Cork Skeptics

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


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What does it take?

Passive Impressions

There is a broadcaster in Cork, Neil Prendeville, who has no problem promoting pseudoscience and instilling fear into people during his radio programme. He regularly invites a guest, Michael O’Doherty, whom he calls a medical professional, onto his show to expound on vaccines and antibiotics. O’Doherty has no medical qualifications. He is a quack healer whose shtick seems to be that natural is good, that the body is capable of healing itself without the need for modern medicine.

This stuff is dangerous. It is simply not true to say that our bodies are able to deal with every illness that comes along. The flu, a common disease, kills millions of people every year. Before modern medicine, deaths from smallpox, measles and TB were common. They are much less so now because of vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals. Where is the evidence for the great natural panaceas they keep talking about? In…

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Anti-vaccination horror story

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Grieving woman / Martin / Flickr (CC Licensed)

From RawStory.com comes a horrific story of a baby dying from Meningitis, with the parents trying everything except the most sensible option – to go to a doctor and to seek medical help. If they had done that, it is probable that the baby would be alive today.

It’s easy to blame the parents in this case, but pointing the blame solely at them would be wrong. There are many within the alternative medicine industry who need to take a large share of the blame also.

Despite the messaging that alternative healthcare ‘complements’ medical healthcare, there are influential people within the alt-med industry who paint normal medicine as the enemy. They portray the industry as grasping and corrupt, medical practitioners as uncaring and deluded, and the modalities used as worse than useless. They will browbeat you into believing that vaccines are killing you and that all the cures are known, but they will not reveal them because there’s no money in it. A common meme, widely shared, is that they have no interest in making people better, in the totally mistaken belief that a healthier population is somehow a threat to the medical profession. If anything, it’s the opposite.

A direct result of these scare stories is that people like the family above cannot cope when presented with real medical emergencies. The result is needless suffering, needless death and charlatans making fortunes from the unwary. You cannot solve serious health problems with magic water, fruits, chakras, kale and thinking yourself better. If you or your family are sick, go see a doctor.

 


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A misleading article on faith healing

In an article entitled “Are miracles happening on the streets of Coleraine“, Finola Meredith wrote a largely uncritical piece about Mark Marx, a self-described street healer who claims he can channel the spirit of God to heal people of various different ailments. Particularly worryingly, claims were made that his ministry helped rid a woman of paralysis and helped to eliminate a young man’s cancer. Both claims went unchallenged.

Marx cited a “leg lengthening” technique that has long been debunked by professional magicians. Using this technique, so-called healers use sleight-of-hand to convince the unwary that a miracle has been performed, when all that’s usually required is a simple repositioning of the shoes being worn by the subject. In this case, we do not know the effect that chemotherapy had on the young man’s recovery. It appears that Ms Meredith did not seek corroboration for the claims made.

In cases of cancer, because treatment regimes are often difficult and outcomes uncertain, people can come to a conclusion that there are easier solutions out there. Combined with unscrupulous people who claim they can cure without evidence, it is a breeding ground for false hope and avoidable suffering. The utmost scepticism must be applied. Irrespective of whether sceptics have “never encountered the reality of knowing God”, any claim to cure cancer must stand on its own merits. Anecdotes are insufficient as they are often self-serving, selective and fail to account for the many biases we are all subject to.

Evangelical faith healing has a long pedigree of making extravagant claims despite any clinical evidence. The area is fraught with examples of brazen charlatanry and most worryingly, there have been plenty of cases of serious harm caused to people who have abandoned medical treatment in favour of faith based treatments. We need to be extremely wary of the claims of faith healers, even when the healers themselves seem sincere in their beliefs.


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Fiona O’Leary and The Autism Wars

Passive Impressions

Fiona O'LearyWe were delighted to host Fiona O’Leary last Friday in Blackrock Castle. Fiona is a prominent campaigner on the issue of childhood autism. Over the past few years, she has proven to be a thorn in the side of groups who profess to be able to ‘cure’ the condition. She has been the major force behind a number of exposés and media investigations across Europe and the US, resulting in the closing down of lucrative illegal operations selling highly dangerous medications to the parents of autistic children. Fiona is tireless in her energy, passion and dedication. She attributes this to her own experience on the autistic spectrum – almost unable to anything in half measures.

Fiona gave a great talk – lucid, wide-ranging and often shocking. She gave us an insight into the activities of organisations such as the Genesis II Church, who claim that industrial bleach can cure Autism, or David Noakes, who sells a blood…

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Insipid and Unsettling: The Joe Power Psychic Show

We visited Joe Power’s psychic show in Cork over the weekend. Here’s what we learned.

Passive Impressions

A few weeks ago, myself and some friends decided to go to the Joe Power show when he was in Cork. We were curious to know what went on at such events, so we purchased a cheapo voucher and headed along to his show in the Metropole Hotel last Friday night.

The audience was quite large: maybe as much as 200 people. It was a mixed bag of people, old, young, men and women. Certainly more women than men with more older people in attendance.

Joe started late. One of his first questions to the audience was whether any of them had been to a psychic show before. Very few people in the audience had been to one.

Joe got stuck in straight away, happening on one of the most serious of subjects imaginable: suicide. The manner and some circumstances to do with the death were discussed with family members. A troubling line of questioning, to…

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So, those Irish Poltergeist videos….

There is a video doing the rounds at the moment that purports to show a poltergeist haunting the kitchen of a house in Cork. At the time of posting, this video has garnered 10 million views on various social media platforms.

Actually, there are two videos. Another one was uploaded the week before this.

Both videos are hoaxes.

It’s instructive to look at both videos because some of the differences give the game away.

In the first video, the camera moves around to the phenomenon before it begins. This is clear sign that the people involved are in control of what is happening. This is slightly less obvious in the second video – a sign that they have taken this on board.

In the second video, a fridge has moved to a different, rather strange place – right beside the back door. This, presumably, had been placed to conceal one of the people who is conducting events.

Nobody appears to be too frightened, not even the dogs.

So how was it done? Fishing lines. By scrolling to various points in the video, you can see them clearly. In one scene, you can even see the hand of the person at the other side of the door.

First Video 16 September

Manipulation is taking place outside the house, with lines being pulled through one of the windows.
  1. 1.03 something snags on a bottle by the window (the same effect is apparent in both videos)
  2. 1.49 someone appears behind the door – you can see his hands.
  3. 1.28 fishing line attached to the light
  4. 1.34 you can see the fishing line clearly by the radio speakers.

Second video 22 September

Manipulation is from behind the fridge and behind the person taking the video.
  1. Wire clearly visible at 1.05 at the end of the video
  2. Likely fishing wire at 0.34.
  3. 0.53 Bottle on window moves again.

Finally, here’s a phenomenon I videoed in my kitchen last night…

Nice try, Ashy.


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The Baloney Detection Kit – Further Reading

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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.