Cork Skeptics

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


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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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Alternative medicine – good skeptical reading

In their talk on Saturday, Steve and Ben mentioned a number of books that are worth a read if you are interested in finding more about the research behind alternative medicine. Here are some of the books mentioned. Direct links to Eason’s and Amazon are provided if you are interested in purchasing these books or e-books directly.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

This excellent book exposes poor and unscientific practices, no matter where they are to be found. Ben Goldacre pulls no punches and spreads his net very widely indeed. His targets include the cosmetics industry, homeopaths and quacks of all sorts, pharmaceutical companies, and so-called TV “experts” such as Gillian McKeith. It’s an excellent primer on how to distinguish the best medical practice from the worst.

Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst

 Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst consider the claims of alternative medicine from a scientific perspective, looking at the studies that have been performed on many well known alternative therapeutic practices such as chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine.

Autism’s False Prophets by Paul Offit

Paul A. Offit, a national expert on vaccines, challenges the modern-day false prophets who have so egregiously misled the public and exposes the opportunism of the lawyers, journalists, celebrities, and politicians who support them. Offit recounts the history of autism research and the exploitation of this tragic condition by advocates and zealots.

Deadly Choices by Paul Offit

In “Deadly Choices,” infectious-disease expert Paul Offit takes a look behind the curtain of the anti-vaccine movement. What he finds is a reminder of the power of scientific knowledge, and the harm we risk if we ignore it.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

This terrific book opens the lid on self-deception and cognitive dissonance: how we are hard-wired to justify our decisions and actions, even when it is plainly obvious to others that they were wrong, misconceived and sometimes malevolent.

Please let us know if you know of other books and we will take a look. We hope to do a book swap for books that are worth reading at forthcoming Cork Skeptics meetings, so please bring along your favourite books to our next meeting and feel free to take another one in return!

If you have other suggested titles, we will publish more reading suggestions soon.


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A Good Place to Start

Tomes on science and critical thinking are not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. But anyone who is interested in separating fact from fiction, or simply interested in knowing more about the universe around us is going to notice that there are certain subjects that keep cropping up: the Big Bang, evolution, cosmology, geology, relativity, Quantum Theory, gravity. For many of us though, these weighty subjects can be daunting and even overwhelming. However, help can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

Most people have heard of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, even if they do not enjoy comical fantasy themselves. Stories set in a highly fantastical world of magic, wizards and simian Librarians would not appear to be the place to go if you would like to learn the basics about planets, placental mammals and the Pleistocene. But Pratchett has teamed up with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen and produced a trilogy called The Science of Discworld that does exactly that.

The Science of Discworld

This story is Discworld with a bit of a difference. The wizards at the Unseen University are mucking about with world-building, aided by Hex the ant-based computer. Only this world turns out to be nothing at all like they’ve seen, based on physics rather than narrativium. Chapters featuring well-loved characters from the Discworld are interlaced with chapters explaining the science behind the story, and thus the enticing journey into cosmology, particle physics and evolution is begun.

One of the great strengths of the trilogy is however light-hearted the fiction part of the book may be, the authors take their readers seriously and treat them as an intelligent audience. The science is explained clearly and carefully without dumbing it down and common misunderstandings of science are highlighted and explored. This is an invaluable primer that spans the range of natural science and explains some of the universe’s greatest mysteries and humanity’s greatest quest to make sense of it all with insight, learning and humour.

These are probably the most accessible science books I’ve ever read, and will leave you scientifically literate and confident to take on other more specialised books.