Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Margaret Somerville engages in anti-choice agitprop - again...

Margaret Somerville, a tireless campaigner for Catholic values the world all over, and a member of the law faculty at Canada's McGill university, has penned a truly embarrassing attack on the Royal Society of Canada's Expert Panel on End-of-Life Decision-Making Report in the Montreal Gazette. Without hesitation she repeats arguments that I have demonstrated in the blog entry below to be false and clearly deliberately misleading. My good colleague Daniel Weinstock, a Montreal based member of the expert panel, penned this in reply to Somerville's agitprop. Well worth reading and well worth disseminating. Ms Somerville, for far too long has got away with this kind of mischief making.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Anti-choice AgitProp

I have just penned an editorial for BIOETHICS on the fall-out resulting from the Report on End-of-Life Decision-Making in Canada that I had a hand in producing. The gist of it is that I wondered whether there's much point debating this issue with anti-choice activists (you know, for hire 'anti euthanasia', 'pro-life' agitprop types). I gave two examples, in said editorial, of encounters I had in the aftermath of the release of said Report where I confronted anti-choicers with incontrovertible evidence that their arguments are flawed. They were, in fact, unable to counter the arguments I put forward, yet that did not stop them, within 24 hours, from repeating arguments they knew at that stage to be faulty. So, why pretend that you have a genuine counter-part in a public debate, when arguably the real motives of your opponents are not out in the open to begin with and when their arguments, peppered with heart wrenching abuse stories, serve their propaganda objectives only. 


I began, half tongue-in-cheek, about a week ago a competition, encouraging readers of this blog to send me mistake they found in two such newspaper pieces of agitprop. To my delight, people actually took the time to dissect these two pieces. So, trying to be a good sport here, I am reproducing some of the mistakes people have identified in said agitprop. For reference, the Report is here or here. The agitprop articles  were published in a National Post blog entry penned by Barbara Kay, as well as in a piece published by Licia Corbella in the Calgary Herald.


Here we go: Both articles (the incriminating 'evidence' was self-reportedly 'googled' by Ms Corbella, it seems) report at great length and to much fanfare incidences of non-voluntary euthanasia in jurisdictions that have decriminalized assisted dying in some form or shape. Both authors take this as evidence that a slippery slope exists, whereby people's lives are being terminated in these jurisdictions variously against their wishes or without having requested this as a result of decriminalization. Ms Corbella bitterly complains that we have missed this evidence that is so very easily available to anyone with access to google (Ms Corbella's favourite research tool, presumably right next to wikipedia and the Anti-Euthanasia Coalition's website). Well, it turns out that we have mentioned non-voluntary euthanasia cases in our Report. Was Ms Corbella too busy copy-pasting her evidence from fellow anti-choice activists websites to actually read the Report we produced?  Be that as it may, we also pointed out that non-voluntary euthanasia takes place in societies that have not decriminalized assisted dying, hence the existence of non-voluntary euthanasia in societies that have decriminalized demonstrates nothing at all. This point has been made very eloquently in this article in the Ottawa CitizenIn fact, we provided empirical evidence in our Report that following decriminalization non-voluntary euthanasia has actually decreased in some jurisdictions (not as sexy as Ms Corbella's anecdotes, I know).  Ms Corbella was called on her obvious mistake by commentators on the Calgary Herald's on-line site, but has chosen not to reply, which brings me back to my theme: These agitprop type activists are not seriously engaged in debate, and we should not pretend otherwise. 


Barbara Kay makes a similarly obvious mistake, uncritically citing Margaret Somerville, a conservative Christian activist employed at McGill University who campaigns traditionally on any topic the Catholic Church has a strong view on (among her favourites are: gay marriage, and end-of-life issues). Kay quickly declares Somerville a bio-ethicist even though Somerville doesn't seem to have any formal degree type education at all in ethics. Be that as it may, Somerville is cited in Ms Kay's commentary, claiming that a survey shows that Canadians are in favor of improving palliative care rather than decriminalizing assisted dying. Our Report is duly blamed for not having taken this survey into account in our report. Not quite, and here we have another example of misleading use of empirical evidence. The poll in question was actually published after we completed our empirical survey chapter. More than that, the poll in question is not actually at variance with the findings of the polls we cite. The poll cited in the newspaper blog was commissioned by Life Canada (an anti-choice organization). [p 3 of on-line poll] Most of the questions in this poll are, given the nature of its partisan funder, suitably leading. However, on the evidence cited in this report 57% of respondents were in favor of the decriminalization of assisted dying. Surveys commissioned by organisations less in agitprop mode than Life Canada found significantly higher percentages of Canadians in support of a more permissive regime when it comes to assisted dying. We have cited some of those in our Report. Reportedly Life Canada has since dropped the decriminalization question altogether. Ms Somerville, in fact, used one bit of the Life Canada poll that suited her anti-choice agenda, and happily ignored what the actual evidence shows. She created the misleading impression that the survey results demonstrate preferences when they highlight priorities. The question posed was basically (pretending misleadingly that a society could have only one or the other) whether respondents were in favor of improving palliative care or in favor of decriminalizing assisted dying. [p 4 of on-line poll] I strongly encourage the interested reader to both read the newspaper blog as well as the actual survey in order to evaluate the evidence for the claims I am making in this paragraph. Kay and Somerville's misleading use of the data in Life Canada's poll brings us back to me theme for this entry: What's the point of having a serious debate with activists who are clearly not seriously interested in a genuine exchange of arguments? 


Ms Kay also mistakenly claims that access to euthanasia in the  Netherlands initially required evidence of a terminal illness. The fact is that terminal illness was never a necessary condition for access to euthanasia in that country, rather the relevant criteria were autonomous choice and individual suffering. Unlike in Ms Kay's reality, the Netherlands actually decriminalized euthanasia in 2002 and not in 1984 as she claims in her National Post piece. The problem with getting her facts right also bedevils Ms Corbella's commentary/article. She excitedly waves her hands about a 1995 report indicating that some 950 people's lives were terminated in the Netherlands without their request. Euthanasia, as already mentioned, was only decriminalized in the Netherlands in 2002.  Ms Kay must be equally desperate, why else would she have chosen to also resort to a 1995 piece to comment on the reality of euthanasia in the Netherlands today? I suspect that our two campaigners both used the same journal article, happily ignoring empirical evidence that has since 1995 been published in peer reviewed international medical journals - as referenced and discussed in our Report -  simply because it suited their ideological agenda. The author of the 1995 paper has not responded to the more recent evidence as it has accumulated.  It is worth mentioning that the incidence of non-voluntary euthanasia is higher in some countries with prohibitive regimes than in the Netherlands and Belgium.  There is no evidence that legalization of voluntary euthanasia results in non-voluntary euthanasia.  Rather, if anything, it reduces non-voluntary euthanasia.


