Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Few Anti-Vaccine Archetypes

Steven Novella recently published What is an Antivaxer? over at the Science-Based Medicine blog. It is a useful overview of different classic types of anti-vaccine advocates. He admits up front that it is really a continuum, but offers a couple of typical cases.

I will discuss them in turn and add my personal interpretation and evaluate how likely it is to persuade the individuals in these categories that they are mistaken. To emphasize again, these are stereotypical categories and all individuals should be treated as individuals.

1. The Misinformed Parent

This is the person who has heard anecdotes from their friends and started to believe, with no good evidence, in the general harmfulness of vaccines. Novella explains:

The first sub-category is not truly anti-vaccine, but can be made to feel as if they are being lumped in with extremists – and that is well-meaning parents who are simply misinformed or confused.

He goes on to point out that scientific skeptics are not critical of this group, as they are merely the unfortunate victims of anti-vaccine propaganda. Maybe they have heard that vaccines contain mercury, but not gotten the full story:

However, mercury was removed from the routine childhood vaccine schedule in the US by 2002. Tiny doses of mercury (in thimerosal) is still present in some, but not all, flu vaccines. You can get all the vaccines you need without any mercury (except for insignificant trace amounts). I should also mention that the doses of mercury in vaccines prior to 2002 was tiny, that it is in the form of ethylmercury, which is much less toxic than methylmercury (the form that is more likely to be encountered in the environment), and that the evidence does not show any link between mercury in vaccines and any adverse outcome.

I think that these group should be treated with kindness because they may be the easiest archetype to persuade of the effectiveness and safety of vaccines. Not quite an unbiased fence-sitter, but basically as close to one as you get when it comes to anti-vaxers.

2. The Mercury Militant

If one is heavily invested in the idea that mercury that is suppose to be found in vaccines (which really isn’t; see above) is causing pretty much most or all of modern day diseases, one may be placed in the mercury militant archetype. Novella suggests that: Read more of this post

An Open Letter to Libertarian Climate Change Denialists


I am writing this plea in order to counter the growing tendency for some libertarian groups to reject the science behind global warming and climate change. This is an unfortunate tendency because if libertarianism can be associated with fringe antiscience groups, then this makes libertarianism as a whole an easy target for naive critics. They can ignore the problems with large bureaucratic governments and the reduction in civil liberties and just focus on the fact that certain libertarians reject mainstream climate science and thereby portray libertarianism as an irrational form of antiscience denialism, in the same way many liberals view creationist republicans as intellectually left behind.

Many people would probably object to being labeled as denialists. This is understandable, but it is important to realize that this is not meant as a guilt by association tactic to, for instance, Holocaust deniers. Rather, the term denialism usually refers to the deployment of a dishonest rhetorical debating tactic which makes it appear as if there is a legitimate scientific debate about the topic when the evidence for the mainstream scientific position is overwhelming. This is usually done by quoting scientists out of context, portraying a discussion about how something is happening as if it was a debate on whether it was occurring or not, misunderstanding basic science, peddling conspiracy theories, cherry picking research results while asserting that themselves are being censored when scientists are criticizing them and so on. These tactic are frequently used by opponents of the mainstream scientific position on climate change. To be sure, big government liberals are also guilty of quite a bit of pseudoscience as well, such as postmodernism, opposition to genetically modified foods, animal rights extremists and so on.

One useful realization is that it is important to separate the science behind climate change and global warming from the big government suggestions for mitigating the issues. It is entirely consistent to accept mainstream climate science, yet reject the proposed “solutions” provided by liberal politicians and other organizations. There should be opportunity for investigating free markets solutions and investing in new technology for mitigating climate change. Read more of this post

Stefan Molyneux’s Unfortunate Spiraling into Anti-Psychiatry

Stefan Molyneux is an atheist and anarchist philosopher. He is the host of Freedomain Radio, which is one of the most popular podcast series on philosophy on the internet. He is an author of many books such as “Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics”, “Against the Gods” and “How (Not) To Achieve Freedom”. He is also a popular speaker on many libertarian festivals and gatherings such as New Hampshire Liberty Forum, Libertopia and many others. His arguments about religion, problems with many government programs and peaceful parenting are very persuasive and worth taking a look at. However, dark clouds appeared on the horizon back in early August.

I explored some of the problematic claims that Molyneux put forward on the topic psychiatry a while back in a post entitled A Critical Examination of Stefan Molyneux’s Claims about Antidepressants, where I attempted to correct what I thought where flaws in his arguments about medical psychiatry. While I did not consider him to be anti-psychiatry at the time, one of his latest videos on the topic has made me reevaluate that stance. In a video spanning almost 50 minutes called There Is No Such Thing As Mental Illness, he lays out his case against psychiatry, arguing not only that there is no such thing as mental illness, but that medications against these mental conditions (such as antidepressants and anti-psychotics) are not only ineffective, but actually harmful. He finishes off by asserting that psychiatry is a pseudoscience and should not be taken seriously.

Let us get one thing straight at the start, Molyneux is not claiming that the conditions that the scientific establishment labels as mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety, do not exist. On the contrary, he admits that the anguish and suffering is very real. His problem lies in the notion that these are classified as mental illnesses. He rather thinks it is a reaction to a sick and harmful society. He makes a large number of other claims, that I will be examining in this blog post, one by one.

I also just want to emphasize, yet again, that I am not a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist. I am just a guy on the internet. Because of that, I fully accept that I can be completely mistaken in everything I say. But hopefully I can present persuasive evidence for the arguments and claims I make in this entry. I will also list the timestamps for the specific claims made so that readers can make sure that I did not falsely characterize his arguments and positions. With that said, let’s get started. Read more of this post

Belief and Knowledge

Belief and knowledge - a plea about language

Helen Quinn is a particle physicists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and a former president of the American Physical Society and also has been involved in science education and the public understanding of science. Quinn has written an extremely important article that was published a few years ago in the journal Physics Today called Belief and knowledge—a plea about language, dealing with how well-defined scientific concepts are sometimes misunderstood and even abused by the public, which is often incredibly frustrating.

