Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Skepticism

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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17 Great Science and Skepticism Things in 2016

2016

Many people consider 2016 to be a truly shit year with the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, continued armed conflicts in the world, terror attacks and famous celebrities dying. While the overall trend shows great improvement on just about any metric, it is not impossible for individual years to deviate somewhat from this trend. Thus, we should not lose too much hope because of events that happened during this year. For those of you who are feeling the 2016 blues, try reading this Vox article that feature Steven Pinker explaining how 2016 has made improvements in many areas.

However, let us focus a bit on some of the positive and upbeat events during 2016 that related to science, skepticism or related issues. Ebola is over in Africa and we now have a vaccine. The Paris Agreement was signed and the ozone hole over the Arctic show signs of healing. Sri Lanka is free of malaria and the Americans are free of measles. Gravitational waves were discovered and a new record-breaking small genome was synthesized. The FTC cracked down on homeopathy and the Swedish government will transition towards eliminate special treatment as well. Here are 17 good things that happened in 2016.

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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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