Posts Tagged ‘Skeptism’

For Profit politics – US Healthcare


A Facebook friend posted this video about the ‘secrecy’ used to pass health care. Watch and read my take on it….


The enemy of my enemy is NOT necessarily my friend!

1) Obama is not a leftist, socialist nor very progressive…so no surprise the american “for profit” system of government wins the day and the Healthcare reform did little for ‘main street’ and a jackpot for ‘wall street’
2) The reason it had to go to reconciliation was because of the Republicans…THEY have not given a millimeter (0.04″ for the Yanks). The reason those on the left complained about the bill because it was a (pre-tea party) Republican bill.
3) The Republicans DID have a say, both in committee and, notable, in the VOTES in the Senate and House, where they had several amendments passed. A process used more often by Bush (GW) than any other Prez in history.
4) You think it would have been better with McCain & Palin? Both having proven they are more pro-corporate and anti-‘main-street’ than any Dem.(note how they, Tea Party/Rep are against gov. spending on healthcare but pro spending on military and Big-Agri subsidies). Sadly, there is no better choice.
Take away? A two-party, for profit (thanks to the Supreme Court) political system will ALWAYS screw the people and promote the corporate class. There needs to be a REAL grass-roots movement to elect progressives to the states, governors, house and senate…then after electoral reform, the rest will follow.




Let me tell you about my night with Deepak. Myself and a group of skeptics went to pass out information pamphlets at a performance of Deepak Chopra at Vancouver recently. We did not want to be too confrontational; wanting instead to reach out to those who have been taken-in by the mis-speak of Deepak. When asked by friends what we were doing I was at a bit of a loss; we were not exactly picketing or protesting Deepak – that would have been more aggressive and confrontational. To say were ‘just skeptics’ handing out notes seemed weak. It is also true that a number of skeptics are passive and live the skeptic life but don’t want to ‘preach’ or promote the cause. Then it struck me (well a friend of mine), it was skeptivism…skeptic activism.

Skeptivism is what we as skeptics do best. Like political activist we are acting…educating…we are casting a light on issues that the broader population should know about. Skeptivism is the effort that skeptics do to advocate for skeptism. We need more skeptivism because as quick as we shine the light of reason and science on one quack another shows up. At the Deepak event I heard, for the first time, about a ‘new healer’ who uses chromotherapy healing that seems to be the next big thing in the metro Vancouver.

To that end, how can you get into skeptivism.

First be informed – subscribe to Radio FreeThinker on iTunes (while at it, you might also subscribe to Skeptoid and SGU). Check out some blogs like Pharyngula or SkepticBlog. Check out science sites like Nature or Scientific America.

Second, get connected – checkout Sceptics-in-the-Pub, Café Scientific. Join a group – UBC FreeThinkers or Center For Inquiry. All on Facebook

Third, get involved – check out events in your community, talk (not yell) to your friends about skeptic issues (global warming, anti-vax, alt-med), and don’t let your friend think fiction is fact.

Lastly, be effective – Skeptivism is advocacy and education it is not mounting the barricades and eliminating the enemy (Skeptic warriors do that work). It is not directly confronting the hard-core believers but in ensuring the deceived, ill-informed and gullible are given the knowledge they need to exercise their own skeptism. It is also to make sure whenever the pseudo-scientist/Quack-med/New-ager tries to convert and confuse another flock of people, we are there to provide an alternative…a lifeline from the misinformation, illogical and (often) false information pushed by those who profit from the unskeptical.

Now get out there, it is Skeptivism in action!

Bio-Fuel – Food/habitat for fuel?


This is another segment in our series on alternative energy, in the past we have talk about nuclear energy and this week we are going to talk about another alternative to our traditional Petro-coal economy – Bio fuels.

First, what are bio-fuels?

Simply put, these are fuel sources that are derived directly from organic sources – ie plants. The simplest bio-fuel that we all may be acquainted with is firewood. But firewood cannot replace gas, but the real promise of bio-fuels can be seem more in things like palm or canola oil – we are all acquainted with these now as cooking oils.  Another promising bio-fuel is alcohol.

