Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Skepticism

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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The Hypocrisy of Pseudoscientific Cranks: Response to Criticism

Screenshot of post about cranks

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.

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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.

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Risk Factors: Misunderstandings and Abuses

Risk factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winston Wu's website

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

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

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

Misunderstood principle #1: Confidence should be proportional to evidence

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

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

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

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

Wu goes to great lengths to misunderstanding this simple principle.

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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

A scientific paper (or is it?)

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.


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


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