Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Skepticism

Why Derailing is a Flawed Approach

Train derailment

A common technique that is often deployed in online discussions of political, philosophical or skeptical issues is to attempt to derail the conversation. This is often done either by trying to distract and point to another issue that is perceived to be worse, harms more people or is generally more deserving of attention or to generally minimize the issue being discussed. The assumption is that one should not bother with issue A if issue B is more serious. In reality, this is a dishonest method that is used to shut down any conversation about issue A by portraying people who discuss issue A as ignorant, wasteful, obsessive or morally flawed.

This article outlines some of the problems with this tactic, such as the fact that one can focus on more than one thing, the risk of a backfire effect, issues with diminishing returns, the fact that it is inconsistent and that a consistent application of this tactic leads to absurd conclusions. In the end, this tactic should be avoided, and issues that deserve discussion on their own merits should be discussed regardless of other issues.

One can focus on more than one thing at the same time

Trying to distract from issue A by pointing to issue B and scolding people who dare to talk about issue A or lift issue A as important assumes that there really is an either-or situation. There is nothing that prevents people from talking about A, while acknowledging that B is also a problem and even a considerable problem. There is really no need to constantly try to shut down conversations about by issue A by an incessant reference to issue B.

It may backfire spectacularly

If there is a sustained effort by people who primarily care about issue B to distract, minimize or otherwise derail all conversations about issue A to conversations about issue B, people might develop a more negative appraisal of issue B and thus be less interested in giving issue B attention or concern. This is an example of the reverse halo effect whereby the negative associations with people who insist on issue B over issue A with issue B itself. In the same way, it may also cause people to dig their heels in when it comes to issue A and prioritize it even more over B. Read more of this post

Preventing Cranks from Benefiting from Your Skeptical Activism

Add-ons

The typical crank or quack website does not just contain pseudoscientific claims in plaintext. Instead, it is filled with dozens of advertisements, scripts that create and store cookies, analytics, beacons, and other kinds of trackers of all kinds. They collect information about you, your browser and Internet activities. Some of these provide the crank website with money from ad impressions and the information gathered by trackers. It can also violate your privacy and disrupt your Internet experience. Even worse, they can plant malware on your computer, steal credit card information or forcibly encrypt all of your personal files such as documents and photos and blackmail you for large sums of money in order to get them back.

There are methods that scientific skeptics can use to fight back. There are many useful tools that block advertisements and trackers, protect you from various malicious code injections or redirects, prevent cranks from profiting financially from your visits, stops them from gaining a better search engine ranking, and even help you protect your privacy and identity from cranks (both from visits and communication). This article examines some of the most commonly used tools to achieve these goals.

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How to Avoid Falling for Bullshit on the Internet

Bullshit

The Internet is so vast that you can find just about anything online, no matter how unreasonable and bizarre it is. So employing an efficient filter is often necessary to help to tell fact from fiction and to prevent people from inadvertently spreading nonsense because viral stories exploit your biases in an effort to get you to click like, share or retweet.

Are you tired of seeing stupid stories about the end of the world, how some new kind of cabbage can cure all cancers, that coughing prevents death from heart failure or any of the other thousands of inane viral stories being shared on social media? This is a simple introductory guide on how to avoid falling for bullshit on the Internet.

Wait for more facts to emerge

One of the biggest risks for falling for bullshit on the Internet is reacting too fast. When a new viral story or video hit, it is often shared thousands and thousands of times within a short period of time. Videos are made about it, Facebook posts are written about it, Tweets and retweets spread all over the Internet.

Keep your head cool, acknowledge the existence of the story to yourself, but do not fall for emotional manipulation that begs you to click “share” straight away. Do not share things that appeal to you if you have not fact-checked them sufficiently. The only thing that such actions accomplish is that you are spreading the nonsense around, and risk looking foolish if it turns out to be fake.

Check Snopes and other skeptical sources

Not everyone has the time or interest to fact-check stories in great detail. That is fine, people have other interests. However, there are some fact-checking methods that is both straightforward and fast. Search for the story on Google and add the word “Snopes” afterwards e.g. “obama muslim snopes” and you will end up here. Snopes is a website that critically analyzes questionable claims on the Internet and is a great resource for quickly checking the truth of a viral story. Sometimes, the story is too new or too uncommon for Snopes to have picked it up.

Snopes is not the only website that does fact-checking on the Internet. It is also possible to search for the story on Google and add the word “skeptic”, “fake”, “debunked” or similar words in order to find critical voices. Now, do not automatically trust these critics, because they too can be considerably mistaken. Instead, try to find out which is more reasonable: the viral story or the critics.

