Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Coop Sued For Misleading “The Organic Effect” Marketing Campaign

The Organic Effect Marketing Campaign

Coop is a large national grocery retail company that runs close to 660 grocery stores of different brands all across Sweden. They are owned by The Swedish Co-operative Union and The Consumer Association Stockholm. In 2015, their grocery stores sold items to a value of almost 17.3 billion Swedish Crowns (about 2.1 billion USD).

In 2015, Coop launched a fear-based and misleading pro-organic attack ad called “The Organic Effect” against conventional agriculture. They selected a single family with two adults and three children and had them eat organic food for two weeks. They measured conventional pesticides in their urine before and after those two weeks. Before they started eating organic food, researchers at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute (represented by Jörgen Magnér) found insecticides, fungicides and straw-shortening agents (~5 nanograms/milliliter). Afterwards, these conventional pesticides had allegedly disappeared.

The family in the video thought it was really disgusting to eat insecticides and felt very happy afterwards. Magnér claims that scientists know very little about the long-term effects of eating foods that have been exposed to pesticides and points out that combinations of chemicals can sometimes be worse than either of them on their own. The video finishes with the mother saying that her first reaction to the results from the urine tests is that she thinks of the children and that she never wants those chemicals that now have left their bodies back.

During 2015, Coop increased organic food sales by almost 20%. It is of course difficult to attribute all of this to the advertisement campaign, but it is reasonable to suppose it was not a complete failure. The Youtube video (see references and further reading section) of the advertisement has been seen almost 5.5 million times on Youtube.

Why is the “The Organic Effect” Marketing Campaign Scientifically Misleading?

This commercial is highly scientifically misleading for a number of reasons:

1. It only tested pesticides used in conventional agriculture and completely ignored pesticides used in organic agriculture (such as copper and iron sulfate, pyrethrines, sulfur, azadirachtin, spinosad etc.). Had they also tested organic pesticides, they probably would have found that those would increase when the conventional pesticides declined. They also never tested e. g. fungal toxins and other toxins that pesticides protect against.

2. The residual amounts detected are extremely low, only about 5 nanogram per milliliter from their charts.

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Local Weather Still Not Global Climate

Temperature measurements

Climate change looks to be one of the major challenges facing humans in the 21th century and beyond. The evidence has accumulated to such an extent that we now can be reasonably confident that there is a current warming trend and that the human emission of greenhouse gases is a powerful contributing factor.

In fact, not only was April of 2016 the warmest April globally that has ever been recorded since measurements started, it is part of a 12-month streak of records. Yet, climate change denialism is alive and well.

There are thousands and thousands of newspaper articles, blog posts and social media groups that discuss global warming and climate change, yet people do not seem to be able to grasp the basic concepts of the field. One such prominent example is the difference between local weather and global climate. To put it simply, local weather is what you see outside the window, whereas global climate is long-term average trends for the entire world. NASA has a great article explaining the difference between weather and climate in additional detail.

Thus, it makes no sense to say that there is no global climate change because it was recently cold in some local area. Yet this is what climate change denialists and a lot of laypeople argue. In reality, it is as dumb as saying that there is no world hunger because you had a snack to eat last night or that because you no longer have a cold, infectious diseases must not be an issue globally.

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At Least 60% of Reported Shootings in Malmö Not Actual Shootings

Malmo gun violence

International news media seems to think that the Swedish city of Malmö is being overrun by gun violence. In reality, the definition of a shooting differs between Malmö and the other two main cities. In Malmö, it does not have to be an actual gun that was fired and there is no requirement for forensic or eyewitness testimony. The geographical areas also differ, with Malmö only covering the main city and the urban area Arlöv. Once researchers looked through the data and counted the number of actual shootings, the figures dropped by 60-75%. The Malmö police does offer some justifications of their classification scheme, but in the end, organizations that gather statistics have an intellectual responsibility to ensure that their data are not easily abuse by being clear with definitions and what can and cannot be inferred from their data.

A recent analysis by Swedish Council for Crime Prevention was covered in the newspaper Sydsvenskan. The sad reality is that fear propaganda gets front page news, whereas a careful statistical analysis gets only a small notice in most papers.

What is a shooting event?

Perhaps surprisingly, the definition of a shooting differs drastically between the three largest cities in Sweden (Stockholm, Göteborg and Malmö). In Stockholm and Göteborg, a shooting requires two criteria: (1) the discharge of a gunpowder-loaded projectile and (2) corroborating forensic evidence or eyewitness (or earwitness) testimony. In Malmö, a lot of other things are also classified as a shooting, such as firing of airsoft guns, slingshots, damages to windows that look like a bullet hole and even damages done by stone chips. Thus, the figures cannot be naively compared because they do not measure the same things.

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Church Council Spent 4600 USD on Tinfoil Hat for EMF Hypersensitivity

Tinfoil Hat Church

Electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF), is a collection of non-specific and vague symptoms that some people attribute to electromagnetic fields.

In reality, individuals who claim to be severely effected by e. g. cellphones or Wi-Fi cannot accurately determine when they are exposed to EM fields in provocation studies and symptoms appear to get better when treated with psychotherapy. IEI-EMF is not a scientifically or medically recognized diagnosis.

Although their proposed explanation is not true, their experienced symptoms are real. This can in some cases lead to severe functional impairment, including extreme isolation and other psychological consequences. Individuals with IEI-EMF sometimes demand that others, such as neighbors, stores and even local government make radical changes to accommodate them. This can include considerable changes to homes and workplaces in the form of “electric sanitization” or petitioning the municipality to have cell phone antennas re-directed creating a local blackout over a neighborhood.

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Winning The Fight Against Bacterial Meningitis With Immunization

Bacterial meningitis pathogen

Bacterial meningitis is often, but not exclusively, caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (also known as meningococcus). It involves the inflammation of the membranes of the central nervous system (including the brain) and depending on the stage of the disease, the symptoms include nausea, vomiting, confusion and severe pain. If the bacteria invade the bloodstream, it can damage the blood vessels and giving you internal bleeding. This is a potentially life-threatening disease and even if you receive antibiotic treatment, about 10-15% of people will die. According to the WHO, almost 1 million cases have been reported during the past 20 years in the so-called meningitis belt (ranging from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east).

Yet, there are important improvements occurring thanks to large-scale vaccination campaigns against meningococcus serotype A (the other most common serotypes are B, C, Y and W135). The number of cases of meningitis reported annually has been declining since 2010 and in 2014, it was down to 11 500. CNN recently ran a news item on the struggle against meningococcus serotype A in Africa that is worth examining in greater detail. We will also look at the aftermath of a recent meningitis death of a toddler due to anti-vaccine parents using alternative medicine for two and a half weeks before attempting to seek real medical attention.

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Are There Any Risks With GM Crops Not Found With Conventional Crops?

Corn

One of the best strategies used by scientific skeptics against anti-GMO activists on the Internet is to ask them to cite one risk that exists with genetically modified crops, but does not occur with any conventional breeding method. This is best done after presenting evidence of the safety and efficacy of GM crops and other GM applications. That way, the anti-GMO activist has to both respond to the published evidence, but also figure out unique risks with GM crops. Because it is very hard to find these supposed unique risks, the anti-GMO activists finds themselves in a very difficult position.

Far from being stumped, anti-GMO activists often try to come up with alleged unique risks, but they are often mistaken: the same risks occur with traditional breeding methods such as cross-breeding, marker-assisted breeding, radiation breeding or breeding that uses mutagenic substances such as EMS. This post repels many of the most common retorts given by anti-GMO activists when asked to cite a unique risk with genetic modification compared with conventional breeding methods.

What about allergens?

GM crops are required to go through stringent toxicological and ecological testing by regulatory authorities. This includes testing for the presence of allergens. If GM crops are found to contain allergens, they are not approved. In contrast, there is nothing that prevents a farmer from developing a new form of food item that we know contain allergens, such as peanuts, or crossing plants that cause the mixing of thousands of genes that could potentially cause an allergen.

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Mailbag: Modern High-Throughput Genomics Versus Race Realism

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.

With access to constant media reporting from around the world, it is hard to ignore stories about economy, elections, crimes and war. A lot of this news reporting involve coverage that is in some way related to differences within and between countries in terms of poverty and richness, ethnic tensions, scientific progress and lack of basic resources for life. It is understandable that we often ask ourselves about the nature of such differences, how they came about, what they mean, and how we can approach them.

However, dark clouds often appear on the horizon. Political and religious groups claim to have the truth on these matters and that their particular narrative of the nature and causes of, and solutions to, world problems should be preferred over others. These are often based on ideology and beliefs, rather than the result of scientific research and rational thinking. Typically, these narratives have a substantial flaw: they are simplistic and only include a single factor or perhaps a few, while and ignore the multifactorial nature of complex problems. It is tempting to be lured into simplistic explanations for a complex world, because they are cognitively easy and allows us to put blame on one group or a few groups of people. However, they are often as false as they are naive. Instead, we should banish proposed “explanations” that try to explain a complex societal processes with simplistic causes.

After reading some of the articles on Debunking Denialism about the scientific problems with race realism, RH decided to send me an email about some of the issues he was thinking about. The topics involve genetics, heritability, inventions, poverty, national economy, crime, history, and politics.

High-throughput modern genetic studies finds very low between-group genetic variation

RH writes:

I mean how can you argue against racialism/race realism and say humanity is one race when the world just seems to contradict that?

The general answer to this question is that we must not be misled by how the world seems. Instead, we must boldly explore beyond the limited scope of our own personal beliefs and biases by testing them against broad scientific data without being selective and seeing what we want to see.

When scientists carry out high-throughput genomics research and look at 650 000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and close to 400 microsatellites, they find that the vast majority of human genetic variation, ranging from 84.7%-95% depending on the study and genetic elements, occurs within populations (Li et al., 2008; Rosenberg et al., 2002). Only a tiny minority of genetic variation occurs between continental groups. Thus, the available scientific evidence strongly disagree with the race realist position. Instead, human genetic diversity is better described as mostly continuous clines, with a few rare exceptions (Serre and Pääbo, 2004). Certainly, there is still a scientific debate about details as in many other areas, but this is the mainstream scientific position with regards to human genetic diversity.

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Do Not Order Cannabis Oil Online To Treat Child Epilepsy

Cannabis plant

Cannabis oil is an umbrella term for oily extracts from the plant Cannabis sativa with varying concentrations of THC and other cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol. Products containing even low amounts of THC is often classed as an illegal substance in many countries where cannabis is illegal.

For cannabis apologists, it is a miracle cure for a large number of diseases, ranging from cancer and HIV to autism and epilepsy. For critics of alternative medicine and opponents of drug fetischizing, it is just another drug product that criminals attempt to con people into using by making unsupported claims about products that haven ever been sufficiently tested for safety and efficacy.

Throughout the Internet and in newspapers like Metro, one can find many testimonials from alleged parents that swear that it works. But this is not scientific evidence. There are people who force bleach on their autistic children or treat children who have meningitis with maple syrup and swear that their products work when they demonstrably do not. It is easy to be convinced by testimonials, but it is just a form of emotional manipulation, often with financial motives, to trick people into buying their products. Let us look at two such testimonials that recently appeared in an issue of Metro newspaper.

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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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