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Illegal botox seized in Vancouver

Tue, 03/03/2015 - 12:55

Last month, an undercover CBC investigation exposed that a number of spas and health clinicas around Metro Vancouver were offering botox injections illegally. Botox in Canada can only be administered by a physician and these clinics didn’t have any doctors on staff.

Today, Health Canada announced that it has seized unlabeled botox jars from Art Nails, a Vancouver spa.

The store owner claimed the product was Botox that had been administered to consumers. Potential risks associated with injecting an unauthorized version of a health product such as Botox, can range from mild local paralysis to death.

While the shop remains open, and none of the shops mentioned in the CBC exposé have been closed, it’s good to see Health Canada intervene.

Republished: Religion poll is a waste of paper

Sat, 02/28/2015 - 12:20

My second (and last) editorial in The Gateway while at the University of Alberta, salvaged via the Web Archive. The paper had a policy where writers were forbidden from submitting letters or opinion pieces if they were the subject of the news due to perceived conflicts of interest. I called them out at the time for the absurdity of such a policy.

Religion poll a waste of paper

Originally published in The Gateway, 9th October 2008

There’s an election going on at the moment. No—not the Obama/McCain one, and not even the Canadian one that you probably know less about, but affects you more. This one went on with almost no warning and, in the end, will have no positive effect at all.

Perhaps by now you’ve seen a certain campus group’s posters asking you to vote on whether you believe in God. By setting up a booth in CAB, and later SUB, they hope to accomplish what the SU has failed at for far too long—getting students to vote. However, one must immediately question several things regarding this concept.

Firstly, you have to ponder the purpose of performing a poll like this yourself instead of hiring a polling company. You would think that a statistically significant poll would be more valuable—but perhaps empirical evidence is a bit too foreign to some believers.

If you want a hint at their results, see if they line up with a Canada Press poll from this past year that found that 23 per cent of Canadians don’t believe in a God, and 36 per cent of Canadians under 25 were non-believers. In a university campus environment, the latter group is quite prevalent.

Next, with polls like these, one has to wonder how the terms have been defined. It’s unclear what they’re talking about when they mention “God.”

Traditionally, big-G God refers to that guy-in-the-sky that Jews, Muslims, and Christians believe in. But some people believe that there’s some universal spirit or force running through the universe, and they call that god.

Others believe in a deity that started the universe and let it go like a wind-up watch. So what definition are they going with?

Then there’s the strangeness of hinging the metaphysical existence of anything on popularity. Humans often believe pretty crazy things. For example, people have believed the earth was the back of a turtle, while others believed that the Milky Way was fluid squirted from a goddess’s breast. So to run a mock election on belief in God makes me wonder what they hope to prove.

There are a countless number of things that the majority of humanity has previously believed without any empirical evidence that later turned out to be false—the earth being flat, the earth being the centre of the universe, the sun being the centre of the universe, humans being utterly disconnected from the rest of the animal kingdom, the existence of witches, and that masturbation will cause hairy palms.

So to ask whether the majority believes in a supernatural being doesn’t lend anything to its existence—we may as well ask if people believe in the Higgs boson. Without doing actual science, we’ll never know an answer about either.

Some will claim that science can’t know everything, and that God can’t be found in a test tube. Well, he can’t be found in a student group-sponsored poll either. And rather than getting their group more believers, they may inadvertently expose how many unbelievers there are on this campus.

Alberta is often seen as the most conservative Christian province in Canada, and election day will demonstrate why. However, when the 2001 census shows that upwards of 25 per cent of Albertans claim “no religion,” second only to British Columbia, there’s clearly more going on than meets the eye.

So take charge, fellow heathens, heretics, humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and skeptics: you are not alone.

Republished: There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

Sat, 02/28/2015 - 11:31

This was the first article I wrote for a student newspaper and in a way it’s somewhat historic. In 2008, the University of Alberta Atheists & Agnostics started campaigning for a secular convocation charge. When our initial request was ignored, I raised the issue with the student newspaper, The Gateway, and they recommend I write an editorial to push the story forward. This is that editorial.

There’s no ‘God’ in graduation

Originally published in The Gateway, 16th September 2008

Upon the gruelling end of a 4-5-6 or even 7 year journey, students embark across a stage for the chance to experience their high school graduation on steroids. This event is known as convocation, and despite the movement toward inclusiveness and tolerance, this is one stage that keeps the flame of intolerance burning bright.

