Cork Skeptics

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


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Witch hunts, the demise of UFOlogy, earthquake prediction and ash die-back – our roundup for November

Witch Trials in Ireland

At our November meeting, we were delighted to host a Skype call from Dr. Andrew Sneddon of the University of Ulster. He gave us a fascinating talk on witch-hunting and witch-trials in Ireland. Although witch-hunting was nowhere near as widespread in Ireland as it was in Scotland and parts of central Europe, there were a number of celebrated cases in Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The best documented case in Ireland was the Islandmagee witch trials in Co. Down in 1711. Eight women were put on trial and subsequently subjected to imprisonment and public pillorying. Andrew discussed the background to the case, and gave us an understanding of the mind-sets and motivations of the accusers.

Because of the legal framework in Ireland and England and a lack of solid evidence, it was never easy to convict people of witchcraft in these countries. By the mid 18th century, trials for witchcraft had effectively died out. Widespread belief in witches persisted well into the 19th century in many parts of Europe and America, however. Dr. Sneddon asserts that the belief in fairies in Ireland took precedence over witchcraft, and as a result it never became quite as ingrained in the public psyche as it did in other regions.

Andrew gave us a fascinating talk. His forthcoming book on Irish witches and witch trials will be published in the summer of 2013.

Man Finds His Doppelgänger In A 16Th Century Italian Painting

Doppelgänger lore holds that an exact simile of an person can exist, and is capable of evil or mischievous deeds, often unbeknownst to the original person.

Max Galluppo got quite a shock when he discovered his “doppelgänger” in a painting while walking through the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The area that the painting is from in Italy, that area is actually where my grandparents are from. I might check out Ancestry.com to see if there’s a relationship,” Galuppo commented.

http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/11/16th-century-lookalike/

“UFOs” In Denver

Fox News in Denver have serious egg on their face after publishing a news report claiming strange UFO activity in the vicinity of the city. The report claimed that numerous fast moving objects were seen on camera, confounding an aviation expert who could not establish what they were.

Numerous commenters, including a group of local paranormal research enthusiasts, were able to clarify what the “objects” really were: insects flying close to the camera lens.

The news report itself is hugely entertaining, demonstrating the power of belief over more conventional explanations.

http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/11/denver-ufos-bugs-outsmart-aviation-expert/

Is the End in Sight For UFOlogy?

Over the past few years, people who investigate the existence of UFOs have become increasingly frustrated by the predominance of false sightings and conspiracy related ideologies in their area of study. Coupled with this is an overall decline in UFO sightings, with the best documented cases having taken place many decades ago. This has lead some prominent researchers to conclude that the field is now in terminal decline and that there is no strong case for the presence of UFOs.

http://www.channel4.com/news/soul-searching-for-ufo-watchers-after-a-decline-in-sightings

Italian Earthquake Scientists Convicted for Not Communicating Risk

A number of scientists in Italy were found guilty of miscommunication after having made statements to the effect that people should not be too worried about earthquakes in an area that subsequently suffered a large and devastating earthquake in 2009. This ruling has prompted outrage in the scientific community, which sees it as hampering how scientific findings can be communicated to the public. Earthquakes are notoriously unpredictable, and it appears to be a case of an angry populace determined to find someone responsible, no matter what. The judgement is being appealed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/23/italian-scientist-earthquake-condemns-court?newsfeed=true

Homeopathy For Ash Tree Dieback

Hot on the heels of a an article that claimed that homeopathy could help to resolve domestic violence comes another article that advises the use of homeopathy to cure Ash Dieback, a disease afflicting trees all over mainland Europe. Instead of diverting money into anti-fungal treatment, they have come up with a novel cure: water. How could our scientific community have not thought of this? The scoundrels.

http://safe-medicine.blogspot.ie/2012/11/ash-tree-die-back-can-homeopathy-help.html

Two years!

We have just celebrated our second anniversary as a skeptics club in Cork, with (more or less) regular monthly meetings in Blackrock Castle. Our big thanks to Clair, Dee and all the staff of CIT Blackrock Castle over the past two years. It’s been a lot of fun, not to mention deeply fascinating to hear speakers from everything from body part ownership to ghosts and Scientology. We’ve already got a number of great talks lined up over the coming months. Watch this space!


