Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

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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Tim Wise Blames the Holocaust on “Scientism”

Tim Wise

Tim Wise is a staunch anti-racist activist and he has written several powerful evisceration that exposes how racists abuse statistics to rationalize their false and toxic belief in the innate criminality of ethnic minorities. Two especially exquisite treatments are: “Nazis Can’t Do Math: Reflections on Racism, Crime and the Illiteracy of Right-Wing Statistical Analysis” (that can be found here) and “Race, Crime and Statistical Malpractice: How the Right Manipulates White Fear With Bogus Data” (that can be found here). These, and the scientific references therein, were used as source material for an article on Debunking Denialism called “White Genocide, Eurabia and Other White Supremacist Nonsense” (that can be found here) that debunked the two ludicrous claims that immigration is actually a covert genocide on white people and that there is a supposed “epidemic” of black on white murders.

Yet, dark clouds loom on the horizon. Like so many otherwise brilliant intellectuals, Wise recently espoused an assertion that was so irrevocably erroneous that it is truly mind-boggling. Debunking Denialism has covered similar situations before, such as biologist Jerry Coyne and his support for anti-psychiatry or Neil deGrasse Tyson when he invited Mayim Bialik (who is anti-vaccine and promote homebirth and homeopathy). It is frustrating how otherwise smart people can get things so wrong in some areas.

In a recent Facebook status update, Tim Wise blamed “scientism” for being the root cause of the Holocaust:

That’s right, he actually blames “scientism” (which he defines as “the intellectual fetishizing of science”) for the Holocaust. The context surrounds the recent murders of French cartoonists and there is some merit to the idea that some critics of religion take things too far by overly generalizing about Muslims. However, this does not justify his malignant outburst about the cause of the Holocaust.

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Mailbag: Richard Polt Responds (Reductionism in Science)

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.

For most scientists, the term “reductionism” represents a profoundly successful way of understanding features of our world as composed of smaller parts and a fuller investigation of those features involves a detailed understanding of their parts and how their interaction with each other and the environment cause higher-level properties. A classic example is surface tension: pure water consists of nothing but molecules of H20 and their complex interaction creates the feature we know as surface tension. Yet surface tension does not exist on the level of individual water molecules, but a feature that occurs on a higher level of analysis without there being anything “magical” with water in addition to those individual water molecules.

For sophisticated mysterians and proponents of pseudoscience, the term “reductionism” has the power to turn warm smiles into distorted snarls. The practice, according to these critics, amounts to turning conscious humans with moral character, free will and an appreciation for art to nothing but amoral and ugly meat machines who are callously manipulated by brain chemicals and a deterministic universe, like puppeteers controlling their marionettes.

One such sophisticated mysterian is Richard Polt, a professor of philosophy at Xavier University, and Debunking Denialism previously published a critical analysis of his opposition to reductionism. In summary, Polt confused hierarchical reductionism (the reductionism used by mainstream science as described in the first paragraph) with greedy reductionism (the faulty version of reductionism described in the second paragraph). Greedy reductionism is thus nothing but (no pun intended) a false caricature and does nothing refute hierarchical reductionism.

Polt recently wrote a short response to that piece:

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Refusing to Provide Evidence? Here are Some Productive Alternatives

Paper, Research, Evidence

One of the most substantial problems with pseudoscientific cranks is that their beliefs and opinions are irrational and not based on any kind of credible scientific evidence. To prevent themselves from truly coming to terms with this, they have to invent a large number of after-the-fact rationalizations to explain away the massive amount of scientific evidence that runs contrary to their position in order to ease their cognitive dissonance. However, pseudoscientific cranks have learned that interactions with scientific skeptics are rarely beneficial for them. The evidence against their quackery is there, they cannot refute it and some people are starting to see through their nonsense. Thus, there is often an urgent need to develop other means to defend their flawed assertions. This is done by demonizing their opponents in order to justify rejecting everything those critics bring to the table, such as calling them shills for large corporations. In some cases, the mere request for evidence is considered to be some kind of attack against their person.

There is a disturbing tendency coalescing in many online communities (such as blogs, forums and social media website). It is based on misrepresenting skeptics as “a mob of harassers” and all critical questions or requests for supporting evidence are assumed to be asked in “bad faith” to only serve as dishonest methods to “demean or destroy” people. It is not just that rational discussion of ideas has been even more difficult to maintain than they already are, but that even the initiating of such an exchange is met with suspicion, thinly veiled hostility, and sometimes outright anger. After all, if you cannot successfully present supporting evidence for your beliefs, why even bother interacting with scientific skeptics? It is not like there is anything in it for the crank.

This article examines some common methods that pseudoscientific cranks use to avoid exchanges with scientific skeptics. Several generally applicable and productive alternatives to refusing to provide evidence is discussed.

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Swedish Public Radio Promotes Pseudoscientific “Detox” Regimes

Detox on Swedish Public Radio

Pseudoscientific “detox” regimes are based on the flawed idea that unspecified “toxins” accumulate in the body and by consuming nothing but fruit juices, fasting, taking part in dangerous colon cleansing or using fake foot baths will rid the body of these alleged “toxins”. In reality, the liver and kidneys are very efficient at eliminating real toxins and other waste products from the body. If the body accumulates actual toxins at harmful levels, that means that the liver and kidneys are malfunctioning or shutting down. This would be lethal, and not just generate diffuse symptoms such as tiredness. Drinking nothing but juices or fasting will not help deadly poisoning. So in essence, “detox” products are useless.

