Category Archives: Web

Deepak Chopra’s Twitter Trolling Continues

Deepak Chopra is still trolling people on Twitter, it seems. On February 10th Professor Brian Cox appeared on Conan and related a familiar story about Chopra’s behavior. Watch the short clip:

As you may recall, last May I documented Deepak Chopra’s habit of trolling well-known skeptics and atheists on Twitter. He repeatedly taunts them, tweets links at them and makes snide or insulting remarks.

Among the things that make the behavior so blatant is Chopra includes Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne in his taunts. Dennett very rarely converses with anyone on Twitter, and never with Chopra.  Coyne has specifically stated on his blog that he never converses on Twitter at all – he just uses it to as an alternate blog feed. Chopra must know this. One can only conclude his one-sided conversations are an elaborate show for his own followers.

But some people do respond to Chopra, including Brian Cox as seen in the clip. (Their previous Twitter exchanges have been documented by Jerry Coyne on more than one occasion).

Incidentally, the angry tweet Cox mentions in the clip appears to have been deleted by Chopra. He does that a bit too, in my earlier post I document one tweet to me that he deleted. Tracking Chopra’s deleted tweets might be an interesting skeptic project.

After the program aired, this bizarre exchange occurred:

Google promoting trusted health answers in Knowledge Graph

Google Knowledge graph splash screenIn 2012, Google introduced a feature to their search engine they call Knowledge Graph. The company has compiled millions of facts into a database, and offers them up on the right-hand side of search engine result pages in a handy box. The graph is also the source of many of the answers you get in the voice response versions of Google, such as in Google’s smartphone apps.

The answers come from many sources including the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia. At the time this was launched, I wrote how skeptic efforts editing Wikipedia were paying off in a new way, exposing the public to skeptics and skeptical topics in these knowledge graph boxes.

Low back pain on Google Knowledge Graph Feb 2015On February 10 Google announced an enhancement to this product, adding a whole new class of data – answers to medical questions. As they explained in their introductory blog post:

We worked with a team of medical doctors (led by our own Dr. Kapil Parakh, M.D., MPH, Ph.D.) to carefully compile, curate, and review this information. All of the gathered facts represent real-life clinical knowledge from these doctors and high-quality medical sources across the web, and the information has been checked by medical doctors at Google and the Mayo Clinic for accuracy.

This has a great potential to combat the infamous “Dr. Google” syndrome. This is a popular term for the tendency of incorrect or even pseudoscientific information, by virtue of its prominence in the search engine, misleading the public. Who can forget the 2007 sound byte from the Oprah Winfrey Show, when Jenny McCarthy stated, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from“? How many others are out there learning incorrect info from bogus websites pushed up into the Google results via SEO techniques?

Many different studies have shown that search engine users rarely move beyond the first page of results. Thus the placement of these knowledge graph results prominently on the first page of results might have a good effect. It remains to be seen whether these knowledge graph boxes will help draw attention from potentially dangerous organic search results.

You can recognize the new additions because they typically appear in boxes offering separate tabs on general info, symptoms and treatments. They also always contain advice to consult a medical doctor for advice. (See diagram).

I searched several medical topics and was pleased that I could not find any in which alternative medicine had been included. For instance, the lower back pain topic shown here does not offer acupuncture or chiropractic as an option. This is a good sign, but skeptics should keep an eye on this feature. I’m sure the alternative medicine community will eventually pressure Google to include their nonsense.

If you do notice spurious alternative medical information appearing in one of these results, you can click the word Feedback at lower right. The box will highlight and show a prompt to click on the error. You can then select which piece of information is incorrect – you will be prompted to explain why you think it is wrong.

Herbal industry attempts to astro-turf New York’s A.G.

photo of supplements by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

photo of supplements by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

On February 3, the Attorney General of the state of New York, Eric Schneiderman, announced his office had taken action against several major retailers regarding some herbal remedies sold in their stores. The state’s investigators found that about 80% of the products contained none of the active ingredients on the label! Further, some products contained allergens or other substances not listed on the label. The testing was done using a DNA barcoding technique. A “cease and desist” order was issued, requiring these products to be removed from shelves in the state of New York.

