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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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