Cork Skeptics

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


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Great skeptical battlefields

Terracotta Warrior (via Mike Stenhouse/ Flickr / CC Licensed)

One of the great things about skepticism is its diversity. There is a skeptical angle in so many areas of human interest. All you need to do is look under the cover of the marketing and you are bound to find some strange ideas hanging around. Consequently, skeptics are interested in all sorts of things, ranging from ghosts, to conspiracy theories, to alternative medicine, to UFOs; as well as the psychology, the history, and the philosophy that accompany such strange and bizarre thinking.

It can be easy to dismiss skepticism as purely a fascination with exotic and extreme ideas, but there is also a very serious side to skepticism. It’s one of the reasons why there is a skeptical movement in the first place. The world of delusional belief sometimes clashes with the world of reality in a way that can cause real casualties.

Here is a brief list of some of these battlegrounds for skepticism. The list below is by no means exhaustive. You may wish to add some of your own. It’s sometimes the case that even the most innocuous delusion can have serious consequences when brought to an extreme.

Anti-Vaccination

Although arguments against vaccines are as old as vaccines themselves, a concerted effort to challenge their use took shape in the 1990’s, when Andrew Wakefield published his findings in the Lancet, a well respected medical journal. Wakefield asserted a link between the childhood MMR vaccine and the onset of autistic spectrum disorders. Although his findings were subsequently found to be fraudulent and the paper withdrawn, the cat was out of the bag. The paper gave impetus to a wide variety of people who preferred to believe in a simple cause for autism, rather than the complex reasons uncovered by researchers. Celebrities such as Carol Vorderman, Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher have been to the fore of the vaccine denial movement while websites such as the Age of Autism link vaccines to all sorts of other disorders. The result has been a drop in vaccination, particularly in the UK, France and the US. Consequent with this is a rise in viral illnesses such as whooping cough and measles. While most children recover from these illnesses, a small percentage are seriously affected, with children dying in some cases. Vaccine denial has consequences to public health because some people – very young babies and people with compromised immune systems – depend on herd immunity to keep them safe from these diseases. A large number of follow up studies have been performed, none of which found a link between vaccines and childhood autism. The relative safety of vaccines has been shown in multiple further studies. The war simmers on, however, with anti-vaccine proponents taking more extreme and conspiratorial viewpoints as their evidence base is undermined.

Creationism

Creationism is a belief that God designed all creatures on the planet to a plan and that species are immutable. More extreme (yet commonly held) creationist beliefs assert that the world is just 6,000 years old and that the Earth and everything on it was formed by God in literally seven days. This bizarre view flies in the face of evolutionary biology and a host of other scientific disciplines. To convinced creationists, evolution is cast as a godless nihilistic belief in dire conflict with the Bible. Although not particularly a problem in most of Europe (Turkey being a notable exception), battles continues to arise in areas where well-funded Christian or Islamic fundamentalists have a strong political influence. Successive attempts have been made in the US to permit creationism, or one of its many variants, to be taught in public schools.  Most of these attempts have been rejected by various US courts and grassroots skeptical opposition. The issue is important, because it exposes the lengths to which powerfully connected religious organisations will go to interfere with science education and science policy if it conflicts with their dogmas.

Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine (a.k.a. Alt-Med, Integrative Medicine and Complementary and Alternative Medicine [CAM]) is a hugely diverse area with many supporters and acolytes. It encompasses a large body of therapies and putative cures where there is either insufficient scientific evidence to establish their efficacy, or where the available science has shown them to be ineffective. Examples of Alt-Med include Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Anthroposophy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chelation Therapy and Kinesthesiology to mention just a few. Although much Alt-Med predates modern medicine, it has experienced a come-back over the past few decades. This is, in some ways, a reaction to the systemisation of organised medicine and the inevitable side-effects or downsides of some medical procedures. With little objective evidence available to back up their claims, proponents liberally quote testimonials and anecdotes, antiquity and popularity as proof of effectiveness. Most Alt-Med therapies are promoted as completely safe, which is unsurprising as most of them are mere placebo. Apart from the fact that many Alt-Med proponents make wild, unsubstantiated claims to promote their remedies, there are some serious issues concerning its promotion and use. Alternative Medicine can needlessly prolong suffering. Irresponsible Alt-Med practitioners have, on occasion, dissuaded patients from more beneficial medical therapies. Alt-Med acolytes have been to the fore in preventing useful and necessary medical therapies from being implemented in places where they are badly needed, a harrowing example being the proliferation of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa (see below).

