Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb Now Defends Homeopathy

Taleb on Twitter

Over a year ago, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb co-wrote an ignorant paper on the precautionary principle and its supposed lethal application to genetically modified foods. In it, the authors made several errors. They asserted, without evidence, that genetically modified crops are more dangerous than conventional crops and failing to consider the benefits of GM crops in preventing vitamin a deficiency, blindness and death (instead falsely comparing it to letting poor people play Russian roulette to get out of poverty).

Despite critics writing several detailed refutations, Taleb retained the irrational belief that no “intelligent comment” had been made. A person even tweeted Taleb the above article from Debunking Denialism and after spending a total of two minutes on it, Taleb declared that it was “not very intelligent”, “full of flaws” and “even downright stupid”, despite the fact that it had demolished the central claims made by the authors.

As if this was not enough, Taleb has now gone full-blown anti-science. In a couple of recent tweets, he went so far as to defend homeopathy at length. He falsely claimed that homeopathy was harmless and thus totally ignoring documented expectancy side-effects as well as the problem that people with real dangerous medical conditions (such as cancer) might avoid science-based intervention. He also completely misunderstood and mocked the psychiatric condition known as health anxiety, thereby implying that those individuals are better of with homeopathy than psychotherapy. In a final twist of incomprehensible absurdity, Taleb stated that superstitions such as homeopathy can sometimes be rational, particularly if they somehow “prevent you from listening to forecasts by economists”.

Homeopathy is not “harmless placebo”

Taleb starts out by making the common claim that homeopathy is harmless:

Taleb defends homeopathy

Homeopathy is not harmless. It is certainly pharmacologically inert on its own, but this is not the same as harmless. First, promoting homeopathy might make people with dangerous medical conditions forgo science-based treatments. Second, homeopathy can be accompanied by negative expectancy effects called nocebo effects. Third, unscrupulous alternative medicine sellers can mix in pharmacologically active substances that can have potentially dangerous health consequences. In the United States, all of this is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Read more of this post

Seller of Miracle Mineral Solution Gets 51 Months in Prison

MMS seller sentences to over 4 years in prison

Louis Daniel Smith and his wife Karis Delong from the Oregon city of Ashland operated a company on the Internet called Project GreenLife for seven years. They were primarily selling a chemical substance called sodium chlorite as a miracle cure for a long list of serious health conditions, such as cancer, malaria and HIV. They advised their customers to mix it with water and citric acid to form chlorine dioxide (an industrial bleach used in e. g. pulp mills) and then drink it.

So what did they do? They smuggled sodium chlorite into the United States from Canada, wrote false invoices, tried to masquerade their product as wastewater treatment to avoid getting caught by the FDA and the customs officers, putting falsely branded chemical substances into interstate trade in a feeble effort to defraud consumers. To make matters even worse, they also hid and destroyed evidence from the police during a search warrant.

He was convicted in May on several of the charges and risked a total of 34 years in prison.

What is sodium chlorite / chlorine dioxide / miracle mineral solution (MMS)?

According to a recent press release from the U. S. Department of Justice:

MMS is a mixture of sodium chlorite and water. Sodium chlorite is an industrial chemical used as a pesticide, for hydraulic fracturing and for wastewater treatment. Sodium chlorite cannot be sold for human consumption, and suppliers of the chemical include a warning sheet stating that it can cause potentially fatal side effects if swallowed. When mixed with water and citric acid, it makes chlorine dioxide, another kind of bleach.

In other words, these people are promoting the usage of industrial bleach and recommending that people drink it to magically cure their dangerous and potentially life-threatening diseases.

What did Louis Daniel Smith believe that MMS would do?

Was this a case of a seller simply not knowing or understanding the dangers of the product he sold? No, quite the opposite: Smith had full knowledge of the serious side-effects the treatment could give people who drank it:

Read more of this post

Deconstructing a Flawed Defense of EMPowerplus Quackery

False Hope

Alternative medicine proponents defend their pseudoscientific quackery by a number of different means. Sometimes they claim that their alleged “treatment” is actually science-based and put forward studies that make trivial errors when it comes to experimental design, statistical analysis or the appropriate interpretation of the results in the wider medical context. However, this is typically rare since it requires a very deep level of intellectual self-deception. Other methods include claiming that although the preparation is just placebo, it is still very powerful through some mystical mind-body process that science can never understand. Quite often, however, they do not even make a serious attempt at sounding reasonable and instead merely claim that it “works for them” and that it is therefore unreasonable and immoral to object to alleged “treatments” that either has no evidence of safety or efficacy or has evidence of harm.

This article examines one such attempt to prop up an alternative medicine product called EMPowerplus (by Truehope) for psychiatric conditions such as autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety and bipolar conditions. However, these claims have never been evaluated by the FDA and the company uses the classic quack Miranda warning that their product is “intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” There is no credible scientific research supporting efficacy and safety of the product (the only RCT was terminated before completion and results were never reported), it has potentially dangerous drug interactions, the company makes invasive follow-up calls, and even promote the notion that Candida infection causes diseases in otherwise healthy individuals. Not only that, but the company tries to recruit friends and family to manipulate the patient to stay on the “treatment”.

