Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

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.

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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.

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Srebrenica Genocide Denial

Srebrenica Genocide

The Srebrenica genocide involved the mass murder of 8000 people and forced deportation of around 25 000-30 000 people carried out by the Army of Republika Srpska around the town of Srebrenica (today part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). According to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, this was the “the worst [crime] on European soil since the Second World War.” Several military personnel, police officers and politicians have been indicted and convicted of genocide, abetting genocide or other war crimes. Two of the masterminds behind this genocide, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, are currently being prosecuted by The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Although it has been exactly 20 years on the day since the start of the genocide in Srebrenica, dark forces are gathering on the horizon. Just with the Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre, there are people who deny that the genocide at Srebrenica ever took place. These are primarily Serbian nationalists such as Milorad Dodik (president of Republika Srpska) and Tomislav Nikolić (President of Serbia) and leftist pseudo-intellectuals (such as writer Diana Johnstone and the Living Marxism magazine). Unbelievably, Srebrenica genocide denial has even been espoused by Swedish university professors, such as Kjell Magnusson (associated professor in sociology) and Lennart Palm (professor of history). Even more disturbingly and in an ironic twist of tragedy, Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer appears to reject the genocide status for the Srebrenica massacre according to an interview published (29 June, 2015) in the Serbian newspaper Politika.

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Kerri Rivera to Stop Promoting and Selling Bleach Quackery in Illinois

Kerri Rivera

Kerri Rivera is one of the strongest proponents of the dangerous quackery that is chlorine dioxide. This is an industrial bleach and the “treatment” involves forcing children to drink it and use it as an enema multiple times a day. On her website CD autism, she claims that her product has helped almost 200 children to “recover” from autism. In reality, the concentration of chlorine dioxide she recommends is around 3000 times higher than the maximum allowed in drinking water.

Those who promote the use of industrial bleach to “treat” autism or diseases like cancer or HIV are starting to feel the full force of the criminal justice system. Louis Daniel Smith has been convicted of “conspiracy to commit multiple crimes, three counts of introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead and one count of fraudulently smuggling merchandise into the United State” and risks a maximum prison sentence of over 30 years.

Rivera has now agreed to sign an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with the state of Illinois, which means that she agrees to stop promoting and selling chlorine dioxide bleach as a treatment for autism. This is because Rivera has no scientific support for her claims and her actions violate section 2 of the Consumer Fraud Act. This is good news, but unfortunately this only applies to the state of Illinois and so one can imagine a great number of ways in which Rivera can continue to spread her dangerous nonsense and harm more children.

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Exposing Chiropractors Who Use Spinal Manipulation on Newborns

Chiro website

Chiropractic is an alternative medicine pseudoscience based on the notion that certain misalignments of the spine (called subluxatons) disrupts the flow of innate intelligence in the body and cause a wide range of diseases. Chiropractic manipulation of the spine (both neck and back areas) is claimed to fix these alleged subluxations and thus prevent or cure those medical conditions. In reality, chiropractors are not medical doctors, there is no conclusive evidence for the existence of subluxations or innate intelligence and chiropractic adjustments may cause severe harm such as a vertebral artery dissection. They also seem to overuse X-ray scans, despite the apparent realization that subluxations cannot be seen on an X-ray.

A few years back, an Australian chiropractor seems to have broken the neck of a baby infant during a “treatment” session. In a bizarre turn of events, the Australian health authorities turned over the case to the national chiropractic organization that denied it was the chiropractic manipulation that caused the broken neck.

What does chiropractic “treatments” of infants look like? What kind of spinal manipulations do they perform? To find examples of chiropractors using spinal manipulation on newborns, I performed a search on the video community website YouTube on 2015-07-04. The search term used was “newborn chiropractic adjustment” (with quotes). No additional search filters were used. At the time, this returned “about 184 results”. Not all of them show chiropractors working on newborns, but this article features several of the examples found.

