Cork Skeptics

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


Leave a comment

Believe ET Or Not

BaloneyDetectionKit_2015_Advert_2

BELIEVE E.T. OR NOT

Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics will discuss some of the stranger stories arising from our love affair with the cosmos.

Colm will take a sceptical look at astrology, the UFO phenomenon, and the popular conspiracy theories of our culture. In contrast to these are real, scientific quests to find life on planets and moons beyond the Earth.

Lastly, Colm will introduce a baloney detector kit, which may help distinguish outlandish claims from rational scientific discovery.

This talk is part of the Space On The Road! series of events taking place throughout Cork County Libraries this summer, and is one of many events comprising the Summer of Space at Blackrock Castle Observatory. For more information visit www.bco.ie/events or www.ssp17.ie  You can also follow along on social media using #SummerOfSpace #SSP17 #OurSpaceOurTime


This talk takes place in Youghal County Library, Cork at 6:30pm on Thursday 27th July. Admission is free and all are welcome to attend.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Hard To Swallow — Autism & The “Miracle Mineral Supplement”

About the Talk:  Fiona O’Leary is a prominent autism advocate and prolific campaigner against the use of dangerous, unproven and unregulated ‘treatments and cures’ for autism — a growing worldwide industry, operating through the use of pseudo-science, “Big Pharma” conspiracy and the negative stigma with which autism and autistic people are so often labelled.

Having been diagnosed as autistic herself in 2013, Fiona quickly became immersed in the world of autistic rights and in particular the issues and obstacles faced by females on the spectrum. Her discovery of the Genesis II Church and their claim of a cure for autism (in the form of Chlorine Dioxide, described as the “Miracle Mineral Supplement”) galvanised Fiona into action, resulting in a worldwide campaign to expose the actions and false claims of the Church and its ilk.

In this talk, Fiona will recount her own personal experiences of autism, and detail the many campaigns she has spearheaded or participated in, from her first appearance on national TV, to her lobbying of the Government to enact legislation that would effectively put an end to the damage – both physical and psychological – that these charlatans are causing to vulnerable people.

Fiona’s campaigning has garnered national and international attention, including  documentaries for RTE, BBC, ITV and NBC, as well as articles in the Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post and more.

Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 23.47.05About the Speaker: Fiona’s many accomplishments include co-founding the Autistic Rights Together organisation, and administrating the Female Aspergers / Autism Support Ireland Facebook group.

Fiona studied Autism as a mature student in University College Cork (UCC). She and two of her five children are on the autistic spectrum.

She blogs at fionao71.tumblr.com


This talk begins at 8:00pm on Saturday 17 October. The venue is Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork.

It is free to attend and all are welcome—we look forward to seeing you there!


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