# Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

## Truehope Threatens Critic Natasha Tracy with Frivolous Lawsuit

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning mental health writers. She tested and critically evaluated an alternative medicine product called EMPowerplus Advanced during a time period she was suicidal and out of evidence-based options. Turns out that EMPowerplus Advanced is just a mixture of minerals and vitamins, amino acids and antioxidants. They claim that it can replace psychiatric medication and that they have over two dozens scientific papers published showing that it is effective. In reality, most of those are either case reports written by clinicians who believe in the product or plagued by lacking controls, having massive dropouts, being open label, having non-random self-selected samples or relying on self-reporting treatment effects.

Tracy wrote a few critical blog posts about the product and the company (called Truehope Nutritional Support) behind it in late 2013. A few days ago, The Synergy Group of Canada sent her a letter threatening with a lawsuit (webcite) for “slander/defamation” unless she removes all of her critical writings and issue a public apology within a week. In other words, an alternative medicine company that sells a “treatment” (against a variety of psychiatric conditions) that does not appear to be supported by solid scientific evidence has now attempted to silence a leading critic by threatening with legal action. This, of course, is known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” or a SLAPP lawsuit.

Truehope and the Synergy Group thought they could bully a mental health writer who criticized their alternative “treatment” into silence by threatening her with a lawsuit. They were wrong. Debunking Denialism supports Natasha Tracy’s freedom to critically investigate and write down her thoughts and arguments for all to see. Debunking Denialism reject the intellectually dishonest and cowardly SLAPP tactic. Perhaps unwittingly, Truehope and the Synergy Group has now made sure that the skeptical spotlight will exposing their dirty laundry.

## Unraveling Pathetic Bleach Apologetics

Bleach apologists advocate the treatment of cancer, malaria, HIV, autism and other conditions with a chlorine-based bleach called chlorine dioxide. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that chlorine dioxide treats any medical condition. It is a bleach used for water treatment or pulp bleaching.

However, bleach apologists have not stood unopposed. Scientific skeptics and public health experts have been speaking out against this kind of pseudoscientific quackery. So bleach apologists have decided to strike back by attempting to spread an image meme across Facebook and other social media sites. They want to argue that chlorine dioxide is safe for human consumption at high concentrations and that it is, in fact, not a form of bleach. Click the image to the right to see the full-resolution screenshot.

Let us take it apart, claim by claim.

Protecting people against drinking bleach does not “endanger lives”

Drinking any form of bleach, bathing in it or using it as enema is dangerous. This is because, among other things, bleaches are oxidizers. Oxidizers steal electrons from other substances, effectively oxidizing them. The body contains many important components such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats and all of these are susceptible to oxidation. Oxidation occur all the time in the body as part of normal metabolism, but it is delicately controlled by enzymes and various protective systems. If you drink bleach, you take in large concentrations and amounts of oxidizers, and this damages key components of the body. Above and beyond that, different kinds of bleaches have different kinds of harmful effects in the body, but they are all oxidizers. This is an inescapable fact.

There is no known health benefits with drinking bleach. It may purify water, but that does not mean that it kills pathogens in the body and certainly not that it treats medical conditions that are not due to pathogens. So protecting people from drinking bleach makes sense from the perspective of human health.

## Swedish Medical Products Agency Bans Ionosil Colloidal Silver

In another stunning victory for science-based medicine, Swedish Medical Products Agency (the regulatory body for medicine and medical products) has decided that the company Ion Silver AB must stop promoting and selling colloidal silver of the brand Ionosil together with claims that the product treats diseases such as cancer and Ebola.

As a death-blow to the colloidal silver fanaticism, the agency even refuted the classic trope of “What’s the harm?” and even went so far as to criticize anecdotal evidence and the claim that antiseptic effectiveness of waste water somehow means efficacy against human diseases.

What diseases did Ionosil Colloidal Silver falsely claim to treat?