So, how do bio-fuels help?

Bio-fuels, in general, are seen as possible saviour to fuel-intensive society because they are renewable and are claimed to be carbon neutral. The current state of the technology…

Bio-Alcohol – extracting sugars or starches from wheat, corn, beets, sugarcane, etc… and fermenting then into alcohol or as its better known in the fuel sphere – ethanol. This is the most pervasive of the bio-fuels because of its easy adoption as an additive to traditional gas. If you see at the gas station ethanol blends, like Mohawks Natures Blend, they usually have up to 10% ethanol. You can find in more and more locations E85, which is 85% ethanol however this is not universal because it requires modification to the standard car engine.

  • Pros – Like with all bio-fuels it is renewable and it is based on a tried and true current technology –so no waiting for future development
  • Cons – Diverts food from people to cars, requires significant energy inputs to produce (ie for the distillation of the alcohol)

Bio-Oil – The use of vegetable oil as a fuel with little or no process. Vegetable oil can be, with little processing, be used directly as a fuel in a modified car. You might have seen these on TV almost a decade ago portrayed as deep-fryer or chip cars because they would recycle used deep-fryer oil as a fuel. Pure Oil (or not recycled) fuel come from plants that are not part of the human food chain and can grow on ‘agriculturally marginal’ lands – for example the Camelina which was used as a fuel oil in the bronze age but not a current agricultural crop.

  • Pros – renewable, Recycled is tried and test (it was used during WWII fuel shortages) but Pure Oil still in the research stage, recycle existing waste.
  • Cons –Recycling not really economically sustainable on a grand scale, threatens natural habitat not presently used for agriculture.

Bio-Diesel – Vegetable oil again but this time highly processed to for a more ‘standard’ hydrocarbon chain. Like ethanol it is often used as an additive to fossil fuel diesel, up to 15%, although modified or special designed engine are appearing able to handle B100 or pure bio-diesel. Bio-diesel is produced by mixing veggie oil with sodium hydroxide and methanol, the resulting compound is then processed to remove impurities and you get bio-diesel.

  • Pros – renewable, some forms well established, some forms high yield and used non-agricultural land (algae and the bio-oils mentioned earlier)
  • Cons – Requires significant energy inputs to create, established forms remove food from the system the other forms result in loss of natural habitat and are future tech.

Bio-Gas – The capturing of methane from decomposing organic material. This is usually the end product of natural bacterial digestion. There are two main ways to capture this gas, one is to “cover existing landfills” and collect the gas natural leaking from these dumps. This reduced local air pollution and takes a greenhouse gas and puts it to some use (although it will still ultimately be a greenhouse gas one way or another). Another way is to create “waste dumps”, be it manure or other bio-mass and again capture the methane emitted by the decomposition process. These tend to be cheap to produce, at least on small scale, making them ideal for less developed nations.

  • Pros – Cheap, natural, and in the small scale well established
  • Cons – relied on waste, hard to scale up (while remaining efficient and environmentally acceptable)

Bio-Hydrogen – the use of photosynthesis to produce hydrogen from water. Hydrogen has been seen, and therefore developed, as an alternative fuel source (at least for transportation). So the science of using hydrogen is well developed. However, the stumbling block has always been the actual production of hydrogen, which currently is an energy loss system (ie more energy in than out). Bio-hydrogen could solve this problem by producing the hydrogen organically, than making it an positive energy system.

  • Pros – cheap, environmentally sustainable, renewable
  • Cons – distant future tech

Now that we know what we are talking about, bio-fuels are very controversial.

First, current levels of technology rely heavily on crops like soybeans, corn and sugarcane. Do we notice what these things have in common? Yes, they are all also food crops. In 2008 there were riots around the world over the perceived food-shortage due to the idea that these crops were being diverted from tables to cars.

To answer this question we need to assess three points:

How much ‘food’ has been diverted?

To figure out how much potential food has been diverted we need to get a rough estimate about the amount of bio-fuel produced. Bio-Diesel about 6.5 billion litres, Bio-alcohol about 40 billion litres and the others don’t primarily rely on food crops. To simplify our analysis, we will just focus on the Bio-Alcohol, or better known as ethanol, because it’s better understood and accounts for about ¾ of bio-fuel production.

