Cork Skeptics

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


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Ill Communication – A talk by Dr David Robert Grimes

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How The Media Gets Science Coverage Wrong (And How We Can Make It Better)

Science and medicine have transformed our lives immeasurably, and never in history have they been more central to our lives and well-being.

Yet despite this, there is often a glaring disconnect between the findings of actual science and the media reporting of such topics. Consequently there is often a needless chasm between public perception and the evidence on many contentious topics. This can lead to needlessly adversarial and counter-productive discourse of everything from vaccination to climate-change.

headshotdaveIn this talk, physicist and science journalist Dr. David Robert Grimes discusses the frequent problems in reporting science – from misunderstandings to bad statistics to false balance, and discusses the factors that influence this and how such problems can be remedied.

Dr. David Robert Grimes (@drg1985) is a physicist and writes regular opinion and analysis pieces on scientific issues for the Irish Times and the Guardian Science. He keeps a blog on these topics at www.davidrobertgrimes.com


 

This talk begins at 8:00pm on Friday 4 December. The venue is Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork.

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


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The Baloney Detection Kit at Science Week 2015

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The BALONEY DETECTION KIT @ Science Week 2015

As part of Science Week 2015, Cork Skeptics present “The Baloney Detection Kit” — a furiously fast-paced introduction to skepticism!

From 6 – 7pm on Saturday 14th November, at Blackrock Castle Observatory.


UFOs. Ghosts. Astrology. Homeopathy. Telepathy. Miracle Cancer Cures. People all around the world fervently believe they exist and yet there isn’t a shred of good evidence that they are real in any sense of the word. On the other hand, there is strong scientific support for evolution, climate change and vaccines, yet millions reject the evidence entirely, preferring long debunked ideas instead.

In a wide-ranging talk, Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics explores the world of strange beliefs and discusses some ways to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Colm will talk about logical fallacies, brain flaws and other tricks that persuade us of things that aren’t so. He will also examine the crucial role that science plays in distinguishing fact from fiction.


Colm is the co-founder of Cork Skeptics, a group dedicated to the promotion of good science while challenging strange claims. Founded in 2010 in Blackrock Castle, we host regular public talks with topics ranging from ghosts to nuclear power and financial scams.

This event takes place in Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork City from 6pm on Saturday 14th November. It is free to attend, and all are welcome.


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The Industry of Modern Art: A Talk by Reg Murphy

August 18th 2012 — The Industry of Modern Art by Reg Murphy

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 18th August, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by Cork Skeptics member Reg Murphy, and promises to be a fascinating look behind the industry of modern art. Reg has a degree in Fine Art from Limerick School of Art and is an avid art enthusiast. Reg has supplied an outline of the talk below.

In this talk I won’t deal with lofty questions like: what is art? What is the meaning of art? etc.; these are subjective issues best left to philosophers and not truly accessible to skeptical analysis. What I will talk about is Modern Art’s essential relationship with Money, Prestige and Entertainment. Modern Art, for better or worse is a big worldwide industry which employs tens of thousands, entertains millions, generates billions (literally), and causes (occasionally) mass trauma and outrage. Decisions concerning it often go to the highest levels of Government and it is often used as branch of diplomacy.

In a heavily illustrated slide lecture, I hope to give a fun and irreverent (i.e. free of jargon) overview, providing a highly condensed history from French Impressionism to the current day, revealing:

The Artists: Where do I start?
The Collectors: Visionaries, fools or prudent investors?
The Dealers: Smarmy charlatans or the hand maidens of Culture?
The Critics: Vindictive failed artists or heroic cheerleaders?
The Media: Vulgarians or honesty reflecting public bafflement?
The Curators: Elitist snobs or a sincere desire to stimulate the public?
The State Galleries: A waste of public money or vastly important tourist draws?
Government: Arts spending; the role of Cultural heritage and national prestige.

Most importantly, and perhaps not widely appreciated: How visual art became a mass spectacle (a very modern phenomena).

All these elements will build up a picture of the current contemporary art scene and will show that despite stupidity, hubris and greed, the public are the winners and are in fact, greatly enriched.

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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Skeptics in the Castle: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

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Science and the Media – an Odd Couple.

