Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

The Hypocrisy of Pseudoscientific Cranks: Response to Criticism

Screenshot of post about cranks

The other day, a rant exposing the hypocrisy of proponents of pseudoscience was posted on Debunking Denialism. It got a lot of social media attention after being shared on the Facebook page of James Randi, and with it, a lot of objections. Criticism (of varying quality) came from many sources, such as the skeptic subreddit, Facebook, blog comments and emails. Due to the sheer volume and diversity of responses to the previous post, they have been synthesize and organized into general categories for easier treatment.

You are a Monsanto shill / Monsanto collaborator / agricultural Holocaust perpetrator

This is a flawed approach for several reasons. Besides the fact that it is not true (where are my checks!?), it is a psychological defense used to avoid tackling the actual arguments about GM crops and essentially a guilt by (imaginary) association fallacy. Just like 9/11 truthers distract from real problems with American foreign policy issues, anti-GMO conspiracy theorists distract from real and important social, economic and political issues related to GMOs. Maybe food regulation can be improved and made more effective? Perhaps there could be alternatives to patents / huge R&D costs that allows smaller companies to compete more efficiently in the free market? Because anti-GM activists constantly derail the conversation into crankery, these issues are not given sufficient attention.

This article is mediocre / sophomoric / preachy / not convincing to cranks / emotionally charged / sensationalist / makes stupid generalizations / contains a lot of bitterness / cynical / self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation / does nothing to further the cause of scientific inquiry / promotes straw men / name-calling / derogatory / does nothing to promote skepticism

It was written as a humorous rant against the hypocrisy of many pseudoscientific cranks. It was not intended to be a dispassionate analysis of irrational claims or an attempt to convince these quacks that they are wrong. These are also not straw men, as there are real-world examples of all of them.

I do not understand why corporal punishment is doing in that list

Because the science is more or less settled that corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful, yet defenders commonly use denialist tactics to support their views.

Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12038

The “dead babies” section was inappropriate

Homebirth is quackery, and homebirths attended by unqualified MANA midwives (who do not require any medical training) is considerable more dangerous than hospital births. It is intellectually dishonest to dismiss this fact by misguided appeals to “appropriateness”.

I had a successful homebirth, so that means that it really is not that dangerous / I was spanked and turned out fine

So? A smoker who does not develop lung cancer is not an argument against the fact that smoking causes lung cancer.

Homebirth is just as safe as hospital birth because the midwife can drive the mother to a hospital if something goes wrong

Really?

Then how come homebirth have at least triple the neonatal mortality rates? How come homebirth has a ~10x risk of having an Apgar score of 0 compared with hospital births? How come homebirth has a ~4x risk of neonatal seizures or serious neurological issues? How come The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists including this evidence in their position paper?

Wax, J. R., Lucas, F. L., Lamont, M., Pinette, M. G., Cartin, A., & Blackstone, J. (2010). Maternal and newborn outcomes in planned home birth vs planned hospital births: a metaanalysis. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 203(3), 243.e241-243.e248. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2010.05.028

Grünebaum, A., McCullough, L. B., Sapra, K. J., Brent, R. L., Levene, M. I., Arabin, B., & Chervenak, F. A. (2013). Apgar score of 0 at 5 minutes and neonatal seizures or serious neurologic dysfunction in relation to birth setting. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 209(4), 323.e321-323.e326. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2013.06.025

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Committee Opinion on Planned Home Birth

How dare you group my irrational beliefs about GMOs / homebirth / spanking with other pseudoscientific cranks?!

The misguided fury from selective skepticism is highly entertaining. They might agree that creationism, 9/11 truth and homeopathy are bullshit pseudoscience, but they refuse to acknowledge that their favorite belief that vaccines are toxic, that homebirth is safer than hospital births also qualify as pseudoscience. There is not much to say here, except to lament the power of selective rationality.

Debunking is sometimes the enemy of reason because revolutionary scientists were criticized at first

For every crank that turns out to be right, there are tens of thousands of cranks who persist in their erroneous delusions. Scientific skepticism and scientific discussions are vital tools to separate the valuable from the worthless. Even ideas that turn out to be right benefits from stringent examination, because scientific models are almost never perfect from the start.

But people use to believe mercury / lead / tobacco was safe!

These substances never had as much evidence of safety as GM crops / vaccines have today.

You do not know that GM foods are safe!

GM crops undergo stringent safety testing before release. There are several hundreds of scientific studies examining the safety of GM crops and a lot of them are not funded by industry.

Here are a couple of reviews and reports that provide an entry into this body of published research:

  • Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004), available from the National Academies Press here
  • A decade of EU-funded GMO research (2001-2010), available from here.
  • An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research by Nicolia and colleagues (2013) available from here.

Of course, a lot of anti-GM activists will not read these papers. Instead, they prefer to get their tainted information from crank blogs.

GMOs contain glyphosate that prevents gut bacteria from making important amino acids and this causes accumulation of toxins which in turn cause diabetes, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

This is wrong on almost every level. First, GM crops are not engineered to contain or produce glyphosate. Rather, some of them are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. In other words, this is not an issue regarding GM crops, but pesticides. Second, humans will only ingest glyphosate residue at most and it does not accumulate in the body, so its effects are not going to be large. Third, bacteria can take up aromatic amino acids from the surroundings as well as synthesize it from scratch (something that is done primarily during starvation), so one would not expect that tiny amounts of glyphosate residue will kill bacteria by starvation. Fourth, toxins are eliminated by liver and kidneys, not gut bacteria. Fifth, correlation of gut bacteria dysfunction to human diseases does not mean that dysregulation is an important cause. It might be the other way around, or maybe there are third factors that promote both.

GM crops is different from crossbreeding

In a previous post I wrote about GM crops, I made the following table over differences between the two technologies.

Traditional plant breeding Production of GM crops
What is the size of the genetic changes? Genetic recombination causes thousands of large genetic changes. Adding or modifying one or a few genes qualifies as small genetic changes.
How precisely are the changes done? Very low precision because all breeders have to look at is the phenotype. Extremely high precision because scientists can use biotech techniques.
How well-known are the genetic changes? Unknown since you are only looking at the phenotype. Highly characterized, both by virtue of the techniques involved and because of regulation requirements.
How long does it take? Decades, unless you mutate seeds with chemicals or radiation (which still qualifies as traditional plant breeding by regulators). Very fast.
When can they be released? Right when they are made. No government regulation. After 10+ years of intense toxicological and ecological testing.

In other words, GM technology involves smaller, more well-known and more precise genetic changes compared with traditional crop breeding. It is more effective and faster, and the resulting crops are safer, both for humans and the environment. The only larger difference is that you can use genes from more distant organisms than during classical breeding.

In the end, GM technology is an incremental and logical extension of plant breeding.

You use the word cynic wrong!

The usage of the word “cynic” was not intended to refer to the Greek Cynics. Rather, the word was used in its everyday meaning.

7 responses to “The Hypocrisy of Pseudoscientific Cranks: Response to Criticism

  1. 2012 And All That July 27, 2014 at 23:58

    Thanks for this, some of it will be very useful in future and I’ll refer them here. Last week, I also had a post that went viral – it was about “Food Babe” and a handful of defenders decided to throw around some similar accusations to those used above.

    Keep up the good work. The truth will out!

  2. Scott Siskind July 29, 2014 at 04:31

    Hey Emil, great post, and great blog. I’ve been following you for a while and I am wondering, what do you think in particular of Gregory Cochran?

    • Emil Karlsson July 29, 2014 at 10:02

      Never heard of him until now. If Wikipedia is to be believed, he has very naive ideas about genetics and evolution as it pertains to sexual orientation. The model that genetic variation impacts variation in sexual orientation does not in any way, shape or form, rest on the silly idea that there is a single gene that causes it, and that this gene has only a single effect.

    • Scott Siskind July 29, 2014 at 18:00

      Thanks for the reply Emil, I wasn’t aware that you didn’t know of Cochran before now, perhaps you can take a look at his blog at westhunt . wordpress . com to take a deeper look at his beliefs.

  3. Scott Siskind July 31, 2014 at 23:50

    Emil, another question if I may, what do you think of Steven Pinker? He is beginning to be considered as the foremost intellectual in America by some.

    • Emil Karlsson August 1, 2014 at 09:02

      What exactly is your goal here? What are you trying to accomplish by asking me what I think about different people, especially considering the fact that it does not pertain to the topic of this blog post?

      Stephen Pinker has done a lot of great things, but his recent argument about genetic clustering and race shows that he doesn’t really understand human genetic variation or the limitations of these computational tools.

    • Scott Siskind August 1, 2014 at 23:19

      I apologize for asking seemingly unrelated questions, just wanted you opinion. I don’t have any negative intentions. Although the people I ask you about are most certainly related to your blog, especially Cochran since he is a prominent HBD blogger and academic. If more skeptics look at such people and their dubious science then it can only be good, I think.

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