Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

How Anti-Immigration Activists Misuse Lethal Violence Statistics

Lethal violence in Sweden

The Internet is a wonderful thing. It has put the combined knowledge mass of the human species in a format that is easily accessible by billions of people hungry for scientific and historical facts about the world. The Internet, however, has also brought with it the possibility of spreading misinformation and nonsense at a rate that was never before possible. Someone can post an incendiary fake news story that inspire fear and anger about some real or imagined event during breakfast and before the evening has set in, the story has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, provoked and misled millions of people and sometimes even made it into the mainstream media.

Sweden has recently become a target of various political outbursts designed to spread fear, anger and misinformation about refugees and immigrants. In reality, Sweden is a country that has declared a single war since 1814 and is one of the best countries in the world to live in based on dozens of different metrics such as safety, education, health care, happiness and so on. In the dark and damp places of the Internet, however, Sweden is wrongly portrayed as a hellhole where murder and rape are out of control, criminal gangs have taken permanent control over several dozen areas and the radical feminist government and the media are actively covering it all up.

The reality, of course, is entirely different. Anti-immigration activists abuse rape statistics, the rape definition used in Swedish law has expanded multiple times since the late 1990s, the propensity to report rape has doubled in recent years and the police records each individual case as a separate police report. Two reports published by the Swedish federal police has shown that although there are social problems in especially vulnerable areas, but the idea that they are somehow no-go zones is a propaganda myth and the police works there every single day.

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How Anti-Psychiatry Researchers Attack Antidepressants With Faulty Statistics

Generic pill image

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that downplays or rejects the existence and severity of psychiatric conditions, denies the efficacy of established treatments and demonizes medical doctors. Not all anti-psychiatry activists are committed to all of these three positions, but they are common beliefs within the movement. It is thus very reminiscent of anti-vaccine activists who wrongly think that vaccine-preventable diseases are natural and not very harmful, reject vaccines and demonize pediatricians. In terms of debating tactics, anti-psychiatry activists make use the same standard denialist toolkit: quoting scientists out of context, cherry-picking data, misunderstanding basic science and so on.

A recent paper by Jakobsen and colleagues (2017) claims to have shown that the antidepressant class SSRI has questionably clinical efficacy. It turns out that they base this claim on a piece of highly deceptive statistical trickery: they erect an arbitrary and evidence-free effect size threshold for clinical significance and then reject all treatments that do not fulfill it.

Because the threshold they picked was so large, they would be forced to reject both psychotherapy and a considerable portion of medications used in general medicine as well. The researchers cite National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as support for their criteria, but NICE dumped this criteria as flawed around eight years ago. In the end, SSRIs are effective and a useful treatment for depression (but do not work perfectly for everyone) and clinical significance is a spectrum and not a black-and-white issue.

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Here’s How You Can Help Debunking Denialism

Are you tired of how pseudoscience, statistical ignorance, history denial and other forms of nonsense are spreading across the Internet and among people? Do you want to find a way to contribute and join the fight, but not really sure what you can do? Do you think that the efforts done by Debunking Denialism are useful and wish that more people would read and understand articles on this website?

This post gathers some useful ways that anyone can help in a wide range of different ways. You can like, comment and share material from Debunking Denialism on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and others. You can join the ranks and become a skeptical activist on social media yourself. Make social media accounts and pages and start engaging people and spreading reason and scientific facts.

You can also bring up some skeptical topics in your daily life with your family, friends and colleagues at work. This might seem scary, but use persuasive and polite methods and let pseudoscience activist make fools of themselves in front of others. You can help to break down filter bubbles by actively seeking out one or two exchanges on social media every week that include mentioning of the myth and go in and correct it with a link to Debunking Denialism or other reputable source (do this politely and not abusively!). It is not about building Rome in a single day, but boosting the signal of science and reason and crowding out the noise of misinformation. Finally, you can also opt to support Debunking Denialism on Patreon.

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New Medium Primer: Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment

Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment

Debunking Denialism has recently expanded onto the social journalism platform Medium where magazines, professional writers and any really any user can write posts about topics that matter to them. It is part of an effort of Debunking Denialism to reach more people outside of the skeptical movement and encourage people to accept mainstream scientific facts about things like vaccines, GMOs, climate change and so on. It might also help to reach people who are stuck in a social media filter bubble, since Medium is a platform that is very open and accessible.

In particular, Medium is optimized for brief and condensed post with a hard-hitting and persuasive message. It is thus suitable for reaching new people with information about science and skepticism. The first Medium article published by Debunking Denialism is called Five Ways GMOs Benefit The Environment. At first glance, it appears to be a clickbait listicle like any other, but it delivers in terms of content and also uses crucial scientific references to back up all major claims. Read more of this post

How Mainstream Media Contributed to the Misinformation Wars

CNN superfoods

There is a current social battle being fought about the nature of facts and reality. Truth is under attack because of ignorance and apathy. Fake news are being spread as real events, misleading millions of people into believing things that never happened. “Alternative facts” are being pushed as equally as legitimate as scientific and statistical facts in a fit of postmodernist relativism. Technological filter bubbles skew the world you see on the Internet and isolate you from information that contradicts your beliefs. There are now even fake fact-checkers who try to leach credibility from real fact-checkers just like pseudoscience parasitizes on real science.

