Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Skepticism

Harbingers of Doom – Part V: Botching Philosophy of Science

Here Be Dragons

Previously, we have dealt with a broad range of issues such as the intricate details about medieval maps, biological weapons of mass destruction, anti-psychiatry nonsense about psychopharmacology and changes in diagnostics of social anxiety, misunderstandings of heritability and the question of whether repeated selection of embryos can produce massive gains in IQ, the biological basis of the mind, cryogenically freezing your dying body, uploading your consciousness to a computer server, superintelligent AI risk and the futility of atomically precise manufacturing, at least as traditionally conceived.

In this latest installment, we look at everything from ancient science to statistical significance. Was there no science in antiquity and almost all philosophers just sat around and thought about stuff? Does science desperately need induction? What does it mean for evidence to independently converge on the same general conclusion? What about inferences to the best explanation? Is past experience on dawn the only reason why we might suspect that dawn will also occur tomorrow? Does scientific research fail because the observation of a yellow banana allegedly support the hypothesis that all ravens are black? What is falsifiability? Why is the Duhem-Quine thesis not a large threat to science? How do we know that solipsism is incoherent? We also revisit our favorite bad statistical method NHST, which Häggström continues to defend with teeth and claw.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part IV: Nanobots and Atomic-Scale Manufacturing

Here be dragons?

Will 3D printing make gun regulation impossible because people can print their own metal guns? Will you never shop food again, but merely download a 3D printing plan for sandwiches and cake? Will you be able to put together any arbitrary substance using atomically precise manufacturing? Is it feasible to use mechanical tools to place atom-by-atom onto a growing substance? Or does this ignore the massive number of atoms required just to make a few grams and that the nanoscale is strongly impacted by thermal noise and intermolecular forces? Is chemical reactions as easy as putting two atoms together or does the system require more? Is the ribosome a case of atomically precise manufacturing? Or is it a messy biological enzyme system that does not involve atom-by-atom assembly, contributes to a stunning error rate of perhaps 30% for protein synthesis and folding and is nothing like a machine? Being a cellular organelle, does this limit the capacity and range of the products that ribosomes and ribosome-like structures can produce? Perhaps more importantly, will self-replicating nanobots consume all life on earth?

Previously, we have debunked fanciful stories about dragons on medieval maps, fearmongering about molecular biology, anti-psychiatry attacks on social anxiety and medications, heritability and embryo selection of IQ, radical life extension, the denial of mind-brain physicalism, destructive teleportation, mind uploading, cryonics and wild speculations about technology-induced mass unemployment and superintelligent artificial general intelligence.

In this fourth installment, we take a closer look at the promises and perils of 3D printing, the alleged feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing, the biological details of the ribosome and protein synthesis, as well as the supposed future existence of self-replicating nanobots and whether or not they are likely to kill all life on earth.

Section XXXI: Why bother 3D printing stuff that can more easily gotten in other ways?

Häggström conjures up a wide range of wonders from the emerging technology of 3D printers (p. 128), such as “sandwich, a pair of sneakers or a kitchen table” or even cars. But Häggström ignores issues such as shoe fitting and the social aspects of preparing and consuming food. It is also unclear how e. g. a submarine sandwich would be done in a 3D printer since it contains a wide range of materials that are not easily constructed in the 3D printer paradigm. For instance, how do you 3D print slices of onions or the appropriate texture of chicken? These technical difficulties might very well be solved in the future. However, there has to be an argument for it, not merely a naive appeal to future technology. This way of thinking was criticized by Häggström in the section on geoengineering discussed in the first part of this articles series.

To drive this point come, consider the journalist Helen Ubiñas who managed to buy an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in Philadelphia (a similar weapon to the one used in the Orlando mass shooting) in a just 7 minutes (Ubiñas, 2016). If you can legally buy a semiautomatic rifle in 7 minutes at the store, why bother spending a ton of money on a 3D printer, materials and printing it at home? Even if we assume a considerable drop in the cost of a 3D printer, the ease at which one can obtain a weapon is startling. This is not the case in other countries, of course, but then if guns can be successfully regulated, then so can 3D printers.

Häggström also seems concerned about intellectual property rights (p. 128), but despite the advances in file sharing and free streaming services, movies and television series are still being produced at a large scale. People use to predict that the VHS player would be the doom of the movie industry since people could just record the movies from the television. Similar sentiments were expressed on the CD, portable media players, illegal file-sharing, online streaming etc. Turns out that none of these fears turned out to be true. So why should we be concerned now?