Like most forms of alternative medicine, Ionosil Colloidal Silver claims to prevent, treat and cure a long list of diseases, such as cancer, malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, shingles, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Taiwan acute respiratory agent, Lyme’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Ebola virus disease, psoriasis, norovirus (winter vomiting bug) and arthritic pain.

This is an obvious sign of quackery. Diseases are usually very specific in terms of how they are caused, how they progress, what they do and what symptoms you get. This means that it is unlikely for a simplistic product like small particles of silver in a water solution to prevent, treat and cure all of them.

What is the basis for the decision made by Swedish Medical Products Agency?

Although acknowledging that colloidal silver is approved for being sold as water purification, the company has marketed it for human consumption together with false and misleading health claims. This entails that the product is, in practice, being sold as a medical product. To be able to sell a product as a pharmaceutical, it has to approved by the regulatory authorities and this requires scientific evidence for both safety and effectiveness. Since Ionosil is not an approved pharmaceutical, it cannot be sold or marketed the way that Ion Silver AB has done.

Furthermore, it concluded that diseases like cancer and malaria are serious medical conditions and quack products like Ionosil Colloidal Silver might “delude people who suffers from these diseases to use an ineffective product instead of getting a working treatment”.

## Seller of Quack “Treatment” Miracle Mineral Solution Convicted

The promotion of quack treatments recently received a heavy blow from the U. S. criminal justice system. Louis Daniel Smith, one of the major players behind selling industrial-strength bleach as a miracle cure for various diseases and conditions, was convicted in a federal court for “introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead”, “fraudulently smuggling merchandise into the United States” and “conspiracy to commit multiple crimes” according to a press release from the U. S. Department of Justice. He now risks being sentenced to 34 years in prison.

This is a stunning victory for science-based medicine, consumer protection and scientific skepticism generally. It will help protect thousands of people with cancer, HIV, malaria or autism who would otherwise have fallen prey for quackery, both in terms of health and finances. It will also provide a powerful response to both those who claims that quack treatments do not cause harm and those who claim that skeptical activism is pointless. Pseudoscience (and alternative medicine in particular) does cause considerable harm, and skeptical activism does work.

What diseases and conditions were industrial-strength bleach suppose to treat?

A federal jury in the Eastern District of Washington returned a guilty verdict yesterday against a Spokane, Washington, man for selling industrial bleach as a miracle cure for numerous diseases and illnesses, including cancer, AIDS, malaria, hepatitis, lyme disease, asthma and the common cold, the Department of Justice announced.

Warning alarms should always sound when a purported treatment claims to be a miracle cure for a wide range of diseases and conditions that are largely unrelated to each other, such as AIDS, malaria, asthma and so on. However, this short list is incomplete. Miracle Mineral Solution is being peddled for an even wider array of conditions than that on the Internet: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), autism spectrum conditions, herpes, dog bites, root canal, gangrene, urinary tract infections, HPV warts, eczema, influenza, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, whooping cough, fibromyalgia, first-degree burns, spider bites, chlamydia, getting bitten by drug addicts, singles, bleeding hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, allergies, gall stones, eye infections, tetanus and even (believe it or not) wounds resulting from attacks by rogue baboons.

## Sun Staring Won’t Treat Anything, But Might Make You Go Blind

One of the most absurd aspects of alternative medicine is probably when proponents advocate ineffective and dangerous treatments for things that are not clearly medical problems. In one fell swoop, they have invented both an alleged serious medical condition, as well as the supposed treatment. This, of course, is highly ironic since many alternative medicine proponents make this precise accusation against mainstream medicine. In this article, we will be taking a closer look at a recent blog post at quack central Natural News written by Ethan A. Huff that promoted staring into the sun for over 40 minutes a day in order to treat a calcified pineal gland. In reality, this is not a medical condition and staring into the sun is harmful to the eyes and could potentially make you go blind. As if this was not horrible enough, one of the commenters recommended chelation therapy with EDTA, which might even be lethal. Think there is no harm in alternative medicine? Think again.

