Cork Skeptics

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


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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

Originally posted on 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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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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Skeptics in the Castle – We’re Talking Wine!

We are letting our hair down and popping open the bottles for our meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle on Saturday 10th of December.  Blake Creedon from the Irish Examiner will be talking about a subject close to all our hearts: wine

Does wine make you live longer? Does it make your healthier? Does the temperature matter? Does swirling the wine around make the difference? Is it the grapes or are our minds playing tricks on us? How much should we trust the wine experts? What do wine myths tell us about similar products?

Blake Creedon, avowed wine fan and columnist with the Irish Examiner, is a man on a mission. In a wide ranging discussion, he will debunk memes and media stories about wine, and highlight an empirical study that casts doubt on every health claim ever made on behalf of wine. He’ll also outline why wine fans should be skeptical of sideline commentators such as himself.

Thankfully, it won’t be all talk. Blake will back up this suggested skeptical approach with a printout providing a chart of the most popular myths about wine, links to useful scientific studies, eye-watering evidence of how distorted our perceptions really are, and – in a comedy corner – some of the frankly outrageous claims made on behalf of purportedly magickal wine products.

Bring your own wine and enjoy a fun tasting session and stargazing in Blackrock Castle with some suggestions on how to set your taste buds free! Weather permitting, we will also be treated to a star gazing session in the grounds of the castle.

The talk will start at 8.00pm, on Saturday December 10th (please note that this is a change from our usual Friday night schedule). It is free to attend, and open to everyone over the age of 18. For directions to Blackrock Castle, see our Skeptics In The Castle information page.

We’re looking forward to seeing you there!


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Skeptics in the Skype

Hayley, Ash, Patrick, Colm and a strange bespectacled guest

We tried something very different for our meeting on the 21st of October. Instead of inviting along a guest speaker to be present on the night, we had a video conference over Skype with skeptics in Edinburgh and Victoria, Canada.

The meeting went very well. Hayley Stephens and Ash Pryce regaled us with stories about alleged ghost hauntings in the UK – how they came about, how improbable they were and the reasons they were nothing more than either deliberate hoaxes, pareidolia, or mistakes made by people who desperately wanted to believe in ghosts. Hayley’s story of the landlord that she caught pretending his house was haunted was hilarious. Ash also spoke of investigations into the Tantallon Castleghost pictures“, which subsequently turned out to be easily explainable.

The Tantallon Castle ghost picture

The Tantallon "ghost"

On the subject of speaking to the dead, Hayley has recently set up Project Barnum to raise awareness of the tricks employed by so-called psychics to convince people of their paranormal abilities.

We also had Patrick Fisher, president of the YYJ Skeptics Club in Victoria, Canada on the line. Patrick spoke about Sasquatch and some of the alleged monsters of the Pacific coast, and how stories of these creatures were either fabrications or mistaken identities.

There was a lot of audience engagement and a lively “what’s the harm” discussion ensued, involving all the speakers on the night.

All three speakers were very entertaining and it was great having them involved on the night. I want to thank all of them for their involvement. It was superb. It’s an event we will try again in the near future.

A note on video-conferencing

We used Skype Premium as the teleconferencing software. The free Skype software does not permit multiple members to be involved in a call at the same time. We also tested Google Plus Hangout, which would have been a cheaper option. Unfortunately, we had a lot of problems with audio, so we abandoned it this time. The Google Hangout service is still very new, so I expect it will improve over time. With Skype Premium, it is only necessary for one person needs to buy the package subscription – free users can then piggyback off this.

Video conferencing needs a lot of advance preparation. While it’s not that complicated to set up a conference, a lot of things can go wrong on the night. Headsets and microphones need to be tested, and the software needs to be trialled in advance to ensure that the bandwidth is sufficient to channel good quality audio and video. We had a number of advance meetings, one in the Blackrock Castle venue itself, to ensure everything was working fine.

You also need to ensure you have some backup options, should the video-conference or the Internet fail on the night. I would recommend downloading a few entertaining videos in advance, or having a few stories to talk about, just in case.

It’s also worthwhile arriving at the venue very early on the night, again to test the sound and the video and to go through any last minute checks.

In the end, video conferencing is definitely an option for clubs who either have a gap in their schedule or are looking to do something different with their meetings.


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Announcing the Cork Skeptics in the Castle – May Event!

Recent events in Japan have focused attention once again on radiation – what effect it can have and whether nuclear power is a viable solution for our growing energy needs. At our next meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle, Professor John McInerney will be giving a talk about radiation – what it is, what it does and doesn’t do, and how it impacts our lives.

(We’ll also be talking about conspiracy theories and that little matter of the end of the world on the 21st of May.)

About the speaker: John McInerney is Professor and Head of Physics at University College Cork, and also co-director of the opto-electronics group at the Tyndall National Institute. Before joining UCC he held academic positions at the University of New Mexico (USA) and the University of Cambridge, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona.

He has also worked in industry, both in large photonics and electronics companies and in small start-ups. He received his BSc in Physics from University College Cork and PhD from Trinity College, Dublin.

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The talk will begin at 8pm on Friday May 20th, in Blackrock Castle Observatory. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend.

Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.


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