Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

How SVT Debatt Botched the Vaccine Issue

SVT Debatt

SVT Debatt is a Swedish studio debating program on public television that discuss a couple of current topics each week. Issues range from immigration and feminism to soccer violence and diet trends. Unfortunately, science experts are far and few between and extremists are often given considerably more time to spew their nonsense. This is because the format of the show consists of short back-and-forth exchanges between invited guests and other audience members that are often interrupted by the show host (who serve as a moderator), thus promoting quack one-liners while penalizing careful scientific arguments.

This became abundantly clear during the show aired on 9th April that dealt with childhood vaccines. They had invited several anti-vaccine activists that were given ample time to spread their pseudoscientific misinformation, such as promoting measles parties to intentionally give children measles and the absurd claim that vaccines are supposedly just placebo treatments.

This is a point-by-point refutation of the pseudoscientific claims delivered by anti-vaccine parents on the show.

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New Nature Methods Paper Argues that P Values Should be Discarded

Fickle P Values

In the wake of the recent discussions about null hypothesis statistical significance testing and p values on this website, Häggström has decided not to respond beyond calling the latest installment in the series nothing more than a “self-parody”. No substantial statistical or scientific arguments were presented. Despite his unilateral surrender, it can be informative to examine a method paper entitled “The fickle P value generates irreproducible results” written by Halsey, Curran-Everett, Vowler and Drummond (2015) that was just published in the renowned Nature Methods journal that slammed the usage of p values. The authors even call for a wholesale rejection of p values, writing that “the P value’s preeminence is unjustified” and encouraging researchers to “discard the P value and use alternative statistical measures for data interpretation”.

As expected, it corroborates and confirms a large number of arguments I presented in this exchange and directly contradicts many of the flawed assertions made by Häggström. In fact, the paper goes even further than I have done, (1) showing that p values are unstable to direct replication even at levels of statistical powers that are generally considered to be acceptable (e.g. 0.8), (2) that p values are probably superfluous for analysis with adequate statistical power and (3) that previous research that relied on p values needs to be reexamined and replicated with proper methods for statistical analysis.

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When Creationism and Anti-Vaccine Activism Mesh

Creationism and anti-vaccine activism

One of the more frightening conceptual aspects of pseudoscience is known as the crank magnetism effect. It occurs when someone, who promotes one kind of pseudoscience, becomes more likely of promoting other kinds of crankery. Someone who promotes HIV/AIDS denialism may also promote alternative medicine, someone who promotes conspiracy theories about 9/11 might also believe that chemtrails are real, someone who are against vaccines might advocate for conspiracy theories about condoms and so on. This might occur because of similar core beliefs, such as the alleged severe deceitfulness of the government or because of extreme religious beliefs, or perhaps because of the similar themes and content of many kinds of pseudoscience.

Cornelius Hunter, an intelligent design creationist associated with the Center for Science and Culture (previously named the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) at the Discovery Institute, is a good illustration of the concept of crank magnetism. In two recent blog post, he promoted a number of classic anti-vaccine talking points, but these were not completely unrelated to his intelligent design creationist activism. Instead, he appears to see both of the conflicts as part of a larger culture war between mainstream science (that he calls “scientism”) and various religious and anti-scientific groups and individuals.

Evolution is a strongly evidence-based explanation for the origin of biological diversity

It is extremely common for creationists of various stripes to mischaracterize evolution as something it is not. Evolution is a strongly evidence-based explanatory framework for the origin of biological diversity. It is not about the origin of life (abiogenesis), it is not a worldview, it does not assume philosophical naturalism with respects to the origin of life.

The opposition to science by the forces of pseudoscientific is a fact

Hunter, in an effort to tarnish the combat against pseudoscience, intentionally conflate the current opposition to science by pseudoscientific groups with the historical conflict thesis. The historical conflict thesis, advanced by Draper and White, was the notion that there has been a continuous war between science and religion throughout European history. This turns out to be an inaccurate view of history as the authors cherry-picked and exaggerated their examples. To be true, there were groups of religious individuals who opposed various scientific models and medical advances, but it was rarely the official position of large religious organizations. However, the falsity of the historical conflict thesis does not disprove the true claim that here are currently many conflicts between science and various religious and non-religious groups today.

