Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

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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“Politics?! I Thought This Was About Science!”

Politics?!

“Politics?! I thought this was about science!”

This is a common trope that is often leveled against scientists and skeptics that challenge pseudoscience or political policies being pushed by anti-science politicians. However, it is fatally flawed on several different levels.

First, many forms of pseudoscience have deceptive political agendas, such as pushing creationism in public schools, undermining the vaccine schedule, shredding climate agreements or deregulating fake treatments that harm people. These cannot be ignored. Second, anti-science politicians are have no magic immunity shield towards criticism. If they promote nonsense, they are just as viable targets for intellectual criticism as any other profession.

Third, scientific victories were hard-won and should not be conceded so easily. Fourth, when scientists and skeptics argue for evidence-based policy, it is science that justifiably intrude on politics not the other way around like the accusers would have it. Fifth and finally, science crucially depends on science funding that is partially under the control by politicians. If you screw up science funding, you screw up science. Science and scientists should not be intellectual pacifists and not go quietly into the darkness.

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Current Battlefields in the Misinformation Wars

Battlefields

The spread of misinformation has never been greater. The Internet has been an amazing resource for people to access millions of scientific papers on everything from the molecular biology of cancer to climate models. However, it has also brought with it a terribly cost: misinformation can spread much easier than carefully considered facts and has the ability to emotionally manipulate millions of people into believing this that are demonstrably false. This can influence personal beliefs, consumer decisions and perhaps even national elections.

Although this is not a new problem by any stretch of the imagination, malignant threats such as post-truth, fake news, filter bubbles, “alternative” facts and fake fact checkers have spread enormously in recent years. This article takes a closer look at each of these threats, what they mean and how they can be fought. Although there are no simple answers at this point and skeptics as well as scientists struggle to find workable solutions, there are a few clues available.

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“Alternative Facts” Are Really Just Misinformation

Alternative facts

During the 2016 Presidential Election process, there was a near complete disregard for what was true (post-truth) and a massive surge in the promotion of false and misleading news items that pretended to the true (fake news). This was further amplified by the viral spread of sensationalist nonsense on social media. Even worse, many of those systems were run by mindless algorithms designed to monetize individual preferences and feed their users information that conformed to their own ideological biases (social media filter bubble). Together, this has become known as the misinformation wars.

Many of these things are not new and has plagued scientists, doctors, skeptics and other science advocates for many years. However, there was decidedly a massive surge that happened in recent years. People and groups that promote pseudoscience and bigotry managed to manipulate the mainstream media into giving them a ton attention and free publicity. These groups could then counter by spreading demonstrably false narratives in their filter bubbles to build what was and is essentially an anti-reality grassroot movement.

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Defending Science: Now Even More Crucial

Defending Science

Science is under increasingly attack by quacks, cranks and miscellaneous anti-science activists. What is worse, pseudoscience has also infiltrated medical centers and governments. Politicians push faulty ideological narratives, destabilize democratic values and reject strongly supported facts on climate, evolution, vaccines and many more. This is not a new phenomenon. However, there is recent surge in well-funded and organized campaigns that spread misinformation about current events, science and medicine. This is further aggravated and amplified by social media filter bubbles where people chose what ideological content they want to see and ignore the rest. Even more deceptively, some search engines silently adapt to your habits. They show you information that match your preferences and enhance your already existing biases.

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Mailbag: GMOs and Corporations?

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.

Science is hard. That is why we need dedicated research to explore, discover and untangle the nature of reality and how the world works. When a scientific issue also becomes socially controversial with powerful forces trying to persuade us to hold positions that run counter to evidence and mainstream science, it can get very complicated. One such area is genetically modified crops and genetically modified foods. It is an area where many different issues, from details of molecular biology and field trials to patent law and corporations get mixed together in a confusing mess. Read more of this post

Rise of the Fake Fact Checkers

Fake fact checkers

There is a growing assault on facts. The dark forces that scientists, doctors and scientific skeptics have fought for decades have now rapidly metastasized and forcefully exploded into the mainstream with the rise of concentrated misinformation and fake news that are reinforced by filter bubbles. People isolate themselves in social media communities that block contradictory information from ever reaching them. The intention to provide people with personalized results has had terrible consequences.

Those in power and those who profit from obscuring the truth are making every effort to destabilize democracy and undermine confidence in the mainstream media as well as scientific and medical organizations. This has led to the notion that we are currently taking part in the so-called misinformation wars and pro-science advocates are currently struggling with how to revolutionize science communication and skeptical outreach.

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Woman With Treatable Breast Cancer Picks Quackery Over Medicine

Valentine

Cancer is not a single disease, but different kinds of cancers can be grouped together because they behave in similar ways and afflict similar parts of the body. Although the very word “cancer” strikes fear into a lot of people and their families, medical treatments have advanced substantially over time. Doctors are now able to treat and even cure more forms of cancer than ever before and new research is being constantly carried out and published.

There has also been noticeable improvements in the ability of the health care system to detect cancer before it is too late. Catching cancer early is often a good thing compared with not detecting it until much later. This is because there is a less risk that the cancer has undergone radical changes or spread to other parts of the body. It is therefore agonizing and excruciatingly distressing when people who are diagnosed with early-stage cancer that are very treatable completely reject science-based treatments in favor of things that are ineffective or even dangerous. Recently, one such tragic case featuring a mother of four with stage 1 2 breast cancer appeared on the mass media tabloid scene.

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Another Quack Convicted of Neglecting Her Son to Death

Lovett

Sick children deserve to get the best possible treatment for their diseases. It is terrible to think about how a young child suffers and dies from severe diseases that could easily be treated because their parents are anti-medicine and believe that ineffective quack treatments work when they actually do not. Deaths due to severe neglect by parents could often have been entirely prevented.

Had they just accepted mainstream medicine instead of relying on pseudoscientific nonsense, their children could likely be alive today. This is probably an extremely ghastly realization, which is why some parents who neglected their children to death do not want to admit this and refuse to take responsibility for their terrible actions.

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Mailbag: Anti-Psychiatry Fallacies and Falsehoods

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.

Anti-science activism takes many forms. They can oppose specific scientific models such as climate change or evolution. They can oppose entire aspects of medicine, such as alternative medicine or cancer quackery. They can promote conspiracy theories on specific historical events such as 9/11 terrorist attacks or the Holocaust. They can oppose specific products developed by researchers such as vaccines or genetically modified crops. They can even be corrupted by specific ideologies such as natural birth quackery or race pseudoscience.

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Debunking the Myth of “No-Go” Zones in Sweden

The problem of misinformation is perhaps worse now than ever with the recent surge of fake news and misleading claims about everything from politicians to crime statistics. Human confirmation bias, isolated social media filter bubbles and search engine algorithms all contribute to a growing sense of polarization. The misinformation war that has plagues scientific skeptics and pro-science advocates when it comes to pseudoscience has now invaded politics and political policy issues. Dark forces are more willing than ever to lie and misrepresent statistics to provoke fear, anger and suspicion among people towards others. Read more of this post

How to Endure the Seemingly Endless War Against Misinformation

How to Endure the War

Sometimes the war against misinformation seems to be both endless and hopeless. Despite being massively contradicted by just about everything we know about physics, chemistry and biology, homeopathy continues to stay alive despite over 200 years of criticism. Fake news stories pop up faster than they can be debunked. Anti-science activists abuse thousands of studies per day to prop up their dangerous nonsense. Americans spend at least 34 billion dollars on fake alternative medicine products every year. Cranks and quacks regurgitate the same stale claims that have been debunked over and over in the past. Sometimes it seems that things are stuck and nothing ever gets better.

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