Cork Skeptics

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


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Alternative medicine – good skeptical reading

In their talk on Saturday, Steve and Ben mentioned a number of books that are worth a read if you are interested in finding more about the research behind alternative medicine. Here are some of the books mentioned. Direct links to Eason’s and Amazon are provided if you are interested in purchasing these books or e-books directly.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

This excellent book exposes poor and unscientific practices, no matter where they are to be found. Ben Goldacre pulls no punches and spreads his net very widely indeed. His targets include the cosmetics industry, homeopaths and quacks of all sorts, pharmaceutical companies, and so-called TV “experts” such as Gillian McKeith. It’s an excellent primer on how to distinguish the best medical practice from the worst.

Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst

 Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst consider the claims of alternative medicine from a scientific perspective, looking at the studies that have been performed on many well known alternative therapeutic practices such as chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine.

Autism’s False Prophets by Paul Offit

Paul A. Offit, a national expert on vaccines, challenges the modern-day false prophets who have so egregiously misled the public and exposes the opportunism of the lawyers, journalists, celebrities, and politicians who support them. Offit recounts the history of autism research and the exploitation of this tragic condition by advocates and zealots.

Deadly Choices by Paul Offit

In “Deadly Choices,” infectious-disease expert Paul Offit takes a look behind the curtain of the anti-vaccine movement. What he finds is a reminder of the power of scientific knowledge, and the harm we risk if we ignore it.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

This terrific book opens the lid on self-deception and cognitive dissonance: how we are hard-wired to justify our decisions and actions, even when it is plainly obvious to others that they were wrong, misconceived and sometimes malevolent.

Please let us know if you know of other books and we will take a look. We hope to do a book swap for books that are worth reading at forthcoming Cork Skeptics meetings, so please bring along your favourite books to our next meeting and feel free to take another one in return!

If you have other suggested titles, we will publish more reading suggestions soon.
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CRUISE CONTROL: Ex-Scientologist John Duignan Recounts His 22 Years in the “Cult to the Stars”

Our next meeting will take place on Friday 25th May, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by John Duignan, ex-Scientologist and author of The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology.

About The Speaker: John Duignan (born 1963) grew up in both Stirling in Scotland and in Carrigaline County Cork. He had a difficult and troubled childhood thanks in part to a mentally ill father, an ill and abused mother and the chaotic home life that resulted.

Following the untimely death of his parents in 1974, he and his siblings were fostered by family members on his mother’s side in both County Cork and Wicklow. He left school at the age of 17 and joined an American Christian Evangelical drama group and spent three years traveling Europe and North America forwarding this unique brand of Christian ministry. In 1983, he was operating a branch of this ministry in Vancouver Canada and came to see that much of the Christian message simply did not add up. He moved to Halifax Nova Scotia to live with a group of atheist humanists and to work on an old North German built schooner. About a year later, he found himself in Stuttgart, Germany and during a period of dark depression was recruited by The Church of Scientology.

In 2008 he wrote and published The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology. In this non-fiction book he describes his 22 years in the organization and his eventual awaking partly as a result of attending an event where actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise was given the award of “Most Dedicated Follower”. Duignan began to examine the organization more closely and had doubts about remaining. He left the organization in 2006, after taking measures to avoid investigation by Scientology’s intelligence agency the Office of Special Affairs.

The Church of Scientology responded to the publication of The Complex by sending legal letters to several bookstore retailers that were selling the book, claiming the book contains libelous statements about a member of the organization. His publisher Merlin Publishing, “emphatically denied” these allegations, and an editorial director at the publishing company called Scientology’s claim “vexatious”. The United Kingdom branch of Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, stopped selling copies of the book after receiving legal letters from the Church of Scientology through internationally feared libel firm, Carter Ruck; booksellers Waterstone’s and W H Smith and Borders Books were “warned off” selling the book as well. However the book remained in broad publication here in Ireland and has been stocked in all Irish retailers for a number of years.

Following the publishing of The Complex, John returned to education completing a BA in English and Italian Literature and Italian language at University College Cork.

John counts Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell and A.S. Byatt among his most important intellectual influences. He no longer considers himself to be a religious person.

