Notes and Comment Blog

Why didn’t a microbiologist perform Swan Lake?

Mar 1st, 2014 12:02 pm | By

Oh the hell with it. I was going to confine my kvetching on this one to Facebook, but the hell with it – it’s too annoying to leave.


Richard Dawkins @RichardDawkins Feb 28

Superb lecture in Oxford last pm by @sapinker Why didn’t a historian write The Better Angels of Our Nature? Why did it take a scientist?

Michael Shermer @michaelshermer Feb 28

@RichardDawkins @sapinker Same reason it was a scientist-Jared Diamond-who finally explained why civilizations developed as they did.

Oh yeah? Well why didn’t a scientist write Hamlet? Why didn’t a physicist write the “Ode to a Nightingale”? Why didn’t a chemist paint Las Meninas? Why didn’t a biologist compose The Trout Quintet?

Just stop asking stupid smug self-admiring questions, will you? Let the disciplines enrich each other, let people do multidisciplinary work, let different fields learn from each other, let a thousand flowers bloom, and stop with the ridiculous neener-neeners. It’s not a good look.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Yet another pool of underage girls for The Boss

Mar 1st, 2014 11:22 am | By

You’re wondering who Shlomo Helbrans is, unless you followed the link. The link was to last night’s episode of The Fifth Estate, which was about yet another of these pretend religions that are really just games of “let’s go back to the far far past and play at being old-fashioned people with old-fashioned customs” combined with an excellent system for giving one man lots of nooky. This one is sort of kind of hyper-Orthodox Jewish, but only sort of kind of, and the more official hyper-Orthodox Jewish authorities frown on it with disdain. But meh – I don’t see how theirs is any better just because it’s not new. But still, the cult in question is the personal creation of Shlomo Helbrans.

Life in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Lev Tahor is supposed to be simple: the rules for dress, diet, schooling, marriage and worship are clearly defined and closely followed. But last November, in the middle of the night, about 200 members of the sect fled their homes in Quebec to start a new community in Chatham, Ontario, amid allegations of child neglect.  Now the sect is fighting to keep more than a dozen children that a Quebec court ordered removed from their families. Recently released search warrants show Quebec provincial police have been investigating allegations of unlawful confinement and physical abuse of children within the sect, as well as marriage of underage girls to much older men.

Does that sound familiar? Hell yes it sounds familiar.

Their ongoing legal battles are raising an old dilemma: when does a group’s right to religious freedom get trumped by society’s obligation to protect children?

Every time.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The best wheeze ever

Mar 1st, 2014 11:06 am | By

Micah J Murray tells us what it was like growing up in Bill Gothard’s homeschool cult.

I remember saying, more seriously than joking, “If this is brainwashing, it feels good to be brain clean.”

But as I spiraled closer and closer to to the center, the realization began to sink in. The jokes became real.

“Cult-like”, sure. I’d call it that. Authoritarian, legalistic, overbearing. But not a real cult.

The worst thing about brainwashing is that you can’t see it for what it is. You never think you’re in a cult when you’re in a cult.

Now Gothard is in the news because – surprise surprise – there are allegations of abuse. What a coincidence: it turns out that an organization run by One Big Man may have been funneling fresh young bodies into the happy hands of that One Big Man. Who knew that Big Men liked to exploit their power to get juicy young bodies to play with?

People ask me what I think about it. What can you say? I grew up in a cult led by an alleged sexual predator.

Do I believe the allegations? Absolutely.

During my two years working at the Cult center after highschool, I saw a system of absolute authoritarianism – designed to protect “leaders” and silence “rebellion”. I saw an organization built on the “special insights” and the idiosyncratic whims of an old man with way too much money and power.

They say that he groomed young women, selected the vulnerable and the hurting, told them it was God’s will for them to come work for him. They say that he made them feel special. That say he took advantage of their naivety - naivety instilled through the teachings and culture he created.

I believe these stories, because I saw the edges.

When we were at the Training Center, we joked about Gothard’s “harem”. We all knew there was a certain physical “type” of woman that he liked to be close to him, working for him.

I saw him pick out young women who were obviously vulnerable and hurting – but also very attractive. I heard him promise them they’d be right at the center of the next big thing he was planning. Those plans never came to pass, but I saw the girls come and go.

Amazing, isn’t it? A brand new thing under the sun? Charismatic dude in charge of a cult turns out to be a goat with a stable of fragile young girls – well knock me down with a 2 by 4.

How did we wind up here, the tens of thousands who were fooled, deceived, led astray? The thousands that still are?

I can tell you how I did: I was raised in it. It was the only world I ever knew. It was my normal.

And it was a “normal” that was protected with principles that taught us not to question authority. They taught us that being different from everybody else meant we were morally superior, that we were “special”. They taught us that if the system didn’t work for us, it was because we weren’t trying hard enough.

It’s such a good wheeze. All Mr Big has to do is preach the usual authoritarian principles that go along with fanatical monotheism, and hey presto, he can fuck any girl he wants to with total impunity. Hello Warren Jeffs, hello David Koresh, hello Jim Jones, hello Shlomo Helbrans.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Ag gag

Mar 1st, 2014 10:29 am | By

Mother Jones has a long and informative piece on whistle-blowing in the agriculture industry, and a campaign to pass laws criminalizing it.

