Cork Skeptics

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


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The Nocebo Effect: A Talk by Keir Liddle of Edinburgh Skeptics

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 20th October, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by Keir Liddle of Edinburgh Skeptics, who will take a close look at the Nocebo Effect. Keir will join us from Scotland, via the sufficiently advanced technology* of Skype.

On the night, we will also have a short (live!) presentation from the editor of Walton Magazine, a new quarterly STEM publication based in Cork.

Most people are familiar with the placebo effect—where an inert substance appears to cause an improvement in a patient’s symptoms (or at least makes them believe things are getting better). But we may be less aware of it’s corollary, the nocebo effect.

In medicine, a nocebo reaction or response refers to harmful, unpleasant, or undesirable effects a subject manifests after receiving an inert dummy drug or placebo. Nocebo responses are not chemically generated and are due only to the subject’s pessimistic belief and expectation that the inert drug will produce negative consequences. In these cases, there is no “real” drug involved, but the actual negative consequences of the administration of the inert drug, which may be physiological, behavioural, emotional, and/or cognitive, are nonetheless real.

In this talk placebo and nocebo are explained and pitted against each other. Are they both real? How can we study nocebo effects? And what implications do nocebos have for modern clinical practice?

Keir Liddle is a PhD student at the University of Stirling, and on the Edinburgh Skeptics committee. He founded the longest free skeptical festival in the world (Skeptics On The Fringe) and has a longstanding interest in placebos, nocebos and their implications. In this talk he draws on recent and past research into nocebo effects to argue that they are really a lot more important than anyone seems to give them credit for.

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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Identifying “baloney” in everyday life

We are beset, these days, with people making claims about products, services and viewpoints that have little or no scientific backing or evidence. Websites, advertisements and magazine articles sometimes contain extravagant claims about products and services that are guaranteed to change your life, make you rich, or provide therapies that are beyond the means of modern medicine. Often, clever persuasion techniques are used that sound convincing at first sight, but which do not make much logical sense on closer inspection. These techniques are called “Logical Fallacies”: flawed arguments used to persuade the unwary. Logical fallacies are often used simply to distract people away from a more rigorous examination of a claim. The following are some logical fallacies in common use.

Appeals to Emotion: Emotional appeals are the mainstay of many baloney merchants. By linking their ideas with pleasant, soothing imagery, or associating their opponents’ ideas with disgusting or threatening pictures, the expectation is that the reader is will be persuaded to accept the proponent’s point of view. There are many examples of this, particularly when the topic is a “hot button” one, such as abortion, childhood vaccinations, vivisection, climate change or nuclear power. Appeals to emotion are used throughout the advertising industry as a means to associate products with well-being and health.

Appeals to Celebrity: A key strategy among many advertisers of nonsense is to associate their products with well known personalities, both living and dead. A testimonial or photo-opportunity with a celebrity is hugely desirable, but where this is not possible, it can be just as effective to insert an image of Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi or a famous hollywood film star. Celebrities have huge public appeal and can drive enormous interest in products and services. They are rarely experts, however, and are prone to the same biases and mistakes as the rest of us. A celebrity endorsement does not necessarily indicate that a product or service is any good.

“Magic” words: Seemingly scientific words regularly appear in the the literature and websites of nonsense pedlars. These words include “vibrations”, “energy”, “life-force”, “quantum”, “magnetic” and “psychic”. While they are meant to convey a sense of how their procedures work, they are usually used in contexts that make no sense from a scientific perspective. Energy, magnetism, vibrations and quantum have very specific meanings for scientists. They are often used inappropriately when applied to the many healing or therapeutic solutions on offer in the mainstream media. Instead, the words are a short-hand for magic: a word used to describe the inexplicable.