Ancient does not mean valid

Hunt is quickly to trot out the classic alternative medicine fallacy known as appeal to tradition:

The technique is known as “sun gazing,” or “sun eating,” and it dates back more than 2,000 years to ancient India.

The fact that an error has been kept for a very long time does not make it correct. The fact that stubborn and ignorant proponents have refused to adapt their beliefs to reality for a very long time does not make those beliefs correct. People have believed that demons cause disease, that bloodletting cures infectious diseases and so on for hundreds of years, but that does not make those beliefs anymore true.

## In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

So far, we have seen how paranormalist Winston Wu misunderstands core skeptic principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, parsimony, burden of evidence, the perils and pitfalls of anecdotal evidence, and the fallibility of human memory. We have also investigated the difference between the unexplained and the unexplainable, the nature of beliefs, the methods of scientific skepticism, irrationality and the scope and influence of pseudoscience.

In this fourth installment of this articles series, we move onto examining specific paranormalist claims, such as psychics that claim to be able to talk to the dead, the value of controls and replication in psi research, the nature of the placebo effect and the alleged existence of miracles.

Misunderstood principle #16: Psychological techniques of alleged psychics

Alleged psychics use a wide range of psychological techniques (reviewed here) to persuade people that they have supernatural powers that allows them to supposedly communicate with the dead or gain important insights about the past: cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, time-shifting, inflating probabilistic resources, shotgunning, covering all bases, vanishing negative, escape hatch, changing the subject, spreading the net wider, retrofitting, post hoc rationalizations and so on.

Wu apparently do not recognize the breadth of psychological techniques because he only brings up cold and hot reading:

The problem with the cold reading/hot reading explanation is that for many accounts of psychic readings (including some of my own) the techniques do not account for the specific information attained. For example, some psychic can tell you very specific things about you without asking you any questions, which rules out the “fishing for clues” technique. If neither they nor any of their accomplices talked to you beforehand, then that would also rule out the same technique. […[ Unfortunately for skeptics, there are many cases of psychic readings where all of the above were ruled out. Therefore, cold/hot reading cannot account for every case. In such cases, the skeptic is left without explanations, but often continue to insist that the client must have given away some kind of clue, and demand that this be disproved first before imposing any claim of genuine psychic ability at work.

Because there are dozens and dozens of other techniques besides cold and hot reading, this is a very weak argument for the existence of psychic powers. Although Wu does acknowledge that there are many frauds out there, Wu has denied himself the opportunity to fully investigate alternatives to his hypothesis that alleged psychics have genuine supernatural powers.

The next part of the section contains anecdotes about visits to psychics that he and various people have done. However, as was explored in a previous installment, the plural of anecdote is not data. Also, many of them are second or third-hand accounts, taken from email list discussions or an anonymous story about remembering playing with an Ouija board at age 11. Thus, they contain information that can be considerably different from the actual events and Wu even acknowledge that at least some of the alleged examples are examples of cold reading. Because of that, this installment focus on examining Wu’s own experience.

## Jenny Splitter and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where the immune system reacts against a modified version of a gluten protein that results in a cross-reaction with the small intestine because of similarities in protein sequence. Individuals with this condition can get chronic inflammation, cancer and malabsorption of important nutrients if they do not eliminate gluten from their diet, so this is a very real condition. However, it has spawned a dietary fad and many people who do not have celiac disease have self-diagnosed themselves with “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) and avoid gluten like the plague in a misguided quest for healthy eating. There is no scientific evidence that NCGS exists, but that has not put a dent in the popularity of gluten-free products.

Grounded Parents is a blog about parenting written by parents who are secular skeptics and it is part of the Skepchick Network. Recently, they published a post written by Jenny Splitter defending decisions to eliminate gluten for those who claim to have NCGS. Now, Splitter did not argue that there is scientific evidence for this condition. Instead, she appealed to placebo medicine, ignored the negative consequences of overfitting noise, deployed a classic anti-skeptical trope based on the perfect solution fallacy and even rationalized negative evidence.

