Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Homeopathy for Ebola: The Quackery That Knows No Limits

Ebola virus

Ebola is a virus that causes a dangerous hemorrhagic fever disease with a high mortality rate. Right now, there have been at least 9000 cases of Ebola viral disease and ~4500 documented deaths. It has spread to seven different countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain and the United States, although according to the October 17th update from the World Health Organization (WHO) the outbreak seems to have ended in Senegal.

In the wake of this human tragedy, pseudoscientific “treatments” against Ebola have cropped up like weeds around the Internet. Various websites suggest antioxidants, selenium, vitamin C, Vitamin D, iodine, magnesium, estradiol, infrared radiation, sodium bicarbonate, cannabis, coffee, fermented soy, silver and salty drinking water. Natural News, the largest website promoting quack treatments in the world, even posted an article recommending homeopathy and describing how to prepare remedies. However, this was pulled after a couple of days as apparently homeopathy for Ebola was a too deranged idea even for Natural News.

Recently, Fran Sheffield (the director of Homeopathy Plus Australia) put up a petition (webcite) at Change.org urging the WHO to “test and distribute homeopathy as quickly as possible” to contain outbreaks of Ebola. This petition, together with 2000 signatures, were sent to Director General Dr Margaret Chan at the WHO in early October. Unfortunately, it contains numerous scientific, medical and logical errors that will be discussed in this article. The irrational peculiarities of the messages left from supporters of homeopathy for Ebola will also be explored.

Homeopathy is not effective for any medical condition

Homeopathy has a proven track record of treating and preventing serious epidemic diseases.

High-quality scientific studies show that homeopathy does not work for any particular medical condition. This position is even held by the National Center of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organization that has been given substantial criticism for being too friendly to quack treatments. Not only that, homeopathy is incompatible with core principles of chemistry and biology: the preparations are diluted to such a degree that there are, statistically speaking, no active molecule of the diluted substance whatsoever. In other words, treating Ebola virus disease with homeopathy is equivalent to treating it with water or sugar pills.

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The Fourth Anniversary of Debunking Denialism

Anniversary cake

Another year has passed here at Debunking Denialism and it is time to celebrate the fourth anniversary since the creation of this website.

New content

Since last year, a little over 50 new articles have been posted, discussing topics such as the pseudoscientific climate report published by the Heartland Institute, science and pseudoscience among law enforcement, anti-immigration advertisements, how race realists abuse heritability, Bosnian genocide denialism, the pitfalls of fMRI-based lie detection, Bayesian self-defense against paranormalist claims, spell casting against HIV/AIDS, pseudomathematical objections to genetically modified foods, fraudulent psychics brought to justice, extensive plagiarism in the renowned Genetics journal, homeopathic “treatments” for Ebola and how modern genomics crushed Bigfoot pseudoscience.

New sections started on Debunking Denialism during the past year includes cryptozoology and bad science journalism.

An explosion of page views

The activity here at Debunking Denialism has grown faster than ever could have been anticipated. The website passed 200k page views in early July, and recently passed 300k. Read more of this post

How Modern Genomics Crushed Bigfoot Pseudoscience

Bigfoot? Or just a guy in a suit?

ResearchBlogging.org

Thousands of people around the world believe in the existence of a large primate that roams the mountain forests. It is known by many names, such as Bigfoot, Yeti and Sasquatch. Many of these enthusiasts even claim to have genuine biological samples from these creatures. Skeptics have so far remain unconvinced. No authentic photographs or video material has been produced (the one on the right is a man in a suit) and no bodies have been found. Meanwhile, cryptozoologists complain that scientist are not taking them seriously.

To remedy this problem, Sykes et. al. (2014) requested samples from all over the world, subject them to rigorous decontamination protocols, amplified the DNA and then sequence them in order to find out their identity. Guess what they found?

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Incinerating the Sherlock Holmes Gambit

Is a bad explanation better than no explanation?

