Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

The Poisonous M&Ms Analogy Explodes Into Mainstream U. S. Politics

Poisonous M&Ms

Humans have a cognitive tendency to lump people in outgroups together as collectives, but have great appreciation for individualism for people in the ingroup. This is know as outgroup homogeneity bias and the reason why some people think all blonde women or Asians look the same, or why some people are more likely believe in stereotypes of African-Americans or Muslims, but would never lump white feminists with Donald Trump.

Most reasonable people understand that stereotypes exists and that they do not provide the most accurate information about individuals and can certainly misled people into errors. As a result, a lot of people try their best to judge others by their own merits and faults. However, there are some that prefers to stay in the cognitively simplistic world of stereotypes and they typically appeal to pseudoscience, emotional arguments and rhetorical techniques to back this up. One such technique involves superficially acknowledging that no all members of a group conform to the stereotype, but then appeal to fear and uncertainty to prop up the original stereotype.

This has become enshrined in the poisonous M&M trope, whereby people of a certain group is compared to a bowl of M&Ms where a few of them are poisonous. The meme asks the viewers to go ahead and eat a handful of them, since they are not all poisonous. The unstated conclusion is that you should never eat M&Ms because some of them are poisonous. It is just not worth the risk. If this sounds like an intuition pump based on flawed logic and irrational risk analysis, it is because this is precisely what the analogy is. The analogy has been exposed previously on Debunking Denialism. Recent developments have pushed this analogy to the forefront of U. S. politics and social media.

Recent developments for the poisonous M&Ms analogy

On September 19, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out a slightly different version of this meme on his Twitter account, complaining about the “politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first”. Instead of M&Ms, the meme now uses the competitor brand Skittles (presumably a reference to the Trayvon Martin shooting that became a core event for the recent rise of white surpremacism in the United States), but the general message stayed the same: Syrian refugees are like a bowl of Skittles and the terrorists are a few poisonous pieces, and therefore, it is supposedly better to just not take any Skittles. As we saw above, this claim is a flawed intuition pump. The tweet was wildly discussed by both international news networks and various social media outlets.

Since 2014, the analogy had been used by many anti-immigration activists and Donald Trump Jr. probably picked this up from that ideological environment. Had he merely performed a Google search to see if there were any scientific or statistical problems with that analogy, he might have saved himself the embarrassment. After all, it had been debunked on this website over two years earlier. In other words, a substantial failure of fact-checking.

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The Skeptic’s Guide to Quack-Speak

Deepak Chopra Woo

Although there is no perfect way to distinguish science from pseudoscience, there are some warning signs that make it much more probable that what you are dealing with is pseudoscience: ideas that cannot be tested, no way to handle confirmation bias, refusal to engage in peer-review publishing, a too strong focus on anecdotes, being contradicted by solid science, appeals to tradition and lack of self-correction. Another such term is the misuse and abuse of scientific terminology. This typically comes in two different forms: either cranks use real scientific terminology and apply it to something that is completely nonsense in order to borrow from the authority of science, or invent their own hypertechnical language that is largely vacuous.

Why is it vital to shed light on this pseudoscientific abuse of scientific terms? It is important to expose those charlatans that try to manipulate people into buying their products. This is an excellent way to support vulnerable people who might otherwise be victims of dangerous people. Another reason is that it obfuscates and pollutes scientific knowledge with quackery and clarity is very important in science, both for the progress of science but also the larger context of the role of science in society. Let us look at some of the ways that proponents of pseudoscience abuse scientific terminology. It occurs in many different scientific fields, but it has recently been most common in physics and biology or medicine.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part VII: Aliens and Space

Here Be Dragons

Should we be shocked and dumbfounded by the absence of an intergalactic alien civilization? Or is the lack of evidence for aliens precisely what we would expect? Can the rarity of the origin of life tell us anything about the probability of developing a prosperous future in space? Or is there a great filter in our future that will wipe us out? Is the absence of evidence the same thing as evidence of absence? Do we really know what makes a planet potentially life-permitting and how do we differentiate potentially from actually life-permitting? Is evolution a process that always moves towards bigger, better and more expansive? Or is this a false characterization of evolution that really just builds new onto old and is limited by historical constraints and other issues?

Can we really assume that alien civilizations will have the intimate peculiarities of human psychology? Is the reason why we do not see any intergalactic civilizations that they have converted themselves to pure energy or dark matter or migrated into black holes? Is a static situation of no change really a good characterization of the concepts of equilibrium? Can we build a sphere around our sun to make productive use of its output, or will this kill most organisms on the earth? Is it really incredibly reckless to send out messages into space when there is so much passive leakage of television and radio signals?

In previous installments of this articles series, we have covered many interesting and thought-provoking issues such as biological weapons, anti-psychiatry, embryo selection and IQ, cryogenics, destructive teleportation, uploading your mind to computer hardware, superintelligent artificial intelligence, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, philosophy of science, the specter of statistical significance and various doomsday scenarios. In this seventh part, we take a closer look at the ninth chapter about space colonization of Here Be Dragons by mathematical statistician Olle Häggström.