According to The World Bank, it takes about 2.4 kg of maize to make 1 litre of ethanol, so using that as rough average, which works out to be about 96 billion kg of maize. In Brazil, which accounts for the largest production of ethanol, sugarcane is used. Using that as a base about 2.2 kg of sugar is used to make 1 litre of ethanol, or about 88 billion kg of sugar a year. Well, of course it’s one or that other not both, so about 35% is from sugarcane and about 55% from maize.

Compare this to world production of maize (785 trillion kg) and sugarcane (1.6 trillion kg), it amounts to a small percentage (<0.007% maize and <2% sugar). There was a marked rise in crop prices in 2008 (which sparked the world riots) but that was largely (as time has shown) the result of commodity speculators – speculators quite likely influenced by the very organizations that were protesting food for fuel. So, one could make the argument that every little bit counts, but as a percentage, animal feed far out paces ethanol productions, so one could make a more compelling argument for veganism.,,contentMDK:21501336~pagePK:64167689~piPK:64167673~theSitePK:2795143,00.html

How is that diversion compared to ’boutique’ crops or crops sent to wealthy nations?

So, what other things remove food from the system? We already briefly mentioned animal feed, but another one is organic farming. Again, not wanting to make moral arguments about the ethicy of organic farming, the bare fact is that it is (at best) 5% less productive than ‘factory’ farming…meaning organics take out three to ten times more food than bio-fuel.

How much of the increase in crops are the result of bio-fuels and how much the result of speculation in bio-fuel?

In late 2007 and 2008 there was a huge issue regarding the pricing and availability of food crops. There were riots throughout the world as people complained that food crops were being diverted to fuel production and (more supportable) that the “bio-fuel rush” was causing a huge increase in food prices and thus causing more malnutrition and starvation among the world’s poor. It is true that for many developing nations the cost of importing food increased as much as 25%; the price of wheat doubled and many other crops (rice, soybean) and their derivatives (milk, meat) reached all-time highs in 2008. However, although more resources are being deployed into the production of bio-fuels, the price of most food crops has notable reduced, most to prices lower than 2007 levels.

Now many leaders of the developed nations claimed the rise was due to increases in world population and the increased demand placed by them on the global system. But this has only increased (ie more people today than yesterday), so one would assume a stable or increasing price for food crops – which is not true. Some blame increased ‘neo-liberal’ policies (which I think are inherently immoral) but again, these fail the price stability test. The only thing that seems to account for the temporary increase is “the market” in the form of commodity speculations. Now some might argue the law of “supply and demand” – Daniel?

IF, there is a problem, its root is our system of distribution – resources go not to those-in-need but those-in-greed…or those who can afford it but that is a topic of another show)

Another are of controversy is that some crops, including canola and palm oil, are being planted in virgin land, notably rainforest land being ‘converted’ to crop land. Parallel to this, a number of people around the world have claimed to be displaced from their land by large ‘corporate farms’ to grow these bio-fuel crops. Now this is perhaps more important than the idea of “food or fuel” because these crops are seen as second generation bio-fuels – the future of bio-alternatives.

To answer this question we need to assess some points:

How much land is being used by bio-fuel crops?

Now most people note that deforestation and ‘crop-conversion” has increased the most for bio-fuels compared to other uses. However, because bio-fuel use was so small to begin with, as a percentage of the whole it is still quite small. It is hard to assess exact numbers but the research I have done shows that most deforestation is for…well wood, although clearing for cattle production is also significant. In fact, the only real pressure that bio-fuels seem to put on ‘virgin land’ is to provide cover for logging (ie. Land set aside for bio-fuel is really just used as an excuse to cut down old growth forest) and it grows well in the poor soils that rain-forests grow in (ie. Once cleared, biofuel crops will ‘absorb’ the ex-rainforest land). Another area that shows an increase in bio-fuel crops in the reclaiming of swamp lands. This is notable in Palm oil crops in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Compared to other land-use, are these lands significant?

