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

US to tighten rules on homeopathic “medicines”

According to a policy statement[1] released in Nov 2016 by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) homeopathic products will soon have to submit to the same regulations that govern other products sold as drugs in the Unites States.  Classified as drugs under the FTC Act decades ago, homeopathy has nonetheless enjoyed a de facto exemption from scrutiny.  This is partly because of a sympathetic lobby and the prevailing notion that it was, at worst, a harmless nuisance – not something to waste regulatory effort over[2].  However, decades of work by medical and skeptical groups, including the Center for Inquiry, has paid off and, in the words of Dr. Stephen Novella, of Science Based Medicine, “the FTC has finally decided to do its job” [3].

In their summary the FTC acknowledges that there “is no basis under the FTC Act to treat homeopathy drugs any differently than other health products”. The summary goes on to say that despite the lack of reliable scientific evidence, claims by homeopathic labeling must “be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence”.  Unfortunately this was followed by an allowance that homeopathic products could still make unfounded health claims as long as it was clearly stated on the label that the claims are not based on science or evidence. This kind of change may not affect the average consumer of homeopathic products, so we are not sure it will have any real effect, but we are optimistic that this signals a shift on the part of the FTC, bringing it more in line with the UK and Australia, where government crackdown on homeopathy is more aggressive.   Perhaps Health Canada will take note and consider regulating all homeopathy products in our country with “truth in advertising” as a core value.

Blythe Nilson

Science Chair

Cupping: Premier pseudoscience for the Games of the XXXI Olympiad

[Blythe Nilson, CFI Canada Chair of Science]

Every four years the Olympics lets us know what sort of pseudoscience is popular among athletes. Four years ago it was “magic tape” (KTape ) and in 2016 it’s cupping. Many athletes, especially the swimmers, are sporting large, circular, suction-inflicted wounds that supposedly help their tired muscles recover more quickly between events. Respectable news outlets, like the New York Times and the CBC, responsibly reported that cupping is not based on science and there is no evidence to suggest it works at all for any of the ailments it supposedly addresses. Others however, like Global TV BC, have credulously promoted the practice as if it were real medicine. Instead of interviewing physicians or sport medicine experts, Global brings on acupuncturists and Chinese “traditional medicine” proponents. With little or no scientific training, these practitioners base their “evidence” on anecdotes and poorly run, severely biased, studies, and  benefit from the publicity as they sell cupping as part of their practices.

Cupping originated thousands of years ago, based on the pseudoscientific idea that “toxins”, “qi” or “bad blood” can be removed from the body using suction. A glass or metal cup is heated and placed on the skin. As it cools down the air inside reduces in volume, creating suction on the surface. This breaks small blood vessels in the dermis and draws the blood to the surface where red blood cells die and their contents leaks into the tissue, creating a red circle. It’s basically a hickey. Some practitioners make incisions in the center of the cupped area in order to draw some blood out directly. Nasty burns or infections can result if practitioners are not careful. Traditionally, cups were heated by placing small candles inside them or filling them with hot smoke; today suction can be created mechanically with an electric device.

Modern believers claim that “stagnant blood” lingers in tired muscles and can somehow be drawn through the muscle, the fascia and layers of connective tissue to finally pass through the skin and be deposited in the epidermis. If that were possible the powerful suction required would do a great deal of harm to not only the muscle but all the tissues nearby. Tired muscles which contain pools of “stagnant” blood would be so severely damaged that the athlete would be out of the competition. The only stagnant blood involved here is the blood that escaped the blood vessels damaged by the cupping itself!

Does it work?  Well, since pain-relief is the desired outcome, and pain resides purely in the brain, it’s easy to experience relief if you really believe it should happen. But we won’t see cupping used for anything that we can objectively measure and it’s heartening to see that swimmers who aren’t covered in blotches are winning medals.

Learn more here:
David Gorski
Steven Novella

Another Pediatric Death by World View

[excerpted from an article by Clay Jones at Science-Based Medicine]

On March 18th, 2012, physicians at Alberta Children’s Hospital made the always-difficult decision to remove 19-month-old Ezekiel Stephan from life support after five days under their care. Carrying the diagnosis of brain death, there was sadly no life to support at that point. The events that led to his tragic death are currently the focus of an ongoing trial where Ezekiel’s parents stand charged with “failing to provide the necessaries of life.” If convicted, they face up to five years in prison as well as loss of custody of their remaining children.

The charges against the Stephan family are based on concerns that they failed to seek appropriate medical care while he suffered from bacterial meningitis, a deadly infection involving the brain and spinal cord, for several days. Revelations from court testimony so far have revealed that the Ezekiel’s parents chose instead to treat him at home with various herbal remedies. This isn’t surprising considering that Ezekiel is also unvaccinated and his grandfather operates a notorious herbal supplement company which sells cures for bipolar disorder and autism.

So far the jury has heard from a nurse family friend who visited the home a few days before Ezekiel died and who recommended that they bring him to a doctor for possible meningitis. Instead he was brought to a local naturopathy clinic and received an herbal concoction meant to “boost the immune system.” Only once the poor child had stopped breathing did the family call 911, but it was too late. Testimony from Alberta Children’s Hospital pediatricians revealed that he was likely already brain dead by the time he arrived by emergency transport.

So who is to blame for Ezekiel’s suffering and death? Certainly his parents, and their warped anti-medicine world view, should be held accountable. But this tragic case also raises serious concerns about a system which licenses practitioners of pseudomedicine and allows them to practice their dangerous nonsense on vulnerable children. Adding to the controversy, Ezekiel’s parents are now claiming that a conspiracy between the Crown and the pharmaceutical industry may be at work.


Further Inquiry

  1. https://dawsonross.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/on-the-preventable-death-of-a-child-the-human-tragedy-of-alternative-medicine/
  2. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/04/14/ezekiel-stephan_n_9694018.html
  3. http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/alta-toddler-who-died-of-meningitis-given-fluids-with-eyedropper-documents-1.2858539
  4. http://lethbridgeherald.com/news/local-news/2016/04/14/father-not-convinced-meningitis-was-cause-of-his-sons-death/

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!