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Harbingers of Doom – Part III: Luddism and Computational Eschatology

Here be dragons?

Will naive extrapolations of the exponential advancement in hardware development usher in an era of recursively self-improving artificial general intelligence? Does automation lead to mass unemployment or is this merely another manifestation of the Luddite fallacy that so many people with an ignorance of basic economics fall into? Should we trust technological predictions made by alleged experts, when the predictions made by these experts for the past 60 years have been a complete failure? Is there a clear distinction between instrumental and final goals? Will an AI never change its final goal? Will paperclip maximizes turn all humans and all of the universe into paperclips? Or is this a delusional idea that assumes that programmers routinely let algorithms run infinite loops?

Previously, we investigated the historical question of whether medieval maps really had dragons indicating dangerous places, the risk of the development of biological WMD and immunologically induced meat intolerance as a solution to climate change. We also critically examined anti-psychiatry claims about social anxiety, heritability and embryo selection for IQ, radical life extensions, mind uploading to computers, destructive teleportation and cryonics. In this third installment, we take a closer look at Moore’s law and its implication for the development of artificial intelligence, if robots will cause mass unemployment, the failure of AI predictions, artificial selection as a possible method of producing human-level AI, and if programmers really would let programs run an arbitrarily high iterations of important algorithms. Read more of this post

Harbingers of Doom – Part II: Anti-Psychiatry and Teleportation

Here be dragons?

Can we make superintelligent humans by repeatedly selecting embryos in a test tube? Will we soon be able to live for 200 years or longer? Can we arrest or reverse the biological processes that characterize aging? Is the mind a neurobiological phenomenon, or does consciousness partly resides outside of the body? Will you soon be able to scan your body and teleport it to the other side of the planet in a matter of hours and survive, despite the permanent destruction of your body? Can you upload your consciousness to a server and live thousands of years inside computer hardware? If you cryogenically freeze your head, will you be able to preserve it for hundreds of years or longer, only to be reawakened in the future when scientists have cured death?

Previously, in the first installment of this series, we explored the historical question of whether medieval maps really had dragons designating unknown and dangerous places, assessed the risk of the development of biological weapons of mass destruction, criteria for science funding by the Swedish Research Council, meat intolerance as a solution to climate change, and science as the best defense against biological WMDs.

In this second installment, Häggström falsely claims that shyness has been medicalized as social anxiety disorder by referencing a book review despite the fact that scientific research has tested and refuted this notion. The suggestion that smartphones have vastly improved cognitive and communication skills is not as straightforward as it first seems: brain games are probably not more effective than playing a video game like Portal 2 and distractions from smartphones deteriorate human conversations. Worse, however, is the mischaracterization of heritability as an objective context-free measure of the importance of genes and the biological ignorance about e. g. antagonistic pleiotropy and missing heritability underlying his discussion of iterated embryo selection for IQ. Mistakes of similar magnitude are committed when Häggström tries to discuss aging (but confuses models for aging with definitions of aging, as well as the hallmarks of aging with the causes of aging), destructive teleportation and uploading the mind to computers (where he claims that you can survive the physical destruction of the body) and cryogenics that involves curing death and restoring function to a chemically fixated brain.

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No, Critical Thinking Is Not Childish

Is critical thinking childish?

Lars Anders Johansson describes himself as a “poet”, “musician”, and “journalist”. He is “responsible for cultural issues” at the free market think-tank Timbro. He has recently taken issue with schools teaching critical thinking skills by sending in a opinion piece to a local Swedish Newspaper called Nya Wermlands-Tidningen (NWT). He does not like this, because the targets of critical thinking are already designated and thus a form of government indoctrination and it somehow forbids critical thinking about the United Nations. He further thinks that critical thinking leads to people using the genetic fallacy and taunts, as well as making people more likely to be attracted to structuralist power analysis.

In reality, critical thinking is difficult for a lot of people and it is not just a matter of objecting to things, like Johansson seems to think. Furthermore, no one prevents you from making critical objections to the United Nations and it has nothing to do with taunts or any particular form of power analysis. In the end, Johansson takes the teaching of critical thinking skills hostage in the fight for his own political ideology.