Too Good To Be True: Some claims are breathtakingly sensational. According to some, a cure for all types of cancer is available right now, others promote get rich quick schemes, while yet others claim that free energy is in our grasp. These are extraordinary claims that sound almost too good to be true. While we would all like silver bullet solutions to our problems, the reality is often more difficult and complex. When great breakthroughs do take place, they come under heavy scrutiny and are surrounded by an enormous media fanfare, both positive and negative. In this context, claims by single proponents require extensive cross-checking and verification before they can ever be accepted. As the saying goes: “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”.

Black Or White: A Black Or White claim, also called a “false dilemma”, is one that limits alternative explanations to a very small number of possibilities, often just one or two. If a strange light is seen in the sky, it MUST be a UFO. If a strange object is seen on the road at night it MUST be a ghost. Other possible alternatives are not even mentioned. False dilemmas are also used to convince people of a viewpoint by presenting it as the only alternative to the mainstream view. An example is where homeopathy is promoted where normal medicines have significant side effects. Just because there are problems in mainstream medicine doesn’t mean that homeopathy is an effective alternative.

Conspiracy: Sometimes we hear proponents of strange claims make allegations about Big Medicine or government or a capitalist elite suppressing their ideas for their own nefarious purposes. While conspiracies do sometimes take place, it is almost trivially easy to resort to a conspiracy theory to explain a setback or an unforeseen circumstance. Other possibilities, such as misfortune, incompetence and indifference, are often more likely explanations.

None of these arguments, in themselves, can prove that a person is talking baloney. Indeed, worthwhile, serious ideas may also be supported by poor reasoning. However, if a proponent only uses logical fallacies to support their products or viewpoints, then you should be sceptical of the claims they are making.

This article appeared in the Cork Independent blog on 4 October 2012.


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The 15 Minute Baloney Detection Kit

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As part of Culture Night in Blackrock Castle this weekend, I talked about a number of techniques we all should be on the look out for when confronted with strange claims that don’t seem to make much sense. These techniques included strong emotional appeals, the use of celebrities, “magic” words, claims that seemed to be too good to be true, and the “black or white” fallacy, where only two options are presented even though other alternatives may exist. These are just some examples of what are called Logical Fallacies – you can find more fallacies discussed in the website below.

Click on the link to go to the Logical Fallacies website

I also spoke about the dangers of anecdotes and testimonials and why we can’t always rely on our memories or perceptions to explain what we might have witnessed. Finally, I contrasted scientific claims to baloney claims, outlining the hard work that has taken place to provide a reliable understanding of the world around us.

Further reading: 

The following books are worth a look if you are interested in finding out more about science and baloney.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) – Carol Tavris & Eliot Aronson

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

Trick or Treatment – Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst

The Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan

Flim Flam! – James Randi

Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer

Bad Astronomy – Philip Plait

Paranormality – Richard Wiseman

Internet Resources

The Skeptics’ Dictionary

Doubtful News

Skeptic Magazine

James Randi Educational Foundation

Snopes.com

Bad Astronomy

Podcasts

The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe

Skeptoid

Skeptics with a K

Skeprechauns

Videos

Storm (Tim Minchin)

The Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect

The Problem With Anecdotes


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Academic Freedom: A Talk by Dr. Tom Moore

Academic Freedom, In theory and In Practice: A Talk by Dr. Tom Moore

Our next meeting will take place on Saturday 22nd September, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by Dr. Tom Moore, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry at UCC, and will examine the topic of academic freedom.

Academic freedom encapsulates the idea that academics must be able to freely research and discuss controversial or politically unpopular ideas without suffering repression, job loss, or imprisonment. There is an extensive history of repression of academics for expressing unpopular ideas, for example in the former Soviet Union. In contrast, in the United States, freedom of speech is to some extent guaranteed under the First Amendment. The breadth of academic freedom may be subject to various constraints where it intersects with employment law, commercialisation, religious freedom, and social responsibility. In Ireland, the 1997 Universities Act provides a robust statement of academic freedom.

This talk will outline some key historical cases and discuss how the Irish approach to academic freedom performs in practice.

Dr. Tom Moore teaches and researches the genetics and physiology of embryonic development and human pregnancy. A veterinary surgeon by training, he did his PhD studies at the University of London and postdoctoral research in Cambridge, UK. He is currently a senior lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, UCC.