What bothers me about agitprop such as that served up by Corbella, Kay and Somerville is that they must know that their arguments are not sustainable. They're not sustainable in the sense that it should be obvious to these authors that they are misleading the public with their intellectual content.  It seems pointless then to pretend that there is a serious intellectual debate taking place here. All that can reasonably be achieved is to debunk flawed and misleading arguments when they pop up. Because, trust me, you will see the same arguments popping up again in up-coming anti-euthanasia agitprop, probably within less than 24 hours after I post this blog entry. Such is life on the anti-choice campaign trail. 


Thanks to everyone who participated in the impromptu competition. The book price goes to a Canadian entrant, Mr. A. M. He found no less than 18 false or misleading statements across the articles/comments by Kay and Corbella. Well done Sir! 



Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dlaczego jesteśmy ateistami

Yes, the first translation of 50 Voices of Disbelief is finally out! Dlaczego jesteśmy ateistami is available as of today from the book's Polish publisher's website. For what it's worth, in case you're interested, and you happen to be able to read a Polish language book, it's way cheaper there than it is in its original English language edition. You can get it there for a bit less than 14 $! 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Competition on End-of-Life AgitProp

As you might have noticed, last week the Royal Society of Canada released (to much media interest in Canada and internationally) a Report drafted by an international expert panel on End-of-Life Decision-Making in the country. I chaired the panel. It was comprised of well-known figures in bioethics and health law, namely Jocelyn Downie, Hans van Delden, SheilaMcLean, Ross Upshur and Daniel Weinstock. Check the report out here or here.

As is inevitable with such a report, some of its recommendations are taken to be controversial by some people. It was no surprise to me that many of our recommendations on the provision of palliative care in the country, advance planning and other such pressing matters were ignored by the media, and instead the focus was on our recommendations on the decriminalization of certain kinds of assisted dying. The usual suspects came out of their woodwork in no time, the expected condemnations of church affiliated academics, and activist groups were so quick that it is unlikely the people in question actually had the time to read our document. My favourite was a medical school professor who condemned the report in its entirety, even though we actually cited his work approvingly. It seems it is not just philosophers shooting from the hip, as James Rachels worried in his classic article on this issue, but medical school professors, too.

So much has been said in the media, most of which was in fact positive and supportive of our conclusions, that it is impossible for me to respond to everything. However, I am determined to respond to two vile pieces of agitprop that were published in a National Post blog entry penned by Barbara Kay, as well as in a piece published by Licia Corbella in the Calgary Herald.

I intend to write a detailed response to these two pieces some time this coming week, but in the meantime, here's my Competition idea: I invite readers of this blog to analyse these two pieces of what might mistakenly be described as journalism by some and point out their mistakes and misleading arguments. Whoever finds the most mistakes and misleading arguments will receive a free hard cover copy of '50 Voices of Disbelief - Why We Are Atheists', signed by me or 'clean', whatever you prefer. The deadline for submissions will be Wednesday November 30, 2011, 5pm EST. Feel free to send your comments to me at udo schuklenk.

Good success!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Critical Success for our anthology '50 Voices of Disbelief'

Here is a post copied verbatim from Russell Blackford's blog


The reviews quoted on the Amazon site have mounted up over time, and there are a few I didn't know about (in particular, the one in the Times Higher Education Supplement had slipped past me). We really did have some critical success with this book. So let me brag a little, just this once:

"For students in comparative religion this volume offers ample material and powerful reasons to make them subject most if not all religious claims to a highly critical appraisal, preparing for a constructive and public debate." (Acta Comparanda, 2011)

"50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists brings together many scholars and intellectuals from a variety of academic fields who explain the reasons why they do not believe in God. Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk's unique collection of original essays not only consists of short, digestible essays which are full of introductory presentations of both positive and negative arguments in support of atheism, but also in its candid testimonials which are more personally oriented." (Reviews in Religion, 2011)

"The international cast of contributors includes many well-known names, from a diversity of fields-notably philosophy (about a third of the writers are philosophers) science, journalism, politics and science fiction. By no means do they agree on everything, but the unifying themes of rejection of conventional religions and acceptance of secular humanism shine through brightly. A descriptive list of contributors and an excellent index complement the essays, many of which are accompanied by useful endnotes and references." (Quadrant, September 2010)

"It was mostly fascinating reading, in particular, those articles that abstained from using dull polemics and cynicism. Some of the articles-most notably from Nicholas Everitt, Thomas W. Clark, Michael Shermer, Peter Tatchell, Michael Tooley, and Udo Schüklenk-can indeed be used in undergraduate courses concerned with the existence of God in philosophy, ethics, and theology. I recommend this volume especially for all those who need to grasp a general and easy introduction into atheistic reasoning." (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2010)

"I recommend this volume especially for all those who need to grasp a general and easy introduction into atheistic reasoning." (Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 2010)

“The essays in this book reveal a great concern for our human plight, a concern that is the equal of religious impulses; they raise a richness of issues that are too often ignored, including the ultimate fear of the theists that perhaps in time it may well be possible to settle the question of God’s existence. The fifty voices in this book have spoken out with more than a small amount of courage. What emerges from thinking about these essays is a realization of what human reason is up against, within ourselves.” (Free Inquiry, August/September 2010)

"Good writing and clear thinking don't always go hand in hand. It's a pleasure, then, to find both in a recent book about going it alone -- no deus ex machina for us, please -- titled 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. In one volume, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, you'll find idiosyncratic essays by a range of atheists from science fiction authors and philosophers to scientists and activists." (Psychology Today, Creating in Flow Blog, May 2010)

"Many of the pieces in this book are full of superior contempt for the intellectual inadequacy of theism. Tatchell is forthright in his criticism of religion, but he never sneers. The essays in this book are all clearly argued, and will reassure the already faithful that they are neither daft nor deluded." (Church Times, April 2010)

