Cork Skeptics

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


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Believe ET Or Not

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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.


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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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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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No. It’s not a UFO.

Halloween is on its way and the usual reports of strange lights in the sky will inevitably start to surface. If you see eerie orange lights above the city on the run up to Monday night, it is likely that you will be seeing Chinese Lanterns.

Here’s a video  from Poznán, Poland, showing many hundreds of Chinese Lanterns being launched into the sky.


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A little bit of UFO debunking

Just before our last Cork Skeptics meeting, a good friend of mine showed me the following photograph, apparently taken by astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle mission STS-37 in 1991. It purports to show a circular orb near the Earth’s horizon. I thought it might be the Moon, but it looked odd. I didn’t pass much comment on it at the time, but I decided to look into it a bit later, to see what I could find.

Upon beginning my research, I quickly discovered photos of a similar anomaly on a completely different shuttle mission, this time in a picture taken during an STS 51A space walk in 1984. The strange object here is the one at the top right hand of the picture (the large object, with an astronaut hanging off it at the bottom, is a satellite).

So, what was going on?

Discovering a rational explanation for photos such as this can be hard work. No matter what you type into Google – “UFO debunking”, “UFO explained” or “UFO skeptic” – the results invariably return pages upon pages of UFO believer websites.

Eventually, I discovered a discussion about it on a forum at Randi.org. The whole phenomenon quickly fell into place.

First of all, there is a video of the STS-51A mission shown below. If you play the video from the 10 minute 30 second point, you will see it soon afterwards.

Just a water droplet. Interestingly, not even noted by the editors of the video as anything particularly remarkable.

There is also a video of the first encounter from STS-37.

Just before the object arrives around the 25 second mark, there is a distinct camera movement. The phenomenon is clearly associated with something inside the spacecraft, and not outside it.

Again, it’s just a water droplet on the window as the field of view is adjusted. Note that the upside down refractions are entirely consistent with what you would expect from a droplet.

What this little example shows is how true believers and sceptics differ in their approaches. A sceptic, when presented with a “evidence” of an interesting oddity, will first try to identify natural or simple explanations that might account for the anomaly. A true believer wants to immediately accept the anomaly as cast-iron evidence of alien spacecraft and if challenged on it, will attempt to prove why a more obvious explanation won’t work. It can be quite entertaining watching how they do this and what rationalisations are provided. The arguments, inevitably, are not about strange spacecraft and alien intelligences, but about mundane things like the existence or origin of burned grass, raindrops and random specks on film.

Examples of good UFO debunking websites include Forgetomori, BadUFOs, and Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog.


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There’s a Dragon in my Garage! A talk by Dr. Niall Smith

I have a dragon in my garage. It’s an amazing fire-breathing, flying, immortal dragon. Amazing—except, of course, I’m the only one who can see it and no experiment that any of my friends devise are capable of detecting the dragon …

In this talk, Dr. Niall Smith will look at the importance of experiments in supporting claims that have been made, and continue to be made, in a wide range of areas, from UFO abductions to the claimed hyper-expansion phase of the early universe. How much should we “believe” claims that appear to defy the laws of the universe as we currently understand them? Are there actually times when the experiments we perform result in outputs that are so bizarre that we’d be right to be skeptical – and yet the experiments are reproducible and apparently true? Niall will demonstrate one such experiment—simple to perform, yet still a mystery after over 150 years of study…

About the speaker: Dr. Niall Smith received his PhD from UCD in the area of astrophysics in 1990. Since then he has maintained an active research group (currently at Blackrock Castle Observatory) that develops new techniques to support research into surveys for extrasolar planets and surveys of quasars (the most powerful continuously-emitting objects in the universe).

Niall is also a founder member of BCO and a passionate believer in the importance of quality science education. He is presently the Head of Research at CIT and chair of the Institute’s Research & Development Committee. Niall has 22 publications in international journals, a book chapter on astrophysical photometry, is a member of the National Committee for Astronomy and Space Science and also the International Astronomical Union.

The talk will begin at 8pm on Friday April 15th, in Blackrock Castle Observatory. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend. Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.


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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