Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Why Derailing is a Flawed Approach

Train derailment

A common technique that is often deployed in online discussions of political, philosophical or skeptical issues is to attempt to derail the conversation. This is often done either by trying to distract and point to another issue that is perceived to be worse, harms more people or is generally more deserving of attention or to generally minimize the issue being discussed. The assumption is that one should not bother with issue A if issue B is more serious. In reality, this is a dishonest method that is used to shut down any conversation about issue A by portraying people who discuss issue A as ignorant, wasteful, obsessive or morally flawed.

This article outlines some of the problems with this tactic, such as the fact that one can focus on more than one thing, the risk of a backfire effect, issues with diminishing returns, the fact that it is inconsistent and that a consistent application of this tactic leads to absurd conclusions. In the end, this tactic should be avoided, and issues that deserve discussion on their own merits should be discussed regardless of other issues.

One can focus on more than one thing at the same time

Trying to distract from issue A by pointing to issue B and scolding people who dare to talk about issue A or lift issue A as important assumes that there really is an either-or situation. There is nothing that prevents people from talking about A, while acknowledging that B is also a problem and even a considerable problem. There is really no need to constantly try to shut down conversations about by issue A by an incessant reference to issue B.

It may backfire spectacularly

If there is a sustained effort by people who primarily care about issue B to distract, minimize or otherwise derail all conversations about issue A to conversations about issue B, people might develop a more negative appraisal of issue B and thus be less interested in giving issue B attention or concern. This is an example of the reverse halo effect whereby the negative associations with people who insist on issue B over issue A with issue B itself. In the same way, it may also cause people to dig their heels in when it comes to issue A and prioritize it even more over B. Read more of this post

How Pseudoscientific Quacks Defend Child Abuse

Natural News defend child abusers

Few things are more provoking to a scientific skeptic than when pseudoscientific cranks and quack exploit those who are not in a position to defend themselves. For instance, some HIV/AIDS denialist attempt to convince people with the virus to stop taking their medications or not using protection. Some anti-psychiatry proponents tell people with serious psychological conditions that they caused their own situation by “thinking too negatively” or “eating too much acidic food” and that all they need to do is “think positively”.

It is even more agitating when these quacks are exploiting and harming children. You might be able to argue that adults have personal responsibility and that they therefore should be allowed to do what they want, but this is not true for children. They are innocent and the quackery of the parents should not be imposed on their offspring. This post explores four such examples: chiropractors who perform dangerous spinal manipulations of very young children and even newborns, anti-vaccine activists who defend child abusers by falsely claiming that shaken baby syndrome is somehow a vaccine injury, fake therapists who subject children to coercive “rebirthing therapies” based on wrapping children in blankets and making them fight their way out to establish emotional attachment (that has led to fatalities) and finally autism quacks that force autistic children to drink bleach or take bleach enema.

Chiropractors: dangerous neck manipulations of newborn

Chiropractic is an alternative medicine pseudoscience that posits that most diseases are caused by misalignments in the spine called subluxation. In reality, these supposed misalignments cannot be seen on x-rays and had they been real, the person would be in excruciating constant pain, not have diffuse symptoms such as tiredness.

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When Anti-Vaccine Activists Falsely Dismiss Polio and Measles Harm

Vaccine Outliers

Russell Blaylock is a brain surgeon, but also a proponent of a whole host of misguided pseudoscientific claims about aspartame, MSG, water fluoridation, vaccines, medications for high cholesterol and he also believes in chemtrails. He even goes so far as to argue that modern medicine is not in the business of preventing disease, only treating it with expensive medications, despite the fact that vaccines are the pinnacle of preventative medicine and are very cheap compared with treatments for e. g. chronic diseases.

A long quote attributed to Blaylock is being circulated on social media originating from a website called “Vaccines by the Outliers”. The name refers to a closed Facebook group with over 5000 members. They call themselves “vaccine education and awareness group”, but readily admit that they consider that “much of what is heard about vaccines and vaccination within the mainstream, corporate media, the government, the medical profession, and certainly within the vaccine manufacturing industry is not the whole truth, and in many cases is just plain false.”