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The 1942 Kennedy-Kanner Debate in American Journal of Psychiatry

Kennedy-Kanner Exchange

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that denies the existence of psychiatric conditions, denies the efficacy of psychiatric medications and psychotherapy and considers psychiatrists to be evil and totalitarian monsters. Not all proponents agree on all details, but the beliefs and debating tactics is very similar to anti-GMO or anti-vaccine activists.

One common trope promoted by anti-psychiatry activists is to claim that if you support the benefits of modern medicine, you must support all aspects of medicine in history. This is, of course, nonsense, since you can accept life-saving treatments while rejecting bloodletting for infectious diseases without a contradiction. The same apply to psychiatry.

Anti-psychiatry proponents also abuse the scientific literature, trying to misrepresent it to further their own ideological goals. One such misrepresentation, in conjunction with the above tactic, occurs for the Kennedy-Kanner debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1942. Despite it being 74 years ago and completely irrelevant to modern psychiatry, anti-psychiatry activists attempt to taint modern psychiatry with the beliefs expressed by the neurologist doctor Kennedy, despite the fact that the psychiatrists Kanner debunked most of the claims put forward by Kennedy.

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Mailbag: Water Fluoridation and Human Genetic Variation

mailbag letter

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.

Fluoride occurs naturally in many forms of drinking water, because it is leached from the bedrock where it occurs in the form of calcium fluoride and other compounds. Sometimes, fluoride is added into the drinking water where this natural source does not exist or is too little. Water fluoridation in drinking water prevents cavities (and contributes to equalizing dental health across socioeconomic groups), but the concentration is not large enough to cause harm.

There is an important limitation with water fluoridation, and that is that it is typically applied in an one-size-fits-all instead of tailoring the amount to the needs of the community. However, the objections to water fluoridation that you might find on the Internet and social media in particular is batshit conspiracy theories that water fluoridation sterilizes people and lowers their IQ despite the fact that the human populations has exploded in size during the past 100 years and IQ steadily rises over time due to the Flynn effect. Earlier, Debunking Denialism published a refutation of the claim that if you add fluoride, you should supposedly have no problem adding arsenic. This is, of course, completely wrong in so many different ways.

The second topic in this mailbag is that of human genetic variation. These issues are often misunderstood by so-called race realist who argues that modern genomics have validated pseudoscientific superstitions about human diversity from the 1700s. Why race realists are mistaken on the facts was discussed in Modern High-Throughput Genomics Versus Race Realism and dozens other on this websites.

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The Astonishing Quackery of the Natural Birth Movement

Orgasmic birth nonsense

There are few large areas in modern life that has not been infested by pseudoscience and quackery. From quantum woo and fake bleach ‘treatments’ for autism to genocide denial and conspiracy theories about mass shootings, it seems to be all around us.

One of the greatest achievements of modern medicine is reducing maternal mortality during childbirth. This has, to a large degree, been due to increased understanding about pathogens and how they are spread as well as how to handle incidents during childbirth with medical competence. Yet birth has not escaped the long reach of pseudoscientific nonsense.


Some people who reject the modern world that science has built and prefer to have a planned homebirth. Compared with hospital births of the same risk, planned homebirth triples neonatal mortality rates and 10x increased the risk of a 5 minute Apgar score of 0.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part VI: Doomsday Predictions

Here Be Dragons

Can you prove that we are in the last few millennia of human existence based on a statistical argument alone, in the total absence of scientific evidence? What if we use even more sophisticated statistical paradigms? Is scientific evidence from billions of acres of GM crops over at least two decades not enough evidence to show that GM crops are safe? What is the Ord-Hillerbrand-Sandberg methodology and can it help us evaluate the claims of experts in its proper context? How big of a threat to humanity are asteroids? Can a single rotten apple in a cake mix productive plant cause an epidemic infection millions? Do governments really need to prepare for an astronomically large number of potential pathogens or can they successfully use more general approaches? Is i possible to be an expert in something that have never ever happened? What are the most prominent risks to the future of humanity?

Through this article series, we have dived into an enormously broad range of topics and issues, such as medieval maps, bioweapons, anti-psychiatry, heritability, embryo selection and IQ, neuroscience, cryogenics, destructive teleportation, uploading your consciousness to a computer, superintelligent machines, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, science in antiquity, philosophy of science, solipsism, and statistical significance. In this sixth part, we take a closer look at two chapters of Here Be Dragons, namely The fallacious Doomsday Argument (chapter 7) and Doomsday nevertheless? (chapter 8) and the reason why we briefly return to the two chapters per post approach is that the seventh chapter is almost completely without problems in stark contrast to previous (and later) chapters.

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Anti-Psychiatry and The Anatomy of a Non-Epidemic

Anatomy of an Epidemic

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that is based on denying the existence of mental illness, rejecting the efficacy of mainstream science-based treatment and demonizing medical doctors who specialize in psychiatry. The anti-psychiatry movement is very diverse and include individuals with very different views on economy and liberty and not all anti-psychiatry proponents agree with all three core beliefs.

Some creationists reject the notion of psychiatric conditions because they think that mental illness is a form of satanic contamination of an immaterial soul and scoff at mainstream treatments do not involve a scriptural perspective on original sin. Some people who embrace alternative medicine or new age belief systems think that depression is just a result of too much negative energy and that if they just think positively or take homeopathy, they will attract good things in life. Even some secular atheists have jumped on the anti-psychiatry train, either by shrieking about “reductionism” or buying into irrational and evidence-free conspiracy theories about how psychiatrists supposedly regularly kidnap, torture and murder their patients.

Robert Whitaker is an anti-psychiatry journalist and author who has written many articles and books arguing against mainstream psychiatry, including a paper in the bottom-of-the-barrel quack journal Medical Hypotheses that was not peer-reviewed at the time. His general approach is to mischaracterize how modern psychiatry looks at the causes of mental illness and spread misinformation about psychiatric medications by misusing old studies while ignoring their flaws and ignoring hundreds of studies that contradicts him.

E. Fuller Torrey is an American psychiatrist with a special research focus on schizophrenia. He runs Stanley Medical Research Institute and founded Treatment Advocacy Center. A while back Torrey wrote a scathing review of the latest anti-psychiatry book written by Whitaker. That review, called Anatomy of a Non-Epidemic: How Robert Whitaker Got It Wrong, will be discussed in additional detail in this post, because it is one of the best refutations of anti-psychiatry claims available on the Internet.

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The Pseudoscientific Disaster of Forced Anal Examinations

Dignity debased

Many governments criminalize homosexuality and consensual same-sex sexual behavior. At the time of this writing, it is illegal in over 70 countries according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). This is typically due to religious extremism and scientific ignorance. Many religious scriptures and societies are notoriously anti-gay and some of these societies invent invalid and pseudoscientific ideas about the nature, origin and content of homosexuality, as well as supposed “spiritual harms” and fake “cures”.

Governments who criminalize homosexuality has to have a system for detecting gay men to give the appearance of legitimacy. Besides the usual techniques (such as surveillance, interrogation, and urging people to report their family, friends and relatives to the police) some of them have invented pseudoscientific methods for “detecting homosexuality” through anal examinations of the gross morphology of the anus or anal tone. It is essentially based on the same myth as virginity tests, which is the notion that penetration makes you have a loose vagina or anus. This is not true because tightness is largely under the control of the autonomous nervous system and depend on how relaxed and sexually aroused you are.

Due to the nature of these examinations and the risk to the person being subjected to it, it is typically done by force and without informed consent. Needless to say, forced anal examinations are based on pseudoscience and violates many ethical, legal and moral principles. This post surveys the arguments and evidence discussed in the paper called Statement on Anal Examinations in Cases of Alleged Homosexuality by the Independent Forensic Expert Group. More information about forced anal examinations and the eight countries where it happens can be found in this news item from International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims or this Human Rights Watch primer and this Human Rights Watch report. Cached version of the paper and the report can be found here and here.

Eight scientific reasons for why forced anal examinations do not work

So what are the scientific reasons for why forced anal examinations do not tell you anything reliable about anal tone or consensual, same-sex anal sex? Why should it be considered pseudoscience? Here are eight distinct reasons:

(1) There is no standardized and quantitative method for doing anal examinations of anal tone or appearance.

(2) There is no evidence that this method is valid, i.e. that certain level of anal tone or appearance is associated with receptive, same-sex anal sex.

(3) There is a certain degree of normal variability in anal features between individuals and examinations, which makes it hard to make claims about clinical relevant deviations.

(4) There is no evidence of interrater reliability i.e. that different examiners reach the same results and same interpretation of the results. Different examiners can differ in size of fingers, amount of lube used, penetration depth or the ability to digitally sense tone.

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Genetic Clusters, Racial Medicine and Fishes

Neurologica Blog

Humans are pattern-seeking animals are are thus prone to detect patterns where none exists. We are also very interested in categorizing things, presumably because it is easier to handle cognitively. Imagine the difficulty we would have if we had to mentally treat each leaf as a separate entity and could not consider them “just a bunch of leaves”! But there is a downside to this as well, because we can be mislead and neglect complicated patterns because our categories are easy and psychological influential. These issues and questions often appear in discussions about human genetic diversity. This is enhanced by the fact that complicated genetic and computational analyses feeds us with visually striking graphs that tickle our imagination, while we do not pay equal attention to the underlying methodology.

However, reality is more complicated. Genetic clusters overemphasize differences, largely ignore similarities and is confounded by low sampling density and geographic distance. Thus, a modern analysis of human genetic variation reveals that it is, with a few exceptions, mostly clinal in nature and that notions of discrete genetic races is not an accurate description.

It is often said that ethnicity is useful in medicine, but this is also more complicated due to confounders such as health disparities, bias, discrimination, healthcare seeking behavior and compliance, as well as socioeconomic status. It turns out that ethnic status is at best a crude proxy for the alleles of a person and sequencing individuals will be much more useful. Finally, a focus on racial medicine has led to misdiagnosis of some diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, thalassemia and cystic fibrosis.

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