Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

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


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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Debunking “The Pro-Vax Argument Lost Me When”

16 anti-vax claims debunked

Credible scientific and medical information about vaccines can be gotten from reading the websites of medical organizations and government public health websites, science and medicine textbooks by mainstream publishers and reading scientific review papers in highly credible scientific journals. The material found therein has very often been fact-checked and subjected to peer-review by other experts. Although certainly not infallible, together they represent the best information currently available.

Anti-vaccine activists, on the other hand, primarily rely on misleading information found on conspiracy blogs, YouTube videos and Facebook groups. These are not credible sources. One such blog post that is circulating in anti-vaccine communities is called The Pro-Vax Argument Lost Me When (with the subtitle “They Couldn’t Answer These Questions”) and feature 16 anti-vaccine claims disguised as superficially innocent questions for which the writer wrongly believes science has no answers.

In reality, this is a common denialist tactic called “just asking questions” (or JAQing off) that is based on making overt pseudoscientific claims, but hiding behind the trope that they are “just asking disturbing questions” in an effort to evade scientific objections. The blog post is written anonymously and contains no references to the scientific literature whatsoever. Despite this, it has achieved considerable spread across social media. So without further ado, here are scientific answers to all “questions” asked, backed up by real scientific references. Read more of this post

A Scientific Skeptic Watches “Born in the Wild” (North Dakota Episode)

Born in the Wild

“Born in the Wild” was a short-lived television series that ran on Lifetime during 2015. They followed several natural birth quacktivists who wanted to give birth in extreme locations, from the wilderness of Alaska to the snowy winter of North Dakota, often without properly trained medical personnel present. They demonize doctors and hospital births, while praised “natural” birth because humans used to do it in the past. For many science advocates, this is clearly just an appeal to tradition fallacy, but many homebirth activists does not see the problem. The show was essentially a combination of alternative medicine quackery with extreme narcissism of mothers who fantasize about the kind of “natural birth” that kills 300 000 mothers per year according to the WHO (see previous installments in this series).

The common intro for each episode involves a narrator explaining that “modern parents giving birth in the wilderness like their ancestors. No hospitals. No surgical intervention. No drugs. Just a choice. To return to the primal roots of humanity.” The show heavily features a very romantic view of a nature and the past. So far, episodes covered by Debunking Denialism has given birth in the Alaskan wilderness, the mountain plains of Utah and a blueberry farm in Georgia.

What is in store for this episode? Read more of this post

PureCare Herbal Cream Found Contaminated by Prescription Steroids

PureCare Herbal Cream

PureCare Herbal Cream with the current label (Health Canada).

Real medicine has to be researched and tested for many years before reaching approval by the regulatory agencies. It usually starts with biochemical research measuring different chemical parameters of a substance or selecting agents based on already known parameter data. It then moves on to cell and tissue cultures and if they are still considered promising, it can move on to animal testing.

If it passes that hurdle, it can move on to testing on humans in different stages. All relevant documents should be submitted to regulators that then scrutinize the findings. If found to be safe and effective, the product can be approved. Despite approval, research still continues to ensure that the treatment continues to be safe after approval. If something happens, regulators can recall the product. For supplements, complementary and alternative medicine (SCAMs), the story is very different.

Often, they do not need any evidence for efficacy, but may need evidence for safety depending on the country. In some countries, it is enough that they contain substances that are generally regarded as safe. Usually, quacks are not allowed to make radical health claims on their products implying that it treats or cures things that it does not actually work for, but they try to get around that by using weasel words or different kinds of warnings.

However, because SCAMs are often produced by unscrupulous manufacturers and pushed by equally uncaring sellers, it is not unusual for them to be contaminated or contain very different amounts of ingredients than declared on the label. Their products typically have no evidence for efficacy and do not work. Read more of this post

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