The results are truly horrifying, particularly when chiropractors manipulate the C1 vertebra (atlas) or hold newborn infants upside down for an extended period of time. In some cases, the newborns are mere hours old.

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Truehope Threatens Critic Natasha Tracy with Frivolous Lawsuit

Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning mental health writers. She tested and critically evaluated an alternative medicine product called EMPowerplus Advanced during a time period she was suicidal and out of evidence-based options. Turns out that EMPowerplus Advanced is just a mixture of minerals and vitamins, amino acids and antioxidants. They claim that it can replace psychiatric medication and that they have over two dozens scientific papers published showing that it is effective. In reality, most of those are either case reports written by clinicians who believe in the product or plagued by lacking controls, having massive dropouts, being open label, having non-random self-selected samples or relying on self-reporting treatment effects.

Tracy wrote a few critical blog posts about the product and the company (called Truehope Nutritional Support) behind it in late 2013. A few days ago, The Synergy Group of Canada sent her a letter threatening with a lawsuit (webcite) for “slander/defamation” unless she removes all of her critical writings and issue a public apology within a week. In other words, an alternative medicine company that sells a “treatment” (against a variety of psychiatric conditions) that does not appear to be supported by solid scientific evidence has now attempted to silence a leading critic by threatening with legal action. This, of course, is known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” or a SLAPP lawsuit.

Truehope and the Synergy Group thought they could bully a mental health writer who criticized their alternative “treatment” into silence by threatening her with a lawsuit. They were wrong. Debunking Denialism supports Natasha Tracy’s freedom to critically investigate and write down her thoughts and arguments for all to see. Debunking Denialism reject the intellectually dishonest and cowardly SLAPP tactic. Perhaps unwittingly, Truehope and the Synergy Group has now made sure that the skeptical spotlight will exposing their dirty laundry.

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Does Naomi Oreskes Harbor Anti-GMO Sentiments?

Oreskes and evidence

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science and currently the Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. In the context of scientific skepticism, she is one of the most important and hard-hitting defenders of climate science against ignorant and misguided attack by climate change denialists. She has written a persuasive essay in the prestigious scientific journal Science detailing the solid scientific consensus that most of the observed warming in the last couple of decades is due to human activities. Together with historian Erik M. Conway, she co-wrote the fantastic book called Merchants of Doubt which exposed the tobacco and climate change denialist industry and their deceptive methods. A recent New York Times portrait of Oreskes called her “a lightning rod in a changing climate”, which could not be a more apt description.

However, dark clouds appear on the horizon. There is a tendency among public intellectuals who are entirely reasonable in some areas to descend into the promotion of pseudoscience is others. The phenomenon is most commonly know among Nobel Prize winners, such as Nikolaas Tinbergen (autism quackery), Kary Mullis (climate change denialism, astrology, HIV/AIDS denialism), Linus Pauling (cancer quackery), but can readily be generalized to the broader community of researchers. This is terribly unfortunate, because they lend their intellectual credibility and academic achievements to pseudoscientific nonsense and causes real harm to science.

For Oreskes, this appears to be genetically modified foods. Fortunately, she has not yet gone so far astray as to be completely shipwrecked in the vicious marshlands of anti-GM pseudoscience so there may still be some hope. This post reviews and comments on three separate cases of anti-GM sentiments expressed by Oreskes. It finishes off by highlighting the intellectual responsibility of public intellectuals.

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Unraveling Pathetic Bleach Apologetics

CD is bleach

Bleach apologists advocate the treatment of cancer, malaria, HIV, autism and other conditions with a chlorine-based bleach called chlorine dioxide. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that chlorine dioxide treats any medical condition. It is a bleach used for water treatment or pulp bleaching.

However, bleach apologists have not stood unopposed. Scientific skeptics and public health experts have been speaking out against this kind of pseudoscientific quackery. So bleach apologists have decided to strike back by attempting to spread an image meme across Facebook and other social media sites. They want to argue that chlorine dioxide is safe for human consumption at high concentrations and that it is, in fact, not a form of bleach. Click the image to the right to see the full-resolution screenshot.

