Cork Skeptics

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


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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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CRUISE CONTROL: Ex-Scientologist John Duignan Recounts His 22 Years in the “Cult to the Stars”

Our next meeting will take place on Friday 25th May, at Blackrock Castle Observatory, starting at 8.00pm. The talk is by John Duignan, ex-Scientologist and author of The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology.

About The Speaker: John Duignan (born 1963) grew up in both Stirling in Scotland and in Carrigaline County Cork. He had a difficult and troubled childhood thanks in part to a mentally ill father, an ill and abused mother and the chaotic home life that resulted.

Following the untimely death of his parents in 1974, he and his siblings were fostered by family members on his mother’s side in both County Cork and Wicklow. He left school at the age of 17 and joined an American Christian Evangelical drama group and spent three years traveling Europe and North America forwarding this unique brand of Christian ministry. In 1983, he was operating a branch of this ministry in Vancouver Canada and came to see that much of the Christian message simply did not add up. He moved to Halifax Nova Scotia to live with a group of atheist humanists and to work on an old North German built schooner. About a year later, he found himself in Stuttgart, Germany and during a period of dark depression was recruited by The Church of Scientology.

In 2008 he wrote and published The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology. In this non-fiction book he describes his 22 years in the organization and his eventual awaking partly as a result of attending an event where actor and Scientologist Tom Cruise was given the award of “Most Dedicated Follower”. Duignan began to examine the organization more closely and had doubts about remaining. He left the organization in 2006, after taking measures to avoid investigation by Scientology’s intelligence agency the Office of Special Affairs.

The Church of Scientology responded to the publication of The Complex by sending legal letters to several bookstore retailers that were selling the book, claiming the book contains libelous statements about a member of the organization. His publisher Merlin Publishing, “emphatically denied” these allegations, and an editorial director at the publishing company called Scientology’s claim “vexatious”. The United Kingdom branch of Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, stopped selling copies of the book after receiving legal letters from the Church of Scientology through internationally feared libel firm, Carter Ruck; booksellers Waterstone’s and W H Smith and Borders Books were “warned off” selling the book as well. However the book remained in broad publication here in Ireland and has been stocked in all Irish retailers for a number of years.

Following the publishing of The Complex, John returned to education completing a BA in English and Italian Literature and Italian language at University College Cork.

John counts Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell and A.S. Byatt among his most important intellectual influences. He no longer considers himself to be a religious person.

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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!