Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

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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Homeopathy Journal Suppressed Due To “Anomalous Citation Patterns”

Homeopathy Journal

Homeopathy is a form of pseudoscientific quackery from the late 1700s that is based on denying basic chemistry. In reality, the more you dilute something, the weaker the substance becomes (think of mixing lemonade). Homeopaths, on the other and, think that a substance gets stronger when diluted. Mind-bogglingly, they think it is even more powerful when it is so diluted that no molecules are likely to be left of the original substance. They also believe that the substance that caused a disease is also the cure, so if you have a deadly snake bite, you should drink extremely diluted snake venom instead of a dose of the appropriate anti-venom.

The most methodologically rigorous studies shows that homeopathy is not clinically significantly better than placebo. This is to be expected, since you are basically drinking water or eating a sugar pill if you take homeopathic remedies.

What exactly is the Elsevier journal “Homeopathy?”

The Homeopathy journal has existed under various names since 1911 and is the official publication of the Faculty of Homeopathy. Since the 1950s, it has a legal status as an educational institution in England and their current tagline is the Orwellian claim that they are “ensuring the highest standards in homeopathic education and practice”.

This journal is published by Elsevier and its 2014 impact factor 0.758 according to Journal Citation Reports, which makes it among the lowest quality category of journals in the world. Other impact factor metrics were even lower, from 0.3 to 0.5 (according to the journal website).

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Alleged Spoon Bender Anastasia Kutt Resigns from University of Alberta

Spoon Bender Anstasia Kutt resigns

According to her blog, Anastasia Kutt describes herself as an “energy healing therapist”, a “registered Reiki Master/Teacher”, a “certified Trilotherapist” and a “Yuen Method practitioner”. Until very recently, she was also a “workshop facilitator” associated with the University of Alberta. She appears to offer both spoon bending and tantric sex workshops, but her major focus appears to be on providing various Reiki courses to people that include topics such as “psychic surgery”, “aura cleansing”, “chakra cleaning”, “removing specific energy blockages” etc. for the cheap price of 350 USD for the first two levels and 500 USD for the final third level so that you can become a full-fledged “Reiki Master Practitioner”. If you do not mind being fooled into giving away more money, there is even a course to become a “Usui Reiki Master Teacher” for another 800 USD, making it a grand total of 1650 USD. In addition, there is a 100 USD deposit to register for the different courses.

Recently, she organized a workshop at the University of Alberta. Not any workshop, but a workshop that involved the promotion of “energy healing therapies” and spoon bending. Yes, you read that correctly. Spoon bending. A great overview of this issue can be found in this article written by Orac on Respectful Insolence. At least two articles have been published by CBC. Now, it seems that this workshop has been cancelled and that she has resigned from her position at the University of Alberta. This article looks at these recent developments.

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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

The Triumph of the Peppered Moths and the Failure of Creationism

Peppered Moths

The peppered moth, Biston betularia, is a species of nocturnal moths that can be found across the Northern hemisphere. In Britain, the two most common morphs are called typica (white with dark irregular patches and spots) and carbonaria (dark melanic). There is also an intermediate morph that is known as insularia.

Before the early 1800s, the melanic morph was unknown. About a hundred years later, this morph completely dominated the population. This coincided with the industrial pollution of forests, thereby depriving the white morph of its good camouflage and allowing the melanic morph to better hide in the surroundings, since trees had been darkened by soot and a lot of lichens died due to sulfur dioxide. This became known as industrial melanism. From the 1960s and to the present, this trend has been reversed. As the air and the environment became less polluted, the melanic morph fell in prevalence and the white morph rose again.

Research of the prevalence of different morphs at different places and times can be found in many scientific papers, such as Kettlewell (1956), Grant, Owen and Clark (1996) and Cook and Saccheri (2003).

Why are peppered moths a case of natural selection in the wild?

This is a fantastic example of natural selection in the wild, because there was a shift in the prevalence of the two forms due to selection from the environment and this occurred both during increased and decreased pollution. This has also been observed in many locations in both Europe and North America, further solidifying the case.

Later research showed that the major mechanism behind this change turned out to be bird predation. Before the pollution, white morphs had a good camouflage against light trees. During the strong pollution era, these were easier to spot by birds against the blackened background, whereas now the melanic morphs had a better ability to hide. As the environment improved, the situation was reversed again.

Creationists try to spread misinformation about these mechanistic details and how frequent these moths rests on different parts of the trees, but whatever they claim, their assertions do not disprove the fundamental fact that natural selection caused the shift in the prevalence of different morphs over time.

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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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