# Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

## 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

## Sweden Gets a Homeopathic ER

Millions of people have seen the “That Mitchell and Webb Look” video where comedians enact the absurdities of what it would be like at a homeopathic ER. A man with suspected internal injuries is rolled into accidents and emergency department and given extremely diluted substance. However, did you know that Sweden got its first homeopathic ER just a couple of months ago?

It is part of the Salve Health Center situated at the Maria Square in central Stockholm and it opened its doors in early January of this year. Behind the initiative stands three women: Carita Bramstedt, Päivi Barsk and Viveca Wilhelmsson. All of them either run their own homeopathic practices or “education” programs in homeopathy. In this post, we will look at who these people are and their goals, science-based objections to both their individuals claims and the homeopathic ER, their responses to criticisms and recent events.

Who are the people behind the homeopathic ER?

According to her website, Bramstedt considers herself a “classical homeopath” and is the chairperson of the Swedish Academy for Classical Homeopathy (SAKH). She has a three-year degree in civil economics from The Stockholm School of Economics, but became a homeopath after taking a three-year program in classical homeopathy. She has also attended various seminars on homeopathy throughout the years. Beyond that, she has no medical degree or formal training in medicine.

Things looks slightly better for Barsk. She claims to have worked “a couple of years” in the health care system in the 1980s and taken 65 points (65 weeks in the old Swedish system) in basic medicine from Umeå in the late 1990s. Barsk is a classical homeopath and has taken a four-year program. In addition, she has taken courses in various other quack treatments such as Reiki, supplements and reflexology. Like Bramstedt, Barks has no medical degree and no formal training beyond the couple of years she worked in the health care system (presumably as a care assistant?) and ~1.5 years of introductory medicine.

Wilhelmsson has a degree in psychology from the 1970s, yet no medical degree or formal training in medicine either. Looking at her background page, she has spent at least 11 years taking courses and programs in various complementary and alternative practices, including homeopathy. Like Bramstedt, Wilhelmsson can be found higher up in the homeopathic food chain as she is the person behind the program in classical homeopathy at the International Academy.

What do they believe?

Browsing through their various websites sends chills down the spine. These people really do subscribe to ignorant beliefs and they expose sick patients to worthless treatments. They do not have any credible science to back it up. Instead, they used a variety of historical revisions and after-the-fact rationalizations. Here are a couple of the most stunning examples. Read more of this post

Over the last few days, I have been arguing a lot of Twitter with different people and organizations. I bickered with the Mayo Clinic on alternative medicine and the prospect of funding based on biological plausibility. They did not seem to get it and claimed that we needed to sift through quack treatments because some of it was good (they neglected to mention which one they thought were effective and provided no evidence). I scoffed at Nature News and Comments because they, yet again, decided to promote the “climate-change-has-taken-a-hiatus-for-the-past-16-years” myth. They responded by denying it, and ironically, asking me if I read the post. Finally, I also tried to discuss reasons for why women drop out of science with a number of people, but one of them called me a racist troll and a misogynist despite the fact that I am a virulent anti-racist (I am regularly called “anti-white” by racists) and have exposed MRA nonsense on a number of times on this blog.

I am becoming more and more convinced that it is not possible to have a coherent and meaningful conversation on Twitter. At any rate, let’s go over each discussion in detail, because they do demonstrate important things about science organizations, science journalism and people who try to argue on Twitter.