## Swedish Public Radio Promotes Pseudoscientific “Detox” Regimes

Pseudoscientific “detox” regimes are based on the flawed idea that unspecified “toxins” accumulate in the body and by consuming nothing but fruit juices, fasting, taking part in dangerous colon cleansing or using fake foot baths will rid the body of these alleged “toxins”. In reality, the liver and kidneys are very efficient at eliminating real toxins and other waste products from the body. If the body accumulates actual toxins at harmful levels, that means that the liver and kidneys are malfunctioning or shutting down. This would be lethal, and not just generate diffuse symptoms such as tiredness. Drinking nothing but juices or fasting will not help deadly poisoning. So in essence, “detox” products are useless.

Recently, the Swedish Public Radio (“Sveriges Radio”) broadcasted an episode of P4 Extra with guest host Mina Benaissa (2015-01-01, 13:00 local time). Around 41:21 into the show, we are treated to the following exchange about pseudoscientific detox treatments between the host and alleged “detox expert” Erica Palmcrantz Aziz Read more of this post

## Homeopathy for Ebola: The Quackery That Knows No Limits

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.

## Ebola Denialism: Conspiracy Theories, Quackery and Terrorism

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.

## Schizophrenia is not Demonic Possession

The Journal of Religion and Health is an allegedly peer-reviewed journal that claims to “explores the most contemporary modes of religious and spiritual thought with particular emphasis on their relevance to current medical and psychological research.” In addition to clinical and statistical papers, they also make room for papers that are “impressionistic” or “anecdotal”. With an impact factor of around 0.8, it barely gets more citations than the average crank journal.

A recent paper published in this publication cements this views. Without any scientific evidence whatsoever, Irmak (2014) makes the assertion that hallucinations associated to schizophrenia are really the result of demonic agency. Demons, according to Irmak, creates real sensory images which the individual misinterprets as an hallucinations. This paper is so blatantly absurd and anti-scientific that it is hard to take seriously. Does this person really believe the stuff he is writing? Why did the journal publish such an obvious piece of nonsense? How on earth did it get past peer-review? There are many questions that demand answers. This post will go through the claims in the paper and then discuss the responsibility of editors and publishing companies.

Characteristics of alleged “demons”

After an introductory section on schizophrenia, Irmak suggests that demonic causation is one way to approach the etiology of hallucinations:

We thought that many so-called hallucinations in schizophrenia are really illusions related to a real environmental stimulus. Illusions are transformations of perceptions, with a mixing of the reproduced perceptions of the subject’s fantasy with the real perceptions. One approach to this hallucination problem is to consider the possibility of a demonic world.

“We thought”? Really? The idea of demonic possession as an explanation for hallucinations in schizophrenia is taken out of thin air. No argument, no evidence and no justification. Instead, Irmak treats us to a folkloric description of demons. They are “intelligent and unseen creatures that occupy a parallel world to that of mankind”. Parallel world? What exactly does he mean by “parallel world”? We get no explanation. Demons apparently have a considerably longer lifespan than ordinary humans. They can fly, make themselves invisible and “take over” people. Neither evidence nor explanation for how this is done is provided. Read more of this post

## Metro Promotes Anti-Vaccine Homeopath During Measles Outbreak

Before vaccines, measles use to infect an estimated 3-4 million people a year in the United States (CDC, 2012). Measles led to brain inflammation for 1 in 1000 and death in 1 in 500 (CDC, 2012). Medical scientists have developed a safe and effective vaccine for measles that is now part of the standard vaccine schedule in most western countries. However, due to parents failing to vaccinate their children combined with the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, herd immunity is compromised. This can lead to measles outbreak and the needless suffering of children.

