Cork Skeptics

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


1 Comment

The Baloney Detection Kit – Further Reading

BDK_CultureNight_2015_800px

Colm here! I think I must have spoken to over 200 people last night over the 4 hours. Thanks to everyone for coming along. I hope you found it interesting.

Attached are some links for further reading:

Logical Fallacies

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 22.16.26

A core skill in critical thinking is identifying logical fallacies when they occur. Logical fallacies are poor arguments that are used to convince people of your point of view. You might be telling the truth, but such arguments, by themselves, will not make your viewpoint true. They often serve only to mislead others or to allow emotions to override your sense of reason. The website “Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies” gives an introduction to the most common fallacies. A more in-depth description can be found at logicalfallacies.info.

Human Biases

Our brains, while remarkable, contain pretty serious flaws that affect how we absorb experiences, process information and remember things accurately. Optical Illusions show that our brains can see crooked lines lines when lines are straight, or moving images when the same pictures are static. Memories are malleable, while critical information is filtered out while other aspects gain far more prominence than they deserve. Three books / e-books are worthwhile reading to understand how badly our brains work:

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 21.13.47

You Are Not So Smart, by David Mc Raney covers all the ways our brain gets it wrong. There is also a website and a podcast.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Carol Tavris, talks about Cognitive Dissonance, and what happens when people have to reconcile two opposing concepts in their heads at the same time.

Paranormality, by Prof. Richard Wiseman, is an entertaining introduction to the reasons why people report anomalous experiences such as UFO’s, ghosts and strange creatures.

Medical Websites

If someone is guiding you towards YouTube or Facebook or an unknown site for medical information, the chances are you are being hoodwinked. The following sites will give you better information that is in line with the best medical knowledge. Remember, if in doubt, talk to your doctor.

Mayo Clinic (USA)

Centers for Disease Control (USA)

World Heath Organisation (WHO)

WebMD

HSE (Ireland)

NHS (UK)

Alternative Medicine (“alt-med”) refers to practices and concoctions that have either not been proven medically effective, or have been proven to be not medically effective for various health conditions. Typically, if there is an evidence base, it becomes part of the medical corpus. For this reason, alt-med requires a considerable degree of scepticism. For some excellent discussions on Alternative Medicine, the website Science Based Medicine is well worth checking out.

Particularly bad sources of medical information are Natural News, Mercola.com, Infowars, Age of Autism and Foodbabe. All of them are sensationalist conspiracy mongering sites run by motivated fanatics whose primary aim is to inspire fear and distrust in people for their own financial advantage. Avoid at all costs.

Other Useful Websites

If you come across a suspect or “too good to be true” claim on Facebook, there is a good chance that Snopes.com has the inside story on it. It’s well worth checking out.

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 22.13.14

Sense about Science is a UK charity designed to communicate science to the public, particularly where there is a considerable degree of controversy in the media about the science. It aims to communicate the facts around topics such as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s), Nuclear Power, Climate Change, Vaccines, Antibiotics and other subjects in a clear and understandable way. They have pioneered the Ask For Evidence campaign, and for teachers, they have recently published a lesson plan to teach core critical thinking in schools.

In Conclusion

All that remains is for me to thank Blackrock Castle as always for all the help, and my comrade in arms, Alan B, for his truly excellent posters.

Advertisements


1 Comment

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.