Cork Skeptics

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


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The Baloney Detection Kit at Science Week 2015

BaloneyDetectionKit_2015_Advert_2

The BALONEY DETECTION KIT @ Science Week 2015

As part of Science Week 2015, Cork Skeptics present “The Baloney Detection Kit” — a furiously fast-paced introduction to skepticism!

From 6 – 7pm on Saturday 14th November, at Blackrock Castle Observatory.


UFOs. Ghosts. Astrology. Homeopathy. Telepathy. Miracle Cancer Cures. People all around the world fervently believe they exist and yet there isn’t a shred of good evidence that they are real in any sense of the word. On the other hand, there is strong scientific support for evolution, climate change and vaccines, yet millions reject the evidence entirely, preferring long debunked ideas instead.

In a wide-ranging talk, Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics explores the world of strange beliefs and discusses some ways to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Colm will talk about logical fallacies, brain flaws and other tricks that persuade us of things that aren’t so. He will also examine the crucial role that science plays in distinguishing fact from fiction.


Colm is the co-founder of Cork Skeptics, a group dedicated to the promotion of good science while challenging strange claims. Founded in 2010 in Blackrock Castle, we host regular public talks with topics ranging from ghosts to nuclear power and financial scams.

This event takes place in Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork City from 6pm on Saturday 14th November. It is free to attend, and all are welcome.


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The Baloney Detection Kit – Further Reading

BDK_CultureNight_2015_800px

Colm here! I think I must have spoken to over 200 people last night over the 4 hours. Thanks to everyone for coming along. I hope you found it interesting.

Attached are some links for further reading:

Logical Fallacies

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A core skill in critical thinking is identifying logical fallacies when they occur. Logical fallacies are poor arguments that are used to convince people of your point of view. You might be telling the truth, but such arguments, by themselves, will not make your viewpoint true. They often serve only to mislead others or to allow emotions to override your sense of reason. The website “Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies” gives an introduction to the most common fallacies. A more in-depth description can be found at logicalfallacies.info.

Human Biases

Our brains, while remarkable, contain pretty serious flaws that affect how we absorb experiences, process information and remember things accurately. Optical Illusions show that our brains can see crooked lines lines when lines are straight, or moving images when the same pictures are static. Memories are malleable, while critical information is filtered out while other aspects gain far more prominence than they deserve. Three books / e-books are worthwhile reading to understand how badly our brains work:

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You Are Not So Smart, by David Mc Raney covers all the ways our brain gets it wrong. There is also a website and a podcast.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Carol Tavris, talks about Cognitive Dissonance, and what happens when people have to reconcile two opposing concepts in their heads at the same time.

Paranormality, by Prof. Richard Wiseman, is an entertaining introduction to the reasons why people report anomalous experiences such as UFO’s, ghosts and strange creatures.

Medical Websites

If someone is guiding you towards YouTube or Facebook or an unknown site for medical information, the chances are you are being hoodwinked. The following sites will give you better information that is in line with the best medical knowledge. Remember, if in doubt, talk to your doctor.

Mayo Clinic (USA)

Centers for Disease Control (USA)

World Heath Organisation (WHO)

WebMD

HSE (Ireland)

NHS (UK)

Alternative Medicine (“alt-med”) refers to practices and concoctions that have either not been proven medically effective, or have been proven to be not medically effective for various health conditions. Typically, if there is an evidence base, it becomes part of the medical corpus. For this reason, alt-med requires a considerable degree of scepticism. For some excellent discussions on Alternative Medicine, the website Science Based Medicine is well worth checking out.

Particularly bad sources of medical information are Natural News, Mercola.com, Infowars, Age of Autism and Foodbabe. All of them are sensationalist conspiracy mongering sites run by motivated fanatics whose primary aim is to inspire fear and distrust in people for their own financial advantage. Avoid at all costs.

Other Useful Websites

If you come across a suspect or “too good to be true” claim on Facebook, there is a good chance that Snopes.com has the inside story on it. It’s well worth checking out.

