Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Choking the Black Swan: GM Crops and Flawed Safety Concerns

Failure of precuationary principle

Despite the fact that the technology behind genetically modified crops has been around as long as Commodore 64 and been shown to be safe in hundreds of studies, anti-GM activists continue to spread misinformation.

Recently, a paper on the precautionary principle in relation to genetically modified foods has been making rounds in the anti-GM social media circles. One of the authors is statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has previously written books such as The Black Swan on the impact of low-probability events. The other two authors are physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, and politician-philosopher Rupert Read. They attempt to develop an improved version of the precautionary principle in an effort to undermine the usage of GM crops.

What can a thinly veiled anti-GM paper written by a physicist, a politician and a statistician teach us about the risks of genetically modified foods? Unfortunately, it is just more of the same illusionary sophistry common among anti-GM activists.

Read more of this post

Metro Promotes Anti-Vaccine Homeopath During Measles Outbreak

Anti-vaccine crankery at Metro Calgary

Before vaccines, measles use to infect an estimated 3-4 million people a year in the United States (CDC, 2012). Measles led to brain inflammation for 1 in 1000 and death in 1 in 500 (CDC, 2012). Medical scientists have developed a safe and effective vaccine for measles that is now part of the standard vaccine schedule in most western countries. However, due to parents failing to vaccinate their children combined with the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, herd immunity is compromised. This can lead to measles outbreak and the needless suffering of children.

Because of numerous measles cases in Calgary, Central and Edmonton, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has officially declared that they are in the midst of several measles outbreaks in these zones (AHS, 2014). As a response, the AHS is now encouraging parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their measles vaccines. In Calgary, more than 100 parents had lined up Northgate Measles Immunization Clinic before it opened. However, anti-vaccine cranks were not slow to exploit this situation.

Read more of this post

When Vaccine Promotion Fails

Vaccine hesitation

Despite the fact that the fraudulent (and now retracted) Wakefield paper from 1998 has been soundly refuted by modern medicine, vaccines are still socially controversial among some parents and communities. This has led to an increase in the number of vaccine-exemptions, delays in vaccinations, the erosion of herd immunity, and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. How can scientists, medical doctors and scientific skeptics effectively respond to parents hesitant about vaccines?

How do you convince parents who are hesitant to vaccine their children? Do you debunk common myths about vaccines causing autism with facts? Do you explain that vaccine-preventable diseases are dangerous? Do you show them graphic imagery of children suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases? Do you present a gripping narrative about a child who almost died from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles? As an added complications, some effort to correct irrational beliefs are counterproductive. Due to various backfire effects, correction can actually increase confidence in mistaken beliefs. Therefore, it is enormously important to research effective strategies for vaccine promotion.

A recent paper by Nyhan, Riefler, Richey and Freed (2014) examined this issue by randomly assigning a nationally representative sample of parents to one of the four interventions above or to a no-information control group for comparison. First, parents were asked to complete a pre-intervention baseline survey on child health, vaccine attitude, trust in medical authorities and child vaccine coverage. After they had been exposed to their respective interventions, they were asked questions to gauge their level of vaccine misinformation about side-effects of the MMR vaccine as well as their level of intention to vaccinate their children.

Read more of this post

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

Skepchick Olivia James and Obesity Apologetics

Obesity apologetics

Individuals with obesity suffer serious medical, social and legal discrimination compared with their thin counterparts and this should be opposed. However, some misguided obesity apologists tend to deny the mainstream medical consensus that obesity is a disease and appeal to pseudoscientific misinterpretations of scientific research to prop-up their claims. In reality, preventative research on obesity is highly relevant and the disease-status of obesity is important for giving sufficient medical and insurance attention to a considerable and growing public health issue.

Olivia James is a prolific secular, skeptical and feminist blogger and have written thoughtful posts on websites such as Center for Inquiry, Teen Skepchick, and the Skepchick main blog. James recently wrote a post about biases in science, talking about issues such as confirmation bias and discrimination of minorities in science. A topic that also came up was the medical status of obesity and research into preventative treatments for obesity. This could have been an intellectually credible discussion, but James unfortunately descended into outright science denialism by claiming that obesity is not a disease and that researchers should focus on preventing obesity-related diseases rather than obesity itself. In reality, the mainstream medical position is that obesity is a disease and prevention is key to countering this growing health issue.

