Skeptoid Podcast #495
December 1, 201
You’ve seen it on Facebook or other places a million times: Someone makes some untrue medical or science or conspiracy claim, and to give it the appearance of authority, attach a web link to it. And where is that web link from? As often as not, it turns out to be a site that specializes in terrible misinformation; and such sites are, all too often, far more popular than sites dedicated to correcting the record or presenting data. Pseudoscience is, unfortunately, more sensational, compelling, and fun.
A few years ago on this show, I gave a list of the top ten web sites that promoted the worst bad science, as a resource for those hoping to stand up to such web links. Times change, sites come and go, rise and ebb, and we’re ready for an update. And so here are this year’s winners, my picks for the worst sites on the Internet which your friends are likely to link you to, organized by their Alexa popularity rating, tweaked a bit by me for how bad their information really is. Let’s begin with:
The Heartland Institute is a free-market think tank, preparing research and reports for whatever clients want it. That’s an important role in society and I respect the freedoms of every think tank no matter where they are on the political spectrum. Promoting the policies that support an ideology is a right, but denying hard science in support of that ideology is a no-no. And that’s what you’ll find on Heartland.org, one of the web’s best funded and most comprehensive attacks on climate science. Resources like this are a very real problem for science, because they have the expertise and the means to change people’s minds, but lack the ethics to change those minds for the better. This year they held their 10th annual “International Conference on Climate Change” in Washington DC, which they describe as the “the largest gathering of global warming ‘skeptics’ in the world,” and strangely they put quotes around the word skeptics, which I would have done if they hadn’t, since their process is certainly not one of skeptically interrogating the climate models. Instead, they start from their preferred conclusion, then work backwards collecting cherrypicked bits of information to build a path to get there.
For a healthy alternative to Heartland.org, try SkepticalScience.com, a site dedicated to combatting global warming misinformation. It will equip the layman with the tools needed to rebut the type of misinformation Heartland publishes.
There’s nothing wrong with a website devoted to teaching Christianity, at least not until it decides to teach factually incorrect information about our natural world. This web site’s “Christian Answers of the Month” and “Kids’ Questions of the Month” sections do exactly that. It is not OK to teach children about “Malevolent Spirits: Where do these dangerous, hostile, and evil entities come from?”, or that the humans who died alongside the dinosaurs in the Great Flood didn’t leave fossils because human skeletons are more fragile than dinosaur skeletons, or that the reason Noah didn’t need oxygen when his ark was lifted high above the mountains is that the mountains were much shorter then. I think I need oxygen myself after pondering that one.
For a healthier way to answer your questions about paleontology and evolution, trying a visit to PandasThumb.org.
It’s no secret that Deepak Chopra is one of the most prominent promoters of New Age. There’s nothing harmful about yoga or spirituality or meditation, but Chopra and his Chopra Center take it a step too far, claiming Ayurvedic medical benefits from what amounts to little more than spiritualist word-salad mumbo jumbo. This would be fine if he stuck to stress reduction, which is a medical reality, but he doesn’t. Detoxification is one of his favorites; an implausible spiritual solution to a nonexistent physical problem. The deeper you dig, the more mired you become in all the traditional nonsense: superfoods, immune boosting, and chakras.
For an alternative that’s more fun and just as factual, check out the Deepak Chopra random quote generator at WisdomOfChopra.com. Proof that entropy only improves Chopra.
Described as “The worst assault on science on the internet”, the blog of food activist Vani Hari began in 2011, and by 2015 she was named one of Time Magazine’s “30 Most Influential People on the Internet” and had a New York Times bestselling book. It quickly became apparent that all she did was to wholeheartedly embrace and promote every food fad that came along, no matter how unfounded. To quote Dr. Steven Novella: “The Food Babe is shockingly scientifically illiterate and should not be giving advice to anyone… Her advice is a crap shoot of common knowledge, fearmongering, gross scientific illiteracy, misinformation, and ideological nonsense.”
The obvious healthy alternative to The Food Babe is The Science Babe, an actual food science expert who may have gotten onto the radar screen by smacking down Vani Hari, but whose site has grown into an excellent resource for combating general pop pseudoscience.
This is the National Enquirer of the 21st century. Aliens, UFOs, mermaids, Planet X, ghosts, ancient mysteries… anything you’d expect to find in a supermarket tabloid, you can find on the pages of Disclose.tv. Good advice for hoaxers: Send them your Photoshopped picture and it’s virtually guaranteed they’ll promote it for you.
