Cork Skeptics

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


1 Comment

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


1 Comment

Logical Fallacies – Part 2: Know your sources

There are a million places you can go to for information and very often you can get different opinions and “facts” about the same claim. Either evolution is true or it isn’t; the world is either round or it isn’t; vaccines either cause autism or they do not*.

[*The answers are: true, round & no, in case you were wondering.]

Credibility of your sources is something that isn’t always immediately obvious, but in general few things can beat comprehensive research, peer-reviewed and evidence-based theories and finally, consensus in the wider scientific community. This is not to say that theories are never over-turned by brilliant new insights. However, one can make mistakes in judging whether the source of an opinion or story or new theory is credible or not. Here are a few examples to watch out for.

 

 

 

Argument from authority

Trust me, trust me. I’m a doctor.

This gets used remarkably often to make a claim sound more plausible or believable. But even if someone really is an authority in a certain field, it does not make them an authority in all fields. Having a Ph.D. in Literature does not in any way boost your authority or believability about UFOs; being a respected theologian makes you an expert on Scripture, not morality. It does not mean that you can’t express your opinion on these matters, and indeed your opinions might be excellent and lucid. But your argument does not get given extra gravitas simply because you have some expert knowledge on other unrelated subjects.
This type of argument also appears in the ‘Speaking as a’ format:
Speaking as a mother, I think vaccines are dangerous for children.
Sometimes this is used merely for clarification purposes (useful on an anonymous internet forum e.g. I’m a mother so I know what its like to go through six hours of labour); but beware of it being used to give the speaker an added claim to authority that they are not entitled to.

Heresy does not equal correctness
Louis Armstrong sang

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round.

Leaving aside the fallacious nature of that line (it was widely accepted that the world was round in Columbus’ day), the message of this song is that sometimes genuine truth goes unaccepted for a long time. However, that does not mean that just because an idea is laughed at, the Discoverer is a martyr to his True Cause. Sometimes the Discoverer is just plain wrong; and that is why people are laughing (or angry). Examples of this are Flat Earth believers, and most conspiracy theorists. The facts need to be collected and checked and proved or disproved before the ‘theory’ can be regarded as valid.

The argument from heresy may be fallacious, but it’s a damn good song.

Argument from mass consensus

Thousands of people believe in ghosts. Therefore ghosts must exist.
There are so many stories about dragons. Therefore there must have been dragons once upon a time.

A thousand years ago you might have said:

Everyone knows the earth is flat
Therefore if you sail your boat too far out, you will go over the edge.
And you still would have been wrong, in both sentences.
Thousands, even millions of people can be wrong.


Leave a comment

Logical fallacies: Part 1: You can’t believe everything you hear

Being a critical thinker means looking at facts carefully, critically and logically. There is no person or place that can be a repository of all knowledge, no-one knows all the answers or even has all the facts. In light of this we need tools to examine claims, tools that can steer us in the right direction even if we know little about the subject until we can find more information about it. However, there are certain forms of bad arguments, poor reasoning and illogic that are easy to spot, no matter their surroundings.

When you come across a logical fallacy in conversation you should flag it with your skeptical Flag of Examination and examine its claims critically.

I’m going to split this subject up into small digestible pieces over my next few posts.

Recently intrepid members of Cork Skeptics went to the local Mind, Body, Spirit trade fair (more about this if you attend our session on Friday). It was ablaze with colour, and filled with people young and old, most of whom were pleasant, good-natured and keen to chat about their wares and very open to answering skeptical questions. It is easy to see why people are left with the impression that alternative therapies really work when they are assured face to face by earnest, sane, well-spoken adults that it does. We all assume that on the whole people are trying to be honest and truthful when they speak. So how do you spot problems when you know that the person telling you about is not deliberately trying to deceive you?