PETA was urging prosecutors to go beyond plea agreements for farmworkers; they wanted charges against farm owners and their corporate backers, to hold them responsible for crimes committed by undertrained, overburdened employees.

This prospect scared industrial-scale meat producers into organizing a coordinated pushback. Recognizing that, in the era of smartphones and social media, any worker could easily shoot and distribute damning video, meat producers began pressing for legislation that would outlaw this kind of whistleblowing. Publicly, MowMar pledged to institute a zero-tolerance policy against abuse and even to look into installing video monitoring in its barns. And yet last summer, at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, MowMar’s co-owner Lynn Becker recommended that each farm hire a spokesperson to “get your side of the story out” and called the release of PETA’s video “the 9/11 event of animal care in our industry.”

As overheated as likening that incident to a terrorist attack may seem, such thinking has become woven into the massive lobbying effort that agribusiness has launched to enact a series of measures known (in a term coined by the New York Times‘ Mark Bittman) as ag gag. Though different in scope and details, the laws (enacted in 8 states and introduced in 15 more) are viewed by many as undercutting—and even criminalizing—the exercise of First Amendment rights by investigative reporters and activists, whom the industry accuses of “animal and ecological terrorism.”

You know…if there’s any industry you don’t want protected by gag laws, it’s agriculture. You know? Food? Food that you put into your body? Food that you put into your children’s bodies? Food that schools put into children’s bodies? You don’t want that veiled in secrecy. You know enough about the industry to know that. We all do. You don’t want them bulking up the product with floor-sweepings and no one the wiser.

The release of the MowMar Farms video could have been a gut-check for the industry, a moment to reflect on whether the runaway growth had led to conditions unsafe for man or beast, perhaps even an opening for dialogue with animal welfare advocates. Instead, Julie H. Craven, the spokeswoman for Hormel, went on the offensive against PETA, criticizing its practice of methodically building cases over a period of months in order to demonstrate patterns of abuse. “If they are truly concerned about animal welfare,” she said, “they should release information when they obtain it.”

It marked a transition in the industry’s strategy: Where once it had pushed back against journalists and whistleblowers after their videos ignited public outrage, now they were looking for a way to prevent such exposure in the first place. Soon afterward, meat industry lobbyists dusted off a long-dormant piece of model legislation crafted by a conservative think tank that would not only make it harder to release undercover video but would criminalize obtaining, possessing, or distributing it to anyone—including journalists or regulators.

Cindy Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Pork Board, told me she thought such legal protections could be appropriate. “I liken it to somebody walking into your living room and taking video,” she said. “If you’re at a cocktail party and somebody shoots video of you from behind a candle—like they did to Mitt Romney—is that legitimate?”

When you’re one of two candidates for president of the US? Yes. When you produce food for sale? Yes.

BACK IN SEPTEMBER 2003, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a piece of model legislation it called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. Like so many bills drafted by the free-market think tank, AETA was handed over, ready made, to legislators with the idea that it could be introduced in statehouses across the country with minimal modification. Under the measure, it would become a felony (if damages exceed $500) to enter “an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means,” and, in a flush of Patriot Act-era overreaching, those convicted of making such recordings would also be placed on a permanent “terrorist registry.”

A felony to go into an animal facility to take pictures. Wow – that’s not very freedom.

…in what some animal rights activists have called an “evolutionary change” in strategy, Missouri and Nebraska lawmakers introduced bills that include provisions for what is termed “quick reporting”—a concept ostensibly intended to protect animals, but that de facto makes it impossible for journalists or activists to build a convincing case of sustained abuse. Under some of these new provisos, activists or whistleblowers would be required to submit written reports of any signs of abuse they witnessed and all supporting evidence to authorities within a matter of hours—or face criminal charges themselves. Whistleblowers would not even be allowed to keep any copies of materials they submitted to authorities. Critics say the measures are a cynical warping of so-called good Samaritan measures that require reporting child abuse or sexual assault. Only in this case, by analogy, a teacher who later came to suspect child abuse could be prosecuted for not reporting the first bump or bruise.

“It’s absurd,” said Amanda Hitt at the Government Accountability Project. She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that has been so regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do us a favor and criminalize catching us?’”

And yet they do, and not only that, but some state legislative bodies are replying, “Why certainly, we’d be glad to.”


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Mr Yousaf has urged Mr Hague to offer asylum

Mar 1st, 2014 9:39 am | By

Via Kausik – the Scottish Government wants to offer asylum to Ugandans facing persecution under the country’s vile new anti-gay law. The Herald Scotland reports:

Humza Yousaf, Minister For External Affairs, has written to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague detailing the Scottish Government’s gesture to welcome “any Ugandan” persecuted by the new laws.

A day after President Museveni enacted the law a Ugandan newspaper published a list of what it called the country’s 200 top homosexuals, including some who previously had not identified themselves as gay.

In his letter Mr Yousaf has urged Mr Hague “to offer asylum to any Ugandans who feels threatened or persecuted by the legis­lation”, adding that “Scotland will play her part in providing asylum for those seeking refuge from this draconian legislation”.

He adds that during the Games “no one from any part of the Commonwealth who visits Scotland will be under any doubt about our values as a welcoming, open and tolerant society”.

Lest we get smug about all this welcoming and tolerance, the Herald reminds us of a pertinent background fact.

Some 41 nations in the 54-member Commonwealth have laws banning homosexuality, many of which date to British Empire legislation that was never repealed.

Good old Empire.

