Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Tag Archives: selective skepticism

Mailbag: What’s The Harm?

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.

Tony recently wrote a comment on the post about six general approaches to refute any conspiracy theory. Because it represents such a common and typical response to efforts to promote scientific skepticism, it deserves to be part of the mailbag series where it can be discussed and dissected in some detail.

It is a combination of the “what’s the harm” gambit, the fallacy of relative privation and the uneasy relationship between those atheism-centric individuals who want to exclusively focus on religion (and ignore everything else) and scientific skeptics who take a broader approach to pseudoscience wherever it can be found.

This response will focus on several questions. What are the harms with pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and why should you care? Are they not just fun and harmless? Why is it not productive to insist that people ignore problems just because some other problem is deemed more important? Finally, why is Debunking Denialism about scientific skepticism and not a generic anti-religion blog?

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Why Scientific Skepticism Should Be Intellectually Global

Make skepticism intellectually global

With the election of Donald Trump, we are now officially living in a post-fact world.

There are many factors behind why Trump won. He got a ton of free advertisement from the mass media, he exploited simmering hostility towards the establishment, a lot of democrats did not vote etc. and people are trying to figure out how it happened and how to process it all. However, it is becoming clearer and clearer that an ignorance of science and critical thinking likely played an important role. Trump promoted a large number of scientific falsehoods and a lot of anti-human bigotry that you could debunk with a minimal knowledge of science and cognitive biases.

However, people either did not do this properly or simply did not care enough about these issues. This means it is high time to restore the cultural authority of science and promote critical thinking of questionable claims. Not only that, scientific skepticism has to go global. Not just in terms of geography, but there also needs to be a push for scientific skepticism as a valid tool in all areas of human endeavor. Pseudoscientific nonsense is pseudoscientific nonsense regardless if it comes from a politician or an alternative medicine quack.

What does this mean in practice?

This post will examine some of the consequences of this commitment to scientific skepticism as an intellectually global priority. It means that there will be no more free passes or no more selective skepticism. It means defending medical ethics and human rights. It means opposing pseudoscientific bullshit from politicians and understanding that bigotry often rely on pseudoscience. It also means pushing for scientific testing of political policy suggestions.

No free passes: no issue should be given a free pass from scientific skepticism and critical thinking. There is no divide between “science and rationality” and “all other issues”. Tear down this wall. Scientific skepticism should be applied just as harshly to claims made by politicians, public policy suggestions, religion, history and ethical claims. No more free passes to pseudoscientific nonsense no matter where they can be found. This farce ends here.

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In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Addendum and Index

Winston Wu

This is the index post and addendum to the article series refuting Winston Wu’s online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers”. The book in question attempts to defend various pseudoscientific and paranormalist beliefs, from prophetic dreams, near-death experiences, aliens and UFOs and so on. The book is written in 30 different sections and this criticism consists of six separate posts, each post dealing with five sections from the book.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part I: Bayesian Self-Defense: The first installation of this series deals with several basic aspects of scientific skepticism such as confidence should be in proportional to evidence, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Occam’s Razor, burden of evidence, and the problem with anecdotal evidence.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part II: Evidentialism: This second part delve deeper into the unreliability of human memory as evidence for paranormal claims, Hume’s argument against miracles, evidentialism as a skeptical stance, and scientific plausibility.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part III: Nature of Skepticism: The third part explains the difference between currently unexplained with fundamentally inexplicable, the nature of beliefs, scientific skepticism, irrationality, and the broad influence of pseudoscience (such as creationism and alternative medicine) on society.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers: This fourth part investigates the manipulative techniques used by alleged psychics, the meaning of replication in science, how to make adequate controls, the nature of placebo effects, and the fallacy of appeal to popularity.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part V: Cognitive Science: the penultimate part of this series discusses the power of after-the-fact rationalizations, why alleged prophetic dreams is a flawed interpretation of huge probabilistic resources, scientific explanations of near-death experiences, what neuroscience tells us about the brain and the mind as well as what it means to know something in science.

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part VI: Aliens and Creationism in this final installment, topics cover include the supposed innateness of religious belief, creationist misunderstandings of evolution, a return to anecdotal evidence and the burden of evidence and The James Randi Million Dollar Challenge.