Recently, the Swedish Public Radio (“Sveriges Radio”) broadcasted an episode of P4 Extra with guest host Mina Benaissa (2015-01-01, 13:00 local time). Around 41:21 into the show, we are treated to the following exchange about pseudoscientific detox treatments between the host and alleged “detox expert” Erica Palmcrantz Aziz Read more of this post

Seven New Year’s Resolutions From Debunking Denialism

Fireworks

As people turn from mainstream media in print to online content, sources of information has to fight for attention. Some make use of ethically questionable methods to attract viewers, such as clickbaits or fake outrage. As we enter the new year of 2015, Debunking Denialism has put together a list of seven new year’s resolutions. There will be no low quality content, no clickbaits, no donation request, no tribalism, no paid advertisement, no link spam and no manufactroversy or fake outrage on this website.

No low quality content: a lot of the posts published on Debunking Denialism takes a moderate amount of time to research and write. This is because they usually go into great detail on many issues and strives to fact-check all content posted. This has an unfortunate consequence for the frequency of new content and it is not as high as what would be optimal. However, the alternative of pushing out posts faster is likely to come at the cost of dropping quality, either in terms of length or detail. It can also be seen as a way of maintaining high visitor counts by portioning out skeptical insights over several posts per day or similar. However, the main goal of Debunking Denialism in terms of traffic is not to have a constant high visitor rate (because there are no paid ads), but to be a repository of good scientific and skeptical content. Thus, Debunking Denialism will strive to have high quality content and not sacrifice that for attention or posting frequency.

No clickbaits: click baits are done by writing fairly mundane content and adding a provocative title that reeks of sensationalism. This is a way of fighting for attention and getting as many clicks to the website as possible in a way to get ad revenue. The more extreme version of clickbaiting involves writing inflammatory content in addition to the sensationalist title. Debunking Denialism will never use sensationalist headlines that are not accurate descriptions of the content in the article. Needless to say, inflammatory and sensationalistic content with no scientific or skeptical value will also not be posted on this website.

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Mailbag: Faith Healing for Schizophrenia is a Bad Idea

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.

In a previous post, I explored the pseudoscientific belief that schizophrenia is the result of demonic possession. In reality, schizophrenia is a psychiatric condition that results from a complex interaction of biological, psychological and social factors. The Journal of Religion and Health (impact factor 0.8) had published a paper by M. Kemal Irmak falsely claiming that hallucinations are just misinterpretations of real sensory information caused by demons. What evidence did Irmak present for this astonishing view? None whatsoever.

In response to that post, Michael wrote me the following email (additional personal information has been redacted):

I came across your blog while researching the use of folk healing methods for believed possession states in light of the new DSM diagnosis for Dissociative Identity Disorder. Specifically I saw your response to Irmak’s paper attributing hallucinations by persons with schizophrenia as caused by demonic activity. I certainly understand your argument against the etiology Mr. Irmak is advancing. My question is more on the treatment side […]. If a Turkish patient with schizophrenia believes that their symptoms are caused by djinn/demons, sees a faith healer and experiences a treatment consistent with social-cultural-religious understandings, could it be argued that this is a good treatment if the person has a reduction in their symptoms? It seems that there is evidence these approaches have better “recovery” rates for chronic psychosis than the medication-heavy methods in the West. (I am not saying no one should take anti-psychotics. […])

In other words, can faith healing be a valid part of a culture competent treatment program for schizophrenia if it was associated with a reduction in symptoms?

I am not a psychiatrists, psychologist, psychotherapist or any other kind of mental health professional, so I cannot give any medical advice in regards to treatments for individuals with schizophrenia above the mainstream standard of care, which is not limited to antipsychotics, but include cognitive behavioral therapy, rehabilitation and other treatments.

Cultural competence is crucial for psychotherapists who work with culturally and ethnically diverse clients. Otherwise, there is a risk of miscommunication, collapse of the therapeutic alliance and treatment failure. This means taking into account how culture and ethnicity can influence affect and behavior, individual versus collective goals, culture-specific beliefs about mental health and psychiatric conditions, value systems, relationship between treatment provider and client and so on. At the same time, psychotherapists should not fall for simplistic stereotypes of clients from different cultures or of different ethnic backgrounds.

What role does traditional cultural treatments play in culturally competent psychiatric treatment? Can faith healing be a valid part of a culture competent treatment program for schizophrenia if it was associated with a reduction in symptoms? The following arguments are from the standpoint of scientific skepticism and should not be considered medical advice.

First, we need to examine precisely what is meant by “symptom reduction”. Read more of this post

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part III: Nature of Skepticism

Winston Wu

In the two previous installments, we have explored a large number of skeptical principles and exposed the various deceptive ways that Winston Wu has falsely characterized them. Confidence in a proposition should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Models that make fewer evidence-free assumptions should be preferred to models that are overly complex because they are more likely. The burden of evidence rests on the person advancing the position that is less likely with respect to the background information. Anecdotal evidence, although useful for generating hypotheses for future research, is not scientific evidence as it lacks independent support, is subject to cognitive biases and maybe be non-representative due to cherry-picking. Human memory is fallible and there are hundreds of people who have been falsely convicted on eyewitness testimony alone. Scientific skepticism is not about the automatic dismissal of supernatural claims. Rather, it is based on the fact that supernatural claims usually have little to no evidence supporting them, and plenty of evidence against them.

In this third installment, we will investigate how Wu misunderstands five additional skeptical principles and stances. Just because something currently lacks a scientific explanation does not mean that it is unexplainable or that supernatural “explanations” automatically win even though they lack evidence. Wu also equivocates between “beliefs” in the general sense of having opinions or accepting positions with the specific sense of holding evidence-free positions about the world. Scientific skepticism is about using accumulated scientific knowledge and rational arguments to investigate claims. It is not the same as philosophical skepticism or cynicism. Contrary to Wu, pointing out that some people’s beliefs are irrational or that they have a primitive form of thinking is not a personal attack, but an intellectually honest assessment of reality.

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