Category Archives: Skeptic Activism

Advice to skeptics who are trying to get out there and make a difference.

Herbal industry attempts to astro-turf New York’s A.G.

photo of supplements by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

photo of supplements by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

On February 3, the Attorney General of the state of New York, Eric Schneiderman, announced his office had taken action against several major retailers regarding some herbal remedies sold in their stores. The state’s investigators found that about 80% of the products contained none of the active ingredients on the label! Further, some products contained allergens or other substances not listed on the label. The testing was done using a DNA barcoding technique. A “cease and desist” order was issued, requiring these products to be removed from shelves in the state of New York.

Skeptics were generally supportive of this action, of course – we’ve long argued that many herbal supplements have poor evidence of efficacy and are poorly regulated. The supplement industry, needless to say, is not happy. They have attempted to rally opposition to this move, and to get supporters of herbal supplements to call, write and Tweet the Attorney General about this issue.

Only the Attorney General’s office knows how many letters or phone calls were generated. But Twitter posts are, by default, public. This means we can peek at their efforts to lobby on this issue.  Let’s do that and see how it is going.

Continue reading

Crowdsourced climate feedback via the newly launched logoBack in the fall of 2011 I wrote about a new web annotation tool called At that time it was just a Kickstarter project that I recommended everyone support.

But since then it was successfully funded to the tune of $100,000, it has received additional funding and support from major foundations, and the software has been successfully completed. The tool launched this past October 27! It can now be used in most desktop browsers – it has plugins for Chrome and Firefox and a bookmarklet for Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera.  I highly recommend it to all skeptics.

So what is web annotation?  It’s very simple – it’s a way of attaching comments, criticism and so on directly to original content on the web. Unlike conventional comment threads, which are often a distant scroll away from the text to which they refer, annotations appear right next to the original. And since annotations reside in, they are not subject to the censorious whims of the owner of the original content.

As you can imagine, this could be a boon for skepticism, as it allows skeptics to directly respond to claims exactly where they are made.  Anyone who has the plugin installed would be able to see the original content and the skeptical commentary too. That solves the crucial problem (also solved by other tools such as RBUTR) of how to lead readers from the misinformation to the correction.

But of course, there’s the additional problem of deploying skeptics to create good annotations on content that needs it. There’s an opportunity here for curation projects along the lines of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia.  GSoW has set its sights on improving content on Wikipedia, and targeted particular articles for improvement. Similar groups of skeptics could take on the task of creating web annotations pointing out misinformation online. To be effective, such groups should definitely plan to target their efforts, perhaps by topic area.

Well, for one specific topic – climate change – someone’s already formed such a group.

Continue reading

Tools for monitoring skeptic-relevant legislation in the US

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, CC BY-SA 2.0

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Government regulation (of quacks and so on) has always been a key part of the skeptic puzzle. A major avenue for skeptic activism in recent years has been simply lobbying agencies to enforce existing regulations by calling their attention to cases. Groups such as Nightingale Collaboration in England and Friends of Science in Medicine in Australia have created major skeptic wins by doing just that. Rank and file skeptics can pitch in by helping with these campaigns, sometimes using tools like Fishbarrel.

So it only makes sense that skeptics should pay close attention to impending legislation as well. We can certainly support rules changes that would work in our favor when possible.

In my TAM2012 plenary talk, I told the story of a major failure of skeptics to do this in the spring of 2010. A serious effort to amend the flawed DSHEA regulation had been put forward in Congress, and had the backing of nearly every major organization in US sports. It went virtually unnoticed in the skeptic community. But alternative medicine supporters deluged Congress with negative feedback about the bill, and it died very quickly.

Since documenting this, I’ve been investigating tools that skeptics can use to avoid a recurrence of this sad story. Some really excellent new ones have been released just in the last year. As Congress is coming back into session after their summer break right now, I thought it would be a good time to review these tools. Every skeptic should have a few of these in your personal toolbox.

Continue reading

Mabus Redux: Operation Archangel Gets Dennis Markuze Arrested

On Friday, November 16, 2012 Dennis Markuze was once again arrested by the SPVM (Montreal Police) for violating the terms of his May 22 suspended sentence. It took many people many months to track him down and convince the police to arrest him. This is the story behind that.