When new graduates cross the stage at their convocation, they are presented with a charge by the University’s Chancellor. He issues an Admission where he states: “I charge you to use them [the powers, rights, and privileges of University degrees] for the glory of God.” It is commonly understood that big-G God here is some variant of the monotheistic Abrahamic God (or the one Jews, Christians and Muslims live in fear of).

A recent Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests that around 36% of Canadians under 25 do not believe in a god. This means that when the Chancellor issues his charge, he is denying the existence of students who disagree with the idea of living in fear of a deity. He also offends the sense of the majority who believe that a public institution should have no stance on religious issues. This is the idea of separation of church and state, or secularism, that founded the United States, but is exemplified by Canada’s modern governments.

Upon hearing about this issue from several of its members, the University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics drafted a letter which was sent to the President’s Office on July 14. Hope for a quick move to inclusiveness was dashed when nearly a month later we received a brief response stating their office had heard of the issue earlier and decided against doing anything. We were disappointed to hear that this University wishes to remain in its dark-aged roots, however, seeing as we received no reason for their decision not to change the charge, we requested the minutes from the meeting where they decided this. Continuing to drag its feet, the President’s Office has decided this is an issue that requires a FOIPP request.

Now, almost two month’s after the UAAA made a request to make our convocation more tolerant of the diversity of all students, we still don’t have an official reason why the President’s Office won’t respect our wishes. We also have over a hundred signatures of students who are outraged by this break in secular values and the separation of church and state. Finally, we have a Facebook group for people to get more information about this issue. We have had tremendous support not just from atheists and humanists but from students, alumni, and faculty of diverse backgrounds, including people who deeply believe in God but who support the separation of Church and state and recognize that this is a public, not private, university.

This push is also not without precedence. The University of Calgary’s admission is to grant degrees to those who have "earned" them and give them the "rights and privileges, powers and responsibilities pertaining to those degrees."  The University of Toronto secularized its convocation several years ago as well. Cleary the U of A can look to be as progressive as the U of T and U of C.

Many will assume this is a frivolous attempt to push militant atheism. However, we are not requesting the charge to say "use your glory to disprove god and vilify religion", we just want to feel welcome in a ceremony we have all equally earned. Further, members of our group do not wish to define "god" in some way that it makes them happy as some would suggest. We do not arbitrarily interpret words differently to get through the day. Interpreting an F on your transcript as "Fantastic" doesn’t make it so. The University’s charge comes from the charge from Oxford University, which has a clearly Christian foundation.

It shouldn’t be unreasonable for a group of students who pay upwards of $25,000 to get a degree to ask to be included in a celebration of their achievements. The President’s disregard for our wishes is abhorrent and intolerant.  We stand united for a secular convocation at the University of Alberta.

By the end of the school year, we’d managed to win a concession from the university and the convocation charge was changed.

Republished: The Christians are coming!

Sat, 02/28/2015 - 10:27

Another old article, this one a review of Marci McDonald’s 2010 expose on the influence of the Christian Right in Canadian politics. Still relevant given that Harper has since gained his majority government and faces another election in October.

The Christians are coming!

Originally published in The Peak, 31st May 2010

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.
Those who dwell in the wilderness will bow before Him,
And His enemies will lick the dust.

Psalm 72: 8-9

From this passage, Marci McDonald begins her argument in The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada that a Christian Dominionist movement has been growing in Canada. She purports to show how this Northern Christian Right has subtly gained an alarming amount of influence in the government in a short span of time.

In the first chapter, McDonald outlines Stephen Harper’s personal religious history, a taboo in the media. After moving to Calgary and joining Preston Manning’s Reform Party, Harper became a born-again Christian. Harper, unlike Manning and his ilk, preferred keeping his faith and politics separate. McDonald notes that it was only later when, as leader of the new Conservative Party, Harper reached out to other evangelicals.

McDonald has some difficulty measuring the level of influence the Christian Right has had on the Harper government. Few socially conservative policy changes have passed. Those that have passed have generally disappointed the very factions McDonald seeks to expose. Harper has repeatedly turned away from the abortion debate. Upon winning his first minority government, he quickly held his promised free vote on same-sex marriage – earlier than many evangelicals had wanted, as it provided them less time to mount a defence. Similarly, by breaking his fixed-election date law in 2008, Harper killed several of his caucus’ private members bills, including an unborn victims’ bill that was called the “first winnable abortion bill” in years.

