Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Miscellaneous

How Online Casinos Deceive You Into Playing

Online Casino

How do online casinos continue to profit millions of dollars per year? What statistical, psychological and marketing tactics do they use to convince people to give up their hard-earned money for a few moments on slots with flashing lights and music? They do this by exploiting human cognitive biases, the neurobiology of reward, clever marketing tactics and the widespread ignorance of statistics.

This post will examine the mathematics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience and advertisement behind how many online casinos get people to play their salary and sometimes their entire saving away. In the end, the only way to win is not to play. If you visit Las Vegas, spend your money on good food, exciting activities and entertaining shows.

Gambler’s ruin: players can never reliably beat the casino regardless of betting system

A lot of gamblers think that they have found a betting system that allows them to get an edge over the house. The trouble is that no such betting system actually exists. This is because casinos have engineered their system to always give the house an edge over the player. A common betting system is known as the martingale system. It is based on the idea that if you lose, you double your bet. If you win, you are back over break even and reduce the bet down to the baseline again. However, simple mathematics shows that this is not a sustainable system. If you start by betting $5, then it only requires 10 losses before you are forced to bet $5120. On the 11th loss, it is $10240. Most gamblers do not have this kind of money, and will soon run out. Furthermore, a lot of casinos have a maximum limit for bets, so you cannot apply this system beyond a certain amount.

All other betting systems have similar flaws.

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Flawed Chemtrails Paper by Herndon Retracted

Retracted chemtrails paper

Chemtrails is a pseudoscientific conspiracy theory based on the notion that the government is secretly releasing mind-controlling chemicals that sterilize people from airplanes. In reality, it is a combination of water vapor and airplane exhausts. It is bad for the environment, but it is not even close to the fantasies put forward by conspiracy theorists. This is obvious from the realization that world population has increased from ~3 billion in the late 1950s to ~7 billion in the early 2010s, despite increased airplane traffic all over the world. In a similar fashion, the Flynn effect suggests that IQs are increasing by 3 points per decade. So the predictions made by the chemtrails conspiracy theory is refuted on all levels.

However, pseudoscientific cranks almost never let reality come in the way of a tantalizing conspiracy theory that appeal to their own biases and they make up increasingly bizarre and convoluted ideas as they go along. On 11th August 2015, the nuclear chemist J. Marvin Herndon got a paper that promoted chemtrails conspiracy theory published in an obscure journal called International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2014 impact factor 2.063 according to their own website).

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Srebrenica Genocide Denial

Srebrenica Genocide

The Srebrenica genocide involved the mass murder of 8000 people and forced deportation of around 25 000-30 000 people carried out by the Army of Republika Srpska around the town of Srebrenica (today part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). According to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, this was the “the worst [crime] on European soil since the Second World War.” Several military personnel, police officers and politicians have been indicted and convicted of genocide, abetting genocide or other war crimes. Two of the masterminds behind this genocide, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, are currently being prosecuted by The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Although it has been exactly 20 years on the day since the start of the genocide in Srebrenica, dark forces are gathering on the horizon. Just with the Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre, there are people who deny that the genocide at Srebrenica ever took place. These are primarily Serbian nationalists such as Milorad Dodik (president of Republika Srpska) and Tomislav Nikolić (President of Serbia) and leftist pseudo-intellectuals (such as writer Diana Johnstone and the Living Marxism magazine). Unbelievably, Srebrenica genocide denial has even been espoused by Swedish university professors, such as Kjell Magnusson (associated professor in sociology) and Lennart Palm (professor of history). Even more disturbingly and in an ironic twist of tragedy, Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer appears to reject the genocide status for the Srebrenica massacre according to an interview published (29 June, 2015) in the Serbian newspaper Politika.

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The Reality of False Confessions

False confessions

Confessions have a powerful ability to sway the minds of judges and jurors. Yet there are many documented examples of manipulative tactics used by law enforcement personnel to elicit false confessions from people who are not guilty of the crime they are accused of. Defenders of these techniques fail to realize that law enforcement cannot reliable distinguish between a true and false confession, the safeguards already in place do not protect people from making false confessions and people can be made to readily confess to crimes they did not commit. Even judges and jurors are not able to resist the psychological influence of confessions, even when they are legally proven to be coerced. Even worse, false confessions taint other evidence and even make trained professionals change their previous correct interpretations of evidence. Kassin (2008) demolishes some of these myths about confessional evidence.

Fact #1: Law enforcement cannot reliable distinguish truth from lies

One of the most popular police manuals, Criminal Interrogations and Confessions, promote the idea that law enforcement can ask suspects a list of questions, study their behavioral responses and make decisions about the truth status of the claims made by the suspect with a high degree of accuracy. Proponents claim that this method is correct in 85% of cases. However, that study had no means of gauging the actual truth of the criminal cases tested and no control group was used. Furthermore, research has shown that the alleged signs of deception (such as being nervous, not looking the interrogator in the eyes) are not supported by empirical and training in these methods does not provide a considerable increase accuracy for detecting deception above the average 54% baseline of laypeople (which, of course, means that they are only marginally better than flipping a fair coin). To add insult to injury, people trained in this method have been shown to be less accurate and more confident, betraying an increasing susceptibility to confirmation bias. When this study methodology was replicated with trained law enforcement, the results were largely the same.

