Cork Skeptics

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


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February links and follow-ups

Here are a few links to the stories we talked about last week:

Russia Meteor

News over the past 2 weeks have been dominated by the extraordinary event of the Chebarkul Lake meteor that tore through the skies above southern Russia at 9.30 am on February 15th. The meteor, weighing in at 10,000 tonnes, is believed to be the largest meteor to enter our atmosphere since the Tunguska event of 1908. Amazingly, the meteor entry was recorded on video by a large number of dashboard cameras, as was the intense shockwave that shattered thousands of windows across the city of Chelyabinsk. Needless to say, conspiracy theories surfaced quickly. Some believed it was a US missile test. Others thought it was a sign from God. The better ones postulated a crashing alien spaceship or an extraterrestrial Trojan Horse carrying a deadly space virus.

“My Poodles are Psychic”

Linda Lancashire from Heanor in the UK claims that her poodles have psychic abilities. According to Linda they can “detect relationship issues” and determine if clients have “money or relationship problems”. Linda herself works as a clairvoyant, which implies that a large proportion of her clients will have money or relationship problems in the first place.

Creationism in Louisiana

Science teaching in the US is under attack by biblically minded creationists, who wish to to introduce their dogmas into the classroom as “an alternative” to evolution. As more direct attempts have failed over the past decades, creationists are attempting to get creationism taught through indirect means. They have opened or exploited loopholes in local state legislation, thus allowing fundamentalist science teachers to water down the science curriculum according to their own religious beliefs. Now, Zach Kopplin, a 19 year old former high-school student, is going head-to-head with them in the courts. Below are some extraordinary episodes from the hearings, as science promoters square up against their deluded opponents.

Can e-Coli evolve into a human?

“Little letters”

Creationism in Turkey

In Turkey, the teaching of evolution is also under attack, this time from Islamic creationists. Recently, Turkey’s main funding agency, responsible for translating hundreds of science books into Turkish, made the decision to withdraw books such as The Blind Watchmaker and The Double Helix from sale. They cite funding and copyright issues, but it’s curious that the main targets are books on evolution. In 2006, Turkey was placed behind the US regarding the teaching of evolution.

Acupuncture Beads

The latest fad in Hollywood is “Auriculotherapy”, a variation on Acupuncture, where needles are inserted into the ear and later replaced by gold beads to “potentiate” the treatment. The treatment is claimed to fight stress, pain and infertility. Actors such as Penelope Cruz were recently seen sporting these beads. Where would skeptics be without Hollywood?


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All In The Genes? — A Talk On Genetics and the Puzzles of Heritability by Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski

All In The Genes? w/ Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski

Our next meeting takes place on Saturday 23rd February at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm.

This talk by Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski, Lecturer in Applied Psychology at UCC, will explore genetics and the puzzles of heritability. What does it mean to say that a trait is heritable? Is there a gene for schizophrenia or a “gay gene”? What can we learn from looking at cases of identical twins raised apart, or indeed from adopted children raised together? And does genetic actually mean immutable?

These and similar questions will be addressed during what promises to be a truly insightful talk.

Dr. Marcin SzczerbinskiAbout the speaker: Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski is a Psychology graduate of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, and of the Department of Human Communication Science, University College London. From 2001 until 2011 he was a lecturer at the Department of Human Communication Sciences, University of Sheffield, where he contributed to a number of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, particularly in Speech and Language Therapy. He joined UCC in January 2011.

This will be Dr. Szczerbinski’s second talk for us, following his talk on Special Educational Needs in June of 2011.

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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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Burzynski the Cancer Quack and other stories: Our roundup for January

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics(Photo courtesy Donncha O'Caoimh)

Jen Keane speaking at Cork Skeptics
(Photo courtesy Donncha O’Caoimh)

We were delighted to have Jen Keane down to speak to us on Saturday night. Jen has taken a personal interest in the Dr. Burzynski story. She has been a prominent voice on the Internet, challenging the widespread view that Burzynski is a “pioneer” and a “maverick”. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski runs a cancer clinic in Houston, Texas. In recent years, he has become famous around the world for offering a supposedly side-effect free cure for certain types of cancers, deemed incurable by most medical experts. Many support groups have been formed to raise the huge funds necessary to send patients to the clinic in Texas, where they can partake in Burzynski’s “revolutionary” treatment.