Global Warming Denial

Scientists have known for a century that an increase in carbon dioxide can cause an increase in heat absorption in the atmosphere. Nevertheless, a convincing case for warming, and particularly man-made warming, has taken a long time to establish. Warming on a planetary scale is a slow and complex process, so a vast amount of data needs to be collected over decades. Even in the last 100 years, Earth’s temperature has fluctuated greatly, but the underlying trend is unmistakeable. Multiple lines of evidence point to a warming trend that can’t fully be explained through natural factors such as the sun, but which correlate very well with mankind’s increasing demand for fossil fuels. It used to be that global warming and climate change was a relatively uncontroversial part of the sciences. Due to recent international reports and agreements, it is now highly polarised and politicised, despite the fact that the great majority of climate scientists have become convinced by the scientific data now available. Climate scientists have been vilified by certain sections of the media while propaganda services, masquerading as independent think-tanks, receive massive funding from vested interests to cast doubt on the global warming findings. The tactics being used by deniers are almost identical to creationists, and tobacco illness deniers before them. Global Warming denial has become a statement of faith amongst the US Republican party, pitting science against ideology. Given the entrenched views, it could be decades before the issue is resolved: time that could be better used translating the scientific findings into useful action.

HIV/AIDS denial

AIDS is one of the great scourges of our age. Caused by a fast-mutating virus with a long incubation period, it is a very difficult disease to control and manage. Left untreated, it is almost always deadly.  According to the World Health Organisation, over 25 million people have died from the pandemic. Fortunately, anti-retroviral drugs have been developed that contain the illness, often offering many years of extra life to people infected with HIV. Despite this, AIDS researchers and activists have been engaged in a long battle with people who claim that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. These HIV deniers scored their biggest successes in South Africa, where, despite the epidemic growing to alarming proportions within the population, the Mbeki government refused to sanction or support anti-retroviral treatment for the illness. Given solid scientific and international support, HIV denialism has diminished as a major issue, with some of its more prominent supporters moving on to other fields of research.

Witch Hunting

Witch hunting is based on a belief that certain people are using magical powers or indulging in occult rituals in order to disrupt society. Accused people, blamed for everything from crop failure to illnesses or unexpected deaths, may be persecuted, ostracised, injured and sometimes killed – all because of a shared delusion among the community. As it is a “guilty until proven innocent” form of indictment, it can be enormously difficult for accused people to clear their name. Although widespread witch hunting disappeared from most societies many centuries ago, it continues to make its presence felt in some areas of the world. In the last decade, childrenalbinos and elderly people have been targeted as witches in Africa, often with tragic and fatal consequences. Similar stories have emerged in IndiaSaudi Arabia and the UK.

Cancer Quackery

While we could lump it in with the rest of Alt-Med, cancer quackery deserves its own special place on this list. Cancer remains one of the greatest problems besetting humanity in this century. Although there has been some progress over the last 40 years in the fight against cancer, far too many people have had their lives cut short by it, or, more precisely, the many different afflictions collectively labeled as cancer. No-one is immune: from leading cancer doctors, to pharmaceutical executives, to cancer quacks themselves; belying the main contention of the alternative cancer cure lobby that somehow an elite group are keeping the best stuff to themselves. Cancer quacks prey on the most vulnerable people, often demanding huge fees, while providing no convincing evidence of efficacy. While it is understandable that people in such situations will be willing to try almost anything, often the only long term “positive” outcome is the enrichment of charlatans. Cancer, along with many diseases that are difficult to cure, is an enormous challenge for medical research. The doctors, researchers and specialists simply haven’t yet figured out how to treat and cure many of these diseases. The trouble is, neither have the quacks. They are just better at pretending they do, and they have lucrative financial incentives.

