features or functions ever get used or are even reachable by “flows” through the application. This is the problem of dead code. For various reasons related primarily to maintenance and performance, dead code is undesirable.

The machine works by analyzing code and looking for dead spots. You copy the code to be analyzed onto a USB memory stick and put it in the machine’s port. Then you select and start the file to be analyzed. Twenty-four hours later, a report is either emailed to you or posted online that shows all the dead code.
The vendor wanted $1000 for this machine. Is it worth the money?

Fields to consider: logic, computability theory, philosophy of mind.
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