However, McDonald does point out that perhaps Harper’s greatest success has been in his “incremental” changes, evidenced by his numerous appointments of partisans and born-agains to the courts, the senate, and the civil service. Within the Prime Minister’s Office, Harper counts many evangelical leaders, including the former leader of Focus on the Family Canada, Darrell Reid.

Similarly, Harper has been able to make many changes by the mere stroke of a pen. Harper cut funds to Status of Women Canada and KAIROS, a social justice charity that apparently represented the wrong-type of Christian – a charge levelled against McDonald herself. He has also provided tens of millions of stimulus dollars to Bible colleges and has cut funding to abortions provided as foreign aid.

McDonald also briefly discusses the so-called “Christian Left,” which included Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian medicare. She points out how both former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and the late NDP leader Jack Layton reached out to various faith communities through acts like the revival of the NDP Faith and Social Justice committee.

The Armageddon Factor is an enlightening read, regardless of one’s personal views, but the book strays from objectivity enough that it reads as a bit more than just a who’s who of the Christian Right. I had initially hoped that it could have let the subjects speak for themselves, like the documentary Jesus Camp.

Regardless, the book does shed light on what has been taking place in the dark. No democracy is served by secrecy and backroom lobbying. At the very least, this book will hopefully force Canadians to decide what kind of country we want this to be, because if we do not, there are those who have a scripturally-inspired version of what they think it should be.

Republished: Let’s bring reason back to politics

Sat, 02/28/2015 - 10:15

As part of my attempt to get back into writing this blog, I’ve been going back through my list of published articles and making sure they’re all still live. Many of the links have changed in the years since I wrote many of those articles, but luckily I copied most to this blog. A few were missed, so here is one of the first republished articles.

Some context: In late 2010 while living in Vancouver, I met a few times with a number of friends in the skeptics community to discuss the need for greater evidence-based politics. Our (somewhat) naive efforts to create Reason Vancouver eventually fizzled out but I still think foreshadow (though by no means influenced) the Ask for Evidence and Evidence Matters campaigns at Sense About Science.

Let’s bring reason back to politics

Originally published in The Peak, 15th November 2010

“Politics is the art of the possible,” declared Otto Von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany in the 19th century. While it is now a cliché, it does eloquently state that good politics is more pragmatic than idealistic.

Idealism comes in many forms, from utopian communism to free-market libertarianism to progressive liberalism to social conservativism. Yet these all tend to fail due to oversimplifications and false assumptions about human nature and the world in general.

If we are to solve the greatest challenges that face us today, we need to limit our idealism by compromising with others. So another cliché – that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others – holds true.

Since today’s idealists have sequestered themselves into partisan camps, and gridlocks between them have plagued Canada and the USA, it may be time to step back and reassess how we pursue our political goals.

From a utilitarian point of view, the basic goal of any society ought to be to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In our increasingly interconnected world this is only becoming more complex.

With this goal in mind, it is clear that good politics should form a system that protects and encourages its society and others. Obviously, opinions vary greatly on the details, but most would agree that some organization is necessary.

To determine the best structure of this organization, we must consider our history. Every nation, province and city can be viewed as an experiment in perpetuating itself. With some thought we can seek to replicate the successes and avoid the failures; this constitutes a basic framework for an evidence and reason-based form of politics.

Rather than tying ourselves to any dogma, be it left- or right-wing, we choose to pursue policies that are based on empirical evidence.

Consider the local issue of Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s expansions of separated bike lanes onto Dunsmuir and Hornby Streets. The goal of this project is to promote cycling to work as an alternative to driving, both to reduce traffic in the downtown core and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, which has been shown to contribute to global climate change – a threat to every society. The argument is that by separating the bicycle lanes, cycling will be safer and more people will choose it.

This is a relatively easy claim to evaluate. Many cities in the world have experimented with separated bike lanes, with varying levels of success. A key study out of Copenhagen showed that while the separated bike lanes increased bicycle traffic, they potentially made motorists and cyclists more complacent and at intersections accident rates actually started to increase. There are also indications that road controls, such as turn regulations around bicycle lanes, could counteract some of that increase – which of course means more studies into the question.

Yet in a debate with clearly polarized views, it is clear that neither environmentalist hysteria nor thick-skinned science denialism contribute to finding a solution.

To cure the partisan rhetoric that has been poisoning our discourse, I propose two solutions. First, we must frame our policies in light of what works. It is also essential that we acknowledging failures when it has become evident. Second, citizens must be engaged in democracy. Politics should involve everyone in the decisions that affect their lives.

To pursue these goals, a group has begun work in Vancouver to form a new civic political party for the 2011 election. Under the banner of Reason Vancouver, we hope to bring evidence and rationality back to the debate, starting at the local level. To directly engage the electorate in policy we have established a policy wiki, where anyone can contribute ideas and evidence. It is our hope that through a collaborative and evidenced-based approach to politics, we can raise the level of debate and effect positive change for us all.

Humanists discuss political engagement

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 14:11

Last night, I attended a discussion hosted by the pan London Humanist group on what new opportunities there are for greater democratic engagement following the Scottish referendum on independence. It featured Ian Scott and Gary McLelland from the Humanist Society of Scotland (Ian is Acting Chief Executive and voted yes in the referendum, Gary is the Policy & Public Affairs Officer and campaigned for no), Andrew Copson (Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association), Will Brett (Head of Campaiggns at the Electoral Reform Society) and Alex Runswick (Chief Executive of Unloock Democracy). Anoosh Chakelin (Deputy Editor of New Statesman) stepped in as the chair for the evening.

It was an interesting discussion despite being, as Alex said, “in danger of everyone agreeing with one another.” That agreement included:

  1. Electoral reform
  2. Lowering the voting age to 16
  3. A citizen-led constitutional convention for the UK

While some non-humanists see tradition as a way to keep society structured, the humanists on the panel agreed that we should critically evaluate our political structures and apply a more rational design, based on evidence and tested against other countries. Humanism is about rejecting dogmas and putting the state in service of the individual. We should ask what we can do to enhance one another’s lives.

They also worried about some of the bitter nationalism seen during the referendum debate. Andrew Copson reminding us that Bertrand Russell frequently spoke out against nationalism, saying that it offered simple silver bullet solutions to all of life’s problems (like Scottish Independence or leaving the EU). Nevertheless, the speakers were optimistic about the engagement generated by the referendum.

The most disagreement in the night came from the questions posed by some members of the audience. One worried that we are just “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” by not dealing with the problem of big business’ influence on politics. Another said we should have compulsory voting – to which Gary said he was against anything compulsory as a humanist and Alex pointed out that compulsory voting in Australia had failed to drive up turnout rates at the local level (where it isn’t compulsory). Another questioner asked how you keep small parties out of government in in proportional representation, and he pointed to Israel where (in his words) the Jewish far right has wielded so much influence their airlines can’t even fly 7 days a week – the answer is given by countries across Europe which have threshold levels before a party gains any seats.

The bet comment of the evening though has to go to Andrew Copson, who said the venue, the Palace of Westminster, “was the least democratic building in the Western world, architecturally.” A point I tried to illustrate recently.

#NoMoreGames… but what instead?

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 00:00

I passed a billboard today advertising the British Medical Association (BMA)’s new media campaign. It calls for all political parties to stop playing games with the NHS.

I’ll give them credit – it’s catchy and many people (myself included at times) think politicians too often use promises of reform to the healthcare system as a way to score cheap points. But what does #NoMoreGames actually mean?

We should want, and expect, politicians to lay out their plans for what they’d do differently if elected. It’d be one thing if the BMA were campaigning for specific pledges but instead they’re headline is a shallow complaint that politicians are campaigning too much.

Granted, the BMA expands a bit on their website about what they’d want to see, but overall the message is as shallow as they’re blaming politicians for.

I really don’t see what they’re hoping to accomplish.

But at least there’s already a good theme song for their campaign.

Rounded democracy

Sun, 02/22/2015 - 12:50

Many legislative debating chambers have been designed and built in the past 50 years. Living in the UK, I’ve been able to travel to and see a number of them.

The National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff:
National Assembly of Wales

The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh:
Scottish Parliament

The European Parliament in Brussels (and similarly in Strasbourg):
European Parliament

The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva:
UN Human Rights Council

Besides updated technology, what each of these chambers has in common is that their seats are arranged circularly – where members face one another with only the speaker (or equivalent moderator) sitting separately.

Contrast this with the Houses of Parliament at Westminster and similarly descended Houses (eg Parliament in Canada and the provincial legislatures), which are designed as adversarial “Government” vs “Opposition” formats.

While it’s not necessarily such that these rounded chambers will be any more conducive to friendly debate, I still think the symbolism is important. Beyond that, given the collapse of two-party systems in the UK and Canada, the adversarial style makes far less sense.

While these aren’t novel observations, it’s been good to see the different ways democratic governments can arrange their seats across Europe.