Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Monthly Archives: November 2011

Debunking Denialism Gets Custom Domain Name!

I have recently purchased a custom domain name for this blog:

It is shorter, more to the point and special. It was also quite cheap and I figure that I might as well get the .com version before someone else does. Those accessing the blog from the standard WordPress subdomain will be automatically redirected.

Have a nice day.

Evangelical Churches in UK telling HIV patients to stop treatment

“What’s the harm”?

This is perhaps one of the most common objections to criticisms of alternative medicine, faith healing and assorted irrationalities in the field of pseudoscience, yet it is a rebuttal that is arguably both dangerous and confused. There is a substantial risk of harm from things like faith healing, since not only do they not get any actual benefit from the process, it can make them stop taking the medications they desperately need.

A stunning case of this issue was reported by Sky News a few days ago: HIV Deaths: Church Tells Patients to Stop Treatment. They report that.

At least six people have died in Britain after being told they had been healed of HIV and could stop taking their medication, Sky News has discovered. There is evidence evangelical churches in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow are claiming to cure HIV through God. Sky sent three undercover reporters to the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), which is based in Southwark, south London. All of them told the pastors they were HIV positive – all were told they could be healed.

It always amazes me how these kinds of organizations do not get prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They are taking advantage of poor, sick individuals and deluding them into not only taking part in faith healing, but to actually stop taking their medications. This can lead to a reduction in expected life span and, as we have seen, death. Remember this the next time someone asks: “What’s the Harm?”

Deaths resulting from HIV patients being told not to take their medications has happened in the past on a much larger scale. The former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, was an HIV/AIDS denialist who thought that medication against HIV/AIDS where a western pharmaceutical plot by western pharmaceutical companies to destroy the future of Africans. This meant that he not only suggested using lemon and garlic to treat HIV, he stopped antiretrovirals from reaching HIV/AIDS patients. Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health estimates that his actions lead to the death of more than 330000 Africans worth HIV/AIDS. The full story is told in Michael Specter’s terrific book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

The Sky News story continues: Read more of this post

Overcoming Selective Rationality

Note: This is the sixth installment in the series on debating tactics and pseudoskepticism. For other posts in this series, see the index entry.

The problem of pseudoskepticism is not just a problem other people have. Most people, including the author and most readers of the article, are more or less selectively rational. The symptoms may seem similar to that of pseudoskepticism; aversion to changing your mind when you need the most, reduced ability to perceive and understand arguments that you disagree with and dichotomous thinking. It is probably very hard to be completely rational in every area, which is made even harder by the sophistication effect that was discussed previously: a person who is well-read and intellectual is better at rationalizing beliefs he or she arrived at by irrational means.

Are there ways to overcome selective rationality or avoid becoming a pseudoskeptic? Here are some suggestions.

1. Divorce personal identity from beliefs

When you read or hear criticisms of your position, do not interpret them as a personal attack against your identity. You are not your beliefs. Beliefs are just inhabitants of your mind. If it helps, do not think of the situation as you being wrong, but that your safeguard against irrational beliefs and notions temporarily malfunctioned and let erroneous beliefs through without enough critical evaluation. This means that reasoned critics are actually helping you improve this shield, rather than denigrating your personal identity.

2. Apply symmetric skepticism.

It is really easy to apply a much stricter skepticism and therefore a higher burden of evidence for positions that you reject than the ones you accept in a similar way to the fact that it is easier to notice evidence for positions you accept and forget evidence that oppose it. Try to deeply understand the arguments of your opponents. Not just a cursory overview, but detailed descriptions of what they think their arguments amount to. Do not do like many creationists do when they misunderstand evolutionary arguments and present them as weaker than they are in actuality. Read more of this post

Confronting Jerry Coyne on His Stance on Medical Psychiatry

Another couple of months has passed since Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, made his latest claims about psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. I have dissected many of his unreasonable claims about psychiatry on two occasions previously, in Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and in the follow-up post Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants. Since I feared that Prof. Coyne had started to slide down that dangerous path into denialism and pseudoskepticism, I decided to send him an email with a few critical questions against his stance to see what he thinks about them. Could it be that he has changed his mind, or has he become frozen in his views?

The email is too long to cite in its entirely (used a lot of references and such, which can be found in the two posts linked above), so I will just summarize my 6 questions. I identified additional problems besides these six, but I feel that these are the main questions I would like to see what Prof. Coyne thinks about at this time.

