Debunking Denialism

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Category Archives: Miscellaneous

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

ResearchBlogging.org

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

ResearchBlogging.org

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.

Limitations

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

Twitter Arguments Round-Up

Twitter profile

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:

Mayo  Clinic Radio advert tweet

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:

My first response

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:

Mayo Clinic responds

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:

My response to Mayo Clinic

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

Dispelling Myths about Human Female Sexual Anatomy and Physiology

Justifiably angry

From virginity-obsessed religious theocrats and fake sex gurus who fetishize over their own misunderstandings of human anatomy for financial gain to serious scientists publishing methodologically flawed research that turn out to be non-reproducible and unscrupulous doctors promoting untested and potentially dangerous surgical procedures, the scientific realities of human female sexual anatomy and physiology has come under fire from a diverse range of sources. Aggravated by media attention and bad science journalism, this area has become filled to the brim with a great deal of distortions and misconceptions. It is time to strike back.

The “evidence” for the existence of a female G-spot consists mostly of anecdotes and a flawed study that did not even save a histological sample, so it is most likely not a general anatomic feature in women. G-spot amplification surgeries have not undergone rigorous clinical testing and carries serious potential risks. Many women cannot achieve orgasm by just having vaginal penetration. Virgin tests are based on discredited notions about vaginal anatomy and virginity. Finally, there is very little credible evidence that menstrual synchronization occurs when women live together for an extended period of time and the fact that most of these studies could not be replicated suggests that initial findings were capitalizations on chance.

Fact #1: The “G-spot” probably does not exist as a general anatomic feature

The G-spot is a hypothesized distinct anatomical area situated in the anterior vaginal wall that is said to incite especially intense sexual pleasure when stimulated. However, it has proved to be elusive to identify this area using scientific methods. Despite this, some women are convinced that this area exists and the notion has been quickly exploited by charismatic sex gurus, popular women’s magazines and unscrupulous surgeons.

However, the scientific state of knowledge differ substantially from popular imagination. Two recent reviews by Puppo and Gruenwald (2013) and Kilchevsky et. al (2012) converge on the general conclusion that the G-spot is a myth without any anatomical reality. Puppo and Gruenwald (2013) state that “All published scientific data point to the fact that the G-spot does not exist” and Kilchevsky et. al (2012) concludes that: Read more of this post

Being Transgender is Nothing Like Having a Psychotic Napoleon Delusion

Transgender and Napoleon

There are some assertions about reality that are so wildly out of touch with scientific evidence and rational thinking that is extraordinarily difficult to grasp why some people consider them even remotely sound. Presumably, the maelstrom of blind ignorance, breathtaking stupidity and ingrained ideology engulf them and force a complete disconnect from any sensible view of the world. Despite considerable efforts, these individuals are typically highly resistant to correction.

One such assertion that keeps getting resurrected and regurgitated no matter how hard it has been bombarded to shreds is the flawed notion that being accepting towards transgender individuals or providing hormone-replacement therapy and gender reassignment surgery is akin to supporting the psychotic delusion of someone who believes himself to be Napoleon. Here are just a few recent examples of this problematic trope:

Pretending that a man who thinks he’s a woman really is one is like giving a man who thinks he’s Napoleon an army with which to invade Russia.

To make the claim that everyone in society has to take part in their hallucination is akin to opening the doors of the mental hospitals and having to recognize that everyone that thinks they are Napoleon are actually Napoleon. They are mentally dysfunctional – treat THAT.

GID patients have a mental illness and society should be looking into ways to eradicate that mental illness through some form of treatment that isn’t the equivalent of giving a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon a bicorn hat and a saber.

Treating a man as a woman would be like catering to the delusion of a paranoid schizophrenic. Their hallucinations aren’t real, and pretending they are doesn’t actually help the person.

…and so on ad nauseam.

However, even a cursory understanding of the relevant scientific background makes it painfully obvious that being transgender is nothing like having a psychotic Napoleon delusion. Read more of this post

Science and Pseudoscience in Law Enforcement

Related: Neuroscience, Memory and the Courtroom, The Criminal Profiling Deception.