Anyway, Mr Yousaf’s move is very good, but can Scotland actually grant asylum? Regular FTB commenter Walton explains:

The Scottish government doesn’t itself have power to grant anyone asylum – immigration control is a matter which is reserved to Westminster. So this principled stand is good, but doesn’t of itself make a difference to the legal position.

In theory, the legal position is that someone who would be persecuted on return because of their sexuality is entitled to asylum under the Refugee Convention. This was confirmed by the decision of the UK’s Supreme Court in HJ (Iran) and HT (Cameroon), in which it was held that gay and bi people who would have to stay in the closet on return to their home country for fear of violence were entitled to asylum (before then, the Home Office used to reject claims on the ground that LGBT people could safely live “discreetly” in their countries of origin). 

However, what the Home Office and many immigration judges actually do, in reality, is to refuse to accept that LGBT asylum-seekers are actually telling the truth about their sexuality or gender identity. Most are disbelieved, and many are asked humiliating questions laced with homophobic stereotypes and wrong assumptions: see the Guardian and the Independent. So the great majority of LGBT asylum claims are rejected, and large numbers of LGBT asylum-seekers are in fact returned to places like Uganda, Cameroon and Iran because the Home Office will not accept that they are really LGBT (often after long periods of detention in hellhole “immigration removal centres” like Yarl’s Wood). Some, like Jackie Nanyonjo, die as a result.

So that stinks. But maybe Scotland’s offer will put enough moral pressure on Cameron’s government to make a difference.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Two sisters in Sulaimanya city

Feb 28th, 2014 6:26 pm | By

Someone tagged me in this Facebook post a couple of hours ago. I have no idea what the answer to the final question is.

Sorry for tagging you dear friends; but it is worth.
Yesterday two sisters (aged 16 and 18) were found killed and drowned in water in a district called Said Sadiq in Sulaimanya city. It is just a drop of the sea of crimes….
Can you imagine that you hear your neighbor’s cry when she is killed by her brother/father/husband/uncle/ or any male relative? Can you experience that more than 30000 women of “your country” are killed under the pretext of “honour”? It doesn’t need that you come and visit Kurdistan to experience that; watch it in some of the media and react. Being a “feminist”, how would you react to that femicide? We need an action against the government in Kurdistan. We need a struggle against the culture and religion which dishonour women in this way…… What can we do?

I wish I knew.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Behold the field

Feb 28th, 2014 1:19 pm | By

Via I enjoy multiple sarcasms daily on Facebook:

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Edinburgh University Students Association rejects secularism

Feb 28th, 2014 12:41 pm | By

A press release from the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society:

EUSA Rejects Secularism

• Edinburgh University Students Association last night failed to endorse a motion to ensure equality for students of all beliefs, whether religious or not.

• Students recently passed “EUSA is a Feminist”, but last night “felt uncomfortable” voting in favour of “EUSA is a Secularist”.

Last night (27/02/14) Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) failed to endorse a motion to bring about equality for students of all beliefs, whether religious or not.

Echoing a move by EUSA’s Vice President Services, who put forward a successful motion in November 2013 to say that “EUSA is a Feminist”, the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society (HumSoc) submitted a motion to recognise that “EUSA is a Secularist”.

The student union’s failure to pass this motion comes only weeks after a motion to secure a ban on enforced segregation in EUSA venues – also submitted by HumSoc – was rejected. After this previous session, on February 6th, one member of the HumSoc committee was labelled “openly Islamophobic”.

Speaking after last night’s meeting, HumSoc president, Luke Hecht said, “This motion was an attempt to formalise EUSA’s secular character and to provide a basis for actively promoting secularism to students, and to wider society. Members of the student council suggested that EUSA was already secular, but that formalising it was unnecessary and could make religious students feel uncomfortable.”

“This is unfortunate, as secularism is about guaranteeing equality and protecting the rights of those of minority beliefs, and those of none.”

HumSoc secretary, Ian Scott, who proposed the motion, said, “It’s deeply disappointing that student council chose not support our call for EUSA to explicitly endorse secularism, and to promote itself as a secularist organisation. Ours was modelled on a previous motion, “EUSA is a Feminist”, which passed without issue. This demonstrates that student council did not take issue with the language of motion itself, but that they voted differently specifically because of the issue of secularism. That students feel unable to formally endorse freedom of belief is highly troubling.”

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Disclose at the outset

Feb 28th, 2014 12:07 pm | By

More on Orac’s post. (Oh here’s an undeclared thing – not a COI, but still a something – a preference, a habit, a way of doing things. I like the way blogging allows you to treat a subject in pieces if you want to. I do want to.)

He talks about false accusations, and the fact that they’re bad, and Ben Radford’s post on the subject.

The further I read, the more disturbed I became. For one thing, until near the end the article was relentlessly one-sided, its purpose clearly being to give the impression that false accusations of sexual assault are common. Oh, sure, towards the end Radford quotes Alan Dershowitz to concede that “most people who are accused of a crime are in fact guilty.” However, the overall message I got from his blog post was that false accusations of rape and sexual misconduct are common, making his concession that most people don’t lie about such things seem half-hearted, particularly in the context of the lack of high quality evidence to support his view in his post. Again, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” and Radford, disappointingly, went for anecdotes instead of data.

