Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Skepticism

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part V: Cognitive Science

Winston Wu treaties.

Previously, we have explored the psychological techniques used by alleged psychics (such as cold reading and time-shifting), replication of scientific experiments, adequate controls, placebo effects, appeals to popularity, the difference between unexplained and inexplicable, the scope and influence of pseudoscience, the unreliability of memory, the nature of evidence, scientific plausibility, Occam’s razor, confidence in proportion to evidence, extraordinary claims, anecdotal evidence and the burden of evidence.

In the fifth installment of this article series examining the defense of paranormal beliefs by Winston Wu, we will take a closer look at supposed precognitive dreams, intercessory prayer, near-death experiences, neuroscience and scientific confidence. Like we saw in previous installments, the arguments provided by Wu, which mainly consists of anecdotes and bizarre requirements for absolute certainty, do not hold up to critical scrutiny.

Misunderstood principle #21: After-the-fact rationalizations

The next topic Wu discusses is prayer and supposed fulfilled prayer. He makes a simplified description of the skeptical position, namely that apparently answered prayer is due to selective memory and chance. Here is a simple mathematical argument. Let us, for the sake of argument, only look at Christians and Muslims (the argument is stronger if we look at larger groups than that). Together, they make up about 2.2 + 1.6 = 3.8 billion. Assume, again for the sake of argument, that a mere 10% of these people pray at least once every day. That is a minimum of 0.1*3.8 billion = 380 million prayer per day and 380 million*365 = 138.7 billion prayer per year. That some prayer appear to be fulfilled due to random chance is not particularly surprising.

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The Value of Debunking Irrational Bigotry Over Emotional Outbursts

Greta's blog

Irrational bigotry should receive moral condemnation. However, it is even more vital to subject these terrible ideas to critical scrutiny. Neglecting detailed skeptical refutations for the benefit of emotional outrage (however morally justified or psychologically understandable) can have substantial negative consequences.

This post will survey several of the negative consequences with preferring emotional outbursts to skeptical scrutiny: the reinforcement of the false belief that people promoting irrational bigotry are being oppressed, letting irrational bigotry stand unopposed by rational arguments and scientific evidence, promoting the harmful stereotype that skeptics are emotional and hysterical or cannot stick to the facts and the dangerous precedent that fundamentalists or ideologues can make misguided appeals to “being offended”.

This post will also critically examine the misunderstandings harbored by the writer and blogger Greta Christina in a recent post on the role of emotional outbursts in scientific skepticism. This includes the idea that scientific skepticism proceeds from a state of zero knowledge, that it requires mutual Socratic dialogue, or that it is somehow about treating all ideas as “neutral”, when this would in fact be false balance. It will also provide a detailed example of how to annihilate irrational bigotry with rationality and evidence and how to use controlled moral condemnation without succumbing to excessive personal attacks or emotional outbursts. Finally, this post will go over what the positions outlined in this text does not mean.

Why is a preference for emotional outbursts over skeptical debunking a very bad idea?

There are substantial downsides with posting emotional outbursts (however justified they might be morally) while downplaying a fact-based debunking:

(1) it will reinforce their false belief that the person promoting irrational bigotry are being oppressed.

(2) it will reinforce the same false belief among other supports of such irrational bigotry and this is likely a major reason for why these kinds of movements grow: it is the perfect storm between anti-establishment ideology and rooting for the perceived underdog. For instance, a lot of anti-immigration political parties in Europe ride on this kind of wave and they have been very successful in exploiting this sentiment.

(3) it will reinforce the view that there is no reasonable scientific response to such irrational bigotry, since all they got was an emotional outburst and no substantive refutations.

(4) it will let irrational bigotry stand unopposed so that future fence-sitters will not benefit from reading a skeptical debunking.

(5) it will reinforce and feed into the flawed stereotype that skeptics and proponents of social justice are “emotional” or “hysterical” and that they cannot be reasonable or cannot stick to the facts.