Denialism is not “thoughtful disagreement”

Hunter writes that:

If you disagree with “science” (as if there is such a monolithic thing), you are not a concerned or thoughtful citizen, you are a denier. In this “we versus them” world, the negative connotation is obvious.

Promoting conspiracy theories about scientists or the scientific community is not the same as being “thoughtful”. Spreading dangerous myths about how vaccines are harming millions of people or that genetically modified foods cause cancer is not the same as being “thoughtful”. Cherry-picking 1998 as a starting point in surface temperature graphs because it had a strong El Niño event in an effort to make it look like there has been no global warming during the past 17 years is not being “thoughtful”. There is a world of difference between being concerned and thoughtful and being a denialist. People are more than welcome to question scientific models and claims. In fact, this is encouraged since science grows by the rejection of ideas that do not work and by the tentative acceptance of models that do work (in terms of making accurate predictions). However, they should not be expected to be treated with silk gloves when they promote anti-scientific ideas that have been debunked thousands and thousands of times before. If you genuinely want to be part of an intellectually honest discussion on scientific topics (such as vaccines, GM foods or evolution) at least try to do some actual reading of credible scientific sources, whether technical or popular.

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Häggström on NHST: Once More Unto the Breach

Häggström, round four

It appears that Häggström still refuses to address the major criticisms laid out against NHST. In the addition he wrote to his previous post, he continues to engage in personalities and develops his tendency to mischaracterize my position into a genuine art form. Contrary to Häggström, I actually do think that people can often be statistically or scientifically non-naive yet promote naive beliefs and positions. That is the very definition of selective skepticism, that we all know is widespread. By claiming that “accept” is a legitimate NHST synonym for “not reject”, Häggström inadvertently show that NHST has to carry some of the responsibility for common misconceptions, such as confusing statistical non-significance with equivalence. I go into greater detail about how the popular R. A. Fischer quote that statistical significance either means that the null hypothesis is false or that something unlikely has occurred is false with the counterexample of large sample sizes. Finally, I reiterate the many criticisms that Häggström has either failed to respond to, or “responded to” by making faulty straw man assertions about what my position was.

Häggström, despite correction, fails to distinguish between person and argument

His recent response comes with another spate of attempted insults and engagement in personalities. This time, he alleges that I am a “disinformant” and a “silly fool”. Not only that he has now started complaining that my tone is “precocious” and patronizing”. He even goes so far as to arbitrarily attribute emotions to me when he claims that I “angrily attack” NHST. Yet none of this constitute actual substantive arguments. None of it implies that any of my arguments are mistaken and none of it implies that Häggström is correct.

I can think of nothing else to do but to quote what I wrote in the latest post: “The more my opponent dwell on my alleged personal traits or failings and make liberal use of invectives, the more they demonstrate that they are (1) unable to distinguish between an argument and the person making that argument, (2) have reduced capacity for emotional regulation and (3) tacitly admit that they do not have much in way of substantive arguments against my position. Their behavior does not harm me in any way. In fact, I find it endlessly entertaining. All they are doing is harming their own capacity to accurately perceiving reality.” Not that I think the message will get across. So by all means, I hope that Häggström continues to engage in personalities, since it is just a repeated demonstration of (1)-(3). He is doing all the work for me. Fantastic.

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Häggström Disrobed on NHST

Häggström, round three

In previous posts, I criticized the doomsday arguments made by some NHST statisticians about the recent banning of null hypothesis significance testing (NHST) as well as debunked the objections leveled against Geoff Cumming’s dance of the p value argument. This has now drawn the attention of mathematical statistician Olle Häggström and prompted him to write a response post to yours truly. He spends most of the post engaging in personalities and raving about perceived injustices he thinks I subjected him to, but he eventually discuss two examples where he thinks I have gone astray. Unfortunately, his first example is a trivial misreading of what I wrote as well as a quotation out of context. The second example, where he provides a situation where he thinks NHST is essential, is only slightly better. In the end, he fails to successfully rebuke any of my substantial arguments.