Not is all it seems, unfortunately. Burzynski has published very few studies in support of his antineoplaston therapy. His treatment has not been approved by the FDA, and it is still – after 30 years – in clinical trial phase (which makes it highly unethical for him to be charging patients for his treatments). Although very little clinical information has been published by the Burzynski clinic, there is growing evidence that his treatments fall far short of the clinic’s promises, offering little or no advantage to anybody except Burzynski’s bank account.

burzynski_cancer_poster_ruffJen, who tweets as @Zenbuffy on Twitter, has had an ongoing interest in this story for some time now. Her father passed away recently from cancer, so she understands well the difficulties faced by patients, families and friends in such situations. She recognises the conflicting nature of the Burzynski situation: where patients’ freedom to choose knocks against the false hope on offer by the Burzynski Clinic. While patients should be free to choose, they and their families also need to be fully informed. This is not the situation at present. The information on offer by Burzynski is not the whole story. The press releases, glowing testimonials and documentary films are little more than advertisements. Information about side-effects, clinical trial results or negative results are much harder to come by. Patients, families and friends are not given the full story and instead are being told that critics are part of an organised conspiracy to silence Burzynski because he represents a threat to the special interests involved in the “cancer industry”. Mainstream media is not helping, preferring the publication of uncritical pieces rather than examining the many legitimate concerns of those who see another side to Burzynski. Thus, they are helping the marketing of Burzynski to a wider audience.

Jen had words of advice to those who might criticise patient support groups – “Be Kind”. While sceptics can and should be forthright in their concerns, little is achieved through ridicule, insults and insensitive comments on the Internet, of which there are many examples on all sides. The people who are fundraising and trying to help are usually doing it for the best of reasons. Unfortunately in this case they have been badly informed, and the responsibility for this falls at the feet of the Burzynski clinic.

There are many resources available, putting forward the position of prominent scientists, oncologists and skeptics in this area. David Gorski has been blogging about Burzynski for a number of years, as have Orac and Andy Lewis among others. A website, thehoustoncancerquack.com is fundraising to raise awareness of Burzynski’s activities, while simultaneously helping cancer patients in St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital.

This was a powerful, well researched talk. We’re looking forward in having Jen back in Cork at a future date.

Celebrities and Science 2012

Every Christmas, Sense about Science reviews some of the more extraordinary statements by celebrities in the past year. This year was no exception, with dried placenta pills being suggested as a mineral supplement, ground coffee beans as a treatment for cellulite and compressed oxygen to help slow down the ageing process. Is this the reason why “celebrity” and “credulity” sound so much alike?

GM Foods – a change of heart.

For years, Mark Lynas has been to the fore in the campaign against genetically modified foods. In a recent lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference he outlined a very different vision – one where GM foods could be part of the solution, rather than a problem to be eliminated. It’s a great talk, definitely worth a listen.

Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories

Following on from the terrible shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut in December, a number of websites have sprung up claiming that the event was a conspiracy designed to part Americans from their guns. Some people have been targeted as “crisis actors”, while parents have been accused of not expressing “proper levels of grief”. They’ve produced a video about it – such is the level of insanity in parts of the conspiracy community.

Homeopathic Vaccines

The BBC’s Inside Out programme reported that Ainsworths, a homeopathy supplier in the UK, has been recommending homeopathic vaccines as an alternative to vaccines that inoculate against Measles, Rubella and Whooping Cough among other illnesses. Whooping Cough (Pertussis) and Measles are experiencing something of a resurgence in Ireland due to lowered vaccination rates.