You know who else does that? Fiction writers. There are a lot of stories about false accusations of sexual harassment or rape, such a lot that it seems (to me, but then I have that COI…) disproportionate and thus misleading. Just off the top of my head there’s David Mamet’s Oleanna and J M Coetzee’s Disgrace and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. I haven’t seen any studies of this so I don’t know if the numbers really are disproportionate, but it seems to be a surprisingly (to me, see above) popular trope.

Now, here’s where I reveal that I know something that many of you don’t know (although, I daresay, many of you do). What those of you who aren’t into the skeptical movement probably don’t know is that last summer, the author of this piece, Ben Radford, was publicly accused of sexual harassment by Karen Stollznow. Now, let me make one thing very clear. I make no judgment as to whether Radford is actually guilty of sexual harassment. I don’t know. I don’t have enough information to know, because all I know is what Stollznow wrote about it (an article that was later removed) and some of what flew back and forth on atheist blogs for a few weeks. For purposes of this discussion of COIs, it really doesn’t matter. For purposes of my discussion of disclosing COIs, it’s utterly irrelevant to me whether Radford is guilty or not.

Now, how does Radford’s post read? Different, doesn’t it? Knowing this about him, I find it hard to view his post as anything more than an attempt at self-justification and a means of casting doubt on his accuser—even if such was not his intent. How would I have reacted to his post if he had disclosed his COI up front? I don’t know for sure. Probably not as badly as I did with his not having disclosed it. No, definitely not as badly as I did. However, what irritates me is what people who don’t know the back story will see. They will tend to assume that Radford is reasonably disinterested, trying to apply skepticism and critical thinking to the issue of false accusations. He is, after all, a prominent skeptic, writing on his employer’s blog, and his employer is CFI, which is dedicated to promoting skepticism and critical thinking. What Radford denied such readers is a piece of evidence necessary to help them evaluate his arguments, namely the bias of the writer.

Quite. That’s a thought that struck a lot of people yesterday. Many of them were angry with CFI for hosting Radford’s post. I kept thinking, when I saw the anger, that it wasn’t a matter of CFI as such approving and publishing Radford’s post, as if it had been an article in Skeptical Inquirer or Free Inquiry. CFI bloggers post what they want to post, and there is a disclaimer on the blog saying the opinions are those of the individual blogger, not CFI. Ron mentioned that in his post yesterday. I kept thinking that, but I didn’t type it because…what…because I’m not sure that policy is a good idea, for the reasons that this controversy reveals. The disclaimer is there but it doesn’t really do the job. At one point yesterday I was going to compare the situation to FTB, where we are all completely independent, but then I remembered that a blog network is one thing and a big organization like CFI is quite another. I’m not sure a CFI blog really can post independently of the organization in a meaningful sense, especially not on a subject that gets people hot under the collar because of their Interests and Conflicts of same.

At any rate, as Orac says, it certainly doesn’t help that Radford didn’t disclose his Interest.

Unfortunately, Radford’s post is also badly reasoned and lacking in evidence. I was going to provide some examples and pick it apart a bit in my own inimitable way, other than pointing out its near-total reliance on anecdotes as I’ve already done, but it turns out that I don’t have to. Here’s what I mean. When I first saw Radford’s post and decided to write about it, I was also annoyed at CFI. Why, I thought, did CFI allow Radford to use its blog as a platform to grind his his own personal axes? Believe it or not, given how happy and pleased I was that my very first major article had just seen print in CFI’s flagship publication, Skeptical Inquirer (it’s a primer on Stanislaw Burzynski coupled with an article about how skeptics have become active again opposing him), I even felt a little trepidation as I wrote this. I wondered whether I would ever be invited to give a talk at a national CSI conference again, the way I was in 2012, or whether I’d ever see any of my articles in print again in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer. It was almost enough to make me stay my typing hands and look to another topic I had had in mind for today before I became aware of Radford’s post. Radford is, after all, very influential in CFI. If I were to piss him off, it wouldn’t result in a profane rant directed at me at TAM this year in which a certain large magician took umbrage about something I wrote about him, but it could have negative effects on my aspirations to be more influential. I don’t know if those fears are unreasonable, but I’m less worried now that I’ve seen another post on a CFI blog.

That’s an impressive example of following his own advice, and declaring a hidden COI. It’s also a different Orac from the one who picked a big fight with me in the summer of 2012 in the acrimonious run-up to that year’s TAM. I thought he very much had a COI then, and was being an asshole about it. That was that year, the year before Penn Jillette picked a big fight with him. Things change.

It turns out that Ron Lindsay, president of CFI, has actually written a response in which he noticed the same sorts of problems that I did. His post is reasoned and balanced, and he basically eviscerates Radford’s arguments right from the very title of his post, Evidence-Based Reasoning: Comments on a Blog Post.

Paths intersect.

Think of it this way. No one disputes that in scientific and medical research it’s important to disclose one’s financial COIs. If discussed the way I discussed above, few would argue that it’s not also important to disclose COIs that might imply a strong ideological COI, such as antivaccinationists who publish review articles and research purporting to find a link between vaccines and autism who don’t mention that, oh, by the way, they are on the board of directors of an antivaccine group, although such COIs tend to be treated much less seriously than financial COIs. Fewer people would insist that disclosing COIs like those of Ben Radford, life events that have the potential to massively impact one’s objectivity, is critical, but I would. If you want to claim to be a skeptic and to persuade an audience of skeptics, you need to be completely open about such a potent personal COI. More importantly, if you want to be honest with yourself, it’s even more imperative to do so. The same is true of science. Ruthless self-examination and openness about sources of our potential biases can only help us develop as skeptics. We all have biases, and we all have potential COIs. Acknowledging them and being honest about them, are the first step in overcoming them, because you can’t overcome them if you fail to admit that they exist.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Spotting the occult Conflict of Interest

Feb 28th, 2014 11:05 am | By

Orac / David Gorski has a post about Conflicts of Interest and motivated reasoning.