A great deal of this comes from fake news websites, pseudoscience activists, various quacks and cranks as well as other sources. But some of it comes from mainstream media. The mainstream media has spent years being complacent about the threat of misinformation and let low-quality material and bad journalistic standards fester and spread across their own websites and networks. This article looks at four prominent ways this has and continues to occur and proposes five directions that might mitigate some of the problems we now face.

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The Texas Medical Board Puts Stanislaw Burzynski on Probation

Stanislaw Burzynski is a medical doctor in Texas that has promoted untested treatments for severe cases of cancer for decades and likely exploited hundreds of patients with terminal disease for large sums of money. After having escaped from the grasp of regulatory agencies several times, he faced increasing pressure from the Texas Medical Board during the last few years.

Now, a final order has been issued by the Board. His license is revoked due to multiple violations, but it is a stayed sentence while he is on probation. Unfortunately, the Board threw out several key charges that were leveled at Burzynski. At any rate, he is required to submit to monitoring for a substantial amount of time, ordered to pay administrative penalties and restitution as well as to take ethics courses, medical education and pass a crucial medical exam. Although his medical license is not gone yet, all he needs to do is screw up one more time and it might just be gone for good. However, if there is something we have learned from the Burzynski circus it is that he has an incredible ability to slip away from regulators.

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The “Alternative Fact” Surge

The alternative facts surge

Real facts are statements about the world that we know are true based on overwhelming evidence, such as water molecules consist of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms or the United States Declaration of Independence was agreed upon in 1776. “Alternative facts” on the other hand, are statements that are not at all true, but have been made up by ideologues that push it as if it was true. It is a form of targeted misinformation, but also the tacit claim that it is somehow possible to disagree with real facts and believe in a set of “alternative facts” that are just as valid as the real deal.

One of the most remarkable deployments of this tactic by political staff in modern times occurred during a Meet The Press segment in late January of 2017 where NBC journalist Chuck Todd interviewed Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. The topic dealt with the audience size for the inauguration of President Trump and might not seem to be of much importance, but the very fact that the technique was deployed so openly and bizarrely had many people concerned that we might be seeing the rise of government-approved “alternative facts” in a similar fashion to the Orwell book 1984. Recent developments indicate that this was not a simple mishap, but part of a larger and continued media strategy.

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Australian Chiropractor Hit With ~23 000 USD Fines For Misleading Advertisement

Chiropractor gets massive fines

Proponents of fake treatments have in many ways been allowed to push their quackery and nonsense without that much government regulation. This has made them bold and encouraged them to more and more batshit pseudoscientific claims about the alleged health benefits of their treatments. However, because the consumer protection is so weak, the justice system has had to find other ways to tackle the problem. Thus, prosecuting quacks has typically involved cases where there have been fatalities or illegal transportation, tax violations or false and misleading advertisement. However, this is rare. Most of the time, snake oil salespeople have been allowed to roam free.

However, this might be changing in some parts of the world. Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency has started to crack down on alternative medicine practitioners who create enormously misleading advertisements for their services. Recently, a chiropractor was charged with multiple counts of false or misleading advertisements and also for using testimonials in health advertisement. He was convicted and must now pay a hefty fine of around 23 000 USD. Although this is just a single case, it is a stunning victory for scientific skepticism and consumer protection efforts. There will hopefully be more such cases. Who knows, maybe other countries will learn from the Australian experience?

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Mailbag: Conspiracy Theories vs. Real Conspiracies

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.

Steve sent in a comment about his views on a previous article published here at Debunking Denialism called Six Ways to Debunk Any Conspiracy Theory that looked at common flaws and weaknesses in many conspiracy theories: they posit that members of the alleged conspiracy are immune to leaks, have very inconsistent capabilities, have extreme powers of prediction, wildly different methods and goals and the fact that they are typically based on very little evidence and are often constructed to be almost impossible to refute in principle.

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Danny Saucedo Spews Pseudoscientific Nonsense About Cannabis

Danny spews nonsense

Science is hard. It takes can often years, tens of thousands of working hours and millions of dollars to research an issue thoroughly. Sometimes, the results are multifaceted, contradictory or difficult to interpret, and research goes on. Thus, it is no wonder that misinformation is incredibly potent. It plays on hopes and fears and offers easy and emotionally comforting answers to complex issues.

One such issue is the health and harms of cannabis, which outside the scientific community involves a struggle between two opposing ideological groups. On one side are the drug war zealots who refuses to listen to any constructive suggestions on how prevent people from abusing drugs, have very little interest in helping those who need it and better combat the networks that supply them. On the other side are the cannabis apologists who claim cannabis is more or less harmless, works as a fantastic miracle cure for almost anything and promote various batshit conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies. Both of these groups are profoundly mistaken and are really just two different manifestations of the same underlying problem: refusing to take evidence seriously, especially when it contradicts their beliefs.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook Takes a Stand Against Fake News

Tim Cook versus Fake News

For many decades, science advocates and scientific skeptics have been fighting misinformation on the Internet. False claims about evolution and climate change have spread like wildfire and there are many organizations and individuals out there that take great pleasure in spreading pseudoscientific nonsense about these scientific fields to anyone who wants to listen. The Internet is a great invention and has allowed more people than ever to access the depth of human knowledge, but it also has a dark side. It is now possible to be wrong about a great deal of things, yet quickly find large communities of mutually self-reinforcing discussions that share those misconceptions. So, in a sense, fake news is a not a new problem.

The pervasive problem with fake news came to the attention of the public and the mainstream during the 2016 general election in the United States where a ton of websites and other outlets spread sensationalist misinformation about both Clinton and Trump in order to get as many clicks and as much ad revenue as possible. Unfortunately, this led to a very uninformed population that harbored a lot of false beliefs about the world. In particular, fake news website often published content that aimed to make people upset and angry, because manipulating feelings has been shown to be very effective for spreading a message.

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Holocaust Denier David Irving Has Resurfaced in the Scottish Highlands

Where is David Irving Now?

Holocaust deniers are the flat earthers of history. They attack one of the most well-documented genocides in all of human history using pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and bigotry. They have a poor grasp of how science works as well as historical methods, they quote scientists and historians out of context, and they hunt for alleged anomalies while ignoring the massive amount of consistent historical and scientific evidence. It is tempting to view Holocaust denial as just another pseudoscience, but because it involves denying a genocide and extreme ideology, it is in many ways much more severe than many other forms of pseudoscientific nonsense.

Behind Holocaust denial is often misguided and irrational ideologies. This can include antisemitism, religious fanaticism, and even staunch political beliefs about the Middle East. There are many things that makes Holocaust denial scary. Denial is the final part of a genocide, it is an intense reject of history and evidence and its threatening grasp can be felt around the world. Despite it being almost 80 years since it happened, most of the people on earth either has never heard of it or deny that it ever happened. This denial comes from across the political and religious spectrum, involving elements of the far-right and far-left, as well as certain extremist interpretations of both Christianity and Islam.

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Homeopathic Teething Products Contain Elevated Amounts of Belladonna

FDA homeopathic teething products

Homeopathy is a pseudoscience created around 1800 that ignores basic chemistry and biology. It wrongly claims that the more you dilute something, the stronger it becomes. In reality, the more you dilute something, the weaker it becomes. This is obvious to anyone who has ever mixed juice concentrate and water. The more water, the weaker the juice will taste. If you add no water, it will taste horribly strong. For homeopathy, it involves so extreme dilutions that there is statistically no actual molecules left of the supposed active ingredient.

Homeopathy also wrongly state that “like cures like”, so that you should consume more snake venom to cure a snake bite. This is obviously wrong since you just get more of the bad stuff. In reality, diseases that we can cure almost always have well-defined and mechanistically understood modes of action. So their alleged active ingredient is not actually active against the disease or condition even if it had not been astronomically diluted.

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Mailbag: What’s The Harm?

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.

Tony recently wrote a comment on the post about six general approaches to refute any conspiracy theory. Because it represents such a common and typical response to efforts to promote scientific skepticism, it deserves to be part of the mailbag series where it can be discussed and dissected in some detail.

It is a combination of the “what’s the harm” gambit, the fallacy of relative privation and the uneasy relationship between those atheism-centric individuals who want to exclusively focus on religion (and ignore everything else) and scientific skeptics who take a broader approach to pseudoscience wherever it can be found.

This response will focus on several questions. What are the harms with pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and why should you care? Are they not just fun and harmless? Why is it not productive to insist that people ignore problems just because some other problem is deemed more important? Finally, why is Debunking Denialism about scientific skepticism and not a generic anti-religion blog?

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Six Ways to Debunk Any Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories

Fighting conspiracy theories with reason and evidence on the Internet is often tiresome and irritating. It usually involves extreme details of some scientific, historical or technology topic and it takes a long time to learn both the broad picture and details. During the same time it takes for you to refute their misinformation, the conspiracy theorists have already put forward another twelve faulty claims in an unending cat and mouse game. There is thus a great need to combine these detailed refutations with broader objections that attack the general structure of conspiracy theories.

The six strategies to attack any conspiracy theory that will be discussed in this article cover many different aspects of the situation. The “no leaks” objection wonders how thousands of people can carry out complex and evil plans without there being any leaks. The “evidence gap” objection asks why there is so much evidence for conspiracies that turn out to be true, but hardly any for common conspiracy theories. The “inconsistent capabilities” objection wonders why perpetrators are deemed highly intelligent and efficient, but cannot take down websites and videos or stage “accidents” to get rid of conspiracy theories.

The “prediction horizon” objection discuss how the complexities of reality makes it difficult to make highly accurate predictions for detailed conspiracy plans. The “method-goal mismatch” objection points out that there are many easier ways for perpetrators to reach their goals than the convoluted ways indicated by conspiracy theories. Finally, the “non-falsifiable” objection concludes that conspiracy theories are often consistent with both evidence for and against them, making them fairly impotent as explanations for anything.

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