Unfriending the Future: Motivated Empathy in Science and Political Advocacy


Speaker: Michael Kruse: Executive Director of Bad Science Watch

Hosted by: University of Toronto Secular Alliance

Date: March 7th 2017, 7 to 9 pm


Hart House, Debates Room
7 Hart House Circle


Admission Information:


About the Event:

When we are faced with the irrational and conspiratorial claims of the alternative medicine community the science minded community often responds with anger, incredulity and frustration. Sometimes these messages are not from the easy targets of the fringe but from our own family and friends. But how often has our argumentative response been effective? It is worth taking a look at not only our goals and our tactics, but our audience as well.  We know that psychological phenomena like the backfire effect combine with ideological anti-corporate attitudes to work against any rational arguments, we have seen it happen time and again. This was the state of frustration we were in when we started Bad Science Watch. We made a decision to think about our audience and set goals focused on making real change.  This talk will focus on the role that empathy plays in picking targets and setting goals and the success we have had in creating a message that has resonated with our audience and supporters.


About Bad Science Watch:

Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit consumer protection watchdog and science advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians by countering bad science. We are driven by a vision of a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Canada where critical thinking and sound science are paramount in the making of important societal decisions.




About the University of Toronto Secular Alliance (UTSA):

The University of Toronto Secular Alliance (UTSA) is an organization dedicated to building a community at U of T for those adhering to non-religious worldviews including atheists, agnostics, Secular Humanists, and Freethinkers.  Through our weekly meetings and events, we provide a forum where all ideas and beliefs can be examined, critiqued, and challenged through discourse that is civil, intellectual, and insightful.  Find us on Facebook: @uoftsecular

Jerry Coyne talks about his new book “Faith vs. Fact” in Ottawa (February 26, 2016)


Audience for Jerry Coyne in Ottawa talk “Faith vs. Fact”


Over 170 people crowded into Centrepointe Friday night to hear Jerry Coyne talk about his new book “Faith vs. Fact”.


Jerry Coyne lectures in Ottawa discussing his new book Faith vs Fact.

Jerry Coyne talks very well and drew some great questions after his talk.


Jerry Coyne being asked a question

Discussion continued at the reception afterwards.


Audience members at reception after Jerry Coyne’s talk “Faith vs. Fact”



Merchandise table was kept busy

All in all a very successful evening!

Ontario Pre-Budget Consultations

The Ontario provincial government is holding public budget consultations until the end of the month.  This provides an opportunity for Ontario secularists to voice our concerns about the waste of public funds used to support the Catholic school system, and the violation of human rights that privileges members of one particular religion over those of other religions or no religion.

At this writing, there are 65 budget ideas under the category of Catholic schools.   You can vote online (login required).  Of course, the Catholic schools have mobilized their side to downvote the proposals to remove their privilege, so let’s see if we can get the “nones” out to defend the principal of equality under secularism.


Blasphemy Laws Still Exist in the United States

A part of CFIC’s complicated mission(see it at the top of this page) is to provide education and training about secularism.  To understand secularism, is to understand the interaction between law and religion.  While there are a variety of ways that religion indirectly influences law (such as laws which have the same effect as enforcing a religious perspective on all people in the country), the most direct influence is through blasphemy laws.  CFIC encourages an understanding of all blasphemy laws and how they impact their local societies and people around the world.  In this article, CFIC examines blasphemy laws in the USA.  In 2011 Pew Research Center published a study indicating that 59 countries (30%) still have some form of legislation against blasphemy, apostasy or religious defamation.  While nationally the United States has deemed blasphemy laws unconstitutional, some states still have them on the books. In the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court found that

 “the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them. . . . It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine . . . .”

President Obama, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, made a statement that “the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.”


 It is surprising, after this Supreme Court decision and Obama’s speech, that six  states still have laws against blasphemy.


Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming, have laws which reference blasphemy.

For example, Massachusetts, General Laws, Chapter 272, Section 36:

Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.

