Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Monthly Archives: August 2012

Anti-Psychiatry in the Atheism+ Forum?

balance scale

I find my self slightly unsettled to watch the slow infiltration of anti-psychiatry into the various skeptical movements. This is probably facilitated by political ideology. Some left-leaning liberals have a suspicion of psychiatric medication because they are provided by large multinational corporations. Some libertarians are susceptible to anti-psychiatry because the government helps to finance psychiatric care. This is the kind of situation that made me have careful qualifications about new aspiring social movements in my post Crossing the Chasm. Even though there is a broad agreement on social values, there can be a strong disagreement on what empirical methods are best used to fulfill these values. I am carefully optimistic about Atheism+ and I support many of its values, but I first want to see where the movement is going in practice.

Recently, a thread appeared on the Atheism+ forum discussing mental health issues. Right now, it is just one thread and we should not overestimate the size of the problem. We should also not approach the ideas of a few as if they were a majority position. I am not saying that any particular forum poster is necessarily anti-psychiatry and I am also not saying that Atheism+ has been corrupted by anti-psychiatry. After all, anti-psychiatry proponents can probably be found in every movement. I am also not telling marginalized people to stop telling their stories. With those qualifiers out of the way, I do note that arguments commonly put forward by anti-psychiatry proponents has started to appear on the Atheism+ forum. I do not want to make accusations against any individual poster, but I feel it is important and worthwhile to address the claims being put forward. I could have done it the forum thread itself, but as anti-psychiatry is a topic that this blog covers, I thought I might as well make a blog post about it.

The thread is called Mental Illness Support. It starts out completely reasonable where the opening poster is inviting others for discussing things like how mental conditions affect group participating in the atheist movements and what can be done to help those coping with mental conditions become more involved in the movements. I think these questions are highly relevant. In passing, the opening poster apfergus mentioned that a new medication had been beneficial for him or her. For those of you experienced with debating anti-psychiatry proponents, you know what happens next. Read more of this post

An Annotated Summary of C0nc0rdance Case Against Race Realism


I have previously scoffed against race realism and related topics in a few blog posts.

The Youtube user C0nc0rdance (Youtube channel, blog) has made a set of two videos explaining the scientific flaws of race realism called “The Science of Human Races” (part 1, part 2) that I find very convincing. Consider this a summary of the arguments and evidence put forward (although c0nc0rdance might not have used the exact sources I list), with some personal comments from me and links or references to the primary scientific literature when possible. This list is also not necessarily chronological. Read more of this post

How Pseudoscientific Cranks Abuse Freedom


Freedom. How can anyone be against freedom? The simple answer is that people generally are not against freedom. It is often a core value in various political ideologies and play a central role in the law of many counties to the point of being ingrained in our social conscious. Therefore, predictably, a lot of pseudoscientific cranks abuse the notion of freedom for their own malevolent goals. Claims about health freedom is used to attack science-based medicine and promote dangerous and non-effective “treatments”. Holocaust denial is defended by appealing to freedom of speech. Various forms of creationism or climate change denialism is infiltrating education via academic freedom bills.

“Health Freedom”

A typical defense of quack medicine or anti-vaccination is talking about health freedom. Surely, people should be able to decide for themselves what type of medication they put in their bodies? Sure, but promoting anti-science quackery negates informed consent, because patients are basing their decision on false information. So, in an ironic twist of events, quack medicine is actually incompatible with real health freedom: the ability to decide what treatment is most rational for yourself based on the best available scientific evidence. Real health freedom also means freedom from cranks that exploit you for money and access to the standard of care from modern medicine. For quack medicine providers, health care freedom is a malevolent method for avoiding science-based quality control while still providing substandard care. Often far substandard care. Read more of this post

Naive Philosophical “Criticism” of Reductionism in Science


Some philosophers never get tired of falsely portraying science, its methods or the interpretation of scientific results. Too often having little or no actual experience of scientific research, they sit in their armchairs and proclaim what they believe are profound and intellectually rigorous philosophical insights. In reality, their effort is merely a non-scientific combination of ignorance with arrogance.

Topics where this often happens are evolution, genetics, neuroscience, determinism and reductionism. Stephen Pinker, an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist at Harvard University explains (Pinker, 2002, p. 10):

As I mentioned, most Americans continue to believe in an immortal soul, made of some nonphysical substance, which can part company with the body. But even those who do not avow that belief in so many words still imagine that somehow there must be more to us than electrical and chemical activity in the brain. Choice, dignity, and responsibility are gifts that set off human beings from everything else in the universe, and seem incompatible with the idea that we are mere collections of molecules. Attempts to explain behavior in mechanistic terms are commonly denounced as “reductionist” or “determinist.” No one really knows what these words mean, but everyone knows they reduce people to something inhuman and are bad.