For quite some time the most read item on this blog has been the lengthy history of a character named David Mabus (in real life a troubled man named Dennis Markuze of Montreal, Canada). It tells the story of how skeptics, atheists and science writers organized on Twitter to pressure the Montreal police department to take legal action against him, after he made repeated violent threats over many years. It took many cooperating people, several police reports, a petition, numerous phone calls and faxes and much other work to make that happen.

This post is a continuation of that story.

In recent months, skeptics and atheists started to notice a series of eerily familiar posts posted under various names including “Operation Archangel”. They once again mentioned Nostradamus, James Randi and atheism. They began on YouTube, spread to forums and blogs, and finally arrived on email and Twitter by the fall.

Those of us who followed the case closely knew that Mr. Markuze had pled guilty to eight counts of making threats on May 22. We suspected immediately that it was him again. Others were not so sure. There’s much nonsense on the Internet, and some insisted this must be a copycat or troll, perhaps trying to rile atheists with the spectre of Mr. Markuze.

This post is the story of how those posts once again led to Markuze’s arrest by the Montreal Police. As in 2011 it took quite a bit of work to make this happen. Tedious, painstaking, often thankless work.  But this is the type of work skeptic activists need to be ready to do in order to get results.

You will also learn how the Canadian court system, at least in Montreal, appears to be less than optimal when it comes to finding a positive outcome for cases like Markuze’s.

Continue reading

New Projects Put Up Cash for Truth – Good Thinking Society and Truth Market

Despite repeated protestations of “Big Pharma shill!” from alternative medicine proponents, there never seems to be much money in skepticism. Most skeptic projects are done as hobbies by individuals. When money is needed for certain projects we tend to have fundraisers or do some begging. Even our national non-profit umbrella organizations have fairly small budgets as these things go.

As an example of that, the team behind The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, probably the top skeptic podcast with over 100,000 listeners in a given week, recently needed to use a crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter to assemble the budget for new series of videos they wanted to produce. They were quite successful, reaching almost twice their original goal by the end of the campaign.

Crowdfunding is one of several new methods I recommend to skeptics looking to fund new projects.  I have written about other techniques to fund projects here at the blog as well.

This month two new potential sources of cash for skeptics and skeptic projects have appeared.  One is an old-fashioned non-profit that is offering small grants. The other is a unique new twist that combines elements of crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and competitive prizes.

Read on for more…

Continue reading

#TAM2012 Plenary: You Are the Future of Skepticism on the Internet

The Amaz!ng Meeting Las Vegas 2012 - July 12-15 - Southpoint Hotel & CasinoUpdate (August 24): The video of this talk is now available.

This is the script I used for my TAM2012 speech on Sunday, July 15, 2012. When I speak I do not read word-for-word, so I guarantee you this is different from what I actually said, sometimes substantially. (For one thing I was running close on time so I skipped one example near the end, but I’ve left it in here)

But this is very close to what I said and accurately represents the points I was making.

There were 42 slides, most of which were graphics of some kind and a few of which were section titles or the like. I will reproduce the key graphics that were referenced in the text, the rest of the slides will be replaced by block quotes or hyperlinks to keep things flowing. I’ve also added hyperlinks to a few things I reference so if you are curious you can find out what I am talking about.

The people in the room and those who came up after were very positive, and I hope you enjoy my thoughts as much as they did.

Continue reading

#TAM2012 You Are The Future Speech – Links and Tips

The Amazing Meeting 2012Update: You can read the speech itself now here on the blog and the video of this talk is now available as well.

The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas has just ended. In my talk on Sunday I exhorted the attendees to become online digital activists by applying the techniques I’ve been writing about on this blog for four years now.

I see already on Twitter that many are taking up my challenge. I plan to post the script of my speech as soon as I can prepare it as a blog post, but until then I know some folks may be looking for links or tips to get started. This post is intended to gather some key points and links in one place where they can easily be found.

Read on for some starting points.

Continue reading