As implied above, although it is true that bio-fuels are having more of an impact each year, they are still relatively insignificant compared to other threats. The threat possed by wood harvesting is magnitude greater. That said, there is one area that maybe there is a good case – reclaimed land. Although in a pure human-centric capitalist view point, swamps are unproductive and are ‘improved’ by transforming them into ‘cash crops’, however environmentalist would argue that the loss of bio-diversity that swamps and similar ‘marginal’ lands possess is a great harm both to humanity and the biosphere as a whole – that there is something more important than money. In an odd way, the unproductiveness of these lands have served, in the past, to protect nature…that protecting, thanks to bio-fuels, seems to be lifting.

Again, another side issue not truly related to bio-fuel but more about equality, capitalism and environmentalism.,8599,1701221,00.html

Limits on Free Speech


Below is the talk I gave at UBC Feb 24 on the limits of free speech.


Free Speech Lecture

Welcome and thank you for coming out, this discussion is about the limits of Free Speech and the first limit is I get to speak and no one else does. (dramatic pause) No, that was a joke. I hope to start things off by giving context to our discussion then open the floor up to for questions and comments.

Let’s start by asking what is free speech and why is there such a reverence for it. On the surface free speech is the ability of one to transmit their ideas to the public. Free speech does not, in a modern ‘western’ context, refer to private speech between individuals. However what qualifies as ‘ideas’ can be everything from political ideology, commercial advertisements, comedy…etc. It is in the transmission of ideas, and often the more controversial questioning of ideas, that lie at the heart at what we see as the value of free speech. John Stuart Mill said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race [for] If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”[1]. We live in a culture of constant change, where stagnation is seen as detrimental to progress and only through the improvement of thought that society can evolve. Radio Free Thinker, as a skeptic show, is predicated on the idea that dogma should be challenged everywhere and that only through this free exchange of ideas that a healthy society can exist.

That said; it is also dogma (hmmm…) that free speech is the first among rights and should be complete and absolute. Therefore we shall focus on the need to limit speech, where those limits might be and how such limits might be enforced while preserving the spirit of and medicinal nature of free speech.

In the Canadian Charter of Right and Freedoms, we find section 2b which states that a fundamental freedom is that of thought, belief, opinion and expression. However, section 1 states that such rights have “reasonable limits” and can be limited when “demonstrably justified” to protect a “free and democratic society”. This arrangement or priorities shows a fundamental difference between Canada and the USA, in the US constitution (if not in practice) the individual is supreme and as such the only function of government is to protect the individual’s liberty. Canada, by contrast, has always been a more ‘communal’ nation and this “one for all and all for one” Victorian spirit can be seen in our founding anthem “Peace, order and good governance”. The legal opinion in Canada is that only through a healthy society can an individual prosper; turning the US idea on its head.

No, this is not a discussion about the merits of communalism vs. individualism, nor about the historical developments of nation states. We are concerned with free speech here and now; in the context of what is. There are limitations on free speech and these are manifest in three areas – legal, economic and social. In Canada, freedom of expression can be limited provided it is justifiable, that said limitation of proportional and ‘rationally connected to their aims’. For those who have taken any Canadian law, you will know this as the “Oaks test” after the case of the same name.

What is “Justifiable”? The principle here is that, given a specific manifestation of speech, the harm done to a ‘free and democratic society’ would be greater if the freedom were allowed unlimited than if it were limited. A classic example of this is violent pornography. The courts acknowledge that pornography is a protected form of expression however it also upholds legislation the limits violent porn because, in the opinion of the justices, there is a ‘reasonable apprehension of harm’.

What is ‘rationally connected to their aims’? This simply means that if I wanted to prevent the sale of violent porn, any limitation of freedom must be connected to that aim. I could not revoke the drivers licence of those who sell violent porn – it may be punitive but has no rational connection to the aim of ‘preventing the sale of violent porn’.

What is proportional? This means that any freedom must be limited as minimally as possible to achieve its state aims. So a ban on the sale of all porn, so as to prevent the sale of violent porn, is a larger restriction of freedom than is needed to prevent the stated aim when a simple ban on violent porn would be sufficient.