Read more of this post

The Fifth Anniversary of Debunking Denialism

Fifth Blog Anniversary

Today marks the fifth year since the founding of the Debunking Denialism website.

New content

During the past year, 44 new articles have been written and posted on Debunking Denialism. Topics ranged from the large Ebola outbreak and the conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific quackery that followed (such as homeopathy) to how an alternative medicine company threatened mental health blogger Natasha Tracy with a lawsuit unless she removed science-based criticism of their product from her website.

Several topics were explored in detail using peer-reviewed scientific papers, such as false confessions and genetic privacy in the age of high-throughput sequencing.

Otherwise credible sources were dissected, such as the promotion of detox regimes by Swedish Public Radio, a credulous blog post advancing anti-psychiatry at the Scientific American Mind website, Swedish Public Television inviting anti-vaccine activists to a “debate” about safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and Tim Wise blaming the Holocaust on “scientism”.

Read more of this post

The Worst of the Autism Biomed Movement: Bleach, Castration and Death


Few things about quackery are more disgustingly horrible than when deluded parents (who hardly know anything about medicine or science) subject their children to dangerous substances that risks their health or even their life. It is understandable that parents who discover that their child has severe autism may become desperate and wants to do everything in their power to help. However, these people are also at their most vulnerable for being exploited by pseudoscientific nonsense and they can cause a lot of harm.

This article covers several of the most dangerous elements of the multi-million dollar industry known as the autism biomedical movement: chlorine dioxide bleach, chemical castration, hyperbaric oxygen chamber and chelation. Parents should never be allowed to sacrifice the health of innocent children for the benefit of pseudoscientific quackery.

Read more of this post

The Value of Debunking Irrational Bigotry Over Emotional Outbursts

Greta's blog

Irrational bigotry should receive moral condemnation. However, it is even more vital to subject these terrible ideas to critical scrutiny. Neglecting detailed skeptical refutations for the benefit of emotional outrage (however morally justified or psychologically understandable) can have substantial negative consequences.

This post will survey several of the negative consequences with preferring emotional outbursts to skeptical scrutiny: the reinforcement of the false belief that people promoting irrational bigotry are being oppressed, letting irrational bigotry stand unopposed by rational arguments and scientific evidence, promoting the harmful stereotype that skeptics are emotional and hysterical or cannot stick to the facts and the dangerous precedent that fundamentalists or ideologues can make misguided appeals to “being offended”.

This post will also critically examine the misunderstandings harbored by the writer and blogger Greta Christina in a recent post on the role of emotional outbursts in scientific skepticism. This includes the idea that scientific skepticism proceeds from a state of zero knowledge, that it requires mutual Socratic dialogue, or that it is somehow about treating all ideas as “neutral”, when this would in fact be false balance. It will also provide a detailed example of how to annihilate irrational bigotry with rationality and evidence and how to use controlled moral condemnation without succumbing to excessive personal attacks or emotional outbursts. Finally, this post will go over what the positions outlined in this text does not mean.

Why is a preference for emotional outbursts over skeptical debunking a very bad idea?

There are substantial downsides with posting emotional outbursts (however justified they might be morally) while downplaying a fact-based debunking:

(1) it will reinforce their false belief that the person promoting irrational bigotry are being oppressed.

(2) it will reinforce the same false belief among other supports of such irrational bigotry and this is likely a major reason for why these kinds of movements grow: it is the perfect storm between anti-establishment ideology and rooting for the perceived underdog. For instance, a lot of anti-immigration political parties in Europe ride on this kind of wave and they have been very successful in exploiting this sentiment.

(3) it will reinforce the view that there is no reasonable scientific response to such irrational bigotry, since all they got was an emotional outburst and no substantive refutations.

(4) it will let irrational bigotry stand unopposed so that future fence-sitters will not benefit from reading a skeptical debunking.

(5) it will reinforce and feed into the flawed stereotype that skeptics and proponents of social justice are “emotional” or “hysterical” and that they cannot be reasonable or cannot stick to the facts.

(6) the knowledge gained from reading the skeptical debunking will not spread to other skeptical or social justice allies, knowledge which they could have used in their fights against irrational bigotry elsewhere.

(7) it sets a potentially dangerous precedent that you can dominate a discussion about important topics by making emotional outbursts and thereby shutting it down completely under the disguise of misguided appeals to not wanting to cause offense. It should not concern us that e. g. religious fundamentalists or political ideologues feel “persecuted” or “offended” by a skeptical examination of their stances.

It is not clear that the benefits of downplaying or sacrificing skeptical criticisms for emotional outbursts outweighs these costs.