Because of numerous measles cases in Calgary, Central and Edmonton, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has officially declared that they are in the midst of several measles outbreaks in these zones (AHS, 2014). As a response, the AHS is now encouraging parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their measles vaccines. In Calgary, more than 100 parents had lined up Northgate Measles Immunization Clinic before it opened. However, anti-vaccine cranks were not slow to exploit this situation.

## Spell Casting Does Not Cure HIV

I almost never bother to interact with spammers on this blog. Their verbal torrents of incoherent blathering about Michael Kors shoes, Xanax or Viagra are promptly destroyed after being sucked into nothingness by the click of a button. However, some spammers post stuff that are so mind-numbingly stupid that I see it as a civil service to refute it. These spam comments are typically very generic and can be found all over the Internet, especially on blogs or websites that do not use an efficient spam filter. Someone who finds themselves being drawn into this nonsense will hopefully perform a Google search and reach this post.

Let us go over this message, point-by-point./p>

“I am here to testify on how […]”

This is perhaps the most obvious sign of an ideologue whose main goal is to spread his nonsense, rather than inform or discuss. Although typically a feature of religious evangelism, it frequently occurs when listening to ingrained proponents of pseudoscience.

## In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part I: Bayesian Self-Defense

Proponents of paranormal claims often feel threatened by scientific skepticism. This is because core skeptical principles erode their scientific pretensions. Instead of trying to back up their original paranormal claims with real scientific evidence, they attempt to deflect by attacking these skeptical principles. Most of the time, they make a hatchet job arguing against principles they misunderstood to begin with. This is because skeptical principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor and burden of evidence can be formally stated and defended using basic Bayesian probability theory.

One such individual is Winston Wu, who has compiled a list of thirty sections attempting to defend paranormal claims and attack scientific skepticism. Wu attempts to offer a series of refutations to what he sees as thirty core scientific skeptical positions. Half of them deal with overarching objections to paranormal assertions and discuss topics such as burden of evidence, extraordinary claims, Occam’s Razor and anecdotal evidence. The other half concern specific paranormal beliefs such as psychics, miracles, alternative medicine, answered prayer, precognitive dreams, consciousness, UFOs and creationism.

In this first installment, we take a closer look at confidence in relation to the strength of evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s razor, burden of evidence and anecdotes.

Misunderstood principle #1: Confidence should be proportional to evidence

The first argument that Wu objects to is the notion that “it is irrational to believe anything that hasn’t been proven”. This, however, is a straw man. The correct version promoted by serious scientific skeptics is that the confidence in a proposition about the world around us should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. In other words, the confidence in the atomic theory of matter or the existence of the sun should be high because the evidence is so overwhelming. In contrast, we should have very low confidence in propositions for which the evidence is rare, non-existence or directly contradicting it.

This principle can be formulated using Bayesian statistics. The posteriori probability of a hypothesis given evidence, P(H|E), is proportional to the probability of evidence given the hypothesis P(E|H):

$P(H|E) = \frac{P(H)P(E|H)}{P(E)}$

The higher P(E|H), the higher P(H|E) becomes (assuming that P(E) is constant). Although the formal description of the principle, it is straight-forward: the more evidence for a claim, the stronger confidence is justified in that claim. The less evidence, the less confidence is justified.

Wu goes to great lengths to misunderstanding this simple principle.

## Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

An interesting study was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine by Oliver and Wood (2014). They report the results of a YouGov survey that looked at the acceptance of medical conspiracy theories in the United States and what, if any, effect the belief in medical conspiracy theories had on health-related behavior, such as taking herbal supplements, getting a flu shot and preference for organic foods. The results were chilling as almost half of the U. S. population believed in at least one medical conspiracy. Those who held three or more were less likely to go to the doctor or dentist and fewer got vaccinated against seasonal influenza. They were also more likely to take herbal supplements.

The selection of medical conspiracy theories

Oliver and Wood selected six different medical conspiracy theories to include in their research. Although the researchers did not justify their selection, it seems representative and wide as it spanned from FDA and alternative medicine to discredited beliefs about the origin of HIV Read more of this post