Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

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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How Anti-Immigration Activists Misuse Rape Statistics

Nationella Trygghetsundersökningen

The Internet has brought an enormous mass of knowledge to the fingertips of everyone with a computer, smartphone or tablet. Never before have so many individuals been so close to true scientific facts about the world, from fun facts about animals to the latest crime statistics. Large communities with blogs, forums and social media groups have grown up around a wide variety of special interests and it has become a powerful tool for communication, cooperation and the advancement of human knowledge.

However, this has also led to the creation of ideologically isolated Internet communities, where faulty claims and misunderstandings of statistics and empirical evidence gets repeated in an endless echo chamber and all refutations are either ignored, misrepresented or subjected to ideologically driven rejection, often with stale references to supposed “political correctness”, as if that was a statistically mature rebuttal.

This article will show that according to crime victim surveys, the actual rate of sex crimes has been more or less unchanged in Sweden between 2005 and 2014, despite the fact that immigration has increased during the same time period. Instead, the increasing rates of reported rapes are influenced by expansion of the legal rape definition, an increase in the tendency to report rapes, police efforts to classify each individual rape as a separate crime and their tendency to classify any sex crime that could potentially be rape as rape. It will also demonstrate that reported rates between countries such as Sweden and Denmark cannot be naively compared to do the large difference in legal rape definition and police registration methods.

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How to Catch a Serial Killer

ResearchBlogging.org

How are serial killers caught?

Crime shows and police procedure dramas (like Criminal Minds and Law and Order) that flood our television experience give the appearance that serial killers are caught by the use of criminal profiling and sophisticated forensic tools such as fingerprint analysis, DNA technology, digital tracking, blood spatter analysis, ballistic comparisons and many more. But how much of it is real? Are criminal profiling and forensic science really responsible for capturing most serial killers?

White, Lester, Gentile and Rosenbleeth (2011) investigates this question by studying 200 serial killers. They found that although forensic evidence was often key in getting a conviction, no serial killer was captured by the use of forensic evidence or criminal profiling. Instead, the reason serial killers were caught was traditional police work and communication with the public.

What is a serial killer?

For the purpose of this paper, a serial killer is defined as:

a person who has killed at least three people at different locations with a ‘cooling off’ period between the killings”

Special accommodations were made for a minority of repeated killers who killed at home (Gacy and Dahmer) or at a hospital (angel of death). This is different from a mass killer or mass shooter who, depending on definition, kills 3-4 people in the same general location and time.

What was the sample size and how was the sample selected?

A total of 200 serial killers were included in this study. Facts about the serial killers in the sample was taken from “newspaper reports, true crime books, and encyclopedias” and then “referenced with other sources”. The identity of these “other sources” are left unspecified.

What role did criminal profiling / forensic science play in catching serial killers?

None of the serial killers were identified or captured by criminal profiling or forensic science alone. Not a single one. The authors write:

Interestingly, not one serial killer in the present study, albeit limited to 200 subjects, was captured by forensic evidence alone, without the help of the public or the investigative acumen of the police by interviewing the public.

It should be noted, however, that forensic science such as DNA evidence, often played a crucial role in attaining a conviction against the serial killers in this sample. Thus, in contrast to police procedural dramas such as Criminal Minds, criminal profiling and forensic evidence plays a minor role in identifying and finding serial killers.

How are serial killers caught?

So if criminal profiling and/or forensic evidence does not play a leading role in identifying and capturing serial killers, how are they captured?

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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 Poisonous M&Ms Analogy Metastasizes to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Syrian refugees are not M&Ms

Most people understand that unfair generalizations about e.g. ethnic and sexual minorities are unreasonable. Yet some people attempt to give their bigoted generalizations a thin veneer of supposed intellectual credibility in order to desperately cling to their flawed and simplistic worldview. One such attempt that exploded onto Internet forums and social media in the middle of 2014 is the so-called Poisonous M&Ms analogy.