Read more of this post

How Online Casinos Deceive You Into Playing

Online Casino

How do online casinos continue to profit millions of dollars per year? What statistical, psychological and marketing tactics do they use to convince people to give up their hard-earned money for a few moments on slots with flashing lights and music? They do this by exploiting human cognitive biases, the neurobiology of reward, clever marketing tactics and the widespread ignorance of statistics.

This post will examine the mathematics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience and advertisement behind how many online casinos get people to play their salary and sometimes their entire saving away. In the end, the only way to win is not to play. If you visit Las Vegas, spend your money on good food, exciting activities and entertaining shows.

Gambler’s ruin: players can never reliably beat the casino regardless of betting system

A lot of gamblers think that they have found a betting system that allows them to get an edge over the house. The trouble is that no such betting system actually exists. This is because casinos have engineered their system to always give the house an edge over the player. A common betting system is known as the martingale system. It is based on the idea that if you lose, you double your bet. If you win, you are back over break even and reduce the bet down to the baseline again. However, simple mathematics shows that this is not a sustainable system. If you start by betting $5, then it only requires 10 losses before you are forced to bet $5120. On the 11th loss, it is $10240. Most gamblers do not have this kind of money, and will soon run out. Furthermore, a lot of casinos have a maximum limit for bets, so you cannot apply this system beyond a certain amount.

All other betting systems have similar flaws.

Read more of this post

Flawed Chemtrails Paper by Herndon Retracted

Retracted chemtrails paper

Chemtrails is a pseudoscientific conspiracy theory based on the notion that the government is secretly releasing mind-controlling chemicals that sterilize people from airplanes. In reality, it is a combination of water vapor and airplane exhausts. It is bad for the environment, but it is not even close to the fantasies put forward by conspiracy theorists. This is obvious from the realization that world population has increased from ~3 billion in the late 1950s to ~7 billion in the early 2010s, despite increased airplane traffic all over the world. In a similar fashion, the Flynn effect suggests that IQs are increasing by 3 points per decade. So the predictions made by the chemtrails conspiracy theory is refuted on all levels.

However, pseudoscientific cranks almost never let reality come in the way of a tantalizing conspiracy theory that appeal to their own biases and they make up increasingly bizarre and convoluted ideas as they go along. On 11th August 2015, the nuclear chemist J. Marvin Herndon got a paper that promoted chemtrails conspiracy theory published in an obscure journal called International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014 impact factor 2.063 according to their own website).

Read more of this post

Mailbag: Genetically Modified Foods and Immigration Statistics

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

Selective skepticism both amuses and frightens me at the same time. It is the approach whereby you accept the mainstream scientific position on a great many things (such as HIV/AIDS, vaccines, 9/11 etc.), but then have cordoned off a special area where you promote pseudoscientific nonsense and believe in all sorts of unreasonable things (say, you are anti-GMO or anti-psychiatry). To an external observer, it is a trivial lack of consistency, especially since most forms of pseudoscience share the same basic rhetoric: quote scientists out of context, misunderstand basic science, play the martyr card, create fake “controversies” and so on. Selective skepticism is closely related to pseudoskepticism, whereby a person gives a shallow pretense of being a scientific skeptic but shares almost none of the substantive content of scientific skepticism.

In this post, I will examine a couple of emails and comments received about genetically modified foods and immigration statistics. Those topics are not directly related, but they share the basic premise of selective skepticism or pseudoskepticism.

Read more of this post

Swedish Far-Right Politician Talk Nonsense About Climate Change

letter to the editor by SD politician

The Sweden Democrats (SD) is a far-right populist and anti-immigration political party in Sweden. With its roots in Swedish Neo-Nazism of the late 1980s and early 1990s1, it has no resemblance to the Democratic Party in the United States. In fact, they are more similar to the British National Party and during the past 20 year it has tried to white-wash its image in various ways. In the last election (2014), they received almost 13% of votes and became the third largest party in Sweden. Recent opinion polls indicate that their numbers are rising. Many political commentators think that this is due to the recent election debacle, where neither the left or the right achieved majority and SD threatened to vote against any budget regardless of origin (and did so once) unless they were given strong influence on immigration. This led the other parties to create a cautious truce called the December Agreement, whereby they would not vote against the budget delivered by the largest coalition. Some voters considered this to be a betrayal and may have shifted allegiances to SD to voice their disagreement.

Recently, Josef Fransson (industry-political spokesperson of SD) and SD-supporter Sandra Palenryd (secretary at Halmstad Hylte) wrote an ignorant screed (webcite) against mainstream climate science and got it published as a letter to the editor in a local newspaper called Hallandsposten (“The Halland Post”). It regurgitates many of the same climate denialist assertions that have been refuted a thousand times before. It is noteworthy, however, that the official position of one of the largest political parties in Sweden is so deeply anti-scientific (they even go so far as to deny the existence of a current warming trend) and how this risks influencing public policy depending on the results of the next election. It would be a disaster if Sweden had its scientific research and reputation so easily undermined by unreasonable forces like SD. Thus, this merits a point-by-point refutation.

Read more of this post


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 540 other followers

%d bloggers like this: