Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Five Reasons Why “Placebo Medicine” is Bullshit

The alternative medicine movement constantly moves the goalposts and shifts the narrative to avoid admitting that their products are medical failures. First they claim that their fake treatments are effective. When it is pointed out that their products have not been tested for safety and efficacy, they deny that it is even possible to be run clinical trials on alternative medicine because it is so personalized.

When it is pointed out that many real treatments are also personalized and could be tested just fine, they insist that clinical trials will vindicate their quackery. When their products fail the tests, they try to spin the result in such a way as to portray the clinical trials as a success.

When it is ultimately shown that some alternative medicine practice is virtually indistinguishable from placebo, they switch the narrative once again. This time, they insist that even if their fake products and services are indistinguishable from placebo, the placebo effect is supposedly some mysterious new age woo that the mind somehow determines reality and that we therefore must “harness the power of placebo”. Here is why all of this is deeply misleading. Read more of this post

Mailbag: Ban All Agricultural Pesticides?

Mailbag

It is time for another entry in 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 info on the about page.

There is a culture of fear and hate around agricultural pesticides. This is to some degree understandable, because pesticides have some risks. Large, chronic exposure can cause severe harm, thousands of people die from acute exposure to high doses and pesticides can kill non-target organisms and pollute groundwater.

However, there are also beneficial aspects with pesticides. If we let pests run amok, we would lose 50%-80% of the crop harvest and pesticides play a partial role in preventing such devastating crop loss. They can also reduce labor required to manage weeds and contribute to suppressing insect vectors for diseases (at least for a certain time until resistance develops). Extreme anti-pesticide activists also actively oppose replacing more dangerous pesticides with safer pesticides and using genetic modification to reduce pesticide use. Read more of this post

Fake “Stem Cell” Injections Blind Three Women

Stem Cell

The human body contains a few hundred different cell types, from muscle and fat cells to liver and brain cells. These are called differentiated cells and their different shapes, sizes and function is influenced by the fact that these different cell types have different gene expression. Some genes (called housekeeping genes) are expressed in all cells, while some other genes are more highly expressed in some cell types than others. It is not all about genes, however, since cells are also influenced by other cells close to them and other external factors.

Before these cells became differentiated, they were stem cells. These cells are undifferentiated cells that can grow rapidly and become any of a large number of different cell types. There are different kinds of stem cells, typically divided into different classes based on their potential for differentiation. For instance, some stem cells can become a moderate number of different cell types (multipotent), whereas others can become any of a large array of cell types (pluripotent) or even any cell type in the body (totipotent). Other types of stem cells include adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Read more about cell differentiation here and more about stem cells here.

Because stem cells can differentiate into different cell types, the general idea is that they might be used to replace things that do not work in the human body, from cell populations to tissues and even organs. The most common legitimate stem cell therapy in medicine involves using bone marrow stem cells (and chemotherapy) to treat leukemia and lymphoma. A small number of other legitimate therapeutic stem cell therapies have been shown to be effective in medical research and approved by regulators.

Yet, there are also fake stem cell treatments that are pushed by quacks that scam people for money and even causes serious harm.

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FTC Shuts Down Fake Weight-Loss Scam and Imposes 1.3 Million USD Fine

FTC crack down on weight-loss scam

Society has somewhat of an obsession with quick weight-loss schemes. You cannot watch television, read a newspaper or browse the Internet without being exposed to some advertisement about how you can lose a ton of weight and fulfill all of your dreams if only you buy and eat this or that “miracle” weight-loss supplement. In reality, most of them probably do not work and some of them might be very harmful. You also do not really know what is in those pills, simply because they are often sold by unreliable quacks.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a U. S. consumer protection agency that was founded by Woodrow Wilson in the early 1900s. They work tirelessly to crack down on false marketing, frauds, identity theft, deceptive trade practices, coercive monopolies and many other things that ultimately harm consumers. Because the supplement industry in the United States has very little regulation in terms of safety and efficacy of their products, regulators have to go after scams and frauds via false and misleading marketing and other law violations. It is hardly an optimal situation, but they have managed to make some headway by holding homeopathic over-the-counter (OTC) products to the same standard as other OTC products.

Now, the FTC has settled a case against a weight-loss scam that used fake news websites and fake celebrity endorsements. The defendants must pay 500 000 USD and face the threat of paying a total of 1.3 million USD if they do not stop with their illegal and deceptive activities.

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Six Hilarious Pseudoscience Contradictions

Sheep

Pseudosciences are the imposters of real science. They attempt to mimic the activities and language used by scientists, but have no intellectual substance beneath their shallow surface. This is likely because science has such a strong cultural authority and has been responsible for many beneficial and exciting discoveries during the past few centuries. Anything that attempts to parasitize on science can potentially steal some of this authority from science.

Yet, because pseudosciences are not based on credible arguments or evidence, they contain a combination of wishful thinking and stuff that is plainly made up. Because critical thinking and scientific evidence plays very little role (in any), it is not surprising that inconsistencies and contradictions have crept into many forms of pseudoscience. These contradictions do not just occur between different kinds of pseudosciences, such as chiropractors claiming that giving birth is a massive trauma and that newborns must get spinal adjustments while natural birth activists think that giving birth in the wilderness is completely safe. They can also be found within a specific pseudoscience and that produces many great ironies that many quacks and cranks seem completely oblivious to. Let us look at six such hilarious pseudoscience contradictions. Read more of this post

The Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS (NIAID Fact Sheet)

HIV/AIDS fact sheet

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) used to host a highly useful document on the evidence that HIV causes AIDS and refutations of common denialist claims. This also had important historical and scientific references that provided a lot of insight into the issue. The document was an important resource for fighting HIV/AIDS denialism on the Internet. Since September of 2016, this document was no longer available at its usual location on the NIAID website, likely due to redesign, restructuring and updating of the website that took place at the time. This was unfortunate, because the document contained a lot of useful material.

It is useful enough to be kept and not fade away in some online archiving service or non-formatted news item. Although HIV/AIDS denialism is no longer that prominent in politics and society, there are still pocket of anti-science activism that remains and, like all forms of pseudoscience, lures in the shadows and take every effort to spread and grow. Thus, Debunking Denialism has decided to reproduce the material in full below. Read more of this post

Shaquille O’Neal Claims The Earth is Flat

Shaq claims the Earth is flat

Flat Earth was never a belief that was wildly accepted by scholars or experts. Even the ancient Greeks knew that the Earth was more like a sphere from multiple, independent lines of evidence. They even made a decent estimate of the circumference of the entire planet using basic mathematics and observations of shadows. It is a common myth that people in the Middle Ages thought that the Earth was flat and that Columbus risked travelling over the edge. The real reason people did not believe that the Columbus voyage would be successful was because they believe that it would be too long.

However, minor pockets of flat Earth activists has existed for a long time and continues to do so today. Initially dismissed as mere parody, many well-known celebrities, musicians, artists, and athlete have revealed that they believe the earth is flat, including Tila Tequila, B. o. B and Kyrie Irving. Now it looks like Shaq might be joining that crew.

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Mailbag: Anti-Psychiatry Misinformation About Clinical Significance

Mailbag

It is time for another entry in 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 info on the about page.

Anti-psychiatry is a form of pseudoscience that is based on at least three false core beliefs: the denial of the existence or severity of metal illness, the rejection of mainstream treatments for mental illness (including medication and therapy) and the demonization of psychiatrists. There are many different kinds of anti-psychiatry activists. This includes some religious extremists who deny the intimate connections between the mind and the brain, some new age believers who wrongly think that it is just a matter of positive thinking, some alternative medicine proponents who falsely claim that it is due to eating too much acidic foods and so on.

In particular, anti-psychiatry activists spread misinformation and hate about psychiatric medications in much the same way that anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists fearmonger about vaccines and genetically modified foods. Many anti-psychiatry researchers make obvious statistical errors (by wrongly calculating standardized effect sizes) and create smokescreens about the clinical significance of antidepressants by selecting outdated and arbitrary cutoffs, when clinical significance should be based on the totality of evidence and the scientific context.

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