Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Skepticism

Never Apologize For Fact-Checking

Scientific skepticism

More and more people are becoming aware of the problem with fake news and bad news reporting after the 2016 U. S. general election. This is a welcome development for scientific skeptics who have been warning about the impact of misinformation online about important issues such as vaccines and GMOs.

Mainstream news organizations such as CNN have published guides on how to uncover false news items on social media. After the election, Facebook was at first dismissive of the influence of fake news, but has recently reversed their position and are now looking into ways of fighting it, both with Facebook tools and denying ad revenue to fake news websites. While we in some sense have been taken over by the post-fact tsunami, this might be a turning point if many other large entities follows suit.

However, there is a deeper issue. Most people can probably identify some forms of fake news on issues that they are well-informed about. If you understand how vaccines work and why assertions by anti-vaccine activists are flawed, you will probably not fall for the next conspiracy theory about vaccines. But they might fall for pseudoscience in some other area, believe things that appeal to their fears and emotions or things promoted by their favorite celebrity and politician or issues related to their own ideological tribalism.

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Was Trump’s Victory Just Backlash Against “Political Correctness”?

The Trump backlash

Why did Donald Trump win? How can we understand it from a skeptical perspective? CNN has a list of 24 different explanations for why Trump won over Clinton that include impact of fake news, the power of social media, low voter turnout, because Bernie Sanders was not the democratic candidate, because of third-party candidate, because the liberal elite is out of touch with average people, revenge of the white working class etc. They also highlight a narrative that was discussed in a post on the website of the libertarian magazine Reason that we might label the “backlash narrative”.

Did Trump win because white people got tired of political correctness? While it is true that Trump ran as an anti-establishment and many of his supporters upheld him as the anti-PC candidate, this narrative have some severe limitations. Fewer democrats voted, it ignored the bigotry of the movement, it shifts too much blame, and it ignores social media filter bubbles. Now we need to redouble and reinvigorate our skeptical efforts, make fact-checking part of our social media experience, reach those who are in some sense victims of misinformation, use argumentative minimalism, hold ourselves to a higher standard and combat tribalism.

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Why Scientific Skepticism Should Be Intellectually Global

Make skepticism intellectually global

With the election of Donald Trump, we are now officially living in a post-fact world.

There are many factors behind why Trump won. He got a ton of free advertisement from the mass media, he exploited simmering hostility towards the establishment, a lot of democrats did not vote etc. and people are trying to figure out how it happened and how to process it all. However, it is becoming clearer and clearer that an ignorance of science and critical thinking likely played an important role. Trump promoted a large number of scientific falsehoods and a lot of anti-human bigotry that you could debunk with a minimal knowledge of science and cognitive biases.

However, people either did not do this properly or simply did not care enough about these issues. This means it is high time to restore the cultural authority of science and promote critical thinking of questionable claims. Not only that, scientific skepticism has to go global. Not just in terms of geography, but there also needs to be a push for scientific skepticism as a valid tool in all areas of human endeavor. Pseudoscientific nonsense is pseudoscientific nonsense regardless if it comes from a politician or an alternative medicine quack.

What does this mean in practice?

This post will examine some of the consequences of this commitment to scientific skepticism as an intellectually global priority. It means that there will be no more free passes or no more selective skepticism. It means defending medical ethics and human rights. It means opposing pseudoscientific bullshit from politicians and understanding that bigotry often rely on pseudoscience. It also means pushing for scientific testing of political policy suggestions.

No free passes: no issue should be given a free pass from scientific skepticism and critical thinking. There is no divide between “science and rationality” and “all other issues”. Tear down this wall. Scientific skepticism should be applied just as harshly to claims made by politicians, public policy suggestions, religion, history and ethical claims. No more free passes to pseudoscientific nonsense no matter where they can be found. This farce ends here.

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What Will the Trump Presidency Mean for Scientific Skepticism?

Trump election results

Donald Trump has now been elected as the next President of the United States and Hillary Clinton has conceded the election to him. He won by an estimated 289 electoral votes to the 218 of Clinton. This might slightly change over the coming days as the vote counting is complete, but it is clear that Trump has won. Most polls and models predicted that Clinton would win by a small margin, but they were mistaken. This is partly because of the flawed methodology and partly because the far right is often underestimated in pre-election polls.

What will this mean for science and scientific skepticism? Two major groups of issues is that Trump is against vaccines and climate change, and has also promoted pseudoscientific bigotry against ethnic minorities, immigrants, women and people with disabilities. This post will examine some of the potential consequences and impacts of a Trump presidency for science and scientific skepticism.

Issues

Here are some of the issues that will face science and scientific skepticism during the Trump presidency. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives a flavor for the breath and depths of some of the problems we are likely to now face.

Vaccines: Trump has stated on numerous occasions that he thinks that vaccines cause autism. In particular, he has regurgitated the myth of “too many, too soon”. This might have implications for how much resources is being spent on vaccine development, distribution and vaccination rates.

Climate change: Trump believes that climate change is just a hoax invented by the Chinese to make American suffer economically. His rejection of climate science can potentially have disastrous consequences, both when it comes to the Paris agreement and our chance at preventing or mitigating climate change consequences.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part IX: The Pseudoscience Question

Here Be Dragons

Is cryonics unfalsifiable and uses an excessive amount of ad hoc maneuvers? Why are proponents of existential risk research relatively uninterested in submitting their work to a high-quality, peer-reviewed scientific journal? Why does the Doomsday argument seem immune to self-correction? How come there is very little connection between ideas about surviving destructive teleportation or uploading of the mind to the mainstream scientific literature on neuroscience? To what extend do the existential risk crowed overuse hypertechnical language?

Pseudoscience is an imposter of science. An area that superficially might appear to be scientific, but has an intellectually vacuous inside. Now that we are approaching the end of this articles series where we critically reviewed Olle Häggström’s book Here Be Dragons, it is time to sift through the issues and see if we can reach some kind of conclusion of what of it is scientific and what is obviously not.

This will keep us preoccupied in the final two parts of this series. Previous installments of this series has tackled bioweapons, destructive teleportation, self-replicating nanobots, philosophy of science, doomsday scenarios, Dyson spheres and Pascal’s wager. This is the penultimate installment and will investigate to which degree these and many more issues discussed and defended by Häggström qualifies as pseudoscience and the final part will be an addendum and conclusion.

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The Dishonest Motte and Bailey Technique

Motte and Bailey

A motte-and-bailey castle was a common fortification structure during the High Middle Ages in western Europe. It consisted of a highly defensible keep situated on a small hill or mound (the motte) with a surrounding courtyard (bailey) that was more sparsely protected by fence and a ditch. The bailey housed the economically productive components of the castle, such as construction workshops, stores, kitchen and so on. During an assault, the bailey could be defended against a weaker invading force, but more powerful enemies would have the inhabitants of the castle retreat into the keep and raise the bridge because unlike the bailey, the motte is much harder to penetrate.

This has an analogous counterpoint during many discussion. Many irrational ideologues typically reside in the bailey, where they make radical, unsubstantiated and probably wrong claims in order to attract attention and support. Because of their weakness, these claims are easily attacked and difficult to defended. If the flawed claims are attacked by scientific skeptics using any kind of science-based approach, they retreat into the easily defended keep on the motte, deny that they ever believed or used bailey claims. Instead, they deploy motte claims that are easily defensible and sometimes even trivially true. Defenders then try to portray critics as intellectually weak and suggest that they are only attacking bailey claims (which are labeled as straw men), despite the fact that the same individual defender or the ideological movement that the defenders belongs to commonly use these bailey arguments. The underlying strategy used by defenders is to assert that since the motte claims are true, the bailey claims are also true, but this is not always made explicit.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part VIII: Existential Risk and Pascal’s Wager

Here Be Dragons

Can we neglect issues such as global warming because most of the negative consequences occur in the future? Is abortion and masturbation worse than genocide because it prevents the future existence of billions of people? Can we combine exceedingly low or unknown probabilities with extremely highly negative outcomes to argue that just about anything should be made into a global research priority? Are values something immaterial or supernatural, or merely facts about the human brain and the human conditions? Is it possible to make moral arguments that are based on false empirical premises or contain logical fallacies? Should we ban certain forms of space research? What about artificial intelligence? Is existential risk as a global priority a form of Pascal’s Wager, and if so, how?

Previously, we have explored and exposed bad arguments about bioweapons, destructive teleportation, psychiatry, statistical significance, atomically precise manufacturing, nanobots, cryogenics, philosophy of science, uploading, migrating into black holes, doomsday scenarios, large energy-absorbing spheres around stars that kill of almost all primary producers and many more.

Although Part VIII treats the last chapter of the book, it will not be the last installment of the series. The two remaining installments will investigate to what extent the futurist view expressed by Häggström is a form of pseudoscience (Part IX) and sum up and conclude the series (Part X).

Section LXXI: A minimalist approach to moral reasoning

For many people, morality (or reasonable human behavior) is a sticky issue. This is likely because the area has been corrupted by religion, politics and idle speculations of academic philosophy to such a degree that it is almost impossible to wade through all the bullshit people have been claiming about morality through the past several thousand years. In order to combat these distractions, let us make a very minimalist case for why it is possible to discuss reasonable human behavior and why some of the arguments about reasonable human behavior are better than others.

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The Skeptic’s Guide to Quack-Speak

Deepak Chopra Woo

Although there is no perfect way to distinguish science from pseudoscience, there are some warning signs that make it much more probable that what you are dealing with is pseudoscience: ideas that cannot be tested, no way to handle confirmation bias, refusal to engage in peer-review publishing, a too strong focus on anecdotes, being contradicted by solid science, appeals to tradition and lack of self-correction. Another such term is the misuse and abuse of scientific terminology. This typically comes in two different forms: either cranks use real scientific terminology and apply it to something that is completely nonsense in order to borrow from the authority of science, or invent their own hypertechnical language that is largely vacuous.

Why is it vital to shed light on this pseudoscientific abuse of scientific terms? It is important to expose those charlatans that try to manipulate people into buying their products. This is an excellent way to support vulnerable people who might otherwise be victims of dangerous people. Another reason is that it obfuscates and pollutes scientific knowledge with quackery and clarity is very important in science, both for the progress of science but also the larger context of the role of science in society. Let us look at some of the ways that proponents of pseudoscience abuse scientific terminology. It occurs in many different scientific fields, but it has recently been most common in physics and biology or medicine.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part VII: Aliens and Space

Here Be Dragons

Should we be shocked and dumbfounded by the absence of an intergalactic alien civilization? Or is the lack of evidence for aliens precisely what we would expect? Can the rarity of the origin of life tell us anything about the probability of developing a prosperous future in space? Or is there a great filter in our future that will wipe us out? Is the absence of evidence the same thing as evidence of absence? Do we really know what makes a planet potentially life-permitting and how do we differentiate potentially from actually life-permitting? Is evolution a process that always moves towards bigger, better and more expansive? Or is this a false characterization of evolution that really just builds new onto old and is limited by historical constraints and other issues?

Can we really assume that alien civilizations will have the intimate peculiarities of human psychology? Is the reason why we do not see any intergalactic civilizations that they have converted themselves to pure energy or dark matter or migrated into black holes? Is a static situation of no change really a good characterization of the concepts of equilibrium? Can we build a sphere around our sun to make productive use of its output, or will this kill most organisms on the earth? Is it really incredibly reckless to send out messages into space when there is so much passive leakage of television and radio signals?

In previous installments of this articles series, we have covered many interesting and thought-provoking issues such as biological weapons, anti-psychiatry, embryo selection and IQ, cryogenics, destructive teleportation, uploading your mind to computer hardware, superintelligent artificial intelligence, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, philosophy of science, the specter of statistical significance and various doomsday scenarios. In this seventh part, we take a closer look at the ninth chapter about space colonization of Here Be Dragons by mathematical statistician Olle Häggström.

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Harbingers of Doom – Part VI: Doomsday Predictions

Here Be Dragons

Can you prove that we are in the last few millennia of human existence based on a statistical argument alone, in the total absence of scientific evidence? What if we use even more sophisticated statistical paradigms? Is scientific evidence from billions of acres of GM crops over at least two decades not enough evidence to show that GM crops are safe? What is the Ord-Hillerbrand-Sandberg methodology and can it help us evaluate the claims of experts in its proper context? How big of a threat to humanity are asteroids? Can a single rotten apple in a cake mix productive plant cause an epidemic infection millions? Do governments really need to prepare for an astronomically large number of potential pathogens or can they successfully use more general approaches? Is i possible to be an expert in something that have never ever happened? What are the most prominent risks to the future of humanity?

Through this article series, we have dived into an enormously broad range of topics and issues, such as medieval maps, bioweapons, anti-psychiatry, heritability, embryo selection and IQ, neuroscience, cryogenics, destructive teleportation, uploading your consciousness to a computer, superintelligent machines, atomically precise manufacturing, 3D printing, science in antiquity, philosophy of science, solipsism, and statistical significance. In this sixth part, we take a closer look at two chapters of Here Be Dragons, namely The fallacious Doomsday Argument (chapter 7) and Doomsday nevertheless? (chapter 8) and the reason why we briefly return to the two chapters per post approach is that the seventh chapter is almost completely without problems in stark contrast to previous (and later) chapters.

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