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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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Considering UFOs, conspiracy theories and logical fallacies

Not a UFO

Following up on the slightly silly story about female alien cats of the other day, we should look at the UFO phenomenon, one that only really appeared in our culture in the early(ish) 20th century. The idea of life out there certainly instilled a life-time fascination with the night skies and a passion for science fiction in me. It has proven to be immensely popular, spawning books, lore, movies, cults, clubs and a plethora of devotee websites. Now that it is such an established part of western culture, the sheer volume of anecdotes and opinions available for our consumption can give people the impression that maybe there really is something to the rumours of crashed saucers, government cover-ups and galactic conspiracies.

The starting point when you are looking for the truth is to accept that there is a chance that the truth is going to turn out to be not what you hoped for, perhaps mundane and frustratingly ordinary.

We can’t start by assuming that there really are aliens visiting us and governments are conspiring to cover it up. That is an end point, a conclusion that you can only reach when you have enough evidence to prove that point.

We’re probably all agreed that there is no point in looking for evidence at websites such as this one (sunglasses and colour blindness advisable).  That stuff is the dribbling of diseased minds and deserves our compassion but not any serious examination.

We need to look at what serious people offer up as evidence and examine whether that is plausible proof of aliens.

The first problem occurs when people decide what passes for believable evidence. The second problem occurs when trying to work out whether your gathered evidence actually supports the theory or whether it can be explained in another way.

So there are two potential problems: getting genuine evidence and finding sufficient incontrovertible evidence to show the theory to be plausible.

As I already said, we can’t start at an end point (aliens & government cover-ups) and then look only for things that seem to support this theory. If you really want to prove a theory true you have to look really hard for things that falsify the theory. This seem like an odd thing to do, but it is very important if you want your conclusion to be accurate in the end and not a huge mistake based on what you think looks likely.

Helios, sun god. Also not a UFO.

Take for example the number of theories there used to be about why the sun moved across the sky every day. Amongst the theories put forward were that the sun-god Helios drove his chariot across the sky each day. Later on when people began to understand that there were celestial bodies in the skies that were not gods there was still another mistaken theory that the sun moved around the earth. Nowadays we know that both of these theories are wrong and the earth rotates around the sun. But we wouldn’t know this if we only looked at evidence that seemed to support the old theories. We had to find evidence that proved them wrong to improve our understanding of reality.

It’s very important to try to falsify the theory you are trying to prove, otherwise it is easy to be mistaken and fooled by evidence that might even seem to prove your theory. Think about it this way:  Imagine you stand out in the woods somewhere and close your eyes. You hear hoof beats. How do you know what the hoof beats are?

Without opening your eyes you might think they are horses. Or zebras. If you are somewhat imaginative you might hope they were unicorns. If you were a bit sceptical you might think there is a chance that someone is simply making a sound that imitates hoof beats. You won’t really know what it is causing that noise until you open your eyes and check.

You couldn’t even come up with a good theory for what you heard without checking the facts. You might be able to come up with a plausible theory e.g. if you are in the wildlife reserve in Africa it might be zebras, if you are on a race-course it is almost certainly horses. It is almost 100% for sure not going to be unicorns. But you need to see the animals for yourself to get a more accurate assessment. The sound alone is not sufficient. It is incomplete evidence and it would be unwise to claim that your theory is true until you have proved it. If you never open your eyes to see what caused the noise it would be unwise to claim afterwards that you think there was a unicorn in the woods today with you.

This is the problem with conspiracy theories and anecdotes about sightings and abductions. The evidence on offer is usually extremely incomplete – no more than strange moving lights. It is also usually never falsified. People like the thrill of thinking they saw an alien space craft rather than admitting they saw Jupiter or reflected car lights and didn’t realise it.