Let us take it apart, claim by claim.

Protecting people against drinking bleach does not “endanger lives”

Drinking any form of bleach, bathing in it or using it as enema is dangerous. This is because, among other things, bleaches are oxidizers. Oxidizers steal electrons from other substances, effectively oxidizing them. The body contains many important components such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats and all of these are susceptible to oxidation. Oxidation occur all the time in the body as part of normal metabolism, but it is delicately controlled by enzymes and various protective systems. If you drink bleach, you take in large concentrations and amounts of oxidizers, and this damages key components of the body. Above and beyond that, different kinds of bleaches have different kinds of harmful effects in the body, but they are all oxidizers. This is an inescapable fact.

There is no known health benefits with drinking bleach. It may purify water, but that does not mean that it kills pathogens in the body and certainly not that it treats medical conditions that are not due to pathogens. So protecting people from drinking bleach makes sense from the perspective of human health.

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Swedish Medical Products Agency Bans Ionosil Colloidal Silver

Ion Silver AB, Colloidal Silver

In another stunning victory for science-based medicine, Swedish Medical Products Agency (the regulatory body for medicine and medical products) has decided that the company Ion Silver AB must stop promoting and selling colloidal silver of the brand Ionosil together with claims that the product treats diseases such as cancer and Ebola.

As a death-blow to the colloidal silver fanaticism, the agency even refuted the classic trope of “What’s the harm?” and even went so far as to criticize anecdotal evidence and the claim that antiseptic effectiveness of waste water somehow means efficacy against human diseases.

What diseases did Ionosil Colloidal Silver falsely claim to treat?

Like most forms of alternative medicine, Ionosil Colloidal Silver claims to prevent, treat and cure a long list of diseases, such as cancer, malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Taiwan acute respiratory agent, Lyme’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Ebola virus disease, psoriasis, norovirus (winter vomiting bug) and arthritic pain.

This is an obvious sign of quackery. Diseases are usually very specific in terms of how they are caused, how they progress, what they do and what symptoms you get. This means that it is unlikely for a simplistic product like small particles of silver in a water solution to prevent, treat and cure all of them.

What is the basis for the decision made by Swedish Medical Products Agency?

Although acknowledging that colloidal silver is approved for being sold as water purification, the company has marketed it for human consumption together with false and misleading health claims. This entails that the product is, in practice, being sold as a medical product. To be able to sell a product as a pharmaceutical, it has to approved by the regulatory authorities and this requires scientific evidence for both safety and effectiveness. Since Ionosil is not an approved pharmaceutical, it cannot be sold or marketed the way that Ion Silver AB has done.

Furthermore, it concluded that diseases like cancer and malaria are serious medical conditions and quack products like Ionosil Colloidal Silver might “delude people who suffers from these diseases to use an ineffective product instead of getting a working treatment”.

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Mailbag: Actually, Science Isn’t Self-Refuting

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.

Why is it so hard to argue with proponents of pseudoscience? In a previous post about the necessity of non-arbitrary axioms, it was speculated that this might depend on the fact that various cranks and quacks have fundamentally different ideas about what exists, the nature of knowledge and how to reach reasonable conclusions about the world around us. Three arguments were deployed against the rejection of axiomatic starting points: it is self-referentially incoherent, it leads to a rejection of knowledge and anything will be true if you assume a contradiction. When faced with this issue, some people appeal to coherentism or claim that science too must share these issues.

Science is not self-refuting

A comment recently submitted by a person going under the name of “The Adversary” tried to execute a similar pirouette. Although not relevant enough to be part of a reasoned discussion, refuting the claims therein can be useful for understanding the opponents of scientific rationality:

You realise [sic] that the scientific method also shares this key feature, right? If you say that the scientific method is not about reaching absolute truth, you are also expressing an implicit liar paradox. Is not the proposition that there is no absolute truth itself considered an absolute truth and therefore immediately self-refuting?

