Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Category Archives: Skepticism

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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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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