Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Anti-Vaccine Battleship is Still Sinking

The Institute of Medicine, an independent organization under National Academy of Sciences designed to provide advice on issues of health, recently published yet another report on vaccine safety a few days ago. Earlier reports, focusing on the supposed association between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism, thimerosal and autism, the hepatitis B vaccine and demyelinating disorders like multiple sclerosis. The reports reviewing the research on these issues found that the postulated associations where not supported by the evidence or that the evidence favors a rejection of a causal relationship.

This, of course, did not even put a dent in the conspiracy theories about large pharmaceutical companies and vaccines. The funny thing about conspiracy theories is as more and more evidence piles up against it, the proponents usually claim, in a puff of cognitive dissonance, that the researchers are part of the conspiracy, bought by the pharmaceutical companies. Never mind the fact that the reviewers where independent and has never been involved in vaccine safety or anything like that before. Soon, the supposed conspiracy grows to such an absurd size that it would not have been manageable without leaks.

This new report, entitled Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality, is a result of a detailed review of the scientific literature spanning over 1000 articles and, while finding evidence of extremely rare adverse events like seizures and inflammation of the brain, they did not find any evidence for associations such as autism and type-I diabetes. The report brief concluded that Read more of this post

Edzard Ernst on the Futility and Dangers of CAM Detox Regimes

In a scathing blog article at the Guardian called Detox: flushing out poison or absorbing dangerous claptrap?, Edzard Ernest professor at Peninsula Medical School, Exeter and a leading critical investigator of so called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) argues that CAM detox regimes, such as colon irrigation is a dangerous delusion based on faulty science.

The central idea with things like detox (in the CAM sense) is that we ingest harmful “toxins” and that we need to get rid of them. However, proponents of detox can almost never specify what exactly these “toxins” are or why their procedure eliminates them. If you cannot even identify what it is you are supposedly are treating, then buyer beware.

Alternative detox is all the rage and comes in many guises – anything from diet or supplements to steam-baths or ear-candles. The common denominator is that, allegedly, the body is stimulated to eliminate poisonous substances. The claim is that, if we are not treated in this way, such toxins would cause ill health in all of us. Yet, these assumptions are both wrong and dangerous.

It should be an easy claim to test though. Why not just do a double-blind, placebo controlled study on the effects of these so called detox regimes? If the proponents of CAM detox really believed that their products worked, then they have nothing to lose. Performing clinical trails that give a positive results could be used to strengthen their case for their detox regimes. So why are they not doing it? Ernst has an entertaining answer. Read more of this post

The Struggle Against Poultry

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

Two dark cars are parked on a dark road in the middle of nowhere on a rainy night. Suddenly, the lights are turned on and the engines roar. The cars start driving towards each other and their fierce acceleration sounds like butter frying in a pan. They are now on a head-on collision course. Will one of the drivers back out before it is too late and both cars crashing into each other?

The keen commentator Wonderist outlined a debating tactic based on this analogy. He calls it evidence chicken and it works something like this. Read more of this post

Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants

A few months ago, Jerry Coyne, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and an staunch supporter of evolution against creationists, made a series of remarkably flawed claims about medical psychiatry in general and antidepressants in particular. He did this after reading a couple of book reviews on a few controversial books on psychiatry and asserted that medical psychiatry was a scam. Needless to say, I confronted his claims in Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and shown that Prof. Coyne made several glaring errors: he incorrectly characterized the mainstream view on the causes of depression, he claimed that the effectiveness of a drug was not evidence for the underlying model (thus implicitly agreeing with HIV/AIDS denialists that the effectiveness of antiretroviral treatment is not evidence that HIV causes AIDS), he did not understand the difference between genetic mapping and estimations of heritability, he advocated Big Pharma conspiracy theories, incorrectly claimed (based on Kirsch flawed studies) that antidepressants are no better than placebo and contradicted himself by claiming that mental disorders were not caused by chemical factors in the brain while at the same time claiming that antidepressants cause psychopathology without any evidence.