He points out that COIs (it really should be CsOI, but I’ll go with COIs for simplicity) are not just financial, they’re also ideological and personal (and there are doubtless other kinds he didn’t enumerate).

That’s why I’ve become very insistent that we, as skeptics, scientists, and physicians, need to be totally up front about our conflicts of interest, be they financial, ideological, or personal. One reason, of course, is that those who—shall we say?—don’t share our dedication to rationality, science, and critical thinking will be very quick to point them out if we don’t do so first, but that’s not the most important reason. The most important reason is to be better skeptics. We need to honestly admit and recognize anything that might compromise our objectivity or lead us to conclusions that are not the ones best supported by science and the evidence. Once we know our own skeptical weaknesses in the form of COIs, we can work on trying to mitigate them. In many ways, financial COIs are the easiest to deal with, because they’re far more straightforward. When one has a personal experience that informs one’s views on a topic or has a strong ideological commitment to a point of view, it’s often hard to tell where skepticism devolves into motivated reasoning.

True. Good point. I try to do that to some extent, but probably not enough. One reason for the not enough is just that it would get tediously repetitive except for first-time readers…but other reasons are perhaps also in play. Why don’t I just take this opportunity to spell out some of my Interests.

One is feminism. Duh. That’s obvious, and it’s obvious that lots of people think feminism is not so much an Interest as a Guaranteed Warper of Rational Thought.

It could be, under certain conditions. There are things I would not like to see Firmly Established By Science, such as the permanent inherent global inferiority of the female brain…or, for that matter, the [insert any adjective here] brain. But personally, self-interestedly, Conflict of Interestedly, I would not like to see that in the case of the female brain. I would be threatened by that.

So that’s one.

Others are liberalism (in the sense of a rights-orientation), universalism, secularism, atheism.

But Gorski also includes personal. Right. There are some of those. There are people whose participation can turn me right off a discussion, people who have a long and rich history of calling me (and, often, friends of mine) nasty names. There are a lot of them. I can’t have any kind of calm, reasoned discussion with them. It just isn’t possible. That’s a COI.

Fortunately most of them are just pseudonymous people on Twitter and in blog comments. Fortunately most of them are not likely to cross paths with me except on Twitter or in blog comments. But there are a few, and that’s a COI.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: ‘Kill the Witch’ Miracle Crusade in Calabar

Feb 27th, 2014 6:05 pm | By

Guest post by Leo Igwe

The world may not have seen the last in terms of the inane witch-hunting campaign being waged by Pentecostal pastors in Nigeria. New christian witch-hunters – pastors and churches – are emerging with force and ferocity. Another ‘Kill the Witch’ miracle crusade has just been announced to take place next week. It will be held in Calabar, the capital of Cross River State in Southern Nigeria.


According to a poster being circulated in the city, the event :”Ikot Ishie/Ikot Ansa Miracle Crusade I AM THAT I AM” is to be held on March 3-5 with a ‘Tarry Night’ on Friday March 7 at AB Martins Field by Ikot Ishie Market in Calabar.

The theme of the event ‘That Witch Must Die’ is a clear indication of what the program is all about – an event to incite violence and hatred against innocent citizens.

The poster has this telephone number ’08161257384′ as the ‘prayer line’. Prophet Bassey J. Udosen is the main organiser while Pastor Zack Orji, a Nollywood actor, and Pastor Larry Koldswaet, one of the actors in Helen Ukpabio’s notorious movie ‘The End of the Wicked’, will be preaching at the event.

Calabar is the headquarters of Helen Ukpabio’s Liberty Gospel Church. Belief in witchcraft is very strong in the city. Vulnerable persons, particularly children, are often targeted and abused in the name of sorcery. The activities of Pentecostal churches and pastors have been linked to the persecution of child witches in the region. Efforts to bring these dark age-minded evangelists to book have proved ineffective as demonstrated in the recent announcement of this ‘Kill the Witch’ crusade.

Church programs that literally say: ‘That Witch Must Die’ expressly undermine efforts to end child witch hunting in the region. Nigeria will not win the war against witchcraft-related abuse of children if it continues to turn a blind eye on church programs like this that sanction the killing of witches.

This is because these programs reinforce the link between misfortune, sorcery, and these vulnerable innocent members of the population. They recharge the superstitious notion that witchcraft is evil and any alleged witch is dangerous to the society, deserves no mercy, and should be killed.

Witch hunting is a traditional practice which has been appropriated by Pentecostal church entrepreneurs in their quest for evangelical relevance and capital.

The theme ‘That Witch must die’ is inspired by the Biblical injunction in Exodus 22.18 which says ‘Suffer not a witch to live’. So, the christian connection to this modern day witch hunt is evident.

A ‘Kill the Witch’ miracle crusade is not an exercise in freedom of religion as many people may think. It is actually an abuse of the right to freedom of religion. Such a crusade promotes witchcraft accusations, which is illegal in Nigeria. It incites hatred and violence against accused persons, which is a criminal offence. Unfortunately, we have yet to see any church or pastor prosecuted for this offence in Nigeria.

