Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

Astral Parasites, Chakra Balancing and Other “Occult” Nonsense

Astral bullshit

New Age woo is a convoluted mixture of eastern mysticism and pseudoscientific abuse of modern scientific research, primarily medicine and physics. This includes misunderstandings of crucial concepts such as energy, vibration, frequency as well as the flawed claim that diseases are caused by negative attitudes that attract bad things in life. This post will survey some contemporary discussions among New Age and “occult” circles on the Internet by looking at some of the topics discussed on the r/occult subreddit.

These range from being laughably absurd to being potentially hazardous for your health. It might be entertaining to read about New Age speculations about he next step in evolution, whether this or that spirit can make you more witty or people who think they are being followed by the number 13. However, it is very troubling to read about astral parasite delusions that causes self-harming, tarot cards against suicidal depression, or people wanting to find ways to protect themselves against astral rape or the negative psychic energy by the people around them.

Being infected with astral parasites?

One poster described a very disturbing situation where he or she had been dealing with several malicious astral parasites that had led to several hospitalizations and even to almost convince him or her to cut off a finger:

I have been dealing with at least 4 very intelligent, very cunning, and very manipulative astral parasites for about 2 years now. They’ve tricked me time and again into having me think they are actually here to help me and not harm me. Finally, after all this time I do realize their true nature, but I have no idea how to get rid of them at this point. I can go into much more detail about all this, but my first question is has anyone had full success in ridding themselves of these things? They’ve put me in the mental ward 4 times now, and the last episode they almost convinced me to cut off my pinky finger. You could say things are getting pretty serious. And the nightmares they give me are just absolutely horrendous. I made the mistake of trying to befriend them, to appeal to some consciousness they apparently don’t have. I’m also constantly fatigued just about every day now. Thanks for reading. All advice and any questions are very much welcome and needed.

Although it is hard to speculate and one should generally avoid making judgement of a psychiatric nature on the Internet, this may indicate some form of psychiatric condition involving delusions, such as schizophrenia. The delusions seem durable and fixed and this has been going on for multiple years with several stays at a mental ward. On the balance of the evidence, this is much more likely to be a psychiatric problem than anything involving supernatural “astral parasites”. Some comments with more information from the original poster explained that he or she was also suffering from nightmares and night-time paralysis.

Read more of this post

The Poisonous M&Ms Analogy Explodes Into Mainstream U. S. Politics

Poisonous M&Ms

Humans have a cognitive tendency to lump people in outgroups together as collectives, but have great appreciation for individualism for people in the ingroup. This is know as outgroup homogeneity bias and the reason why some people think all blonde women or Asians look the same, or why some people are more likely believe in stereotypes of African-Americans or Muslims, but would never lump white feminists with Donald Trump.

Most reasonable people understand that stereotypes exists and that they do not provide the most accurate information about individuals and can certainly misled people into errors. As a result, a lot of people try their best to judge others by their own merits and faults. However, there are some that prefers to stay in the cognitively simplistic world of stereotypes and they typically appeal to pseudoscience, emotional arguments and rhetorical techniques to back this up. One such technique involves superficially acknowledging that no all members of a group conform to the stereotype, but then appeal to fear and uncertainty to prop up the original stereotype.

This has become enshrined in the poisonous M&M trope, whereby people of a certain group is compared to a bowl of M&Ms where a few of them are poisonous. The meme asks the viewers to go ahead and eat a handful of them, since they are not all poisonous. The unstated conclusion is that you should never eat M&Ms because some of them are poisonous. It is just not worth the risk. If this sounds like an intuition pump based on flawed logic and irrational risk analysis, it is because this is precisely what the analogy is. The analogy has been exposed previously on Debunking Denialism. Recent developments have pushed this analogy to the forefront of U. S. politics and social media.

Recent developments for the poisonous M&Ms analogy

On September 19, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out a slightly different version of this meme on his Twitter account, complaining about the “politically correct agenda that doesn’t put America first”. Instead of M&Ms, the meme now uses the competitor brand Skittles (presumably a reference to the Trayvon Martin shooting that became a core event for the recent rise of white surpremacism in the United States), but the general message stayed the same: Syrian refugees are like a bowl of Skittles and the terrorists are a few poisonous pieces, and therefore, it is supposedly better to just not take any Skittles. As we saw above, this claim is a flawed intuition pump. The tweet was wildly discussed by both international news networks and various social media outlets.

Since 2014, the analogy had been used by many anti-immigration activists and Donald Trump Jr. probably picked this up from that ideological environment. Had he merely performed a Google search to see if there were any scientific or statistical problems with that analogy, he might have saved himself the embarrassment. After all, it had been debunked on this website over two years earlier. In other words, a substantial failure of fact-checking.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

The 1942 Kennedy-Kanner Debate in American Journal of Psychiatry

Kennedy-Kanner Exchange

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that denies the existence of psychiatric conditions, denies the efficacy of psychiatric medications and psychotherapy and considers psychiatrists to be evil and totalitarian monsters. Not all proponents agree on all details, but the beliefs and debating tactics is very similar to anti-GMO or anti-vaccine activists.

One common trope promoted by anti-psychiatry activists is to claim that if you support the benefits of modern medicine, you must support all aspects of medicine in history. This is, of course, nonsense, since you can accept life-saving treatments while rejecting bloodletting for infectious diseases without a contradiction. The same apply to psychiatry.

Anti-psychiatry proponents also abuse the scientific literature, trying to misrepresent it to further their own ideological goals. One such misrepresentation, in conjunction with the above tactic, occurs for the Kennedy-Kanner debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1942. Despite it being 74 years ago and completely irrelevant to modern psychiatry, anti-psychiatry activists attempt to taint modern psychiatry with the beliefs expressed by the neurologist doctor Kennedy, despite the fact that the psychiatrists Kanner debunked most of the claims put forward by Kennedy.

Read more of this post

Mailbag: Water Fluoridation and Human Genetic Variation

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.

Fluoride occurs naturally in many forms of drinking water, because it is leached from the bedrock where it occurs in the form of calcium fluoride and other compounds. Sometimes, fluoride is added into the drinking water where this natural source does not exist or is too little. Water fluoridation in drinking water prevents cavities (and contributes to equalizing dental health across socioeconomic groups), but the concentration is not large enough to cause harm.

There is an important limitation with water fluoridation, and that is that it is typically applied in an one-size-fits-all instead of tailoring the amount to the needs of the community. However, the objections to water fluoridation that you might find on the Internet and social media in particular is batshit conspiracy theories that water fluoridation sterilizes people and lowers their IQ despite the fact that the human populations has exploded in size during the past 100 years and IQ steadily rises over time due to the Flynn effect. Earlier, Debunking Denialism published a refutation of the claim that if you add fluoride, you should supposedly have no problem adding arsenic. This is, of course, completely wrong in so many different ways.

The second topic in this mailbag is that of human genetic variation. These issues are often misunderstood by so-called race realist who argues that modern genomics have validated pseudoscientific superstitions about human diversity from the 1700s. Why race realists are mistaken on the facts was discussed in Modern High-Throughput Genomics Versus Race Realism and dozens other on this websites.

Read more of this post

The Astonishing Quackery of the Natural Birth Movement

Orgasmic birth nonsense

There are few large areas in modern life that has not been infested by pseudoscience and quackery. From quantum woo and fake bleach ‘treatments’ for autism to genocide denial and conspiracy theories about mass shootings, it seems to be all around us.

One of the greatest achievements of modern medicine is reducing maternal mortality during childbirth. This has, to a large degree, been due to increased understanding about pathogens and how they are spread as well as how to handle incidents during childbirth with medical competence. Yet birth has not escaped the long reach of pseudoscientific nonsense.

Homebirth

Some people who reject the modern world that science has built and prefer to have a planned homebirth. Compared with hospital births of the same risk, planned homebirth triples neonatal mortality rates and 10x increased the risk of a 5 minute Apgar score of 0.

Read more of this post

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.

Read more of this post

%d bloggers like this: