Cork Skeptics

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


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Skeptics in the Castle – We’re Talking Wine!

We are letting our hair down and popping open the bottles for our meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle on Saturday 10th of December.  Blake Creedon from the Irish Examiner will be talking about a subject close to all our hearts: wine

Does wine make you live longer? Does it make your healthier? Does the temperature matter? Does swirling the wine around make the difference? Is it the grapes or are our minds playing tricks on us? How much should we trust the wine experts? What do wine myths tell us about similar products?

Blake Creedon, avowed wine fan and columnist with the Irish Examiner, is a man on a mission. In a wide ranging discussion, he will debunk memes and media stories about wine, and highlight an empirical study that casts doubt on every health claim ever made on behalf of wine. He’ll also outline why wine fans should be skeptical of sideline commentators such as himself.

Thankfully, it won’t be all talk. Blake will back up this suggested skeptical approach with a printout providing a chart of the most popular myths about wine, links to useful scientific studies, eye-watering evidence of how distorted our perceptions really are, and – in a comedy corner – some of the frankly outrageous claims made on behalf of purportedly magickal wine products.

Bring your own wine and enjoy a fun tasting session and stargazing in Blackrock Castle with some suggestions on how to set your taste buds free! Weather permitting, we will also be treated to a star gazing session in the grounds of the castle.

The talk will start at 8.00pm, on Saturday December 10th (please note that this is a change from our usual Friday night schedule). It is free to attend, and open to everyone over the age of 18. For directions to Blackrock Castle, see our Skeptics In The Castle information page.

We’re looking forward to seeing you there!


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Spooky Skeptics In The Castle! We Talk Ghosts, Ghouls and Monsters…

Ghost Hunters Inc. — Friday 21 October 2011

Halloween beckons, and Cork Skeptics is responding with a meeting of ghosts, spirits, monsters and the eerie world of the paranormal!

Guiding us through this arcane world are two experts on the subject: Hayley Stevens and Ash Pryce have cast a skeptical eye on many cases of strange hauntings. Their stories are often more interesting than the original tales themselves.

Also joining us is Patrick Fisher, president of our sister club YYJ Skeptics, from Victoria, Canada. Patrick will tell us about alleged cryptids such as Bigfoot and Cadborosaurus.

Patrick, Ash and Hayley will be joining us via Skype. It promises to be a fascinating meeting!

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The talk will start at 8.00pm on Friday 21st October, at 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. We hope to see you there!


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Skeptics In The Castle Returns! Mike Garde of Dialogue Ireland Talks Cults, Sects and the Religious Tapestry of Ireland.

We’re back after the summer break, and will host our first talk of the new season on Friday 16th September, at Blackrock Castle Observatory.

This talk is by Mike Garde of Dialogue Ireland, and is concerned with cults, sects and religion in modern Ireland. Mike will describe how he got involved in this area, and will recount his first-hand experiences with Scientology, the House of Prayer and Tony Quinn, among other topics.

The talk will start at 8.00pm, is free to attend, and all are welcome. For directions to Blackrock Castle, see our Skeptics In The Castle information page.

We hope to see you there!


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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 1: You can’t believe everything you hear

Being a critical thinker means looking at facts carefully, critically and logically. There is no person or place that can be a repository of all knowledge, no-one knows all the answers or even has all the facts. In light of this we need tools to examine claims, tools that can steer us in the right direction even if we know little about the subject until we can find more information about it. However, there are certain forms of bad arguments, poor reasoning and illogic that are easy to spot, no matter their surroundings.

When you come across a logical fallacy in conversation you should flag it with your skeptical Flag of Examination and examine its claims critically.

I’m going to split this subject up into small digestible pieces over my next few posts.

Recently intrepid members of Cork Skeptics went to the local Mind, Body, Spirit trade fair (more about this if you attend our session on Friday). It was ablaze with colour, and filled with people young and old, most of whom were pleasant, good-natured and keen to chat about their wares and very open to answering skeptical questions. It is easy to see why people are left with the impression that alternative therapies really work when they are assured face to face by earnest, sane, well-spoken adults that it does. We all assume that on the whole people are trying to be honest and truthful when they speak. So how do you spot problems when you know that the person telling you about is not deliberately trying to deceive you?

Probably the most striking thing about all festival for me was that whether the purveyors were selling crystals, readings, colours, scents or physical manipulations, there was one thing they all had in common. They all used anecdotes to convince buyers of the efficacy of their product. These are perhaps the most commonly used logical fallacies of all and are often used in complete innocence by people who sincerely believe that personal stories count as evidence.

Anecdotes are not evidence

Personal stories and testimonies get around. However, they do not constitute proof of anything by themselves.

This comes as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people. After all, even courts take evidence from witnesses. However, as any policeman or lawyer will tell you, eye-witness testimony is horribly unreliable. Even the sincerest witness can get things completely wrong; perhaps by accident, perhaps they were intentionally misled, sometimes simply because they have attached a meaning to an incident that just isn’t there.

The Selective Attention Test here provides an illustration of how people can miss the blindingly obvious once their attention has been directed elsewhere.

In the test in this video, viewers did not notice the gorilla at all because they had been asked to count the number of passes made by people in white shirts. It seems hard to believe, but there you go: the power of human observation (or lack thereof).

Read more about the Invisible Gorilla experiment here.

The best you can claim for a plethora of anecdotes seeming to support an argument is that it might be grounds for genuine investigation of the facts.

 

After-the-fact reasoning

One of the reasons why people so often think that an anecdote is convincing is because they make another common mistake. This involves taking the end result and then trying to backwards engineer a cause.

It is a leap of illogic that doesn’t bother to eliminate other possible causes before announcing that X must have caused, or be proof of Y.

Example:

I won the first two matches and I was wearing my red T-shirt. I lost the third match and I was wearing my white T-shirt. Therefore my red T-shirt must be lucky.

Or:

I went into hospital to have my appendix removed, and I put special healing crystals around my bed. Now I have recovered quickly from my surgery without any complications. Therefore, the crystals must have special healing powers.

In both examples other (more likely) contributing causes are completely discounted in favour of a pet theory.

In the case of alternative medicine the bulk of the favourable evidence offered as “proof” of efficacy tends to fall into these categories. Very often no real scientifically conducted double-blinded tests have yielded anything positive beyond placebo. This is not to say that all alt-med treatments cannot work, just that those with only anecdotes to bolster their claims they have not proved their case at all.

 

Further reading:

Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science

Steven Novella’s Neurologica

Science Based Medicine

Respectful Insolence