Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Dilbert Cartoonist Scott Adams Still Fails Basic Climate Science

Dilbert and Climate Science

It is extremely challenging to communicate science in an environment where well-funded anti-science activists and organizations spends millions and millions of dollars at targeted misinformation to undermine the public confidence in scientific research. Many people are resistant to facts and might even become more entrenched in their pseudoscientific beliefs the more facts they are exposed to. There is also another force for nonsense that is increasingly prevalent, namely highly influential celebrities with lots of opinions and hardly any knowledge of the science. When they spew their nonsense across the Internet, it gets viewed by millions of people who already trust the messenger, while scientific corrections are read by a lot fewer people. For instance, the Internet celebrity Nicole Arbour recently posted a video pushing conspiracy theories about ADHD and despite the fact that scientific refutations are available, it got a substantial impact by misleading several million people.

Another such Internet celebrity that has pushed pseudoscience is comic artist Scott Adams. On his blog, he has promoted both creationism and climate denial before. Recently, Adams has gone from merely posting pseudoscience on his blog to putting in misleading nonsense into his Dilbert comics themselves. On May 14, he posted a comic mocking climate science. The Boss has invited a climate scientist to talk about how climate change can impact their company. The scientist does not explain the real facts about climate and climate science, but a climate denial misrepresentation that Dilbert can relatively easily knockdown. More generally, the comic confuses questions related to how we know that greenhouse gases cause warming, how we know there is a current warming trend, how we know humans contribute substantially to warming and what we know about what will happen in the future.

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Why Nicole Arbour is Wrong About ADHD

Nicole Arbour is Wrong About ADHD

A recent video called “The Truth about ADD” by Internet celebrity Nicole Arbour in which she denied the existence of ADHD and shamed parents who give evidence-based ADHD treatments to their children. It got close to 6.5 million views within one to two weeks on Facebook and another 70 thousand views on YouTube. About a week later, she posted a much longer follow-up video entitled “Live Debate: Is ADHD real?” that spanned about 35 minutes. Was this an actual debate? No. Instead, she merely recycled her previous claims and added more details, while pausing once in a while to read supporting comments on Facebook or insult her audience. Arbour appears to make controversial and inflammatory videos for views and attention. Previously, she has attacked black people, fat people, feminists and trans people as well as falsely blamed allergies on GMOs and promoting spanking of disobedient children while seemingly aware of the research showing that it is harmful.

Some might say that it is unwise to give her more attention, but her false claims about ADHD need to be debunked and the scientific evidence for ADHD needs more exposure to at least reduce some of her harmful impact on people. In addition, anti-psychiatry nonsense is a pseudoscience that has received relatively little coverage in the wider skeptical community, so there is a need to raise awareness about this form of nonsense. Like many anti-science activists, she uses the deceptive tactic called shotgunning (or the Gish gallop) where she crams as many false claims as possible into as short as time as possible to make it difficult to refute all of her claims. In total, there were over 70 claims in both of her videos (not counting those she read from the comment section). Because covering all of them would take up way too much space, this post will tackle the ten most common claims about ADHD made by Arbour.

Fact #1: ADHD is real

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has been known as a clinical condition since at least the early 1900s with earlier suggestive indications tracing back almost a century earlier. A search in the PubMed database over research papers returns over 30 000 articles about ADHD, even when you specifically exclude the alcohol dehydrogenase D that has the same abbreviation. Thus, ADHD is a well-studied psychiatric diagnosis. The early attempts were far from modern scientific knowledge and medical standards, but they (together with modern research) show that ADHD is real and not just something invented by pharmaceutical companies.

The causes behind ADHD are complex and likely a complicated interaction between biological, psychological and social factors. Biological factors include certain genetic variants of neurotransmitter receptors and transporters, variation in executive function connected to memory and attention, and structural and functional neuroimaging differences in many areas. Many of these findings, including findings from animal studies, points to considerable heterogeneity, so there are likely many different subtypes of ADHD that can differ slightly from each other. Future research might be able to provide more insight into these subtypes. The heritability of ADHD ranges from 30-80% depending on which population you look at, what age you look at and what environment they are in and what research methods you use. This suggests that a lot of the variation in ADHD is due to variation in genotype (but this is not a measurement of how important genes are, only the variation in genes). Environmental factors, such as brain injury, premature birth, heavy exposure to lead and other exposures during pregnancy appears linked to certain forms of ADHD.

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Google Intensifies Battle Against Fake News and Misinformation

Google fights fake news

The Internet has brought many benefits for humans. It has allowed us to communicate with loved ones in other parts of the world and has provided us with just about any information thinkable just a few keystrokes away. There is, however, a darker side to the Internet. It has never been easier to push misinformation in order to deceive people into believing false things, spending their money on quackery or creating fear about products and people.

What began as chain mails and urban legends have in many ways become weaponized into websites that have created entire worldviews based on anti-scientific beliefs about medical treatments, historical events or scientific findings. One such variant, called fake news, became especially troublesome during the 2016 general election in the United States where hundreds of fake news websites cropped up and starting pushing different kinds of targeted misinformation that ended up having a discernible impact on the community. This ranged from the Pizzagate conspiracy theory to thousands of false news stories about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Fake news as a business concept relies on writing inflammatory stories about some person or event that appears in the current news cycle that provokes feelings of fear or anger sprinkled with clickbait titles encouraging views from many different kinds of readers. This is then shared on social media and often going viral due to the nature of its content. As more people view the content (and thus end up being misinformed), the more ad impressions the website gets and the more money the people behind the fake news website gets.

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Confused Creationist Student Wrong on Evolution

Confused creationist article

Creationism is the belief that life appeared abruptly on Earth with most of their typical features already present and that species have not evolved from a common ancestor. There are many different kinds of creationism, but all of them include a rejection of most parts of modern evolutionary biology. Because the evidence for common ancestry is massive, creationism is a pseudoscience akin to anti-vaccine activism, astrology, climate denial and HIV/AIDS denialism.

In fact, creationism uses the same kinds of rhetorical techniques, including quoting scientists out of context, false balance, butchering simple scientific facts, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies and so on. Because creationism in its modern forms stem from the early and middle of the 1900s, the arguments used by creationists have been around for a long time and keeps getting recycled over and over. In many cases, creationists themselves do not understand their arguments because they spread and mutate over time.

A recent article (cache) written by a creationist student recently appeared as an online feature on The Cauldron website, which is the student newspaper of Cleveland State University. Flynn Burchfield describes himself as a “sophomore Accounting major at CSU” wrote about the evolution versus creationism struggle from his perspective as a Christian student. Unfortunately, it is an article that mostly contain poorly constructed variants of creationist claims that have already been refuted thousands of times and a strong dose of logical fallacies (such as appeal to consequences).

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UFO Hunters Find Ancient Tree Stump on Mars? Nope, Just a Rock.

This is a rock, not a tree stumpMastcam: Left, Sol 1647 (2017-03-25 07:19:49 UTC), Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

One of the favorite activities of alleged UFO hunters and paranormal “investigators” is to trawl through images recorded by NASA from various places in the universe. In particular, there is somewhat of an obsession with images from the Moon and Mars. This is probably because they are some of our closest neighbors in space, but also because the Moon landing and the Mars Curiosity Rover mission has such large impact on the public perception of space exploration. Of course, these missions are also surrounded by pseudoscientific conspiracy theories, making them very attractive for UFO hunters and other cranks to hover around.

This, combined with the fact that the NASA multimedia library contains over 140 000 image, video and audio entries, creates a perfect storm for abuse. Because there is so much content available, one can easily find things that superficially look weird, out-of-place or even similar to common objects on Earth just by sheer coincidence. Other times, it requires a lot of squinting, zooming, image manipulation and other cognitive trickery to force the supernatural interpretation onto the images.

Previously, Debunking Denialism covered a case where UFO hunter Scott C. Waring claimed that he had found a rodent on Mars. Turns out that he had searched through the NASA image library and found an image of a Mars rock that kind of looked like a rodent if you zoomed in an squinted a bit. In reality, it was a clear case of unchecked pareidolia and confirmation bias. In other words, Waring had an overactive pattern detection and only looked at reasons for why the Mars rock might look like a squirrel while ignoring reasons for why it is really just a rock.

Ancient Tree Stump on Mars?

In a YouTube video called “Possible Tree Stump Found On Mars?” posted by Paranormal Crucible (135k subscribers) on April 20, 2017, the video creator had taken an image from the Mars Curiosity Rover archives taken on Sol 1647 (25 March, 2017) at 07:19:49 UTC. The full resolution can be found here.