(6) the knowledge gained from reading the skeptical debunking will not spread to other skeptical or social justice allies, knowledge which they could have used in their fights against irrational bigotry elsewhere.

(7) it sets a potentially dangerous precedent that you can dominate a discussion about important topics by making emotional outbursts and thereby shutting it down completely under the disguise of misguided appeals to not wanting to cause offense. It should not concern us that e. g. religious fundamentalists or political ideologues feel “persecuted” or “offended” by a skeptical examination of their stances.

It is not clear that the benefits of downplaying or sacrificing skeptical criticisms for emotional outbursts outweighs these costs.

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Truehope Threatens Critic Natasha Tracy with Frivolous Lawsuit

Natasha Tracy

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

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

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

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Mailbag: Actually, Science Isn’t Self-Refuting

mailbag letter

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

Why is it so hard to argue with proponents of pseudoscience? In a previous post about the necessity of non-arbitrary axioms, it was speculated that this might depend on the fact that various cranks and quacks have fundamentally different ideas about what exists, the nature of knowledge and how to reach reasonable conclusions about the world around us. Three arguments were deployed against the rejection of axiomatic starting points: it is self-referentially incoherent, it leads to a rejection of knowledge and anything will be true if you assume a contradiction. When faced with this issue, some people appeal to coherentism or claim that science too must share these issues.

Science is not self-refuting

A comment recently submitted by a person going under the name of “The Adversary” tried to execute a similar pirouette. Although not relevant enough to be part of a reasoned discussion, refuting the claims therein can be useful for understanding the opponents of scientific rationality:

You realise [sic] that the scientific method also shares this key feature, right? If you say that the scientific method is not about reaching absolute truth, you are also expressing an implicit liar paradox. Is not the proposition that there is no absolute truth itself considered an absolute truth and therefore immediately self-refuting?

Scientific research is not about reaching absolute truth. So far so good. However, this does not constitute a claim that absolute truth does not exist. It is merely the humble admission that science, although very successful as a method for reaching reasonable conclusions about reality, is not all-powerful. Scientists are humans and can be subject to the same cognitive biases as anyone else. The strength of science, however, comes from its ability to self-correct and carry out independent tests. So no, science is not self-refuting.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

Winston Wu's website

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

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

Misunderstood principle #16: Psychological techniques of alleged psychics

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

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

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

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

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

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Refusing to Provide Evidence? Here are Some Productive Alternatives

Paper, Research, Evidence

One of the most substantial problems with pseudoscientific cranks is that their beliefs and opinions are irrational and not based on any kind of credible scientific evidence. To prevent themselves from truly coming to terms with this, they have to invent a large number of after-the-fact rationalizations to explain away the massive amount of scientific evidence that runs contrary to their position in order to ease their cognitive dissonance. However, pseudoscientific cranks have learned that interactions with scientific skeptics are rarely beneficial for them. The evidence against their quackery is there, they cannot refute it and some people are starting to see through their nonsense. Thus, there is often an urgent need to develop other means to defend their flawed assertions. This is done by demonizing their opponents in order to justify rejecting everything those critics bring to the table, such as calling them shills for large corporations. In some cases, the mere request for evidence is considered to be some kind of attack against their person.

There is a disturbing tendency coalescing in many online communities (such as blogs, forums and social media website). It is based on misrepresenting skeptics as “a mob of harassers” and all critical questions or requests for supporting evidence are assumed to be asked in “bad faith” to only serve as dishonest methods to “demean or destroy” people. It is not just that rational discussion of ideas has been even more difficult to maintain than they already are, but that even the initiating of such an exchange is met with suspicion, thinly veiled hostility, and sometimes outright anger. After all, if you cannot successfully present supporting evidence for your beliefs, why even bother interacting with scientific skeptics? It is not like there is anything in it for the crank.

