Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Nov 24 2015

Scientific Consensus and Corporate Influence

A new study published in PNAS explores the messaging of organizations commenting on climate change and their relationship to corporate funding. The sole author, Justin Farrell, finds that those organizations who received corporate funding were likely to network their messaging together, and to engage in a campaign of casting doubt on the scientific consensus. There was no such network among those organizations not receiving corporate funding.

Farrell notes:

“This counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own.”

As further evidence of corporate influence, the Washington Post notes:

The publication of the report comes two weeks after New York prosecutors announced an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. The probe was prompted in part by reports in the Los Angeles Times and the online publication Inside Climate News, alleging that Exxon researchers expressed concerned about climate change from fossil fuel emissions decades ago, even as the company publicly raised doubts about whether climate-change was scientifically valid.

This should come as no surprise to those following the climate change debate. Climate change and other issues, in fact, challenge the very notion of scientific consensus and what it means, but also demonstrate why we should listen to a robust consensus.

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92 responses so far

Oct 20 2015

Another Nail in the JFK Conspiracy

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

More than 50 years after JFK was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald the majority of Americans believe that the assassination was part of a conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show that 61% believe others were involved in the assassination, while 30% believe Oswald acted alone (in 2000 the numbers were 81% and 13% respectively).

This is despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Oswald acted alone, and there is no solid evidence of any conspiracy. What this reflects, in my opinion, is two things: the psychological allure of conspiracy theories, and the cottage industry of conspiracy theorists.

Whenever I discuss conspiracy theories I have to add this caveat about what I mean. Obviously there are real conspiracies in the world – whenever two or more people work together to commit a crime or do something nefarious, you have a conspiracy. “Conspiracy theories,” however, is short hand for a grand conspiracy, something that involves many people or powerful organizations working over long periods of time through vast networks of control.

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21 responses so far

Oct 06 2015

The Diabetes Treatment Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About

Because it’s bogus.

It’s unfortunate that it’s so easy to convince many people that there is a vast medical conspiracy, and that a few brave mavericks are willing to bring you “the truth.” I was recently asked to look at this website, claiming that doctors who treat diabetes have all been lying to their patients and the world. They promise to reveal the secret of curing diabetes, but the long video, and the endless website, is all just one long commercial hyping their book which you can get for the “bargain basement reduced price of just $77 for the digital copy or $94.39 for the paperback copy with free worldwide shipping.”

The sales pitch is framed as an “Urgent diabetes health bulletin from the doctors at the International Council for Truth in Medicine.” (Quackwatch lists the ICTM as a “questionable organization.”) To backup their authority they claim they are in partnership with “Natural News.” Given that Natural News is, in my opinion, the most notorious crank, conspiracy mongering, health misinformation site on the web, that is all you need to know about the ICTM to make an informed judgement.

Their narrative is depressingly typical, and not even imaginative. The tropes are so common they are worth addressing in detail.

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12 responses so far

Sep 24 2015

44 Reasons Creationists are Deceptive, Final Installment

This week I have been making my way through a list of old and debunked creationist arguments put together by Michael Snyder (a young-earth creationist), giving the old arguments new life on social media. As science communicators we often have to play this game of whack-a-mole, persistently addressing points that have already been refuted. Each time is an opportunity to educate more people about the real science of evolution, about logic and critical thinking, about science in general, and the vacuous and deceptive arguments of the science deniers.

This is the fourth and final installment of this series of posts. You can find the others here: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The next five points that Snyder raises are all variations on the same theme:

#30 Which evolved first: blood, the heart, or the blood vessels for the blood to travel through?

#31 Which evolved first: the mouth, the stomach, the digestive fluids, or the ability to poop?

#32 Which evolved first: the windpipe, the lungs, or the ability of the body to use oxygen?

#33 Which evolved first: the bones, ligaments, tendons, blood supply, or the muscles to move the bones?

#34 In order for blood to clot, more than 20 complex steps need to successfully be completed. How in the world did that process possibly evolve?

Snyder, of course, is asking a false question, one with an unstated major premise that is wrong, or at least misleading. The implication he is trying to make is essentially the debunked notion of irreducible complexity – that complex structures or biological systems could not have evolved because they could not have simpler functional states.

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Aug 11 2015

Bishops Meddle in Health Care

The headline almost says it all: Catholic Bishops In Kenya Call For A Boycott Of Polio Vaccines. Catholic Bishops, or any religious officers, have no business meddling in public health care. NPR reports:

“the country’s Conference of Catholic Bishops declared a boycott of the World Health Organization’s vaccination campaign, saying they needed to “test” whether ingredients contain a derivative of estrogen. Dr. Wahome Ngare of the Kenyan Catholic Doctor’s Association alleged that the presence of the female hormone could sterilize children.”