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In Defense of Axioms

Axiom of non-contradiction

Have you ever tried to argue about science or politics with a postmodernist or a creationist? It is next to impossible, because the person subscribes to radically different metaphysics, epistemology and methods for finding knowledge. People who refuse to let go of their belief that demons cause disease will never be convinced that we should treat sick people with medication. Someone who believes that a supernatural power will punish them with eternal damnation if they use condoms will probably not use condoms, no matter how many studies you provide that they are generally safe and effective against unwanted pregnancy and many sexually transmitted infections. In order to resolve those conflicts, one has to examine the underlying assumptions and beliefs made further down in their worldview. For people who share many aspects of their worldview, it may be sufficient to retreat to discussing morality in order to resolve political disputes. For people with extremely divergent worldviews, it may require discussing what exists, what truth is and how knowledge about the world is gained.

However, people do not want give up on their cherished beliefs, so this approach involves a tremendous intellectual struggle on the part of those who defend a rational and evidence-based worldview. In many cases, they will refuse to answer questions, make assertions without argument or evidence or even dismiss the notion that knowledge is possible or champion the idea that all axioms are arbitrary. In other words, it is a profoundly waste of time. However, it might be interesting to flesh out some of the absurd consequences that follows from the rejection of the existence of non-arbitrary axioms.

For those that believe that there are no non-arbitrary axioms, three disastrous implications follow: the statement is self-referentially incoherent, knowledge cannot exist, and any proposition P and its negation ~P becomes true.

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Persisting in Error: Jerry Coyne Stumbles on Compatibilism

Coyne on Compatibilism

Jerry Coyne, a biologist who has been previously criticized on Debunking Denialism for promoting anti-psychiatry, recently wrote a commentary on a book review written by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Unfortunately, like a lot of hard determinists, Coyne misunderstands nearly everything: contra-causal freedom is incoherent and so miserable that no sane person would want to have it in the first place and it is possible for some freedoms to be possible on determinism because humans can model reality, predict likely consequences of their behavior and act to avoid negative outcomes. Compatibilists are not guilty of semantics trickery since there is no problem with revising definitions for intellectual clarity or due to evidence. Finally, compatibilists are not anti-science for pointing out that many studies purporting to show that human decisions occur after the brain makes the decision make the false assumptions that there is a specific time and place in the brain when and where a single, unitary decision is made (Cartesian materialism).

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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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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

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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Risk Factors: Misunderstandings and Abuses

Risk factors

Although risk factors occupy a central place in medical and epidemiological research, it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of medicine.

The World Health Organization (2009) defines a risk factor as: “A risk factor is any attribute, characteristic or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease or injury. Some examples of the more important risk factors are underweight, unsafe sex, high blood pressure, tobacco and alcohol consumption, and unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene.” The CDC (2007) offers a similar definition: “an aspect of personal behavior or lifestyle, an environmental exposure, or a hereditary characteristic that is associated with an increase in the occurrence of a particular disease, injury, or other health condition.” However, the CDC also uses the term risk factor when it comes to sexual violence. For instance, they consider alcohol and drug use, antisocial tendencies, hostility towards women, and community-level tolerance to sexual violence.

Based on these sources, we can develop a simplified definition of a risk factor: if A is a risk factor for B, then the presence of A increases (but not necessarily in a causal sense) the probability of B occurring.

A is a risk factor for B does not necessarily mean that A causes B. It might be the case that A causes B only indirectly via some third factor, that B causes A, or that some third factor causes both A and B. In other words, correlation does not on its own imply causation. However, it is possible to disentangle these possibilities by measuring B at the start of the study. If physical punishment of children is a risk factor for aggressiveness, we can find out what comes first by measuring baseline child aggressiveness.

A is a risk factor for B does not mean that A will cause B in every instance of A. Smoking causes lung cancer, but some smokers can smoke all their lives without developing lung cancer. This does not mean that smoking is not a cause of lung cancer. It just means that there are other factors that also play a role. It is common for pseudoscientific cranks to bring up exceptions of this kind to argue against a correlational or causal association in an effort to spread uncertainty and doubt. Read more of this post

Skepchick Olivia James and Obesity Apologetics

Obesity apologetics

Individuals with obesity suffer serious medical, social and legal discrimination compared with their thin counterparts and this should be opposed. However, some misguided obesity apologists tend to deny the mainstream medical consensus that obesity is a disease and appeal to pseudoscientific misinterpretations of scientific research to prop-up their claims. In reality, preventative research on obesity is highly relevant and the disease-status of obesity is important for giving sufficient medical and insurance attention to a considerable and growing public health issue.