Scientific research is not about reaching absolute truth. So far so good. However, this does not constitute a claim that absolute truth does not exist. It is merely the humble admission that science, although very successful as a method for reaching reasonable conclusions about reality, is not all-powerful. Scientists are humans and can be subject to the same cognitive biases as anyone else. The strength of science, however, comes from its ability to self-correct and carry out independent tests. So no, science is not self-refuting.

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Seller of Quack “Treatment” Miracle Mineral Solution Convicted

Department of Justice

The promotion of quack treatments recently received a heavy blow from the U. S. criminal justice system. Louis Daniel Smith, one of the major players behind selling industrial-strength bleach as a miracle cure for various diseases and conditions, was convicted in a federal court for “introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead”, “fraudulently smuggling merchandise into the United States” and “conspiracy to commit multiple crimes” according to a press release from the U. S. Department of Justice. He now risks being sentenced to 34 years in prison.

This is a stunning victory for science-based medicine, consumer protection and scientific skepticism generally. It will help protect thousands of people with cancer, HIV, malaria or autism who would otherwise have fallen prey for quackery, both in terms of health and finances. It will also provide a powerful response to both those who claims that quack treatments do not cause harm and those who claim that skeptical activism is pointless. Pseudoscience (and alternative medicine in particular) does cause considerable harm, and skeptical activism does work.

What diseases and conditions were industrial-strength bleach suppose to treat?

A federal jury in the Eastern District of Washington returned a guilty verdict yesterday against a Spokane, Washington, man for selling industrial bleach as a miracle cure for numerous diseases and illnesses, including cancer, AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, lyme disease, asthma and the common cold, the Department of Justice announced.

Warning alarms should always sound when a purported treatment claims to be a miracle cure for a wide range of diseases and conditions that are largely unrelated to each other, such as AIDS, malaria, asthma and so on. However, this short list is incomplete. Miracle Mineral Solution is being peddled for an even wider array of conditions than that on the Internet: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), autism spectrum conditions, herpes, dog bites, root canal, gangrene, urinary tract infections, HPV warts, eczema, influenza, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, whooping cough, fibromyalgia, first-degree burns, spider bites, chlamydia, getting bitten by drug addicts, singles, bleeding hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, allergies, gall stones, eye infections, tetanus and even (believe it or not) wounds resulting from attacks by rogue baboons.

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Sun Staring Won’t Treat Anything, But Might Make You Go Blind

Natural News Sun Staring

One of the most absurd aspects of alternative medicine is probably when proponents advocate ineffective and dangerous treatments for things that are not clearly medical problems. In one fell swoop, they have invented both an alleged serious medical condition, as well as the supposed treatment. This, of course, is highly ironic since many alternative medicine proponents make this precise accusation against mainstream medicine. In this article, we will be taking a closer look at a recent blog post at quack central Natural News written by Ethan A. Huff that promoted staring into the sun for over 40 minutes a day in order to treat a calcified pineal gland. In reality, this is not a medical condition and staring into the sun is harmful to the eyes and could potentially make you go blind. As if this was not horrible enough, one of the commenters recommended chelation therapy with EDTA, which might even be lethal. Think there is no harm in alternative medicine? Think again.

Ancient does not mean valid

Hunt is quickly to trot out the classic alternative medicine fallacy known as appeal to tradition:

The technique is known as “sun gazing,” or “sun eating,” and it dates back more than 2,000 years to ancient India.

The fact that an error has been kept for a very long time does not make it correct. The fact that stubborn and ignorant proponents have refused to adapt their beliefs to reality for a very long time does not make those beliefs correct. People have believed that demons cause disease, that bloodletting cures infectious diseases and so on for hundreds of years, but that does not make those beliefs anymore true.

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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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