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Sense about Science is a UK charity designed to communicate science to the public, particularly where there is a considerable degree of controversy in the media about the science. It aims to communicate the facts around topics such as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s), Nuclear Power, Climate Change, Vaccines, Antibiotics and other subjects in a clear and understandable way. They have pioneered the Ask For Evidence campaign, and for teachers, they have recently published a lesson plan to teach core critical thinking in schools.

In Conclusion

All that remains is for me to thank Blackrock Castle as always for all the help, and my comrade in arms, Alan B, for his truly excellent posters.


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The Baloney Detection Kit at Cork Culture Night 2015

BaloneyDetectionKit_2015_Advert_2

The BALONEY DETECTION KIT

@ Cork City Culture Night 2015

As part of Cork City Culture Night 2015, Cork Skeptics present “The Baloney Detection Kit” — a furiously fast-paced introduction to skepticism!

From 6pm (repeating every half hour) on the night of Friday 18th September, at Blackrock Castle Observatory.


UFOs. Ghosts. Astrology. Homeopathy. Telepathy. Miracle Cancer Cures. People all around the world fervently believe they exist and yet there isn’t a shred of good evidence that they are real in any sense of the word. On the other hand, there is strong scientific support for evolution, climate change and vaccines, yet millions reject the evidence entirely, preferring long debunked ideas instead.

In a wide-ranging talk, Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics explores the world of strange beliefs and discusses some ways to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Colm will talk about logical fallacies, brain flaws and other tricks that persuade us of things that aren’t so. He will also examine the crucial role that science plays in distinguishing fact from fiction.


Colm is the co-founder of Cork Skeptics, a group dedicated to the promotion of good science while challenging strange claims. Founded in 2010 in Blackrock Castle, we host regular public talks on issues such as ghosts, nuclear power and financial scams.

The talk takes place in Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork City from 6pm on Friday 18th September. All are welcome.


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The Baloney Detection Kit • A Talk by Colm Ryan

BaloneyDetectionKit_2015_Advert_2 baloney_detection_kit_2015_650pxCork Skeptics present

The Baloney Detection Kit

A talk by Colm Ryan

UFOs. Ghosts. Astrology. Homeopathy. Telepathy. Miracle Cancer Cures. People all around the world fervently believe they exist and yet there isn’t a shred of good evidence that they are real in any sense of the word. On the other hand, there is strong scientific support for evolution, climate change and vaccines, yet millions reject the evidence entirely, preferring long debunked ideas instead.

In a wide-ranging talk, Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics explores the world of strange beliefs and discusses some ways to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Colm will talk about logical fallacies, brain flaws and other tricks that persuade us of things that aren’t so. He will also examine the crucial role that science plays in distinguishing fact from fiction.


Colm is the co-founder of Cork Skeptics, a group dedicated to the promotion of good science while challenging strange claims. Founded in 2010 in Blackrock Castle, we host regular public talks on issues such as ghosts, nuclear power and financial scams.

The talk takes place in De Barra’s Folk Club, Clonakilty at 8pm, Tuesday 12th May. All are welcome.


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Should we be sceptical about Global Warming?

Scepticism, on the face of it, is all about not taking claims at face value. Sceptics are expected to dig deeper, to ask questions and challenge assertions. What then should we say about one of the great questions of the current times, namely whether the burning of fossil fuels is causing an alarming increase in world temperatures and incidences of severe weather; trends that may lead to catastrophic changes around the world if we do nothing about it?

A large section of society has taken the view that global warming is not happening, or if it is, it’s a result of natural cycles only, or if there is a human influence, it’s only for the good – the warming we will see will be a good thing for us all. These people describe themselves as global warming sceptics. They hear people making alarming claims and they react by demanding cast-iron evidence. If such evidence is not forthcoming, they take the view that the claims are bunk and that global warming is a myth.

But are they correct in their assertions? Is this true scepticism or a warped version of it?

