Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Monthly Archives: July 2012

No Sanctions for HIV/AIDS Denialist Marco Ruggiero

Previously, I have written about how the University of Florence has launched an inquiry into the activities of HIV/AIDS denialist Marco Ruggiero, a professor who held courses actively promoting that HIV is not the cause of AIDS at the university. He also promotes a pseudoscientific yogurt treatment of HIV/AIDS and supervised degree projects by students that also denied the link between HIV and AIDS that were clearly plagiarized.


Yesterday, an article about the decision written by science journalist Zoë Corbyn was posted on the Nature News Blog entitled “Greater oversight but no sanctions for Italian AIDS contrarian“. The general gist of the story is that no sanctions will be leveled at Ruggiero, that his future teachings will be supervised more strongly, that his clinical experiments with the yogurt treatment has been reported to the Italian medical board.

Ruggiero sees it as a victory for his position when he claims that “The University of [Florence] has demonstrated it is an institution where the freedom of research and teaching is guaranteed”. This is of course nonsense as university teachings in science should be based on evidence.

The HIV Forum, who notified the university about Ruggiero, also claims a modest victory because “Our target was not the career of someone, but the consistency of what is taught at the University of Florence with what thirty years of scientific research tells us about HIV,” and “[The result confirms] freedom of research and teaching must ‘move with the scientific method’.”

I think the special commission had a tight rope to talk on. Clearly, the university cannot go around teaching that HIV does not cause AIDS, but sanctions on Ruggiero could create another martyr and strengthen conspiracy theories. I will try to keep myself updated on the decision by the Italian medical board.

Some Helpful Ground Rules for Discussing Feminism


I think a lot of people are getting pretty sick and tired of tweet wars and endless bickering in the comment section of blogs trying to talk about feminism. It quickly breaks down in emotional tirades and name-calling, regardless of position taken. It is like getting stuck in world where everything repeats itself, over and over again ad nauseum. Progress is rarely made. Therefore, I have made a list on some ground rules that may be useful when trying to have an intelligent, productive and rational conversation about feminism. Alternatively, you might consider this a personal commentary on what I think is wrong with the current discussions about feminism in the skeptical blogosphere and some ideas for fixing it, or at least reducing the problem.

Acknowledge the diversity of feminist thought

“Feminism” is really a diverse and heterogeneous group of movements. We should be speaking of “feminisms”, not Feminism with a capital F. Generally speaking, one can safely assume that most versions of feminism think that women should have the same cultural, economic and political power as men. Exactly how the inequality has arisen, how big it is, what it means, and how to work against it differs among different forms of feminism. Therefore, it is meaningless to start claims with “feminists believe” or “feminists think” when discussion the specifics of particular versions of feminism. It will just come out as hasty generalizations that won’t benefit the conversation.

This has important implications. It means that individuals who are against feminism cannot use criticisms against a particular section of feminist thought as a bladestorm against all forms of feminism. Similarity, feminists that support a particular version of feminism cannot claim that a given person is anti-feminism because that person puts forward arguments against their particular version. It might as well be the case that the person subscribes to a different version of feminism, making it a debate between different types of feminism (rather than a discussion between feminism and anti-feminism). Of course, some commentators are so obviously just anti-feminist trolls and should be treated as such, but this should not be the default assumptions.

Accept that feminist movements have made many beneficial societal contributions

This is necessarily going to be an oversimplification of the history and contributions of various forms of feminism and I am not a feminist scholar. The main societal contributions of feminism revolve around things like women’s suffrage, combating discriminatory laws, reforming attitudes towards sexual abuse, increased reproductive rights of women and helping women in the workplace. So, in essence, feminist movements have a couple of victories in their baggage, although it is by no means attained the ultimate goal of having the same cultural, economic and political power as men in all areas. More work is left to be done.