Häggström excessively engages in personalities

Because I have argued against pseudoscience for many years, I have developed a thick skin and a laser-like mentality trained at cutting through the nonsense. The more my opponent dwell on my alleged personal traits or failings and make liberal use of invectives, the more they demonstrate that they are (1) unable to distinguish between an argument and the person making that argument, (2) have reduced capacity for emotional regulation and (3) tacitly admit that they do not have much in way of substantive arguments against my position. Their behavior does not harm me in any way. In fact, I find it endlessly entertaining. All they are doing is harming their own capacity to accurately perceiving reality.

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The Laughable Desperation of NHST proponents

Häggström again

In a previous post, the many insurmountable flaws and problems of null hypothesis statistical significance testing (NHST) were discussed, such as the fact that p values are only indirectly related to the posterior probability, almost all null hypotheses are false and irrelevant, it contributes to black-and-white thinking on research results, p values depends strongly on sample size, and it is unstable with regards to replication. For most realistic research designs, it is essentially a form of Russian roulette. After a mediocre effort, mathematical statistician Olle Häggström failed to defend p values and NHST from this onslaught. Now, he was decided to rejoin the fray with yet another defense of NHST, this time targeting the dance of the p values argument made by Geoff Cumming. Does his rebuttal hold water?

Arguing from rare exceptions does not invalidate a general conclusion

Häggström seems to be under the impression that if he can find rare and complicated counterexamples, he can undermine the entire case for confidence intervals [being generally superior to p values, see clarification here]. (all translations are my own):

To calculate a confidence intervals is akin to calculating p values for all possible parameter values simultaneously, and in more complex contexts (especially when more than one unknown parameter exists) this is often mathematically impossible and/or lead to considerably more complicated and difficult-to-interpret confidence regions than the nicely intervals that are obtained in the video.

This is perhaps due to his background in mathematics where a single counterexample really does disprove a general claim. For instance, the function f(x) = |x| is continuous but not differentiable, thus disproving the claim that continuity implies differentiability. In the case of confidence intervals, on the other hand, the fact that they work in cases with a single parameter is enough to justify their usage. Keeping in mind that the vast number of experiments done in e. g. medicine are probably not complicated estimations of multiple population parameters, but more akin to measuring the effects of a medication compared with placebo, the superiority of confidence intervals over p values for a large portion of experiments stands. Yes, obviously we need more sophisticated statistical tools in more complicated experiments, but that is not a valid argument in the surrounding where they can be calculated and where they do work.

Finally, Häggström continues to refuse the fact that confidence intervals can be dislodged from the framework of NHST. Read more of this post

Debunking Statistically Naive Criticisms of Banning P Values

Häggström Hävdar about NHST

Olle Häggström is a mathematical statistician from Chalmers University of Technology and a prominent scientific skeptic. His projects and papers relevant for skepticism include several hard-hitting defenses of good science, such as opposing pseudoscience about climate change, criticizing the encroachment of postmodernism into higher education and exposing the intelligent design creationist abuse of the No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems. However, he also promotes unsupported beliefs about NHST, mathematical platonism and artificial general intelligence, thus making him another example of an inverse stopped clock.

Recently, Häggström wrote a credulous blog post where he exclaimed that banning NHST from the journal would constitute intellectual suicide by BASP. In it, he repeats a number of errors that he has done before and adds on a few others.

The only things about NHSTP and confidence intervals that are “invalid” are certain naive and inflated ideas about their interpretation, held by many statistically illiterate scientists.

In this sentence, Häggström deploys the classic rhetorical technique whereby he says that the NHST procedure itself is not flawed, only that many scientists misuse it. This was refuted in a previous post on Debunking Denialism that strongly criticized NHST: “[a] method like NHST that has such a strong potential for misunderstandings and abuse even among a large proportion of the most highly intelligent and highly educated has to accept a large proportion of the blame.” But even if we ignore that, NHST is flawed for a great number of reasons.