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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Curiosity, Faces in the Stump, Cancer Quackery and Kinesio Tape – Our Roundup for August

Many thanks again to Reg Murphy who gave us a great talk on modern art, its impact on the world, and some of the fascinating characters involved. Reg tackled an enormous subject and digested it down to a very clever, understandable reading of the subject.

We recorded the meeting on Google Plus, and a rough version is already on YouTube: It needs some straightening out, but we’ll have that video up on the website soon.

At yesterday night’s meeting we covered a few interesting stories from the last month. Here are some links for further reading.


Mars Curiosity landing

On August 5th, the Mars Science Laboratory(aka “Curiosity Rover”) landed on Mars. It is the largest object ever to land on Mars and the complexity of its landing was breathtaking. If you haven’t yet seen the “Seven Minutes of Terror” video, do it now.

The Curiosity project is an excellent example of the power of science. Had the project team made one incorrect assumption about the atmosphere and environment on Mars, Curiosity would now be a heap of scrap strewn over the red planet. Science doesn’t know everything, but what it does know is pretty damn cool.


Stumped

Another example of pareidolia, where our minds see familiar patterns where none exist: a face of Jesus was seen in a tree stump in a cemetery in Belfast. Our friends in Belfast Skeptics have a brilliant take-down and some further examples of pareidolia.


Cancer Quackery in the Indo

A health supplement in the Irish Independent had the Internet up in arms on Thursday. Once of the stories related to a man who believes that he could use dowsing to identify and ward against cancer. Brendan Murphy from “Positive Energy” says that a phenomenon known as “geopathic stress” can impact on your susceptibility to cancer. According to a blurb on Murphy’s website:

Geopathic Stress is mainly caused by narrow paths of water about 200 – 300 ft (60 – 90 meters) below ground (also on top of mountains). The narrow water path creates an electromagnetic field, which distorts the earth’s natural vibrations, as these pass through the water. It is in particular the 7.83Hz (cycles per second) which are beneficiary and which we have lived with for millions of years. This is also the optimum part of the Schumann waves and Alpha vibrations. It has been confirmed by NASA the 7.83 Hz vibrations are incorporated into spacecrafts, otherwise the astronauts could only live in space a short time. Certain mineral concentrations, fault lines, moving underground plateaux and underground cavities can also disturb the natural earth vibrations. Strong Geopathic Stress can cause the body’s vibrations to rise as high as 250Hz. The U.S. scientist George Lakowsky confirmed in the thirties that humans (as well as animals) have less chance of fighting bacteria, viruses and parasites above 180 Hz, so they love humans and animals that vibrate at high levels.

What the what now?  NASA you say? Vibrating parasites? Pseudo-scientific nonsense wrapped up in scientific sounding language, you say? Well I never… The problem with promoting cancer quackery such as this is that it preys on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, diverting them from proper medical care, to (in this case) a guy with a pair of coat hangers. It would be funny if it were not for the stuff he claims to be able to treat.


Head kicking for Jesus

Back to Northern Ireland, a preacher by the name of Todd Bentley is planning to visit Portadownnext month. Bentley also claims he has a cure for ailments such as cancer. Yes, you got it: a good kicking. We’re pretty sure Bentley is just a cheezy showman with a mouth the size of a football pitch, but UK MPs are being lobbied to ban him from visiting just in case he gets the urge to kick a few sick people on the side. Here are some samples of his live performances:


Colour Me Stupid

Many people have commented on the brightly coloured tape attached to the skin of Olympic athletes during London 2012. It turns out that this is Kinesio Tape: magic bandages for gullible athletes. Kinesio tape has a long history, originating from a Japanese chiropractor in the 1970’s. What it doesn’t have is much proof to support the claims that are being made. And so it goes: goodbye Power Balance wristbands, hello Kinesio tape. There’s a lucrative industry in bilking sports people with magic rubbish.


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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!