The Mayo Clinic: quack treatments and biological plausibility

This exchange started with the twitter account of The Mayo Clinic inviting people on twitter to give them questions about so-called alternative and complementary medicine on their show Mayo Clinic Radio:

I came up with a question I wanted them to respond to. It was about redirecting research money to treatments that have a chance of working instead of wasting it on alternative medicine:

Now, I doubt that the Twitter account is handled by an actual scientists. Rather, I suspect it is some PR or social media personnel. So we cannot extrapolate their ignorance and unscientific approaches to the Mayo Clinic as an organization. However, here is what the twitter account replied with:

There are some good? We need to sift? What alternative medicine qualifies as “good”? Is Mayo Clinic pulling the pharmacognosy gambit? Here is my response:

The Mayo Clinic twitter account did not continue to exchange. I was disappointed that the Mayo Clinic twitter account claimed that there exists alternative medicine treatments that were good without providing any example of evidence. I am disappointed that they probably used the pharmacognosy gambit. I am disappointed that they did not seem to grasp the issue of biological plausibility as it pertains to research funding. Read more of this post

## Anti-Vaccine Misinformation about the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine

Natural News is perhaps the largest website devoted to the promotion of quack treatments for almost any medical condition and anti-scientific falsehoods. They spread a massive amount of misinformation on a wide range of topics such as climate change, genetically modified foods, water fluoridation, vaccines and advocate conspiracy theories about contrails, aspartame, antidepressants and even about the 2012 Aurora shooting. Its founder, Mike Adams, have been discussed on this website before when he attempted to dismiss the harmful consequences of global warming by parroting the same tired old denialist falsehoods about the fertilization effect and coral bleaching. He also attempts to argue that doctors are more dangerous than guns (a pseudoscientific argument called the deadly doctor gambit), apparently without taking into account the enormous benefit that modern medicine brings.

Recently, the Natural News website published a post written by Ethan A. Hoff that is spreading pseudoscientific misinformation about the seasonal influenza vaccine. He falsely claim that the efficacy of the inactivated seasonal influenza vaccine is just 1.5%, when in reality, it is close to 60%. He denies that over 200 000 people become hospitalized from influenza-related complications and blames that on the vaccine instead. He also fearmongers about the side-effects when they are most often fairy mild. Finally, there is no consistent evidence that vitamin D, garlic or any of the other “natural health” products that Hoff promotes can prevent influenza infection. Read more of this post

## The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part X: Measles

Note: This is the tenth and final installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will slash through her false claims about the MMR vaccine and measles. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

We have now reached the final part in this series on the pseudoscientific nonsense promoted by model and freelance writer Stasia Bliss (who calls herself a “master alchemist” and “a High Priestess of Qi Vesta”). In previous installments, several of her claims have been refuted, such as her claim that individuals with cystic fibrosis caused their own disease by eating acidic food and thinking negative thoughts, that colon cleansing and hydrochloric acid supplements are effective against HIV/AIDS, that staring into the sun for long periods of time allows for astral projection and unaided human flight, that DNA has twelve strands, that a vital life force exists, that eating genetically modified foods makes you less humans, that dark matter does not exist, her promotion of quantum woo and her belief in human shape-shifting and death as the result of a psychological conditioning.

In this tenth and final part, the claims made by Bliss with regards to measles and the MMR vaccine will be critically examined. Despite her beliefs, measles is a dangerous disease and not a “natural cleansing” or “adventure” and the MMR vaccine is safe and effective. Her misguided reliance on the National Vaccine Information Center (a pseudoscientific anti-vaccine organization) and VAERS dumpster-diving will be exposed. Contrary to Bliss, the Vaccine Court provides individuals who have experienced genuine adverse events from vaccines with compensations in a way that is easy, cheap and fast for those individuals. Like many other anti-vaccine activists, Bliss has difficulty grasping the concept of herd immunity. Her promotion of quack treatments (that lack evidence of efficacy) is based on a misunderstanding of physiology and evolution. She even goes so far as to claim that childhood diseases are a result of too much “toxins” from modern life (thereby embracing germ theory denialism), apparently not understanding that measles existed many hundreds of years before present and the fact that the body has robust systems for elimination actual toxins from the body. Read more of this post

## The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part IX: Ageing and Death

Note: This is the ninth and penultimate installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will examine the flawed statements Bliss makes about ageing and death. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

As we move closer to the final installment in this series, the list of scientifically flawed assertions made by Stasia Bliss is getting longer and longer. She thinks that individuals with cystic fibrosis have themselves to blame because of acidic diet and negative thinking. She promotes colon cleansing and hydrochloric acid supplements against HIV/AIDS. She believes that staring into the sun for an extended period of time gives you the power of astral projection and unaided human flight. She asserts that human DNA has twelve strands and accepts the existence of a vital life force. She also misunderstands a number of other scientific topics, such as genetically modified foods, stating that eating GM foods makes you less human. Her notions that dark matter is a figment of our minds and her promotion of quantum woo are equally flawed.

In her post about ageing and death, Bliss claims that death is just a flawed belief resulting from psychological conditioning (despite the fact that organisms without a brain also die), misunderstands the nature and history of science, misconstrues epigenetics by claiming that ageing is the result of cells inheriting “flawed beliefs and feelings”, dismissing criticism by claiming to just ask questions, misunderstand the cognitive principle, quantum mechanics and the placebo effect. She appeals to religious and mysterian traditions as if they were valid and assert that death is an illusion because of “silent giggles” from people who have passed away and now exist in “hidden places” (in reality, post-bereavement hallucinations are very common and normal). She portrays the discovery that neutrinos can change flavor as if this meant that humans could shape-shift and thereby avoid death. Finally, she promotes the notion of human immortality although cautiously adds that it may be “woo-woo talk to some of you”. Indeed, complete woo-woo talk. Read more of this post

## The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part VIII: HIV/AIDS

Note: This is the eight installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will take on what appears to be her most despicable and dangerous beliefs I have come across, namely HIV/AIDS denialism. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

In previous installments of this article series, we have seen Stasia Bliss make some astonishing assertions. She claims that individuals with cystic fibrosis (a genetic condition) caused their own disease by eating acidic food and thinking negative thoughts. She believes that eating genetically modified foods cause corporate mind control via alteration of gene regulation. She encourages people to stare into the sun and states that it will give people supernatural powers, such as astral projection. She asserts that human DNA has twelve strands and that gene transcription turns you into a silica-based life-form. She considers dark matter to be a psychological invention to hide reality. She thinks that quantum mechanics mean that the mind creates reality. She claims that a vital life force exists and does not even understand why basic hygiene practices are a good idea to limit the spread of infectious diseases.

Despite knowing that Bliss subscribes to a long list of crackpot ideas and quack treatment, nothing quite prepares you for reading the supreme ignorance contained in her post on HIV/AIDS in Africa. Bliss promotes “natural remedies” such as changes in diets, herbs, drinking water, consuming hydrochloric acid and colonic irrigation despite the fact that these treatments are ineffective and sometimes harmful. She rejects the mainstream mechanism for HIV pathogenesis by stating that HIV only kill a small portion of T helper cells directly, ignoring the fact that this is only the case for resting CD4+ T helper cells and that HIV can infect and kill active CD4+ T helper cells. In the end, HIV cause the decline of CD4+ T helper cells, but not by the mechanisms that Bliss claims.

Her quack explanation for HIV pathogenesis is that the HIV virus lives on undigested proteins in the large intestine, ignoring the fact that a virus needs a host cell to replicate. She claims that the undigested protein adhere to the intestine wall, enters the blood stream and cause chronic inflammation. As this alleged chronic inflammation continues, it exhausted the immune system. In reality, undigested proteins are usually too large to be taken in the digestive system (that is why they are digested), most of the uptake of digested protein occurs in the small intestine and not the large, eating a substance usually provides a tolerogenic response from the immune system rather than an inflammatory and chronic inflammation is not associated with immune suppression (quite the opposite, as immune suppression is used as a treatment for chronic inflammation).