Richard Polt, professor of philosophy at Xavier University, fits the description of such a denouncer. He has made two contributions to the Opinionator at New York Times, called Anything but Human and Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?). They arguments laid out in these posts readily demonstrate that the valuable skills of Prof. Polt is better spent on typewriters and translating Heidegger.

Reductionism in science

Before we investigate the arguments laid out by Prof. Polt, let us first understand reductionism in contemporary science. In science, reductionism comes in the flavor known as hierarchical reductionism (Dawkins, 1986, p. 13; Dennett, 1995, pp. 81-82) or reductive emergence (Stenger, 2009, pp. 159). Here is how Dawkins explains it: Read more of this post

A Voice for Men on Rape Statistics: Confusing Life-Time Prevalence with Incidence


In the online conflict between certain specific men’s rights activists (MRAs) and certain specific fringe radical feminists, no part have their intellectual integrity fully intact. Elements on both sides misunderstands statistics and basic biology and they also appeal to pseudoscience to justify their political ideology. For example, some fringe radical feminists, particularly those with postmodern inclination, may devalue biological partial explanations or subscribe to the notion of a blank slate. Similarily, some men’s rights activists propose superficially plausible evolutionary accounts of the origin of gender roles from the 1940s, but in the end, cannot provide any scientific evidence for their highly speculative accounts (making them a just-so-story).

I think that gender equality is a moral necessity, but it is terribly tedious and tiresome to read the spiraling conflict between extremists, especially when they make embarrassing rookie mistakes.

One such mistake is made by the blogger Phil in Utah over at the A Voice for Men blog in a blog post about rape statistics that confuses life-time prevalence with incidence. Phil in Utah writes:

Statistic: “1 out of every 4 women will be raped in her lifetime.”

Truth: Ah, here’s the doozy. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the source of this statistic: a study by Mary Koss that has been discredited countless times. Around three-quarters of the women she identified as having been raped did not consider themselves victims of rape, and almost half of them had sex with their supposed attackers after the event identified as a rape had occurred.

I do not really know enough about the Mary Koss study to make an informed argument, but surely, rape has to be defined as objective as possible and not solely be based on personal opinion? So the argument that some of the women did not consider it rape, therefore it should not be counted as rape, seems wrong. Obviously you can be subjected to a crime even though you are not aware that it is considered a crime. A rose by any other name…

Let us look at some rape statistics from the CDC. In their National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NIPSV), they reached the following conclusion with regards to rape prevalence among women. From the executive summary:

Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.

Now, rape prevalence will differ depending on how inclusive the definition of rape is (varies between countries), but according to the definitions used by the CDC, it is around 18% of women in the U. S. Although not exactly 1 in 4 (25%), it is fairly close. With that in mind, let’s see how Phil in Utah tackles U. S. rape prevalence: Read more of this post

Crossing the Chasm


Scientific skepticism does not represent a tablet of conclusions that proponents must subscribe to. It is a method for the critical analysis and evisceration of claims about the world around us, whether we agree with those claims or not. This method includes knowledge about logical fallacies, cognitive biases, inferential statistics and a broad knowledge of scientific methodology and key results. Such a skeptical method also has to be symmetrical. Displaying immense incredulity against contradicting arguments, while implicitly accepting supporting data with little, if any, critical investigation is pseudoskepticism. It is a failure of reason.

Because scientific skepticism does not exist in a societal vacuum, philosophical and political issues are bound to bleed over to a certain extent. There is a fundamental difference between science and scientific skepticism on the one hand, and politics on the other. While controversy is a permanent feature of the landscape, the overarching methodologies and epistemology of science and scientific skepticism is relatively straightforward compared to that of religion and politics. Read more of this post

pH Quackery and Human Acid-Base Homeostasis

ph indicator

Note: TV4 has since removed the clip, possibly because of embarrassment. It is no longer available online (note added 2021-09-07 22:52 DST).