Thinking critically is hardly easy for most people

Johansson starts of by deploying the following mind-bogglingly ignorant statement (my translation):

To think critically is not hard. Every child knows how easily it is to be obstinate and think the opposite. To criticize something is the easiest thing in the world, especially if there are no requirements that the criticisms should be substantiated with a coherent argument or a requirement to present their own alternative to the things that they want to refute.

Thinking critically is not hard? Really? Then how come 42% of the U. S. population think that a divine creator made humans in their present form? Why do 61% of the same population believe in conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Why do one third of Swedes believe in paranormal phenomena? Had genuine critical thinking been easy, no one would believe those claims. But they do. Thus, critical thinking is very hard for most people.

Besides being completely wrong on the difficulty of critical thinking, Johansson also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding he has about the concept. Critical thinking is not arbitrary rejection of any statement or position presented to you. To put it simply: critical thinking the way it is used in scientific skepticism is not cynicism.

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Scientific Skepticism in Four Easy Steps

Intro Scientific Skepticism

Scientific skepticism can sometimes be hard. It only takes a few seconds to make a bullshit pseudoscientific claim, but digging up all the scientific details to debunk it can take hours or even days. To streamline this process, as well as to provide a general introduction to the thinking behind scientific skepticism, here are four easy steps to critically review any questionable claim.

Can the idea or model even be meaningfully defined?

Perhaps surprisingly, many ideas out there are not even meaningfully defined. How can this be? Fundamentally, it boils down to the fact that some ideas almost completely lack intellectual content, but attempts to pretend it is of great substance. These are imposters of intellectual discourse that contaminate and pollute rather than inform and enlighten. For instance, postmodernism blends dense, convoluted and intellectually vacuous language with relativistic attacks against science by dismissing robust findings as merely “western”, “patriarchal” and “orthodox”, while advocating simplistic and faulty understanding of knowledge and the nature of reality.

Basically, some ideas are just so ludicrous and empty that they can be rejected at this stage already. If an idea, model or system of thought cannot be meaningfully defined, it is meaningless to go on. No point in spending time looking at evidence for ideas that cannot even be defined properly. Skeptical attention is better placed elsewhere. If the model is meaningfully defined, it is time to go on to the next step and check it for contradictions or inconsistencies. Read more of this post

Harbingers of Doom – Part I: Ancient Maps and Biological Weapons

Häggström and Here Be Dragons

Are we rapidly approaching a technological singularity where intelligent computers and robots recursively self-improve into a superintelligent paperclip maker who annihilate the planet and all life on it in order to fill the universe with more paperclips? Is the apparent cosmic silence strong evidence that the origin of life was nearly impossible? Can the human mind survive destructive teleportation or uploading to computer servers and will self-replicating nanobots consume all life on earth? Or is this just the last in a long list of flawed doomsday prophecies that are based on false empirical premises, faulty logic, technobabble and pseudoscience? Or perhaps somewhere in between?

A recently published book by Olle Häggström, Professor of mathematical statistics at Chalmers University of Technology, called Here Be Dragons attempts to address some of these issues. The different writings by Häggström have been critically examined on this website before, particularly his uncompromising defense of statistical significance, p values and the NHST procedure. In his defense, Häggström has written decisive refutations of the creationist abuse of mathematics, climate change denialists and anti-science postmodernists.

In this first installment, we take a closer critical look at if ancients maps really had dragons designating dangerous places, threat of biological weapons of mass destruction, the case of Stanislav Petrov and faulty warning systems for nuclear attacks, dual use of concern research and the Soviet offensive bio-weapons program, and his objections to the way science funding is done by the Swedish Research Council. Although credit is given where credit is due for his defense of mainstream climate science and his criticisms of geoengineering projects, his uncritical discussion of induced meat intolerance is taken to task.

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Why Derailing is a Flawed Approach

Train derailment

A common technique that is often deployed in online discussions of political, philosophical or skeptical issues is to attempt to derail the conversation. This is often done either by trying to distract and point to another issue that is perceived to be worse, harms more people or is generally more deserving of attention or to generally minimize the issue being discussed. The assumption is that one should not bother with issue A if issue B is more serious. In reality, this is a dishonest method that is used to shut down any conversation about issue A by portraying people who discuss issue A as ignorant, wasteful, obsessive or morally flawed.