1. Why does Prof. Coyne describe the mainstream explanatory model for depression as “chemical imbalance”, when most descriptions in elementary level psychology textbooks emphasize a large number of interacting biological, psychological and environmental factors that are each important in their own right?

2. Why does Prof. Coyne think that the fact that the genetics of mental illness is rife with uncertainties undermine the notion that many mental illnesses have genetic predispositions when studies on identical twins and adoption studies show that the heritability is often moderate? Surely, there is a different between knowing that a genetic predisposition exists and knowing the exact mechanism on a molecular level? To take an analogy: even though we may not have all the details of how common descent happened (is this taxon more related to that taxon than this other taxon?), we can be pretty sure of common descent. Read more of this post

Summary of Victor Stenger’s Case against the Fine-tuning Argument

Victor Stenger is a physicist, philosopher and prolific author, and has recently published the book The Fallacy of Fine-tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us. It contains perhaps the best currently existing response to the creationist argument from fine-tuning from the perspective of physics. Now, other philosophical and mathematical responses exists, but this is a comprehensive overview of the scientific case against the fine-tuning argument. I will summarize some of the more interesting parts of Stenger’s case below by paraphrasing certain parts of the last part of the final chapter in the book (pp. 293-294) as well as mentioning other problems mentioned in other parts of the book.

1. Many proponents of the fine-tuning argument quote Stephen Hawking out of context to try and show that Hawking thinks that the expansion rate of the universe is fine-tuned. In reality, Hawking just lists this problem as a problem for the big bang theory before cosmological inflation is taken into account. When it is, the fine-tuning problem of the expansion rate goes away.

2. Many proponents of the fine-tuning argument appeal to the singularity theorem proved by Hawking and Penrose in order to try and established that the universe began in a singularity. However, a singularity would be very massive and have infinitesimal volume. This is forbidden in quantum mechanics due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states (in one of its versions) that the uncertainty in momentum times the uncertainty in position cannot be less than a specific non-zero number. Thus, the theorem proved by Hawking and Penrose is not applicable anymore.

3. Claims about fine-tuning are made against the backdrop of our particular form of life, yet other forms of life may be possible. Read more of this post

The Top Five Most Annoying Statistical Fallacies


Mathematical statistics and probability is hard. It often involves what, at a first glance, involves complicated calculations and the sheer volume of data coming out of some studies can often be hard to interpret, even if you know all of the mathematics behind it. Although it is important to understand the math, it is equally important (or perhaps even more important) to understand what the results mean and don’t mean. It is easy to get dazzled by fancy mathematics or over-interpret results to mean something they really do not. Therefore, a basic understanding of statistical fallacies should be a part of every scientific skeptics toolbox or baloney detection kit.

Here is a list of the most common statistical fallacies, what they are and how to combat them.

1. Confusing correlation with causation

A correlation is when two variables vary together, whereas causation occurs when one factor causes the other. It may be tempting to think that the former implies the latter, but that is hardly ever the case. For instance, ice cream sales may increase in the summer and decrease in the winter. The same may be true for drowning accidents. Does this mean we can draw the conclusion that drowning accidents causing ice cream sales? Does this mean that people have become so selfish and morally vile that they prefer to buy ice cream and watching people drown than trying to save them!? Fortunately, not really. Just because two variables vary together does not mean that one caused the other. It might be that the other caused the first, that they both cause each other or that a third factor causes both. In the case of ice cream sales and drowning accidents, a third factor that probably explain the correlation is season. In the summer, more people eat ice cream and go bathing, but fewer to these things in the winter. Confusing correlation with causation is widespread in many areas of pseudoscience, such as the anti-vaccination movement; one of their claims is that as the number of vaccines given have increased, so has the rates of cancer. This shows that the two factors correlate, not that vaccines caused cancer (in fact, the vaccine against HPV and Hepatitis B can prevent cancers) is a correlation, not a causation. A more likely factor is better healthcare as a third factor; better healthcare has meant more vaccines, but also increased lifespan, which is associated with an increase in the risk of cancer.

