Cork Skeptics

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

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Where’s The Harm: Dr. Stephen Makin & Ben Makin of Edinburgh Skeptics Discuss Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine: Sat 14th July ay Blackrock Castle Observatory

On Saturday 14th July, Dr. Stephen Makin and Ben Makin of the Edinburgh Skeptics will deliver what promises to be a fascinating talk on the anecdotes and evidence surrounding alternative medicine. This talk will begin at 8.00pm at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory.

Ben Makin has tried a complete alphabet of traditional, complimentary and New Age treatments and practices. She will take us on a rapid tour of alternative and complimentary medicine, from Applied Kinesiology to Zen Buddhism, and ask “Where’s the harm?”

Dr Stephen Makin will reply, looking at the evidence and discussing cases where real harm has been done by alternative practices, and explaining why skeptics should continue to fight against quackery and cons.

Ben Makin was raised on goats’ milk and home-made wholemeal bread and started her working life at Culpepper’s the Herbalist; she now maintains the Edinburgh Skeptics website.

Stephen Makin was raised on soya milk and meditation, and ran away to Medical School to become a doctor. He is a Clinical Research Fellow in Stroke Medicine at Edinburgh University who spends too much time arguing with proponents of woo on the internet.


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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!




Skeptics In The Castle Double Bill! The Science of Misunderstanding and Sense About Science – November 26th 2011

The next meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle on Saturday 26th of November will be a double bill, with talks from Dr. Brian Hughes, of NUI Galway, and Síle Lane, of Sense About Science.

The Science of Misunderstanding: How Our Brains are Programmed to Make Mistakes.

For centuries it was believed that human reasoning was distinguished by logical thinking, clarity, and general accuracy. More recent studies have shown that human reasoning is in fact characterised by repeated mistakes, errors and wrongheadedness. It is argued that reasoning errors are often side-effects of otherwise useful mental shortcuts that have been used in the wrong way. While such concepts are useful, they do not quite explain how audiences often find bogus information to be much more attractive than accurate information. It may even be the case that our tendency to make frequent mistakes has given us a considerable evolutionary advantage. This talk will look at biological, evolutionary, and socio-cultural research on how our tendency to misunderstand can help us, both as individuals and as a society. We will also look at research which suggests some unexpectedly negative effects of enhanced logical reasoning, on both mental and physical health.

Our speaker, Dr. Brian Hughes, is the director for the Centre for Research on Occupational and Life Stress (CROLS) in NUI Galway. He is the author of The Science Bit blog, where he writes frequently about science, pseudoscience and scepticism. He holds Ph.D. and B.A. degrees in psychology from NUI Galway, and an Ed.M. degree in public science education from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He served as founding Head of the Psychology Department at Dublin Business School and as President of the Psychological Society of Ireland (2004-2005).

The Ask for Evidence Campaign

Sense About Science is a UK charity that works with scientists, the public and the media to challenge misinformation, whether about the age of the earth, the causes of cancer, wifi radiation or homeopathy for malaria. This is often very effective but no sooner is attention turned elsewhere than misleading claims creep back up again. Sense about Science run campaigns and produce documents to help equip people to make sense of evidence themselves, but to make a permanent difference, they need more members of the public to be evidence hunters. That’s why they launched a national campaign, Ask for Evidence, to encourage consumers, voters and patients to scrutinise every claim they see and to give people who come across dubious scientific claims somewhere to go with their questions. Organisations that seek to persuade people to try treatments or cures should expect questions about their evidence.

Cork native, Síle Lane is Campaigns Manager at Sense About Science. She joined Sense About Science in February 2009 from a career in stem cell research. Síle works with regulatory bodies, civic society organisations, patient groups, medical research charities, the media and policy makers in the UK to ensure the public always has access to the best science and evidence. Since June 2009 Síle has run the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign which this year led to the UK Government bringing forward legislation to reform the libel laws to protect scientific and medical discussion. Síle became Campaigns Manager in 2011 and is developing a new dedicated campaigns unit to popularise our approach to standing up for science, including launching a national campaign to Ask for evidence.

The talk will start at 8.00pm, on Saturday November 26th (please note that this is a change from our usual Friday night schedule). 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!


The Common Sense Fallacy

“What do you mean? It makes total sense!”

“How do I know? It’s obvious! Even a child could understand it.”

One of the most common logical fallacies around is when people wish to persuade you of a fact by logic alone. The argument usually goes like this: in order to convince you of their point of view, they will tell you that their argument makes sense: and that this, on its own, is enough for it to be true. Here are some examples:-

George W Bush and some of his key aides were not in Washington at the time of 9/11. Some people believe that this is evidence of a government conspiracy, as it would have made sense for him to be as far away from the atrocities as possible.

The numbers 5,15,26,34, 35 and 43 are going to come up in the lottery because they have not appeared in any winning tickets for ages. It makes sense to pick these numbers because they are more likely to be coming up soon.

Poison Ivy causes a bad rash upon contact, so based on the homeopathic principle of “like cures like”, it makes sense that it should cure skin rashes.

Reality is smarter than you are

All of these ideas, at least superficially, seem to be based on logic; but logic on its own is not enough. The premises, or assumptions, need to be true too. In many cases, the premises can be hidden or not fully understood – even by the greatest experts on the subject. Throughout history, people have made statements of fact without understanding everything about the phenomenon, with bizarre results. Thus, it was possible to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around the Earth: it made sense because the Earth was assumed to be the centre of the universe. Doctors indulged in bloodletting because it made sense that illness was cause by fluid imbalances.

So, how can we move forward when all we have is logic and we don’t fully understand the premises? Fortunately, there is a hack. We can test it against reality. We can perform an experiment to see what actually happens or we can analyse the available evidence. If we are wrong in our assumptions, reality should be able to tell us.

Michelson and Morley’s famous “failed experiment“, where they they tried unsuccessfully to prove that the speed of light would vary depending on the direction of motion of our planet, was a great example of reality being in dispute with the conventional wisdom of the day. By discovering that light had the same speed in all directions, they were able to show that the common sense of the time (i.e. that light needed a medium – aether – in which to propagate) was demonstrably wrong. Other forces, not then fully understood, were at play. Thousands of experiments like this have given rise to our current understanding of reality. They have often shown our universe to be very different to what common sense would have expected.

The nonsense claim doesn’t work either

Another aspect of the Common Sense Fallacy is the idea that if it does not appear to make sense, it cannot, therefore, be true*. Just as common sense, on its own, cannot be used to establish if something is true, neither can it be used, on its own, to dismiss a proposition out of hand. Creationists will invoke the ultimate 747 gambit to claim that evolution does not make sense (that it’s as unlikely to happen as if a tornado constructed an intact 747 capable of flying around the world) when the evidence (and logic) comprehensively attests to its truth. Some people will claim that global warming doesn’t make sense after experiencing a few cold winters. Quantum mechanics makes no sense at all, even to experts in the field, yet it can be tested with incredible accuracy each and every time.

If in doubt, test it out

Because reality can often confound even the greatest minds, common sense, on its own, is not a good indicator of the truth or falsity of a claim. When someone tries to convince you of the truth of a claim using an appeal as to how “sensible” it seems, be sceptical. To better substantiate a claim you need to be shown reliable evidence. Don’t be fooled. If in doubt, test it out.

* This fallacy is also known as the Argument from Ignorance.