This article outlines some of the problems with this tactic, such as the fact that one can focus on more than one thing, the risk of a backfire effect, issues with diminishing returns, the fact that it is inconsistent and that a consistent application of this tactic leads to absurd conclusions. In the end, this tactic should be avoided, and issues that deserve discussion on their own merits should be discussed regardless of other issues.

One can focus on more than one thing at the same time

Trying to distract from issue A by pointing to issue B and scolding people who dare to talk about issue A or lift issue A as important assumes that there really is an either-or situation. There is nothing that prevents people from talking about A, while acknowledging that B is also a problem and even a considerable problem. There is really no need to constantly try to shut down conversations about by issue A by an incessant reference to issue B.

It may backfire spectacularly

If there is a sustained effort by people who primarily care about issue B to distract, minimize or otherwise derail all conversations about issue A to conversations about issue B, people might develop a more negative appraisal of issue B and thus be less interested in giving issue B attention or concern. This is an example of the reverse halo effect whereby the negative associations with people who insist on issue B over issue A with issue B itself. In the same way, it may also cause people to dig their heels in when it comes to issue A and prioritize it even more over B. Read more of this post

Preventing Cranks from Benefiting from Your Skeptical Activism

Add-ons

The typical crank or quack website does not just contain pseudoscientific claims in plaintext. Instead, it is filled with dozens of advertisements, scripts that create and store cookies, analytics, beacons, and other kinds of trackers of all kinds. They collect information about you, your browser and Internet activities. Some of these provide the crank website with money from ad impressions and the information gathered by trackers. It can also violate your privacy and disrupt your Internet experience. Even worse, they can plant malware on your computer, steal credit card information or forcibly encrypt all of your personal files such as documents and photos and blackmail you for large sums of money in order to get them back.

There are methods that scientific skeptics can use to fight back. There are many useful tools that block advertisements and trackers, protect you from various malicious code injections or redirects, prevent cranks from profiting financially from your visits, stops them from gaining a better search engine ranking, and even help you protect your privacy and identity from cranks (both from visits and communication). This article examines some of the most commonly used tools to achieve these goals.

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How to Avoid Falling for Bullshit on the Internet

Bullshit

The Internet is so vast that you can find just about anything online, no matter how unreasonable and bizarre it is. So employing an efficient filter is often necessary to help to tell fact from fiction and to prevent people from inadvertently spreading nonsense because viral stories exploit your biases in an effort to get you to click like, share or retweet.

Are you tired of seeing stupid stories about the end of the world, how some new kind of cabbage can cure all cancers, that coughing prevents death from heart failure or any of the other thousands of inane viral stories being shared on social media? This is a simple introductory guide on how to avoid falling for bullshit on the Internet.

Wait for more facts to emerge

One of the biggest risks for falling for bullshit on the Internet is reacting too fast. When a new viral story or video hit, it is often shared thousands and thousands of times within a short period of time. Videos are made about it, Facebook posts are written about it, Tweets and retweets spread all over the Internet.

Keep your head cool, acknowledge the existence of the story to yourself, but do not fall for emotional manipulation that begs you to click “share” straight away. Do not share things that appeal to you if you have not fact-checked them sufficiently. The only thing that such actions accomplish is that you are spreading the nonsense around, and risk looking foolish if it turns out to be fake.

Check Snopes and other skeptical sources

Not everyone has the time or interest to fact-check stories in great detail. That is fine, people have other interests. However, there are some fact-checking methods that is both straightforward and fast. Search for the story on Google and add the word “Snopes” afterwards e.g. “obama muslim snopes” and you will end up here. Snopes is a website that critically analyzes questionable claims on the Internet and is a great resource for quickly checking the truth of a viral story. Sometimes, the story is too new or too uncommon for Snopes to have picked it up.

Snopes is not the only website that does fact-checking on the Internet. It is also possible to search for the story on Google and add the word “skeptic”, “fake”, “debunked” or similar words in order to find critical voices. Now, do not automatically trust these critics, because they too can be considerably mistaken. Instead, try to find out which is more reasonable: the viral story or the critics.

For specific claims, such as medicine, add words such as “CDC”, “WHO”, ” to get reliable medical websites. If the viral story makes claims about organization, such as “NASA”, go ahead and add that word too, or use “site:nasa.gov” to see if the NASA website has any information about it.

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