I recently had a chance to sit down and ask Michael De Dora some questions about the work he does with CFI. You might remember Michael from my series on Speaking out Against Hate Directed at Women.
Michael is the Director of Public Policy and the UN Representative for the Center for Inquiry. Many people in the secular community seem unaware of the extremely important work that Michael De Dora and CFI are doing. They are literally on the front lines battling to protect women’s reproductive rights. They are working to ensure the separation of church and state here at home. They tirelessly rage against the oppressors of the world so that all people may eventually have freedom of religion, non religion and freedom of expression. They fight to keep religion out of the classroom and they fight to keep government funding from being funneled from public schools into religious schools. Care about freedom of speech? Then you should care about CFI’s newly launched Campaign for Free Expression.
Too much social justice and not enough traditional skepticism for ya?
Well, guess what?
They even educate local government on the dangers of alternative medicine and fight to stop tax funding and insurance coverage of risky or unfounded treatments. Oh, and yeah, climate science is on their list too.
In fact, after finishing Michael’s interview, I am pretty convinced this guy never sleeps and is a superhero. So you better read what he has to say or he might be coming for you next.
My interview with Michael after the jump.
Could you please explain the mission of CFI’s Office of Public Policy and your active role in that policy?
The broad mission of CFI’s Office of Public Policy is to push governing bodies to enact public policies based on secular values, humanist ethical principles, and, where possible, scientific evidence. Essentially, we combine the secular and humanist worldviews, and the scientific worldview, and apply the combined perspective to policy debates. I think that this multi-faceted approach results in some very compelling arguments.
But let me be more specific. Domestically speaking, we work with both Congressional lawmakers on legislative efforts, and the administration and its agencies on federal rules and regulations, to ensure separation of church and state and a respect for science. Internationally speaking, we work at the United Nations to pressure foreign leaders and diplomats to respect basic human rights such as freedom of belief and expression.
We also sometimes lobby elected officials in states were CFI has branches – Indiana, New York, California, and Michigan – and in states where outrageous attempts are being undertaken, such as personhood amendments, fetal pain legislation, mandatory ultrasounds, and baseless restrictions on abortion providers. However, given our small pool of resources, we have to be careful about how thin we spread ourselves.
I’d say these efforts are evenly split between working alone and working with coalitions to enact change. Sometimes working alone is necessary or wise, but for the most part, the broader the coalition you can put together, the greater the chance of success. For example, we work with the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination to reform faith-based initiatives by the federal government; the National Coalition for Public Education to prevent taxpayer funding from being diverted from the public education system to private and religious schools; and the Coalition for Liberty and Justice to prevent public policy from imposing religious viewpoints on citizens. These coalitions include dozens of labor, civil rights, religious, secular, LGBT, and women’s organizations. And they’ve had a good deal of success in coordinating advocacy efforts and achieving common goals.
What is the focus of the work you have been doing recently?
Most recently our focus has been on protecting and defending the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression. Historically, these rights have been fragile, and they have come under widespread attack the last couple months – especially after the release of the Internet video Innocence of Muslims, which caused protests in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
One of our main focuses on this issue has been to shed light on the growing number of cases of people being punished simply for practicing a different, or no religion, or speaking their mind. Perhaps the most prominent case, at least for the secular community, is that of Alexander Aan, the Indonesian fellow who is in jail for posting on Facebook that he is an atheist.
In order bring attention to Aan and others like his, we just launched the Campaign for Free Expression, which seeks to rally broad support for the right to freedom of speech. In concert with that, we have been working at the United Nations to fight attempts by the leaders of several countries to implement resolutions and agreements that would in effect restrict freedom of expression. And we have been working with the State Department to put diplomatic pressure on countries that do not respect freedom of expression. The idea is that the more social support you build for a position, the more feasible political action becomes.
What are some issues that are currently a focus for your organization domestically?
Domestically, we have worked most intensely on three issues. One is reproductive rights. I don’t think I need to remind anyone that there have been record attacks on reproductive rights over the last 12 to 18 months, with lawmakers working to restrict access to both abortion and contraception. Most prominently, CFI has been lobbying the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Obama Administration since last August to keep in place the rule requiring health insurance providers and organizations providing health care plans to cover preventive health services, such as birth control and contraception, without charging a co-payment – and to reject lobbying efforts by the Catholic Bishops and other organized religious groups. We have also worked at the Congressional and state level to fight against any bill that would restrict a woman’s access to reproductive health care. In particular, we were active in opposing a bill that would have banned abortions in Washington, D.C. after 20 weeks, a violation of Roe v. Wade.
