Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

New Medium Primer: Three Things You Need To Know About Multiple Testing

Three things to know about multiple testing

Anti-science activists often abuse multiple testing. Here is some basic information that you need to know in order to get up to speed on the issue.

Read the full primer here: Three Things You Need To Know About Multiple Testing. Remember to hit the heart at the bottom of the primer to help other people find it.

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Appeal Trial For Remorseless Quacks Who Let Their Toddler Die of Meningitis Begins

Stephan appeal

David and Collet Stephan are a married couple with three children that used to live in Alberta in Canada (they moved to Nelson in British Columbia after the first conviction). Both of them are staunch supporters of the pseudoscientific fakery that is naturopathy. David was also an employee at the harmful alternative medicine company Truehope that claims that their supplements can cure various forms of metal illness despite having virtually no scientific support for it. That company has also threatened to sue at least one their critics because she wrote a critical review of their products on her website.

They were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life in the summer of 2016. Their 19-month-old son Ezekiel died of meningitis after they had refused to take him to a hospital during roughly a two-week period. The parents are anti-vaccine activists and just used a variety of fake treatments like garlic, onions, peppers and horseradish.

The father was sentenced to four months in jail and the mother got three months of house arrest due to crucial differences in how they handled the situation. The mother had done Internet research and did a few diagnostic tests on their son, but the dad just got more supplements. Both were also sentenced to 240 hours of community service. The remaining children must see a doctor once a year and that they must post the conviction on their social media accounts in full. David Stephan was later caught selling naturopathic supplements, indicating that he has certainly not given up on this quackery.

Some people who do not understand the point of scientific skepticism and critical thinking often rhetorical ask “what’s the harm?”. This is the harm.

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A Scientific Skeptic Watches “Born in the Wild” (Georgia Episode)

Born in the Wild

Lifetime ran a short-lived television series during 2015 that focused on extreme natural birth activists who decided to give birth in extreme environments, far form any hospitals and often without properly trained medical personnel. These activists wrongly think that giving birth in a hospital is harmful and dangerous, but that giving birth in the wilderness of Alaska or in a windy plains near mountains is much better and safer (even though medical help might take at least 30 minutes to get there).

Although hailed by natural birth activists, the show only ran for a single season that consisted of six episodes in total. It was in many ways a perfect storm of anti-medicine pseudoscience and self-absorbed narcissism of privileged mothers who had no idea about the dangers that are potentially involved in giving birth. For instance, WHO puts the number of mothers who die during or shortly after pregnancy and childbirth to around 300 000 per year. Most of these occur in “low-resource settings” and likely could have been prevented. It is precisely these settings that many natural birth activists attempt to emulate.

Each episode has a common intro. Text appears on the screen explaining that the crushing majority of births in the United States occur in a hospital, but also that “Some women are choosing to have a very different experience. This shows document their journey.” A male voiceover lays out the point out the show by stating that “modern parents giving birth in the wilderness like their ancestors. No hospitals. No surgical intervention. No drugs. Just a choice. To return to the primal roots of humanity.” This show is a celebration to the ignorance involved in romanticizing nature and the past. Previous episodes giving birth in the wilderness of Alaska and the mountain plains of Utah. What happened in this episode?

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The Perils of Anti-Pesticide Hysteria

Pests and pesticides

Pesticides have brought humans breathtaking benefits. They help to protect plants from the adverse impact of weeds, parasites and microscopic pathogens that is a constant threat to their existence. Pesticides were vital for the Green Revolution (occurring between the 1930s to 1960s). This was a powerful transformation that doubled to tripled agricultural output and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people from starvation. If pests were allowed to reign free, an estimated 50% to 80% of all crops (ranging from wheat to cotton) would be lost (Oerke, 2006), although pesticides are not the only form of crop protection available. Pesticides can also suppress insect vectors for important human diseases and reduce the amount of exhausting manual labor used to clear weeds.

Yet, there is a much darker side to pesticides that cannot be ignored. Large, chronic occupational exposure to pesticides can make people sick or even kill them. Pesticides are typically very broad in their specificity, so they do not just harm the target pest, but many non-target organisms that benefit both the crops and the environment. They can also contaminate surface water, ground water and soil and thus have much more far-reaching effects on organisms outside the field. Excessive agricultural use can also make pests resistant to the pesticides, which can substantially reduce their effectiveness in managing insect vectors for human diseases. Many pesticide apologists ignore or downplay many of these problems.

Developing newer and safer pesticides, replacing older and more harmful pesticides, and deploying biotechnology to help plants resist pests should be a global agricultural priority. Yet in a cruel twist, these crucial solutions are often opposed by many anti-pesticide activists and other extreme environmentalists who push fear and misinformation about “chemicals” and genetically modified crops. This apparent paradoxical situation might be called the perils of anti-pesticide hysteria.

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The Apache Attack Helicopter Gambit Declined

Apache Attack Helicopter

There is a famous quote from several hundred years ago that suggests that misinformation can travel across the globe before truth has gotten its running boots on. If we have learnt anything from the modern Internet era, it is that this is a very apt description for how things work. Claims that are surprising, engaging, sensationalist or emotionally manipulative receive many orders of magnitude more likes and shares compared with detailed fact-checking or other forms of skeptical content.

One such persistent set of claims is involved in the Apache attack helicopter gambit. It involves comparing LGBT people and other gender and sexual minorities to someone who thinks that they are an attack helicopter. The gambit wrongly puts a heavy focus on self-identification compared with biological and psychological realities, insinuates that many of these categories are based on things that are not physically possible or delusional, conflates extreme surgical procedures for aesthetic purposes with therapeutic surgery and that a request for basic human rights for trans people is akin to demanding to have the right to murder people arbitrarily. All of these claims are extremely misleading and wrong.

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Soccer Player Francis Koné Did Not Save Four Opponents From Dying

Francis Koné did not save anyone's life

Many journalists uphold the duties of their profession. They report honestly, accurately and without bias on complicated topics that they have decided to be of sufficient importance to share with the world. These journalists serve important societal functions and offer vital critical perspectives on governments, politicians and corporations.

However, some journalists never come close to reaching these laudable goals. Instead, they write to gather attention and provoke reactions and pay little attention to scientific accuracy. In the past, this was done to boost single-copy newspaper at food stores and gas stations. In the modern era, this is done in order to get as many clicks as possible to their articles so that they can earn more and more impressions from the advertisements displayed on those websites. They ultimately specialize in manipulating the emotions of people and monetizing the ignorance.

A recent article in The Guardian hailed the soccer player Francis Koné as someone who has saved the life of multiple opponents who got injured during soccer games he played in. How did he do this? By grabbing their tongues and preventing them from being swallowed. There is only one small problem: humans cannot actually swallow their own tongue because it is tied to the floor of the mouth by the lingual frenulum. In other words, the story is decidedly misleading.

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Facebook’s “Fake News” Crackdown: Here’s How It Works

Facebook tackles fake news

Fake news is content that attempts to look like real news, but is not based on reality. It contains major falsehoods and errors of fact. It is not merely accidentally misleading, but crafted to intentionally deceive people. Fake news stories often manipulate human feelings, such as anger, sadness and schadenfreude. That way, they are more likely to influence their beliefs about the world and people are more likely to share it on social media. This brings in a ton of ad revenue for the fake news network creators and keeps their operation going.

However, more and more people are reaching the point where they have had enough. Fake news degrades the quality of social media content and has the power to influence human decisions about health, current events and potentially even elections. Giant tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are increasingly starting to realize that something has to be done. Suggestions that have been proposed include manual quality filtering of news websites that are included in certain news apps, not allowing the worst fake news offenders to use their advertisement system and others.

Just a few days ago, Facebook began to deploy their mitigation systems against the influence of fake news. What does it consist of? How will it work in practice? Will it work? How could it affect the efforts of fact-checkers, science advocates and scientific skeptics on social media?

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How Social Media Bots Massively Boost the Reach of Misinformation

Social media bots and misinformation

The Internet has brought wonderful opportunities that many people never thought was possible. A large chunk of the scientific, mathematical and historical knowledge mass that humans have collected over decades and centuries can now be accessed by almost anyone with an Internet connection. Want to learn about the digits of pi, details of the Roman empire or chemical data for the noble gas argon? All of it can be found on the Internet from reputable sources that you can trust. However, these riches have not come without a considerable of anti-intellectual pollution.

Because almost anyone can put up their own website or start a social media account, the spread of pseudoscience, bigotry and general nonsense is now probably larger than ever before. Flat earthers that use to be a marginalized group of wackos have now expanded their operations with thousands of hours of original materials on video hosting websites and at least tens of thousands of tweets pushing their batshit ignorance of the world. Anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists have created entire networks of social media accounts, pages and groups to spread their dangerous nonsense to vulnerable people and may have played a role in the outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

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