Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond


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February links and follow-ups

Here are a few links to the stories we talked about last week:

Russia Meteor

News over the past 2 weeks have been dominated by the extraordinary event of the Chebarkul Lake meteor that tore through the skies above southern Russia at 9.30 am on February 15th. The meteor, weighing in at 10,000 tonnes, is believed to be the largest meteor to enter our atmosphere since the Tunguska event of 1908. Amazingly, the meteor entry was recorded on video by a large number of dashboard cameras, as was the intense shockwave that shattered thousands of windows across the city of Chelyabinsk. Needless to say, conspiracy theories surfaced quickly. Some believed it was a US missile test. Others thought it was a sign from God. The better ones postulated a crashing alien spaceship or an extraterrestrial Trojan Horse carrying a deadly space virus.

“My Poodles are Psychic”

Linda Lancashire from Heanor in the UK claims that her poodles have psychic abilities. According to Linda they can “detect relationship issues” and determine if clients have “money or relationship problems”. Linda herself works as a clairvoyant, which implies that a large proportion of her clients will have money or relationship problems in the first place.

Creationism in Louisiana

Science teaching in the US is under attack by biblically minded creationists, who wish to to introduce their dogmas into the classroom as “an alternative” to evolution. As more direct attempts have failed over the past decades, creationists are attempting to get creationism taught through indirect means. They have opened or exploited loopholes in local state legislation, thus allowing fundamentalist science teachers to water down the science curriculum according to their own religious beliefs. Now, Zach Kopplin, a 19 year old former high-school student, is going head-to-head with them in the courts. Below are some extraordinary episodes from the hearings, as science promoters square up against their deluded opponents.

Can e-Coli evolve into a human?

“Little letters”

Creationism in Turkey

In Turkey, the teaching of evolution is also under attack, this time from Islamic creationists. Recently, Turkey’s main funding agency, responsible for translating hundreds of science books into Turkish, made the decision to withdraw books such as The Blind Watchmaker and The Double Helix from sale. They cite funding and copyright issues, but it’s curious that the main targets are books on evolution. In 2006, Turkey was placed behind the US regarding the teaching of evolution.

Acupuncture Beads

The latest fad in Hollywood is “Auriculotherapy”, a variation on Acupuncture, where needles are inserted into the ear and later replaced by gold beads to “potentiate” the treatment. The treatment is claimed to fight stress, pain and infertility. Actors such as Penelope Cruz were recently seen sporting these beads. Where would skeptics be without Hollywood?


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Great skeptical battlefields

Terracotta Warrior (via Mike Stenhouse/ Flickr / CC Licensed)

One of the great things about skepticism is its diversity. There is a skeptical angle in so many areas of human interest. All you need to do is look under the cover of the marketing and you are bound to find some strange ideas hanging around. Consequently, skeptics are interested in all sorts of things, ranging from ghosts, to conspiracy theories, to alternative medicine, to UFOs; as well as the psychology, the history, and the philosophy that accompany such strange and bizarre thinking.

It can be easy to dismiss skepticism as purely a fascination with exotic and extreme ideas, but there is also a very serious side to skepticism. It’s one of the reasons why there is a skeptical movement in the first place. The world of delusional belief sometimes clashes with the world of reality in a way that can cause real casualties.

Here is a brief list of some of these battlegrounds for skepticism. The list below is by no means exhaustive. You may wish to add some of your own. It’s sometimes the case that even the most innocuous delusion can have serious consequences when brought to an extreme.

Anti-Vaccination

Although arguments against vaccines are as old as vaccines themselves, a concerted effort to challenge their use took shape in the 1990’s, when Andrew Wakefield published his findings in the Lancet, a well respected medical journal. Wakefield asserted a link between the childhood MMR vaccine and the onset of autistic spectrum disorders. Although his findings were subsequently found to be fraudulent and the paper withdrawn, the cat was out of the bag. The paper gave impetus to a wide variety of people who preferred to believe in a simple cause for autism, rather than the complex reasons uncovered by researchers. Celebrities such as Carol Vorderman, Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher have been to the fore of the vaccine denial movement while websites such as the Age of Autism link vaccines to all sorts of other disorders. The result has been a drop in vaccination, particularly in the UK, France and the US. Consequent with this is a rise in viral illnesses such as whooping cough and measles. While most children recover from these illnesses, a small percentage are seriously affected, with children dying in some cases. Vaccine denial has consequences to public health because some people – very young babies and people with compromised immune systems – depend on herd immunity to keep them safe from these diseases. A large number of follow up studies have been performed, none of which found a link between vaccines and childhood autism. The relative safety of vaccines has been shown in multiple further studies. The war simmers on, however, with anti-vaccine proponents taking more extreme and conspiratorial viewpoints as their evidence base is undermined.

Creationism

Creationism is a belief that God designed all creatures on the planet to a plan and that species are immutable. More extreme (yet commonly held) creationist beliefs assert that the world is just 6,000 years old and that the Earth and everything on it was formed by God in literally seven days. This bizarre view flies in the face of evolutionary biology and a host of other scientific disciplines. To convinced creationists, evolution is cast as a godless nihilistic belief in dire conflict with the Bible. Although not particularly a problem in most of Europe (Turkey being a notable exception), battles continues to arise in areas where well-funded Christian or Islamic fundamentalists have a strong political influence. Successive attempts have been made in the US to permit creationism, or one of its many variants, to be taught in public schools.  Most of these attempts have been rejected by various US courts and grassroots skeptical opposition. The issue is important, because it exposes the lengths to which powerfully connected religious organisations will go to interfere with science education and science policy if it conflicts with their dogmas.

Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine (a.k.a. Alt-Med, Integrative Medicine and Complementary and Alternative Medicine [CAM]) is a hugely diverse area with many supporters and acolytes. It encompasses a large body of therapies and putative cures where there is either insufficient scientific evidence to establish their efficacy, or where the available science has shown them to be ineffective. Examples of Alt-Med include Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Anthroposophy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chelation Therapy and Kinesthesiology to mention just a few. Although much Alt-Med predates modern medicine, it has experienced a come-back over the past few decades. This is, in some ways, a reaction to the systemisation of organised medicine and the inevitable side-effects or downsides of some medical procedures. With little objective evidence available to back up their claims, proponents liberally quote testimonials and anecdotes, antiquity and popularity as proof of effectiveness. Most Alt-Med therapies are promoted as completely safe, which is unsurprising as most of them are mere placebo. Apart from the fact that many Alt-Med proponents make wild, unsubstantiated claims to promote their remedies, there are some serious issues concerning its promotion and use. Alternative Medicine can needlessly prolong suffering. Irresponsible Alt-Med practitioners have, on occasion, dissuaded patients from more beneficial medical therapies. Alt-Med acolytes have been to the fore in preventing useful and necessary medical therapies from being implemented in places where they are badly needed, a harrowing example being the proliferation of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa (see below).

Global Warming Denial

Scientists have known for a century that an increase in carbon dioxide can cause an increase in heat absorption in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, a convincing case for warming, and particularly man-made warming, has taken a long time to establish. Warming on a planetary scale is a slow and complex process, so a vast amount of data needs to be collected over decades. Even in the last 100 years, Earth’s temperature has fluctuated greatly, but the underlying trend is unmistakeable. Multiple lines of evidence point to a warming trend that can’t fully be explained through natural factors such as the sun, but which correlate very well with mankind’s increasing demand for fossil fuels. It used to be that global warming and climate change was a relatively uncontroversial part of the sciences. Due to recent international reports and agreements, it is now highly polarised and politicised, despite the fact that the great majority of climate scientists have become convinced by the scientific data now available. Climate scientists have been vilified by certain sections of the media while propaganda services, masquerading as independent think-tanks, receive massive funding from vested interests to cast doubt on the global warming findings. The tactics being used by deniers are almost identical to creationists, and tobacco illness deniers before them. Global Warming denial has become a statement of faith amongst the US Republican party, pitting science against ideology. Given the entrenched views, it could be decades before the issue is resolved: time that could be better used translating the scientific findings into useful action.

HIV/AIDS denial

AIDS is one of the great scourges of our age. Caused by a fast-mutating virus with a long incubation period, it is a very difficult disease to control and manage. Left untreated, it is almost always deadly.  According to the World Health Organisation, over 25 million people have died from the pandemic. Fortunately, anti-retroviral drugs have been developed that contain the illness, often offering many years of extra life to people infected with HIV. Despite this, AIDS researchers and activists have been engaged in a long battle with people who claim that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. These HIV deniers scored their biggest successes in South Africa, where, despite the epidemic growing to alarming proportions within the population, the Mbeki government refused to sanction or support anti-retroviral treatment for the illness. Given solid scientific and international support, HIV denialism has diminished as a major issue, with some of its more prominent supporters moving on to other fields of research.

Witch Hunting

Witch hunting is based on a belief that certain people are using magical powers or indulging in occult rituals in order to disrupt society. Accused people, blamed for everything from crop failure to illnesses or unexpected deaths, may be persecuted, ostracised, injured and sometimes killed – all because of a shared delusion among the community. As it is a “guilty until proven innocent” form of indictment, it can be enormously difficult for accused people to clear their name. Although widespread witch hunting disappeared from most societies many centuries ago, it continues to make its presence felt in some areas of the world. In the last decade, childrenalbinos and elderly people have been targeted as witches in Africa, often with tragic and fatal consequences. Similar stories have emerged in IndiaSaudi Arabia and the UK.

Cancer Quackery

While we could lump it in with the rest of Alt-Med, cancer quackery deserves its own special place on this list. Cancer remains one of the greatest problems besetting humanity in this century. Although there has been some progress over the last 40 years in the fight against cancer, far too many people have had their lives cut short by it, or, more precisely, the many different afflictions collectively labeled as cancer. No-one is immune: from leading cancer doctors, to pharmaceutical executives, to cancer quacks themselves; belying the main contention of the alternative cancer cure lobby that somehow an elite group are keeping the best stuff to themselves. Cancer quacks prey on the most vulnerable people, often demanding huge fees, while providing no convincing evidence of efficacy. While it is understandable that people in such situations will be willing to try almost anything, often the only long term “positive” outcome is the enrichment of charlatans. Cancer, along with many diseases that are difficult to cure, is an enormous challenge for medical research. The doctors, researchers and specialists simply haven’t yet figured out how to treat and cure many of these diseases. The trouble is, neither have the quacks. They are just better at pretending they do, and they have lucrative financial incentives.

Psychic Counselling

Psychics – people who claim to have supernatural knowledge or powers – come in many shapes and sizes. Psychics have made tidy fortunes through one-to-one counselling, as psychic performers in front of large audiences, or more recently through lucrative phone services. Psychics claim abilities that have never been verified through independent, objective testing. The techniques used are identical to mentalists, yet mentalists never claim to have psychic abilities. It’s easy to dismiss this as part of the normal patchwork of modern life, but in practice, psychics are often dealing with people who may be at a low ebb in their lives, or dealing with traumatic issues such as bereavement, illness or a relationship breakdown. They may benefit more, in the long run, from counselling by properly qualified professionals using evidence based techniques. Psychic counselling shares similar issues with alternative medicine in that there is a strong risk that valuable time is lost consulting psychics when potentially more fruitful avenues could have been used, or that psychics, convinced of their own powers, actively dissuade clients from other treatment options. There is a long list of people who have been manipulated and defrauded by psychics, or provided with information that has subsequently turned out to be utterly untrue.


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Logical Fallacies – Part 3: But it sounds good

This time we’re looking at arguments that appear convincing just by the way they sound. The hypothesis is usually slick, professional and well presented and appears to be reasonable and even comprehensively researched. This could of course mean that what you are hearing is a solid theory, so you need to keep a skeptical ear open for a few warning signs.

Jargon does not equal fact
This is a favourite trick of quacks and more recently, Creationists. Couching language in obscure jargon that sounds vaguely scientific to the uninitiated is an extremely dishonest way of trying to obscure the real point of the argument. The reason for this is that the real argument is either obviously weak or flat out wrong. By hiding it behind language that the target audience might not understand this bad argument stands a better chance of being believed.
Example: ‘Creationism‘ is renamed ‘Sudden emergence theory‘, which makes it sound vaguely science-y.

An honest argument deserves to be understood. Clear, straightforward language is the way to get your message across. This doesn’t mean dumb it down, it just means (as Shakespeare advised): ‘Speak plainly’.

Burden of proof
The burden of proof is not always 50/50 in competing points of view.
I believe the earth is flat‘ carries a far higher burden of proof than ‘I believe the earth is a sphere‘.
The evidence provided by physics and astronomy has made the case for the latter claim fairly comprehensively already.
This becomes even more clear when you start to hear the ‘evidence’ for a flat earth involves government conspiracies (unproven), moon-landing hoaxes (unproven), a motley crew of science papers all with an age greater than a century (disproved) and satellite and telescope hoaxes (unproven). A theory that is based on a collection of unsubstantiated hunches and guesses and beliefs does not deserve the same credibility and plausibility as one that has a mountain of evidence to support it; and absolutely nothing that disproves it or throws doubt on it.

Unexplained does not equal inexplicable
Sometimes there are phenomena that have as of yet no natural explanation. Science either is still working on a theory or has not yet fully understood the mechanism by which it occurs.
There is a great temptation in these cases to fill in the gaps, so to speak. But of course the gaps need to be filled by testable evidence, not by an untestable hypothesis.
This fallacious line of reasoning is frequently employed in the God-of-the-Gaps arguments. Quantum theory isn’t completely understood? String theory has physicists puzzled? Haven’t quite worked out what caused the Big Bang? Right then, this is subtle proof of God.

Ironically, Quantum Theory itself frequently becomes the God-of-the-Gaps, and is used to explain all manner of pseudo-medical treatments and conditions from homeopathy to near death experience to healing-by-thinking-about-it, not to be confused with its kissing cousin healing-by-waving-your-hands. No actual mechanisms are demonstrated, which is why one has to remain skeptical, or downright suspicious of certain claims and arguments.


Notice how this argument involves a leap of illogic and resolves itself by plonking Favourite Idea #1 into the gap without any evidence to support it whatsoever.

It’s also frequently employed by UFO enthusiasts along the lines of mysterious strange lights ‘must’ be an alien visitor. Instead of searching for alternative natural explanations, the observer prefers to replace his or her lack of an explanation  with a claim that they have no way of verifying at all.

Perhaps this clip sums up all you need to know about jargon, gaps, claims and evidence.

“Just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy-tale most appeals to you.” ~ Dara O’Briain

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