That notwithstanding, we shall not let up on the pressure on the authorities in Calabar, Cross River State and Nigeria to take action and bring these witch hunters to justice. We shall not abandon the campaign to protect children from the vicious and virulent campaign of Nigeria’s Pentecostal pastors who are trapped in a medieval mind warp.

We shall continue to shine the light on the schemes of these charlatans who are masquerading as pastors, using churches as fronts and witchcraft belief as a power base to demonize innocent children and exploit poor ignorance members of the community.

So join efforts with us to stop this ‘Kill the Witch’ Miracle Crusade in Calabar. Contact the organisers through their Facebook or Twitter accounts, or better, through the telephone/prayer line contact on the event poster. Let these evangelical con artists know that the world is watching, and will hold them accountable someday.

Witch hunting by Pentecostal churches in Nigeria must stop.

Leo Igwe

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

We reserve the right to serve anybody

Feb 27th, 2014 5:47 pm | By

For a refreshing change, meet someone you’d like to sit next to at a bar or a conference or a pizzeria. Meet Rocco DiGrazia.

Editor’s note: Rocco DiGrazia describes himself as a “failed anthropologist and thwarted musician, but a decent father and passable pizzaiolo.” He owns Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizzeria in Tucson, Arizona, and is married with two children.

Ahhh, you’re saying to yourself, that Rocco. Yes. He wrote this piece explaining why he put that sign in the window.

In the days leading up to this, I put a sign in the window of my pizzeria that said: “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators.” The reaction was vastly and overwhelmingly positive, with only a few people telling me they wouldn’t ever eat at my restaurant again. Mainly, we have received many, many messages of support; phone calls, e-mails and texts, from people who live in Tucson, across the state and even from outside the United States.

The sign is part of a tradition we have. When I moved into the supposedly cursed restaurant space on Broadway in Tucson, Arizona, 15 years ago, I found a box of letters — the kind you put on a marquee sign out front. By the end of the day, I had a message on the sign. We’ve been changing it every day since. I am often told people plan their routes to see what we have to say each day — even if just for a chuckle.

Kind of like Twitter, or a blog.

Then I learned that the state Senate once again passed an appalling bill that attempted to save me from my fellow Arizonans. I thought, “Oh no, not again.” If anything seemed ripe for parody, this was it.

It was irresistible. I instantly typed a comment on my Facebook page, saying that the busybodies in the capital of Phoenix were not allowed to come in and sit at my table. Minutes later, one of my followers supplied the sign that so eloquently expressed my viewpoint. I laminated it, and by that afternoon it was on my doors.

Since then, a lot of similar signs showed up in the windows of Tucson businesses saying “We reserve the right to serve anybody.”

So, in a way, he’s not a failed anthropologist at all.

This legislation was ostensibly trying to protect religious freedom. A lot of Christian groups feel like they’re being persecuted by our culture, and that is really what underlies this bill. But if they feel like they’re being persecuted, they should try being gay for a little while.

I cannot condone discrimination against one group of people. Regardless of the kind intentions of the lawmakers to the north of Tucson that were trying to make sure I have freedom of religion, I already have it. This bill was gratuitous as well as ridiculous. I can already refuse service to anyone — and that includes any one of those several dozen Arizonans who aren’t representing my views in Phoenix.

An excelllent Rocco.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Look at the specifics

Feb 27th, 2014 5:01 pm | By

Ron Lindsay wrote a post commenting on Ben Radford’s post. It’s good.

The concluding paragraphs:

That false reports happen is not disputed. Nor does anyone dispute that for the individual falsely accused, it’s a very unfortunate, sometimes tragic, situation. But is this a widespread problem? That’s the key question. One might think so from the attention Ben has given to it and his use of the adverb “often,” but, actually, the evidence seems to indicate it is not a widespread problem. For example, a British study last year indicated that there were 35 prosecutions for false accusations of rape during a 17-month period while there were 5,681 prosecutions for rape in the same period of time. The suggestion that false accusations of rape are commonplace does not appear to be supported by the evidence. Moreover, this suggestion can be very harmful if it persuades people that reports of rape should be treated with special suspicion.

Here’s the bottom line. All accusations of sexual assault should be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly. There is no a priori justification for treating the accuser with suspicion instead of compassion. The determination of whether a sexual assault actually occurred should be based on the evidence uncovered during the investigation of that case, not on generalizations about the behavior of people derived from other, distinct cases — however prominent or obscure.

That’s actually quite a good recommendation for a lot of practices and situations: you need to look at the specifics, and think about them, rather than generalizing about categories and then acting accordingly. You might even say that’s good skeptical practice. Never mind speculations, never mind what patterns you see, never mind stories; consider the particulars.

You know what else that’s good advice for? Treating people like equals. Never mind treating women like fluffy bunnies who are interested in shoes and shopping and nothing else; treat individual women as individuals, not as examples of a Feminine Essence. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to other categories.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Where to place the emphasis

Feb 27th, 2014 12:03 pm | By

Speaking of foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia…the aforementioned country takes a step to catch up with labor laws circa 1400.

For the first time, Indonesian maids working in Saudi Arabia will be guaranteed a monthly wage, time off, and contact with their loved ones, under a new agreement signed by the Gulf kingdom and Jakarta this week.