The book written by Winston Wu is several years old (latest revision in 2011), so one might argue that it is not of interest to write a refutation. However, it is still being referenced online, is a treasure-trove for selective skeptics, and there is no complete refutation available online. The closest one is a 2004 criticism written by Paul Sandoval to a previous version of Wu’s text. It mostly examines the logical fallacies committed by Wu, but does not discuss the specific scientific details. In the end, this article series serves a valuable addition to the skeptical investigation of questionable claims, particularly those coming from paranormal believers and selective skeptics who for some reason detest scientific skepticism.

Each part links back to this index post.

Refusing to Provide Evidence? Here are Some Productive Alternatives

Paper, Research, Evidence

One of the most substantial problems with pseudoscientific cranks is that their beliefs and opinions are irrational and not based on any kind of credible scientific evidence. To prevent themselves from truly coming to terms with this, they have to invent a large number of after-the-fact rationalizations to explain away the massive amount of scientific evidence that runs contrary to their position in order to ease their cognitive dissonance. However, pseudoscientific cranks have learned that interactions with scientific skeptics are rarely beneficial for them. The evidence against their quackery is there, they cannot refute it and some people are starting to see through their nonsense. Thus, there is often an urgent need to develop other means to defend their flawed assertions. This is done by demonizing their opponents in order to justify rejecting everything those critics bring to the table, such as calling them shills for large corporations. In some cases, the mere request for evidence is considered to be some kind of attack against their person.

There is a disturbing tendency coalescing in many online communities (such as blogs, forums and social media website). It is based on misrepresenting skeptics as “a mob of harassers” and all critical questions or requests for supporting evidence are assumed to be asked in “bad faith” to only serve as dishonest methods to “demean or destroy” people. It is not just that rational discussion of ideas has been even more difficult to maintain than they already are, but that even the initiating of such an exchange is met with suspicion, thinly veiled hostility, and sometimes outright anger. After all, if you cannot successfully present supporting evidence for your beliefs, why even bother interacting with scientific skeptics? It is not like there is anything in it for the crank.

This article examines some common methods that pseudoscientific cranks use to avoid exchanges with scientific skeptics. Several generally applicable and productive alternatives to refusing to provide evidence is discussed.

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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

Mailbag: Contaminated Tools and the Tsunami of Unreason

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry into 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 form on the about page.

This time, the questions comes from the commenter Skeptek. It was a little bit too long, so I have shortened it a bit to distill the main ideas but hopefully I have kept sufficient context for it to make sense. Earlier on the blog, me and Skeptek had a short discussion about the motives of quacks and cranks. Skeptek was leaning more towards considering them as conscious frauds and liars, whereas I more took the position that one should not attribute to malice that which can be credibly explained by human ignorance. Of course there are proponents of pseudoscience that are conscious frauds and liars, but perhaps that should not be our default assumption.

Additionally, you’re not the first wise person to point out, what you see as flaws in my logic – namely that I am making assumptions or improperly speculating about the motives of people who promote pseudoscience, or even their mental health. I see them as willful liars, but most others seem sure they’re simply stupid. I’ve long thought that this simply can’t be true – that my reasoning was faultless […] I do feel a strong and viscerally emotional reaction to pseudoscience in all forms. I become tense and even get snippy with those around me after reading some of the worst stuff that’s out there. “How dare these ignorant, lazy cowards attack the hard working and noble work of brilliant scientists whom I idolize as heroes?” I’m not really sure what I’m asking here, but you seem to have either been down this road already, or you’ve been able to avoid it altogether, so I’m curious how an experienced skeptic like yourself is able to maintain neutrality as you appear to do.

I detect a certain level of black-and-white thinking in this paragraph, where those who subscribe to some form pseudoscience is grouped up into a category with properties like “willful liars”, “ignorant”, “lazy”, “cowards”. On the other hand, scientists are grouped up in a category with properties like “does noble work”, “brilliant” “target of idolization”. This, however, is a cognitive simplification (a form of demonization). Reality is a lot more nuanced and complex. I have found one insight that is extremely useful for breaking up that kind of thinking: the widespread prevalence of selective skepticism. To exemplify, let us look at three specific discoveries that I had as I began to discover selective skepticism.