The key here is that we must acknowledge that feminist movements have made improvements for society and for individual women. Read more of this post

Some Falsehoods about the Y chromosome and Male Brains

y chromosome

Note: Greg Laden has made a comment on this post saying that I misrepresented his position. I am open to the possibility and have therefore asked some follow-up questions, but at the time of writing this note (2012-07-26 22:23 GMT +1 DST), Laden has not clarified the situation for me. Keep this in mind while reading this post. Will update this again when he does.

Note: I just noticed (2012-07-28 22:08 GTM +1 DST) that Heina Dadabhoy did not mean what she actually said, but said it as a joke in response to a tweet by Zvan. There is an alternative explanation, namely as a post hoc rationalization when Heina discovered that she had been called on it, but it seems less likely. In essence, this means that we can probably consider both the claim made by Greg and Heina to be jokes or awkwardly expressed science. The only think left now is for Greg to finish writing up his follow-up and/or setting me straight by explaining more in detail in what way I misrepresented him.

Note: As a clarification (2012-07-28 23:06 GMT +1 DST) for Kelseigh Nieforth (‏@Nezchan), I reject this alternative explanation. It is possible, but relatively implausible. I did not intend to sound “mean-spirited & insulting”, quite the opposite. My intent was to rebuke what I felt was going to be the standard misogynist reply (i.e. claiming that Heina only said it was a joke when she noticed it had gotten a lot of attention and reflected badly upon her).

Note: Greg Laden has clarified his position over at his Scienceblogs blog. The general idea is that testosterone alters the male brain during different stages of development and “damaged” referred to the fact that androgens and other biosocial factors influence certain men to be more statistically likely to exhibit socially noxious and harmful behaviors that are incompatible with progressive, egalitarian and peaceful world. I have no general problems with this position (note added 2012-08-03 20:16 GTM +1 DST).

Note: This blog post has been linked by a men’s rights activist blog. All forms of discrimination is morally wrong, but most men’s rights activism I have come across seems to be equal parts pseudoscience and blanket anti-feminism. I therefore, in general, reject men’s rights activism. This post should not, and cannot, be interpreted as giving men’s rights activism any support, whatsoever (clarification added 2012-08-04 14:14 GMT +1 DST).

The background to this story is that Heina Dadabhoy and Greg Laden, at a panel discussion on gender differences at SkepchickCon/CONvergence, claimed that the Y chromosome was “broken” and that the male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone. Amidst substantial criticism of these claims, the FtB blogger Stephanie Zvan decided to take upon herself to defend these flawed notions. As we shall see, her attempt is filled with incorrect characterizations and selective use of the scientific literature,

But first, let us make sure we have understood the claims being put forward in the video, so that we do not incorrectly characterize them as something they are not. A video of the panel discussion can be found here. I will post enough of the discussion for context, but readers are encouraged to check if I have gotten everything right. Laden was especially hard to take a transcript of, because he talks very fast and often changes mid-sentence, but hopefully I got the gist. It starts with a question from the audience at 35:41 about the gender differences in autism diagnosis and how males are supposedly more often autistic than females:

Heina Dadabhoy: That is an underdiagnosis issue, actually. They have been doing more and more research on women and autism. A lot of us women who fall on the spectrum only find out when we are adults, because a lot of the behaviors that manifest…the ways that girl tend to manifest it is slightly different and you know a girl who gets obsessed with something they are like “oh, well she is a girl and she has her little obsessions, how cute and when it is a boy it is like “oh, why isn’t he out beating up his peers?” so that is a big issue with autism.

Member in the audience: …inaudible… [probably something to do with differential disease susceptibility between genders e. g. red-green color blindness or hemophilia – E. K.]

Heina Dadabhoy: That is the Y chromosome. It’s broken [Dadabhoy smiles and laughs – E. K.]