For specific claims, such as medicine, add words such as “CDC”, “WHO”, ” to get reliable medical websites. If the viral story makes claims about organization, such as “NASA”, go ahead and add that word too, or use “site:nasa.gov” to see if the NASA website has any information about it.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Addendum and Index

Winston Wu

This is the index post and addendum to the article series refuting Winston Wu’s online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers”. The book in question attempts to defend various pseudoscientific and paranormalist beliefs, from prophetic dreams, near-death experiences, aliens and UFOs and so on. The book is written in 30 different sections and this criticism consists of six separate posts, each post dealing with five sections from the book.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part I: Bayesian Self-Defense: The first installation of this series deals with several basic aspects of scientific skepticism such as confidence should be in proportional to evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s Razor, burden of evidence, and the problem with anecdotal evidence.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part II: Evidentialism: This second part delve deeper into the unreliability of human memory as evidence for paranormal claims, Hume’s argument against miracles, evidentialism as a skeptical stance, and scientific plausibility.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part III: Nature of Skepticism: The third part explains the difference between currently unexplained with fundamentally inexplicable, the nature of beliefs, scientific skepticism, irrationality, and the broad influence of pseudoscience (such as creationism and alternative medicine) on society.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers: This fourth part investigates the manipulative techniques used by alleged psychics, the meaning of replication in science, how to make adequate controls, the nature of placebo effects, and the fallacy of appeal to popularity.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part V: Cognitive Science: the penultimate part of this series discusses the power of after-the-fact rationalizations, why alleged prophetic dreams is a flawed interpretation of huge probabilistic resources, scientific explanations of near-death experiences, what neuroscience tells us about the brain and the mind as well as what it means to know something in science.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part VI: Aliens and Creationism in this final installment, topics cover include the supposed innateness of religious belief, creationist misunderstandings of evolution, a return to anecdotal evidence and the burden of evidence and The James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.

The book written by Winston Wu is several years old (latest revision in 2011), so one might argue that it is not of interest to write a refutation. However, it is still being referenced online, is a treasure-trove for selective skeptics, and there is no complete refutation available online. The closest one is a 2004 criticism written by Paul Sandoval to a previous version of Wu’s text. It mostly examines the logical fallacies committed by Wu, but does not discuss the specific scientific details. In the end, this article series serves a valuable addition to the skeptical investigation of questionable claims, particularly those coming from paranormal believers and selective skeptics who for some reason detest scientific skepticism.

Each part links back to this index post.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part VI: Aliens and Creationism

Note: This is the sixth and final installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu

Previously, we have examined the many problems in the thirty-part online text “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” by Winston Wu. Concepts that have been explored are deceptive methods used by alleged psychics, flawed experiments that purport to show evidence of paranormal abilities, the statistical ignorance of a belief in prophetic dreams, the problems with alternative medicine and the skeptical relevance of principles such as Occam’s Razor and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

In this sixth and final installment, we will take a closer look at the purported evidence for aliens and UFOs, common creationist misunderstandings of evolution as well as Wu’s claims about The James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.

Misunderstood principle #26: Innateness

Wu starts by misrepresenting the mainstream scientific position on why people have paranormal beliefs. Instead of discussing the myriad of different contributing factors that actual research has uncovered, he merely presents a single one (“Paranormal beliefs are childish fantasies for dealing with a cold uncaring world.”) and does a poor job at explaining the idea. Wu completely ignores research on cultural, social and cognitive psychology.

His major argument in this section is that the deity of Christianity must be true because he thinks a belief in such a deity is innate. But there are hundreds of beliefs that are innate (operationalized as being often held by children) and completely wrong, such as intuition-based physics about astronomy, magnetism, vision, weather, measurement, space and so on:

– Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night.
– The sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west every day.
– The sun is always directly south at 12:00 noon.
– The tip of a shadow always moves along an east-west line.
– We experience seasons because of the earth’s changing distance from the sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter).
– The earth is the center of the solar system. (The planets, sun and moon revolve around the earth.)
– The moon can only be seen during the night.

[…]

– The only “natural” motion is for an object to be at rest.
– If an object is at rest, no forces are acting on the object.
– A rigid solid cannot be compressed or stretched.
– Only animate objects can exert a force. Thus, if an object is at rest on a table, no forces are acting upon it.
– Force is a property of an object. An object has force and when it runs out of force it stops moving.
– The motion of an object is always in the direction of the net force applied to the object.

etc.

These are obviously not true simply because children hold them as “innate beliefs”.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part V: Cognitive Science

Note: This is the fifth and penultimate installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

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

Note: This is the fourth installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

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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