After this, I stopped regularly visiting his blog, so it is only now that I noticed that he wrote a follow-up article called Peter Kramer defends antidepressants. In it, Prof. Coyne repeats many of the same flawed arguments as before and it reads like an advertisement of Kirsch book on antidepressants. It is now clearer than ever that Prof. Coyne has gone of the deep end with regards to this topic. It is clear that his pseudoskepticism is deepening and that is why I have decided to write another criticism. There will necessarily be some repeats of content that I discussed in previous entries, but will try to keep it to a minimum.

Let’s get started, shall we? Read more of this post

The Intellectual Poverty of Pwnage?

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

In a recent video entitled Hedgemon I choose you, Michael Payton, a cognitive scientist formerly at York University, strongly suggests that the debating tactic of mockery and ridicule is not only contradicted by the scientific evidence, but is probably harmful in that it makes opponents even more entrenched and that it should really be cast upon the heap of pseudoscience that we should not take seriously, comparing it with homeopathy and creationism. Although this does not, perhaps, directly contradict the discussed thesis that mockery and satire may be useful for convincing the undecided public, it seems to show that it is a bad idea to use it as means of trying to convince opponents. Payton’s argument is, in my mind, persuasive and it has the evidence to back it up. I have complained earlier about the fact-free nature of the discussions on debate tactics, so this has some real promise. Therefore, I feel that it may be useful to expand the discussion and evidence presented by Payton and look at it in more detail. Read more of this post

Appeal to Scientific Consensus is not an Appeal to Popularity or Authority

A common claim among various kinds of pseudoscientists such as creationists or climate change denialists is that appealing to scientific consensus is either an appeal to the popularity of a position or an appeal to an authority and that therefore, appealing to scientific consensus is a logical fallacy.

However, appealing to scientific consensus is not the claim that “the scientific community is an authority or that it is a popular position, and therefore correct”, but rather, there is an additional premise in the appeal to scientific consensus that does not normally exist in the average appeal to authority. To elucidate the difference, let us see how this plays out.

P1. There is a scientific consensus on X (evolution, global warming, HIV causing AIDS or whatever).

Now, had we gone straight from this to the conclusion that X is true, it would have been an argument from authority or appeal to popularity. However, let us not forget our additional premise.

P2. If there is a scientific consensus on X, then it is probably the case that X is a reasonable scientific conclusion supported by most different lines of converging evidence.

In general, the scientific community as a whole is very conservative in making strong statements, because as we all know, making categorical statements may come back to haunt you. So we can be reasonably sure that, in the majority of cases, a consensus position is at the very least support by most currently known evidence. It is easy to see how the following conclusion follows.

C. It is probably the case that X is a reasonable scientific conclusion supported by most different lines of converging evidence (from P1 and P2 by modus ponens).

Too be sure, the scientific community is not infallible or always right. However, when the majority of the evidence available supports a position, it is reasonable to hold it as a tentative conclusion regardless.

How to Critically Read and Evaluate a Scientific Paper

There are many pseudoscientific groups out there, from creationists and 9/11 truthers to opponents of vaccination and psychiatry that attempt to prop up their beliefs by referencing the scientific literature. However, they often do this in deceptive ways, either misrepresenting good science or taking it out of context or referencing to bad science, published in journals with very low credibility and often not even peer-review. If you are ever faced with someone who is clearly presenting pseudoscience referencing the scientific literature, there is one overarching rule to keep in mind: read the article. I cannot possibly stress this enough, read the article, or at least read a credible summary of it or an already written debunking of the argument using that reference from a reliable source. The goal of this post is to serve as a short introduction to how to read and critically evaluate a scientific paper.

How do you gain access to the paper in question? Easy. Buy it online, or go get a library card from a university library. They often give you the ability to access the papers remotely. Sometimes you can find the paper in full online, if it was published in an open access journals. Key questions we should ask ourselves are: does the article support the claim that the person referencing does? Is the article published in a peer-review journal? What is the impact factor of the journal? Is the method flawed? Is the conclusion in proportion to the results? Have there been independent replication? We will look at these questions, and more, below. But first, let us take a look at what a scientific paper looks like. I have been intentionally vague so far in what I mean by a scientific paper. There are actually two main categories of scientific papers (there are more): research article and review article. Let us look at review articles to begin with. Read more of this post

Refuting “Radiometric Dating Methods Makes Untenable Assumptions!”