Greg Laden: There is… there is … One thing that psychology does…There is some reasonable evidence that certain….There are gender differences.. [inaudible]. But there are gender differences. One of the most important gender differences.. in other words males versus females do not overlap that much at all… in certain areas and one of…one place they do not overlap at all, and you can’t change this… with culture… you can change spatial orientation by giving everyone Tetris when they are born and will be the same. What we can’t change is that, for example, is the number of kids that cannot read until much later…the age at which you start to read and how you have dyslexia and so on that are boys is an order of magnitude higher in girls and you can do everything you want to fix that and you can only fix them a little bit. Most of those differences disappear and are not necessarily that significant, but is real. You know, the male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone in various stages in it’s life. I think probably there are some very interesting adult difference…you cannot look at at a person and say that, but population differences between males and females that has to do with brain development because hormonal differences and…most of them are probably kind of trivial but there probably are some…yeah autism…I don’t think that is an example of one, but there probably are some things but if we where that different, it would be a hard time communicating…[inaudible].

So, right of the bat we can see that Zvan has incorrectly characterized both what Dadabhoy and Laden had stated. Dadabhoy stated that the Y chromosome was broken, not, as Zvan wants to have it that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome. Laden stated that male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone in various stages in it’s life and did not use the term development. As we shall see, it is these false characterizations that Zvan’s bases her arguments on, but the bigger problem is that Zvan has no scientific foundation for her argument, leading the entire tortuous justification of the notion that men are genetically and neurologically “broken” to collapses onto itself.

The Y chromosome is not broken, but contains 86 unique and functioning genes

In her attempt to justify the absurd notion that men are genetically broken, Zvan appeals to the fact that the Y chromosome cannot recombine with the X chromosome to the same degree that the X chromosome can with another X chromosome. While this is true, this does not justify the original claim that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome, or the stronger claim that the Y chromosome is broken. In fact, the Y chromosome contains 86 fully functioning genes and this does not even count the genes that exists on both the X and Y chromosome. For the vast majority of individuals, the Y chromosome is fully functional and does not produce genetic defects or pathology. So nothing is actually “broken”.

X-linked recessive disorders signify a problem with the X chromosome, not the Y one

Zvan points out that males are more at risk for certain heritable disease because the related gene only occurs once, while in females it occurs twice (since they have two X chromosomes). This is also true, but the causative factor is the disabling mutation in the X chromosome that causes the disease, not something to do with the Y chromosome. So in other words, what is “broken” in these cases, is the X chromosome, not the Y.

Lack of large-scale recombination is sometimes a good thing

The loss of an ability for large-scale recombination is not something uniformly bad. In fact, if large-scale recombination between the Y chromosome and X chromosome was possible, it could result in males without the necessary sex-determining or sex-influencing regions in their Y chromosomes and females with harmful genes only found on the Y chromosomes, so the lack of large-scale recombination between X and Y is clearly adaptive. A loss does not need to be evolutionary or physiologically detrimental. Read more of this post

Pseudoskepticsm Among Previously Greater Scientists

test tubes

Konrad Lorenz is usually credited with being the father of ethology (the study of animal behavior). He discovered imprinting and was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973. He will always be remembered as one of the early contributors of the field.

However, he was also a staunch Nazi propagandist and believed that his entire body of scientific research was devoted to Nazism. His scientific legacy has largely been overshadowed by the absurdity of his pseudoscientific and pseudoskeptical beliefs regarding human diversity and Nazism as well as the horrible social consequences of these patently false ideologies.

Kary Mullis is an American biochemist who won the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1993 because of his important improvements in a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It is a method that has since become a central part in genome sequencing, diagnosis of hereditary diseases and the functional analysis of genes. It is also used in various area of forensics and paternity testing. Unfortunately, he became an HIV/AIDS denialist, rejected the mainstream science of climate change and promoted astrology.

