Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Shaquille O’Neal Claims The Earth is Flat

Shaq claims the Earth is flat

Flat Earth was never a belief that was wildly accepted by scholars or experts. Even the ancient Greeks knew that the Earth was more like a sphere from multiple, independent lines of evidence. They even made a decent estimate of the circumference of the entire planet using basic mathematics and observations of shadows. It is a common myth that people in the Middle Ages thought that the Earth was flat and that Columbus risked travelling over the edge. The real reason people did not believe that the Columbus voyage would be successful was because they believe that it would be too long.

However, minor pockets of flat Earth activists has existed for a long time and continues to do so today. Initially dismissed as mere parody, many well-known celebrities, musicians, artists, and athlete have revealed that they believe the earth is flat, including Tila Tequila, B. o. B and Kyrie Irving. Now it looks like Shaq might be joining that crew.

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Mailbag: Anti-Psychiatry Misinformation About Clinical Significance

Mailbag

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.

Anti-psychiatry is a form of pseudoscience that is based on at least three false core beliefs: the denial of the existence or severity of metal illness, the rejection of mainstream treatments for mental illness (including medication and therapy) and the demonization of psychiatrists. There are many different kinds of anti-psychiatry activists. This includes some religious extremists who deny the intimate connections between the mind and the brain, some new age believers who wrongly think that it is just a matter of positive thinking, some alternative medicine proponents who falsely claim that it is due to eating too much acidic foods and so on.

In particular, anti-psychiatry activists spread misinformation and hate about psychiatric medications in much the same way that anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists fearmonger about vaccines and genetically modified foods. Many anti-psychiatry researchers make obvious statistical errors (by wrongly calculating standardized effect sizes) and create smokescreens about the clinical significance of antidepressants by selecting outdated and arbitrary cutoffs, when clinical significance should be based on the totality of evidence and the scientific context.

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Why There Is Nothing Mysterious About π in Nature

Spooky Pi

The mathematical constant π (≈ 3.1415…) is defined as the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter. In mathematical terms, this becomes C = 2πr, where C is the circumference and r is the radius of the circle (the diameter is twice the radius). Most people are probably aware of this basic relationship for a circle from school math. Fewer people, however, might be aware that the mathematical constant π shows up in a large range of different areas of science and places out in nature, from the brightness of supernovas and music to electrical engineering and rainbows. It even occurs in probability problems involving needle dropping and statistical distributions. For the naive observer, these seem to have very little to do with circles.

Many proponents of new age woo think this means that there is something deeply mysterious and supernatural going on that signals the mystical nature of reality. They shiver at the thought of these occurrences of π being well-understood from a scientific and mathematical standpoint. This mirrors the complains made by the poet Keats against Newton when the latter explained how the rainbow worked (an honor that actually goes to Theodoric of Freiberg).

Keats thought Newton robbed people of the awe and wonder of nature. In reality, science is the poetry of reality, and knowing the scientific facts about how rainbows work adds to the awe and wonder of nature. It does not, and cannot, subtract.

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New Medium Primer: Three Things You Need To Know About Multiple Testing

Three things to know about multiple testing

Anti-science activists often abuse multiple testing. Here is some basic information that you need to know in order to get up to speed on the issue.

Read the full primer here: Three Things You Need To Know About Multiple Testing. Remember to hit the heart at the bottom of the primer to help other people find it.

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Appeal Trial For Remorseless Quacks Who Let Their Toddler Die of Meningitis Begins

Stephan appeal

David and Collet Stephan are a married couple with three children that used to live in Alberta in Canada (they moved to Nelson in British Columbia after the first conviction). Both of them are staunch supporters of the pseudoscientific fakery that is naturopathy. David was also an employee at the harmful alternative medicine company Truehope that claims that their supplements can cure various forms of metal illness despite having virtually no scientific support for it. That company has also threatened to sue at least one their critics because she wrote a critical review of their products on her website.

They were convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life in the summer of 2016. Their 19-month-old son Ezekiel died of meningitis after they had refused to take him to a hospital during roughly a two-week period. The parents are anti-vaccine activists and just used a variety of fake treatments like garlic, onions, peppers and horseradish.

The father was sentenced to four months in jail and the mother got three months of house arrest due to crucial differences in how they handled the situation. The mother had done Internet research and did a few diagnostic tests on their son, but the dad just got more supplements. Both were also sentenced to 240 hours of community service. The remaining children must see a doctor once a year and that they must post the conviction on their social media accounts in full. David Stephan was later caught selling naturopathic supplements, indicating that he has certainly not given up on this quackery.

Some people who do not understand the point of scientific skepticism and critical thinking often rhetorical ask “what’s the harm?”. This is the harm.

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A Scientific Skeptic Watches “Born in the Wild” (Georgia Episode)

Born in the Wild

Lifetime ran a short-lived television series during 2015 that focused on extreme natural birth activists who decided to give birth in extreme environments, far form any hospitals and often without properly trained medical personnel. These activists wrongly think that giving birth in a hospital is harmful and dangerous, but that giving birth in the wilderness of Alaska or in a windy plains near mountains is much better and safer (even though medical help might take at least 30 minutes to get there).

Although hailed by natural birth activists, the show only ran for a single season that consisted of six episodes in total. It was in many ways a perfect storm of anti-medicine pseudoscience and self-absorbed narcissism of privileged mothers who had no idea about the dangers that are potentially involved in giving birth. For instance, WHO puts the number of mothers who die during or shortly after pregnancy and childbirth to around 300 000 per year. Most of these occur in “low-resource settings” and likely could have been prevented. It is precisely these settings that many natural birth activists attempt to emulate.

Each episode has a common intro. Text appears on the screen explaining that the crushing majority of births in the United States occur in a hospital, but also that “Some women are choosing to have a very different experience. This shows document their journey.” A male voiceover lays out the point out the show by stating that “modern parents giving birth in the wilderness like their ancestors. No hospitals. No surgical intervention. No drugs. Just a choice. To return to the primal roots of humanity.” This show is a celebration to the ignorance involved in romanticizing nature and the past. Previous episodes giving birth in the wilderness of Alaska and the mountain plains of Utah. What happened in this episode?

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The Perils of Anti-Pesticide Hysteria

Pests and pesticides

Pesticides have brought humans breathtaking benefits. They help to protect plants from the adverse impact of weeds, parasites and microscopic pathogens that is a constant threat to their existence. Pesticides were vital for the Green Revolution (occurring between the 1930s to 1960s). This was a powerful transformation that doubled to tripled agricultural output and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people from starvation. If pests were allowed to reign free, an estimated 50% to 80% of all crops (ranging from wheat to cotton) would be lost (Oerke, 2006), although pesticides are not the only form of crop protection available. Pesticides can also suppress insect vectors for important human diseases and reduce the amount of exhausting manual labor used to clear weeds.

Yet, there is a much darker side to pesticides that cannot be ignored. Large, chronic occupational exposure to pesticides can make people sick or even kill them. Pesticides are typically very broad in their specificity, so they do not just harm the target pest, but many non-target organisms that benefit both the crops and the environment. They can also contaminate surface water, ground water and soil and thus have much more far-reaching effects on organisms outside the field. Excessive agricultural use can also make pests resistant to the pesticides, which can substantially reduce their effectiveness in managing insect vectors for human diseases. Many pesticide apologists ignore or downplay many of these problems.

Developing newer and safer pesticides, replacing older and more harmful pesticides, and deploying biotechnology to help plants resist pests should be a global agricultural priority. Yet in a cruel twist, these crucial solutions are often opposed by many anti-pesticide activists and other extreme environmentalists who push fear and misinformation about “chemicals” and genetically modified crops. This apparent paradoxical situation might be called the perils of anti-pesticide hysteria.

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The Apache Attack Helicopter Gambit Declined

Apache Attack Helicopter

There is a famous quote from several hundred years ago that suggests that misinformation can travel across the globe before truth has gotten its running boots on. If we have learnt anything from the modern Internet era, it is that this is a very apt description for how things work. Claims that are surprising, engaging, sensationalist or emotionally manipulative receive many orders of magnitude more likes and shares compared with detailed fact-checking or other forms of skeptical content.

One such persistent set of claims is involved in the Apache attack helicopter gambit. It involves comparing LGBT people and other gender and sexual minorities to someone who thinks that they are an attack helicopter. The gambit wrongly puts a heavy focus on self-identification compared with biological and psychological realities, insinuates that many of these categories are based on things that are not physically possible or delusional, conflates extreme surgical procedures for aesthetic purposes with therapeutic surgery and that a request for basic human rights for trans people is akin to demanding to have the right to murder people arbitrarily. All of these claims are extremely misleading and wrong.

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