Now this limitation is important when it comes to Canada’s hate speech laws. Canada is a multicultural nation; as such ‘identity’ groups are a fundamental aspect of our cultural landscape. Even those, notably libertarians and Marxists, who do not believe in identity groups, are forced to acknowledge that both victims and victimisers believe in these groups and are willing to use them to perpetrate hatred and violence. Now, in the case of holocaust denial, overt racism or homophobic violence, it is a general consensus that these forms of speech should be limited.

However, there are issues with this; such as at what point does my discussion of genetic distinctions between races cross over into racism? There are other issues, where do we draw the line about what is hate speech? Does Leviticus constitute hate speech? Do comments about the Israeli occupation of Palestine constitute anti-Semitism? The courts have given four exceptions or guides to distinguish ‘hate’ from non-hate speech even when such comments might be construed as hate. These defences are ‘it’s true’, ‘good faith opinion on a religious matter’, ‘in the public interest’ and ‘good faith attempts to point out hate speech’. So Leviticus is off the hook because we have a, in my opinion a destructive, special place for religion…comments on Israel MAY be okay IF true…

Okay, so that’s the law. There are two other ways that our freedom of speech is limited. Economically; this means that someone like Jim Shaw (who own Shaw Cable and just purchase CanWest/Global) who has both money and access can have more speech than I have. However, this leads into the difference between positive and negative rights. Legally, and ideologically, our society tend to side with negative rights over positive rights. This means a right is simply the absence of hindrance…i.e. no one is preventing me from running an ad on CBC. Positive rights means the presence of opportunity…i.e. I am given free time on CBC to speak. For those who are aware of the resent Supreme Court decision in the US will know this a huge topic south of boarder (and maybe one that should be bigger here as well).

The other limitation is that preached by people like Foucault. This is the ability for society, or ourselves, to censor what is obsessively legal speech. A great example of this was during the Olympics. There was reported that the head of RCMP security for the Olympics said that there would be “free speech” zones, and then the VPD said people could demonstrate anywhere but there would be designated areas for “safe”[2] protesting. Other talk about prosecution for ‘anti-Olympic’ posters and unprecedented enhanced security in the GVRD lead to a form of social self-censorship; where a great number of people just did not want to chance a run-in with the authorities. As a radio personality, I acknowledge that there have been a number of times I have thought twice about saying a thing for fear of legal or social outrage that may hinder Radio Free Thinker or cause personal suffering.

This social censorship also related to our earlier discussion of positive rights. Currently there is a legal debate going on about the loss of ‘club status’ of an anti-abortion group at the University of Victoria, of another club at the University of Western Ontario that has been ‘decertified’ for its apparent pro-Palestinian or anti-Semitic stance, depending on who you are speaking to. The UVic case is not so much  a question of free speech, for the club is allowed to organize if it wish, but a question of equality because is being treated differently than other ‘groups’ by being denied club status.

The heart of this case shines a light also on where or how we define hate speech. Opponents to the club point out that its (or similar groups) posters can be graphically obscene and the fundamental stance of the group is to imply the women who have or even advocate abortion are “bad” people who should be shunned. Pro-choice groups point out that anti-abortionist groups have violently harassed and harmed those who advocate, seek and/or provide abortions. The anti-abortion club claims its posters are tasteful; that it has not directly been involved in harassment and that it merely represents a difference of opinion on an issue that they should have much freedom to express as those who are pro-choice.

One last thought before we open the floor. Do universities, and by extension its students and faculty, have a great ‘right’ to free speech than those ‘off campus’? Do universities have a special and protected role in society to be a ‘bastion’ of speech irrespective of its content, impact or perspective provided it is done to forward academic education/research/growth?

ON that note…I will open the floor to thoughts, questions and comments….

[1] p. 24, Mill, J.S., Three Essays: On Liberty; Representative Government; The Subjection of Women. Oxford University Press, 1975, ISBN 0-19-283013-9

[2] Staff Sgt. Mike Cote, “Olympic protest zones don’t exist VPD says” (