An incredibly pseudoscientific set of medical claim was broadcasted on Sweden television (TV4) yesterday: pH quackery. The interviewed guests proposed that “having a basic body” is a universal cure for tiredness, stiffness, allergies, migraines and other miscellaneous problems. Sadly, they fail miserably at basic (no pun intended) human physiology. Enzymes and other proteins in the body depend on keeping the pH-level roughly constant. Otherwise they can loose their three-dimensional structure, and therefore function. This would be very dangerous to us. However, the human body have a robust system for regulation body pH to maintain it within physiologically optimal levels and only serious medical conditions can upset this balance, which is called acid-base homeostasis (Sherwood, Klandorf och Yancey, 2005, s. 599-603):

(1) Bicarbonate buffer system:: a chemical equilibrium with carbon dioxide on one side and hydrogen ions on the other (and some additional components, se below) If the concentrations of hydrogen ions increase, the equilibrium will be shifted towards producing more carbon dioxide in accordance with Le Chatelier’s principle). This carbon dioxide can be exhaled.

(2) Proteins: proteins usually have both a positive and negative charge, so they can bind or release hydrogen ions depending on pH.

(3) Hemoglobin in RBCs: when hemoglobin releases oxygen in an acidic environment with lots of carbon dioxide, it has a higher affinity for hydrogen ions and some become bound. These bound hydrogen ions no longer contribute to blood pH. Near the lungs, these hydrogen ions are released and combine with carbonate ions to form carbon dioxide, which are exhaled.

(4) Phosphate buffering: reminiscent of the bicarbonate buffer system, but has disodium hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen ions on one side of the equilibrium and sodium hydrogen phosphatase and sodium ions on the other.

(5) Renal regulation: kidneys can excrete both hydrogen and carbonate ions to regulate pH.

So in summary conclusion, the human body has a robust way to maintain inner pH at a constant and physiologically optimal level. Average foodstuff you eat do not upset this balance in any pathological way.

Let us look at the specific claims being made in the TV clip Read more of this post

Butchering Scientific Studies


Sometimes, people who promote pseudoscience online try to reference the scientific literature. In one sense, this is progress. They are going from just making arbitrary assertions to trying to justify them. In another sense, it is a turn for the worse. That is because the papers they reference are either of incredibly low scientific quality or rarely support what is being claimed. However, the behavior gives the illusion of evidential support for some readers. A lot of the time, they damage their own position by spamming long lists of links to videos and blog articles, but some promoters of pseudoscience are more sophisticated.

Previously, I wrote a short introduction on how to counter cranks that reference the scientific literature. Consider this to be the intermediate to advanced version. It will attempt to provide scientific skeptics with additional tools to counter pseudoscience online. The focus will be on research articles, specifically clinical trials. However, the general arguments can often be extended to other forms of research articles. Some of the tools are evidential or methodological in nature and directly related to the meat of the article such as whether or not there was a control group or control for confounders, the appropriateness of the statistical analysis and whether the conclusion accurately reflected the results. Others are more sociological in nature, looking at the journal itself, the presence or absence of peer-review, impact factor, who the authors are etc. These do not necessary count against the research in the article directly and should not be used alone, but provide useful external arguments if combined with criticisms of the study itself. There is of course some overlap between and within these broad categories.

First, a word of warning. Knowledge can be used for good or evil, and this is no exception. It is very dangerous to find oneself in a situation when the studies that run counter to one’s position are subjected to merciless criticisms while the research that support it is being accepted with little or no critical thought. This is known as pseudoskepticism and something to avoid at all cost. It can even undermine the rationality of some of the giants in science seemingly without difficulty. Read more of this post

How HIV/AIDS Denialists Abuse Bayes’ Theorem

Image by Matt Buck, under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

bayestheorem in neon

Note: Snout (Reckless Endangerment) has made some good arguments in the comment to this post. The gist is that HIV/AIDS denialists overestimate the false positive rate by assuming that the initial test is all there is, when in fact, it is just the beginning of the diagnostic process. Snout also points out that it is probably wrong to say that most people who get tested have been involved in some high-risk behavior, as a lot of screening goes on among e. g. blood donors etc. I have made some changes (indicated by del or ins tags) in this post because I find myself convinced by the arguments Snout made.

There have already been several intuitive introductions to Bayes’ theorem posted online, so there is little point in writing another one. Instead, let us apply elementary medical statistics and Bayes’ theorem to HIV tests and explode some of the flawed myths that HIV/AIDS denialists spread in this area.