Cranks, when faced with issues where science has yet to find a solid answer, often appeal to a classic quote from the literary character Sherlock Holmes that has appeared in different forms in many of his adventures:

When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

This claim, which could be called the Sherlock Holmes gambit has been used in many different contexts:

Sherlock

  • Greg Cochran uses it indirectly to argue for the existence of a virus that turns men gay because he finds explanations based on genes, hormones and selection unpersuasive. This has led race realist JayMan to conclude that the germ hypothesis is “almost certainly” correct despite the fact that no clear evidence exists for that idea. The pathogen has not been identified and no clinical or epidemiological evidence has been presented.
  • John Lennox uses it to argue that the resurrection of Jesus was so improbable that it just had to be true. This line of argument has been forcefully refuted by Richard Carrier.
  • All conspiracy theorists everywhere use it when talking about Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

However, this argument is flawed in at least four separate ways:

(1) Constitutes a false dilemma

Attacking alternative explanations is not evidence for the proposed explanation. Faulty criticisms against evolution is not evidence for creationism and misguided arguments against quantum mechanics is not arguments for new age mysticism. That would qualify as the fallacy known as false dilemma.

(2) No evidence for the improbable explanation

Nowhere in this gambit is evidence presented for this improbable explanation. It is an evidence-free argument. In fact, it tacitly admits that the prior probability of the claim being made is exceedingly low.

(3) Ignores unknown explanations

Science does not know everything right now. It might never know everything there is to know about the world. Therefore, this gambit ignores the possibility of future explanations. Just because we cannot explain a novel card trick right now does not mean that supernatural powers were involved and not being able to explain engineering anomalies does not mean that a plane was shot down.

(4) Assumes correct understanding of current alternative explanations

The Sherlock Holmes gambit usually include an extremely superficial treatment of alternative explanations. Misunderstandings of evolution, genetics, engineering and other topics are common. Thus, these alternative explanations have not really been excluded as “impossible”. Even if those were currently “impossible”, future discoveries or elucidations might make them more scientifically credible.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part II: Evidentialism

Winston Wu

Previously, we have explored skeptical principles such as the fact that confidence should be in proportion to evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor, the burden of evidence and skepticism of anecdotal evidence and these were analyzed within a Bayesian framework. In this second installment, we will examine the misconceptions that Wu has about the psychology of memory, Hume’s argument against miracles, evidentialism, the scope of science and the notion of scientific plausibility.

Misunderstood principle #6: The unreliability of memory as evidence for paranormal claims

Instead of engaging with the rich psychological literature on the malleability of memory, Wu dismisses it by asserting that most memories are reliable and those aspects that turn out to be unreliable only pertain to peripheral details of little to no importance.

However, decades of memory research has shown that human memory is not as accurate as Wu believes. For instance, several hundred people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted based on false eyewitness testimony:

When well-meaning eyewitnesses testify in court that a defendant brutally attacked them or that they witnessed a defendant commit a violent crime, jurors are likely to believe them. That is because the vast majority of eyewitnesses to crimes are honest people who want to help solve crimes. Unfortunately, studies of wrongful conviction cases and of the fallibility of human memory have proven that eyewitnesses frequently are mistaken. In the first 239 DNA exonerations, mistaken eyewitness identifications were a factor in more than 70% of the cases, making it the number one cause of wrongful convictions in DNA cases.

Of the first 239 exonerations proven by DNA testing, 175 involved mistaken eyewitness identifications. While a number of these wrongful convictions also included some of the other main causes, the faulty identifications were the sole factor leading to the jury’s decision in 50% of the cases. Additionally, in 62% of these cases only one person identified the suspect as the perpetrator.

It may seem strange that a rape victim, for example, could misidentify her rapist, but studies have shown that human memory can be easily – and unintentionally – manipulated during the investigative process. Through no fault of their own, eyewitnesses frequently participate in identification procedures that are likely to cause errors. Some examples of such procedures include: viewing photographic lineups or in-person lineups in which the suspect very obviously stands out from the “fillers”; participating in multiple lineups in which the defendant is the only person who appears in all of them; and receiving unintentional feedback from the police officer administering the case after identifying the suspect.

This evidence does not match the belief held by Wu.

Misunderstood principle #7: Hume’s argument against miracles

Wu continues to butcher and misunderstand skeptical principles. This time, it is Hume’s argument against miracles. In An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), Scottish philosopher David Hume makes the following arguments:

That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish

Hume goes on to consider the case when someone tells him that a dead man has been resurrected. What is more likely: (1) that the uniformity of nature has been violated by a supernatural agent, or that (2) the person is lying, has been deceived, or is otherwise mistaken? Hume goes for the most plausible answer and rejects the biggest miracles.