Your safe and sane alternative to Disclose.tv is the Skeptic’s Dictionary, an impressive compendium giving the facts and history behind almost every imaginable paranormal or strange story ever told.
The nation’s leading promoter of unscientific alternative medicine has grown increasingly visible as his web site continues rising through the rankings as its content grows and grows every day. Nominally a companion for his TV show, it’s really little more than clickbait luring people on the web who might be looking for actual health advice to click on ads for Dr. Oz’s “trusted sponsorship partners”. Comically, on the page where he lists those partners, he says “Dr. Oz considers anyone that uses his name or picture to try to sell you a product or supplement reckless and dangerous.”
For a healthy alternative, visit Quackwatch.com to get the scientific perspective on whatever misinformation Dr. Oz posted this week.
Founded by Alex Jones, the patron saint of delusional paranoids, InfoWars mixes tired conspiracy theories with racism, antisemitism, and profound distrust of scientific discovery. InfoWars proposes that we live in a totalitarian police state, that we’re all being controlled by a shadow cabal of Zionist Illuminati manipulating government agencies to spy on our every move and dumb us down with chemtrails and fluoridated water. ‘Nuff said.
For a safe and sane alternative to InfoWars, just turn your computer off and go outside.
Moving up from #6 on our previous list to #3 this time is the sales portal of anti-vaccine activist Joseph Mercola. Since our last episode, he’s received at least one more warning letter from the FDA (to add to his ever-growing collection) for failing to test whether some of his supplement products actually contain the advertised ingredients. To drive his estimated $7 million in annual sales, Mercola parrots a staggering array of long-debunked unscientific claims: that genetically modified crops are harmful, that microwaving food makes it poisonous, that cell phones cause cancer, that AIDS is caused not by HIV but by a diet lacking in his products, that organic food is a superior substitute for medical care, and that using sunscreens other than the all-natural version he sells is the true cause of skin cancer.
For a healthier perspective on alternative medicine, I suggest subscribing instead to ScienceBasedMedicine.org, a blog dedicated to replacing medical misinformation with medical fact.
TV’s History Channel has led the way among networks that began with educational programming but drifted further afield into pop sensationalism. Today about the only remnant of educational programming left is bad information, aside from the reality shows that make up the bulk of their content. Forbes describes its content as “programs devoted to monsters, aliens and conspiracies” while many critics have noted its many series promoting flagrant pseudohistory, such as Nostradamus Effect, The Curse of Oak Island, Hunting Hitler, Hitler and the Occult, Haunted History, Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, UFO Hunters, MysteryQuest, the list goes on ad nauseum.
For a healthy alternative (though United States centric), I suggest Smithsonian’s Stories from the National Museum of American History, the O Say Can You See? blog.
So, now the moment you’ve been waiting for. It’s going to take something pretty Earth-shattering to displace our perennial #1 on this list; nobody comes close to either the quantity or the quality of misinformation promoted by our two-time leader:
Without any doubt, the wrongest site on the Internet. It began as the blog of conspiracy theorist Mike Adams, and is now a massive sales and advertising portal for alternative supplements and crank nonsense. Although the content is overwhelming dominated by police state conspiracy mongering, Adams himself describes his site, bizarrely, thus: “Natural News is a science-based natural health advocacy organization led by activist-turned-scientist Mike Adams, the Health Ranger.” Running one’s eye down the scores of headlines on the home page reveals almost nothing even in the ballpark of that description.
In my own experience, Natural News is the single source most often cited by Internet commenters arguing against some science-based point. Yet the site has been harshly criticized for its misinformation by the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, ABC News, The New York Times, ScienceBlogs, Discover Magazine, Quackwatch, The Daily Herald, Grist, CBS News, The Daily Telegraph, Mother Jones, the Austin Business Journal, and innumerable Internet blogs.
For his laser-like focus on assaulting the public intellect, Mike Adams and Natural News wins my award for absolute worst anti-science site on the Internet for the second time in a row. And that’s saying something, considering the company it’s in.
Natural News throws its misinformation in so many different directions that it’s hard to choose any one healthy alternative. So I’ll recommend one that’s equally broad in scope, and presents a science-based perspective to counter whatever nonsense angle is being promoted. That’s DoubtfulNews.com, a good bookmark for any thinking person’s web browser.
So there you have it. Next time you see a link to one of the above sites posted on Facebook or Twitter or the Internet forum of your choice, feel free to respond that it has officially been blasted as one of the worst sites on the Internet for spreading misinformation. It just might convince your friend to rethink his sources, and hopefully even be open to an alternative.