The article will be separated into three parts: (1) introductory medical statistics (e. g. specificity, sensitivity, Bayes’ theorem etc.), (2) applying Bayes’ theorem to HIV tests to find the posterior probability of HIV infection given a positive test result in certain scenarios and (3) debunking HIV/AIDS denialist myths about HIV tests by exposing their faulty assumptions about medical statistics. For those that already grasp the basics of medical statistics, jump to the second section.

(1) Introductory medical statistics

A medical test usually return a positive or a negative result (or sometimes inconclusive). Among the positive results, there are true positives and false positives. Among the negative results, there are true negatives and false negatives.

True positive: positive test result and have the disease.
False positive: positive test result and do not have the disease

True negative: negative test result and do not have the disease.
False negative: negative test result and have the disease.

For the purpose of this discussion, + will indicate a positive test, - will indicate a negative test, HIV will indicate having HIV and \neg HIV will indicate not having HIV.

P(A) is the probability of an event A, say, the probability that a fair dice will land on three. Conditional probabilities, such as P(A \mid B) , represents the probability of event A, given that event B has occurred. If A and B are statistically independent events, then P(A \mid B) = P(A) , if P(B) \neq 0 (because the definition of P(A \mid B) has P(B) in the denominator).

Let us define some conditional probabilities that are relevant for HIV tests and Bayes theorem: Read more of this post

PZ Myers is not an Oblate Spheroid (p < 0.05)

yellow p

The title, of course, is a reference to the landmark paper by Cohen (1994) in American Psychologist called The Earth is Round (p < 0.05). Technically speaking, the earth is an oblate spheroid because it is shaped like an ellipse rotated around one of its axis and flattened at the poles. Anyways, the arguments laid out in that review were not particularly new. In fact, they had existed for many decades. Still, they had, and continue to have, great intellectual merit. It outlines the major flaws and problems with traditional null hypothesis significance testing (NHST) using p-values.

Despite this, p-values continue to be used by scientists, although the use of effect sizes and confidence intervals are on the increase.

Cohen’s review is really an article that should be read by any aspiring researcher (linked in the reference section) and it highlights the following errors that are commonly performed when doing p-values:

  • The p-value is the probability of obtaining the results, or more extreme results, given that the null hypothesis is true. It does not provide us with the probability of the null hypothesis being true, given the obtain evidenced. Confusing these two conditionals probabilities is known as the fallacy of transposed conditionals or the inverse probability error.
  • NHST, by contorting deductive modus tollens into a probabilistic argument, is formally invalid.
  • The p-value is not the probability of replication. In fact, the distribution of p-values over successive replications is surprisingly large.
  • The rejection of the null hypothesis does not prove the alternative hypothesis. The classical example, although not discussed by Cohen in this particular sense, is that a correct guess of, say, 20 playing cards in a row, may be highly unlikely, but the alternative hypothesis of clairvoyance is even more unlikely.
  • p-value is a function of sample size, and given a large enough sample size, almost everything will appear statistically significant.
  • NHST leads to publication bias. Results that are deemed to be statistically significant are much more likely to be published than results that are not statistically significant.
  • Reaching the level of statistical significance does not mean that the result is of any practical (e. g. biological or psychological) significance. The data may be improbable given that the null hypothesis is true, but the difference between two groups tested may be negligible for all practical intents and purposes. In other words, NHST undervalue effect sizes.

In Live by statistics, die by statistics, the associate professor of biology PZ Myers discusses a new and highly fascinating study in experimental psychology. The general gist of the paper (Masicampo and Lalande, 2012) is that the actual distribution of p-values deviates quite a bit from the theoretical distribution near just above 0.05. This appears to suggest that some experimental psychologists fudge their data a bit as to transform results that fall just below 0.05 to end up just above 0.05 Read more of this post

Obliterating The Free Speech Objection to Criticism

“People who cry about freedom of speech when they are criticized. Is your opinion that stupid that your only defense is that your opinion is not illegal?”

– Kawa Zolfagary, writer and consultant (source, translated from Swedish by E. K.)


You have just posted a detailed point-by-point refutation of the absurd pseudoscientific assertions made by some random crank on the Internet. You even took the time to included explanatory graphs and references to the scientific literature. How considerate. Instead of graciously accepting defeat or launching relevant counterarguments, the before-mentioned crank decided to knock over all of the pieces, shoot the football with a shotgun, and go home. Another, closely related scenario, occurs when the crank posts a lot of verbal abuse without any intellectual content on your blog or forum. Despite trying to calm the person down and promote rational discussion, the crank just goes on and on and you see no other option than to remove his or her comment privileges. Both of these scenarios typically degenerate into the crank making the free speech objection. It goes something like this: “you are just trying to silence and censor critics!!1”, as if free speech meant that cranks have a right not to be challenged or that individuals have a legal obligation to give cranks a platform for spreading their mindbogglingly stupid stuff. Read more of this post

The Widespread Abuse of Heritability

stack of books

Together with evolution, heritability is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and abused concepts in biology.

