Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

The persecution of Christianity.

Posted in Left Coast Librul by Skepdude on August 19, 2008

So, I recently responded to a post in my blog (here) in which a Christian stated that they are being stripped of their rights because of a vocal minority, and that Christians have been a “silent” majority. I answered rather quickly and not especially thoughtfully. I think I’d like to take the time to respond a bit more in depth, because while I’m sure many atheists and people of other religions have heard more than enough on the subject, it seems most Christians don’t think we’ve gotten the message. We’ve gotten it. Really. But I’ll go ahead and address the concerns, since so many of you seem to feel an infringement upon your rights.

But what about the atheists?… another argument.

What about them? Nobody is asking them to be baptized. We’re not going to pass the collection plate. Just humor us for 30 seconds. If that’s asking too much, bring a Walkman or a pair of ear plugs. Go to the bathroom. Visit the concession stand. Call your lawyer!


Peruvian Hamsters and Autism: Cui Bono?

Posted in Science Based Medicine by Skepdude on August 19, 2008

Some people are very invested in the idea that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. They have looked and looked, but have been unable to find enough credible evidence to convince the scientific community. Thimerosal was removed from US vaccines several years ago, and you might have thought that would end the debate. It didn’t. The spotlight has shifted to other countries that still use thimerosal-preserved vaccines, such as Peru.


Saudi girl executed for becoming Christian

Posted in Muslims Against Sharia by Skepdude on August 19, 2008


A young girl in Saudi Arabia was brutally executed by her Muslim father this week after he learned his daughter had converted to Christianity.

Middle East business news website reported that the man, who is a prominent member of a “virtue committee,” first cut out his daughter’s tongue and held a one-sided religious debate with her. He then burned his daughter alive


Excommunicated by the Atheists!

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on August 19, 2008


No, I’m not talking about the relatively recent events surrounding Ellen Johnson’s abrupt dismissal from the presidency of American Atheists. I don’t know much about what was going on there, despite being a lifetime member and having worked with Ellen, so I will not comment on it. I’m referring to my own sacking from the Board of New York City Atheists (henceforth NYCA), one of the most active organizations in the country. OK, technically I resigned, before president Ken Bronstein kicked me out, but it still was a rather unpleasant and shocking experience. I want to tell the tale because for me it raises broader questions about organized and confrontational atheism, questions that I have already broached on several occasions when commenting on the so-called “new atheism” a la Dawkins or Hitchens.
So, to recap the ugly details first. Needless to say, what follows is my view of the events, and people interested in the objective truth (ah!) better do some digging around (though you can easily find other critics of NYCA: the Skepchicks, readers on, and even one of their young and enthusiastic members). I was asked by Bronstein to join the Board of NYCA a couple of years ago, which I did reluctantly because I had heard from some of my friends that the group was run with a bit of an authoritarian style, something that I find both personally distasteful and not in line with what I think atheism and secular humanism should be about. Nevertheless, I like to help any local or national group who asks, so I accepted and did my best. Other than giving several public lectures on their behalf, the most successful event was a well attended fund-raising cruise to Canada last year, featuring yours truly as the on board speaker/moderator, with the help of my friend Dennis Horvitz, the “the David Letterman of the hopelessly damned.”

Things started going down the drain when, within a period of a couple of months, a few more people complained to me of Bronstein’s management style, then one person I knew was not-so-kindly asked to never show up again at meetings because of her “disruptive behavior” (she had been asking questions about tolerance within atheists groups), and finally a prominent and active member of the group was summarily dismissed by Bronstein on the grounds that he was “undermining the organization” (he had the temerity to think that atheism is not just about activism, but also about relaxed, social gatherings).

I started asking questions of Bronstein and of the Board of NYCA about all of this, pointing out that even if all of the above was not true, these sorts of rumors would hurt the image of the organization. I thought I was doing exactly what a responsible Board member ought to do, and eventually I asked for a Board meeting to discuss the matter. Bronstein’s reaction (and that of one other Board member) was extremely negative to put it mildly, and in a series of emails and phone calls I was alternately accused of “not getting it” and of being part of a conspiracy to bring down NYCA (this blog entry is, obviously, proof of the conspiracy!). With the help of a couple of other Board members who were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the situation (eventually, one of them resigned in protest, and another told me that his/her name will not be on the ballot next year), I started looking into whether all of this was being done according to the rules.

What rules, you may ask? Well, NYCA, like many similar organizations, is registered as a non-profit educational group with the State of New York (they may be registered with the Federal Government as well; I asked, and did not get a response). As such, they are supposed to have bylaws on file, which have the value of legal documents. Well, then, I figured this disagreement could be easily settled by simply looking at what the bylaws said about the due process for expelling members and for calling Board meetings. Not so easy: the bylaws could not be found! They are not posted on NYCA’s web site (as they should be), and no member of the group or of the Board I asked seemed to have a copy of the bylaws. Strange, very strange. Bronstein called me up, and told me that, quite frankly, had we been in a corporate situation (he worked in such an environment most of his life) he would have fired me by now. I politely (well, not really so politely) reminded him that that was exactly the point: NYCA is not a for-profit corporation, and he is not its CEO.

