Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Climate Science Hero Naomi Oreskes Promotes Anti-GMO Myths

Naomi Oreskes Harvard Bio

Naomi Oreskes is a hero of climate science. She completed one of the earliest database surveys of climate consensus among publishing climate scientists and contributed to the largest ever survey of consensus studies. She has taken on misinformants who think that smoking does not cause cancer, who think that acid rain was not an issue and those who deny that humans are the main contributor behind climate change. If there was a team of climate science superheros, she would be a core member.

However, dark clouds has appeared on the horizon. During the past few years, she has been slowly getting closer and closer to the anti-GMO movement. She downplayed the Green revolution and the scientific consensus on GMOs and even linked to conspiracy websites. This might be innocent mistakes since she did admit that she has not researched the area enough. However, recently Oreskes actively and intentionally promoted the harmful anti-GMO myth that GM crops caused an epidemic of suicides among Indian farmers. In reality, empirical data shows that the introduction of GM crops in India has had no impact on suicide rates. As a public intellectual, Oreskes has an intellectual responsibility to avoid spreading anti-science misinformation.

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The Sixth Anniversary of Debunking Denialism


Debunking Denialism has now been active for six years. During the past year, a lot of things has been accomplished, but many challenges remain. Anti-science activists hold fake “tribunals” against GMOs, still oppose vaccines despite new outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, talk nonsense about quantum mechanics and abuse statistics for their own ideological goals.

The world has also changed over the past 12 months with direct or indirect connections to scientific skepticism: several large terror attacks occurred Europe, the rise of the alt right in the United States, Radovan Karadžić were convicted and sent to prison for 40 years for crimes against humanity, the Panama documents were released, the UK voted to leave the EU, the Paris agreement was ratified by the U. S. and China as well as 150 nations agreed to get rid of ozone-damaging HFCs.


Here are some of the major content that has been covered on Debunking Denialism during the past year:

– One of the largest sellers of bleach as a cure for many diseases, Daniel Louis Smith, was sentenced to 55 months in prison.

– David Stephan and his wife Collet were convicted of failing to provide the necessities of life to their 19-month toddler Ezekiel. David got four months in prison and she got house arrest for a few months, but the crown prosecutor is appealing the case due to the lenient punishment.

– The article series refuting a popular anti-skeptic book that defended various paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs was completed. Unlike previous critical commentary for the book, this article series focused both on logical fallacies and its scientific errors.

– The content that got most attention during the past year was undoubtedly the refutations of the poisonous M&Ms or poisonous skittles analogy, where some groups are compared with a bowl of candy. Since apparently some pieces are poisonous, it allegedly makes sense to avoid all of the candy even though most of them are not poisonous. This was originally refuted in 2014 in the post Poisonous M&Ms: The Irrational Monstrosity of Bigotry, but got more coverage in the past year when it metastasized to the Syrian refugee crisis and then exploded into the mainstream.

– Anti-GMO statistician Nassim N. Taleb came out as a defender of homeopathy.

– Debunking Denialism also published several basic coverage of scientific skepticism, such as how to avoid falling for bullshit on the Internet, preventing cranks from benefiting from your online skeptical activism, scientific skepticism in four easy steps, and a guide to how quacks and cranks abuse scientific terminology.

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Official Social Media Pages and Accounts


Proponents of pseudoscience and science denial has exploited social media platforms to spread their misinformation, from attacking scientists on Twitter to organized abuse of the reporting function against skeptical Facebook pages.

Recently, I have expanded and become more active on social media websites. Here is a list of official social media pages and accounts related to me and my website on places such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Reddit. I have also included information about the contact email for this website.


The official Facebook page for myself is Emil Karlsson (@emilskeptic) and the official page for this website is Debunking Denialism (@DebunkingDenialism). The latter focuses on posting new material that was published on the website and memorable exchanges with anti-science activists, whereas the former is my personal profile page that posts a lot of content on scientific skepticism, science, and critical thinking.

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DDT Apologists Promote Anti-Environmentalist Pseudoscience

Stockholm Convention

DDT was a pesticide that was indiscriminately used in agriculture before researchers understood that it had negative effects on the environment and human health. After the publication of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, more and more people became aware of the problems with excessive use of pesticides and it was banned in the United States in 1972. It could still be used for the prevention of human diseases that were transmitted with the help of mosquitos and this acceptable use is still respected among global agreements on pesticides. These bans and agreements were primarily against indiscriminate use in the environment.

However, DDT apologists falsely claim that the ban against DDT led to the deaths of tens of millions of people in malaria and that environmentalism is therefore a dangerous ideology with blood on its hands. This article shows that Carson did not want to ban DDT in Silent Spring, that the EPA ban was only for the U. S. and had an exemption for public health issues, that the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants also allows DDT for malaria prevention and that even the WHO recognizes and encourages this. The anti-environmentalist myth about Rachel Carson and DDT is dangerous misinformation and toxic pseudoscience.

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The Dishonest Motte and Bailey Technique

Motte and Bailey

A motte-and-bailey castle was a common fortification structure during the High Middle Ages in western Europe. It consisted of a highly defensible keep situated on a small hill or mound (the motte) with a surrounding courtyard (bailey) that was more sparsely protected by fence and a ditch. The bailey housed the economically productive components of the castle, such as construction workshops, stores, kitchen and so on. During an assault, the bailey could be defended against a weaker invading force, but more powerful enemies would have the inhabitants of the castle retreat into the keep and raise the bridge because unlike the bailey, the motte is much harder to penetrate.

This has an analogous counterpoint during many discussion. Many irrational ideologues typically reside in the bailey, where they make radical, unsubstantiated and probably wrong claims in order to attract attention and support. Because of their weakness, these claims are easily attacked and difficult to defended. If the flawed claims are attacked by scientific skeptics using any kind of science-based approach, they retreat into the easily defended keep on the motte, deny that they ever believed or used bailey claims. Instead, they deploy motte claims that are easily defensible and sometimes even trivially true. Defenders then try to portray critics as intellectually weak and suggest that they are only attacking bailey claims (which are labeled as straw men), despite the fact that the same individual defender or the ideological movement that the defenders belongs to commonly use these bailey arguments. The underlying strategy used by defenders is to assert that since the motte claims are true, the bailey claims are also true, but this is not always made explicit.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part VIII: Existential Risk and Pascal’s Wager

Here Be Dragons

Can we neglect issues such as global warming because most of the negative consequences occur in the future? Is abortion and masturbation worse than genocide because it prevents the future existence of billions of people? Can we combine exceedingly low or unknown probabilities with extremely highly negative outcomes to argue that just about anything should be made into a global research priority? Are values something immaterial or supernatural, or merely facts about the human brain and the human conditions? Is it possible to make moral arguments that are based on false empirical premises or contain logical fallacies? Should we ban certain forms of space research? What about artificial intelligence? Is existential risk as a global priority a form of Pascal’s Wager, and if so, how?

Previously, we have explored and exposed bad arguments about bioweapons, destructive teleportation, psychiatry, statistical significance, atomically precise manufacturing, nanobots, cryogenics, philosophy of science, uploading, migrating into black holes, doomsday scenarios, large energy-absorbing spheres around stars that kill of almost all primary producers and many more.

Although Part VIII treats the last chapter of the book, it will not be the last installment of the series. The two remaining installments will investigate to what extent the futurist view expressed by Häggström is a form of pseudoscience (Part IX) and sum up and conclude the series (Part X).

Section LXXI: A minimalist approach to moral reasoning

For many people, morality (or reasonable human behavior) is a sticky issue. This is likely because the area has been corrupted by religion, politics and idle speculations of academic philosophy to such a degree that it is almost impossible to wade through all the bullshit people have been claiming about morality through the past several thousand years. In order to combat these distractions, let us make a very minimalist case for why it is possible to discuss reasonable human behavior and why some of the arguments about reasonable human behavior are better than others.

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Astral Parasites, Chakra Balancing and Other “Occult” Nonsense

Astral bullshit

New Age woo is a convoluted mixture of eastern mysticism and pseudoscientific abuse of modern scientific research, primarily medicine and physics. This includes misunderstandings of crucial concepts such as energy, vibration, frequency as well as the flawed claim that diseases are caused by negative attitudes that attract bad things in life. This post will survey some contemporary discussions among New Age and “occult” circles on the Internet by looking at some of the topics discussed on the r/occult subreddit.

These range from being laughably absurd to being potentially hazardous for your health. It might be entertaining to read about New Age speculations about he next step in evolution, whether this or that spirit can make you more witty or people who think they are being followed by the number 13. However, it is very troubling to read about astral parasite delusions that causes self-harming, tarot cards against suicidal depression, or people wanting to find ways to protect themselves against astral rape or the negative psychic energy by the people around them.

Being infected with astral parasites?

One poster described a very disturbing situation where he or she had been dealing with several malicious astral parasites that had led to several hospitalizations and even to almost convince him or her to cut off a finger:

I have been dealing with at least 4 very intelligent, very cunning, and very manipulative astral parasites for about 2 years now. They’ve tricked me time and again into having me think they are actually here to help me and not harm me. Finally, after all this time I do realize their true nature, but I have no idea how to get rid of them at this point. I can go into much more detail about all this, but my first question is has anyone had full success in ridding themselves of these things? They’ve put me in the mental ward 4 times now, and the last episode they almost convinced me to cut off my pinky finger. You could say things are getting pretty serious. And the nightmares they give me are just absolutely horrendous. I made the mistake of trying to befriend them, to appeal to some consciousness they apparently don’t have. I’m also constantly fatigued just about every day now. Thanks for reading. All advice and any questions are very much welcome and needed.

Although it is hard to speculate and one should generally avoid making judgement of a psychiatric nature on the Internet, this may indicate some form of psychiatric condition involving delusions, such as schizophrenia. The delusions seem durable and fixed and this has been going on for multiple years with several stays at a mental ward. On the balance of the evidence, this is much more likely to be a psychiatric problem than anything involving supernatural “astral parasites”. Some comments with more information from the original poster explained that he or she was also suffering from nightmares and night-time paralysis.

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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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