Olivia James is a prolific secular, skeptical and feminist blogger and have written thoughtful posts on websites such as Center for Inquiry, Teen Skepchick, and the Skepchick main blog. James recently wrote a post about biases in science, talking about issues such as confirmation bias and discrimination of minorities in science. A topic that also came up was the medical status of obesity and research into preventative treatments for obesity. This could have been an intellectually credible discussion, but James unfortunately descended into outright science denialism by claiming that obesity is not a disease and that researchers should focus on preventing obesity-related diseases rather than obesity itself. In reality, the mainstream medical position is that obesity is a disease and prevention is key to countering this growing health issue.

The dire consequences of weight discrimination are real

People with obesity suffer considerable stigma and discrimination around the world in a wide range of situations. The first part of the introduction section to Sutin and Terracciano (2013) is highly informative:

There is a pervasive stereotype about obesity in American society: People who are obese are often perceived as lazy, unsuccessful, and weak-willed. These beliefs about individuals with obesity are often translated into negative attitudes, discrimination, and verbal and physical assaults. Such bias can have severe psychological consequences, including increased vulnerability to depression, and lower self-esteem, self-acceptance, and life satisfaction. A broad range of research now demonstrates that the effects of weight bias are not limited to psychological functioning but extend to nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, from employment, and salary disparities, to personal relationships to healthcare delivery. In addition, as with other forms of discrimination, weight discrimination may have consequences for physical health.

Victims of weight discrimination do not only have worse mental health outcomes and suffer social consequences. In a cruel feedback process, people who are subjected to weight-based discrimination are also more likely to become or stay obese. This is in partly because coping processes involve binge eating and the avoidance of physical activity. As if this was not enough, jurors are more likely to consider obese individuals guilty of check fraud and have a high likelihood of becoming a repeat offender compared with their thin counterparts (Schvey, Puhl, Levandoski, and Brownell, 2013).

In other words, weight discrimination is extremely real. It should under no circumstances be trivialized by frivolous and ignorant stereotypes. It should be fought with all reasonable methods.

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

Winston Wu's website

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.

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Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

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

The Pitfalls of fMRI-Based Lie Detection

fMRI-based lie detection

A while ago, an interesting paper on the promise and pitfalls of fMRI-based lie detection was published by Farah, Hutchinson, Phelps and Wagner (2014) in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. It is part of an ongoing article series by the journal examining the interplay between neuroscience and law. This installment discussed the reliability of observed associations between certain brain areas and deception, current limitations of fMRI-based lie detectors, how U. S. courts have treated appeal to fMRI data put forward as evidence as well as ethical and legal issues with the procedure. This post will also discuss ways of beating an fMRI-based lie detector.

Another article in that series that deals with common misconceptions about memory, memory distortions and the consequence of ignorance was covered here.

How does fMRI work?

An fMRI indirectly measure brain activity by measuring blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) activity. This typically involve a lot of controls to make sure that researchers capture the neural correlates of what they want to study instead of irrelevant confounders. Typically, researchers compare BOLD activity during deception and truth-telling in an attempt to find the BOLD-signature of deception, which would give clues about the neural correlates of deception (i.e. patterns of brain activation associated with deception).

The theoretical rationale for fMRI-based deception is that there is probably a relationship between deception and cognition because deception is more demanding on memory and various executive functions than truth-telling.

What are the neural correlates of deception?

The paper performed a meta-analysis with the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) method. This is a way to measure overlap in neuroimaging data based on so-called “peak-voxel coordinate information” and thereby find out how reliable the association between deception and certain brain regions is. After applying their specific inclusion criteria, they identified 23 relevant studies. Their meta-analysis identified several areas as being associated with deception e. g. parts of the prefrontal cortex, the anterior insula and inferior parietal lobule. However, the between-study variation was enormous and no region was always identified.


Despite the apparent high identification rate of deception, fMRI-based lie detection has a long list of very important limitations that effectively undermine any confidence in this technique for legal purposes Read more of this post

Two Swedish Professors Promote Bosnian Genocide Denial

Bosnian genocide denial

In a misguided effort to promote an “open-minded atmosphere”, another major Swedish morning newspaper has taken a stand in favor of intellectually dishonest conspiracy theories. The newspaper, called Göteborgs-Posten (GP), recently published a couple of opinion pieces by two Bosnian genocide denialist. Together, they trot out a number of classic genocide denial tactics and tropes: denying the existence of a systematic extermination, intentionally underestimating civilian casualties, exploiting historical revisions by actual historians working on the topic, drawing false moral equivalences and promote conspiracy theories about the United States. They even go so far as to put the terms genocide and death camp in scare quotes. Shockingly, these two people are academics at high-profile Swedish universities: professor Lennart Palm at the University of Gothenburg and associate professor of sociology Kjell Magnusson at the University of Uppsala. This is yet another example of the disturbing fact that being a well-educated academics does not make you immune to succumbing to pseudoscience and pseudohistory.

So far, the following opinion pieces have been published in this exchange:

Allowing genocide denialists to promote their flawed conspiracy theories in major newspapers has nothing to do with being “open-minded”. In reality, it is a postmodern appeal to false balance where flawed genocide denial is given the same standing as historical fact in the name of “fairness”. Nothing could be further from being fair. Read more of this post


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