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This talk is open to the public, and is free to attend. Directions to Blackrock Castle Observatory can be found on our information page. We hope to see you there!


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Why Nothing Matters: A Talk By Ronald Green

Our next meeting takes place on Friday 2nd March, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by author Ronald Green, and promises to be a very interesting discussion all about…nothing!

Why should nothing matter? If anything matters, why should nothing matter? And yet it does, for there isn’t anything, it seems, that nothing does not touch, or anything that does not touch nothing. History, philosophy, religion, science, art, literature, music – all look towards nothing at some point, stimulating questions that would otherwise not be asked.

Who, for example, could have believed that nothing held back progress for 600 years in the Middle Ages, all because of mistaken translation, or that nothing is a way to tackle (and answer) the perennial question “what is art?”? Ronald Green uses nothing in a genuine attempt to look at the world in a different way, to give new angles to old problems and so to stimulate new thoughts.

What is this nothing, that we can’t actually see, touch or feel? Is it absolute? Is it relative to everything else? If we are able to think about it, write and read about it, is it something, and if so wouldn’t it then not be nothing?

This is precisely the mystery of nothing – that the more we think about it, the more there is to it.

Disarmingly invisible, the point of nothing – to paraphrase Bertrand Russell on philosophy – is to start with something so simple as to seem not worth examining, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

About The Speaker: Ronald Green is the author of “Nothing Matters – a book about nothing” (iff-Books). Philosopher, linguist, university lecturer and ESL teacher, with 13 ESL books published, Ronald has lectured and given workshops in Europe, North and South America and the Middle East on linguistics, ESL and the use of the Internet in education. His short stories have been published in Nuvein magazine, Tryst, Aesthetica, the Sink and Unholy Biscuit. He has completed a philosophical novel and co-authored a psychological thriller with strong philosophical underpinnings. For the past five years he has been thinking seriously about nothing, culminating in his recently-published book.

This talk is open to the public, and is free to attend. Directions to Blackrock Castle Observatory can be found on our information page. We hope to see you there!


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Scams, Frauds and Daylight Robbery at Skeptics in the Castle

At our last meeting of Skeptics in the Castle, we turned our attention to how people can be fooled by scams and frauds. Ralph Riegel, Southern Correspondent of the Irish Independent, talked about the many ways in which people can be persuaded to part with their earnings. The list scams was long: many of them affecting people locally.

Ralph talked about how credit card fraud is one of the most widespread scams, with a 12% increase in fraud in Ireland alone in 2010.  He reported how people, purporting to be from large companies and banks will ring people to ascertain their credit card details and bank details over the phone. He also had a word of caution: if you suspect you have been defrauded, you need to call your bank immediately. Failure to act on a suspected fraud can leave you with the costs.

Ralph talked about how groups of specialist scammers, known as tiger gangs, can arrive into a city with equipment to create hundreds of forged credit cards and ATM cards. By acting quickly – purchasing easily resellable items and withdrawing sums of cash from the banks – the scammers can make large amounts of money and be long gone before the authorities catch up with them. In 2006, a gang were jailed for 5 years in Cork following a large-scale forging operation in Wilton.

One of the most well-known internet scams are the Nigerian “419” emails, where an unsolicited email arrives in your inbox telling you that you can gain access to a large sum of money if you give them a “small” amount of cash to first deal with some up-front bureaucracy. Despite the see-through nature of these emails (atrocious spelling, generic email accounts and the fact that the emails are far too good to be true), at least 14 people a year in Ireland lose money from the scam. The amounts involved can be quite considerable.

Pyramid schemes were also discussed. In 2005, at the height of the boom, a “gifting” scheme began in West Cork, taking advantage of a legal loophole. People would invest 20,000 euros with friends and neighbours in the expectation that they would soon get back four times that amount. When the scheme crashed in 2006, the consequences were dire for the local community with a number of serious assaults and at least one case of false imprisonment reported.

In his wide ranging discussion, Ralph also spoke about false charities, identify theft and counterfeiting. Following this there was an active discussion on all manner of different criminal schemes.

We would like to thank Ralph for his fascinating talk and we wish him the very best with “Shattered“: his recently published book on victims of crime in Ireland.


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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.