Some white supremacists appeal to moderate to high estimates of heritability for phenotypic traits to justify genetic determinism, that genes explain between-group differences, the discrimination of ethnic groups or other malignant and pseudoscientific beliefs that are incompatible with science.

Some egalitarian dislikes scientific results regarding moderate to high heritability estimates because they believe that it indicate that the environment is unimportant in explaining the phenotype of individuals and latch onto single studies showing low heritability as if that meant that genes are less important.

As we shall see, both of these groups believe things that are flawed from a scientific standpoint. But before we discuss why and how this is, it might be beneficial to know something about what heritability actually is. Our definition of heritability will be unpacked and improved in several stages to facilitate understanding. Read more of this post

Why Do I Even Bother? A Final Reply to Will

owl looking bored

I made a short summary of the rebuttal laid out in The Triumph of Modern Quantitative Science in the comment section on the blog post written by the cultural anthropologist Will over at Skepchick. He decided to write a comment attempting to respond to my criticisms. Unfortunately, his reply can be boiled down to claiming that I have a big ego, asserting that he really has no interest actually debating the arguments, half-a-dozen quotes out of context and denials that he ever made the arguments I am objecting to in the first place. His additional contributions in the comment section was meager. When I explained to another commentator that he or she was misunderstanding my position, that I was in no way, shape or form objecting to having anti-harassment policies and suggesting that he or she should take a step back, take a breath and actually read what I wrote, Will asserted without justification that I was derailing the conversation using emotions.

Clearly, being a skeptic does not imply being rational. I have no interest in interacting with Will any further on this issue, but I will write a final reply for completeness. Note that I will be less charitable in this reply that I usually am. Read more of this post

The Triumph of Modern Quantitative Science


A cultural anthropologist named Will posted an attempt at rebutting the general argument I laid out in The Plural of Anecdote is not Scientific Evidence (and various comments at FtB) over at the Skepchick group blog. Unfortunately, Will cannot correctly characterize a single of the arguments that have been advanced and misunderstands vital elements of quantitative methods in science. He also makes a number of other fallacies and errors that is worth looking into. His original post is called A Cult of Quantity. Let’s rip into it.

1. Background and demonstration that Will does not understand the situation

Let me outline the position as it actually were delivered and then we can compare what Will thinks the issue is.

My argument was that since the question primarily (but not exclusively) was about how racists (falsely) believe that the prevalence of racism was so low that it was negligible, we should rationally refute this claim by providing quantitative scientific studies showing that the problem is large instead of providing anecdotes or testimonials. This is because they have no independent evidential support and they may not be representative. Therefore, as a rational strategy aimed at refuting their position, it makes more sense to refer to the science.

That’s it. I thought it was a very clear description of what I meant and that it would be almost universally accepted among scientific skeptics. Apparently, I was wrong. Here is how Will mangled it: Read more of this post

Mike Adams and The Deadly Doctor Gambit

a deadly doctor?

A propaganda video against modern medicine made by the notorious pseudoscientist Mike Adams is making its way around the Internet. The video is entitled “Why doctors are more dangerous than guns” and can be found here. The idea behind the video is that since more people supposedly die in association by health care related treatments such as prescription drugs and surgery than by getting killed by a homicidal shooter, the risk of modern medicine is higher than the risk of homicidal shooters. Predictably, it is the deadly doctor gambit (named by C0nc0rdance). The comparison is done between the absolute number of deaths associated with each category, when it should be about comparing the number of fatalities divided by the number of individuals exposed. This makes the argument statistically flawed, and therefore invalid.

To be more precise, the statistical flaw is known as floating numerator or denominator neglect. It means that you forget to ask the important statistical question “out of how many?”. Every year, a certain number of people will die from prescription drugs. But out of how many that took prescription drugs that year? Once we start looking into this, the deadly doctor gambit asserted by Mike Adams collapses.

The propaganda video references Starfield (2002). The strongest emphasis in the video is placed on the number of deaths per year from non-error, adverse effects of medications, so I will focus on this one in more detail, although the general argument I made can be applied for all categories. Read more of this post


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