It makes one wonder, if these laws are never enforced, why does it matter that they exist? They may rarely be enforced but their existence allows for some cases to be brought forward. A Pennsylvanian filmmaker was turned down in 2007 for a corporate name “I Choose Hell Productions”, based on Pennsylvania’s blasphemy law. States have symbolic power to enforce these laws. It’s a form of moral condemnation as stated by Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Blasphemy laws:

  1. Restrict freedom of speech
  2. Infringe on the right to freedom of religion
  3. Often lead to human rights violations during enforcement
  4. Can incite mass violence
  5. Fail to promote religious harmony which is supposedly the intention

The infamous Danish cartoons became so publicized because of the blasphemy laws attached to them. Raif Badawi faces physical brutality and the death penalty for a blasphemous blog posting. The Charlie Hebdo shooting is mass violence based on perceived blasphemy. There is no proof that blasphemy laws promote harmony, in fact, countries with these laws often have higher levels of religious tension.


Where does the United States stand today on blasphemy laws?

The United States has been fighting for religious freedoms and an end to blasphemy laws abroad, and has offered criticism on the intolerance of other cultures. The credibility of these actions will be seen as questionable until they put an end to the hypocrisy.

Both the American Humanist Association and the Centre for Inquiry (USA) are partners in the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws (ICABL); the purpose of which is to remove blasphemy laws wherever they exist.

The American Humanist Association, an organization with a long history of opposing blasphemy laws within the USA, has called for a repeal of blasphemy laws:

“Laws prohibiting blasphemy are a relic of the Middle Ages and are blatantly unconstitutional,” declared Mel Lipman, a constitutional lawyer and president of the American Humanist Association. “Blasphemy is a purely religious offense and hence the sole concern of religious organizations and their own members. By contrast, those people without religion, or who have religious beliefs that don’t condemn blasphemy, shouldn’t be affected.”

CFIC approves the work of AHA and other organizations who educate Americans about blasphemy laws in the USA and around the world.  Just as Canadians must direct their gazes to Criminal Code Section 296, so too should the residents of other countries investigate blasphemy regulations which violate the human rights of their citizens. Specifically in the US, this requires investigation of Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming, which today still have problematic laws against blasphemy.


This blasphemy update is provided by legal project intern Cassandra Martino with CFIC. 

Canada’s Standing Committee on Health (HESA): Report 13

Canada’s Standing Committee on Health (HESA) is a tool of the Canadian parliamentary system and is intended to help guide Canada’s position on matters of health policy  As such, it is a significant and influential voice on health priorities in Canada.  For the 41st Parliament (the current Parliament of Canada), the Chair of the Committee is Huron-Bruce MP, Mr. Ben Lobb.  According to the Canadian government website, the HESA committee is

empowered to study and report on all matters relating to the mandate, management, and operation of Health Canada. This includes its responsibilities for the operations of the internal body called the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA). The Committee is also responsible for the oversight of four agencies that report to Parliament through the Minister of Health:

The mandate of the Standing Committee on Health also includes reviewing and reporting on matters referred to it by Orders of Reference from the House of Commons relating to Health Canada and its associated agencies such as health-related bills, the budgetary estimates of Health Canada and its associated agencies, study of reports tabled in Parliament that relate to health, and examination of the qualifications and competences of Order in Council appointees.

The Standing Committee on Health may also study matters the Committee itself chooses to examine. It holds public meetings and considers evidence from witnesses. At the end of a study, the Committee usually reports on its findings and makes recommendations. The Committee may request a Government response within 120 days of the tabling of the report.

Detailed information on the role and powers of House of Commons committees can be found in the Compendium of House of Commons Procedure and in Chapter XIII of the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.

It is ironic and unfortunate that HESA – a committee established to report and inform health policy matters - has issued a report (Report 13) entitled Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation and the Health of Canadians.   This is, however, what has occurred effective June, 2015.  CFIC is concerned with the contents of the report and the process which supports the generation of this report.  We are particularly concerned that a report of this nature may influence Canadian health policy – a potentially problematic move away from proven science-based medicine that Canadians need.


CFI Canada Does Not Support HESA Report 13

CFI Canada has sent a letter to HESA Chair, the Honourable Ben Lobb regarding our concerns with Report 13.  We excerpt that letter here for our members’ reference:

Centre For Inquiry Canada is a registered Canadian charity with the mandate to provide education and training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational and humanistic inquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library.  One of our central priorities is to educate Canadians about the importance of science-based medicine to our health system – and that unproven health claims and practices are dangerous and costly for our publicly-funded system.