"The contemporary relevance,and timeliness of this book is unsurpassed. It is ... an account of various well known non-believers [and] personal viewpoints, directed at a popular audience. Very approachable at all levels, containing a wide range of stories, anecdotes and personal statements about why each of the authors considers themselves to be a non believer. Overall, this book is well suited for a mainstream audience, interested in questioning the power that religion holds over our lives. It [also] has good references ... which will also serve to guide the reader if further information is wanted. Thus, I recommend this book to anyone (regardless of their views concerning religion) interested in understanding why different people hold certain views concerning religion." (Metapsychology, April 2010)

"By turns witty, serious, engaging and information, it is always human and deeply honest, and immensely rewarding to read." (Times Higher Education Supplement, December 2009)

"Carefully considered statements … .Contributions range from rigorous philosophical arguments to highly personal, even whimsical, accounts of how each of these notable thinkers have come to reject religion in their lives. Likely to have broad appeal." (Australian Atheist, November 2009)

"I am strongly recommending it as a present for anyone who has an interest in atheism/theism from either side of the debate. It's just a great read, from great authors." (Stephen Law Blogspot, October 2009)

"It’s a very good book, and I recommend it for all of us godless ones — or those who are considering abjuring the divine. It’s far more than just a collection of stories about 'How I came to give up God.' Many of the writers describe the philosophical and empirical considerations that led them to atheism. Indeed, the book can be considered a kind of philosophical handbook for atheists." (Why Evolution is True Blog, October 2009)

"Wow! A book about atheism and it’s not written by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris! So this book is welcome partly because it helps break that knee-jerk reaction. But it’s also welcome because many of its contributors advance interesting ideas. There’s plenty to choose from. And one advantage of a collection like this is that you can dip into it wherever you want. There is something for everyone. And there is the opportunity to discover new ideas." (Open Parachute, October 2009)

"For many who have spent some time involved in any form of engagement in these matters, the names should appear familiar: from the great AC Grayling to the revolutionary Maryam Namazie. Finally, in one book we can hear their stories – if not about themselves, then about the aspects of religion or lack thereof they find most important. If all these contributors were speakers at a convention, it would be sold out many times over." (Butterflies and Wheels, October 2009)

"In their excellent collection of essays exploring and defending the philosophical stance of atheism, Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk had an inclusive vision. Contributors to the book range from those with science-fiction backgrounds to modern-day philosophy." (Kirkus Reviews, October 2009)

"In more than 50 brief statements organized by Blackford and philosopher Schüklenk ... contributors share views—their routes toward nonbelief and their feelings about the place of religion in the world ... including James (the Amazing) Randi, a well-known magician and debunker of spurious psychic phenomena. Considering the popularity of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great, and Sam Harris's The End of Faith, [these] memoirs and observations will be of interest to disbelievers." (Library Journal, October 2009)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Against the participation of psychologists in torture


A Call for Annulment of APA’s PENS Report

Over the decade since the horrendous attacks of 9/11, the world has been shocked by the specter of abusive interrogations and the torture of national security prisoners by agents of the United States government. Although psychologists in the U.S. have made significant contributions to societal welfare on many fronts during this period, the profession tragically has also witnessed psychologists acting as planners, consultants, researchers, and overseers to these abusive interrogations. Moreover, in the guise of keeping interrogations “safe, legal, ethical and effective," psychologists were used to provide legal protection for otherwise illegal treatment of prisoners.

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2005 Report of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (the PENS Report) is the defining document endorsing psychologists’ engagement in detainee interrogations. Despite evidence that psychologists were involved in abusive interrogations, the PENS Task Force concluded that psychologists play a critical role in keeping interrogations “safe, legal, ethical and effective.” With this stance, the APA, the largest association of psychologists worldwide, became the sole major professional healthcare organization to support practices contrary to the international human rights standards that ought to be the benchmark against which professional codes of ethics are judged.

The PENS Report remains highly influential today. Negating efforts by APA members to limit the damages – including passage of an unprecedented member-initiated referendum in 2008 – the Department of Defense continues to disseminate the PENS Report in its instructions to psychologists involved in intelligence operations. The Report also has been adopted, at least informally, as the foundational ethics document for “operational psychology” as an area of specialization involving psychologists in counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations. And the PENS Report is repeatedly cited as a resource for ethical decision-making in the APA Ethics Committee’s new National Security Commentary, a “casebook” for which the APA is currently soliciting feedback.

Equally troubling, the PENS Report was the result of institutional processes that were illegitimate, inconsistent with APA’s own standards, and far outside the norms of transparency, independence, diversity, and deliberation for similar task forces established by professional associations. Deeply problematic aspects include the inherent bias in the Task Force membership (e.g., six of the nine voting members were on the payroll of the U.S. military and/or intelligence agencies, with five having served in chains of command accused of prisoner abuses); significant conflicts of interest (e.g., unacknowledged participants included the spouse of a Guantánamo intelligence psychologist and several high-level lobbyists for Department of Defense and CIA funding for psychologists); irregularities in the report approval process (e.g., the Board’s use of emergency powers that preempted standard review mechanisms); and unwarranted secrecy associated with the Report (e.g., unusual prohibitions on Task Force members’ freedom to discuss the Report). These realities point to the impossibility and inadequacy of merely updating or correcting deficiencies in the PENS Report.

We the undersigned organizations and individuals – health professionals, social scientists, social justice and human rights scholars and activists, and concerned military and intelligence professionals – therefore declare that the PENS Report is illegitimate. We call upon the American Psychological Association to take immediate steps to annul the PENS Report.  At the same time, in our own efforts, we aim to make the illegitimacy of the PENS Report more broadly known within our communities.


