Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Monthly Archives: July 2011

Harriet Hall on Kirsch and Efficacy of Antidepressants

In a previous article entitled Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry, I strongly scolded Dr. Coyne for naively embracing anti-psychiatry lunacy, making basic scientific errors and often using the exact same pseudoskeptical and pseudoscientific tactics he rejected in other areas, such as creationism and anti-vaccination.

Now, Dr. Harriet Hall over at the Science-Based Medicine blog, has taken on Kirsch conclusions regarding the efficacy of antidepressants in an entry called Antidepressants and Effect Size. In it, Dr. Hall explains that:

  • The effect size of all drugs tested where, compared with placebo, positive.
  • None of the calculated confidence intervals overlapped zero, meaning that it is very unlikely that antidepressants tested and placebo are no different in efficacy.
  • Kirsch made an unfortunate interpretation of clinical significance, concluding that because the effect size was under the arbitrarily selected cut-off value by NICE (National Institutes for Clinical Excellence) of 0.5, Kirsch concluded that there was little or no clinical significance. While it is true that a glass that is 1/3 full is not 1/2 full, a 1/3 glass is not empty. NICE no longer uses this 0.5 effect size cut-off.
  • If Kirsch’s interpretation was reasonable, we would have to reject psychotherapy as a treatment as well antidepressants, because psychotherapy has an even lower effect size.

Dr. Hall goes on to soberly note that:

Once more, science fails to give us the black-and-white answers we crave. And once again we are reminded that we can’t rely on the media for accurate, nuanced information about medical science.

A wise message worthy of serious consideration.

References and Further Reading:

Hall, Harriet (2011). Antidepressants and Effect Size. Science-Based Medicine. Accessed 2011-07-19.

Hall, Harriet (2009). Psychiatry-Bashing. Science-Based Medicine. Accessed 2010-06-26.

Tuteur, Amy Tuteur. (2010). Study shows antidepressants useless for mild to moderate depression? Not exactly. Science-Based Medicine. Accessed 2010-06-26.

The Problem with Most Conversations on Feminism

Most of us are aware of the latest explosive topic of discussion in the skeptic community, namely Rebecca Watson and feminism. In her blog entry entitled The Privilege Delusion, Watson criticizes Dawkins for belittling the objectification of women, as Watson has received multiple threats of rape from making videos on Youtube. The Elevator incident occurred when a guy asked her, a single female alone in a foreign country and in an elevator at 4 a. m, if “would you like to come up to my hotel room for some coffee” (probably insinuating sex). Watson thought this was entirely creepy and felt very uncomfortable, especially since Watson just had a talk about feminism and sexism in the skeptic community earlier that evening.

This has been discussed already by PZ Myers, Greg Laden, Phil Plait and others and I do not pretend to have anything unique or inventive to add to that conversation. Instead, I would like to discuss the problem with most discussions of feminism and perhaps suggest a partial reason for why the Elevator Incident has been so controversial. I am not expert on feminism, as a male I am probably just as indoctrinated into male privilege as anyone, and I doubt that I am going to have something insightful to say, but perhaps it is can give an interesting perspective.

In my opinion, the problem with most conversations on feminism is the negative effects of perceptual sets aggravated by stereotypes, confirmation bias and unclear definitions. Read more of this post

The Three-Pronged Fruitfulness of Strategic Pluralism

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

In yet another intellectually piercing comment by the user Wonderist in response to the previous installment, Wonderist pointed out that (comment chopped up for brevity):

Actually, I believe that it is very important to long-term strategy to foster and advocate the use of many different approaches from many different people and perspectives. The ridicule approach is just one approach, and is not universally effective; it depends both on the skill with which the ridicule is pulled off, and also on the audience itself, which may not appreciate even mild-mannered satire. In fact, I would take it a few steps further and argue [...] that the long-term viability of the defense of science and reason is to specifically encourage and experiment with different approaches. Diversity of tactical approaches is not just a “let’s all join together to fight the common enemy” call to solidarity. It also has some merit as a kind of ‘evolutionary’ meta-strategy. [...] When skeptics form communities (such as we’re doing on the internet) and start sharing different arguments and approaches, trying new ones out here and there, we will inevitably end up with a much more robust and resilient skeptical movement, than if we all tried to stick to one single ‘play-book’ of ‘best arguments’.

In biological psychology, strategic pluralism refers to the notion that “multiple, even contradictory behavioral strategies might be adaptive in certain environments and would therefore be maintained through natural selection” (Passer et. al. 2009). However, in this context, I use strategic pluralism to refer to the notion that many different debating strategies and attitudes might be successful in terms of persuasive power depending on situational factors such as subject matter, speaker, opponent, audience and so on. Simplified, this means that someone like the Catholic cell biologist Ken Miller can succeed in certain situations where someone like the hard-core atheist Richard Dawkins might not and vice versa. Read more of this post

Against Those Who Cannot be Turned…

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

In response to my previous post on The Challenge of Pseudoskepticism, the commentator Wonderist made the following poignant remark that I feel requires additional discussion. I have chopped up the comment a bit for brevity

[...] I think that if you’re dealing with an entrenched pseudo-skeptic, you have to realize that you will inevitably have much more success if you focus on how your argument sounds to the *audience* that is listening (or on the web, lurking), rather than trying to convince the pseudo-skeptic directly. [...] A good dose of humour or mockery can put the debate in the right context: This is not a debate between equal positions. [...] When one side continues to present fact after fact, and debunking one claim after another, and referring constantly to evidence that can be checked, all the while making fun of the fact that the other side’s argument is totally empty, it doesn’t take long before the non-entrenched audience starts to see the pattern and shift their position to be a little more wary of the pseudo-skeptic’s arguments.

I think there are many benefits to this perspective but also a few pitfalls that may merit discussion. The overarching question is regarding what sort of debate tactics proponents of scientific skepticism should take against a person who is highly intellectual, but deeply entrenched and committed to his or her viewpoint.

Now, there is probably the case that nothing you say can or will convince this person. He or she is plagued by confirmation bias and the sophistication effect to such a degree that arguments against his or her position will be subjected to much stronger criticisms than arguments that the individual puts forward to support his or her position. He or she will also be highly trained in rationalizing his or her position that he or she ultimately has come to for non-rational reasons. Perhaps an analogy can make this issue clearer. Read more of this post


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