Now, with the help of politicians, authors, bloggers and other commentators, this nonsense has metastasized to the Syrian refugee crisis. People who are fleeing for their lives from terror and dictatorship are being likened to potentially dangerous pieces of candy in order to make cheap rhetorical points. However, these points crumble at a slightest hint of critical analysis.

What is the “Poisonous M&Ms” analogy and why is it fatally flawed?

The basic “argument” goes something like this:

You say that I am overgeneralizing about [group X]?

Imagine a bowl of M&Ms. 10% of them are poisoned. Go ahead, eat a handful of them. After all, they are not all poisonous!

The idea expressed above is this: just as it makes sense to not want to eat M&Ms if some of them are poisoned, it is also allegedly reasonable to make sweeping generalizations about group X. In reality, of course, it is just a clever intuition pump crafted to deflect criticism of bullshit overgeneralizations that have little to no empirical merit.

It does not require a lot of thought to find major flaws in this analogy: it has no specificity and can be applied to any group (including the group making the generalizations to begin with), it uses non-empirical base rates, the correct base rates is never factored into the analysis, it uses an irrational risk analysis that assumes that zero risk is possible and has several other flaws that was discussed in the original post linked above (that also shows some examples of this analogy being applied to African-Americans by members of the white supremacist website Stormfront).

How the Poisonous M&Ms Analogy has Metastasized

During the past few weeks, this analogy has been picked up by well-known politicians, political commentators and others. Here are a few examples to show the broad influence it has gotten:

Mike Huckabee: On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (Nov 17th), Huckabee compared Syrian refugees to peanuts: “If you bought a five-pound bag of peanuts and there were about ten peanuts that were deadly poisonous, would you feed them to your kids? The answer is no.”

Although not using specifically M&Ms, Huckabee deployed a version of this flawed analogy to Syrian refugees. As many have pointed out already, his base rate is way off target and both peanuts and guys named Mike have killed more people in the U.S. than refugees or Salafi jihadists have.

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Anti-GMO Statistician Nassim N. Taleb Now Defends Homeopathy

Taleb on Twitter

Over a year ago, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb co-wrote an ignorant paper on the precautionary principle and its supposed lethal application to genetically modified foods. In it, the authors made several errors. They asserted, without evidence, that genetically modified crops are more dangerous than conventional crops and failing to consider the benefits of GM crops in preventing vitamin a deficiency, blindness and death (instead falsely comparing it to letting poor people play Russian roulette to get out of poverty).

Despite critics writing several detailed refutations, Taleb retained the irrational belief that no “intelligent comment” had been made. A person even tweeted Taleb the above article from Debunking Denialism and after spending a total of two minutes on it, Taleb declared that it was “not very intelligent”, “full of flaws” and “even downright stupid”, despite the fact that it had demolished the central claims made by the authors.

As if this was not enough, Taleb has now gone full-blown anti-science. In a couple of recent tweets, he went so far as to defend homeopathy at length. He falsely claimed that homeopathy was harmless and thus totally ignoring documented expectancy side-effects as well as the problem that people with real dangerous medical conditions (such as cancer) might avoid science-based intervention. He also completely misunderstood and mocked the psychiatric condition known as health anxiety, thereby implying that those individuals are better of with homeopathy than psychotherapy. In a final twist of incomprehensible absurdity, Taleb stated that superstitions such as homeopathy can sometimes be rational, particularly if they somehow “prevent you from listening to forecasts by economists”.

Homeopathy is not “harmless placebo”

Taleb starts out by making the common claim that homeopathy is harmless:

Taleb defends homeopathy

Homeopathy is not harmless. It is certainly pharmacologically inert on its own, but this is not the same as harmless. First, promoting homeopathy might make people with dangerous medical conditions forgo science-based treatments. Second, homeopathy can be accompanied by negative expectancy effects called nocebo effects. Third, unscrupulous alternative medicine sellers can mix in pharmacologically active substances that can have potentially dangerous health consequences. In the United States, all of this is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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Seller of Miracle Mineral Solution Gets 51 Months in Prison

MMS seller sentences to over 4 years in prison

Louis Daniel Smith and his wife Karis Delong from the Oregon city of Ashland operated a company on the Internet called Project GreenLife for seven years. They were primarily selling a chemical substance called sodium chlorite as a miracle cure for a long list of serious health conditions, such as cancer, malaria and HIV. They advised their customers to mix it with water and citric acid to form chlorine dioxide (an industrial bleach used in e. g. pulp mills) and then drink it.

So what did they do? They smuggled sodium chlorite into the United States from Canada, wrote false invoices, tried to masquerade their product as wastewater treatment to avoid getting caught by the FDA and the customs officers, putting falsely branded chemical substances into interstate trade in a feeble effort to defraud consumers. To make matters even worse, they also hid and destroyed evidence from the police during a search warrant.

He was convicted in May on several of the charges and risked a total of 34 years in prison.

What is sodium chlorite / chlorine dioxide / miracle mineral solution (MMS)?

According to a recent press release from the U. S. Department of Justice:

MMS is a mixture of sodium chlorite and water. Sodium chlorite is an industrial chemical used as a pesticide, for hydraulic fracturing and for wastewater treatment. Sodium chlorite cannot be sold for human consumption, and suppliers of the chemical include a warning sheet stating that it can cause potentially fatal side effects if swallowed. When mixed with water and citric acid, it makes chlorine dioxide, another kind of bleach.

In other words, these people are promoting the usage of industrial bleach and recommending that people drink it to magically cure their dangerous and potentially life-threatening diseases.

What did Louis Daniel Smith believe that MMS would do?

Was this a case of a seller simply not knowing or understanding the dangers of the product he sold? No, quite the opposite: Smith had full knowledge of the serious side-effects the treatment could give people who drank it:

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Deconstructing a Flawed Defense of EMPowerplus Quackery

False Hope

Alternative medicine proponents defend their pseudoscientific quackery by a number of different means. Sometimes they claim that their alleged “treatment” is actually science-based and put forward studies that make trivial errors when it comes to experimental design, statistical analysis or the appropriate interpretation of the results in the wider medical context. However, this is typically rare since it requires a very deep level of intellectual self-deception. Other methods include claiming that although the preparation is just placebo, it is still very powerful through some mystical mind-body process that science can never understand. Quite often, however, they do not even make a serious attempt at sounding reasonable and instead merely claim that it “works for them” and that it is therefore unreasonable and immoral to object to alleged “treatments” that either has no evidence of safety or efficacy or has evidence of harm.

This article examines one such attempt to prop up an alternative medicine product called EMPowerplus (by Truehope) for psychiatric conditions such as autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety and bipolar conditions. However, these claims have never been evaluated by the FDA and the company uses the classic quack Miranda warning that their product is “intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” There is no credible scientific research supporting efficacy and safety of the product (the only RCT was terminated before completion and results were never reported), it has potentially dangerous drug interactions, the company makes invasive follow-up calls, and even promote the notion that Candida infection causes diseases in otherwise healthy individuals. Not only that, but the company tries to recruit friends and family to manipulate the patient to stay on the “treatment”.

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The Fifth Anniversary of Debunking Denialism

Fifth Blog Anniversary

Today marks the fifth year since the founding of the Debunking Denialism website.

New content

During the past year, 44 new articles have been written and posted on Debunking Denialism. Topics ranged from the large Ebola outbreak and the conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific quackery that followed (such as homeopathy) to how an alternative medicine company threatened mental health blogger Natasha Tracy with a lawsuit unless she removed science-based criticism of their product from her website.

Several topics were explored in detail using peer-reviewed scientific papers, such as false confessions and genetic privacy in the age of high-throughput sequencing.

Otherwise credible sources were dissected, such as the promotion of detox regimes by Swedish Public Radio, a credulous blog post advancing anti-psychiatry at the Scientific American Mind website, Swedish Public Television inviting anti-vaccine activists to a “debate” about safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and Tim Wise blaming the Holocaust on “scientism”.

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