British study to ‘immunise’ against fake news

Scientists from the University of Cambridge, led by Dutch social psychologist Dr Sander van der Linden, are developing a method to ‘vaccinate’ news readers against misinformation.

Their research, using climate change denial as an example, shows that it works well to briefly mention that there is criticism against the consensus on the subject, but provide an easy-to-refute example of this. When someone will later come across similar criticism in a fake news story, they will be prone to reject it. However, if conspiracy theories are given too much attention, and treated with a more detailed debunk, this has an adverse effect on the readers, who will more likely believe the next hoax article that they are presented with.

The key is finding the right dosage that helps people protect themselves against nonsense.

More information in English – Meer informatie in het Nederlands

New Wikipedia biography about Dutch skeptic

Pepijn van Erp at the 2014 Skepsis Congres. (Vera de Kok CC-BY-SA 4.0)

In recent years, mathematician Pepijn van Erp has risen to prominence within the skeptical movement in the Netherlands. He started blogging about flawed application of statistics in both scientific and pseudoscientific articles, and got involved with Stichting Skepsis as a board member in 2012.

Nowadays he regularly writes articles on various dubious claims in an investigative journalistic style on skeptical blog KloptDatWel.nl (mostly in Dutch) and his own website (mostly in English). Van Erp is occasionally invited to give his expert opinion on radio shows about conspiracy theories, fake news and other topics that skeptics are concerned about. To him, skepticism is ‘interesting and funny’, but also a ‘civic duty’ to protect people from harm.

The team of Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia has written two new biographies about Van Erp, one in English and one in Dutch, to explain to the general public what his activism is about.

Netherlands: 50% officially not religious

Author Franca Treur (atheist) and presenter Tijs van den Brink (Protestant) discuss religion in TV series “Adieu God?” (2013)

For the first time in Dutch history, the official number of religious and irreligious people is equal, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) reports.  The percentage of religiously affiliated citizens above age 18 dropped from 55% in 2010 to 50% last year, a turning point in the ongoing process of secularisation. The current figures are:

  • Roman Catholicism: 24%
  • Protestantism (various denominations): 15%
  • Islam: 5%
  • Other (incl. Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism): 5%
  • Unaffiliated: 50%

There are large geographical differences, with the more urbanised West (North and South Holland) being the most secular, the southern provinces of North Brabant and Limburg being the most (nominally) Catholic.

Church service in Doornspijk, the Bible Belt. (Rubenf CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Only 1 in 6 people still regularly attend religious services though. In the conservative Protestant Bible Belt, running across the country from the southwest to the northeast, this figure is higher, sometimes over half, and in the case of Urk 94%.

The actual percentage of believers is much lower than 50%, however. A lot of people still registered as members of a church are actually not religious (anymore), but for various reasons have not officially renounced their membership (yet) – a phenomenon known as ‘belonging without believing’. An earlier 2016 survey by Bernts & Berghuijs showed that people’s actual religious convictions were as follows:

  • Roman Catholicism: 11.7%
  • Protestant Church in the Netherlands: 8.6%
  • Other Christian denominations: 4.2%
  • Islam: 5.8%
  • Hinduism and Buddhism: 2.0%
  • Unaffiliated: 67.8%

This shows a big disconnect between membership and actual adherence. Especially the Catholic Church often claims that a quarter of the Dutch population is Catholic, pointing to the official stats, but when questioned, fewer than half that number associate themselves with the Roman faith.

2009 Dutch atheist billboard: ‘There’s probably no god. Dare to think for yourself and enjoy this life!’

According to Bernts & Berghuijs, their attitudes regarding the existence of (a) god(s) were:

  • Atheism: 24% (I don’t believe in gods)
  • Agnosticism: 34% (I don’t know if there are gods or not)
  • Ietsism: 28% (I don’t believe in gods, but there must be something higher/supernatural/more than we can observe)
  • Theism: 14% (I believe there is a God / are gods)

A December 2014 survey showed a similar reversal in public opinion, when for the first time in the Netherlands’ history, more than half of people (63%) thought that religion does more harm than good.

And the Golden Board 2016 goes to…!

The German-speaking skeptical society GWUP nominated three people/institutions for “the most bizarre, most outrageous, brashest pseudoscientific nonsense contribution” in Germany, Austria and Switzerland of 2016: Ryke Geerd Hamer (founder of the dangerous Germanische Neue Medizin), Roland Düringer (comedian turned politician who spreads lots of conspiracy theories) and Krebszentrum Brüggen-Bracht (alternative cancer clinic of Heilpraktiker Klaus Ross). The award is called the ‘Golden Board in Front of the Face’, to rebuke purveyors of pseudoscience who don’t see the harm they’re doing.

The award ceremony was held on 11 October in Vienna, co-organised by the Viennese regional GWUP group Society for Critical Thinking (Gesellschaft für kritisches Denken) and the Freethinkers League of Austria (Freidenkerbund Österreich). A side-event was held in Hamburg Skeptics in the Pub with a livestream of the Viennese ceremony.
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Dutch vet society wins quack award

Logo of the Royal Dutch Society for Veterinary Medicine.

Last Saturday, the Dutch Society against Quackery (Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij, VtdK) has given the Master Quack Award (Meester Kackadorisprijs) to the Royal Dutch Society for Veterinary Medicine (KNMvD). Out of five nominees, the july ruled that the vet society promoted quackery in the Netherlands the most last year.

It had given the non-accredited Study Group for Complementarily Operating Vets (SCwD) too much room to practice freely, ‘shamelessly’ granting it a seemingly official status, on top of the fact that the SCwD makes ‘unjustified health claims’. According to the jury, Utrecht University’s Faculty for Veterinary Medicine, that offers the only accredited training for veterinary surgeons in the country, has – unlike the KNMvD – always clearly rejected alternative medicine as unscientific.

KNMvD president Dirk Willink was personally present to receive the ironic award, which he did ‘not regard as a reprimand, but as an open invitation to begin a discussion with people who think differently’. He opined that there is much science doesn’t know yet, and there should be tolerance for alternative therapies, even if it is unknown if they even work, and if so, how. Piet Borst, a renowned Dutch skeptical physician, urged Willink to check whether the KNMvD was correctly applying a 2008 Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) guideline, that rules that ‘physicians may only practice irregular treatments under strict conditions’; Willink promised they would.