We are deeply concerned about the process by which a report regarding Wifi and Cellphone radiation ( Report 13 – Radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation and the health of Canadians)  was prepared and that its recommendations, not based on evidentiary science, will mislead the public and cause unnecessary fear.  The introduction states that the study was driven by the concerns of witnesses who attended hearings but does not acknowledge that the hearings were strategically packed by “anti-WiFi” activists and MPs sympathetic to their lobby efforts. Unfortunately it appears that committee members were swayed more by voices of fear and misunderstanding than by those of reason and science. 

The report refers to a few low-quality studies that purport to show a link between cancer, autism or other ailments and cell phones or UHF radiation but omits the thousands of high-quality studies that conclude the opposite.

In fact, brain cancer incidence in the US has been steadily decreasing since 1992, despite the steep rise in cell phone use (http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/brain.html).  Dozens of expert panels from virtually every industrialized country have reviewed this literature and have reached the same conclusion (http://www.emfandhealth.com/Science%20Sources.html).  

It is unfortunate that the report relies heavily on quotes from Dr. Magda Havas, an activist for people who claim to have electrohypersensitivity (EHS). There is a rich literature showing that EHS is the result of the nocebo effect, and has no relation to actual EMF.  In dozens of sham studies “sufferers” are unable to tell the difference between real and fake devices, for example, and develop symptoms whenever they believe they are “exposed”, whether they are or not.  Since researchers have not yet found any subjects who can detect or respond to EMF, we can conclude that there is no such condition, yet Dr. Havas claims otherwise. Her research on EHS has been highly criticized and she should not be considered as expert testimony by the committee (http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/11/magdahavas-new-ehs-study-has-serious-flaws/).  The links on Dr. Havas’ website to several companies selling products that profit from the public’s fear of EMF are red flags.

The anecdotes from individuals believing they suffer from EHS carry no scientific weight, yet the report includes them as if they did.  It goes further by recommending that EHS be recognized as a functional disability, which would be utterly ridiculous.  The nuisance and financial costs for the government and business to be required to accommodate such sufferers in the work place would be unbearable. Instead of reviewing the published literature, the report calls for EHS questions to be included in a National Health Survey. We might as well include questions about Bigfoot or ghosts. 

There is no need to call for more research because there is already a rich literature indicating that EHS does not exist.  The Canadian Medical Association and other health organizations have already considered the lack of evidence for EHS.  We do not need recommendations to change policy based on anecdotal evidence.

Canadians require health policy based on scientifically valid evidence and verifiable facts – not the lobbying efforts of individuals who refuse to acknowledge repeatable and valid science.

It is unfortunate that the voices of Prof. Tarzwell, Bernard Lord and Tom Whitney were not given more weight. 


As an educational charity with a mandate to provide education and training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational and humanistic inquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library, CFIC encourages a skeptical and rational review of the report and the process supporting its creation.  As a program to promote scientific skepticism, CFIC has launched “Science Chek” to encourage Canadians to  use a skeptical approach when faced with extraordinary claims.

From time to time, people in the community – whether driven by fear, competitive business models, or other factors – make health claims or statements that do not have scientific evidence backing them.  CFI Canada and the scientific skeptic community has an important role to play in questioning not only the claims themselves but also the processes which encourage further incursion of pseudoscience into the healthcare system.

Further Inquiry

  1. https://extraordinarybus.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/emf-electro-magnetic-fields/
  2. http://www.who.int/peh-emf/about/WhatisEMF/en/index1.html
  3. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/emf/ http://www.emfandhealth.com/
  4. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/radiation/cons/electri-magnet/index-eng.php
  5. http://scientificskepticism.ca/tags/wifiemf
  6. http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/Inspections/InspectionGuides/ucm071626.htm
  7. http://www.arrl.org/fcc-rf-exposure-regulations-the-station-evaluation
  8. http://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/interagency-committee-on-health-effects-on-non-ionising-fields-may15.pdf
  9. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/04/green_bank_w_v_where_the_electrosensitive_can_escape_the_modern_world.html
  10. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32758042