The 12 Cognitive Biases that prevent us from being rational

The website io9 published an interesting article on 12 common faults in our hardwiring that make us prone to making huge errors in judgement. Errors include Ingroup Bias, Post-Purchase Rationalisation, Observational Selection Bias and Neglecting Probability. These biases help us to understand why rigour is required in science. Simple observation and anecdote does not guard against bias, so when it comes to the critical questions we need a greater standard of observation and analysis.


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January Skeptics In The Castle: Jennifer Keane Examines the Burzynski Clinic & Its Purported Cure For Cancer

burzynski_cancer_poster_ruff

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 19th January at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm.

This talk by Jennifer Keane will examine the Burzynski Clinic and its purported side-effect free cure for cancer. Jen has kindly supplied the following summary of her talk:

Stanislaw Burzynski has a cheap, effective, and side-effect free cure for cancer, and the FDA don’t want you to know about it. For over 30 years, Burzynski claims he has treated cancer patients who had no other options, and given them back their lives. In the past, most of Burzynski’s patients have been in America, though recently, a surge of celebrity-led publicity surrounding some UK patients and their fundraising efforts means that Burzynski has well and truly crossed the pond. Increasing numbers of UK, and now Irish patients are signing up for treatment, and while some patients are claiming shrinking or disappearing brain tumours, many more seem a lot further from success.

In this talk, I hope to shine a critical light on Burzynski’s treatment, the financial burden that it represents for those who sign up for it, and whether or not he is really offering a cure, or just expensive false hope.

About the speaker: Jen became interested in scepticism and science investigation while in college, when a group project on clinical trials ended up highlighting the problems with trials, and the inconsistency in their quality, execution, etc. The group project sparked an enduring interest in clinical trials, and science communication, which would ultimately culminate in her winning the Whittaker Award, twice consecutively, for talks on the TGN1412 clinical trials, and on biofuels. She graduated from NUI Maynooth with a double honours degree in Biology and Computer Science, and is currently pursuing a MSc with the Open University.

Jen blogs and tweets as Zenbuffy, and began writing about about science and scepticism in 2009, and has covered topics such as homoeopathy, psychics, miracle cures, and science reporting, to name but a few. Though always an area of interest, her father’s battle with cancer has made the area of cancer cures and quackery a particularly important one for her.

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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Witch hunts, the demise of UFOlogy, earthquake prediction and ash die-back – our roundup for November

Witch Trials in Ireland

At our November meeting, we were delighted to host a Skype call from Dr. Andrew Sneddon of the University of Ulster. He gave us a fascinating talk on witch-hunting and witch-trials in Ireland. Although witch-hunting was nowhere near as widespread in Ireland as it was in Scotland and parts of central Europe, there were a number of celebrated cases in Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The best documented case in Ireland was the Islandmagee witch trials in Co. Down in 1711. Eight women were put on trial and subsequently subjected to imprisonment and public pillorying. Andrew discussed the background to the case, and gave us an understanding of the mind-sets and motivations of the accusers.

Because of the legal framework in Ireland and England and a lack of solid evidence, it was never easy to convict people of witchcraft in these countries. By the mid 18th century, trials for witchcraft had effectively died out. Widespread belief in witches persisted well into the 19th century in many parts of Europe and America, however. Dr. Sneddon asserts that the belief in fairies in Ireland took precedence over witchcraft, and as a result it never became quite as ingrained in the public psyche as it did in other regions.

Andrew gave us a fascinating talk. His forthcoming book on Irish witches and witch trials will be published in the summer of 2013.

Man Finds His Doppelgänger In A 16Th Century Italian Painting

Doppelgänger lore holds that an exact simile of an person can exist, and is capable of evil or mischievous deeds, often unbeknownst to the original person.

