Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Category Archives: Skepticism

How Mainstream Media Contributed to the Misinformation Wars

CNN superfoods

There is a current social battle being fought about the nature of facts and reality. Truth is under attack because of ignorance and apathy. Fake news are being spread as real events, misleading millions of people into believing things that never happened. “Alternative facts” are being pushed as equally as legitimate as scientific and statistical facts in a fit of postmodernist relativism. Technological filter bubbles skew the world you see on the Internet and isolate you from information that contradicts your beliefs. There are now even fake fact-checkers who try to leach credibility from real fact-checkers just like pseudoscience parasitizes on real science.

A great deal of this comes from fake news websites, pseudoscience activists, various quacks and cranks as well as other sources. But some of it comes from mainstream media. The mainstream media has spent years being complacent about the threat of misinformation and let low-quality material and bad journalistic standards fester and spread across their own websites and networks. This article looks at four prominent ways this has and continues to occur and proposes five directions that might mitigate some of the problems we now face.

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The “Alternative Fact” Surge

The alternative facts surge

Real facts are statements about the world that we know are true based on overwhelming evidence, such as water molecules consist of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms or the United States Declaration of Independence was agreed upon in 1776. “Alternative facts” on the other hand, are statements that are not at all true, but have been made up by ideologues that push it as if it was true. It is a form of targeted misinformation, but also the tacit claim that it is somehow possible to disagree with real facts and believe in a set of “alternative facts” that are just as valid as the real deal.

One of the most remarkable deployments of this tactic by political staff in modern times occurred during a Meet The Press segment in late January of 2017 where NBC journalist Chuck Todd interviewed Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. The topic dealt with the audience size for the inauguration of President Trump and might not seem to be of much importance, but the very fact that the technique was deployed so openly and bizarrely had many people concerned that we might be seeing the rise of government-approved “alternative facts” in a similar fashion to the Orwell book 1984. Recent developments indicate that this was not a simple mishap, but part of a larger and continued media strategy.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook Takes a Stand Against Fake News

Tim Cook versus Fake News

For many decades, science advocates and scientific skeptics have been fighting misinformation on the Internet. False claims about evolution and climate change have spread like wildfire and there are many organizations and individuals out there that take great pleasure in spreading pseudoscientific nonsense about these scientific fields to anyone who wants to listen. The Internet is a great invention and has allowed more people than ever to access the depth of human knowledge, but it also has a dark side. It is now possible to be wrong about a great deal of things, yet quickly find large communities of mutually self-reinforcing discussions that share those misconceptions. So, in a sense, fake news is a not a new problem.

The pervasive problem with fake news came to the attention of the public and the mainstream during the 2016 general election in the United States where a ton of websites and other outlets spread sensationalist misinformation about both Clinton and Trump in order to get as many clicks and as much ad revenue as possible. Unfortunately, this led to a very uninformed population that harbored a lot of false beliefs about the world. In particular, fake news website often published content that aimed to make people upset and angry, because manipulating feelings has been shown to be very effective for spreading a message.

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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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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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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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What Happened to Jeffrey Beall’s List of (Allegedly) Predatory Publishers?

Beall's list

Jeffrey Beall is an academic librarian at the Auraria Library at University of Colorado Denver located in Denver, Colorado. He got tenure in 2012 and became an associate professor. For a number of years, he has maintained and curated a blacklist of allegedly (he calls it “potential, possible, or probable”) predatory open access publishers.

Predatory journals can engage in a large number of suspicious activities, such as deceptive journal name, sending massive spam requests to authors and reviewers, falsely claiming to have a higher credibility than they have based on common journal metrics, publish a lot of fake content, do not engage in peer review despite claiming to etc.

The list has received both praise for highlighting these problems and criticism for being unfair. Yet, something strange has now happened with both the list and his website. The list is gone and all content on his website appears to have been purged. Here are the details that are currently available. Because this is a breaking news event, some of the details might change as more information becomes known, but it was accurate when it was posted.