Wo, generous. A wage! Time off! Permission to phone!

Human rights groups say the pact is a step towards ensuring the protection of foreign workers’ basic rights in Saudi Arabia. But it fails to address a worrying trend of domestic helpers filing complaints of exploitation and abuse only to face counter-allegations by their employers of “theft, witchcraft or adultery,” according to Human Rights Watch.

See? What about that kind of “false accusation” eh? Is Ben Radford equally worried about that sort of thing? Does he write about it much? Or ever?

Earlier this month, King Abdullah pardoned an Indonesian maid, who was on death row after being convicted in 2003 of “casting a magic spell on her employer and his family,” a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy told Saudi news site, Arab news.

She returned to her home in West Java, but others haven’t been so lucky. Some 41 other Indonesian workers face possible death sentences in Saudi Arabia on charges ranging from black magic to stealing, adultery and murder, according to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry and local non-profit groups.

Many facing charges claim they suffered long-term abuse or exploitation at the hands of employers, according to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s director for legal aid and protection of Indonesian nationals overseas, Tatang Budie Utama Razak.

“When I observe why they killed their employer, most of them were not mentally ready (to work overseas),” Razak told CNN.

“They have to work unlimited hours, they have take care of the children, take care of the house, (their salaries are) unpaid, they cannot go out, (and) they cannot contact their families,” he said.

Still, there are false accusations. People can choose what they write about. Radford and Tavris can write about false accusations against Important Men. That’s their right.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Of particular interest to skeptics

Feb 27th, 2014 11:42 am | By

Huh. The stars must be aligned. Or is it the fates? Or the demons? Something. There was another post by a Big Skeptic yesterday on the subject of False Allegations of Sexual Assault. Two in one day. How about that!

It almost looks planned, doesn’t it. Arranged. Timed to coincide.

This one is by Ben Radford. It’s very long and much of it is very particular, but he also does some generalizing.

False accusations are of particular interest to skeptics because skepticism has often been at the forefront of giving voice to the wrongly accused. From the Salem witch trials (in which innocent young women were falsely accused of being witches) to the Satanic Panic moral panic of the 1980s and 1990s (in which dozens of innocent men and women were falsely accused of sexually assaulting children and others) and hundreds of examples in between, skeptics have often been there to remind the public to ask for evidence before rushing to judgment. Indeed, the brilliant CSI Fellow Carol Tavris just recently wrote an e-skeptic piece about this in relation to recent accusations against Woody Allen.

Indeed, and how helpful that it was published not “recently” but the same day Radford posted his piece. His “Indeed” looks rather artificial there, as if he’s claiming a coincidence that isn’t a coincidence. (He remembers the Salem witch trials wrong, by the way. The young girls were the accusers; the accused were older.)

Anyway. Sure, false accusations are of particular interest to skeptics, and rightly so. But that interest shouldn’t obscure the interest of non-false accusations, and how many of those get dismissed or worse. False accusations are a bad thing, and so are true accusations that are not believed. It’s especially bad when accusations are not believed because the people making them have less power and influence and status than the people they accuse. This is a situation that’s not unknown, in fact it happens quite a lot.

Think of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia for instance. It’s notorious that they are treated like dirt and that their employers can abuse them with impunity. Then again, maybe some exhausted domestic worker has made a false accusation against an employer – although it seems unlikely, since no one cares about non-false accusations, so why would anyone bother to make a false one? But maybe it has happened. That’s a bad thing, but all the abuse is a bad thing too.

I find Radford’s attention to false accusations somewhat…pointed.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Arizona says wait, come back

Feb 27th, 2014 10:10 am | By

Arizona’s governor vetoed the “we can treat people badly because Jesus” bill yesterday.

The bill was inspired by episodes in other states in which florists, photographers and bakers were sued for refusing to cater to same-sex couples. But it would have allowed much broader religious exemptions by business owners.

Why why why why why can’t florists, photographers and bakers refuse to cater to people they consider oooky? Why? This is America, god damn it, and America was built on the principle that Nice people get to shit on people they consider oooky.

Supporters said the bill was needed to allow people to live and work by their religious beliefs. “This bill is not about allowing discrimination,” State Senator Steve Yarbrough said during debate on the measure last week. “This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith.”

By refusing to cater to people they consider oooky. That’s what faith is for. It tells you who is oooky and who is Nice.

Calls, emails and posts to Ms. Brewer’s Facebook page streamed in by the thousands, many from people urging her to sign the legislation. “Don’t let them bully you, Jan,” one of them read. “If we deny someone their religious beliefs or the right to do business with whom they choose, we truly are giving up more and more, all of us, gay or straight.”

Ah right – the concern is really about gay people not being able to refuse to cater to straight people on the grounds of religious beliefs.

The measure is the latest initiative in Arizona to set off a political firestorm. Arizona is still struggling to repair its image and finances after the boycotts and bad publicity it endured after the passage of an immigration law in 2010 that gave police officers the right to stop people whom they suspected of being in the country illegally and made it a crime for illegal immigrants to hold jobs.

The state also faced a boycott almost 20 years ago, after voters initially refused to recognize Martin Luther King’s Birthday as a state holiday. At that time, the state was also set to host the Super Bowl, but the N.F.L., looking to avoid controversy, moved the game to Pasadena, Calif.