(Visit www.ethicalpsychology.org/pens to add your signature)

Organizational Signers

Coalition for an Ethical Psychology
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Justice and Accountability
Defence for Children International – Palestine Section
Division 32, Society for Humanistic Psychology, American Psychological Association
Executive Committee of the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology (APA Division 24)
International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School
Massachusetts Campaign Against Torture
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
Network of Spiritual Progressives
New York Campaign Against Torture
Physicians for Human Rights
Program for Torture Victims
Psychoactive – Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights, Israel
Psychologists for Social Responsibility
Veterans for Peace
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

Individual Signers

Note: Affiliations that appear below are for identification purposes only

Roy Eidelson, PhD, Past President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility; Associate Director, Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, Bryn Mawr College

Jean Maria Arrigo, PhD, APA PENS Task Force Member, Project on Ethics and Art in Testimony

Michael Wessells, PhD, APA PENS Task Force Member, Professor of Clinical Population and Family Health, Columbia University

Stephen Soldz, PhD, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis; Past President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility

Steven Reisner, PhD, Candidate for APA President; Clinical Assistant Professor, NYU Medical School; Faculty and Supervisor, International Trauma Studies Program, New York City

Brad Olson, PhD, President-Elect, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, National Louis University, Chicago, IL

Bryant Welch, PhD, Program Director and Professor of Psychology, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA

Trudy Bond, PhD, Independent Psychologist; Steering Committee, Psychologists for Social Responsibility

Philip Zimbardo, President, American Psychological Association (2002); Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Stephen N. Xenakis, MD, Brigadier General (Ret), U.S. Army

Nathaniel A. Raymond, Former Director of the Campaign Against Torture at Physicians for Human Rights

Leonard Rubenstein, Senior Scholar, Center for Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health

Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor (ret.), Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Robert Jay Lifton, Lecturer in Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance; Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Psychology, The City University of New York

Manfred Nowak, Professor for International Law and Human Rights, University of Vienna; Director, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights

David Remes, Appeal for Justice; Guantánamo habeas attorney since 2004

Gerald Gray, LCSW, Co-Director, Institute for Redress & Recovery, Santa Clara University School of Law

Morton Deutsch, Past President, APA Divisions 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology), 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues), and 48 (Peace Psychology); Professor Emeritus, Psychology and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

Nora Sveaass, UN Committee Against Torture; Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Norway

Daniel Ellsberg, PhD, Economics (Harvard 1962), Senior Fellow, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Director Truth-Telling Project, Kensington CA

Herbert C. Kelman, PhD, Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus, Harvard University; Past President, APA Divisions 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) and 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues); past member, APA Board of Directors, Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility, and Ethics Committee; Cambridge, Massachusetts

Steven H. Miles, MD, Professor of Medicine and Bioethics, University of Minnesota

Udo Schuklenk, PhD Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics, Queen's University, Kingston, Canada

George Hunsinger, Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD, Senior Medical Advisor, Physicians for Human Rights; Adjunct Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota Medical School; Senior Research Fellow, Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley

David DeBatto, former US Army Counterintelligence Special Agent and Iraq war veteran

Buz Eisenberg, Chair, International Justice Network; Attorney for Guantánamo detainees since 2005

Michael Ratner, President Emeritus, Center for Constitutional Rights

Vince Warren, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights

Susan Opotow, Past President, APA Division 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues); Professor, City University of New York

Richard Wagner, Past President, APA Division 48 (Peace Psychology); Professor Emeritus, Bates College

Marc Pilisuk, Past President, APA Division 48 (Peace Psychology); Professor Emeritus, University of California; Professor, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center

Ethel Tobach, PhD, Past President, APA Division 48 (Peace Psychology); American Museum of Natural History, New York

Joseph de Rivera, Past President, APA Division 48 (Peace Psychology); Research Professor, Clark University

Marybeth Shinn, PhD, Professor, Vanderbilt University, Nashville TN

James Coyne, PhD, Director, Behavioral Oncology Program, Abramson Cancer Center and Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Luisa Saffiotti, PhD, President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility

Jancis Long, PhD, Past President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility

Frank Summers, PhD, President-Elect (as of January 2012), APA Division 39 (Psychoanalysis); Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University

Alice Shaw, PhD, President, Section IX, APA Division 39 (Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility)

Jules Lobel, President, Center for Constitutional Rights; Bessie McKee Walthour Endowed Chair Professor of Law, University of Pittsburgh Law School

Bernice Lott, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Women’s Studies, University of Rhode Island

Ruth Fallenbaum, WithholdAPADues Steering Committee

Dan Aalbers, WithholdAPADues Steering Committee

Anthony Marsella, Past President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility; Emeritus Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii

Ghislaine Boulanger, PhD, WithholdAPADues Steering Committee

Jean L. Hill, PhD, President-Elect, APA Division 27 (Society for Community Research and Action); Professor of Psychology, New Mexico Highlands University

Joseph Margulies, Attorney, MacArthur Justice Center, Clinical Professor, Northwestern Law School

Martha Davis, PhD, Visiting Scholar (ret.), John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

Kristine Huskey, Director, Anti-Torture Program, Physicians for Human Rights; Guantanamo detainee habeas counsel (2002-2011)

Scott Horton, Columbia University School of Law

William P. Quigley, Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans

Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun Magazine; Executive Director, The Institute for Labor and Mental Health

Scott Allen, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, School of Medicine, University of California, Riverside

M. Brinton Lykes, PhD, Professor of Community-Cultural Psychology, Boston College; Co-Founder, Ignacio Martin-Baro Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights

David Luban, University Professor in Law and Philosophy, Georgetown University

Jeffrey S. Kaye, PhD, Clinician, Survivors International, San Francisco

Sibel Edmonds, Founder & Director, National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC)

David Sloan-Rossiter, Boston Institute for Psychotherapy; Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis

Stephen R. Shalom, Department of Political Science, William Paterson University

Andrea Cousins, PhD, PsyD, Massachusetts Campaign Against Torture (MACAT), Northampton, MA

Lynne Layton, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

Deborah Popowski, Clinical Instructor, International Human Rights Clinic; Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School

Shara Sand, PsyD, Assistant Professor, LaGuardia Community College; Past Chair, Divisions for Social Justice, American Psychological Association; Past President, Division of Social Justice, New York State Psychological Association

Jose Quiroga, MD, Co-founder and Medical Director, Program for Torture Victims

Ana Deutsch, MFT, Co-founder and Clinical Director, Program for Torture Victims

Coleen Rowley, retired FBI agent and former Minneapolis FBI Legal Counsel

Donald Bersoff, PhD, J.D., Earle Mack School of Law, Candidate for APA President, Radnor

Michelle Fine, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, The Graduate Center, Montclair

Dan Christie, PhD, Past President, Div 48 (peace psychology); Past President, Psychologists for Social Responsibility; Prof Emeritus, Ohio State University, USA, Delaware, Ohio

Paul Kimmel, PhD, Past President of APA Division 48 (Peace Psychology) and Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Saybrook University, Panama City Panama

Lisa Hajjar, Associate Professor of Sociology, UC Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara CA

Uwe Jacobs, PhD, CA

Tom Hayden, Peace and Justice Resource Center, Culver City, CA

Eduardo Diaz, PhD, Past President-APA Division 48 (Peace Psychology), Miami-Dade County Florida

Dan Mayton, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston Idaho

Karen Hollis, PhD, President, APA Division 3 (Experimental Psychology); Past President, APA Division 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology), Granby MA

Kwang-Kuo Hwang, Ph.D., Psychology, National Chair Professor, National Taiwan University; President, International Association of Indigenous and Cultural, Taipei Taiwan

Maureen O'Connor, PhD Psychology; JD, Professor, City University of New York, Brooklyn NY

Corann Okorodudu, Professor of Psychology & Africana Studies, West Deptford New Jersey



Hector Betancourt, PhD, Past President, APA Division 48, Peace Psychology, Professor of Psychology, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda California



James Lamiell, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Dept. of Psychology, Georgetown University, Oakton Virginia



Joan Chrisler, PhD, Connecticut College, Milford CT

Jonathan Hafetz, JD, Seton Hall University School of Law, Brooklyn, New York

Are churches responsible for bad consequences if their believers take their guidance seriously?


It happens all the time. Religious groups (call them churches, cults or whatever rocks your boat), busily marketing their superior wares, sometimes resort to suggestions along the lines that if their followers pray hard enough their ailments will be healed, without any need for medical interventions. There are plenty of examples of this, both with regard to religious groups in the West as well as with regard to cults like Falun Gong in the East or charismatic churches in Africa. To give you just two recent examples. I was recently in China, visiting both the Chinese as well as the Shanghai Academy of the Social Sciences, as well as community groups agitating against Falun Gong in the country. 

Falun Gong in China
Falun Gong is a nasty, racist, homophobic and misogynist cult that has successfully misled some of its adherents to not seek medical care and instead focus on its exercise regime as a means to fight illness. I met a man in Shanghai who told the story of how his family fell apart, his wife (like him and his daughter Falun Gong adherents) did not seek care for her cancer and died eventually. The woman believed that following the Falun Gong guru's teachings would translate into her being cured (without having to seek expensive medical care). The Chinese authorities have outlawed Falun Gong because they consider the organisation a destructive cult. Us Westerners get of course all flustered about this, because we believe that religious freedom is of greater importance than preventing the harm caused by these groups. 

Synagoge Church of all Nations in Britain
In East London the evangelical Synagoge Church of all Nations reportedly promises its followers miracle healing. As a result of this several people with HIV infection chose to stop taking HIV medication. At least three reportedly have died as a result of this choice. The BBC reports that a growing number of evangelical churches in the UK is making wild healing promises (no big surprise, they're outcompeting each other on this front in order to attract followers). Unlike Falun Gong in China, the Synagoge Church of all Nations as well as others like it may continues its practices unhindered in Britain and other Western countries, and more people will predictably die. 

I think it is reasonable to ask why religious freedom is somehow valued higher than other convictions (of an ideological kind) in the West. If a complementary medicine company made such false healing claims for its products, it obviously could not hide behind the religious freedom mantra, hence state authorities in the West would prosecute the company for making demonstrably false claims resulting into harm. I do wonder why there is this special dispensation in the context of religious belief, at least when this belief is uncontroversially harmful (as is the case in the context of miracle healings). 

Should groups who make such claims not be forced to provide evidence in support of their claims, and lacking that evidence should they not be prevented from making such claims? Why is the religious freedom mantra seen to be a more significant societal value than harm prevention? Most of the liberal reasons for permitting such religious groups to spread their deadly teachings are unsound. Just think of John Stuart Mill's famous justifications for permitting such ideologies to be spread without hindrance: 1)  we better be careful with censorship as they might be right after all - in this context surely an implausible proposition; 2) society can learn from debating their erroneous ways by getting a better understanding of why they're wrong, hence we are better off letting them continue to spread their views - what exactly are we learning in the case under consideration other than that poorly educated, vulnerable people tend to fall for such deadly quacks, no surprise in that; 3) people grow as persons if permitted to follow their eccentricities - in our case there's little growth as people die as a result of bad choices they make based on religious propaganda. Much of Mill's case seems based on all sides involved in freedom of expression cases having a serious (of sometimes faulty) case, ie that at least they believe what they say. This is a somewhat doubtful proposition in the case of money grabbing cults, they're in it for revenue generation and gains in political influence. If they were genuinely concerned about their members well-being they'd stop peddling lies about the benefits associated with following the cult rules, given that all the available empirical evidence points against their case..

I am not suggesting here that the Chinese answer to the problem of destructive cults is perfect compared to what we have in the West, but at least there is some recognition that harmful propaganda must be confronted and cannot be led go unanswered by the state under the guise of protecting religious freedom. Surely people's well-being must come first. Well, truth be told, I am ambivalent about this matter. Any comments are very much welcome.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Organs transplanted from executed Chinese prisoners

My good colleague Art Caplan and a number of co-authors published a piece in THE LANCET, arguing for a boycott of Chinese (that's mainland Chinese) transplant programs, specialists etc. They seems to have two bones to pick with the Chinese approach to organ transplantation:

1) the country has no ethical system in place to decide who gets an organ. They suggest in their piece that it is odd indeed that there's brisk transplant tourism (ie foreigners getting deceased Chinese people's organs for hard $$ while there ain't enough organs to go around  for Chinese folks who would need those very same organs to survive). So, they allege queue jumping by the rich. That's a pretty good reason, if true, for criticizing the current transplantation policy modus operandus in China. Whether  or not that's a good enough reason to boycott Chinese scientists working in the area is questionable as the opportunity is removed to influence policy development in this context constructively.

2) Their second reason is a tad bit weaker, I think. Caplan and colleagues are upset that organs from executed Chinese prisoners are being utilized for transplantation purposes (often without their consent, they allege, or with consent obtained under duress - ethically invalid is how they describe it ). They also claim that prisoners on death row 'might' be executed (ie they don't seem to know, but suggest anyway) in order to meet demand for a particular transplant organ. It goes without saying that they argue (well, claim) that these executed prisoners' human rights are being violated by this practice.

This second argument I don't find persuasive (it could be persuasive, but the data required to make it persuasive are nowhere to be found in Caplan and co-authors' comments). My thinking goes like this: given that China executes prisoners regardless of the organ transplantation issue, it makes sense to me that the organs of deceased prisoners are utilized to preserve human lives that otherwise would be lost. Just to be clear, I am against capital punishment. I think it's a barbaric form of punishment, the risk of wrongful convictions is plain too high,  and there are other sound arguments against the death penalty. However, as long as the number of convictions in a country that executes prisoners on death row (as eg Caplan's country, the USA does) does not increase as a result of demand for  transplant organs, I wonder why we should not use their organs to preserve human lives that otherwise would wither. This in no way condones capital punishment, it simply suggests that IF a country has capital punishment we should make the best of a bad situation.

There could be empirical evidence that the number of death penalty verdicts increases in China when there's increased pressure to generate transplant organs. That would be a very good reason for being against such a practice, but there's no evidence in the article to suggests that this is actually the case. I did not realize that there is such a thing as human right to be buried with all your organs (at least not in international human rights documents that I am aware of). If this right existed, many countries would be in violation of this right, as there's plenty of countries these days where people have to opt-out to avoid having their organs used for transplantation purposes. In other words, the organs of all those who have died, and who didn't care to opt-out, forgot, were too lazy, etc, are fair game in these countries (Austria being just one of them), even though they never explicitly consented to having their organs used for this purpose.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Globe and Mail on End-of-Life Issues

Marina Jimenez of the Canadian national paper Globe and Mail initiated a meeting between three members of their Editorial Board and myself for a brief interview on end-of-life issues in Canada. The result is this Editorial and this interview. Check it out. Reading the spoken words now I realize how way more sophisticated written content is when compared to an interview transcript, let alone how typing errors like 'Advanced Directive' can sneak in (that can easily occur when one is not that familiar with the terminology). Interesting experience. I like the gist of the editorial, but be warned, do not assume that the views I express in the interview reflect necessarily the content of the Royal Society expert panel report that will be out later this year.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

'Balanced reporting'

Something bizarre is going on. It was likely triggered by faux news outlets like Fox in the USA. In a nutshell these rightwing news outlets claimed to have come into existence in response to the biased reporting (aka 'liberal bias') of the mainstream media that existed at the time. Those mainstream media have essentially responded by moving significantly further to the political right in order to demonstrate how balanced they are.

A few weeks ago I bumped into a hardcore zionist Jewish guy who went on and on and on how biased the BBC is in favor of Palestinian views. He wanted more 'balance'. There we go again, 'balance'. I'm not going to bore you with my views on this dreadful conflict. I am interested in the idea that 'balance' for news reporting purposes means inviting 'the two sides', whoever they are, and trying to locate oneself in the middle somewhere.

This is such a bizarre proposition. What this means is basically that if you want a debate to move into your direction, you need to be as close to lunatic fringe at your political end as can be, simply because by virtue of doing that the 'balance without concern for content' brigade would automatically shift the centre of the debate closer to your end. On the other hand, having sensible middle-of-the-road views would mean that you're already giving up too much political ground to the other side, so you lose before you even get started.

A good example of this lunacy in terms of reporting is CNN. These days, reasonably sensible people from the Washington Post are usually 'balanced' with the lunatic fringe represented by 'reporters' from the Washington Times. The Washington Times was deliberately created by the rightwing Moonie Unification Church to ride on the confusion in many people's minds about the difference between the Washington Post (the real deal) and the Washington Times (the joke). The cover photo I am displaying here shows what I mean, look at how keen the paper is to have Obama and bin Laden in its headline. That CNN today routinely invites agitprop staff (aka 'journalists') from the Washington Times shows you how far the 'balance' lunacy has got out of control. CNN is actually misleading us into thinking that the Washington Times is a legitimate news outlet to begin with.

How about focusing on substance instead of trying to get the most radical views at either end of the political spectrum (or any other matter) to demonstrate 'balance'?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Write letters on behalf of Ramin Zibaei, Iran

Scholars at Risk (SAR) calls for letters on behalf of

Mr. Ramin Zibaei of Iran

August 30, 2011

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is gravely concerned about Mr. Ramin Zibaei, a scholar of psychology and dean at the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education in Tehran, who has been arrested and detained for several months.  SAR asks for letters, faxes and emails urging the appropriate authorities intervene by reexamining his case and, pending his earliest release, by ensuring his well-being, including access to family, legal representation of his choosing and medical treatment.

Scholars at Risk is an international network of over 260 universities and colleges in 33 countries dedicated to protecting the human rights of scholars around the world and to raising awareness, understanding of, and respect for the principles of academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression, opinion, thought, association and travel. In cases like Mr. Zibaei's involving alleged infringement of these freedoms, SAR investigates
hoping to clarify and resolve matters favorably.

Background

Scholars at Risk has learned that Mr. Ramin Zibaei was one of over a dozen staff and faculty members of the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) arrested in late May. He has been held since. Mr. Zibaei completed a Master’s level program in psychology at BIHE and has taught extensively at the institute over the past 8 years, holding positions as member of the psychology department and dean of social science faculty. Scholars at Risk
understands that since his arrest Mr. Zibaei has not been permitted to receive regular visits from his family and has not been granted access to legal counsel, in apparent disregard of international standards of due process, fair trial and detention as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is signatory.

The suddenness of Mr. Zibaei’s arrest and the lack of any clear basis for his detention raise grave concerns about the ability of intellectuals and scholars to safely work in Iran. Taking into account reported arrests of several additional Baha’i scholars in May—and the reported arrests of scholars following the June 2009 election—Mr. Zibaei’s detention suggest a wider attempt to exclude Baha’i individuals from the higher education
community within Iran and more broadly to intimidate intellectuals and to limit academic freedom in Iran.  Scholars at Risk finds this suggestion particularly distressing and unfortunate, given Iran’s rich intellectual history and traditional support for the values of scholarship and free inquiry.

Scholars at Risk therefore joins with many national and international academic associations, human rights organizations and individual scholars in respectfully urging authorities to ensure that Iran’s obligations under international law are upheld with regard to Mr. Zibaei, his colleagues at the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) and other intellectuals in Iran. Scholars at Risk respectfully implores authorities to reexamine Mr.
Zibaei's case and, pending his earliest release, to guarantee his well-being and to ensure that he is granted access to family, legal representation of his choosing, and medical treatment.

Take Action

Scholars at Risk invites letters, emails and faxes be sent:



-respectfully urging authorities to ensure that Iran’s obligations under international law are upheld with regard to Mr. Zibaei, his colleagues at the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) and other intellectuals in Iran; and

-respectfully urging authorities to reexamine Mr. Zibaei's case and, pending his earliest release, to guarantee his well-being and to ensure that he is granted access to family, legal representation of his choosing, and medical treatment.



PLEASE WRITE TO:



Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran
c/o H.E. Mr. Mohammad Khazaee
Ambassador of Iran to the United States
Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations
662 Third Avenue, 34th Floor
New York, NY 10017, USA
Email to: iran@un.int
Fax to: +1 (212) 867-7086

COPIES TO:

Head of the Judiciary
Ayatollah Sadeqh Larijani
Howzeh Riyasat-e Qoveh Qazaiyeh
(Office of the Head of the Judiciary)
Pasteur St., Vali Asr Ave. (south of Serah-e Jomhouri)
Tehran 1316814737
Islamic Republic of Iran
Email: larijani@dadgostary-tehran.ir or info@dadgostary-tehran.ir


Bahai International Community
United Nations Office
866 United Nations Plaza, Suite 120
New York, NY 10017 USA
Fax: +1 212-803-2566
Email: nyc@bic.org

The Honorable _________
Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to [YOUR COUNTRY]
[POSTAL ADDRESS]
[FAX]
[EMAIL]
(See http://www.mfa.gov.ir/cms/cms/Tehran/en/Missions/ for a list of Iranian embassies worldwide.)

The Honorable _________
Ambassador of [YOUR COUNTRY] to the Islamic Republic of Iran
[POSTAL ADDRESS]
[FAX]
[EMAIL]

Scholars at Risk
New York University
194 Mercer St., 4th floor
New York, NY 10012  USA
Fax: +1 212 995-4402
scholarsatrisk@nyu.edu

To view a model letter of appeal, as well as a copy of SAR's letter, please visit:
http://scholarsatrisk.nyu.edu/Education-Advocacy/Alerts-Scholars-in-Prison.php.



This Action Alert was posted by the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program on behalf of Scholars at Risk. SRHRL has not
independently verified its contents.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How not to argue against assisted dying

Assisted dying refers to various ways by which someone is assisted by a third party to end his or her life. In most jurisdictions this sort of activity is illegal, but there is a growing number of jurisdictions that have decriminalized assisted dying in some form or shape.

Frequently in debates about assisted dying opponents of decriminalization argue that if a society went down that road it would also find itself on a slippery slope. The slippery slope would entail that if we decriminalized we would quickly slide down this slope and end up in a situation where people get killed against their wishes. These arguments take various forms and shapes. I want to use this entry to show how not to deploy this type of argument, no more no less. This entry is not a plea for decriminalization, it merely offers a critique of typical examples of failed slippery slope arguments.

There are different types of slippery slope arguments. As people in philosophy will tell you, these types of arguments just about always fail. Let us have a closer look then on a commentary written by Alasdair Palmer of Britain's Telegraph newspaper. It's a decent contribution to the ever-growing case literature of failed slippery slope arguments.

I found the commentary in today's issue of the Telegraph newspaper. Let me give you a bit of background first. A 43 year old man suffered a devastating stroke some time ago that left him paralyzed to the point that all that he is able to do on his own is to move his eyes. He made it clear that he would like assistance in dying, because he himself does not consider his life worth living. For those of you who care about philosophy, you'd cash that out in terms of autonomous decision-making in a liberal democracy and all that, but as I said, I will not be making the case in favour of decriminalization today.

Telegraph writer Alasdair Palmer is one of those columnists that broadsheets tend to employ to encourage their readers to cancel their subscriptions. Writing for a conservative newspaper with a strong religious bent you'd expect him to take a stance against decriminalizing assisted dying. That, of course, is fair game, reasonable people can disagree on such a contentious issue, but you'd want to see each side at least to argue their case genuinely and not to engage in skirmishing activities. Here's how he builds his case, and here is also how you'd not do that if you agree with his conclusion, because he fails to make his case. Mr Palmer's offering consists of slippery slope dangers.

His argument goes like this (read it here, lest I be criticised for supposedly misrepresenting Mr Palmer's arguments): Mr Palmer sympathizes with the patient in question. Mr Palmer also concedes that he finds it difficult to argue that the patient should be condemned to continue living. The patient started a lawsuit petitioning that legislation is changed that reportedly permits his family members to kill him out of compassion without getting prosecuted for murder (recall that he can't move, so someone else would have to oblige him), but that doctors doing the same would still face the full force of the law and would be prosecuted for murder.

The patient and his family would prefer a health care professional to render the requested assistance, hence the lawsuit. Mr Palmer misrepresents this in a typical slippery slope offering, arguing,

The law starts by allowing family members to help others die. The next step is to rule that you don’t have to be a family member – anyone can get involved.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It is not 'anyone' but members of one of the most heavily regulated professions, namely medical doctors. After telling us again how much he empathizes with the patient, Mr Palmer offers further slippery slopes:

If the law were to incorporate the presumption that those who help the very severely disabled to die should not be prosecuted, it would be very close to assuming that those who do away with the very severely disabled must be doing them a favour. That would not only be wrong, it would also, almost certainly, increase the number of cases of “mercy killing” that are actually straightforward murders.

Mr Palmer's slippery slope offering then is this: If you help competent disabled person A to die (for good reasons, and on their explicit request), society would very likely (ie 'almost certainly') experience an increase in the number of murders of disabled people that do not wish to die. - What is remarkable is that a supposed quality paper such as the Telegraph would publish such agitprop without blushing, but then, newspapers can't blush as we know. For starters, in the case under consideration we have a competent patient requesting assistance in dying. How would that translate 'almost certainly' into the killing of disabled people who do not wish to die? It obviously doesn't translate into this. Mr Palmer could then point to societies where assisted dying has been decriminalized (to be fair to him, he didn't wheel this 'evidence' out on this occasion, but it's usually deployed in the context of this argument), and where indeed cases of involuntary killing have occurred. The problem with this line of reasoning is that there is no evidence that this is a result of decriminalization. In fact, such abuse cases also happen in societies where assisted dying is illegal. Nobody from Mr Palmer's camp has as yet claimed that keeping assisted dying illegal is the cause for such abuse cases, while they have happily claimed this slippery slope for societies where decriminalization has occurred. No surprise then that Mr Palmer concludes,

...it is impossible to change the law in the way he’d like without producing a system that makes it easier to kill people who want to live.