In her post about HIV/AIDS, Bliss promotes pseudoscientific ignorance that is extremely harmful. Read more of this post

## The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part VII: Disease

Note: This is the seventh installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. This post will respond her assertions about disease and pathology. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

So far, Bliss has made quite a lot of disturbing and anti-rational claims. She wrongly believes that that people with cystic fibrosis have themselves to blame because they allegedly caused their own condition through diet and thinking, when in reality, it is a genetic condition. She wrongly believes that eating genetically modified foods makes you less human, when in reality, GM crops are substantially equivalent of conventional crops. She wrongly believes that staring into the sun without protecting your eyes is beneficial, when in reality, it is very harmful and can even make you go blind. She believes that the DNA double helix has 12 strands instead of two, that dark matter is invented by the brain and doesn’t really exist and that quantum mechanics are relevant for human romantic relationships. The amount of pseudoscientific bullshit that Bliss spreads is enormous.

In this installment, we are going to check out her post about the disease concept. Contrary to Bliss, calling a medical condition “disease” or “dis-ease” probably does not matter and certainly does not “create an entirely new reality”. Humans living in the distant past were plagued with disease because modern medicine did not exist to cure or treat them and the body does not chose to have a disease. Becoming sick after getting a diagnosis is most likely due to the disease and not the diagnosis itself, so Bliss is performing the post hoc fallacy. She wrongly claims that human are not their bodies and even gets the placebo effect completely wrong. She also fails to understand why basic hygiene practices are a good idea. Finally, she promotes the falsified notion that there is a vital life force associated with living organisms Read more of this post

## The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Part I: Cystic Fibrosis

Note: This is the first installment in an article series debunking the massive amount of pseudoscientific claims made by Stasia Bliss. It dissects and refutes her false claims about the cause and treatment of cystic fibrosis. For more posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

In this first installment, the claims made by freelance writer Stasia Bliss (who calls herself a master alchemist and high priestess of Qi Vesta) on cystic fibrosis will be critically investigated. Overall, she wrote three posts on cystic fibrosis: the first contained a lot of pseudoscientific crank claims, the second has a non-response to critics and the third was a re-written version of the first that peddled even more quackery.

Among her crimes against reason, Bliss completely misunderstood the cause and progression of cystic fibrosis as well as the status of lung transplantation as a treatment. She promoted a number of quack “treatments” of cystic fibrosis, such as oregano, daily affirmations and severe vomiting for up to 8 hours for CF patients with nearly complete respiratory failure. In her reply, she did not actually respond to the criticism but put forward conspiracy theories about the medical community, deployed the Galileo gambit, misrepresented her critics as merely “offended” and claimed that medical facts were subjective. In the third post, she promoted germ theory denialism, pH quackery (which she turns into victim-blaming) and the notion that genes are created by “choices”. Bliss also butchers and misrepresents key scientific topics such as epigenetics and heritability. Finally, she provides testimonials for her quack treatment suggestions and misinterprets a couple of scientific studies that in reality does not support her claims.

This article consists of a detailed, point-by-point, debunking of the massive amount of pseudoscience, quackery and general scientific falsehoods in all three posts composed by Stasia Bliss. Read more of this post

## Acupuncture Is Almost Certainly Clinically Irrelevant

An excellent paper written by acupuncture skeptics David Colquhoun and Steve Novella was recently published in a journal called Anesthesia and Analgesia. It is part of a written debate hosted by the journal in question between proponents of acupuncture and skeptical scientists who consider it to be clinically irrelevant. The article is aptly titled Acupuncture Is Theatrical Placebo. Anesthesia and Analgesia is an open access journal, so the full paper is available for free on the journal website.

However, readers should not interpret the existence of such a debate as if the science was equivocal or undecided. On the contrary, as Colquhoun and Novella demonstrate in their paper, there have been thousands of studies carried out on acupuncture and no consistent evidence of clinical efficacy for any condition has been found. Do not mistake denialism for debate, as the saying (attributed to Hoofnagle) goes. Just because two differing positions are expressed with equal emphasis does not mean that the truth lies between them. Sometimes, one side is simply wrong and this is the case for acupuncture.

This is a point-by-point summary of main facts and arguments laid out in the Colquhoun and Novella paper 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

## pH Quackery and Human Acid-Base Homeostasis

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