2. Post hoc

Post hoc and denotes the fallacy of thinking that A causes B just because B follows A in time. This fallacy, like the fallacy of confusing correlation with causation, is understandable from an evolutionary perspective. Those that where too skeptical of attributing an upset stomach to poisonous berries where less likely to reproduce. However, this kind of instinct-based reasoning can no longer be thought of as justified in our modern society Read more of this post

The Creationist Quote Mine of Hawking on Expansion Rate of the Universe

Many creationists that are proponents of the fine-tuning argument likes to quote physicist Stephen Hawking to try and demonstrate that certain parameters of our universe is fine-tuned for life and therefore requires an intelligent designer. Victor Stenger, also a physicist, has explain how creationists such as William Lane Craig and Dinesh D’Souza misrepresent Hawking in his recent thought-provoking book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Us in detail, and I will just give an example of a text that this fallacy of quoting out of context occurs, what the lifted quote says, and what the context of that quote is.

A more or less representative case of a creationist who quotes Hawking out of context is the popular Christian apologist William Lane Craig. He may be the most prominent Christian apologist alive today. This does not, of course, mean that he is necessarily right, but it goes to show how popular he is and how many people he influence. Here is the relevant passage that he often repeats, almost verbatim, in many of his debates: Read more of this post

Symphony of Science: Combining the Awe and Wonder of Science with Music

John Boswell is a musician and producer that has made some of the best music videos about science ever. According to his website, called The Symphony of Science, the “goal of the project is to bring scientific knowledge and philosophy to the public, in a novel way, through the medium of music. Science and music are two passions of mine that I aim to combine, in a way that is intended to bring a meaningful message to listeners, while simultaneously providing an enjoyable musical experience”. He does this by remixing and tuning spoken words by scientists and putting them together with photos and clips from lectures given by them. The videos and audio can be downloaded at the website, but the videos are also posted on Youtube.

At the time of this writing, there are 17 videos of pure awesomeness.

Watch them, rate them, add to favorites and spread the beautiful message of science. Boswell has hit upon an idea that may transform the way the general population views science. It is an enormously powerful approach.

Three Great Ironies of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Let us not forget that the vast majority of the claims put forward by the anti-vaccine movement have gone down in flames, but there are a couple of interesting ironies in the situation that is worth taking a closer look at.

Irony #1: Claiming that MMR vaccine causes autism, when it actually can prevent certain cases of autism

One of the most common claims from the anti-vaccine cranks are that vaccines, often specifically the trivalent vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella, causes autism. This claim has been contradicted by a dozen or so large-scale epidemiological studies and detailed reviews of the literature, but the problem goes even deeper than that. A pregnant female infected with rubella can give birth to a child that has the condition known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS), with includes deafness, abnormal eyes, congenital heart diseases and, surprisingly, developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder (Offit and Moser, 2011). Getting vaccinated with the MMR vaccine strongly reduces the risk for women who later get pregnant to get infected with rubella and therefore prevents the child from getting the congenital rubella syndrome (which is a risk factor for developing autism spectrum disorder). Read more of this post

How to Become a Better Scientific Skeptic

turtlethinkingSo you consider yourself a scientific skeptic, asking for evidence and arguments for bogus claims? Great. Now what? You already know how to question dogma and pseudoscience and you are learning more and more every day. What is the next step? Believe it or not, there are many problems and pitfalls facing skeptics, both newcomers and veterans. What can you do to become a better skeptic?

1. Avoid becoming a pseudoskeptic

A pseudoskeptic is someone who uses his knowledge and abilities to rationalize and defend ideas and positions that he or she has come to for irrational reasons. This is usually done by applying a much harsher skepticism against things that counts against his or her idea, whereas things that supports the already accepted belief is accepted with little critical thought. In other words, he or she walks and talks like a skeptic, but is really a peddler of pseudoscience in disguise.

2. Striving to master arguments

Don’t just attack bad arguments. Put the arguments you are trying to refute in their best possible form, and then refute them. This way, you are better than your opponent in every way, even when it comes to understanding their own arguments.

3. Keep it simple and to the point

A lot of people like to dig down to details, but remember that you are writing for others not yourself. If they do not get it, there is little point in writing, save perhaps the pleasure in intellectually dominating others. Nothing wrong with that per se, but not that useful for trying to spread your message. Read more of this post

Common Denialist Tactics Defined and Destroyed

Denialists are people who reject well-supported scientific conclusions by appealing to pseudoscience and using intellectually dishonest debating tactics. Here is an overview of common denialist tactics, and clear and concise ways to counter them.

Tactic: Quoting Scientists out of Context (also called Quote Mining),
Description: This denialist tactic attempts to cite reputable scientific authorities in a vain attempt to prop up their position. However, the quote has been taken out of its original context, thereby distorting the arguments made.
Countermeasure: Find the original quote and post it, explaining how the scientists position and argument differed from the way the denialist tried to present it.