In reality, Blaylock borders on germ theory denialism, systematically attempts to dismiss the dangers with measles and polio, ignores the realities of importing vaccine-preventable diseases by travel, makes a common mistake of conflating death rates with incidence data, claims better sanitation got rid of measles and polio, despite the fact that this occurred in different decades, claims polio is a harmless summer flu and that vaccines overwhelm the immune system. More infuriating, he attempts to falsely tie the horrible tragedy of malnourished children dying to vaccines without any evidence whatsoever.

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Preventing Cranks from Benefiting from Your Skeptical Activism

Add-ons

The typical crank or quack website does not just contain pseudoscientific claims in plaintext. Instead, it is filled with dozens of advertisements, scripts that create and store cookies, analytics, beacons, and other kinds of trackers of all kinds. They collect information about you, your browser and Internet activities. Some of these provide the crank website with money from ad impressions and the information gathered by trackers. It can also violate your privacy and disrupt your Internet experience. Even worse, they can plant malware on your computer, steal credit card information or forcibly encrypt all of your personal files such as documents and photos and blackmail you for large sums of money in order to get them back.

There are methods that scientific skeptics can use to fight back. There are many useful tools that block advertisements and trackers, protect you from various malicious code injections or redirects, prevent cranks from profiting financially from your visits, stops them from gaining a better search engine ranking, and even help you protect your privacy and identity from cranks (both from visits and communication). This article examines some of the most commonly used tools to achieve these goals.

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How to Avoid Falling for Bullshit on the Internet

Bullshit

The Internet is so vast that you can find just about anything online, no matter how unreasonable and bizarre it is. So employing an efficient filter is often necessary to help to tell fact from fiction and to prevent people from inadvertently spreading nonsense because viral stories exploit your biases in an effort to get you to click like, share or retweet.

Are you tired of seeing stupid stories about the end of the world, how some new kind of cabbage can cure all cancers, that coughing prevents death from heart failure or any of the other thousands of inane viral stories being shared on social media? This is a simple introductory guide on how to avoid falling for bullshit on the Internet.

Wait for more facts to emerge

One of the biggest risks for falling for bullshit on the Internet is reacting too fast. When a new viral story or video hit, it is often shared thousands and thousands of times within a short period of time. Videos are made about it, Facebook posts are written about it, Tweets and retweets spread all over the Internet.

Keep your head cool, acknowledge the existence of the story to yourself, but do not fall for emotional manipulation that begs you to click “share” straight away. Do not share things that appeal to you if you have not fact-checked them sufficiently. The only thing that such actions accomplish is that you are spreading the nonsense around, and risk looking foolish if it turns out to be fake.

Check Snopes and other skeptical sources

Not everyone has the time or interest to fact-check stories in great detail. That is fine, people have other interests. However, there are some fact-checking methods that is both straightforward and fast. Search for the story on Google and add the word “Snopes” afterwards e.g. “obama muslim snopes” and you will end up here. Snopes is a website that critically analyzes questionable claims on the Internet and is a great resource for quickly checking the truth of a viral story. Sometimes, the story is too new or too uncommon for Snopes to have picked it up.

Snopes is not the only website that does fact-checking on the Internet. It is also possible to search for the story on Google and add the word “skeptic”, “fake”, “debunked” or similar words in order to find critical voices. Now, do not automatically trust these critics, because they too can be considerably mistaken. Instead, try to find out which is more reasonable: the viral story or the critics.

For specific claims, such as medicine, add words such as “CDC”, “WHO”, ” to get reliable medical websites. If the viral story makes claims about organization, such as “NASA”, go ahead and add that word too, or use “site:nasa.gov” to see if the NASA website has any information about it.

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Natural News: “If We Add Fluoride in Drinking Water, Why Not Arsenic?”

Anti-fluoridation stupidity.

Recently, Natural News writer Jennifer Lea Reynolds published a scientifically illiterate piece of pseudoscientific garbage entitled “Why don’t dentists promote adding ARSENIC to the water alongside FLUORIDE? They’re both ‘naturally occurring,’ after all”. Yes, it is that stupid. This post explains the benefits of water fluoridation, why we should not add arsenic in the drinking water, why arbitrary correlations do not demonstrate causation, why fluoride is the same regardless of the source and why water fluoridation is not mass medication.