Of course, the evidence he has provided in his article doesn't actually support that conclusion. Mr Palmer isn't finished with just deploying one bad argument. He makes a complete fool of himself in the remaining two paragraphs of his commentary. He goes on to suggest a further slippery slope, saying that if Britain extended the right to assist someone in dying out of compassion from family members to others, the country would run a 'terrible risk' of being overrun by Kevorkian type characters. You have seen already how slippery slopes fail. This one is another spectacular failure, even more obvious than the first slippery slope Mr Palmer served up in his short commentary. Kevorkian's actions could be paraded as a good example of the unregulated chaos that could ensue in societies that have not decriminalized. He killed patients in the USA when assisted dying there was outlawed. That's why he went to jail in the first place. So, the only slippery slope that one could conjure up in the Kevorkian context is that criminalizing assisted dying leads to Kevorkians (note that I am not making this case, what I am saying is that based on Mr Palmer's screwy logic this would follow).  - My own view would be, by the way, that if a society decriminalizes they should limit the right to assist to health care professionals as opposed to family members. At least health care professionals are governed by professional codes of conduct, whereby family members... oh well.

 Palmer ends his diatribe with a misrepresentation of the patient's legal case, too, by claiming that

...it is impossible to disagree with Martin when he says that he would prefer to be dead. But that does not mean that anyone else should be obliged to kill him.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that nobody is suggesting that doctors should be legally obliged to assist, but rather that they'd be able to assist if they wish to volunteer. I wonder whether we will see the Telegraph publishing a correction at some point further down the track.

And here ends the rant against slippery slopes in discussions on end-of-life decision-making.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

More good news about our anthology! It's soon available in Polish as well as Korean language editions. Today I learned that a Spanish translation is also in the making!

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

On Assisted Dying

Here's a link to a brief CTV interview I did on assisted dying in Canada and two recent cases reaching the courts in British Columbia.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What Information Does Jack Layton Owe to the Public - if any?

Jack Layton, for my international readers, is the official Leader of the Opposition in Canada. He has been battling prostate cancer for some time. This week he announced his temporary withdrawal from his post, because a further cancer had been detected and needed to be treated. This all is, of course, terrible news both for Mr Layton personally, as well as for his party. Since then Canadian media outlets have begun speculating how bad his condition really is, pointing to his 'raspy voice' and the fact that he participated in Toronto's gay pride parade from the back of a ricksha, stuff like that. The question arose what levels of health disclosure public officials owe us. 


The Globe and Mail in Toronto's writer suggests that nothing short of a detailed disclosure of their health problems will do. He holds the disclosure the US President provides as a matter of course up as the gold standard. Of course, why such a standard should apply to an opposition politician (who isn't exactly in charge of the military or much else for that matter) isn't addressed in that article. There's no explanation in for why Mr Layton would owe us a full disclosure of his ailments along the standards the US President has to live up to. Why should Mr Layton's right to privacy not count? According to the G&M writer, it's because by having chosen to be in the public eye Mr Layton doesn't deserve much privacy. Really? 


Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr Layton owes us nothing at all with regard to the state of his health beyond stepping down when he is unable top fulfill his duties as an elected official, temporarily if he has reason to believe he will recover, or permanently if he has reason to believe he won't recover. We might be curious, but that doesn't establish a right to know on our part. Of course, Mr Layton has not stepped down as the elected representatives of his riding, so his electorate might want to ask him questions about his prognosis. After all, he can't currently meaningfully represent them. In case he's likely to recover he should say so, in case he's unlikely to recover he should resign his seat. However, does that mean he owes us details of his health situation? Not at all, it's none of our business. Do we need to know what other cancer he suffers from? Not at all, it's none of our business.


Elected officials owe their constituents just enough information as to permit them to make a determination on whether they remain (or will be in the foreseeable future) fit for office. No more, no less. The G&M writer offers us this silly line in his defence of his aggressive intrusion in Mr Layton's private life: 'Mr. Layton is a big boy. He can take it. The last thing he needs is pity.'  - The less said, the better.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Greyhound vs Via Rail

Interesting experience I had this week. So, I needed to book a last minute trip from Ottawa to Kingston. Stupidly I listened to advice and booked on Greyhound as opposed to Via Rail, as I normally do. So, I book a ticket for a particular day and time on Greyhound from Ottawa to Kingston. The price was negligibly lower than Via's would have been. Bizarrely on their website Greyhound tells you that just because you have a ticket for a particular service does not mean you will actually get on that service. It's first come first served. In other words, they might sell the 100 seats on a particular bus 20,000 times and leave 19,900 people in the lurch, they'd find out at the bus station, and Greyhound would try to put them on a 'later service'. Suffice it to say, there was no later service on the day that I planned to travel.

Well, I decided to take my chances. Expecting disastrous service at that stage I wasn't too surprised that the ticket did not actually print when I clicked the relevant weblink (the link was 'broken'). I tried on and off throughout the day, it never worked. Eventually I called Greyound's call centre where some smartie pants told me that I must print off the ticket. I asked him to try himself. He tried (me patiently waiting on my mobile phone), and eventually advised that they had a 'technical problem' (sounds like Air Canada, doesn't it?).

Incredibly, he then told me that he had to cancel my booking. I asked what that meant and he enlightened me me by telling me that he would cancel the ticket and I would get my credit card reimbursed during the next 7-14 days (!!!!), and that I would have to go to the bus station and purchase a new ticket. I asked whether that would mean a higher price, he confirmed that that likely would be the case.

So, everything here is Greyhound's fault. Their technical fault, their ticket cancellation, their requirement to purchase a more expensive ticket while having to wait 7-14 days to get the money back for the ticket they never issued. Does that strike you as possibly a fraudulent business practice? You sell on-line tickets you don't actually have, you eventually cancel them last minute and force customers to purchase a higher-priced ticket. Herewith added to my 'no go' list: Greyhound.

Compare this to Via Rail. I called them and asked whether I could use my Via points (Preference) to book a complimentary ticket for the next train available from Ottawa to Kingston. A pleasant person picked up the phone next to instantly (not the useless 'pick 1 for', 'pick 2 for', 'pick 3 for' that Greyhound keeps you occupied with), confirmed my details, booked my ticket, voila I had a valid booking, all in less than 5 minutes. No hassles, delightfully competent service. Another excellent experience with Via Rail. Love these people!