Psychic Counselling

Psychics – people who claim to have supernatural knowledge or powers – come in many shapes and sizes. Psychics have made tidy fortunes through one-to-one counselling, as psychic performers in front of large audiences, or more recently through lucrative phone services. Psychics claim abilities that have never been verified through independent, objective testing. The techniques used are identical to mentalists, yet mentalists never claim to have psychic abilities. It’s easy to dismiss this as part of the normal patchwork of modern life, but in practice, psychics are often dealing with people who may be at a low ebb in their lives, or dealing with traumatic issues such as bereavement, illness or a relationship breakdown. They may benefit more, in the long run, from counselling by properly qualified professionals using evidence based techniques. Psychic counselling shares similar issues with alternative medicine in that there is a strong risk that valuable time is lost consulting psychics when potentially more fruitful avenues could have been used, or that psychics, convinced of their own powers, actively dissuade clients from other treatment options. There is a long list of people who have been manipulated and defrauded by psychics, or provided with information that has subsequently turned out to be utterly untrue.

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Skeptics in the Castle – We’re Talking Wine!

We are letting our hair down and popping open the bottles for our meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle on Saturday 10th of December.  Blake Creedon from the Irish Examiner will be talking about a subject close to all our hearts: wine

Does wine make you live longer? Does it make your healthier? Does the temperature matter? Does swirling the wine around make the difference? Is it the grapes or are our minds playing tricks on us? How much should we trust the wine experts? What do wine myths tell us about similar products?

Blake Creedon, avowed wine fan and columnist with the Irish Examiner, is a man on a mission. In a wide ranging discussion, he will debunk memes and media stories about wine, and highlight an empirical study that casts doubt on every health claim ever made on behalf of wine. He’ll also outline why wine fans should be skeptical of sideline commentators such as himself.

Thankfully, it won’t be all talk. Blake will back up this suggested skeptical approach with a printout providing a chart of the most popular myths about wine, links to useful scientific studies, eye-watering evidence of how distorted our perceptions really are, and – in a comedy corner – some of the frankly outrageous claims made on behalf of purportedly magickal wine products.

Bring your own wine and enjoy a fun tasting session and stargazing in Blackrock Castle with some suggestions on how to set your taste buds free! Weather permitting, we will also be treated to a star gazing session in the grounds of the castle.

The talk will start at 8.00pm, on Saturday December 10th (please note that this is a change from our usual Friday night schedule). It is free to attend, and open to everyone over the age of 18. For directions to Blackrock Castle, see our Skeptics In The Castle information page.

We’re looking forward to seeing you there!


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Skeptics in the Skype

Hayley, Ash, Patrick, Colm and a strange bespectacled guest

We tried something very different for our meeting on the 21st of October. Instead of inviting along a guest speaker to be present on the night, we had a video conference over Skype with skeptics in Edinburgh and Victoria, Canada.

The meeting went very well. Hayley Stephens and Ash Pryce regaled us with stories about alleged ghost hauntings in the UK – how they came about, how improbable they were and the reasons they were nothing more than either deliberate hoaxes, pareidolia, or mistakes made by people who desperately wanted to believe in ghosts. Hayley’s story of the landlord that she caught pretending his house was haunted was hilarious. Ash also spoke of investigations into the Tantallon Castleghost pictures“, which subsequently turned out to be easily explainable.

The Tantallon Castle ghost picture

The Tantallon "ghost"

On the subject of speaking to the dead, Hayley has recently set up Project Barnum to raise awareness of the tricks employed by so-called psychics to convince people of their paranormal abilities.

We also had Patrick Fisher, president of the YYJ Skeptics Club in Victoria, Canada on the line. Patrick spoke about Sasquatch and some of the alleged monsters of the Pacific coast, and how stories of these creatures were either fabrications or mistaken identities.

There was a lot of audience engagement and a lively “what’s the harm” discussion ensued, involving all the speakers on the night.

All three speakers were very entertaining and it was great having them involved on the night. I want to thank all of them for their involvement. It was superb. It’s an event we will try again in the near future.

A note on video-conferencing

We used Skype Premium as the teleconferencing software. The free Skype software does not permit multiple members to be involved in a call at the same time. We also tested Google Plus Hangout, which would have been a cheaper option. Unfortunately, we had a lot of problems with audio, so we abandoned it this time. The Google Hangout service is still very new, so I expect it will improve over time. With Skype Premium, it is only necessary for one person needs to buy the package subscription – free users can then piggyback off this.