The anti-fluoridation movement is a pseudoscientific movement that resembles and indeed regurgitates the same flawed debating methods as anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists. This is a shame because there is at least some merit to the idea of specifically tailoring the amount of fluoride in the drinking water for different communities with different needs, but batshit anti-fluoridation activists make this discussion impossible to have.

What is water fluoridation and why is it used?

All water out in nature contain some level of fluoride. This is because it is leached out of the bedrock where it occurs e. g. in the form of calcium fluoride CaF2. The dental benefits of water fluoridation was first discovered studying areas where there was sufficient concentration of fluoride in the drinking water. Then some countries added fluoride in an optimal concentration to other kinds of drinking water that contain very little fluoride.

Water fluoridation is used because it works. Numerous studies (reviewed here and here) have shown that it reduces cavities by a considerable proportion and both the CDC and the WHO agrees that there is substantial evidence of efficacy, the latter even calling it “the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”.

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Bracket Fungus as Fake “Treatment” for Suicidal Thoughts

Reishi undercover journalism

Americans spend around 34 billion dollars from their own pockets on alternative medicine every year according to the National Institutes of Health. Almost all of these products are either supported by weak research, no research or directly contradicted by large-scale high-quality scientific studies. What is worse is that this kind of quack “treatments” have seeped into academia and created several centers for “integrative medicine”.

It has also invaded public perception, with alternative health stores popping up all across major cities around the world that sells all kinds of quackery, from colloidal silver to allegedly healing mushrooms. What is truly terrifying is their aggressive marketing of these products for medical conditions they certainly do not effectively treat, thereby conning innocent and sick people for money while giving very little, if anything in return in terms of health benefits. In particular, there seems to be a growing trend to sell alternative medicine products for psychiatric conditions and symptoms such as depression, anxiety and suicidality.

A local department of the Swedish public television (SVT) decided to make a critical investigation (webcite) into one of these alternative health stores called Clearlife and a product they sold called Reishi. What they found was that the company recommends powdered mushroom in hot water as treatment for recurring suicidal thoughts. Utterly unscientific, unethical and likely illegal.

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Swedish Health Store Sells Colloidal Silver Despite Ban

Kville's Facebook Page

Kvilles Hälsokost och Ekolivs is a Swedish health store located in Gothenburg. According to its Facebook page, it has been around for about 20 years as an independent company. They sell supplements as well as homeopathy and claim that they tailor their supply in accordance with customer requests.

Ionosil colloidal silver is a solution of silver ions and silver nano particles made by the alternative medicine company Ion Silver. It is a fake treatment that claims to be able to cure “cancer, malaria, rheumatism, singles, COPD, TWAR [Taiwan acute respiratory agent], Lyme’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Ebola, psoriasis, [and] norovirus infection” according to an investigation carried out by the Swedish Medical Product Agency.

Why and how was it banned?

The outcome of this investigation was that the Swedish Medical Products Agency banned Ion Silver from selling or marketing the product with such health claims in early June of 2015. The justification provided by the agency was the following (my translation):

The Medical Products Agency holds that the claims that Ionosil or colloidal silver generally can cure diseases risk attracting consumers or patients to buy Ionosil instead of turning to health care system to get a correct treatment.

Selling and marketing with such claims is therefore a health risk.

How does the health store market the product?

Earlier today, they put up a Facebook post about it:

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Flawed Swedish Anti-Vaccine Article Rejected and Retracted

Anti-vaccine post

Anti-vaccine activists allegedly failed to get an opinion piece dishonestly titled “Our children should not be forcibly vaccinated” published in a major Swedish newspaper called Dagens Nyheter. The provided reason was supposedly that it did not include sufficient sources for their anti-vaccine claims. They attempted to publish it on the debate section on the website of the newspaper, but it was retracted a short while after. They will likely play the martyr card and claim that the mainstream media is oppressing them, even though the newspaper just declined publication and retracted a pseudoscientific opinion piece that promoted many scientific falsehoods.

The letter to the editor was published (webcite) a day later on the alternative news website Newsvoice that have supported many different conspiracy theories before. Although many of the claims made have been disproved thousands of times before, it is important to provide credible scientific information in a time where dangerous pseudoscientific myths are gaining ground and so this post will serve a point-by-point refutation.