Oh well. They’ll always have cactus.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Braid the queen’s hair

Feb 27th, 2014 9:20 am | By

Saturday Night Live gives you: chess for girls!

It’s sarcastic, and yet…it could just as easily be straight up.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Skepticism to the rescue

Feb 27th, 2014 8:51 am | By

The first thing I saw when I went to Twitter just now:

mayhewSara E. Mayhew @saramayhew 31m

Fcking embarrassing to have such shitty speakers representing women. @wis3cfi: Women in Secularism 3 approaches by @opheliabenson

Ah yes, such “shitty speakers” as Taslima Nasreen, Susan Jacoby, Rebecca Goldstein, Katha Pollitt, Barbara Ehrenreich, Soraya Chemaly, Amanda Knief…

Embarrassing indeed.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

As soon as we take sides

Feb 26th, 2014 5:55 pm | By

Carol Tavris takes a look at the Dylan Farrow-Woody Allen matter at Michael Shermer’s Skeptic.

The first part is good. I agree with all of it; it’s why I was careful not to say I “believed” Dylan Farrow or that I thought all claims of rape or sexual assault should be believed, just like that no matter what. It’s why I pointed out that DF’s memory could be wrong, without any intention or malice.

I was also dismayed to read claims by many of Dylan Farrow’s supporters that have long been scientifically disproved:

  • Children never lie about sexual abuse.
  • If a memory is vivid, detailed, and emotionally laden, that is evidence that it is accurate.
  • In the case of Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow, one must be “lying.” As Aaron Bady posted in The New Inquiry, “If one of them has to be lying for the other to be telling the truth, then presuming the innocence of one produces a presumption of the other’s guilt. And Woody Allen cannot be presumed to be innocent of molesting a child unless she is presumed to be lying to us.”

Same here. But then, toward the end, things go slightly wrong.

The problem, as studies of cognitive dissonance show, is that as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong.

That is the reason for the vehemence with which many of Farrow’s supporters are shouting down the opposition. (The title of a research paper captured this phenomenon perfectly: “When in Doubt, Shout.”) Given a choice of whom to believe, they say, we must always side with the accuser in a rape or molestation case; otherwise we are supporting the patriarchal “rape culture.” As Bady writes, “if you are presuming his innocence by presuming her mendacity, you are rape cultured.” Anyone who asks skeptical questions of Dylan Farrow’s story is a pedophile or a sexist who is abetting the abuse of children and women. That kind of self-righteous certainty shuts down thoughtful inquiry. It does not help the cause of feminism or justice.

How, then, should we think about Dylan Farrow’s allegations? It’s relevant that they occurred during a bitter custody dispute, when Mia Farrow’s understandable rage at Allen over his affair with Soon Yi was going at full blast. We might ask why Dylan is making her story public now. We might wonder whether she has been influenced by recovered-memory therapists or, as her brother Moses writes, by an angry and vengeful mother. We would want to take into account that this family remains bitterly divided. Most of all, we have to accept the most difficult lesson of critical thinking: tolerating uncertainty.

What we should not do, as my coauthor Elliot Aronson has said, is “sacrifice our skepticism on the altar of outrage.” Outrage is good when it leads to constructive, mindful efforts to promote justice—for innocent children and for innocent adults. But outrage without skepticism and science is a recipe for hysteria and witch hunts.

Notice anything? She forgot to follow her own instructions. That’s odd, isn’t it, since she had just given them. In one paragraph she said “as soon as we take sides, the brain sees to it that we will justify and solidify our position by seeking only the information that confirms it, and deny, ignore or minimize evidence that we could be wrong,” and in the next three paragraphs she discusses only Dylan Farrow’s allegations and not Woody Allen’s claims. It’s relevant that he’d been seeing a therapist because of his obsessive possessive relationship with Dylan; we might wonder whether he had some strange views about adoption and siblings and suitable sex partners; we would want to take into account that he never did see anything wrong with secretly fucking his long-term partner’s daughter.

So, yeah. Tavris is right that we don’t know, and that excess certainty is just that. But she’s quite wrong that that applies only to what Dylan Farrow has said.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)


Feb 26th, 2014 4:57 pm | By

Malala Yousafzai is supporting Fahma Mohamed in her campaign to get education about female genital mutilation into all schools in the UK.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Malala praised Fahma’s campaign, and joined her in calling for better education in schools about FGM. “I’ve watched every step of Fahma’s campaign and I think she is on the edge of something huge,” she said. “Over 140 million girls and women are mutilated – but like keeping girls out of school in Pakistan, we can come out together and be strong and change things for the next generation. I am her sister and I am at her side and I want her to be listened to I as I was.”

Fahma is 17, Malala is 16.

Malala, who has recovered well in the UK after receiving specialised treatment at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, compared the work done by Fahma and other members of the anti-FGM charity Integrate Bristol to her own battle for universal education. “I’m also trying to work for women’s rights and girls’ education and I think the campaign that you are doing is a part of my campaign as well,” she said. “[W]hen you talk about education you talk about quality education and it should be [known] all over the world about FGM – what it is and how can it affect the life of a girl. So I think it should be a part of education and we both will struggle for this. Because we can never achieve our goals unless we struggle for it, so I think this is the time to start it.”

Maybe that’s what girls are like. Maybe they actually have ideas in their heads. Maybe the people who carefully design extra-stupid toys and games for girls should pay more attention to girls like Fahma and Malala.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)