Cork Skeptics

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The Baloney Detection Kit • A Talk by Colm Ryan

BaloneyDetectionKit_2015_Advert_2 baloney_detection_kit_2015_650pxCork Skeptics present

The Baloney Detection Kit

A talk by Colm Ryan

UFOs. Ghosts. Astrology. Homeopathy. Telepathy. Miracle Cancer Cures. People all around the world fervently believe they exist and yet there isn’t a shred of good evidence that they are real in any sense of the word. On the other hand, there is strong scientific support for evolution, climate change and vaccines, yet millions reject the evidence entirely, preferring long debunked ideas instead.

In a wide-ranging talk, Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics explores the world of strange beliefs and discusses some ways to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Colm will talk about logical fallacies, brain flaws and other tricks that persuade us of things that aren’t so. He will also examine the crucial role that science plays in distinguishing fact from fiction.

Colm is the co-founder of Cork Skeptics, a group dedicated to the promotion of good science while challenging strange claims. Founded in 2010 in Blackrock Castle, we host regular public talks on issues such as ghosts, nuclear power and financial scams.

The talk takes place in De Barra’s Folk Club, Clonakilty at 8pm, Tuesday 12th May. All are welcome.



Should we be sceptical about Global Warming?

Scepticism, on the face of it, is all about not taking claims at face value. Sceptics are expected to dig deeper, to ask questions and challenge assertions. What then should we say about one of the great questions of the current times, namely whether the burning of fossil fuels is causing an alarming increase in world temperatures and incidences of severe weather; trends that may lead to catastrophic changes around the world if we do nothing about it?

A large section of society has taken the view that global warming is not happening, or if it is, it’s a result of natural cycles only, or if there is a human influence, it’s only for the good – the warming we will see will be a good thing for us all. These people describe themselves as global warming sceptics. They hear people making alarming claims and they react by demanding cast-iron evidence. If such evidence is not forthcoming, they take the view that the claims are bunk and that global warming is a myth.

But are they correct in their assertions? Is this true scepticism or a warped version of it?

There is a phenomenon known as hyper-scepticism or denialism, whereby no matter how much evidence is presented to support a claim, it is never enough. Denialism is apparent in the claims by some people that men never went to the Moon or that evolution doesn’t exist. It is apparent whenever evidence collides with ideology, in somewhat the same way as smokers might refute negative stories as a way of persisting with their habit.

The trouble with global warming scepticism is that the claims have been validated by the vast majority of scientists whose job it is to research these claims and understand their impacts. Solid links were made between atmospheric carbon dioxide and warming in the 19th Century. Over the past century and through thousands of peer-reviewed studies, the evidence has kept building up. Atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 3 million years. Temperatures have been rising and not in a way that can be explained by natural phenomena, such as sunspots and volcanic activity. Direct links have been established between atmospheric carbon and fossil fuels. The data for these conclusions come from multiple sources including temperature records, atmospheric readings, tree-rings, ice-cores and deep sea sediments. The net effect is an overwhelming consensus among relevant scientists that global warming is real, that it is man-made and that it bodes badly for the future, if we continue to leave CO2 unchecked.

Yet thousands of self-proclaimed “experts” (who are nothing of the sort) deny all this. Seemingly, they know better. To them, the climate researchers are either badly deluded or part of some huge conspiracy to twist the evidence to their position. It’s a bizarre line-up of science versus ideology, spurred on by vested interests who believe they have a lot to lose if the worldwide demand for fossil fuels is reduced. While getting short shrift from the scientific community at large, the deniers have been successful in swaying public opinion. Many right wing political parties have made climate change denial a core part of their election platforms as they seek to attract and retain voters who parrot these views.

In the end, the deniers have launched a war against science, rife with misinformation and media strategies similar to those used by tobacco companies to deny any links to cancer.  Every day, climate scientists are faced with having to address the same canards no matter how many times they have been knocked down in the past. Attempts have been made to sabotage and misrepresent their work. Publicly available climate change data is selectively misused in order to counteract the accepted science.

On the face of it, many of the big oil companies such as BP, Shell and even Exxon accept man-made climate change and its implications. However, they are not doing enough to counteract those voices who would prefer to think that the whole issue is a barefaced lie. Ironically, climate change denial and its attendant war on scientists goes against the better interests of energy companies, who badly need to foster science education and attract the best scientific minds into their organisations to meet the challenges of the future.

Just as uncritical acceptance of a claim is a bad thing, being sceptical does not mean that you must be hyper-sceptical when overwhelming evidence exists to support the conclusions. This is, in fact, an irrational position, based more on faith than reality. Climate deniers have set up a damaging war against science that is in nobody’s interest. The science, in terms of its broad conclusions, is in. Now sensible political strategies need to be put in place to limit CO2 and wean the world over to alternative sources of energy.

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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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The 15 Minute Baloney Detection Kit


As part of Culture Night in Blackrock Castle this weekend, I talked about a number of techniques we all should be on the look out for when confronted with strange claims that don’t seem to make much sense. These techniques included strong emotional appeals, the use of celebrities, “magic” words, claims that seemed to be too good to be true, and the “black or white” fallacy, where only two options are presented even though other alternatives may exist. These are just some examples of what are called Logical Fallacies – you can find more fallacies discussed in the website below.

Click on the link to go to the Logical Fallacies website

I also spoke about the dangers of anecdotes and testimonials and why we can’t always rely on our memories or perceptions to explain what we might have witnessed. Finally, I contrasted scientific claims to baloney claims, outlining the hard work that has taken place to provide a reliable understanding of the world around us.

Further reading: 

The following books are worth a look if you are interested in finding out more about science and baloney.

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) – Carol Tavris & Eliot Aronson

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

Trick or Treatment – Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst

The Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan

Flim Flam! – James Randi

Why People Believe Weird Things – Michael Shermer

Bad Astronomy – Philip Plait

Paranormality – Richard Wiseman

Internet Resources

The Skeptics’ Dictionary

Doubtful News

Skeptic Magazine

James Randi Educational Foundation

Bad Astronomy


The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe


Skeptics with a K



Storm (Tim Minchin)

The Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect

The Problem With Anecdotes


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.