There is a phenomenon known as hyper-scepticism or denialism, whereby no matter how much evidence is presented to support a claim, it is never enough. Denialism is apparent in the claims by some people that men never went to the Moon or that evolution doesn’t exist. It is apparent whenever evidence collides with ideology, in somewhat the same way as smokers might refute negative stories as a way of persisting with their habit.

The trouble with global warming scepticism is that the claims have been validated by the vast majority of scientists whose job it is to research these claims and understand their impacts. Solid links were made between atmospheric carbon dioxide and warming in the 19th Century. Over the past century and through thousands of peer-reviewed studies, the evidence has kept building up. Atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 3 million years. Temperatures have been rising and not in a way that can be explained by natural phenomena, such as sunspots and volcanic activity. Direct links have been established between atmospheric carbon and fossil fuels. The data for these conclusions come from multiple sources including temperature records, atmospheric readings, tree-rings, ice-cores and deep sea sediments. The net effect is an overwhelming consensus among relevant scientists that global warming is real, that it is man-made and that it bodes badly for the future, if we continue to leave CO2 unchecked.

Yet thousands of self-proclaimed “experts” (who are nothing of the sort) deny all this. Seemingly, they know better. To them, the climate researchers are either badly deluded or part of some huge conspiracy to twist the evidence to their position. It’s a bizarre line-up of science versus ideology, spurred on by vested interests who believe they have a lot to lose if the worldwide demand for fossil fuels is reduced. While getting short shrift from the scientific community at large, the deniers have been successful in swaying public opinion. Many right wing political parties have made climate change denial a core part of their election platforms as they seek to attract and retain voters who parrot these views.

In the end, the deniers have launched a war against science, rife with misinformation and media strategies similar to those used by tobacco companies to deny any links to cancer.  Every day, climate scientists are faced with having to address the same canards no matter how many times they have been knocked down in the past. Attempts have been made to sabotage and misrepresent their work. Publicly available climate change data is selectively misused in order to counteract the accepted science.

On the face of it, many of the big oil companies such as BP, Shell and even Exxon accept man-made climate change and its implications. However, they are not doing enough to counteract those voices who would prefer to think that the whole issue is a barefaced lie. Ironically, climate change denial and its attendant war on scientists goes against the better interests of energy companies, who badly need to foster science education and attract the best scientific minds into their organisations to meet the challenges of the future.

Just as uncritical acceptance of a claim is a bad thing, being sceptical does not mean that you must be hyper-sceptical when overwhelming evidence exists to support the conclusions. This is, in fact, an irrational position, based more on faith than reality. Climate deniers have set up a damaging war against science that is in nobody’s interest. The science, in terms of its broad conclusions, is in. Now sensible political strategies need to be put in place to limit CO2 and wean the world over to alternative sources of energy.


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And yet, planes fly

Sunny Spells

Jet Trails over Canberra-1

And yet, planes fly.

This is a phrase that often comes to mind when people question the value and utility of science, or diminish its importance in the world today.

It cuts through the objections: that science can be biased, or imperfect, or financially driven, or chaotic, or fraudulent, or philosophically unsound, or just one idea among many.

Sometimes, these criticisms are valid. There are many instances where science has been hampered by fraudulent and unethical behaviour, where scientists have taken appalling short cuts and or adjusted data because it didn’t fit preconceived notions, where bullying and a dogmatic over-reliance on unsound theories has hampered progress. You could write a book on it.

And yet, planes fly.

Big ones too. Gigantic 300 tonne planes, travelling at 900 kilometres per hour, at 40,000 feet above the ground. Right now, a few of them are routinely ploughing their way through the stratosphere en…

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Skepticism – the wider issue

In a few years time, there may well be no rhinos left alive. And when I say no rhinos, I do not mean “none left in the wild”. I mean none in the zoos either. The captive animals will have been killed too. The reason for this is an insatiable desire among some people for rhinoceros horn – a material thought by some to possess magical healing powers. It’s really just a mass of keratin – the same substance that your hair and fingernails is made from. There is good money to be made from this trade. International criminals have stopped at nothing: butchering animals all across Asia and Africa, even breaking into museums to steal horns for the black-market. Some say it’s worth more per gram than cocaine. In pursuit of an odious delusion, we are witnessing the imminent extinction in our lifetime, of an animal, variants of which have existed on this planet for 33 million years.

