Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Tag Archives: alternative medicine

Five Reasons Why “Placebo Medicine” is Bullshit

The alternative medicine movement constantly moves the goalposts and shifts the narrative to avoid admitting that their products are medical failures. First they claim that their fake treatments are effective. When it is pointed out that their products have not been tested for safety and efficacy, they deny that it is even possible to be run clinical trials on alternative medicine because it is so personalized.

When it is pointed out that many real treatments are also personalized and could be tested just fine, they insist that clinical trials will vindicate their quackery. When their products fail the tests, they try to spin the result in such a way as to portray the clinical trials as a success.

When it is ultimately shown that some alternative medicine practice is virtually indistinguishable from placebo, they switch the narrative once again. This time, they insist that even if their fake products and services are indistinguishable from placebo, the placebo effect is supposedly some mysterious new age woo that the mind somehow determines reality and that we therefore must “harness the power of placebo”. Here is why all of this is deeply misleading. Read more of this post

Mailbag: Anti-Psychiatry Fallacies and Falsehoods

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.

Anti-science activism takes many forms. They can oppose specific scientific models such as climate change or evolution. They can oppose entire aspects of medicine, such as alternative medicine or cancer quackery. They can promote conspiracy theories on specific historical events such as 9/11 terrorist attacks or the Holocaust. They can oppose specific products developed by researchers such as vaccines or genetically modified crops. They can even be corrupted by specific ideologies such as natural birth quackery or race pseudoscience.

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Use This One Weird Trick to Take Back Control of Your Health

This One Weird Trick

Do you care about your health, but never find time to do anything serious about improving it? Do you feel trapped in an unhealthy lifestyle and do not know what to do to change it? Are you experiencing vague and unspecific symptoms such as tiredness, headaches, or a lack of motivation?

Do you feel like you never know who or what to trust because newspapers and websites change their minds about what is healthy and what is dangerous almost every week? Feel confused and perplexed by strange and conflicting messages that you find on the thousands of health and wellness websites that are out there?

What if there was this one simple trick that you could use to take back control of your own health? What if this trick could potentially save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year that you can spend on important things and people who truly matters? What is this one weird trick is a trick that they do not want you to know about? A trick that they are actively trying to hide from you by spending millions of dollars on misinformation on television, social media and the Internet generally?

Debunking Denialism is proud to expose them and give you the truth. This one weird trick to take control of your health is this: stop using alternative medicine. It is virtually always ineffective and/or untested garbage and can even be dangerous to your health. Throw it all away. Right now.

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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.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

Note: This is the fourth installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu's website

So far, we have seen how paranormalist Winston Wu misunderstands core skeptic principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, parsimony, burden of evidence, the perils and pitfalls of anecdotal evidence, and the fallibility of human memory. We have also investigated the difference between the unexplained and the unexplainable, the nature of beliefs, the methods of scientific skepticism, irrationality and the scope and influence of pseudoscience.

In this fourth installment of this articles series, we move onto examining specific paranormalist claims, such as psychics that claim to be able to talk to the dead, the value of controls and replication in psi research, the nature of the placebo effect and the alleged existence of miracles.

Misunderstood principle #16: Psychological techniques of alleged psychics

Alleged psychics use a wide range of psychological techniques (reviewed here) to persuade people that they have supernatural powers that allows them to supposedly communicate with the dead or gain important insights about the past: cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, time-shifting, inflating probabilistic resources, shotgunning, covering all bases, vanishing negative, escape hatch, changing the subject, spreading the net wider, retrofitting, post hoc rationalizations and so on.

Wu apparently do not recognize the breadth of psychological techniques because he only brings up cold and hot reading:

The problem with the cold reading/hot reading explanation is that for many accounts of psychic readings (including some of my own) the techniques do not account for the specific information attained. For example, some psychic can tell you very specific things about you without asking you any questions, which rules out the “fishing for clues” technique. If neither they nor any of their accomplices talked to you beforehand, then that would also rule out the same technique. […[ Unfortunately for skeptics, there are many cases of psychic readings where all of the above were ruled out. Therefore, cold/hot reading cannot account for every case. In such cases, the skeptic is left without explanations, but often continue to insist that the client must have given away some kind of clue, and demand that this be disproved first before imposing any claim of genuine psychic ability at work.

Because there are dozens and dozens of other techniques besides cold and hot reading, this is a very weak argument for the existence of psychic powers. Although Wu does acknowledge that there are many frauds out there, Wu has denied himself the opportunity to fully investigate alternatives to his hypothesis that alleged psychics have genuine supernatural powers.

The next part of the section contains anecdotes about visits to psychics that he and various people have done. However, as was explored in a previous installment, the plural of anecdote is not data. Also, many of them are second or third-hand accounts, taken from email list discussions or an anonymous story about remembering playing with an Ouija board at age 11. Thus, they contain information that can be considerably different from the actual events and Wu even acknowledge that at least some of the alleged examples are examples of cold reading. Because of that, this installment focus on examining Wu’s own experience.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part III: Nature of Skepticism

Note: This is the third installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu

In the two previous installments, we have explored a large number of skeptical principles and exposed the various deceptive ways that Winston Wu has falsely characterized them. Confidence in a proposition should be proportional to the evidence for that proposition. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Models that make fewer evidence-free assumptions should be preferred to models that are overly complex because they are more likely. The burden of evidence rests on the person advancing the position that is less likely with respect to the background information. Anecdotal evidence, although useful for generating hypotheses for future research, is not scientific evidence as it lacks independent support, is subject to cognitive biases and maybe be non-representative due to cherry-picking. Human memory is fallible and there are hundreds of people who have been falsely convicted on eyewitness testimony alone. Scientific skepticism is not about the automatic dismissal of supernatural claims. Rather, it is based on the fact that supernatural claims usually have little to no evidence supporting them, and plenty of evidence against them.

In this third installment, we will investigate how Wu misunderstands five additional skeptical principles and stances. Just because something currently lacks a scientific explanation does not mean that it is unexplainable or that supernatural “explanations” automatically win even though they lack evidence. Wu also equivocates between “beliefs” in the general sense of having opinions or accepting positions with the specific sense of holding evidence-free positions about the world. Scientific skepticism is about using accumulated scientific knowledge and rational arguments to investigate claims. It is not the same as philosophical skepticism or cynicism. Contrary to Wu, pointing out that some people’s beliefs are irrational or that they have a primitive form of thinking is not a personal attack, but an intellectually honest assessment of reality.

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Some Common Anti-Psychiatry Archetypes

Debunking anti-psychiatry

The anti-psychiatry movement resembles the anti-vaccine movement and HIV/AIDS denialism in many ways. Whereas anti-vaccine cranks claim that vaccine-preventable diseases are not that bad and HIV/AIDS denialists often deny the causal link between HIV and AIDS, anti-psychiatry cranks typically deny the existence of mental conditions outright (claiming they are made up or that they are “natural” states) or blame the individuals for “attracting” the illness into their lives with “too much negative thinking”. All three groups attack the underlying scientific models (e. g. mechanisms for vaccine-induced immunity and herd immunity, that HIV cause a reduction in CD4+ T helper cells, the biological basis and neurological mechanisms of mental conditions), the efficacy of the medical product, pharmaceutical companies, the government and the scientific community.

This post is an attempt to summarize seven of the most common clusters of characteristics, beliefs and approaches taken by various types of anti-psychiatry cranks: the creationist, the alt med zealot, the new age ignoramus, the “sophisticated” mysterian, the selective “skeptic”, the conspiracy lunatic and the scientologist. These archetypes are not based on published scientific studies, but rather on experience with debating anti-psychiatry cranks. Some of them overlap and not all features of a given archetype always occur. An interesting observation is that anti-psychiatry can be found across political, religious and philosophical spectra and divides. Even though a lot of the assertions made and rhetoric deployed is consistent across archetypes, different archetypes have different motivations and a slightly different focus.

The Creationist: the anti-psychiatry creationist represents the worst of two worlds: both a rejection of modern cosmology, geology and biology as well as a rejection of modern neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry. These individuals reject psychiatry and related fields because (1) neuroscience considers the mind to be a function of the brain, which is incompatible with the anti-psychiatry creationist’s faith that an immaterial soul is the entity responsible for the mind and (2) treatments of mental conditions does not involve a consideration of original sin, but focuses on medication and therapy. Although not all creationists are anti-psychiatry, those that are reject additional fields of science in order to keep their religious beliefs afloat. Depending on the individual anti-psychiatry creationist, he or she may reject the existence of mental conditions as medical conditions or go so far as to provide a religious description of mental conditions as demonic possessions or gifts from a deity.

The Alt Med Zealot: the alt med zealot embraces anti-psychiatry because he or she wrongly believes in the efficacy and safety of so-called “alternative” treatments for mental conditions. In reality, these alleged “treatments” are quackery and almost never gives any practically significant benefit above placebo. Most of the time, these individuals accepts the medical reality of mental conditions. However, they tend to shuns positions supported mainstream science, usually by ignorantly dismissing it all by shouting about “evil, multinational pharmaceutical corporations” (apparently without realizing the irony that a lot of “alternative medicine” is being produced and sold by large corporations) and accusing all critics of their beliefs of being pharma shills. Read more of this post

There Can Only Be One

One of the most common and perhaps most annoying rhetorical tactics against science-based medicine is the notion that there are different categories of valid medicine. We have all heard these claims like: western medicine versus eastern medicine or allopathic medicine versus homeopathy or conventional medicine versus alternative and complementary medicine.

The reason that this is faulty is because there is only one kind of legitimate medicine: the ones that work (compared with placebo). If it does not, it is not valid medicine, but dangerous quackery. People spend their hard-earned money on stuff that does not work, it can make innocent people not use life-saving medications and instead invest in worthless products and it makes us less likely to think critically. Read more of this post

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