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The Persecutory Delusions of Tin Foil Hat MRAs

Swedish AVfM

Did the Swedish National Courts Administration break into private FTP servers owned by men’s rights activists (MRAs) and edit a 13-year-old report on the Women’s Safety Act to remove a problematic statement made by feminist Director of Public Prosecution Marianne Ny in order to cover their human right’s violations in the wake of the Julian Assange case?

Or did the MRAs just failed notice that the original quote from the report is a combination two different sentences from separate paragraphs and did not realize that the second sentence is still there, unaltered, on the next page?

In 2001, the Swedish National Courts Administration published a report called The New Women’s Safety Act. This report is an anthology and covers topics like recognizing violence in a health care setting, insufficient resources in social services and cooperation between voluntary organizations. In the chapter on securing evidence fast, MRAs allege that Marianne Ny (at the time a local prosecutor) makes the following statement:

“Only when the man is arrested and the woman are left in peace she have time to get some perspective on her life, she then get a chance to discover how she really have been treated.” “Marianne Ny says that the prosecution has a good effect to protect women, even in the cases where the offender is prosecuted but not convicted.”

The reason for why Ny’s claim is controversial among some MRAs is that prosecutors are not supposed to prosecute alleged criminals if they are not convinced that sufficient evidence exists for a conviction. Some MRAs think that this shows that Ny, now a Director of Public Prosecution, have no issue prosecuting men even those she is not convinced that enough evidence exists for a conviction. This issue comes to a head in the case of the Swedish arrest warrant against Julian Assange.

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Ebola Denialism: Conspiracy Theories, Quackery and Terrorism

Ebola denialism

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic disease with a high mortality rate. The natural reservoir for the virus appears to be fruit bats and it spreads via human-to-human transmission by body fluids, but it is not airborne. According to the recent information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total number of suspected and confirmed cases is almost 3100 and it has spread to four countries in West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

It did not take long for conspiracy theories, quackery and even terrorism to spread in the wake of this Ebola epidemic. People have accused the government of inventing the epidemic, claimed that Ebola does not even exists, armed terrorists have attacked Ebola clinics and “freed” patients and popular American quack websites have promoted homeopathy for Ebola.

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Mailbag: Is Debunking Denialism “Biased” Against Holocaust Deniers?

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.

One of the biggest problem facing denialists is that they cannot defeat scientific evidence or overcome skeptical arguments. Instead, they need to deploy various smokescreens, such as accusing their skeptical opponent of being “biased”. This tactic is easy to see through because no actual evidence is presented and they do not engage any of the arguments. A good example of such an approach can be seen in the following comment submitted by stewart on the tour de force debunking article The Intellectually Barren Wasteland of Holocaust Denial.

This article seems as asymmetrically biased as the holocaust deniers themselves.

This is the classic “you are biased, but I refuse to provide examples or interact with your arguments”. In what way is it “asymmetrically biased”? Note that rejecting one side in a struggle based on overwhelming historical evidence is not the same as being biased. Quite the contrary, refusing to accept the most reasonable position (namely that the Holocaust is a historical fact) and trying to portray both sides as equally reasonable would be a clear case of false balance, which is certainly an enormously biased way of tackling these issues.

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Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb ‏Responds to Criticism (Sort of)

A while back, statistician Nassim N. Taleb co-wrote an ignorant screed against genetically modified crops, which was refuted in detail here on Debunking Denialism. It was essentially based on elementary misunderstanding of the biology behind it when he simply asserted that genetic modification was “categorically and statistically different” from traditional plant breeding without any evidence despite the fact that it is just a logical extension. In addition, he presented a deeply flawed risk analysis, where he compared the prevention of famine with having poor people play Russian roulette.

Now, Taleb has posted a response on Twitter. Was it thoughtful? Was it based on scientific evidence? Did it interact with the arguments that were provided in the refutation? Not exactly.

Taleb responds..not

The refutation was “not intelligent”, “full of flaws”, and “downright stupid”, yet Taleb could not produce a single argument against it? Also note the time stamps: the link was posted on 12:05 AM on 6 Aug and his response came 12:08 AM on the same day. That means that Taleb spent at most three minutes evaluating the refutation in question. So this is the intellectual summit of the most prominent opponents of genetically modified crops acts when someone criticizes him?