The dire consequences of weight discrimination are real

People with obesity suffer considerable stigma and discrimination around the world in a wide range of situations. The first part of the introduction section to Sutin and Terracciano (2013) is highly informative:

There is a pervasive stereotype about obesity in American society: People who are obese are often perceived as lazy, unsuccessful, and weak-willed. These beliefs about individuals with obesity are often translated into negative attitudes, discrimination, and verbal and physical assaults. Such bias can have severe psychological consequences, including increased vulnerability to depression, and lower self-esteem, self-acceptance, and life satisfaction. A broad range of research now demonstrates that the effects of weight bias are not limited to psychological functioning but extend to nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, from employment, and salary disparities, to personal relationships to healthcare delivery. In addition, as with other forms of discrimination, weight discrimination may have consequences for physical health.

Victims of weight discrimination do not only have worse mental health outcomes and suffer social consequences. In a cruel feedback process, people who are subjected to weight-based discrimination are also more likely to become or stay obese. This is in partly because coping processes involve binge eating and the avoidance of physical activity. As if this was not enough, jurors are more likely to consider obese individuals guilty of check fraud and have a high likelihood of becoming a repeat offender compared with their thin counterparts (Schvey, Puhl, Levandoski, and Brownell, 2013).

In other words, weight discrimination is extremely real. It should under no circumstances be trivialized by frivolous and ignorant stereotypes. It should be fought with all reasonable methods.

Read more of this post

Jenny McCarthy: Still an Anti-Vaccine Activist

Jenny McCarthy is anti-vaccine

Anti-vaccine activist Jenny McCarthy has taken her own twisted self-delusions to an entirely new level. She has spent years on promoting demonstrably dangerous myths about how vaccines supposedly contain dangerous toxins that cause autism. She has repeatedly appeared on popular TV-shows to spread misinformation about the current vaccine schedule. She has deployed nearly every single gambit in the anti-vaccine play-book. In a move of enormous audacity, McCarthy wrote a piece for the Chicago Sun-Times trying to whitewash her deeply tainted anti-vaccine history. She now claims that she is not anti-vaccine at all and that the media has wrongly trusted “blatantly inaccurate” blog posts. In reality, her words betray her even in the midsts of writing her defense as she continues to parrot classic anti-vaccine distortions.

I am not “anti-vaccine.” This is not a change in my stance nor is it a new position that I have recently adopted. For years, I have repeatedly stated that I am, in fact, “pro-vaccine” and for years I have been wrongly branded as “anti-vaccine.”

If McCarthy is pro-vaccine, then why has she promoted dangerously false anti-vaccine tropes, including the notion that the MMR vaccine cause autism, that the preservative thimerosal cause autism and that multiple vaccines overwhelm the immune system cause autoimmune disease? It is right there, in the transcript of the interview she gave for the PBS documentary The Vaccine War. If she talks like an anti-vaccine activists and distort like an anti-vaccine activists, then she is an anti-vaccine activist. No matter what after-the-fact rationalizations she puts forward.

Let us see how McCarthy betrays herself in the very article she claims to not be anti-vaccine. Read more of this post

Is Donald Trump Scientifically Illiterate?

Donald Trump does not understand climate change

One of the most basic distinctions in climate science is the difference between weather and climate. Weather is the instantaneous atmospheric conditions, such as rainy, snowy, sunny and so on. Climate, on the other hand, is about long-term trends. Confusing weather with climate, claiming that we cannot predict climate because we cannot predict weather, or trying to argue against the existence of human-influenced climate change by referencing current weather events is one of the most common tactic used by climate change denier.

Trump fails on climate knowledge

Contrary to Trump, the existence of local anomalies does not refute a general trend. More about the difference of weather and climate can be found on the NASA website.

Donald Trump does not understand vaccines or the immune system

Trump claims to not be anti-vaccine, yet he pulls out a classic anti-vaccine trope:

Too many, too soon? Nope!

While the number of vaccines have increased over time, the number of immunological challenges (“antigens”) have decreased. This is because modern DNA technology has enabled researchers to include only those components that are necessary to produce a good response. In other words, vaccines poses a smaller challenge to the immune system now than it did in the past. For more information, see the Offit et al. (2002) paper in Pediatrics.

Read more of this post

Spell Casting Does Not Cure HIV


I almost never bother to interact with spammers on this blog. Their verbal torrents of incoherent blathering about Michael Kors shoes, Xanax or Viagra are promptly destroyed after being sucked into nothingness by the click of a button. However, some spammers post stuff that are so mind-numbingly stupid that I see it as a civil service to refute it. These spam comments are typically very generic and can be found all over the Internet, especially on blogs or websites that do not use an efficient spam filter. Someone who finds themselves being drawn into this nonsense will hopefully perform a Google search and reach this post.

Spellcasting does not cure HIV

Let us go over this message, point-by-point./p>

“I am here to testify on how [...]“

This is perhaps the most obvious sign of an ideologue whose main goal is to spread his nonsense, rather than inform or discuss. Although typically a feature of religious evangelism, it frequently occurs when listening to ingrained proponents of pseudoscience.

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.

Read more of this post

CDC Fact Sheet Confuses HIV/AIDS Denialist Henry Bauer

Bauer, Ethnic group and HIV.

One of the more despicable tactics deployed by some HIV/AIDS denialists is to accuse mainstream medical science of being racist because socially underprivileged groups such as African-Americans have a higher HIV incidence. These HIV/AIDS denialists refuse to accept well-researched statistical and sociological explanations for this observation such as differences in infection base rates, prevalence of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that increases transmission probability, knowledge regarding HIV status, time at diagnosis and access to health care etc. Instead, they falsely portray mainstream medicine as racist and genetic determinist with regards to behavior. This goes to show that some HIV/AIDS denialists clearly stop at nothing in their desperate attempts to prop up their pseudoscientific delusions. One such example is that of Henry Bauer and his two recent posts on HIV and ethnic groups.

The pseudoscientific claims made by Henry Bauer has been discussed in great detail on this website. He does not seem to understand the basic biology of viruses or rational risk assessment of medication. He fails to grasp data on population growth and birth rates and does not seem to realize that there are scientific obstacles to developing an effective HIV vaccine. Despite his appeals to the toxin gambit, combined antiretroviral therapy does not increase the risk of death. Astonishingly, he even seems to thinks that HIV should not be able to spread via contaminated needles because needles do not have sex with each other.

Differences in HIV incidence does not mean that HIV tests are racist

People carrying black-African genes test “HIV-positive” at far greater rates than do people without that genetic ancestry. HIV/AIDS theory “explains” that by postulating greater rates of careless “not-safe-sex” promiscuity and infected-needle-sharing drug injection. Thereby HIV/AIDS theory postulates significant genetic determination of behavior, which in other contexts is dismissed as pseudo-science.

The primary reasons for why African-Americans have a higher incidence of HIV is not because of racist stereotypes concerning promiscuity and so on. It has nothing to do with genetic determinism. Rather, there are important statistical and sociological reasons for this difference that cannot be ignored.

These issues are discussed in additional details in various versions of a fact sheet on HIV and African-Americans available at the CDC website. Also note that 2014 PDF version unequivocal states that African-Americans have “levels of individual risk behaviors (e.g., sex without a condom, multiple partners) that are
comparable to other races/ethnicities”. Read more of this post

Half of Americans Believe in Medical Conspiracy Theories

Medical conspiracy theories

An interesting study was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine by Oliver and Wood (2014). They report the results of a YouGov survey that looked at the acceptance of medical conspiracy theories in the United States and what, if any, effect the belief in medical conspiracy theories had on health-related behavior, such as taking herbal supplements, getting a flu shot and preference for organic foods. The results were chilling as almost half of the U. S. population believed in at least one medical conspiracy. Those who held three or more were less likely to go to the doctor or dentist and fewer got vaccinated against seasonal influenza. They were also more likely to take herbal supplements.

