Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Challenge of Pseudoskepticism

Note: This is the first installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

Not all crackpots are equally easy to defeat in an argument. Some focus on promoting their weird beliefs by making positive statements about their own position, such as certain New Age believers asserting the silly myth that humans only use 10% of their brain. These can, with some minor research, be refuted with little or no effort: if humans only used 10% of their brain, why have the other 90%? The brain is a very costly organ in terms of oxygen and glucose demands and can easily get damaged with severe consequences. This also does not make any evolutionary sense; why did it evolve if it was not beneficial? Finally, functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that there is activity in most areas of the brain most of the time, even when asleep. So much for that myth.

However, there is another class that plays in an entirely different league. Their positions and arguments are not any more valid, but their debate tactics and rhetoric is far superior. Usually, these try to portray themselves as disinterested skeptics who are merely asking “disturbing questions” and “looking for evidence” while rarely saying anything about their own position. They also tend to quote scientists out of context, claiming they are martyrs in a grand conspiracy perpetrated by mainstream science, they cherry pick data that support their position while ignoring evidence that is inconsistent with their position and often try to portray a scientific debate about how something is occurring with the nonexistent debate regarding if something has occurred. Not only that, they often ignore areas of the subject where solid knowledge exists and artificially inflate insecurities out of proportion. These individuals are denialists, but can also be seen as pseudoskeptics, because they do not apply the same skepticism to their own claims and sources as they do to their opponents.

How can we as scientific skeptics and proponents of evidence-based reason tackle this kind of rhetoric and debate tactics? Here are some humble suggestions for some of them, drawing on previous arguments made by others. I’m not claiming that these are original insights or that they are useful for people who are intermediate debaters or better, but it might serve as an interesting introduction to the issues. Read more of this post

Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, a leading critic of creationism and author of “Why Evolution is True” (amazon link), which is a lucid overview of the evidence for evolution. He also maintains a blog with the same name. Prof. Coyne is a pretty rational person, but being rational in one area is not a guarantee that one is rational in another and it is really easy to get sucked in to science denialism. Classic examples of this is people like Peter Duesberg, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, who is the father of HIV/AIDS denialism. This analogy does not seem fair, but perhaps a better one is Coby of A Few Things Ill-Considered, whose How To Talk To A Climate Skeptic is one of the best resources available against global warming denialists. Unfortunately Coby bought into the anti-fluoridation conspiracy, mostly because his dad had written a book about it. I fear that Dr. Coyne has made a similar slip-up.

In a similar turn of events, Jerry Coyne has recently bought into the anti-psychiatry madness of Angell, Kirsch, Whitaker and Carlat. Angell, a microbiologist and former editor of the NJEM reviewed the others books in New York Review of Books. It is scary to read Prof. Coyne’s summary/discussion, mostly because it repeats the same old falsehoods about psychiatry, SSRIs and Big Pharma, almost precisely following the same denialist debating tactics we all know far too well. Because of this, it is a chilling read and had this been done by any other random person on the internet I probably would not have bothered, but it feel it is my duty to correct Prof. Coyne’s misconceptions because I shared many of his other values and positions and because he has relatively high authority in the skeptic community. It would be very unfortunate if this was the beginning to his siding into denialism, not just for himself, but for his readers and the public. No one wants this to happen.

The scary part is that Prof. Coynes summary/discussion broadly and specifically mirrors most arguments put forward by HIV/AIDS denialists: there is the conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies and doctors to make more profits, the notion that treatments do not work but are in fact dangerous, that diagnostic criteria for the condition are arbitrary and differs in time and place etc. and this great irony will be a recurring theme in the following criticism. To clarify, I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, so don’t take my word at it, but evaluate the arguments and read the studies I cite in full to make an informed decision about what you are about to read. After all, I can be mistaken. This will be a point-by-point comment and refutation, as well as a discussing related topics in psychology and medicine. Let’s get started. Read more of this post


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