Max Galluppo got quite a shock when he discovered his “doppelgänger” in a painting while walking through the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The area that the painting is from in Italy, that area is actually where my grandparents are from. I might check out Ancestry.com to see if there’s a relationship,” Galuppo commented.

http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/11/16th-century-lookalike/

“UFOs” In Denver

Fox News in Denver have serious egg on their face after publishing a news report claiming strange UFO activity in the vicinity of the city. The report claimed that numerous fast moving objects were seen on camera, confounding an aviation expert who could not establish what they were.

Numerous commenters, including a group of local paranormal research enthusiasts, were able to clarify what the “objects” really were: insects flying close to the camera lens.

The news report itself is hugely entertaining, demonstrating the power of belief over more conventional explanations.

http://doubtfulnews.com/2012/11/denver-ufos-bugs-outsmart-aviation-expert/

Is the End in Sight For UFOlogy?

Over the past few years, people who investigate the existence of UFOs have become increasingly frustrated by the predominance of false sightings and conspiracy related ideologies in their area of study. Coupled with this is an overall decline in UFO sightings, with the best documented cases having taken place many decades ago. This has lead some prominent researchers to conclude that the field is now in terminal decline and that there is no strong case for the presence of UFOs.

http://www.channel4.com/news/soul-searching-for-ufo-watchers-after-a-decline-in-sightings

Italian Earthquake Scientists Convicted for Not Communicating Risk

A number of scientists in Italy were found guilty of miscommunication after having made statements to the effect that people should not be too worried about earthquakes in an area that subsequently suffered a large and devastating earthquake in 2009. This ruling has prompted outrage in the scientific community, which sees it as hampering how scientific findings can be communicated to the public. Earthquakes are notoriously unpredictable, and it appears to be a case of an angry populace determined to find someone responsible, no matter what. The judgement is being appealed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/23/italian-scientist-earthquake-condemns-court?newsfeed=true

Homeopathy For Ash Tree Dieback

Hot on the heels of a an article that claimed that homeopathy could help to resolve domestic violence comes another article that advises the use of homeopathy to cure Ash Dieback, a disease afflicting trees all over mainland Europe. Instead of diverting money into anti-fungal treatment, they have come up with a novel cure: water. How could our scientific community have not thought of this? The scoundrels.

http://safe-medicine.blogspot.ie/2012/11/ash-tree-die-back-can-homeopathy-help.html

Two years!

We have just celebrated our second anniversary as a skeptics club in Cork, with (more or less) regular monthly meetings in Blackrock Castle. Our big thanks to Clair, Dee and all the staff of CIT Blackrock Castle over the past two years. It’s been a lot of fun, not to mention deeply fascinating to hear speakers from everything from body part ownership to ghosts and Scientology. We’ve already got a number of great talks lined up over the coming months. Watch this space!


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Pointing Fingers: A History & Analysis of Ireland’s Last Witchcraft Trial with Dr Andrew Sneddon

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 17th November at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by Dr. Andrew Sneddon, lecturer in International History at the University of Ulster.

This talk will re-examine Ireland’s last prosecution for witchcraft at Carrickfergus Assize Court in Co. Antrim in March 1711. It will explore the reasons why eight women found themselves in the dock accused of causing the possession, by means of witchcraft, of a young woman, Mary Dunbar. It will also explore why, in a period of increasing scepticism towards ‘proving’ the crime of witchcraft all over Europe, the women were found guilty under the sixteenth-century, Irish Witchcraft Act. This will all be placed in its theological, intellectual and legal context by exploring the European ‘witch-craze’ of the early modern period.

About the speaker: Dr Andrew Sneddon is lecturer in history at the University of Ulster, specialising in social and intellectual history, exploring through this the religious, legal, medical, and ‘supernatural’ histories of Britain, Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Europe. He has published widely in these fields and in 2008 published a biography of the sceptical witchcraft theorist and bishop of Down and Connor, Francis Hutchinson (1660-1739). He is currently writing an account of the Islandmagee trial, to be published in early 2013 and entitled, Possessed by the Devil, as well as a tome that will explore witchcraft and magic in Ireland, 1586-1949, which is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.

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!