First, the p value is only indirectly related to the posterior probability. This means that a low p value is not a good argument against the null hypothesis because the alternative hypotheses might be even more unlikely. If you test homeopathy for cancer or the alleged psychic ability of someone, it is not really that impressive to find a p value that is lower than 0.05 (or lower than 0.0001 or whatever). Even testing moderately unlikely hypotheses (with an empirical prior of anywhere between, say, 10% and 30%) means that the p value is not a good measurement of posterior probability.

Second, null hypotheses are almost always both false and irrelevant. Read more of this post

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

Winston Wu's website

So far, we have seen how paranormalist Winston Wu misunderstands core skeptic principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, parsimony, burden of evidence, the perils and pitfalls of anecdotal evidence, and the fallibility of human memory. We have also investigated the difference between the unexplained and the unexplainable, the nature of beliefs, the methods of scientific skepticism, irrationality and the scope and influence of pseudoscience.

In this fourth installment of this articles series, we move onto examining specific paranormalist claims, such as psychics that claim to be able to talk to the dead, the value of controls and replication in psi research, the nature of the placebo effect and the alleged existence of miracles.

Misunderstood principle #16: Psychological techniques of alleged psychics

Alleged psychics use a wide range of psychological techniques (reviewed here) to persuade people that they have supernatural powers that allows them to supposedly communicate with the dead or gain important insights about the past: cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, time-shifting, inflating probabilistic resources, shotgunning, covering all bases, vanishing negative, escape hatch, changing the subject, spreading the net wider, retrofitting, post hoc rationalizations and so on.

Wu apparently do not recognize the breadth of psychological techniques because he only brings up cold and hot reading:

The problem with the cold reading/hot reading explanation is that for many accounts of psychic readings (including some of my own) the techniques do not account for the specific information attained. For example, some psychic can tell you very specific things about you without asking you any questions, which rules out the “fishing for clues” technique. If neither they nor any of their accomplices talked to you beforehand, then that would also rule out the same technique. […[ Unfortunately for skeptics, there are many cases of psychic readings where all of the above were ruled out. Therefore, cold/hot reading cannot account for every case. In such cases, the skeptic is left without explanations, but often continue to insist that the client must have given away some kind of clue, and demand that this be disproved first before imposing any claim of genuine psychic ability at work.

Because there are dozens and dozens of other techniques besides cold and hot reading, this is a very weak argument for the existence of psychic powers. Although Wu does acknowledge that there are many frauds out there, Wu has denied himself the opportunity to fully investigate alternatives to his hypothesis that alleged psychics have genuine supernatural powers.

The next part of the section contains anecdotes about visits to psychics that he and various people have done. However, as was explored in a previous installment, the plural of anecdote is not data. Also, many of them are second or third-hand accounts, taken from email list discussions or an anonymous story about remembering playing with an Ouija board at age 11. Thus, they contain information that can be considerably different from the actual events and Wu even acknowledge that at least some of the alleged examples are examples of cold reading. Because of that, this installment focus on examining Wu’s own experience.

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Mailbag: Skeptical Meanness and Anti-Immigration Extremism

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into 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.

What kind of comments should one except on a post discussing skeptical principles in relation to paranormal beliefs? Rebuttals to “unexplained does not mean unexplainable”? Critical discussion of concepts like belief and irrationality? Not even remotely close. Turns out that topics such as the alleged meanness of skeptics and recycled myths about immigration are far more interesting to some commenters.

Toby writes:

Very well-written, informative post. But you overly poo-poo the idea that skeptics launch mean-spirited attacks. Maybe there’s a cordial spirit at work in the higher echelons of skeptical discussion. But mention any belief in God on, say, a YouTube site or any other open discussion group and you hear the same, unimaginative taunts: “So, you believe in a magical, invisible Sky Daddy? How nice. Do you also believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? And the Zombie Jew?” (The prolific appearance of these same insults over and over doesn’t speak very highly of the mainstream skeptic’s capacity for originality.)