This article will examine two central questions. The first is: why do some prominent scientists, even having won a Nobel Prize, fall into the swamp of pseudoscience or worse? The second question is: why does such a situation feel so cognitively uncomfortable for a scientific skeptic? Read more of this post

There is No “Spanking Debate”

spanking article

An excellent article by journalist Lisa Belkin was posted over at Huffington Post a few days ago called Why Does Everyone Pretend There’s A ‘Spanking Debate’?. It is a decisive blow against physical punishment of children and a searing indictment of false balance in the media, giving equal time to science and quackery.

Sure, Huffington Post puts out a lot of articles that are crap, but this one is golden.

Spanking was a subject of debate on every parenting website on the continent during the past week, and I don’t understand why.

Yes, I know why it was a topic of conversation — the prestigious journal Pediatrics released a study early in the week showing a possible link between childhood spanking and mental health struggles later in that child’s life, and that was news worth talking about.

What I don’t understand is why it was a debate. By definition, that would require two sides. I see only one.

Precisely. There is no real debate. The evidence is clear-cut and it is against physical punishment of children. It is ineffective for obtaining long-term compliance. It is associated with more physical and verbal aggression and less capacity to feel empathy. Children who are physically punished are more likely to develop mental conditions as children and as an adult. It causes the relationship between the parent and child to deteriorate. The list of the negative impacts of physical punishment of children can be made long. In fact, calling it “spanking” is just an Orwellian way to make it sound less harmful. Read more of this post

Elizabeth Gershoff on the Physical Punishment of Children


Elizabeth Gershoff is a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Texas at Austin. One important part of her research is about the effects of physical punishment on children.

Gershoff has a number of interesting publications on the matter, such as:

—> The article “More Harm Than Good: A Summary of Scientific Research on the Intended and Unintended Effects of Corporal Punishment on Children” published in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems (a publication of Duke Law School) back in 2010. Go here for the full article.

—> The article “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review” published in Psychological Bulletin in 2002. An online copy can be found here.

—> A report titled “Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children” from 2008. Can be found here.

—> The article “The Case Against Corporal Punishment of Children: Converging Evidence from Social Science Research and International Human Rights Law and Implications for U. S. Public Policy” from 2007 in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Go here for the full text.

In this overview, I will focus on Gershoff (2008).

What is physical punishment of children?

The Gershoff (2008) report defines physical punishment as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing the child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish the child’s behavior” and argues that it includes such actions as slapping a child’s hand, hitting children with a paddle, washing a child’s mouth with soap and torture-like actions like forcing a child to sit in painful positions. The report also quickly points the difference between physical punishment and protective physical restraint, such as holding a child to prevent him or her from running into traffic. As far as I can tell, it is common for those who are in favor of physical punishment of children to equivocate these two actions in order to justify physical punishment.

A Long Series of Disturbing Findings

Gershoff (2008) lists a number of results from the research that delivers a decisive empirical blow against physical punishment of children. As far as prevalence goes 80% of American children have received physical punishment from their parents by the time they reach the 5th and over 70% of parents agree or strongly agree with the sentiment that “children sometimes need a good, hard spanking”

1. People who are more likely to use physical punishment on children have themselves been on the receiving end of physical punishment when they were children.

2. Physical punishment is detrimental to long-term compliance.

3. Physical punishment of children leads to less internalization of moral norms, more physical and verbal aggression, physical fighting and bullying, antisocial behavior and less ability for the child to feel empathy. In other words, the more physical punishment the child receives, the more disobedient the child becomes.The results cannot be explained by the fact that aggressive children receive more physical punishment from parents. Longitudinal studies show that more physical punishment the parents uses, the more aggressive behavior the child displays over time, even controlling for initial aggression. A randomized control trial supports this result. Read more of this post

The Role of Motives in Arguments


What is the role of motives in arguments? Is it important or relevant what motives a person has for arguing for the validity of his or her arguments? Or is it just a convenient way to shield oneself from accepting that one is mistaken?