Eventually, a fellow Board member found the bylaws, I looked through them, and easily spotted two pertinent articles:

“Section VII – Removal From Office Or Membership. … B) Removal from office and/or membership requires 75% of the Board Members voting in favor of removal.”

“Section IV – Leadership. … C, v: Any member of the Board may also call for a Board meeting in writing. If the president does not schedule one within 30 days, the Board, by a majority vote, can set the date, time, location and agenda for a Board meeting.”

Clear enough! Ken Bronstein was in violation of both points, so the rational thing to do would have been to redress the problem by calling the Board meeting I was requesting, with a discussion of the recent dismissal as the main point on the agenda. That is what I proposed to do, though by now I was beginning to suspect that rationality and ethical behavior had nothing to do with what was unfolding.

Sure enough, it soon became painfully clear nothing is simple when egos and strong opinions get in the way (I do not plead to either having a small ego or lack of opinions, by the way). Bronstein immediately told me that those were the “old” bylaws, and that a new set had been passed, giving him total and complete control of the group, financially, in terms of activities and policies, and, of course, in matters of expelling members and calling for Board meetings.

I knew at this point that I would have to resign from the group eventually, but the whole thing really smelled of exactly the sort of behavior that a secular humanist group should not be condoning, so I pursued the matter a bit further, and asked Ken for a copy of the new bylaws and of the vote by which they had been passed. Nothing. Several days later, the new bylaws began to circulate among Board members. It turns out that they had been (allegedly) approved by a simple vote of the Board, though there are some discrepancies about when this actually happened (if it happened). This in turn raised a new problem, because the old bylaws clearly stated:

“XIV. Approval and changes to Bylaws: … B) Approval for change to the Bylaws requires a seventy-five percent ‘vote in favor’ by members at the Annual Meeting or at two consecutive monthly membership meetings.”

Oops. It was time to get out of an organization run by an autocrat who responds to challenges with a rude “my way or the highway,” and whose bylaws are probably illegal in the State of New York. So that is when I resigned.

OK, Massimo, what is the point of all this, other than to stick it to Ken Bronstein and feeling better about your own bruised ego? There are actually several points. First of all, it is a shame that a group like NYCA has to get marred by this sort of situation. It is one of the largest, most active and most successful groups in the country (though, being based in New York, they could probably have ten times their current membership if they were a bit more welcoming). They, including Ken Bronstein, have been doing quite a bit of good work for the atheist movement, but they — particularly Bronstein — don’t seem to realize that much damage to the same movement can be caused by precisely the type of intolerant behavior that we all criticize in fundamentalist churches. Indeed, I found several rather (unintended) ironic statements by Bronstein in the NYCA Newsletter, in the column that he unfortunately calls “The President’s Sermon.” For instance, in the March 2007 issue: “Religion teaches obedience to authority,” but apparently it is Bronstein who wants absolute authority in “his” group. October 2006: “As an Atheist, I am proud that I belong to a community of individuals who are lifelong freethinkers and skeptics,” that is, unless one dares to freethink and be skeptical of what the NYCA one-man leadership does. September 2005: Bronstein’s proposed “code for atheism” includes “respect others even if their beliefs and traditions are different than yours. Pluralism is a must,” unless it is a type of pluralism that is not welcome by Bronstein. And so on and so forth, countless examples of this discrepancy between preaching and doing can be found on the NYCA web site. When I pointed this out to Ken, his response was that despite my complaints NYCA has a large membership. I retorted that by that standard we should all praise the megachurches in Colorado and California…

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this experience has reinforced in my mind one major difference between atheism and secular humanism. While there certainly are excellent atheist groups, and there are some secular humanist leaders that unfortunately come close to the Bronstein model of doing things, it is hard to avoid the feeling that there is an obvious difference between simply being against something (atheism) and in favor of something (a secular philosophy of life). Make no mistake about it: I am both an atheist and a secular humanist, and I consider the two positions as two sides of my (admittedly multi-dimensional) philosophical coin. But being an atheist to me is like being an a-unicornist: of course I don’t believe in unicorns, but I would hardly define myself that way! Secular humanism, on the other hand, is an attempt to articulate what kind of positive contributions a godless but human- and nature-full perspective can add to life.

