Cork Skeptics

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


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A misleading article on faith healing

In an article entitled “Are miracles happening on the streets of Coleraine“, Finola Meredith wrote a largely uncritical piece about Mark Marx, a self-described street healer who claims he can channel the spirit of God to heal people of various different ailments. Particularly worryingly, claims were made that his ministry helped rid a woman of paralysis and helped to eliminate a young man’s cancer. Both claims went unchallenged.

Marx cited a “leg lengthening” technique that has long been debunked by professional magicians. Using this technique, so-called healers use sleight-of-hand to convince the unwary that a miracle has been performed, when all that’s usually required is a simple repositioning of the shoes being worn by the subject. In this case, we do not know the effect that chemotherapy had on the young man’s recovery. It appears that Ms Meredith did not seek corroboration for the claims made.

In cases of cancer, because treatment regimes are often difficult and outcomes uncertain, people can come to a conclusion that there are easier solutions out there. Combined with unscrupulous people who claim they can cure without evidence, it is a breeding ground for false hope and avoidable suffering. The utmost scepticism must be applied. Irrespective of whether sceptics have “never encountered the reality of knowing God”, any claim to cure cancer must stand on its own merits. Anecdotes are insufficient as they are often self-serving, selective and fail to account for the many biases we are all subject to.

Evangelical faith healing has a long pedigree of making extravagant claims despite any clinical evidence. The area is fraught with examples of brazen charlatanry and most worryingly, there have been plenty of cases of serious harm caused to people who have abandoned medical treatment in favour of faith based treatments. We need to be extremely wary of the claims of faith healers, even when the healers themselves seem sincere in their beliefs.


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The Baloney Detection Kit at Science Week 2015

BaloneyDetectionKit_2015_Advert_2

The BALONEY DETECTION KIT @ Science Week 2015

As part of Science Week 2015, Cork Skeptics present “The Baloney Detection Kit” — a furiously fast-paced introduction to skepticism!

From 6 – 7pm on Saturday 14th November, at Blackrock Castle Observatory.


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 with topics ranging from ghosts to nuclear power and financial scams.

This event takes place in Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork City from 6pm on Saturday 14th November. It is free to attend, and all are welcome.


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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

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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:

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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.

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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.


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The Baloney Detection Kit at Cork Culture Night 2015

BaloneyDetectionKit_2015_Advert_2

The BALONEY DETECTION KIT

@ Cork City Culture Night 2015

As part of Cork City Culture Night 2015, Cork Skeptics present “The Baloney Detection Kit” — a furiously fast-paced introduction to skepticism!

From 6pm (repeating every half hour) on the night of Friday 18th September, at Blackrock Castle Observatory.


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 Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork City from 6pm on Friday 18th September. All are welcome.


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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.


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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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And yet, planes fly

Passive Impressions

Jet Trails over Canberra-1

And yet, planes fly.

This is a phrase that often comes to mind when people question the value and utility of science, or diminish its importance in the world today.

It cuts through the objections: that science can be biased, or imperfect, or financially driven, or chaotic, or fraudulent, or philosophically unsound, or just one idea among many.

Sometimes, these criticisms are valid. There are many instances where science has been hampered by fraudulent and unethical behaviour, where scientists have taken appalling short cuts and or adjusted data because it didn’t fit preconceived notions, where bullying and a dogmatic over-reliance on unsound theories has hampered progress. You could write a book on it.

And yet, planes fly.

Big ones too. Gigantic 300 tonne planes, travelling at 900 kilometres per hour, at 40,000 feet above the ground. Right now, a few of them are routinely ploughing their way through the stratosphere en…

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