It may be useful to look at the concept of substitution in cognitive psychology. It occurs when one is replacing the actual question with a question that requires fewer cognitive resources to answer. The classic example is when the question being evaluated concerns how common or how statistically likely something is. This is, for many, usually replaced by the simpler question of “how easy can I imagine examples” of this something. The answer most people give to the question “How common is crimes by a certain ethnic minority?” will depend on how easy it is to imagine examples that you know of it, usually corresponding to how frequent it has been portrayed in the media. This is called availability heuristics. Other examples of substitution is replacing “how likely is this product to succeed in the market place?” with “how much do I like it?”.

Could something similar be going on when people start discussing the motives of an individual instead of the merits of his or her arguments? The harder question, namely “is this a reasonableness argument?”, is substituted by the easier question, namely “do I like this person’s position?”. This is usually no (otherwise there would be little point in having an adversarial argument). So then this has to be expressed, and of course the opponent won’t say “well, I don’t like your position, therefore your argument is wrong”, because that would be weird. Instead, I would wager that the person would start calling into question the motives of the proponent instead, since no actual evaluation of the merits of the argument has taken place.

So, in addition to being logically fallacious, the rhetorical technique of appealing to the motives of a person making an argument (instead of addressing the actual argument), it is really a form of cognitive error. Clearly, the merits of a particular claim does not depend on the motives of the person putting forward the argument. It only rests on the evidence and arguments for or against the particular proposition. Read more of this post

How to Limit Groupthink in the Skeptical Community


Skeptics are human beings. As such, they are vulnerable to a broad variety of biases, logical fallacies, inappropriate heuristics and various other cognitive malfunctions that tend to undermine human rationality. To a certain extent, it is possible to put effort into learning about the limitations of the human brain when it comes to evaluating the world around us and thus become less likely to fall prey to these problems. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that complete immunity usually cannot be reached.

In this article, I am using the phrase “skeptical community” in a very broadest sense, referring to communities of loosely aggregated individuals who have the ideal that humans should prefer science and reason to dogma, baseless ideology and superstition. On occasion, however, some of the things I say may be more applicable to specific online communities than to the movement overall. In other sections, suggestions are more directed towards accomplishing the overall goals of skepticism than to the behavior of any particular part. This entry should not be interpreted as if I am postulating that groupthink is somehow a huge problem in the skeptical community, but that it is important to keep the part of the skeptical baloney detector that deals with these issues fully operational.

What is Groupthink?

Merriam-Webster defines groupthink as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”. It was originally proposed by Irving Janis in the early 1970s and regarded decision-making in groups, but rapidly became a multidisciplinary model of human behavior. Janis argued that groupthink often occurred when groups where e. g. highly cohesive, where under stress, insulated from external experts, too shallow search and appraisal of information etc. This could, according to Turner and Pratkanis (1998):

[…] foster the extreme consensus-seeking characteristic of groupthink. This in turn is predicted to lead to two categories of undesirable decision-making processes. The first, traditionally labeled symptoms of groupthink, include illusions of invulnerability, collective rationalization, stereotypes of outgroups, self-censorship, mindguards. and belief in the inherent morality of the group. The second, typically identical as symptoms of defective decision-making, involve the incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives, poor information search, failure to appraise the risks of the preferred solution, and selective information processing. Not surprisingly, these combined forces are predicted to result in extremely defective decision making performance by the group.

Why is Groupthink Especially Bad for the Skeptical Community?

Groupthink is usually a bad idea for all groups and communities, but there are a few factors that makes it especially troublesome for the global skeptical community.

Groupthink makes the skeptical community seem intolerant of dissent: being disdainful of criticism or suppressing dissent (even with psychological, rather than violent methods) is typically a feature of dogmatism and pseudoscience and it would be unfortunate if these features became associated with certain areas of the skeptical community. It seems reasonable that the skeptical community should foster an honest and open conversation about most issues, even if those issues deeply held. However, there will always be exception and there is a trade-off between free speech and “giving a platform for X”. Read more of this post

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