The selection of medical conspiracy theories

Oliver and Wood selected six different medical conspiracy theories to include in their research. Although the researchers did not justify their selection, it seems representative and wide as it spanned from FDA and alternative medicine to discredited beliefs about the origin of HIV Read more of this post

The Pitfalls of fMRI-Based Lie Detection

fMRI-based lie detection

A while ago, an interesting paper on the promise and pitfalls of fMRI-based lie detection was published by Farah, Hutchinson, Phelps and Wagner (2014) in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. It is part of an ongoing article series by the journal examining the interplay between neuroscience and law. This installment discussed the reliability of observed associations between certain brain areas and deception, current limitations of fMRI-based lie detectors, how U. S. courts have treated appeal to fMRI data put forward as evidence as well as ethical and legal issues with the procedure. This post will also discuss ways of beating an fMRI-based lie detector.

Another article in that series that deals with common misconceptions about memory, memory distortions and the consequence of ignorance was covered here.

How does fMRI work?

An fMRI indirectly measure brain activity by measuring blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) activity. This typically involve a lot of controls to make sure that researchers capture the neural correlates of what they want to study instead of irrelevant confounders. Typically, researchers compare BOLD activity during deception and truth-telling in an attempt to find the BOLD-signature of deception, which would give clues about the neural correlates of deception (i.e. patterns of brain activation associated with deception).

The theoretical rationale for fMRI-based deception is that there is probably a relationship between deception and cognition because deception is more demanding on memory and various executive functions than truth-telling.

What are the neural correlates of deception?

The paper performed a meta-analysis with the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) method. This is a way to measure overlap in neuroimaging data based on so-called “peak-voxel coordinate information” and thereby find out how reliable the association between deception and certain brain regions is. After applying their specific inclusion criteria, they identified 23 relevant studies. Their meta-analysis identified several areas as being associated with deception e. g. parts of the prefrontal cortex, the anterior insula and inferior parietal lobule. However, the between-study variation was enormous and no region was always identified.


Despite the apparent high identification rate of deception, fMRI-based lie detection has a long list of very important limitations that effectively undermine any confidence in this technique for legal purposes Read more of this post

Sweden Gets a Homeopathic ER

Homeopathic ER

Millions of people have seen the “That Mitchell and Webb Look” video where comedians enact the absurdities of what it would be like at a homeopathic ER. A man with suspected internal injuries is rolled into accidents and emergency department and given extremely diluted substance. However, did you know that Sweden got its first homeopathic ER just a couple of months ago?

It is part of the Salve Health Center situated at the Maria Square in central Stockholm and it opened its doors in early January of this year. Behind the initiative stands three women: Carita Bramstedt, Päivi Barsk and Viveca Wilhelmsson. All of them either run their own homeopathic practices or “education” programs in homeopathy. In this post, we will look at who these people are and their goals, science-based objections to both their individuals claims and the homeopathic ER, their responses to criticisms and recent events.

Who are the people behind the homeopathic ER?

According to her website, Bramstedt considers herself a “classical homeopath” and is the chairperson of the Swedish Academy for Classical Homeopathy (SAKH). She has a three-year degree in civil economics from The Stockholm School of Economics, but became a homeopath after taking a three-year program in classical homeopathy. She has also attended various seminars on homeopathy throughout the years. Beyond that, she has no medical degree or formal training in medicine.

Things looks slightly better for Barsk. She claims to have worked “a couple of years” in the health care system in the 1980s and taken 65 points (65 weeks in the old Swedish system) in basic medicine from Umeå in the late 1990s. Barsk is a classical homeopath and has taken a four-year program. In addition, she has taken courses in various other quack treatments such as Reiki, supplements and reflexology. Like Bramstedt, Barks has no medical degree and no formal training beyond the couple of years she worked in the health care system (presumably as a care assistant?) and ~1.5 years of introductory medicine.

Wilhelmsson has a degree in psychology from the 1970s, yet no medical degree or formal training in medicine either. Looking at her background page, she has spent at least 11 years taking courses and programs in various complementary and alternative practices, including homeopathy. Like Bramstedt, Wilhelmsson can be found higher up in the homeopathic food chain as she is the person behind the program in classical homeopathy at the International Academy.

What do they believe?

Browsing through their various websites sends chills down the spine. These people really do subscribe to ignorant beliefs and they expose sick patients to worthless treatments. They do not have any credible science to back it up. Instead, they used a variety of historical revisions and after-the-fact rationalizations. Here are a couple of the most stunning examples. Read more of this post

Two Swedish Professors Promote Bosnian Genocide Denial

Bosnian genocide denial

In a misguided effort to promote an “open-minded atmosphere”, another major Swedish morning newspaper has taken a stand in favor of intellectually dishonest conspiracy theories. The newspaper, called Göteborgs-Posten (GP), recently published a couple of opinion pieces by two Bosnian genocide denialist. Together, they trot out a number of classic genocide denial tactics and tropes: denying the existence of a systematic extermination, intentionally underestimating civilian casualties, exploiting historical revisions by actual historians working on the topic, drawing false moral equivalences and promote conspiracy theories about the United States. They even go so far as to put the terms genocide and death camp in scare quotes. Shockingly, these two people are academics at high-profile Swedish universities: professor Lennart Palm at the University of Gothenburg and associate professor of sociology Kjell Magnusson at the University of Uppsala. This is yet another example of the disturbing fact that being a well-educated academics does not make you immune to succumbing to pseudoscience and pseudohistory.

So far, the following opinion pieces have been published in this exchange:

Allowing genocide denialists to promote their flawed conspiracy theories in major newspapers has nothing to do with being “open-minded”. In reality, it is a postmodern appeal to false balance where flawed genocide denial is given the same standing as historical fact in the name of “fairness”. Nothing could be further from being fair. Read more of this post

Neil deGrasse Tyson Invites Anti-Science Activist Mayim Bialik

Holistic Moms Network

Many scientific skeptics may recognize Mayim Bialik from hit TV-shows such as Blossom and The Big Bang Theory. In the latter, she plays the neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler who becomes the girlfriend of the physicist Sheldon Cooper. In real life, she has a PhD in a very similar field as Amy, namely neuroscience. One would think that this provides some protection against being subverted by irrational pseudoscience. However, Bialik is a notorious promoter of a wide range of different pseudosciences, including anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, alternative medicine, Waldorf schools and homebirth quacktivism.

In 2009, Bialik became a celebrity spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network (here is their description of holistic parenting). On their website, they promote the American anti-vaccine activist Barbara Loe Fischer and recommend homeopathy as an alternative treatment to post-partum depression. In a 2011 interview, Bialik explained that she is homeschooling her children and in a 2012 interview, she confessed to using the Waldorf “philosophy” to attain this goal (which includes not letting her children watch TV or see movies). In a 2009 interview, she admitted to being “a non-vaccinating family” and claimed that she based her decision on “research and discussions with our pediatrician”. In a 2012 post on her blog, she says that she does not want to discuss her beliefs about vaccines, but deploys the classic “too many, too soon” trope. David Gorski discusses her ideas about vaccines in additional details here. In a 2012 article on homebirth, she promoted a number of classic quacktivist beliefs despite the fact that homebirth causes considerable more deaths compared with giving birth in a hospital. She calls these facts “hysteria-inducing” stories and that it is “insulting to any woman’s intuition and intelligence”. In late 2012, she posted the following on her official Facebook page: “California voters: the condoms you approved for sex workers to have to wear (which I voted for too)… maybe I’ll wear them when I eat my unlabeled genetically modified food. Sound good?”

In other words, being a neuroscientist does not, no pun intended, make you immune to pseudoscience.

Recently, American astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson decided to invite Bialik to his talk show StarTalk.

Tyson's screw-up?

He claims that they will be discussing neuroscience. But why is Tyson inviting an anti-science activist such as Bialik? Why is he giving her a platform to spread her pseudoscientific quackery? Is Tyson unaware about her beliefs or does not care as long as he can sell tickets to the show? Clarification is badly needed at this point.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 214 other followers

%d bloggers like this: