# Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

## Refusing to Provide Evidence? Here are Some Productive Alternatives

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.

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

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.

## 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.

Anti-psychiatry:

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.

## 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

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.

## The Hypocrisy of Pseudoscientific Cranks: Response to Criticism

The other day, a rant exposing the hypocrisy of proponents of pseudoscience was posted on Debunking Denialism. It got a lot of social media attention after being shared on the Facebook page of James Randi, and with it, a lot of objections. Criticism (of varying quality) came from many sources, such as the skeptic subreddit, Facebook, blog comments and emails. Due to the sheer volume and diversity of responses to the previous post, they have been synthesize and organized into general categories for easier treatment.

You are a Monsanto shill / Monsanto collaborator / agricultural Holocaust perpetrator

This is a flawed approach for several reasons. Besides the fact that it is not true (where are my checks!?), it is a psychological defense used to avoid tackling the actual arguments about GM crops and essentially a guilt by (imaginary) association fallacy. Just like 9/11 truthers distract from real problems with American foreign policy issues, anti-GMO conspiracy theorists distract from real and important social, economic and political issues related to GMOs. Maybe food regulation can be improved and made more effective? Perhaps there could be alternatives to patents / huge R&D costs that allows smaller companies to compete more efficiently in the free market? Because anti-GM activists constantly derail the conversation into crankery, these issues are not given sufficient attention.

This article is mediocre / sophomoric / preachy / not convincing to cranks / emotionally charged / sensationalist / makes stupid generalizations / contains a lot of bitterness / cynical / self-congratulatory intellectual masturbation / does nothing to further the cause of scientific inquiry / promotes straw men / name-calling / derogatory / does nothing to promote skepticism

It was written as a humorous rant against the hypocrisy of many pseudoscientific cranks. It was not intended to be a dispassionate analysis of irrational claims or an attempt to convince these quacks that they are wrong. These are also not straw men, as there are real-world examples of all of them.

I do not understand why corporal punishment is doing in that list

Because the science is more or less settled that corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful, yet defenders commonly use denialist tactics to support their views.

Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12038

The “dead babies” section was inappropriate

Homebirth is quackery, and homebirths attended by unqualified MANA midwives (who do not require any medical training) is considerable more dangerous than hospital births. It is intellectually dishonest to dismiss this fact by misguided appeals to “appropriateness”.

I had a successful homebirth, so that means that it really is not that dangerous / I was spanked and turned out fine

So? A smoker who does not develop lung cancer is not an argument against the fact that smoking causes lung cancer.

## You Know You Are a Pseudoscientific Crank If…

Are you sick of always failing to convince us scientific skeptics that GM crops kill people, that homeopathy cures cancer or that climate change is a socialist myth? Do you feel frustrated by being asked to provide peer-reviewed scientific papers to support your position? If this matches your experience and you still do not know why, see how many of the following statements match your behavior to see if you qualify as a pseudoscientific crank.

You denigrate the knowledge of scientific experts, but compare yourself with Galileo and Einstein.

Just because you are criticized by knowledgeable people who provide scientific evidence to back up their arguments does not mean that you are an oppressed genius. Sometimes, you are just a rebel trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. In the end, the flawed notion that criticism means that you are actually right is a pathetic defense mechanism to avoid responding to objections or backing up your claims with evidence.

You are not Galileo or Einstein. They convinced their peers with evidence. You have no evidence whatsoever.

You claim mainstream medical treatments are unsafe and ineffective, while promoting quack treatments that are dangerous and untested.

There is a lot of hate towards modern medicine by proponents of quack treatments. This may be based on envy from quacks who never got into or failed medical school or because of postmodern belief that everyone is an expert. This is yet another example of confirmation bias and selective thinking.

## Risk Factors: Misunderstandings and Abuses

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

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

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

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

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

Misunderstood principle #1: Confidence should be proportional to evidence

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

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

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

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

Wu goes to great lengths to misunderstanding this simple principle.

## Skeptical Activism Online: How to Avoid the Burnout

Have you ever felt exhausted from seemingly endless struggles with creationists in Youtube comments? Spent too long time bickering on Twitter with quantum mystics who clearly are not worth your time? Gotten caught in a unproductive spiral of trench warfare on a forum with homeopaths? Spent hours writing blog comments on the placebo effect and statistical tests only to have them deleted because the blog owner is a acupuncture-promoting quack?

Most scientific skeptics who engage in online activism sooner or later come across these kinds of enormously frustrating situations. Combating pseudoscience in this way can sometimes become an unhealthy obsession. Here are some tips to make online skeptical activism less frustrating and reduce the risk of a burnout.

Stop having unproductive struggles

One major contributor to skeptical activist burnout is probably unproductive struggles on social media sites and comment sections on various websites. The common problem with these debate avenues is that they are unsuitable for discussing complex scientific topics. Some of them (such as Twitter and Youtube) restrict the number of characters you can use to communicate your skeptical arguments. This forces you to break them up into tiny pieces that will obscure the larger context of your objections. In other avenues (such as Youtube, some Facebook pages and comments on pseudoscientific blogs), the power over your skeptical material rests in hostile hands. This means that proponents of pseudoscience can refuse to publish, delete or edit your comments. Material you have spent hours and hours writing can be distorted or removed in a few seconds Read more of this post

## How to Spot a Pseudoscientific Paper

With the rise of low-impact journals and predatory open-access journals, the journal jungle has become considerable more difficult to navigate for the informed reader. There are even journals started by groups promoting pseudoscience: young-earth creationists have Answers Research Journal, intelligent design creationists have the BIO-Complexity journal, homeopaths have the Homeopathy journal, proponents of acupuncture have the Journal of Chinese Medicine & Treatment and so on. Even more alarmingly, high quality journals (such as JAMA) have on rare occasions published what appear to be promotional pieces of quack treatments (Gorski, 2013). Thus, it is more important than ever to be able to sift the gems from the trash and approach published research papers with a skeptical eye.

This post exposes many of the common tricks used by proponents of pseudoscience to make their research papers appear more credible than they actually are: unjustified claims in the abstract, misrepresentations of previous research.

Abstract:

In a real scientific research paper, the abstract contains a summary of each major section of the article. This allows researchers to quickly get a grasp of the main methods and conclusions without reading the full text version. In the ideal case, the abstract accurately reflect the content of the paper.

Watch out for:

• Claims not found in the paper
• Claims not justified by the results
• Cherry-picked and/or spun results

However, proponents of pseudoscience can distort the abstract in a number of different ways. They can report claims in the abstract that is not found in the paper, not justified by the data or they can select the most impressive finding and ignore or otherwise downplay the rest in a deceptive manner. Read more of this post

## Scientific Skepticism and Social Justice Advocacy

Note: the general idea in this post is that people who promote social injustices often make rationalizations were they perform logical fallacies, assume false empirical premises and appeal to pseudoscience. Scientific skeptics can promote social justice by targeting those flawed rationalizations for destruction without mission drift or acceptance of any specific political ideology.

This post will attempt to lay out some possible connections between scientific skepticism and social justice, give some practical examples of how scientific skepticism can be used to promote social justice without mission drift or the need to sacrifice critical thinking for political ideology (such as opposition to GM crops). Perhaps it may encourage some people to spend some time getting involved in social justice issues outside of scientific skepticism as well.

The post is divided into two larger sections. The first presents a core argument as to how scientific skepticism can be useful for examining arguments about social justice issues. I have tried to make it as minimalist as possible so that it has the best chance of convincing individuals who hold different ideas and positions on this and related issues. The core argument will be illustrated with example of conservative anti-vaccine opposition to HPV vaccination for young girls. The rest of the post will look at a couple of areas were scientific skepticism can made fruitful contributions to social justice activism: legal system malfunctions, victim blaming, anti-group bigotry and defending individuals against quack “treatments” and beliefs.

The core argument

A minimalist argument for the compatibility between scientific skepticism and social justice advocacy might look something like this. People who defend social injustices will often attempt to provide “arguments” (well, more like rationalizations) for why their position should be considered credible. These will usually contain premises, inferences and appeals to pseudoscience. Premises and inferences can be examined on logical and/or empirical grounds and appeals to pseudoscience may be countered with standard skeptical approaches. Either of these approaches are sufficient to undermine the position of the social injustice defender. In addition, a positive scientific case could be built in favor of a social justice goal (although useful, this is not strictly required to just refute the claim being made). All of these approaches do not require mission drift or the sacrifice of critical thinking for the sake of political ideology. Read more of this post

## Heather McNamara Prefers Trolling Over Reasoned Arguments

Recently, I had an interesting exchange with Heather McNamara on Twitter. For those of you who do not know of her, Heather is a self-described Marxist and the partner of Zinnia Jones, the latter a popular blogger and social justice advocate at FreethoughtBlogs. Heather (I will use her first name to avoid confusion as both of the women share the same last name) has occasionally made guest videos on Zinnia Jones’ Youtube channel regarding topics such as pregnancy and alcohol, radical feminism and transphobia, social justice activism, sex positivity and anti-pornography etc.

Heather made numerous assertions, but when challenged, she was unable to back these up with arguments or evidence. Rather, she engaged in name-calling, decided to quote me out of context to give her followers the impression that I was less charitable than I was. She also made numerous inconsiderate stereotypes about straight people, white people and people whose gender identity corresponded to their assigned sex (henceforth referred to as “cisgendered”). When I confronted her on this, suggesting that she was now guilty of the same flawed stereotyping behavior that social justice advocates object to, she just reasserted her claim. Then, out of nowhere, she used a translation service to post a tweet in butchered Swedish. After that she posted a tweet in Norwegian referring to a Scandinavian cultural tradition of not thinking that one is better than others. Finally, she decided she was no longer interested in the conversation, because her son wanted to go to see a movie.

This post contains each tweet exchange between us and an short analysis of the conversation. Read more of this post

## The Anechoic Chamber of Greta Christina

Note: racism is morally wrong and a young African-American man should absolutely without question be able to buy some candy without being, as the narrative holds, “hunted down and murdered by an angry white racist”. However, Greta Christina has misunderstood the legal situation and this post examines some of her errors. For a short summary of the main points, scroll down to “Conclusion”.

I have discussed the problems surrounding selective skepticism many times before on this blog. It can arise in the context of Nobel Prize winners having their rational thinking undermined by pseudoscience. It can occur when evolutionary biologists start making claims about the validity of an entire field for which their knowledge and understanding is, to put it charitably, limited. It has happened when the political beliefs of some skeptics contaminate their view of the skeptical movement. However, there are some ways for skeptics to attempt to limit impact of selective rationality and groupthink, even thought it often seems difficult.

When I use the term selective skepticism, I am referring to the following broad themes: (1) skeptics who are rational in many other areas (e. g. accept that evolution is a fact, accept that vaccines are generally safe and effective, reject HIV/AIDS denialism, accept global warming etc.), but remarkably fail to reach the same level of rationality in another field, (2) applying little or no skepticism to evidence that appears to support their personal belief and apply extreme skepticism to evidence that seem to run counter to those beliefs.

I continue to be fascinating by examining new case studies of selective skepticism that occur among well-known members of the skeptical community. In this post, I will be examining Greta Christina’s reactions to the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. The two main reactions that this post will focus on is a tweet by Christina and a subsequent blog post were she elaborates on her position.

Important background information

Before we go into the details of this case study, let us go to great lengths to avoid misunderstandings. That way we can focus on the topic itself without needing to spend a lot of effort on unproductive and dead-end derailings of the conversation.

Racism: racism, like any kind of group discrimination, is morally wrong. Furthermore, racists and race realists often use pseudoscience to prop up their flawed beliefs. This has been demonstrated in many posts on this blog (here, here, here, here and here etc.) and there is even an entire blog category on Debunking Denialism dedicated to refuting racists and race realists.

Legal system biases exists and are well-documented: many scientific studies have exposed various biases in different legal systems around the world. Judges are more likely to grant probation if they review the case after lunch than before (Danziger, Levav and Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). When using visual courtroom technology, witnesses are considered more credible the more spatially and temporally closer they are to the evaluators and witnesses filmed using a medium shot are evaluated as more credible than those film using a close-up shot (Landström, 2010). If a person is convicted of murdering a European-American, that person is more likely to be given the death penalty than if the victim had been an African-American (Baldus et. al, 1998) and that study controlled for almost 40 possible non-race confounders. The more stereotypical an American-American defendant appears to be, the higher the risk of that person getting the death penalty (Eberhardt et al., 2006). Swedish researchers, using vignette scenarios, have shown that men are considered more provocative in the aggressor position and more responsible for their own victimization in the victim position (Lindholm and Yourstone Cederwall, 2011). This is attributed by the researchers to gender stereotypes of men as being powerful and aggressive and women being weak and unable to defend themselves. This was just a few examples, and others exist. Read more of this post

## Mailbag: Contaminated Tools and the Tsunami of Unreason

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.

This time, the questions comes from the commenter Skeptek. It was a little bit too long, so I have shortened it a bit to distill the main ideas but hopefully I have kept sufficient context for it to make sense. Earlier on the blog, me and Skeptek had a short discussion about the motives of quacks and cranks. Skeptek was leaning more towards considering them as conscious frauds and liars, whereas I more took the position that one should not attribute to malice that which can be credibly explained by human ignorance. Of course there are proponents of pseudoscience that are conscious frauds and liars, but perhaps that should not be our default assumption.

Additionally, you’re not the first wise person to point out, what you see as flaws in my logic – namely that I am making assumptions or improperly speculating about the motives of people who promote pseudoscience, or even their mental health. I see them as willful liars, but most others seem sure they’re simply stupid. I’ve long thought that this simply can’t be true – that my reasoning was faultless […] I do feel a strong and viscerally emotional reaction to pseudoscience in all forms. I become tense and even get snippy with those around me after reading some of the worst stuff that’s out there. “How dare these ignorant, lazy cowards attack the hard working and noble work of brilliant scientists whom I idolize as heroes?” I’m not really sure what I’m asking here, but you seem to have either been down this road already, or you’ve been able to avoid it altogether, so I’m curious how an experienced skeptic like yourself is able to maintain neutrality as you appear to do.

I detect a certain level of black-and-white thinking in this paragraph, where those who subscribe to some form pseudoscience is grouped up into a category with properties like “willful liars”, “ignorant”, “lazy”, “cowards”. On the other hand, scientists are grouped up in a category with properties like “does noble work”, “brilliant” “target of idolization”. This, however, is a cognitive simplification (a form of demonization). Reality is a lot more nuanced and complex. I have found one insight that is extremely useful for breaking up that kind of thinking: the widespread prevalence of selective skepticism. To exemplify, let us look at three specific discoveries that I had as I began to discover selective skepticism.

The first discovery relates back to when I noticed that many other skeptics (while successfully using the methods of scientific skepticism towards things like creationism and homeopathy) utterly failed to apply the same degree of skepticism towards their favorite unsubstantiated belief. These skeptics that I personally admired turned out to be 9/11 truthers, mental illness deniers, anti-vaccine cranks, anti-GMO activists, climate change deniers and so on (for a specific case, see Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and the follow-up article Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants). I was flabbergasted. Completely shocked. I asked them: “can’t you see that you are using the exact same kind of pseudoscientific debating tactics to defend your ideological belief as creationists and homeopaths do to defend theirs?” They did not seem to get it. Others understood my line of thought, but provided feeble rationalizations. Apparently, quoting climate scientist Phil Jones out of context about northern tree rings is not at all the same as Darwin on the eye out of context. Yeah right.

This discovery made it impossible for me to uphold individual skeptics (and the skeptical community at large) as uniformly science-friendly or rational.

The second discovery was when I first read about what is now known as the Nobel disease. As it turns out, not even Noble Prize winners are immune to the tsunami of unreason. Linus Pauling, a quantum chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1954, yet he became a cancer quack claiming that large doses of vitamin C could cure cancer. Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of behavioral ecology and Nobel Prize winner in 1973, was a dedicated Nazi. Nikolaas Tinbergen, who won the prize the same year as Lorenz, supported autism quackery (the notion of refrigerator mothers and an ineffective and coercive treatment for ASD based on restraint) in his Nobel speech. Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his improvements on the PCR reaction (standard technique in biology labs the world over), yet he became an HIV/AIDS denialist, rejected global warming and embraced astrology. Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery of HIV, is now a proponent of ideas that resemble homeopathy. These are just a few examples out of a long list of Nobel Prize winners who have succumbed to the allure of pseudoscience.

If Nobel Prize winning scientists cannot withstand the tsunami of unreason, how can the average scientist do it? How can I or other skeptics do it? Read more of this post