Here are a couple of points that are common to a great many of the great conspiracy and abduction anecdotes:

  • absence of evidence does not mean it is deliberate. Sometimes it means there is probably nothing there. There are no unicorn horns or fairy wings in museums either. That doesn’t mean we can deduce there is a Great Fairy Cover-up.
  • Government documents with censored bits means there are bits that officials didn’t want others to see. That does not automatically mean that it was about aliens. It could have been about national security, test aircraft, enemy positions etc. There are tons of things regarded as sensitive secrets by governments. Each of these would have to be ruled out before you could even begin to start guessing what else it could be.
  • A gap in knowledge or evidence is a gap. It needs to be filled with evidence, not whatever favourite theory we can dream up.
    Sidney Harris

    Cartoon by Sidney Harris

     

  • Personal testimony of people is not evidence. People are notoriously bad at getting things wrong even if they are being honest and sincere. Even if hundreds of people claim the same thing this is still not proof. All we may conclude from multiple testimonies is that maybe the claim ought to be investigated more thoroughly.
  • Not understanding or knowing what you saw does not mean that it might be what you think it is. Remember the hoof beats example. This is why so often the people claiming to see alien craft are not astronomers. Astronomers even though they spend every night they possibly can staring at the night sky almost never report anything “strange” up there. Reason: they know what that odd light really is. And sometimes it really is a weather balloon or a new top secret test stealth bomber.
  • Anyone who says they have seen a UFO is correct. It means “unidentified” after all, and if they don’t know what they saw then it is certainly unidentified, at least by them. That does not mean it is an alien space craft though. UFO does not equal Alien.
  • Cover-ups are not “proved” by the fact that everyone denies them. The sort of cover-ups that would be required to hide the presence of aliens on earth consorting with world governments would leave evidence all over the place in a way that would make it exceedingly hard to really obliterate. Not all materials can be eradicated, not everyone can be bought off, you can’t guarantee that not a single co-conspirator will ever have a change of heart, or that determined rivals and competitors wouldn’t do everything in their power to unmask the real story if it was there.

 

There could be life out there, and if there is, it would be one of the most exciting discoveries in the history of humankind. However, life out there might prove to be more like pond slime and not at all like ET or Mr Spock. Right now we have no plausible evidence to confirm either.

Meteorite that may contain fossils of alien life

Further watching:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: astronomer, astrophysicist, educator on how to handle alien abductions

Michael Shermer: scientist, editor of Skeptic Magazine, debunker of countless fake conspiracy theories) explains how to tell real from not real

Phil Plaitt: astronomer, ex NASA employee. Passionate about astronomy, science fiction and the possibility for life out there.

Further reading:

Bad Astronomy

Archive version of the Bad Astronomy site valuable for debunking some popular conspiracy theories.

Bad UFOs: For explanations of what some presumed sightings have turned out to be

Neurologica Blogs archive on UFOs & aliens



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Q: What’s better than a story about aliens over Russia?

A: A story about mystery female cat-like aliens over Russia’s diamond capital of course.

The story is reported in the Daily Mail, so that already proves that the story is true beyond all reasonable doubt.

The only facts that you can really glean from the story is that a Russian aviation employee in Yakutsk’s air traffic control seems to have had an anomaly appear on radar that they could not identify as a legitimate flight. The fact that it is unidentified certainly makes this a UFO, however it does not mean that it can be assumed it is a craft of visitors from another world.

The solid gold money-shot has to be this quote:

“I kept hearing some female voice, as if a woman was saying mioaw-mioaw all the time”.

No sniggering please.

When examining stories like these skeptically, several questions need to be asked:

  • What evidence does anyone have apart from the report that there was a radar anomaly that the air traffic control monitor was unable to assign a valid flight number to?
  • How credible is the witness who reports hearing voices: could he have been mistaken, could he have been mischievously making it up?
  • Could the anomaly have been something else: private airplane, flock of birds, electronic malfunction, deliberate hoax?
  • Why is the story so short on real facts: no names, no dates, just vague references to some unspecified person somewhere and an anonymous month-old Youtube video that appears to have been filmed some time before hand?

Whether there is life out there is one question. Whether that life is capable of space-flight is entirely another. And whether space-faring aliens could travel to distant solar systems and buzz traffic control employees at relatively obscure airports is one that I would cautiously prefer not to affirm, in spite of the Mail’s assurance that “experts claim it is widely known”.

In the immortal words uttered by Squeaky Voiced Teen on The Simpsons“Keep watching the skis!”

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