A very common claim of young earth creationists in trying to reject the evidence for an old earth is to loudly proclaim that radiometric dating methods “makes assumptions” and that these “assumptions” are somehow fatally flawed or not supported by evidence. These claims generally land in three different categories: (1) radiometric dating assumes that initial conditions (concentrations of mother and daughter nuclei) are known, (2) radiometric dating assumes that rocks are closed systems and (3) radiometric dating assumes that decay rates are constant. Most young earth creationists reject all of these points. As a scientific skeptics, we ask ourselves: is this really the case? Let us critically examine each of these claims and see if they hold up against the science. While doing so, we will have to learn about how radiometric dating actually works.

There are many different kinds of radiometric dating and not all conclusions we will reach can be extrapolated to all methods used. Also, different radiometric dating techniques independently converges with each other and with other dating techniques such as dendrochronology, layers in sediment, growth rings on corals, rhythmic layering of ice in glaciers, magnetostratigraphy, fission tracks and many other methods. This serves as strong evidence for the reliability of radiometric dating methods.

1. How does radiometric dating work?

A lot of atoms are stable. Some are not. There exists different versions, or isotopes of many elements. These isotopes differ in the number of neutrons they have in their nuclei. Those isotopes that are not stable decay into daughter nuclei. Those that did the decaying are called parent nuclei. If you have a rock that contains radioactive isotopes, these will decay over time. As time goes on, the ratio of the parent to daughter nuclei will change and decrease (as more parent nuclei decay into daughter nuclei, the former decreases and the latter increases). Measuring this ratio gives us an idea of how long ago the rock formed.

But wait a second! Doesn’t this assume that the rocks are closed systems? Surely, if some daughter nuclei left the rock or parent nuclei entered the rock, the dates would come out all wrong! While this is technically true, there are several mini-industries dedicated developing methods and techniques to make sure that there is no contamination and check to see if the rocks where disturbed between forming and being tested by scientists. How is this done? Let’s find out! Read more of this post

A Critical Examination of Stefan Molyneux’s Claims about Antidepressants

Stefan Molyneux is an atheist and anarchist philosopher. He is the host of Freedomain Radio, which is one of the most popular podcast series on philosophy on the internet. He is an author of many books such as “Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics”, “Against the Gods” and “How (Not) To Achieve Freedom”. He is also a popular speaker on many libertarian festivals and gatherings such as New Hampshire Liberty Forum, Libertopia and many others. Among his prime values are reason and evidence. This post is filed under anti-psychiatry, but Molyneux is by no means an enemy of reason or anti-psychiatry per se [Edit: there are now reasons to reevaluate the last statement. For more, see Stefan Molyneux’s Unfortunate Spiraling into Anti-Psychiatry]. His arguments about atheism, problems with many government programs and the benefits with peaceful parenting are very persuasive and worth taking a look at. Unfortunately, his laser-like rationality has been slightly subverted by problematic claims about antidepressants. This post will attempt to critically investigate some of them and see if they hold up against a rational examination.

I am by no means an expert on the topics of psychology, psychiatry or antidepressants. I am just a guy on the internet. Because of this, I fully accept the possibility that I am mistaken in my arguments below. These are complex and difficult scientific matters and it would not surprise me if I, as a relatively ignorant layperson, have made errors in my reasoning. If so, I hope that this post will be, at least, an entertaining failure.

The last thing I would want to do is to quote Stefan out of context, because that is a common method employed by various pseudoscientists and I do not want to use their methods. I will do my best to make an accurate representation of Molyneux’s position and I will link to the video and give a time stamp for where he says the things I claim that he does. Without further ado, let us get started. Read more of this post

East Asian Pseudomedicine is Annihilating Endangered Species

Organized crime syndicates are hunting and killing endangered species for usage in, among other things, anti-scientific folk medicine, even when science-based medicine is available. One such example is the Sumatran rhino, which is one of the rarest mammals in the world. One of its horns can bring up to 30000 USD on the black market per kilogram.

The scientist Elizabeth L. Bennett, Director of the Hunting and Wildlife Trade Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society recently published an article entitled Another inconvenient truth: the failure of enforcement systems to save charismatic species in the journal Oryx. It is a sobering read, for several reasons: (1) it shows the danger of some forms of complementary and alternative “medicine” (CAM) for conservation, (2) the costs far outweigh the benefits in this situation as most complementary and alternative medicines do not work compared with placebo, (3) it is ironic that the “western”, science-based medicine is being demonized when some CAMs have abhorrent consequences.