This article examines some common methods that pseudoscientific cranks use to avoid exchanges with scientific skeptics. Several generally applicable and productive alternatives to refusing to provide evidence is discussed.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part III: Nature of Skepticism

Winston Wu

In the two previous installments, we have explored a large number of skeptical principles and exposed the various deceptive ways that Winston Wu has falsely characterized them. Confidence in a proposition should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Models that make fewer evidence-free assumptions should be preferred to models that are overly complex because they are more likely. The burden of evidence rests on the person advancing the position that is less likely with respect to the background information. Anecdotal evidence, although useful for generating hypotheses for future research, is not scientific evidence as it lacks independent support, is subject to cognitive biases and maybe be non-representative due to cherry-picking. Human memory is fallible and there are hundreds of people who have been falsely convicted on eyewitness testimony alone. Scientific skepticism is not about the automatic dismissal of supernatural claims. Rather, it is based on the fact that supernatural claims usually have little to no evidence supporting them, and plenty of evidence against them.

In this third installment, we will investigate how Wu misunderstands five additional skeptical principles and stances. Just because something currently lacks a scientific explanation does not mean that it is unexplainable or that supernatural “explanations” automatically win even though they lack evidence. Wu also equivocates between “beliefs” in the general sense of having opinions or accepting positions with the specific sense of holding evidence-free positions about the world. Scientific skepticism is about using accumulated scientific knowledge and rational arguments to investigate claims. It is not the same as philosophical skepticism or cynicism. Contrary to Wu, pointing out that some people’s beliefs are irrational or that they have a primitive form of thinking is not a personal attack, but an intellectually honest assessment of reality.

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Types of Pseudoscience That Deserve More Skeptical Attention


During the past decade, a lot of skeptical activism online has involved topics such as vaccines, GMOs, and evolution. There are thousands of videos, articles and blog posts destroying creationist delusions about bacterial flagellum, the Cambrian radiation and transitional fossils, countering fear-mongering about biotech applications and explaining the benefits of vaccines. Yet some forms of widespread pseudoscience receive considerably less attention in the skeptical community. This posts looks closer at some such cases, possible reasons for why these have been neglected and why they should be given more attention.


The opposition to modern psychiatry takes various forms. Alternative medicine proponents think that psychiatric conditions are caused by fungal infection or chemtrails and can be cured with homeopathy, spices or organic potatoes. New age believers think that depression is caused by people attracting it to their lives, and therefore have themselves to blame. They usually think that everything can be cured with positive thinking. Sophisticated mysterians are often non-religious journalists who decry any scientific discussion of psychiatric conditions with accusations of “determinism” or “scientism”. They typically believe that science will never understand art, beauty or consciousness. Even people who are otherwise skeptical of pseudoscience have bought into anti-psychiatry, often displaying the common denialist tactics. There are also conspiracy lunatics who think that psychiatric medication brainwash people and that it is all a government ploy. Some scientologists think that psychiatrists kidnap, torture and kill their patients.

There are not so many skeptics that confront anti-psychiatry. Debunking Denialism has written a little over 20 critical posts refuting different aspects of anti-psychiatry. Steven Novella, Amy Tuteur and Harris Hall has written several detailed treatments. There are probably other skeptics that have covered it as well, but they have not gotten enough exposure. Despite this, it is essential to counter the actions of anti-psychiatry movements because psychiatric conditions affect so many people. According to WHO, depression is quickly becoming one of the biggest causes of disability in the world with around 350 million people directly affected. They and their loved ones are vulnerable to this kind of quackery and charlatans must not be allowed to exploit people.

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Incinerating the Sherlock Holmes Gambit

Is a bad explanation better than no explanation?

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

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

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


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

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

(1) Constitutes a false dilemma

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

(2) No evidence for the improbable explanation

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

(3) Ignores unknown explanations

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

(4) Assumes correct understanding of current alternative explanations

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

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part II: Evidentialism

Winston Wu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This evidence does not match the belief held by Wu.

Misunderstood principle #7: Hume’s argument against miracles

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

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

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

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