Another of our core issues is reforming the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which was originally launched by President George W. Bush to provide religious groups taxpayer funding to perform social services. While President Obama has been better on this issue, instituting important reforms, religious organizations that receive taxpayer dollars are still allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices, and sometimes even in offering benefits to recipients. We think this is wrong, and have worked with the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination and its member groups to meet with policy makers in order to reform the program. We have also lobbied on specific pieces of legislation, such as the Workforce Investment Act and the Violence Against Women Act, that deal with federal grants and include or do not include language protecting taxpayers from supporting religious activities and discrimination.
A third issue of recent focus is school vouchers, in which the government diverts money from the public school system to parents for the purpose of sending their kids to schools operated by a religious organization. In fact, we just released a position paper on this very issue, authored by Ed Doerr. Doerr argues convincingly that implementation and expansion of voucher programs threatens the idea of religiously neutral, democratic public education, and could have profound, perhaps irreversible effects on our future. It would make that the public education system, which serves all citizens, would suffer while the government funnels money toward unregulated private religious schools that have shown to perform no better, and often worse than public schools. The position paper is more a product of our ongoing work on this issue than a signal that it has started. We have lobbied Congress to stop funding the D.C. voucher program, and worked at the state level, for instance in Indiana, to try to prevent voucher legislation from passing statehouses.
How do you go about informing the public and the government on issues that are important to the secular population?
As I’ve mentioned, CFI issues position papers, and shorter policy briefs, authored by experts in order to clarify our views on political questions. We publish these papers and briefs for two reasons. On one hand, we want policy makers to become more informed on issues before they take action and put policies in place. On the other hand, we want the public to become more informed on these issues as well – not just for the sake of knowledge, but because the more people who know about the severity and truth of an issue, the more they are willing to contact their elected officials and voice their concerns, and the more accurate they will be when they do so.
Another way in which we inform the public about political ongoings is through action alerts. When relevant votes are coming up in Congress or in a statehouse, we email our members with information on the vote and our position, and with a formatted message that, after filling out some personal details, can be sent quickly and directly to their elected officials.
Last but not least, we inform the public through media and public relations efforts. There are a lot of people who aren’t tuned into the world of policy and action alerts and, though I think more people should be, we realize that and try to reach them in other means. This includes everything from billboard advertisements to interviews with smaller and alternative news outlets to appearances on the big news channels like FOX News, CNN, and MSNBC.
How do you decide what issues are important?
We decide which issues are important largely based on our mission. We will jump on an issue if it threatens the separation between church and state, is unethical from a secular humanist perspective, or is either unaligned or even opposed to current science. Once an issue passes those tests, we only take into account practical concerns such as “are any organizations doing sufficient work on this?” or “do we have the time and resources to do quality work on this?”
Quite honestly, I think it’s harder work to find the issues than to decide which ones to take up. We have all kinds of ways in which we track stories relevant to our issues. We have legislative tracking programs, read certain blogs and news websites on a daily basis, and work with likeminded groups to stay updated on the latest news. Then, a couple of us will talk internally about whether we should get active, and what that would mean. But because there are only a couple sets of ears and eyes, we’re limited. So I would absolutely suggest that readers email us ([email protected]) if they feel they have an interesting and important issue worth our consideration.
What are some traditional skeptic issues that CFI’s Office of Public Policy has tackled?
I was hoping you would ask that! You might have noticed the issues I mentioned above are not typical skeptic issues. Though they have a strong scientific component, they’re mostly secular or humanist issues. However, we have tackled at least three subjects of traditional skeptic interest.
One is alternative medicine. We have released two reports, in 2009 and 2011, in the last couple years by Eugenie Mielczarek, an Emeritus Professor of Physics at George Mason University, calling on Congress to not spend any taxpayer dollars on alternative medicine. In specific, we have called for the end of the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an office within the National Institutes of Health that studies and promotes alternative medicine. NCCAM has spent $2 billion since 1992 to study alternative medicine, without any positive results. Its current annual budget is $134 million. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s $134 million that could be invested on real scientific and medical research.
In addition to this, we have written the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asking them to reject lobbying efforts to require health insurance providers and organizations to cover acupuncture. The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and other alternative medicine groups were trying to persuade HHS to categorize acupuncture in the same way that contraception was categorized in the issue I mentioned above, as an Essential Health Benefit under the 2012 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or, “Obamacare”). We wrote HHS a letter including our position paper on acupuncture, which shows why the procedure has no clinical value. We haven’t heard anything, but that’s usually good – it means they likely will ignore the acupuncture lobby and move on.
The other issue I would mention is climate change, which has been off the political radar but hopefully gets back on it after Hurricane Sandy – or at least we’re going to try to put it back on the radar working alongside with the many good people involved with the issue. In 2006, we published a position paper by Stuart Jordan, a Senior Staff Scientist (Emeritus) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, that laid out compelling evidence drawn from a large body of research that climate change was underway and required our immediate attention. Years later, in 2009, we authored a study on the U.S. Senate Minority Report, a document which was signed by 700 “dissenting scientists” and which Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) used to claim there was not a scientific consensus on climate change. Our study exposed the lack of credibility of this report, finding that 80 percent of Inhofe’s dissenting scientists had never published peer-reviewed climate research. We even found four percent who said they agreed with the scientific community’s consensus on climate change and shouldn’t have been on the list!