In the end, it does not matter how much statistical sophistry Taleb uses to dress up his erroneous assertions about GM crops since it is based on false premises about the biology. Garbage in, garbage out.

Extensive Plagiarism Found in Yeastbook Initiative

Plagiarism in Genetics Journal

Scientific misconduct occurs when a scientist fabricates or falsifies data, plagiarizes previous writing or other questionable research practices. These behaviors damage science in many ways, from contributing to flawed decisions on the efficacy of treatments to hurting the credibility of the scientific community in the eyes of the public. Therefore, exposing scientific misconduct is extremely important in order to safeguard the accuracy of scientific data and credibility for scientific projects. Debunking Denialism was recently provided with evidence from a reader that the renowned scientific journal Genetics published a paper in their Yeastbook Initiative that contains several large paragraphs that were plagiarized from a previous publication by the two authors and one additional colleague. Because scientific integrity is so incredibly vital, this evidence is posted here in full.

Genetics is the journal of the Genetics Society of American and their Yeastbook project is intended as a “comprehensive compendium of reviews that presents the current state of knowledge of the molecular biology, cellular biology, and genetics of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae” (Hinnebusch and Johnston, 2011), which is one of the most important model organisms in all of biology. The Yeastbook review paper in question, which concerns the molecular biology of budding yest nucleus, is Taddei and Gasser (2012). The original review paper that it plagiarizes is Taddei, Schober and Gasser (2010) published in Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology. This article presents a few of the more egregious examples that could be found in Taddei and Gasser (2012) with the corresponding sections from Taddei, Schober and Gasser (2010).

Section on the nuclear envelope / nuclear pore complex

The first example of plagiarism comes from the first paragraph in the section “Nuclear envelope and nuclear pore complex” in Taddei and Gasser (2012). This is pretty much word-for-word identical to the corresponding paragraph in the “Nuclear Envelope Associated Proteins and the Nuclear Pore Complex” section from Taddei, Schober and Gasser (2010).

Taddei and Gasser (2012) Taddei, Schober and Gasser (2010)
Trafficking between the nucleoplasm and the cytoplasm occurs through ∼200 NPCs, which enable the free diffusion of small molecules as well as the regulated transport of macromolecules by the importin machinery (Alber et al. 2007; D’Angelo and Hetzer 2008; Aitchison and Rout 2012). Intriguingly, NPCs provide a platform for messenger RNA (mRNA) transcription and quality control, as well as its export, [...] Trafficking between the nucleoplasm and the cytoplasm occurs through approximately 200 nuclear pore complexes (NPCs), which allow the free diffusion of small molecules, whereas regulating the transport of macromolecules. NPCs also provide a platform for mRNA transcription and quality control, as well as its export.

The plagiarism is pretty lazy and not exactly subtle. In this section, “approximately” was change to “~” and NPCs was written out instead of using the abbreviation. A similar thing happened with messenger RNA. The second example occurs a few sentences later: Read more of this post

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.

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You Know You Are a Pseudoscientific Crank If…

crank

Are you sick of always failing to convince us scientific skeptics that GM crops kill people, that homeopathy cures cancer or that climate change is a socialist myth? Do you feel frustrated by being asked to provide peer-reviewed scientific papers to support your position? If this matches your experience and you still do not know why, see how many of the following statements match your behavior to see if you qualify as a pseudoscientific crank.

You denigrate the knowledge of scientific experts, but compare yourself with Galileo and Einstein.

Just because you are criticized by knowledgeable people who provide scientific evidence to back up their arguments does not mean that you are an oppressed genius. Sometimes, you are just a rebel trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. In the end, the flawed notion that criticism means that you are actually right is a pathetic defense mechanism to avoid responding to objections or backing up your claims with evidence.

You are not Galileo or Einstein. They convinced their peers with evidence. You have no evidence whatsoever.

You claim mainstream medical treatments are unsafe and ineffective, while promoting quack treatments that are dangerous and untested.

There is a lot of hate towards modern medicine by proponents of quack treatments. This may be based on envy from quacks who never got into or failed medical school or because of postmodern belief that everyone is an expert. This is yet another example of confirmation bias and selective thinking.

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Poisonous M&Ms: The Irrational Monstrosity of Bigotry

Poisonous M&Ms?