Skeptics were generally supportive of this action, of course – we’ve long argued that many herbal supplements have poor evidence of efficacy and are poorly regulated. The supplement industry, needless to say, is not happy. They have attempted to rally opposition to this move, and to get supporters of herbal supplements to call, write and Tweet the Attorney General about this issue.

Only the Attorney General’s office knows how many letters or phone calls were generated. But Twitter posts are, by default, public. This means we can peek at their efforts to lobby on this issue.  Let’s do that and see how it is going.

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Verifying digital photo authenticity with izitru

izitru logoThe popular photo manipulation software Photoshop celebrated its 25th birthday this week. Photoshop and other tools like it have made it incredibly easy to manipulate digital photos. That in turn makes it easier to create photographic hoaxes – including ghosts, cryptids, UFOs and other targets of skeptical investigations.

It is not surprising that photo hoaxes are quite common these days and are constantly passed around on social media. Thus skeptics need good tools for debunking them.

One such tool is izitru.

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There are times you should not use DoNotLink

DoNotLink Nonsense IconI think it is a good time to remind everyone of the proper context for using different tools to avoid algorithmically boosting bad content. This is important for all skeptics, because the very act of linking to something you are debunking can make it more visible on platforms like Facebook and Google.

One of several tools for this purpose is DoNotLink. There was a minor kerfuffle last week in which the Food Babe website unsuccessfully attempted to block incoming links using DoNotLink. That raised the potential that skeptic reliance on that service might have disadvantages.

I’ve also noticed that in addition to many people on social media who’ve adopted DoNotLink, some bloggers are also using it for links within their posts. Frankly, this is overkill and I don’t recommend it. There’s already a standard HTML feature for handling this on web pages – it is called NOFOLLOW. In this post I’ll compare the two and offer advice on when to use each.

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New fact checking websites of interest to skeptics

True or FalseOver at the INSIGHT blog on Monday, I wrote about how newsrooms and journalism non-profits are increasingly building tools that are of use to skeptics. This is happening because the rise of viral misinformation (driven by social media) has made fact-checking and debunking a key need for journalists.

Skeptics who are not politically active may not frequent sites like Politifact or, but they are multiplying. A recent survey counted as many as 89 of them worldwide (though some are only active in election years). Even if the political statements being covered there aren’t of interest to you, the sheer fact that fact checking is becoming normalized should be a good thing for skepticism online.

But this brings up another problem – there are so many sites specializing in debunking falsehoods now, how does a diligent skeptic keep up? Perhaps we need a fact checking aggregator! And are any of these sites covering science stories that are the meat and potatoes of skepticism?

I’ve got some good news related to those questions and three new sites to check out.

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The Food Babe tries (and fails) to thwart skeptics with technology

Vani Hari by the Charlotte Video Project, licensed CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vani Hari by the Charlotte Video Project, licensed CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vani Hari, aka “The Food Babe,” has been a recent repeated target of criticism both from skeptics and the mainstream media.  She has not taken this criticism well, lashing out at her critics.

She has also been caught deleting content from her social media pages and her own website after it became the target of derision. This is not new to skeptics; it happens all the time. That’s why I’ve recommended on this blog that all skeptics be very familiar with the use of web archiving tools. You never know when the content you criticize might be “disappeared” by its embarrassed author, so it is always good to have a copy safely archived.

But Ms. Hari (or her technical staff or SEO consultant) have noticed this, and have started taking measures to thwart skeptics. In November 2014 they made a change on her web server that prevents skeptic use of the most popular archiving tool, the Internet Wayback Machine, for her site.

And just this week they have attempted to prevent skeptics from using another tool that entered our arsenal right from the pages of this blog – Do Not Link.  This is a URL shortener I recommend for linking to pages you wish to criticize without giving them a “Google boost.” Last week the Food Babe made a change that would cause any Do Not Link URL to the site to fail to arrive – denying her own site readers while annoying skeptics.

But this latest technical measure has completely failed. Read on as I explain what they did, how you can work around it, and why measures like this will always fail.

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