This has many similarities with previous cases that have been debunked by skeptics. It is a single image taken from a large library which inflates probabilistic resources available, it is grainy, the video involves zooming in, squinting, a lot of shoehorning and even image manipulation to make the facts fit the idea being proposed about ancient tree stumps on Mars.

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Wikitribune: New Initiative to Fight Fake News

Wikitribune

Basic idea of Wikitribune (CC BY 2.0)

There is a new contender on the block for helping to fight the impact of fake news. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has decides to create a new initiative called Wikitribune. The goal is to provide a highly credible source of news that is not driven by advertisements or clickbait and thus avoid low quality and misleading content. The core idea is to combine professional journalists with a community of volunteers to ensure that the information is authored, updated and fact-checked and verified in such a way as to provide credible information.

On the Internet, anyone can publish almost anything without regards for what is factual and what is just nonsense. This has brought some great benefits, from anyone being able to post their opinions or find any information they are looking for online. However, there are also some limitations. People can isolate themselves into ideological filter bubbles where they only see and read information that has been skewed and misrepresented in a specific direction in order to provoke intense emotions, including fear and anger. This has recently been weaponized in order to influence world events, from general elections in the United States to pitting different groups against each other. By making stuff up about the news that provoke people (called fake news) and sharing low quality clickbait on social media, these fake news providers are able to make millions of dollars in ad revenue. Even political advisers have deliberately pushed false information as if it was factual by labelling those falsehoods as “alternative facts”.

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Homeopathic Company Finally Recalls Teething Products Containing Belladonna

Homeopathic teething products with Belladonna recalled

Homeopathy is a pseudoscience that is based on two core principles. The first is that like cures like. So if you get bitten by a venomous snake, this same snake venom will prevent you from dying. In reality, a dangerous snake bite from a venomous snake is treated with, for instance, antivenom that via specific molecular mechanisms prevent the venom from having negative health effects on the body. The second is that the more you dilute something, the stronger it becomes. In particular, homeopathy involves diluting products so much that there is almost always not a single molecule left of the supposed active ingredient.

Based on basic science considerations from physics, chemistry and biology, homeopathy does not work and cannot work. Large-scale and methodologically sound scientific studies have also shown that homeopathy is ineffective as a treatment for real medical conditions. In essence, homeopathy is quackery that does not work above placebo. Homeopaths push these ineffective remedies for a large range of real medical conditions and even some minor issues, like teething (when new teeth push through the gums of a young child).

What are these belladonna-containing teething tablets?

The products in question are teething tablets that are manufactured by the Standard Homeopathic Company. These are supposed to contain no detectable levels of belladonna (since it is all diluted away), but since homeopathy is a pseudoscience, one cannot really assume that they will have good manufacturing practices. Laboratory analyses performed by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showed that Hyland’s homeopathic teething tablets contained too large and inconsistent amounts of belladonna (a plant that contains dangerous secondary metabolites such as atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine).

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Spell Casting Will Not Get Your Husband Back

Spell casting debunked

Spammers send out millions of emails, comments and messages every day in an effort to scam vulnerable people with real medical or relationship problems for large sums of money. Most people would probably never pay thousands of dollars to some stranger on the Internet for an unproven and untested “treatment”, so it is hard for many people to understand why spammers continue their efforts or why some people fall for it (especially when the language and spelling in these messages are often hilariously bad).

The reality is that it is enough if just 1 in 10 000 people fall for the scam for the spammers to make a profit. Making accounts and sending messages are almost always free, or requires a small investment for running different kinds of bots that do it for them. They target people at their most vulnerable and exploit sorrow and desperation. Most of their victims would probably never fall for it if they were not in this exceedingly vulnerable state.

Scams commonly used in emails include messages from some African rich person who needs you to send money to be able to take out a very large inheritance and they promise to give you a cut of it if you help them. Others involve offering expensive status symbols like Rolex watches for only a fraction of the cost or boosting sexual potency or virility of men. Other target people with terminal cancer by offering them alleged “miracle cures”, from intravenous baking soda to bleach enemas, that turn out to be scams. Others spread fear about common products and try to make you believe that you are sick so that they can sell you their fake “cure”.

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