The first discovery relates back to when I noticed that many other skeptics (while successfully using the methods of scientific skepticism towards things like creationism and homeopathy) utterly failed to apply the same degree of skepticism towards their favorite unsubstantiated belief. These skeptics that I personally admired turned out to be 9/11 truthers, mental illness deniers, anti-vaccine cranks, anti-GMO activists, climate change deniers and so on (for a specific case, see Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and the follow-up article Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants). I was flabbergasted. Completely shocked. I asked them: “can’t you see that you are using the exact same kind of pseudoscientific debating tactics to defend your ideological belief as creationists and homeopaths do to defend theirs?” They did not seem to get it. Others understood my line of thought, but provided feeble rationalizations. Apparently, quoting climate scientist Phil Jones out of context about northern tree rings is not at all the same as Darwin on the eye out of context. Yeah right.

This discovery made it impossible for me to uphold individual skeptics (and the skeptical community at large) as uniformly science-friendly or rational.

The second discovery was when I first read about what is now known as the Nobel disease. As it turns out, not even Noble Prize winners are immune to the tsunami of unreason. Linus Pauling, a quantum chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1954, yet he became a cancer quack claiming that large doses of vitamin C could cure cancer. Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of behavioral ecology and Nobel Prize winner in 1973, was a dedicated Nazi. Nikolaas Tinbergen, who won the prize the same year as Lorenz, supported autism quackery (the notion of refrigerator mothers and an ineffective and coercive treatment for ASD based on restraint) in his Nobel speech. Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his improvements on the PCR reaction (standard technique in biology labs the world over), yet he became an HIV/AIDS denialist, rejected global warming and embraced astrology. Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his discovery of HIV, is now a proponent of ideas that resemble homeopathy. These are just a few examples out of a long list of Nobel Prize winners who have succumbed to the allure of pseudoscience.

If Nobel Prize winning scientists cannot withstand the tsunami of unreason, how can the average scientist do it? How can I or other skeptics do it? Read more of this post

How to Limit Groupthink in the Skeptical Community


Skeptics are human beings. As such, they are vulnerable to a broad variety of biases, logical fallacies, inappropriate heuristics and various other cognitive malfunctions that tend to undermine human rationality. To a certain extent, it is possible to put effort into learning about the limitations of the human brain when it comes to evaluating the world around us and thus become less likely to fall prey to these problems. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that complete immunity usually cannot be reached.

In this article, I am using the phrase “skeptical community” in a very broadest sense, referring to communities of loosely aggregated individuals who have the ideal that humans should prefer science and reason to dogma, baseless ideology and superstition. On occasion, however, some of the things I say may be more applicable to specific online communities than to the movement overall. In other sections, suggestions are more directed towards accomplishing the overall goals of skepticism than to the behavior of any particular part. This entry should not be interpreted as if I am postulating that groupthink is somehow a huge problem in the skeptical community, but that it is important to keep the part of the skeptical baloney detector that deals with these issues fully operational.

What is Groupthink?

Merriam-Webster defines groupthink as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”. It was originally proposed by Irving Janis in the early 1970s and regarded decision-making in groups, but rapidly became a multidisciplinary model of human behavior. Janis argued that groupthink often occurred when groups where e. g. highly cohesive, where under stress, insulated from external experts, too shallow search and appraisal of information etc. This could, according to Turner and Pratkanis (1998):

[…] foster the extreme consensus-seeking characteristic of groupthink. This in turn is predicted to lead to two categories of undesirable decision-making processes. The first, traditionally labeled symptoms of groupthink, include illusions of invulnerability, collective rationalization, stereotypes of outgroups, self-censorship, mindguards. and belief in the inherent morality of the group. The second, typically identical as symptoms of defective decision-making, involve the incomplete survey of alternatives and objectives, poor information search, failure to appraise the risks of the preferred solution, and selective information processing. Not surprisingly, these combined forces are predicted to result in extremely defective decision making performance by the group.

Why is Groupthink Especially Bad for the Skeptical Community?

Groupthink is usually a bad idea for all groups and communities, but there are a few factors that makes it especially troublesome for the global skeptical community.

Groupthink makes the skeptical community seem intolerant of dissent: being disdainful of criticism or suppressing dissent (even with psychological, rather than violent methods) is typically a feature of dogmatism and pseudoscience and it would be unfortunate if these features became associated with certain areas of the skeptical community. It seems reasonable that the skeptical community should foster an honest and open conversation about most issues, even if those issues deeply held. However, there will always be exception and there is a trade-off between free speech and “giving a platform for X”. Read more of this post

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