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How Anti-Science Activists Abuse Dictionaries

The dictionary definition of dictionary

Dictionaries can be vital to getting a basic understanding of what words mean. However, anti-science activists have developed several different methods to exploit dictionaries for their own ideological goals. They attempt to use generalized dictionaries to sow confusion about highly specialized terms in science or business. They insist that dictionary definitions determines what is correct or incorrect use of language when in reality, dictionaries are passive recorders of the way language is used and changes over time.

They let semantic issues play the role of arguments in a way that sidesteps issues of facts to prop up their ideology. They attempt to distract with dictionary arguments when discussing current events or new findings where dictionary definitions are not at all relevant. They neglect the fact that dictionaries are brief summaries and never encompass the full diversity of the meaning of words in an effort to deploy a No True Scotsman fallacy or greedy reductionism. Finally, they also ignore the fact that dictionaries can sometimes be wrong or heavily biased in a way that negatively impact their credibility in a substantial way.

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How to Defeat Technological Filter Bubbles That Skew Your World

Filter Bubbles

With the explosive growth of fake news websites, clickbait ‘journalism’, and hoaxes being shared millions of times on social media every day, we are now entering an extremely aggressive period in the ongoing misinformation wars.

At the forefront of this battle lies technological and social media filter bubbles. These are algorithms and user decisions that alter the priority and existence of material in your feed or search results to cater to your preferences. This might seem harmless at first, but over time this creates ideological isolation where you are being fed materials that confirm your own biases from sources you enjoy. Materials that counter those biases end up further down the feed or are not shown at all. It is a hidden form of confirmation bias and contributes to a radical polarization in our society.

In the past, understanding ideological filter bubbles were a lot easier. Some people read reputable newspapers like The New York Times, while others read gossip or paranormal magazines. It was easy to tell people that maybe they should think twice about believing that some politician got help from alien invaders to win a local election because their source was laughably incompetent, generally low-quality and frankly absurd. Although The New York Times has never been a perfect newspaper, it has a higher credibility and reliability than a random paranormal magazine about Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

With the advent of the Internet, things changed. Things changed drastically.

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8 Skeptical Tricks For Spotting Fake News

Fake news

Fake news have recently rose to prominence as a powerful force of misinformation. It has portrayed random young people as missing, identified people as perpetrators of heinous crimes they never committed, influenced general elections and even started social media fights between nuclear powers. We now live in an age of the misinformation wars. Not just misinformation that floats around passively, but misinformation that has been weaponized to serve political ideology or lining the pockets of charlatans and quacks.

Social media websites like Facebook first denied that there was a problem, then admitted that there was a problem and then promised to take action against the worse of the worst misinformants by cracking down on their ad revenue and even went so far as to promise collaboration with independent fact-checkers. While this is laudable, it will not be enough by any means. Individual users must take a personal responsibility to stop falling for fake news and stop sharing it on social media. The reason for sharing it does not matter as social media algorithms do not care about the reason you had for sharing it. Here are eight skeptical tricks to help you identify fake news.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part X: Summary and Addendum

Here Be Dragons

This is the final installment in a ten-part critical review of the book Here Be Dragons, written by mathematical statistician Olle Häggström.

What began in March of 2016 has now finally come to an end with this summary and concluding thoughts. Throughout this series, we have looked at everything from biological weapons to ancient science, from cryonics to rotten apples, from teleportation to social anxiety, from futuristic Dyson spheres to sustainable and rural living, from climate change to asteroid impacts and many more topics.

It is no secret that most of this review series have focused on the negatives. It has exposed some of the many factual errors in the book and these have mainly been in areas that Häggström is least familiar with. However, there are many parts of the book that are not only decent, but even of extremely high-quality and better than I could ever have written. Thus, this tenth and final installment looks at the good, the bad and the ugly.

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