Tactic: Obfuscating Basic Science.
Description: It is unclear if this tactic is intentional or not but many denialists seem to have a very poor grasp of the scientific background. They commonly fail to understand simple definitions, mechanisms and arguments or drawing flawed conclusions from the available evidence.
Countermeasure: Explain the basic science in a way that even a child could understand, anticipating probable objections. Make sure to include reliable sources, while trying to avoid insulting their ignorance too much.

Tactic: Confusing Mechanism With Fact (or How with Whether).
Description: Involves shuffling the cards and trying to portray a genuine scientific debate on how something is occurring as the pseudoscientific notion that that scientists are still debating the merit of the idea. A classic example is creationists who falsely characterize the debate between the modes and mechanisms of evolution above the species level as if it questioned whether common descent was reasonable.
Countermeasure: Explain that scientists will always debate the details, but that every sane scientists in that debate accepts the fact, even though they may differ on precise mechanisms. Read more of this post

Looking Back at the First Year of Blogging about Denialism

It has been over a year since this blog was started. The precise anniversary was 17th October, although the author of this blog has been quite busy. Despite not blogging between December of last year and June of this and only posting less than 30 entries, three important lessons have been learned.

1. Denialism is everywhere: There are a wealth of areas that have been infested with the tactics of pseudoscience and denialism, from the horrible events of the Holocaust and 9/11 to vaccines and psychiatry. It is hard to keep focused and sometimes it seems hard to feel motivated when the opposition feels overpowering on a PR level. Crap sells, that is for sure.

2. Trust no one, suspect everyone: After witnessing how otherwise rational people like evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne or philosopher Stefan Molyneux succumb to plain pseudoscience when it comes to medical psychiatry, it is clear that being rational in one area is by no means a guarantee that this rationality extends into other areas. Even the best can be mistaken, and sometimes profoundly so (because of their ability to rationalize ideas they have reached for non-smart reasons).

3. The value of intellectual self-examination: If brilliant people can be undermined by pseudoscience, why cannot the average person like you or me suffer the same fate? It is sometimes difficult to critically examine cherished positions, but I found it helpful to have multiple working hypotheses and to find the best arguments for and against these. Think slow and decide slower. Also avoid being a pseudoskeptic by reading up on denialist tactics, avoiding them and finally applying your own skepticism symmetrically to things that support or dispute your position.

What is in store for the next year of debunking denialism? Hard to predict the future, but more varied content on a more regular basis is one goal that has been established.

Nada Logan Stotland Dethrones Common Myths about Psychiatry

Despite the fact that The Huffington Post has become a swamp for all sorts of lunacy, everything from anti-vaccine myths and cancer quackery to creationism and New Age, there are some glimmering diamonds in the seeping cesspool of ignorance. Dr Nada Logan Stotland, who is the Professor of Psychiatry and Obstetrics/Gynecology at Rush Medical College, has written a timely piece entitled Myths About Psychiatry, where she lays out and refutes some of the most common myths and misconceptions about psychiatry. It is a bit dated, but it is worth reading. The myths she dethrones includes the notion that psychiatric illnesses do not exist or are poorly defined and that treatment does not work, but is, in fact, dangerous. Let us look at a few of them, in turn.

Myth #1: Definitions of psychiatric conditions are severely suspect.

A common claim is that psychiatric conditions are labels on healthy human variation, or that is an arbitrary convention. Stotland explains that while

It’s true that some psychiatric conditions exist on a continuum with normal reactions, normal states of being. Differentiating them from normal is no different than deciding what level of blood pressure is ‘hypertension,’ how many pounds add up to ‘obesity,’ or how many hours of labor it should take before a baby is born. A condition rises to the level of disease when it handicaps a person, is associated with bad outcomes, and/or can be treated — in psychiatry just as in the rest of medicine.

In other words, a mental disorder is often a condition with strongly interferes with the day to day life of a person. This fits neatly into the three Ds: distress, dysfunction and deviance as guidelines for deciding if a psychological variation should be labeled as a mental condition: does it cause distress or dysfunction for the person or people around them? Is it just so deviant that it cannot reasonably be counted as healthy human variation? Stotland’s response also fits with how other medical conditions work, such as hypertension and obesity. In other words, mental disorders is a disease of the brain/mind, just like other medical conditions are diseases of the heart, or lungs etc.

Another popular claim is that diagnoses are just voted on and are not supported by evidence. Stotland points out that Read more of this post

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