ResearchBlogging.org

Pseudoscience in law enforcement

Pseudoscience seems to be everywhere: from anti-vaccine activism and HIV/AIDS denialism to postmodern pseudomathematics and quantum quackery. It would appear that no area goes unharmed by the enormous reach of pseudoscience. It has even infiltrated law enforcement where it injects pseudoscientific notions such as hypnosis and graphology, prevent safeguards against error in interrogations and fingerprint analysis or making it more difficult to remove practices that are not supported by the evidence, such as criminal profiling, the use of truth serum or lie detector tests.

This article will discuss a paper by Lilienfeld and Landfield (2008) published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior that examine these issues in detail. Lilienfeld and Landfield provide a tentative definition of pseudoscience and then goes on to list ten warning signs of pseudoscience together with an example of each from law enforcement. Finally, the make some recommendations for combating the influence of pseudoscience in law enforcement. It must be pointed out that some of these examples, such as interrogation and fingerprint analysis, are not by themselves pseudoscience. Rather, it is the way that some proponents make use of these tools without the proper safeguards against mistakes that is deserving of the label of pseudoscience.

What is pseudoscience?

Lilienfeld and Landfield (2008) point out that pseudoscience, like the concept of day and night, are fuzzy concepts. Nevertheless, they manage to encapsulate a couple of key aspects of pseudoscience in their descriptions. They state that “pseudosciences are disciplines that possess the superficial appearance of science but lacks it substance” and “pseudosciences are imposters of science: they do not play by the rules of science even though they mimic some of its outward features”.

Ten warning signs of pseudoscience (with examples)

Lilienfeld and Landfield describe ten key warning signs of pseudoscience and provide examples for police work. These warning signs stretch from lack of falsifiability and self-correction to the use of testimonials and the absence of connectivity with broader scientific research fields. Read more of this post

The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss – Addendum

Note: This is an addendum to “The Scientific Ignorance of Stasia Bliss” article series. It will sum up some of the most abhorrent cases of pseudoscientific nonsense that Bliss has been spreading, discuss how she has reacted to my series and ponder the future. For all the posts in this series, see the introduction post here.

Addendum

Stasia Bliss, although lacking the scientific knowledge needed to understand the topics she discuss, is a very prolific writer. During the time it has taken me to write this article series of ten installments were I dissected her claims in detail, she has managed to crank out well over 200 blog posts with scientifically questionable content on everything from chemotherapy to urine. It is possible that she could be approaching the impact of Mike Adams (the owner of the largest website promoting quack treatments and conspiracy theories) in the next five to ten years. Although this outcome may be beneficial to Bliss, it could be enormously dangerous to the people she manages to convince of her pseudoscientific ideas.

Some of her most dangerous claims about human health includes:

(1) encouraging individuals with late-stage cystic fibrosis to take vomiting-inducing substances that can cause them to vomit on and off for up to 8 hours. There is no reason to think this works, and it could make breathing even more difficult.

(2) recommending that people stare into the sun for long periods of time. This can seriously damages the eyes make you go blind even if the staring occurs at dawn or dusk. Read more of this post

Neuroscience, Memory and the Courtroom

ResearchBlogging.org

Neuroscience, Memory and the Courtroom

Recently, an interesting review paper was published by Lacy and Stark (2013) in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. It discusses how the scientific ignorance of law enforcement personnel, judges and jurors about memory and how it works has detrimental impact on the efficacy of legal system and human lives.

Common misconceptions about memory

There is a lot of common misunderstandings about memory. It is not like a video camera, perfectly recording and storing memory for later retrieval. It can change over time, adding and subtracting details, filling in blanks and become distorted. A popular misconception is that the accuracy of a memory is proportional to the confidence assigned to it by the eyewitness. In reality, the correlation between confidence and accuracy is weak. Hypnosis is not considered to be effective for accurate recall, despite the fact that over half of the general public sampled believe it to be (among the memory expert sample, 0% agreed or strongly agreed).

One striking finding is that people who work within law enforcement and the criminal justice system display only a little less ignorance about memory as do college students, who in turn are not that much better than the general public. This has profound implications for the court system.

How memory can get distorted

There are many different ways that human memory can become distorted. In principle, distortions can occur during perception, encoding, storage and retrieval. Here are some of the main causes of distortion mentioned by the paper.

