Cork Skeptics

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


Witch hunts, the demise of UFOlogy, earthquake prediction and ash die-back – our roundup for November

Witch Trials in Ireland

At our November meeting, we were delighted to host a Skype call from Dr. Andrew Sneddon of the University of Ulster. He gave us a fascinating talk on witch-hunting and witch-trials in Ireland. Although witch-hunting was nowhere near as widespread in Ireland as it was in Scotland and parts of central Europe, there were a number of celebrated cases in Ireland during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The best documented case in Ireland was the Islandmagee witch trials in Co. Down in 1711. Eight women were put on trial and subsequently subjected to imprisonment and public pillorying. Andrew discussed the background to the case, and gave us an understanding of the mind-sets and motivations of the accusers.

Because of the legal framework in Ireland and England and a lack of solid evidence, it was never easy to convict people of witchcraft in these countries. By the mid 18th century, trials for witchcraft had effectively died out. Widespread belief in witches persisted well into the 19th century in many parts of Europe and America, however. Dr. Sneddon asserts that the belief in fairies in Ireland took precedence over witchcraft, and as a result it never became quite as ingrained in the public psyche as it did in other regions.

Andrew gave us a fascinating talk. His forthcoming book on Irish witches and witch trials will be published in the summer of 2013.

Man Finds His Doppelgänger In A 16Th Century Italian Painting

Doppelgänger lore holds that an exact simile of an person can exist, and is capable of evil or mischievous deeds, often unbeknownst to the original person.

Max Galluppo got quite a shock when he discovered his “doppelgänger” in a painting while walking through the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“The area that the painting is from in Italy, that area is actually where my grandparents are from. I might check out to see if there’s a relationship,” Galuppo commented.

“UFOs” In Denver

Fox News in Denver have serious egg on their face after publishing a news report claiming strange UFO activity in the vicinity of the city. The report claimed that numerous fast moving objects were seen on camera, confounding an aviation expert who could not establish what they were.

Numerous commenters, including a group of local paranormal research enthusiasts, were able to clarify what the “objects” really were: insects flying close to the camera lens.

The news report itself is hugely entertaining, demonstrating the power of belief over more conventional explanations.

Is the End in Sight For UFOlogy?

Over the past few years, people who investigate the existence of UFOs have become increasingly frustrated by the predominance of false sightings and conspiracy related ideologies in their area of study. Coupled with this is an overall decline in UFO sightings, with the best documented cases having taken place many decades ago. This has lead some prominent researchers to conclude that the field is now in terminal decline and that there is no strong case for the presence of UFOs.

Italian Earthquake Scientists Convicted for Not Communicating Risk

A number of scientists in Italy were found guilty of miscommunication after having made statements to the effect that people should not be too worried about earthquakes in an area that subsequently suffered a large and devastating earthquake in 2009. This ruling has prompted outrage in the scientific community, which sees it as hampering how scientific findings can be communicated to the public. Earthquakes are notoriously unpredictable, and it appears to be a case of an angry populace determined to find someone responsible, no matter what. The judgement is being appealed.

Homeopathy For Ash Tree Dieback

Hot on the heels of a an article that claimed that homeopathy could help to resolve domestic violence comes another article that advises the use of homeopathy to cure Ash Dieback, a disease afflicting trees all over mainland Europe. Instead of diverting money into anti-fungal treatment, they have come up with a novel cure: water. How could our scientific community have not thought of this? The scoundrels.

Two years!

We have just celebrated our second anniversary as a skeptics club in Cork, with (more or less) regular monthly meetings in Blackrock Castle. Our big thanks to Clair, Dee and all the staff of CIT Blackrock Castle over the past two years. It’s been a lot of fun, not to mention deeply fascinating to hear speakers from everything from body part ownership to ghosts and Scientology. We’ve already got a number of great talks lined up over the coming months. Watch this space!


1 Comment

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