Even at its best, organizations like NYCA (and some of their national counterparts) come across as strident, angry, and overall unpleasant. There certainly is a time and a place for anger and protest, but those components by themselves never go very far. That is why my model in these matters is Carl Sagan, not Richard Dawkins. I know that god is a delusion, and I know that s/he ain’t great either, Mr. Hitchens, but I also know that we need much more than angry denunciations to overcome the religious fundamentalist onslaught and change society for the better. This change comes to pass through real tolerance and pluralism, not the fake kind espoused in “sermons” preached by autocratic atheists. As I wrote in other contexts before, the problem isn’t religion, pace Dawkins and the New Atheists. The problem is uncritical adherence to any kind of ideology, and atheism can be as unpleasant an ideology as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. We can do better, and the cleaning has to start at home. That is why, with much regret, I left New York City Atheists.

[Note: Obviously, NYCA members, including Ken Bronstein, are more than welcome to post their supporting or dissenting comments, as long as this doesn’t become a shouting match.]

Skepquote of the day

Posted in Skepquote by Skepdude on August 19, 2008

it is hard to avoid the feeling that there is an obvious difference between simply being against something (atheism) and in favor of something (a secular philosophy of life). Make no mistake about it: I am both an atheist and a secular humanist, and I consider the two positions as two sides of my (admittedly multi-dimensional) philosophical coin. But being an atheist to me is like being an a-unicornist: of course I don’t believe in unicorns, but I would hardly define myself that way! Secular humanism, on the other hand, is an attempt to articulate what kind of positive contributions a godless but human- and nature-full perspective can add to life.

Massimo Pigliucci.

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Monsters, Ghosts and Gods: Why We Believe

Posted in LiveScience by Skepdude on August 19, 2008

Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong as ever. What’s harder to believe is why so many people buy into hazy evidence, shady schemes and downright false reports that perpetuate myths that often have just one ultimate truth: They put money in the pockets of their purveyors.

The bottom line, according to several interviews with people who study these things: People want to believe, and most simply can’t help it.

“Many people quite simply just want to believe,” said Brian Cronk, a professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University. “The human brain is always trying to determine why things happen, and when the reason is not clear, we tend to make up some pretty bizarre explanations.”

A related question: Does belief in the paranormal have anything to do with religious belief?


How we know what we know

Posted in Denialism, Medicine by Skepdude on August 19, 2008


Over the last few decades, the nature of medical knowledge has changed significantly. Before the revolution in evidence-based medicine, clinical medicine was practiced as more of an art (in the “artisan” sense). Individuals were treated empirically with a strong knowledge of medical biology, and the guidance of “The Giants”, or particularly skilled and respected practitioners. While the opinions of skilled practitioners is still valued, EBM adds a new value—one of “show me the evidence”.

Evidence-based medicine refers to the entire practice of gathering and applying medical knowledge. This includes evaluating diagnostic tests (e.g. how well does an CT scan diagnose pulmonary embolism?) and evaluating treatments (e.g. which anticoagulant is most effective, which one is safer, how long should you treat, etc.) There will always be some questions that are untestable, and some for which no testing is needed, and practices for which evidence is sketchy.

In corresponding with a friend recently, I started thinking about how we look at the quality of medical evidence, and how we can communicate this to the lay public.

Let’s take, for example, cholesterol.

It has been found over the years that there is a strong association between elevated cholesterol and coronary artery disease. Through many studies, it was found that LDL cholesterol is a useful marker of cardiac risk due to elevated cholesterol. Finally, it was found that lowering LDL cholesterol, especially with statin drugs, dramatically reduces heart disease risk and mortality.

That’s the facts. But what are they based on? How strong is the evidence?

Evidence-based medicine has many ways of grading quality of evidence. The primary reference for cholesterol treatment in the U.S. is the National Cholesterol Education Program’s Adult Treatment Panel III (NCEP and ATP III).

Before the report gets to any recommendations, it presents a table explaining how evidence used in the report is graded. First is the type of evidence (from randomized controlled trials down to clinical experience) then is the quality (from “very strong evidence” to “strong trend”).

For example, the ATP gives the following recommendation (among many):

Evidence statements: Secondary prevention trials demonstrate that reduction of LDL-cholesterol levels significantly reduces risk for recurrent major coronary events in persons with established CHD (A1).

That “A1” at the end gives an idea what kind of evidence we’re working with. In this case the statement is based on RCTs and there very strong evidence to support it.

Evidence-based medicine is about evidence. Sometimes that evidence is quite good, sometimes it isn’t: the quality of evidence is something we take into consideration when treating patients.

This is in stark contrast to so-called alternative medicine. Alternative medicine never discusses quality of evidence. The quality is usually, however, quite poor, relying on patient and physician anecdotes, uncontrolled “trials”, and fantasy.

Making use of EBM doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t have to be able to interpret every chi-squared analysis, you don’t have to calculate every number needed to treat. You just have to be able to read the basic literature in your field, look up recommendations, and know how strong they are.

Anyone practitioner who ignores evidence-based medicine is not practicing the best of modern medicine. Anyone who treats disease without understanding the difference between evidence-based practice and non-evidence-based practice should hand you a Quack Miranda Warning when you walk in the door.