Myths and legends about monsters have excited the human imagination for hundreds of years. Although vampires, werewolves and ghosts do not exist in reality, there are irrational belief constructs that are equally monstrous. Not just in content, but also in consequence. These are often based on exploiting common human tendencies with an additional layer of motivated reasoning reinforced by pseudoscience. This article will examine one such monster known as the the “poisonous M&Ms analogy”. It is often deployed as a way to prop up indefensible stereotypes by taking advantage of human ignorance about base rates, risk assessment and criminology. In the end, it tries to divert attention from the inherent bigotry in making flawed generalizations.

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Regurgitated HIV/AIDS Denialism and Anti-Science Libertarianism

HIV/AIDS denialism at LewRockwell.com

There are few places more cognitively dangerous to a rational mind than the intersection of political ideology and pseudoscience. Libertarians are increasingly being associated with various anti-scientific beliefs, such as vaccine rejectionism and climate change denialism. This is harmful to traditional libertarian causes, such as curbing excessive bureaucracy and government intrusion into civil liberties because it allows critics to dismiss libertarians as denialist cranks without a second thought.

It is therefore disturbing that the libertarian website LewRockwell.com recently published a screed promoting HIV/AIDS denialism written by medical doctor Donald W. Miller Jr. Despite being an actual medical doctor, he repeats many of the same fallacies that HIV/AIDS denialists commonly deploy. In reality, antiretrovirals decrease progression to AIDS and death rates, HIV can be transmitted sexually and HIV testing is highly accurate.

The specter of “the government”

A common approach used by anti-science libertarians is to portray the mainstream scientific and medical consensus as “the government” or “the official story”. This is a common technique to marginalize their opponents by associating them with something they intensely dislike. However, mainstream scientific communities are not slaves to the government or to politicians. They can design and carry out scientific research and interpret their results on their own.

Initiating antiretroviral therapy regardless of CD4 count

Miller makes a big deal out of the fact that the newest guidelines for treatment of individuals with HIV/AIDS recommend that antiretroviral therapy is given to individuals who are HIV+ regardless of CD4+ count. Had he read the report he is referencing in detail, he would have understood that there is a clear medical reason for why this is done (HHS Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents, 2014):

The recommendation to initiate ART in individuals with high CD4 cell counts—whose short-term risk for death and development of AIDS-defining illness is low is based on growing evidence that untreated HIV infection or uncontrolled viremia is associated with development of non-AIDS-defining diseases, including cardiovascular disease (CVD), kidney disease, liver disease, neurologic complications, and malignancies. Furthermore, newer ART regimens are more effective, more convenient, and better tolerated than regimens used in the past.

In other words, untreated HIV infection (even with a high CD4+ count) increases the risk for a number of diseases. To disable the emotional threat of “forced government medicine” or similar, it can be noted that the guidelines specifically states that the wishes of the individual should be taken into consideration, together with a large number of other factors:

Regardless of CD4 count, the decision to initiate ART should always include consideration of a patient’s comorbid conditions, his or her willingness and readiness to initiate therapy, and available resources.

It is both sad and entertaining to see that denialists rarely read the papers and reports that they themselves reference.

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Turning Tides: Fraudulent Psychics Brought to Justice

Sylvia Browne

Psychics are people who pretend to have various supernatural powers such as extrasensory perception (ESP), the ability to move objects with their mind or being able to talk to the dead. They typically deceive grieving and unsuspecting victims by telling them what they want to hear in exchange for large sums of money. Some alleged psychics have built massive careers (including popular television programs) and fortunes by exploiting vulnerable people. Although most scientific skeptics can see through the dishonest smokescreens deployed by these individuals, it is enormously frustrating that the belief in psychics is so widespread. According to a Gallup poll from 2005, 41% of Americans believe in ESP, 26% believe in clairvoyance and 21% believe that people can communicate with the dead.

Yet, the light of reason is starting to break through the clouds of unreason. Several alleged psychics have been convicted, jailed and forced to pay back money to their victims in recent years. Here are a few examples:

Cynthia Miller: claimed to be able to communicate with spirits and remove curses from her clients. She even conned a man with psychotic symptoms into giving her gold coins worth almost half a million dollars to treat his problems. She also exploited a woman for another half a million dollars who went through multiple brain surgeries against cancer. That woman is now losing her home due to not being able to pay her loans. Miller was sentence to three years and five months and prison and forced to pay 1.2 million dollars to her victims (source, webcite).

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