Here are some scary statistics from the article:

  • 230 rhinos where poached in South Africa between January and October 2010. That’s one every 30 hour.
  • The antelope Saiga tatarica has lost over 95% of the entire population 1990-2005.
  • There are only an estimated 1000 breeding females of the tiger Panthera tigris in the wild.
  • Over 360 tonnes of ivory has been seized in the world between 1989 and 2009.

Feel the pressure of these facts detonating in your brain.

Harriet Hall and Others Take on Angell

For those few of you who have been following this blog, many of the previous entries have been about anti-psychiatry and antidepressants, such as Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and Harriet Hall on Kirsch and Efficacy of Antidepressants. A lot has happened over the last few weeks: Dr. Harriet Hall has commented on Angell’s review and the New York Review of Books has published a few letters to the editor responding to Angell. Thanks to the commentator Mark Erickson for alerting me to this in a comment to a previous post.

In Angell’s Review of Psychiatry, Dr. Harriet Hall makes a number of decisive criticisms of Angell’s review that I feel is worth pointing out:

  • It is not entirely clear if the incidence of mental disorders is increasing or if we are better at diagnosing them or if the criteria for mental disorders are so wide that almost anyone can be diagnosed to a significant overlap between e. g. depression, anxiety, ADHD and a normal distribution of human behaviors and emotions. The major factor is probably looser criteria for diagnosis, which can partly be influenced by (1) profit motives, (2) giving the clinician the illusion that he or she helps more and (3) indirect fostering a view of efficacy because normal grief etc. may have a higher rate of spontaneous remission than psychological disorders.
  • While it is illegal for pharmaceutical companies to encourage the prescription of a drug for a non-approved reason or age-group etc. Hall suggests that a ban on doctors may be unreasonable because there can be specific instances where published evidence exists prior to formal approval and that bans on doctors may slow down incorporation of new medical knowledge and/or disrupt the autonomy and judgement of the medical doctor.
  • The “chemical imbalance” hypothesis is oversimplified and misleading and does not appear to be the mainstream position for factors influencing depression anyways, but few credible scientists in relevant fields doubt that many mental disorders, such as schizophrenia “arises from genetically influenced brain abnormalities present at birth that interact with subsequent brain development and environmental contributors in a manner that increases the risk of undergoing a psychotic transition sometime in adolescence or early adulthood”.
  • Hall argues that Whitakers argument that psychoactive drugs causes psychopathology is “not convincingly supported by evidence, but they do suggest directions for research.” I would like to add to this that it seems contradictory to say that mental disorders are not caused by chemical and other neurological factors related to the brain, but then also claim that these medications cause mental disorders.
  • DSM has its flaws, but it is more beneficial to try and improve it and make it more scientific than to throw the baby out with the bathwater and go back to the days before DSM.

This was just a short summary, but it is worth reading in full. The New York Times has also published a few letters to the editor by John Oldham, Daniel Carlat, Richard Friedman and Andrew Nierenberg with a reply by Angell, which is also interesting to read. They call her on several errors:

  • Angell claims that the advent of psychoactive drugs triggered a raging epidemic of mental disorders, suggesting that this means that people are being over-treated. Oldham points out that this is mistaken since 64% of individuals suffering from mental disorders never receive treatment.
  • Carlat points out that Kirsch did in fact find a statistical significance effect above and beyond placebo, just that Kirsch rejected it because it did not fit with his arbitrary level of clinical significance. Carlat is also the author of one of the books that Angell reviewed.
  • Nierenberg & Friedman exposes the straw man of “chemical imbalance” and points out that the incidence of mental disorders have, in fact, not increased.

It is ironic that Angell, despite being called on the supposed increase in incidence of mental disorders, continues to use the autism card, despite the fact that this is mostly a result of increased awareness and expanding diagnostic criteria. The “autism epidemic” line of reasoning is also a favorite past time of the anti-vaccination movement and it is shameful that Angell has let herself fall prey to the sophistication effect.

There is also an older, five-part series on mental illness denial by Steve Novella that can be found here that might be relevant for context.

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