Sceptics alarmed by facile beliefs


Many believe in ghosts rather than science - a fact that chills the marrow of the Irish Skeptics Society, writes Dick Ahlstrom

What peculiar psychology is at work that makes consumers rightly sceptical about extravagant claims made by product advertisers, but willing to pay big money for medical treatments involving crystals and long distance cures?

We live in a time when pseudo science and mumbo-jumbo are treated with the same sober gravity as evidence-based medicine and quantum mechanics. Mainstream media now offers regular slots for tarot card, psychic and astrology readings without question. Untested alternative therapies are given equal status to clinically proven practice and peddled as real medicine.

A recently formed group hopes to halt this rot, however, and reverse the increasing willingness of people to ignore science and embrace nonsense. The Irish Skeptics Society came into being in December 2002 for this very purpose, says joint founder Paul O'Donoghue.

"We have a general concern about the erosion of confidence in science," he says. "People are disillusioned with science and want explanations that go beyond what can be proved. There is a general drift into this stuff and away from science."

This tendency has nothing to do with education or intelligence, he points out. A recent survey of 100 Irish final year university students is an alarming case in point.

"Their beliefs in the paranormal were mind-blowing," O'Donoghue says. Sixty-one per cent believed in psychic healing and 42 per cent believed in ghosts. About 47 per cent believed in telepathy, 39 per cent in extrasensory perception and 38 per cent in clairvoyance.

A large proportion also claimed first-hand experience of the paranormal. A quarter said they had been in touch with others using telepathy, and a similar number said they had been in a haunted house. And 27 per cent said they had healed themselves of some illness using mind-power alone.

O'Donoghue, with co-founders Michael Reen, Nóirín Buckley and Gary O'Reilly, all clinical psychologists, decided to set up an Irish "skeptics" group, adopting the variant spelling used by like-minded sceptics throughout the world. The local group, like others, was prompted because "much of the nonsense that is to be found in popular media was going unchallenged".

They met initially to get a feel for the subject and see what was going on elsewhere. They eventually launched it as a society 11 months ago. "We decided to create a forum for discussion and debate. The idea is to have a lecture on a scientific or related topic and pitch it at a level anyone could understand."

The object is definitely not to tell people what to think or believe, he says, but only ask that they be sceptical and ask questions to assure themselves that what is on offer is real. "The most vulnerable people are those who are facing some kind of challenge. They will seek anybody to try to find a solution."

He works full-time with physically disabled people. "I would be very concerned about the exploitation of disability by fakes and charlatans of various forms."

The Irish Skeptics Society isn't only about debunking claims. "There is also a strong emphasis on the public understanding and promotion of science," he adds.

To this end, the Society has staged seven lectures in the past 12 months and released five newsletters to members.

A lecture will be given next Wednesday by Trinity College immunologist, Dr Alex Whelan, entitled, "Exploring your immune system". The lecture will explain the immune system and also look at how it is affected by stress, whether we can boost its function and if it is possible to think ourselves well. It takes place at 8 p.m. in the Yeats Room, Mont Clare Hotel in Dublin.

Then on December 4th, Dr Brian Hughes of NUI Galway will deliver a talk entitled, "The placebo defect: how quacks exploit the psychology of health behaviour".

Admission to lectures is 5 for non-members and 2 for members and annual membership costs 35, says O'Donoghue. The object is to break even with these charges, he adds, with membership fees going towards bringing speakers from the UK and US during 2004.

For more information about the Irish Skeptics Society should visit its web site at