We are now again working with Mr. Jordan to issue an updated paper on advances in climate science since 2006, and the need for immediate political action to address the issue. The potential consequences of inaction are simply too great for us to sit back and let climate change continue to sit on the back-burner of political issues.
How do you respond to people when they say that women’s issues, such as reproductive rights and equal pay, are not typical of what is considered ‘classic or traditional skepticism’ and should not be an organization’s focus?
Obviously a lot of this debate hinges on how people define “classic” or “traditional skepticism.” I think it’s safe to say that these models of skepticism are mainly focused on topics like psychics, ghosts, Bigfoot, Chupacabra, astrology, and alternative medicine.
That’s fine, but I think asking “what counts as classic or traditional skepticism?” is less important than asking, “what counts as skepticism?” In other words, what is skepticism, broadly speaking?
I define skepticism expansively, to include both critical thinking and a healthy respect for science. To me, skepticism is bringing the best of both philosophy (logic, reason) and science (empirical evidence) to bear on any and all claims. And I think this conception leaves skepticism open to application to many non-typical issues, such as reproductive rights and equal pay. This is the way it should be – the way it needs to be. Skepticism is a process, not an end, and it needs to be continually applied to modern issues of relevance not just to the skeptic community, but all persons interested in figuring out what is true and what is not true.
Now, there are some people who define skepticism more narrowly, to include only the empirical aspect. By consequence, they argue, skepticism is limited in scope. However, I think they will find that this type of skepticism still applies to a wide range of issues. Consider the two issues that you mentioned, reproductive rights and equal pay. Both of these involve philosophical questions regarding human rights and fairness, respectively. But both also have empirical angles, in which real world data and statistics can be brought to bear.
For example, science helps us to know about the safety of abortion and contraception, the cognitive development of embryos or fetuses, the reasons why women receive abortions when they do, the most effective ways to reduce abortion rates, and more. Science also helps us to know about what kind of system or rules would help us correct the equal pay gap, so that we’re not just guessing or leaving it to the free market (which science has shown does not work!). People – lawmakers – make all kinds of scientifically uninformed or incorrect claims about these subjects. Scientific skepticism is a tool by which we can help to correct these views.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that skeptic organizations and leaders who adhere to the “classic” or “traditional” models of skepticism should take up reproductive rights and equal pay as two of their core issues. Every organization has a focus and limits in terms of available resources. But skeptic organizations and leaders also should not dismiss these issues as irrelevant to skepticism. I can’t think of a single serious issue irrelevant to skepticism, from traditional issues such as alternative medicine and climate change to newer issues such as reproductive rights to perhaps even news and media coverage.
How can people help you with these causes? How can we get involved?
Great question. I’ve noticed that many people seem to think, “well, we have some lobbyists fighting for our cause, we’ll be all right.” That’s not at all true. First, secular and skeptic lobbyists are way outnumbered by their opponents. Second, lobbyists who don’t have tons of money – and we don’t – are only effective when the elected officials they meet with know that the lobbyist represents not just him or herself, but thousands of Americans.
Which means secularist and skeptics should write and call lawmakers. The easiest way to go about doing this regularly is to sign up to receive action alerts from organizations such as CFI, the Secular Coalition, the American Humanist Association, the National Center for Science Education, the Union of Concerned Scientists. Once you do that, you’ll soon start receiving emails that will allow you to easily message your representatives on issues relating to secularism and skepticism. It takes only a couple of minutes to fill out an action alert and send it along to a lawmaker. When you’re done, share the action alert and other links to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and whatever other social networks you use. If you don’t like email, you can also pick up a phone and let your representative know you care about a certain issue and are paying attention to his or her actions. I would tell you write a hand-written letter to your representative, but due to restrictive security measures, there’s a good chance your letter will be delayed several months, or might never even reach its intended audience.
But the bottom line is, believe me, they are listening. They might not take into account the unique content in each message, so don’t write a thesis. But they are almost certainly paying attention to the number of messages they receive in support or opposition of a certain bill or policy.
Aside from directly contacting lawmakers, there are plenty of other ways people can get involved and help. Attend local school board meetings, community hearings, and public forums and voice your opinion. Write letters to the editor. Comment on blog posts and online news articles. Do whatever you can to spread the message. Otherwise we resign ourselves to live under religious rules, and unscientific policy – and that’s unacceptable.
Thank you so much for the work you are doing and for taking the time to talk with us, Michael. Now everyone else, get out there and help too or Michael might be coming for YOU next!
*Editor’s note: Michael will not be coming for you. He is too busy kicking ass.