This is what you get when critical thinking is left to one side and blind belief trumps patient scientific inquiry. Where unsupported and uncontested beliefs thrive, dreadful scenarios can play themselves out, right down to the last animal standing.

We don’t have to go as far as the traditional medicine markets of China or Vietnam to find such strange and destructive beliefs. There is a woeful lack of rational thinking all around us. Every day, uncritical and pseudo-critical thinking sends people down fruitless, and sometimes dangerous cul-de-sacs. It has lead to poor decisions, bad investments, unfair treatment of others and unquestioning acceptance of leaders who should never have been given the whiff of power.

Skepticism is often dismissed by critics as an obsession with the weird and outlandish, or a cynical repudiation of personal beliefs that are comforting to many and threatening to no-one. This is missing the point. While individual issues might easily be dismissed in this manner, the wider issue is a lack of critical thinking and an almost systematic undermining of the role of science and the value of evidence throughout society.

As people who value rational thinking, we get exasperated by the alternative medicine industry, not just because the products they advertise are usually useless, but because they have made a virtue out of ignorance. They are more interested in marketing and subjective hearsay than they are in standards of evidence. Their passionately held rationalisations have damaged any kind of sensible discourse on the subject, making it difficult to distinguish valuable therapies from the nonsensical ones, of which there are a great many examples.

We get frustrated by religionists because, while they seek to shine a critical light on everyone and everything, their own beliefs are beyond the pale of honest inquiry. They make a virtue out of unquestioning acceptance of dogma, pretending to all the world that this is a good thing, when it most certainly isn’t.

We despair of elements within the media, who forsake information dissemination for controversy. In their attempts to create debate where the balance of evidence is overwhelmingly on one side, people are lead to the conclusion that all science is simply a matter of opinion. Propaganda, forcefully and passionately delivered, stands in the ascendant while reality based content seems to survive on the margins.

We should also question our current education system, that, while often rigorous with the accuracy of its curriculums, seems to fail in providing so many students a basic underpinning in how to distinguish fact from fantasy, or how to critically assess new information. The products of this failure are all around us.

Of greatest concern are the politicians, who are happy to distort science in order to appeal to their power base. Rather than lead, they follow; allowing popularity to take precedence over scientific discovery. The results can be catastrophic, as much needed legislation from the environment, to healthcare, to basic human rights, are held up, buried, obfuscated and condemned in equal measure. They have done much to trivialise science and make a virtue out of ignorance.

We live in a world where many people are manifestly ill-informed about all sorts of issues. A large section of society is happy to spend their incomes and savings on spurious magical therapies, as if we were still living in the Dark Ages. Others allow unsupported stories to inform their moral philosophy, leading in turn to tacit support for prejudicial and discriminatory actions. Thousands of people believe in wild conspiracy theories, preferring to believe that astronauts didn’t land on the moon, or that the 9/11 bombings were concocted by an elite cabal within the US Government. There is an appetite for denial, whereby tortured analyses, intellectual bottlenecks and special pleadings are expected to be equated with a cool-headed understanding of the evidence. Many others are simply content to allow arguments from authority or other such logical fallacies to inform all their important decisions.

In the light of such a fog of make believe and dissimulation, there is a need for people to fly the flag for rational thinking. Science and scientific thinking needs to be elevated, both as a means to understand the world and also as our best tool to solve the problems of the present and the future. People need to appreciate the value of evidence – correctly gathered and analysed evidence – in making claims about reality. Fantasy and make-believe have their place in society, but not when it comes to policy making and critical decisions about our future.

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