To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, mainstream media has difficulties differentiating between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation. Yet we rely on media to inform us of events and concepts in the world around us, despite the fact that they often get it terribly wrong, especially in the fields of science and medicine. In this talk we’ll outline some of the common mistakes journalists and indeed the public make, from shocking statistics to bogus balance, as well as discuss how they can be improved, and what sceptics, scientists, doctors and you can do to help rectify the situation.

Our speaker

Dr David Robert Grimes is a medical physicist, musician, actor and writer with a keen interest in the public understanding of science and sceptic thought. He writes a science and medicine blog at 3menmakeatiger.blogspot.com and contributes to various publications on such issues. He is an Aries, but as astrology is a bogus pseudoscience he cannot use this as an excuse for his belligerent nature.

Date and Venue

The talk begins at 8.00pm, on Saturday, January 21st in Blackrock Castle Observatory. It is free to attend, and all are welcome. For directions to Blackrock Castle, see our Skeptics In The Castle information page.

Looking forward to seeing you there!


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The Common Sense Fallacy

“What do you mean? It makes total sense!”

“How do I know? It’s obvious! Even a child could understand it.”

One of the most common logical fallacies around is when people wish to persuade you of a fact by logic alone. The argument usually goes like this: in order to convince you of their point of view, they will tell you that their argument makes sense: and that this, on its own, is enough for it to be true. Here are some examples:-

George W Bush and some of his key aides were not in Washington at the time of 9/11. Some people believe that this is evidence of a government conspiracy, as it would have made sense for him to be as far away from the atrocities as possible.

The numbers 5,15,26,34, 35 and 43 are going to come up in the lottery because they have not appeared in any winning tickets for ages. It makes sense to pick these numbers because they are more likely to be coming up soon.

Poison Ivy causes a bad rash upon contact, so based on the homeopathic principle of “like cures like”, it makes sense that it should cure skin rashes.

Reality is smarter than you are

All of these ideas, at least superficially, seem to be based on logic; but logic on its own is not enough. The premises, or assumptions, need to be true too. In many cases, the premises can be hidden or not fully understood – even by the greatest experts on the subject. Throughout history, people have made statements of fact without understanding everything about the phenomenon, with bizarre results. Thus, it was possible to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth: it made sense because the Earth was assumed to be the centre of the universe. Doctors indulged in bloodletting because it made sense that illness was cause by fluid imbalances.

So, how can we move forward when all we have is logic and we don’t fully understand the premises? Fortunately, there is a hack. We can test it against reality. We can perform an experiment to see what actually happens or we can analyse the available evidence. If we are wrong in our assumptions, reality should be able to tell us.

Michelson and Morley’s famous “failed experiment“, where they they tried unsuccessfully to prove that the speed of light would vary depending on the direction of motion of our planet, was a great example of reality being in dispute with the conventional wisdom of the day. By discovering that light had the same speed in all directions, they were able to show that the common sense of the time (i.e. that light needed a medium – aether – in which to propagate) was demonstrably wrong. Other forces, not then fully understood, were at play. Thousands of experiments like this have given rise to our current understanding of reality. They have often shown our universe to be very different to what common sense would have expected.

The nonsense claim doesn’t work either

Another aspect of the Common Sense Fallacy is the idea that if it does not appear to make sense, it cannot, therefore, be true*. Just as common sense, on its own, cannot be used to establish if something is true, neither can it be used, on its own, to dismiss a proposition out of hand. Creationists will invoke the ultimate 747 gambit to claim that evolution does not make sense (that it’s as unlikely to happen as if a tornado constructed an intact 747 capable of flying around the world) when the evidence (and logic) comprehensively attests to its truth. Some people will claim that global warming doesn’t make sense after experiencing a few cold winters. Quantum mechanics makes no sense at all, even to experts in the field, yet it can be tested with incredible accuracy each and every time.

If in doubt, test it out

Because reality can often confound even the greatest minds, common sense, on its own, is not a good indicator of the truth or falsity of a claim. When someone tries to convince you of the truth of a claim using an appeal as to how “sensible” it seems, be sceptical. To better substantiate a claim you need to be shown reliable evidence. Don’t be fooled. If in doubt, test it out.

* This fallacy is also known as the Argument from Ignorance.


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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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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.