Video conferencing needs a lot of advance preparation. While it’s not that complicated to set up a conference, a lot of things can go wrong on the night. Headsets and microphones need to be tested, and the software needs to be trialled in advance to ensure that the bandwidth is sufficient to channel good quality audio and video. We had a number of advance meetings, one in the Blackrock Castle venue itself, to ensure everything was working fine.

You also need to ensure you have some backup options, should the video-conference or the Internet fail on the night. I would recommend downloading a few entertaining videos in advance, or having a few stories to talk about, just in case.

It’s also worthwhile arriving at the venue very early on the night, again to test the sound and the video and to go through any last minute checks.

In the end, video conferencing is definitely an option for clubs who either have a gap in their schedule or are looking to do something different with their meetings.


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Announcing the Cork Skeptics in the Castle – May Event!

Recent events in Japan have focused attention once again on radiation – what effect it can have and whether nuclear power is a viable solution for our growing energy needs. At our next meeting of Cork Skeptics in the Castle, Professor John McInerney will be giving a talk about radiation – what it is, what it does and doesn’t do, and how it impacts our lives.

(We’ll also be talking about conspiracy theories and that little matter of the end of the world on the 21st of May.)

About the speaker: John McInerney is Professor and Head of Physics at University College Cork, and also co-director of the opto-electronics group at the Tyndall National Institute. Before joining UCC he held academic positions at the University of New Mexico (USA) and the University of Cambridge, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona.

He has also worked in industry, both in large photonics and electronics companies and in small start-ups. He received his BSc in Physics from University College Cork and PhD from Trinity College, Dublin.

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The talk will begin at 8pm on Friday May 20th, in Blackrock Castle Observatory. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend.

Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.



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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.


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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


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Logical Fallacies – Part 2: Know your sources

There are a million places you can go to for information and very often you can get different opinions and “facts” about the same claim. Either evolution is true or it isn’t; the world is either round or it isn’t; vaccines either cause autism or they do not*.

[*The answers are: true, round & no, in case you were wondering.]

Credibility of your sources is something that isn’t always immediately obvious, but in general few things can beat comprehensive research, peer-reviewed and evidence-based theories and finally, consensus in the wider scientific community. This is not to say that theories are never over-turned by brilliant new insights. However, one can make mistakes in judging whether the source of an opinion or story or new theory is credible or not. Here are a few examples to watch out for.

 

 

 

Argument from authority

Trust me, trust me. I’m a doctor.

This gets used remarkably often to make a claim sound more plausible or believable. But even if someone really is an authority in a certain field, it does not make them an authority in all fields. Having a Ph.D. in Literature does not in any way boost your authority or believability about UFOs; being a respected theologian makes you an expert on Scripture, not morality. It does not mean that you can’t express your opinion on these matters, and indeed your opinions might be excellent and lucid. But your argument does not get given extra gravitas simply because you have some expert knowledge on other unrelated subjects.
This type of argument also appears in the ‘Speaking as a’ format:
Speaking as a mother, I think vaccines are dangerous for children.
Sometimes this is used merely for clarification purposes (useful on an anonymous internet forum e.g. I’m a mother so I know what its like to go through six hours of labour); but beware of it being used to give the speaker an added claim to authority that they are not entitled to.

Heresy does not equal correctness
Louis Armstrong sang

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round.

Leaving aside the fallacious nature of that line (it was widely accepted that the world was round in Columbus’ day), the message of this song is that sometimes genuine truth goes unaccepted for a long time. However, that does not mean that just because an idea is laughed at, the Discoverer is a martyr to his True Cause. Sometimes the Discoverer is just plain wrong; and that is why people are laughing (or angry). Examples of this are Flat Earth believers, and most conspiracy theorists. The facts need to be collected and checked and proved or disproved before the ‘theory’ can be regarded as valid.

The argument from heresy may be fallacious, but it’s a damn good song.

Argument from mass consensus

Thousands of people believe in ghosts. Therefore ghosts must exist.
There are so many stories about dragons. Therefore there must have been dragons once upon a time.

A thousand years ago you might have said:

Everyone knows the earth is flat
Therefore if you sail your boat too far out, you will go over the edge.
And you still would have been wrong, in both sentences.
Thousands, even millions of people can be wrong.