The “but skeptic’s are not original!” quibble can quickly be dispatched. If comparisons make a valid point, why change it? The second point about alleged meanness assumes that religious beliefs should be given special considerations. Hardly anyone of the “skeptic’s are mean!” make the same objection against movie or food critics whose condemnations of horribly bad cinema or stale and tasteless cuisine can be just as harsh and filled with mockery. For some reason, many people want to give religion a special pass and are appalled at the mere suggestion that religious beliefs run counter to rational considerations of scientific evidence.

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Who Do ‘Rethinking AIDS’ Denialists Consider “Medical Professionals”?

Rethinking AIDS website

Within mainstream medicine, the causal connection between HIV and AIDS is one of the most well-studied connections between a pathogen and a clinical condition ever known. However, there are still those who think that HIV does not cause AIDS, or even more absurdly, that HIV does not even exist despite the fact that we have a massive amount of clinical, imaging and sequencing data from the virus.

One of the key organizations underlying modern HIV/AIDS denialism is called “Rethinking AIDS” and includes several of the most well-known HIV/AIDS denialists in history such as David Rasnick, David Crowe, Henry Bauer, Peter Duesberg and Marco Ruggiero. The pseudoscientific claims made by many of these individuals have been covered extensively on Debunking Denialism before. Recently, they posted a list of approved “medical professionals” that are “willing to work with HIV-positive people on their actual health problems and will not pressure their patients to take anti-retroviral medications”. Who are these alleged “medical professionals” and what makes them qualified to treat individuals with HIV/AIDS without antiretroviral medication?

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Mailbag: Fetishizing Richard Lewontin

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into 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.

The commenter Foma left the following comment on an unrelated post that I thought might be useful to expand into a more detailed treatment covering the problems with race realism, how race realists misunderstand heritability and their obsessive fetishizing of scientist Richard Lewontin.

Hey Emil, what do you think of Gregory Cochran’s latest post about Lewontin? Is it factual or isn’t?

The post in question is Lewontin wins the Crafoord Prize written by race realist Gregory Cochran. What is race realism, who is Lewontin and are the claims by Cochran reasonable or not?

Race realists are individuals who believe that modern genetic research has vindicated racial divisions created in the 1700s. They often rationalize this belief by appealing to trivial misunderstandings of published research or outright pseudoscience. One of their main targets over the last couples of decades have been evolutionary biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin. Why? It all goes back to experiments done in the late 1960s through late 1970s. Using gel electrophoresis, he was able to show that individual of the model organism called common fruit fly were more genetically diverse than previously thought, and thus ushered in a revolution in population genetics. For this and related research, he was rewarded with the 2015 Crafoord Prize in Biosciences.

Lewontin and human genetic variation

Later, he used a similar approach to argue that most of human variation occurred within populations and not between them and argued that the concept of race was not that useful or important when it comes to humans.

However, Lewontin’s argument was incomplete as his analysis was on the level of a single locus. Critics, such as A. W. F. Edwards, lamented that there could be correlations between different loci and that this could offer a justification for traditional racial categories. Modern studies, such as Li et al. (2008) and Rosenberg et al. (2002), that look at 300+ loci and 650 000 single-nucleotide polymorphisms show that the vast majority of human genetic variation (e. g. 93-95%) is to be found within human population and only a tiny fraction between them (e. g. 3-5%). So although the original argument by Lewontin had an important limitation, his conclusion is supported by modern genetic research.

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The Reality of False Confessions

ResearchBlogging.org

False confessions

Confessions have a powerful ability to sway the minds of judges and jurors. Yet there are many documented examples of manipulative tactics used by law enforcement personnel to elicit false confessions from people who are not guilty of the crime they are accused of. Defenders of these techniques fail to realize that law enforcement cannot reliable distinguish between a true and false confession, the safeguards already in place do not protect people from making false confessions and people can be made to readily confess to crimes they did not commit. Even judges and jurors are not able to resist the psychological influence of confessions, even when they are legally proven to be coerced. Even worse, false confessions taint other evidence and even make trained professionals change their previous correct interpretations of evidence. Kassin (2008) demolishes some of these myths about confessional evidence.