It turns out that the authors of the opinion piece (Boo, Tips, Ahlm, Karlström och Zazzio) based their case on confusing mandatory with compulsory, butchering a quote from the Sweden National Board of Health and Welfare, spreading fear and uncertainty about vaccine safety and efficacy, claimed that knowledge about the prevalence of vaccine side-effects relies only on spontaneous reporting rather than active monitoring. Finally, they are betrayed by their own ignorance on why infants are vaccinated and even go so far as to propose that vaccines constitute “premeditated attempted murder”.

Mandatory vaccination is not the same as compulsory vaccination

At its core, Boo and co-authors confuses mandatory with compulsory in an effort to spread fear and doubt about vaccines. If something is mandatory, you pay a societal cost for not doing it. For instance, if you fail to show up for a mandatory lab session in a university chemistry course, you will not pass the course or you may not be able to send your child to your favorite candidate school if they require children to be vaccinated. If something is compulsory, on the other hand, it means that things something will be carried out under the threat of violence. If you fail to show up to a compulsory police interrogation, the police will come to your home or job and ask you to come with them. If you decline, you will be put in handcuffs and taken to the police station. If you resist, they will use violence against you.

Mandatory vaccination is not the same as compulsory vaccination. Compulsory vaccination was tried in e. g. the 1800s, and it arguably did not work. That is why countries like Sweden and the United States do not have compulsory vaccination.

Serious side-effects are very, very rare

The CDC has a lot of information about possible side-effects. For the MMR and DTaP vaccines, there is a 1 in 1 million risk of a severe allergic reaction. Other reported side-effects are so rare that if they are real, they cannot be reliably measured (risk much less than 1 in 1 million).

The risk from getting the disease is much worse. The risk of death for diphtheria is 5-10% and for tetanus it is about 10%. For measles it is 2%. Other complications of measles disease is brain inflammation, pneumonia, seizures and several others.

If you compare the risk with the vaccine versus the risk of the disease, the disease is much, much worse.

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Anthroposophic Homeopathy Gets Extended Exemption

Anthroposophic Homeopathy

For the thirteenth time in a row, fake treatments based on extreme dilutions of plant parts and heavy metals have been given an extended exemption from medical regulations in Sweden. The homeopathic products come from the Vidar Clinic located at Järna in the heart of the Swedish anthroposophy movement. Although Swedish law protects patients from quacks, the Swedish counterpart to the FDA have registered homeopathic products and they are being sold at pharmacies all around the country. Some fake medicine, such as anthroposophic homeopathy, has gotten especial exemption for years so they do not have to be registered or have any evidence of efficacy.

What is homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a pseudoscientific “alternative” treatment based on two scientifically false notions:

(1) “like cures like” e. g. snake venom treats snake bites.
(2) “potentiation by serial dilution” i.e. extreme dilutions (even to the point of there being no molecule of the active substance left) make the “treatment” stronger.

These two ideas is contradicted by almost everything we know from physics, chemistry and biology about how diseases work, how dilutions work and the relationship between dose and response.

What is anthroposophy?

Anthroposophy is a quasi-religious worldview created by Rudolf Steiner that includes, among other things:

(i.) a mystical form of anti-evolution where all animals are devolved from a human-like state.
(ii.) biodynamic agriculture, an esoteric version of organic farming that includes astrology and burying animal parts.
(iii.) selected forms of alternative medicine, such as mistletoe against cancer and homeopathy, as well as anti-vaccine sentiments and beliefs about past lives.

What is the Vidar Clinic?

The Vidar Clinic is a Swedish hospital controlled by proponents of anthroposophy that is located outside the city of Järna (the major Swedish hub for Swedish anthroposophy). Documented “treatments” provided by this clinic includes iron from meteorite diluted to 20D (1 molecule of the substance in 1020 molecules of water) and intervertebral discs from cattle, bamboo and ants. Even more alarmingly, they treated people with severe anxiety with diluted gold and various plant extracts. The clinic also advised parents with children who had measles that vaccines caused autism and that parents should intentionally spread the measles rash to the entire body of the child. In other words, their treatments are unscientific and far too diluted to have any real therapeutic effect.

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