Quinn starts with a personal anecdote: as her husband where describing the topic of his thesis to a layperson, which was using a coincidence set up for to see that two particles detected simultaneously where most likely coming from the same event.

I remember the puzzlement of a friend as my husband described his thesis research—a coincidence experiment. His listener stopped listening; she was thinking about why anyone would try to measure coincidences. I pointed out that the word “coincident” simply means “occurring at the same time.” The experiment used its precise timing to ensure that two particles detected at the same time had a very high probability of coming from the same source event. Thus the term coincidence was used in a sense opposite to the everyday meaning, where a coincidence is two uncorrelated events that come together. Words shift their meaning; each community develops its own usage. That change in meaning leads to miscommunication.

Quinn points out that this problem does not just arise with the term coincident, but with other terms, such as theory and energy and explains how this can lead to misunderstanding of science. Read more of this post

Books on Creationism and Intelligent Design

This is going to be a comprehensive list of books on the religious pseudoscience of creationism and its newest reincarnation, intelligent design from various perspectives, both scientific, philosophical and religious.

Books on Creationism and Intelligent Design

1. Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design is a book written by Michael Shermer. It is a great and lucid introduction to intelligent design and its scientific flaws. It also argues that evolution is compatible with religion and that science and religion represents two non-overlapping fields of inquiry and that truth cannot contradict truth.

2. Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism is a book edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis that contains several different chapters written by different leading scientists in the field responding to claims made by the intelligent design creationists, such as the evolution of the avian flight apparatus, the bacterial flagellum, the origin of genetic information and complexity and so on. This is a slightly technical book, but a must for anyone wanting to get a thorough treatment of the flaws of intelligent design creationism.

3. Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design is a book by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross examining the intelligent design movement. It is a deep and penetrative analysis that exposes the creationist origin of its new incarnation of intelligent design. Read more of this post

My Encounter with a Holocaust Denier


While I have spent many hours debating Holocaust deniers and the anti-immigration forces online at various blogs and forums, nothing quite prepares you for the real deal. I had a rather polite conversation with a person I interact with on a daily basis at the place I spend most of my time during the day. He subscribed to various common anti-immigration beliefs and made frequent appeals to “natural” in his justification of the subjugation of women. He also turned out to be a Holocaust denier and a self-professed “racist”. Because it is pretty clear that these particular individuals live trapped in a mirror world of make-belief and post hoc rationalizations, it is quite a surreal experience talking to one face-to-face. Now, this blog post is going to be pretty anecdotal, but I think it is instructive and could hopefully help others experiencing the same thing in the future.

This person was, luckily for me, not that well-read on arguments or debating tactics frequently used by anti-immigration pseudoskeptics or Holocaust deniers. For instance, the he did not object to the question of whether he was a racist or not, but freely confessed it to be the case. A sophisticated pseudoskeptic would probably have rejected the label and said something along the lines of “I am so tired of being called a racist just because I want responsible immigration policies”, thereby making it appear as if he or she was a martyr, being attacked on a personal level for his or her beliefs. In any case, I tried to help him clearly articulate his position, because he was a bit embarrassed when admitting that he denied the existence of gas chambers or the mainstream figure of about 6 million Jewish deaths. Clearly, he realized that the more he spoke about it, the more credibility among the listeners he lost. Granted, it was pretty low-hanging fruit for me and his claims became more and more absurd the more he opened his mouth, but I was able to shoot down most of the arguments he put forward, point out internal contradictions as well as ask him critical questions that he could not satisfactory answer.

Let me go over them, one by one.

1. Gas chambers where not just delousing chambers

One of his major claims, and one of the most common claim put forward by Holocaust deniers is that the gas chambers at the extermination camps where not actually used to kill people in, but just used for delousing infested clothes. There are many problems with this. First, the gas chambers in Treblinka used carbon monoxide, which is lethal because it reversibly binds to hemoglobin in mammals and prevents it from transporting oxygen around the body. However, lice do not have hemoglobin so using carbon monoxide to delouse clothing would be a very ineffective method. Second, some gas chambers in Auschwitz used Zyklon-B and had special chambers inside these that where specifically used for delousing. If the gas chambers where really just “delousing chambers”, why put a specific box for delousing clothing within this supposed “delousing chamber”? Clearly, the evidence supports the mainstream historical account, rather than Holocaust denialism. Read more of this post

Problems with Racial Realism and Race-Based Rhetoric

Racial realism can be defined as the notion that racial categories are based on sound biological evidence and that such categorizations are important because of differences in things like intelligence and impulsiveness between these groups.

However, there are a number of problems with this views in many areas such as statistics, genetics and phylogenetics that is important to keep in mind. These will be discussed in turn and then the post will finish up with a discussion of how modern biology view the concept of race.

1. The average says nothing about the spread

A common argument is that there is a difference in average IQ between different ethnicities and that this motivates the notion that some groups are more intelligent than others, creating a racial hierarchy. However, most phenotypic traits, such as intelligence, are normally distributed. That is, in any given group, some people will be more intelligent, some will be less, and most of the individuals will be between these two extremes. So the bell curves between different racial groups probably overlap to a significant extent, so it is important to remember that the average says nothing about the spread, that is, how different IQ scores are distributed in that group. So if group A has a lower average IQ score than group B, there will be many individuals in group A that have a higher IQ score than individuals in group B. Talking about averages in such a naive way is quite collectivist and ignores individual variation. Read more of this post

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