Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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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Anti-Psychiatry and The Anatomy of a Non-Epidemic

Anatomy of an Epidemic

Anti-psychiatry is a pseudoscience that is based on denying the existence of mental illness, rejecting the efficacy of mainstream science-based treatment and demonizing medical doctors who specialize in psychiatry. The anti-psychiatry movement is very diverse and include individuals with very different views on economy and liberty and not all anti-psychiatry proponents agree with all three core beliefs.

Some creationists reject the notion of psychiatric conditions because they think that mental illness is a form of satanic contamination of an immaterial soul and scoff at mainstream treatments do not involve a scriptural perspective on original sin. Some people who embrace alternative medicine or new age belief systems think that depression is just a result of too much negative energy and that if they just think positively or take homeopathy, they will attract good things in life. Even some secular atheists have jumped on the anti-psychiatry train, either by shrieking about “reductionism” or buying into irrational and evidence-free conspiracy theories about how psychiatrists supposedly regularly kidnap, torture and murder their patients.

Robert Whitaker is an anti-psychiatry journalist and author who has written many articles and books arguing against mainstream psychiatry, including a paper in the bottom-of-the-barrel quack journal Medical Hypotheses that was not peer-reviewed at the time. His general approach is to mischaracterize how modern psychiatry looks at the causes of mental illness and spread misinformation about psychiatric medications by misusing old studies while ignoring their flaws and ignoring hundreds of studies that contradicts him.

E. Fuller Torrey is an American psychiatrist with a special research focus on schizophrenia. He runs Stanley Medical Research Institute and founded Treatment Advocacy Center. A while back Torrey wrote a scathing review of the latest anti-psychiatry book written by Whitaker. That review, called Anatomy of a Non-Epidemic: How Robert Whitaker Got It Wrong, will be discussed in additional detail in this post, because it is one of the best refutations of anti-psychiatry claims available on the Internet.

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The Pseudoscientific Disaster of Forced Anal Examinations

Dignity debased

Many governments criminalize homosexuality and consensual same-sex sexual behavior. At the time of this writing, it is illegal in over 70 countries according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). This is typically due to religious extremism and scientific ignorance. Many religious scriptures and societies are notoriously anti-gay and some of these societies invent invalid and pseudoscientific ideas about the nature, origin and content of homosexuality, as well as supposed “spiritual harms” and fake “cures”.

Governments who criminalize homosexuality has to have a system for detecting gay men to give the appearance of legitimacy. Besides the usual techniques (such as surveillance, interrogation, and urging people to report their family, friends and relatives to the police) some of them have invented pseudoscientific methods for “detecting homosexuality” through anal examinations of the gross morphology of the anus or anal tone. It is essentially based on the same myth as virginity tests, which is the notion that penetration makes you have a loose vagina or anus. This is not true because tightness is largely under the control of the autonomous nervous system and depend on how relaxed and sexually aroused you are.

Due to the nature of these examinations and the risk to the person being subjected to it, it is typically done by force and without informed consent. Needless to say, forced anal examinations are based on pseudoscience and violates many ethical, legal and moral principles. This post surveys the arguments and evidence discussed in the paper called Statement on Anal Examinations in Cases of Alleged Homosexuality by the Independent Forensic Expert Group. More information about forced anal examinations and the eight countries where it happens can be found in this news item from International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims or this Human Rights Watch primer and this Human Rights Watch report. Cached version of the paper and the report can be found here and here.

Eight scientific reasons for why forced anal examinations do not work

So what are the scientific reasons for why forced anal examinations do not tell you anything reliable about anal tone or consensual, same-sex anal sex? Why should it be considered pseudoscience? Here are eight distinct reasons:

(1) There is no standardized and quantitative method for doing anal examinations of anal tone or appearance.

(2) There is no evidence that this method is valid, i.e. that certain level of anal tone or appearance is associated with receptive, same-sex anal sex.

(3) There is a certain degree of normal variability in anal features between individuals and examinations, which makes it hard to make claims about clinical relevant deviations.

(4) There is no evidence of interrater reliability i.e. that different examiners reach the same results and same interpretation of the results. Different examiners can differ in size of fingers, amount of lube used, penetration depth or the ability to digitally sense tone.

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Genetic Clusters, Racial Medicine and Fishes

Neurologica Blog

Humans are pattern-seeking animals are are thus prone to detect patterns where none exists. We are also very interested in categorizing things, presumably because it is easier to handle cognitively. Imagine the difficulty we would have if we had to mentally treat each leaf as a separate entity and could not consider them “just a bunch of leaves”! But there is a downside to this as well, because we can be mislead and neglect complicated patterns because our categories are easy and psychological influential. These issues and questions often appear in discussions about human genetic diversity. This is enhanced by the fact that complicated genetic and computational analyses feeds us with visually striking graphs that tickle our imagination, while we do not pay equal attention to the underlying methodology.

However, reality is more complicated. Genetic clusters overemphasize differences, largely ignore similarities and is confounded by low sampling density and geographic distance. Thus, a modern analysis of human genetic variation reveals that it is, with a few exceptions, mostly clinal in nature and that notions of discrete genetic races is not an accurate description.

It is often said that ethnicity is useful in medicine, but this is also more complicated due to confounders such as health disparities, bias, discrimination, healthcare seeking behavior and compliance, as well as socioeconomic status. It turns out that ethnic status is at best a crude proxy for the alleles of a person and sequencing individuals will be much more useful. Finally, a focus on racial medicine has led to misdiagnosis of some diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, thalassemia and cystic fibrosis.

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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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Crown Prosecutors Appeal Lenient Toddler Meningitis Sentence

Crown appeals Stephans sentencing

In 2012, David and Collet Stephan failed to provide the necessities of life to their toddler Ezekiel, who died of meningitis-induced hypoxia. Instead of calling an ambulance or traveling to a medical doctor, the couple instead gave pseudoscientific alternative products to Ezekiel, such as garlic, hot peppers, horseradish, maple syrup, berry juice, and miscellaneous naturopathic quackery for a period of over two weeks. It was only when Ezekiel stopped breathing that they decided to call an ambulance and take their son to a hospital and real medical help. The trial started in early March of 2016 and they got convicted for failing to provide the necessities of life. The father got four months in prison and the mother got three months house arrest. They both got 240 hours community service and a probation period of 2 years after their punishment is completed. The father was deemed especially guilty, as he showed no remorse and only got more naturopathic substances, whereas the mother actually researched the disease and contacted a nurse.

The parents, and especially David, has not fully accepted responsibility for their crime. Instead, they have offered a variety of excuses and tried to shift the blame to others. David claimed that the only way to discover that their son had meningitis was to have a 24-hour medical supervision, which is simply not true. He also claims that his son did not die of meningitis, but only because the ambulance was not well-stocked enough. One wonders what David thinks is the cause of the life-threatening breathing difficulties experienced by his son Ezekiel. It occurred before the ambulance arrived and a reasonable person would conclude that it was induced by the untreated meningitis. Yet David does not want to realize this, because that would effectively shatter his cognitive dissonance and force him to realize that he and his wife is responsible for the death of their son.

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David Stephan Gets 4 Months in Jail for Naturopathy Meningitis Death

Jail time for David Stephan

Naturopathy is a form of alternative medicine that push overconsumption of vitamins and minerals, herbalism woo, as well as other types of quackery such as homeopathy and acupuncture. In addition, they are decidedly anti-medicine because they generally oppose vaccines and pharmaceuticals.

It often rests on vitalism, which is the debunked notion that the core feature of life is a mysterious life energy, rather than physical, chemical and biological processes. It also has a near fetishistic obsession with everything “from nature” or “natural”, despite the fact that nature can produce and has produced substances that are incredibly dangerous for humans.

In an investigation of naturopathy and other alternative treatments carried out by the Australian government only a single unpublished systematic review was found, and so they concluded “overall quality of evidence was rated as very low”. In their evaluation, they highlighted risk of bias, low precision, and publication bias.

Who are David And Collet Stephan?

David and Collet Stephan are a married couple living in Alberta, Canada. They are also devoted proponents and practitioners of naturopathy and David was at the very least an employee at the controversial alternative medicine company called Truehope that has been discussed several times before on this website.

In early 2012, their son Ezekiel, a 19-month-old toddler, developed meningitis. It is not clear that this case of meningitis was caused by a vaccine-preventable disease, but it is a possibility, and the family opposed vaccines.

How did their actions lead to the death of their son Ezekiel?

Meningitis is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. How did Ezekiel’s parents handle it? Did they call an ambulance? Visit an emergency room? No, far from it. They tried to “boost the immune system” of the child with alleged “natural remedies” such as maple syrup, berry juice, apple cider vinegar, garlic and other food items. They also tried the nutritional supplement Empowerplus from the Truehope company discussed above. Most reasonable people understand that these “treatments” do not work, or at the very least has never been shown to work in large-scale scientific studies.

Ezekiel was sick for almost two weeks. It starting with a fever that the parents attributed to teething, but he soon developed labored and wheezy breathing. It has now that the Stephans started with their herbal “treatments” and put in a humidifier. The toddler mostly stopped eating and drinking, so they have to give him fluids through eye drops. His symptoms likely worsened, but the parents belief in the efficacy of their treatments led them to believe that the boy was improving. He then became increasingly lethargic and unresponsive as well as showing some neurological symptoms. A few days later, the parents noticed increased stiffness that eventually became so severe that his back was arched when laying down.

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