Post-identification feedback: memory confidence tends to increase if exposed to positive feedback by law enforcement personnel after the identification or decrease if exposed to negative feedback. Because they are often perceived as authorities, their feedback is taken into account by eyewitnesses in making an estimate of accuracy. This kind of effect can occur even if the post-identification feedback is non-verbal e. g. facial expression and body language if the person conducting the line-up is not blinded to who the police suspects for the crime. Even repeated questioning can increase the confidence in the accuracy of a memory. Read more of this post

Richard Carrier and the Health Effects of Moderate Alcohol Consumption

Dr. Carrier on alcohol

Richard Carrier is a well-known skeptical historian and philosopher. He is the author of many great books, such as Sense and Goodness without God (where he outlines and defends philosophical naturalism) and a prolific writers of various articles on skepticism, origin of life, morality, the bible and history, Bayesian inference in historical research and social justice issues. I greatly enjoy reading Dr. Carrier, especially on topics such as skepticism, religion and morality and have devoured most of his articles, books and book-chapters on those topics. However, sometimes I find myself in less agreement with him. This post chronicles one such disagreement. Recently, Dr. Carrier wrote a blog post entitled My Favorite Scotch. In it, he discusses his taste in alcohol and muses over how it is that different people can have radically different tastes in alcohol. In the last few sections of the post, he debunks the myth that alcohol directly causes the death of neurons. He also claims the “science is clear” that moderate consumption of alcohol improves cognitive function, memory and brain function into old age.

As we will see, this is a clear case of cherry-picking and the science is actually not that clear at all regarding his claims about cognitive benefits. His source for those claims, a sociologist by the name of David Hanson, is an anti-psychiatry crank and promotes quack treatments for substance addiction. Furthermore, Dr. Carrier does not tell his readers that alcohol can indirectly cause the death of neurons via Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome that is a result of thiamine deficiency due to chronic alcohol abuse. Dr. Carrier does not even explain the negative health consequences of moderate alcohol consumption, which includes elevated risk of cancer, injuries, violence, mortality in pancreatic inflammation and liver cirrhosis. When I take the time to explain this to Dr. Carrier (with references to the scientific literature), he responds with a condescending and overly rhetorical reply that did not discuss a single of my arguments. Despite that fact that I had backed up each major claim with a scientific reference, I was told that I had been “taken in my someone selling [that] narrative” and that I had “to bone up on [my] basic sociology and anthropology” as well as to “get out more”.

In his post, Richard Carrier made four core claims about the health effects of alcohol: alcohol does not kill neurons, moderate consumption of alcohol improves cognitive skill and memory, moderate alcohol consumption helps the brain function better during aging and only extreme abuse of alcohol can cause health problems. Carrier adds that “science is clear” with regards to the truth of the three latter claims.

Richard Carrier appeals to a false expert with overt ties to pseudoscience

In his attempt to justify some of these assertions (primarily the first three), Carrier references a person called David Hanson and post a couple of quotes, taking care to point out that Hanson has a Ph.D. However, Carrier fails to mention to his readers that the Ph.D. is not in a relevant scientific field. Rather, it is in sociology and Hanson is not even a professor at University of New York at Potsdam anymore. In terms of scientific qualifications in neurobiology, Hanson is just a guy on the Internet with a non-relevant degree.

It gets worse, because Hanson is a promoter and board member of an alternative treatment program for substance abuse called “The Saint Jude Retreat”. Despite stating that they are not a treatment, they claim a 62.5% success rate for long-term sobriety. In comparison, the treatment effect size for addiction using mainstream cognitive behavioral therapy is considered small to moderate. They also directly promote pseudoscience when they claim that alcoholism is not a disease (they call it a “choice”) and assert that there are no genetic risk factors or biological mechanisms for addiction.

In reality, substance addiction or abuse (whether alcohol or illicit drugs) often causes severe medical, social and economic functional impairment in the life of individuals and can thus legitimately be considered a disease (NIDA, 2010). There are also well-established neurological mechanisms that influence addiction and genetic risk factors have been reliably identified (NIDA, 2012; Sullivan et al, 2012).

Thus, Carrier’s arguments regarding the alleged health risks of alcohol consumption involves the appeal to a false expert. This is otherwise common among proponents of pseudoscience. Carrier made a substantial error in appealing to Hanson and it was unfortunate that Carrier did not properly check his sources before making that post. However, Richard Carrier is correct that alcohol does not directly kill brain cells. It is a well-known myth. Here is how a proper refutation of the myth should be done. Read more of this post

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