Fact #1: Law enforcement cannot reliable distinguish truth from lies

One of the most popular police manuals, Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, promote the idea that law enforcement can ask suspects a list of questions, study their behavioral responses and make decisions about the truth status of the claims made by the suspect with a high degree of accuracy. Proponents claim that this method is correct in 85% of cases. However, that study had no means of gauging the actual truth of the criminal cases tested and no control group was used. Furthermore, research has shown that the alleged signs of deception (such as being nervous, not looking the interrogator in the eyes) are not supported by empirical and training in these methods does not provide a considerable increase accuracy for detecting deception above the average 54% baseline of laypeople (which, of course, means that they are only marginally better than flipping a fair coin). To add insult to injury, people trained in this method have been shown to be less accurate and more confident, betraying an increasing susceptibility to confirmation bias. When this study methodology was replicated with trained law enforcement, the results were largely the same.

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In Defense of Axioms

Axiom of non-contradiction

Have you ever tried to argue about science or politics with a postmodernist or a creationist? It is next to impossible, because the person subscribes to radically different metaphysics, epistemology and methods for finding knowledge. People who refuse to let go of their belief that demons cause disease will never be convinced that we should treat sick people with medication. Someone who believes that a supernatural power will punish them with eternal damnation if they use condoms will probably not use condoms, no matter how many studies you provide that they are generally safe and effective against unwanted pregnancy and many sexually transmitted infections. In order to resolve those conflicts, one has to examine the underlying assumptions and beliefs made further down in their worldview. For people who share many aspects of their worldview, it may be sufficient to retreat to discussing morality in order to resolve political disputes. For people with extremely divergent worldviews, it may require discussing what exists, what truth is and how knowledge about the world is gained.

However, people do not want give up on their cherished beliefs, so this approach involves a tremendous intellectual struggle on the part of those who defend a rational and evidence-based worldview. In many cases, they will refuse to answer questions, make assertions without argument or evidence or even dismiss the notion that knowledge is possible or champion the idea that all axioms are arbitrary. In other words, it is a profoundly waste of time. However, it might be interesting to flesh out some of the absurd consequences that follows from the rejection of the existence of non-arbitrary axioms.

For those that believe that there are no non-arbitrary axioms, three disastrous implications follow: the statement is self-referentially incoherent, knowledge cannot exist, and any proposition P and its negation ~P becomes true.

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Persisting in Error: Jerry Coyne Stumbles on Compatibilism

Coyne on Compatibilism

Jerry Coyne, a biologist who has been previously criticized on Debunking Denialism for promoting anti-psychiatry, recently wrote a commentary on a book review written by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Unfortunately, like a lot of hard determinists, Coyne misunderstands nearly everything: contra-causal freedom is incoherent and so miserable that no sane person would want to have it in the first place and it is possible for some freedoms to be possible on determinism because humans can model reality, predict likely consequences of their behavior and act to avoid negative outcomes. Compatibilists are not guilty of semantics trickery since there is no problem with revising definitions for intellectual clarity or due to evidence. Finally, compatibilists are not anti-science for pointing out that many studies purporting to show that human decisions occur after the brain makes the decision make the false assumptions that there is a specific time and place in the brain when and where a single, unitary decision is made (Cartesian materialism).

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Jenny Splitter and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Splitter and NCGS

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where the immune system reacts against a modified version of a gluten protein that results in a cross-reaction with the small intestine because of similarities in protein sequence. Individuals with this condition can get chronic inflammation, cancer and malabsorption of important nutrients if they do not eliminate gluten from their diet, so this is a very real condition. However, it has spawned a dietary fad and many people who do not have celiac disease have self-diagnosed themselves with “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) and avoid gluten like the plague in a misguided quest for healthy eating. There is no scientific evidence that NCGS exists, but that has not put a dent in the popularity of gluten-free products.

Grounded Parents is a blog about parenting written by parents who are secular skeptics and it is part of the Skepchick Network. Recently, they published a post written by Jenny Splitter defending decisions to eliminate gluten for those who claim to have NCGS. Now, Splitter did not argue that there is scientific evidence for this condition. Instead, she appealed to placebo medicine, ignored the negative consequences of overfitting noise, deployed a classic anti-skeptical trope based on the perfect solution fallacy and even rationalized negative evidence.

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