Where did they get this idea? From conspiracy theories. That’s it. There is no medical or scientific reason, no credible investigative journalism, and no evidence to suspect that vaccine (the polio vaccine or any other) contain estrogen compounds that will sterilize children.

This is an old conspiracy theory in Africa, based on the idea that “The West” wants to sterilize Africans in order to control their population and keep them down. This is pretty typical fear mongering – based on fear from outsiders who wish the community harm. It is a form of mass delusion.

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16 responses so far

Jan 30 2015

The Gap Between Public and Scientific Opinion

A recently published poll from the Pew Research center finds that there is a huge gap between public opinion and the opinion of scientists on many important scientific issues of the day. This is disappointing, but not surprising, for a variety of reasons.

Generally speaking, if the majority of scientists have the same opinion about a scientific question (especially relevant experts), then it is a good idea to take that majority opinion seriously. It does not have to be correct, but if you were playing the odds I would go with the experts. If public opinion differs from the opinion of scientists on a scientific question, it is a safe bet that the public is wrong, probably because of interfering cultural, social, political, ideological, psychological, or religious beliefs. (Scientists have those too, which may explain the minority opinion in some cases.)

This attitude is often portrayed as elitism – usually by those who disagree with the scientific majority. Those relatively new to concepts of critical thinking, or trying to sound as if they are critical thinkers, might also dismiss such sentiments as an “argument from authority,” and then declare themselves the victor because they were able to point to a logical fallacy.  They miss the fact that informal logical fallacies are context dependent, and it is not a fallacy to respect (within reasonable limits) the consensus of expert opinion.

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52 responses so far

Dec 15 2014

The Mound Builder Conspiracy

Even after a couple of decades as a skeptical activist I can still encounter new dark recesses festering with pseudoscience. The human capacity for nonsense seems endless.

A report in an alternative news outlet from the American Institution of Alternative Archeology (AIAA – the tag “alternative” is a huge red flag) claims that the Smithsonian Institution “destroyed thousands of giant human remains during the early 1900′s.”

Why would they do this? The AIAA has an unconventional view of human history. Apparently based on mention in the bible that giants once walked the earth, they believe that the mound building cultures of the Americas were not the product of early Native Americans but rather an earlier race of technologically advanced giants. Reading the comments after the article, it also seems that the belief these giants were white and Aryan is popular.

This is an excellent example of how a narrative develops from a combination of religious beliefs and cultural biases, and then history is rewritten and conspiracy theories woven out of whole cloth in order to support the preferred narrative. Science and evidence do not guide the narrative, but rather it is the other way around – a hallmark of pseudoscience.

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16 responses so far

Nov 07 2014

Solution Aversion and Motivated Reasoning

Anyone paying the slightest attention has likely realized that people tend to hold positions in line with their general world view. In the US, for example, political conservatives tend to hold conservative opinions, while political liberals tend to hold liberal opinions. This is true even when the topic at hand is scientific or factual, and not a matter of value or opinion.

Whether the issue is climate change, GMO, gun control, nuclear power, the death penalty, or biological facts surrounding pregnancy and fetal development, your political ideology is likely to determine your scientific opinions.  Further, depending on how strongly held the political values are, facts are not very helpful in changing opinions. Presenting fact may actually backfire, motivating people to dig in their heels. 

All of this is old news to readers of the skeptical literature. The basic phenomenon at work here is motivated reasoning, which is a catchall covering the suite of biases and cognitive flaws that lead people to arrive at confident conclusions they wish to be true, rather than objectively following facts and logic wherever it leads. Further, as I discussed yesterday, the process of motivated reasoning leads us to a false confidence in our conclusions. We all think we have facts and logic on our side.

A recent paper on the issue defines motivated reasoning this way:

Of importance, recent evidence has demonstrated that political ideology, defined as “an interrelated set of moral and political attitudes that possesses cognitive, affective, and motivational components,” can similarly guide, funnel, and constrain the processing of information and alter behavior.

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185 responses so far

Nov 04 2014

The Primeval Code

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific belief systems, and urban legends are fascinating in that they provide a window into culture and the human psyche. Essentially these are stories that are disconnected from reality, and therefore represent common narratives, beliefs, and fears in the culture.

I recently came across a conspiracy theory I had not heard of before, the Primeval Code, popularized in 2007 by a Swiss journalist, Luc Bürgin. Here’s the story:

Dr. Guido Ebner and Heinz Schürch, scientists working at the time for the pharmaceutical company, Ciba, discovered that if you expose seeds to an electrostatic field their ancient DNA will be awakened. Corn, wheat, even salmon will revert to a more primitive form, as if remembering their prior evolutionary states.

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32 responses so far

Oct 13 2014

Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

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31 responses so far

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