Probably the most striking thing about all festival for me was that whether the purveyors were selling crystals, readings, colours, scents or physical manipulations, there was one thing they all had in common. They all used anecdotes to convince buyers of the efficacy of their product. These are perhaps the most commonly used logical fallacies of all and are often used in complete innocence by people who sincerely believe that personal stories count as evidence.

Anecdotes are not evidence

Personal stories and testimonies get around. However, they do not constitute proof of anything by themselves.

This comes as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people. After all, even courts take evidence from witnesses. However, as any policeman or lawyer will tell you, eye-witness testimony is horribly unreliable. Even the sincerest witness can get things completely wrong; perhaps by accident, perhaps they were intentionally misled, sometimes simply because they have attached a meaning to an incident that just isn’t there.

The Selective Attention Test here provides an illustration of how people can miss the blindingly obvious once their attention has been directed elsewhere.

In the test in this video, viewers did not notice the gorilla at all because they had been asked to count the number of passes made by people in white shirts. It seems hard to believe, but there you go: the power of human observation (or lack thereof).

Read more about the Invisible Gorilla experiment here.

The best you can claim for a plethora of anecdotes seeming to support an argument is that it might be grounds for genuine investigation of the facts.

 

After-the-fact reasoning

One of the reasons why people so often think that an anecdote is convincing is because they make another common mistake. This involves taking the end result and then trying to backwards engineer a cause.

It is a leap of illogic that doesn’t bother to eliminate other possible causes before announcing that X must have caused, or be proof of Y.

Example:

I won the first two matches and I was wearing my red T-shirt. I lost the third match and I was wearing my white T-shirt. Therefore my red T-shirt must be lucky.

Or:

I went into hospital to have my appendix removed, and I put special healing crystals around my bed. Now I have recovered quickly from my surgery without any complications. Therefore, the crystals must have special healing powers.

In both examples other (more likely) contributing causes are completely discounted in favour of a pet theory.

In the case of alternative medicine the bulk of the favourable evidence offered as “proof” of efficacy tends to fall into these categories. Very often no real scientifically conducted double-blinded tests have yielded anything positive beyond placebo. This is not to say that all alt-med treatments cannot work, just that those with only anecdotes to bolster their claims they have not proved their case at all.

 

Further reading:

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science

Steven Novella’s Neurologica

Science Based Medicine

Respectful Insolence

 

 


Leave a comment

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



Leave a comment

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!”


1 Comment

A Good Place to Start

Tomes on science and critical thinking are not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. But anyone who is interested in separating fact from fiction, or simply interested in knowing more about the universe around us is going to notice that there are certain subjects that keep cropping up: the Big Bang, evolution, cosmology, geology, relativity, Quantum Theory, gravity. For many of us though, these weighty subjects can be daunting and even overwhelming. However, help can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

Most people have heard of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, even if they do not enjoy comical fantasy themselves. Stories set in a highly fantastical world of magic, wizards and simian Librarians would not appear to be the place to go if you would like to learn the basics about planets, placental mammals and the Pleistocene. But Pratchett has teamed up with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen and produced a trilogy called The Science of Discworld that does exactly that.

The Science of Discworld

This story is Discworld with a bit of a difference. The wizards at the Unseen University are mucking about with world-building, aided by Hex the ant-based computer. Only this world turns out to be nothing at all like they’ve seen, based on physics rather than narrativium. Chapters featuring well-loved characters from the Discworld are interlaced with chapters explaining the science behind the story, and thus the enticing journey into cosmology, particle physics and evolution is begun.

One of the great strengths of the trilogy is however light-hearted the fiction part of the book may be, the authors take their readers seriously and treat them as an intelligent audience. The science is explained clearly and carefully without dumbing it down and common misunderstandings of science are highlighted and explored. This is an invaluable primer that spans the range of natural science and explains some of the universe’s greatest mysteries and humanity’s greatest quest to make sense of it all with insight, learning and humour.

These are probably the most accessible science books I’ve ever read, and will leave you scientifically literate and confident to take on other more specialised books.