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Last Friday, RTE’s Late Late Show invited Patrick Holford, a “pioneer in the area of health and nutrition” to talk to people about how to beat depression. It’s an interesting choice of expert because Patrick Holford has no academically recognised qualifications in the treatment of depression and has spent much of his career building up his health food and vitamin pill business. He has been the source of much controversy. Holford has claimed that AZT (a drugs cocktail used to combat AIDS) is less effective than Vitamin C and has been pulled up by the advertising standards authority in the UK for making unsubstantiated claims. In a nutshell, he isn’t the type of “expert” you want to be to rolling out when discussing something as serious and damaging as depression.

Using RTE Player I went through some of the claims Holford makes during the interview, and as it happens, many of the claims check out. There are studies around that have shown a beneficial link between fish oils and depression. There are studies that show a positive correlation between Vitamin D and seasonal depression. There are studies that link mood to obesity. Holford conveniently ties these studies into a single thesis: that what we eat is the most significant link in causing and treating depression, when many decades of clinical research would present a very different view. In other words, it’s just a confident sales pitch: read my book, eat the foods I suggest and you will feel better. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t; such is the power of the placebo effect; but in reality it falls far short of a comprehensive solution to the problems of depression.

Depression really is a grind. It differs from bad mood because it is not easy to get rid of and the depths of despair reached people inflicted by it. It can last for days, weeks, months, even years. No magic bullet has yet been found and it appears to differ greatly from person to person. There are lots of probable reasons and many treatments. It is one of the most widespread illnesses in society and is tipped to be the second leading cause of disability by 2020. Many of the most effective weapons against it (antidepressants, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy) remain unpopular and stigmatised, often by the very same groups that promote healthy eating and mineral supplements. In the battle against depression what is most important are treatments that work, not ones we would like to work.

We need a serious discussion about depression in this country, not just a sales pitch by a vitamin pill vendor.

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Since I started Cork Skeptics, I have had some feedback that “people were getting concerned about me”, as if that they thought I was going to be the next Jim Corr, or something. Oy vey.

So let me be very clear.

  • I don’t believe that UFO’s (in terms of aliens) exist or have ever visited us. The vast majority of sightings are explicable.
  • I am skeptical of most alternative medicine and alternative medical therapies.
  • I think Astrology is a load of rubbish.
  • I think the anti-vaccine people have very little to support their arguments and that they are putting children and vulnerable adults at risk.
  • Homeopathy is too dilute to have any effect. Save your money.
  • I don’t believe in an afterlife, ghosts, apparitions or spiritualism.
  • I don’t believe that there are great conspiracies “out there”. In fact, most of them stink to high heaven. Incompetence explains far more and we’re not that great at keeping secrets.
  • I don’t believe that prayer or meditation has any external effect whatsoever.
  • I don’t believe people can predict the future (above and beyond the use of mathematical algorithms for forecasting), or that they can read minds or any of the other stuff so-called psychics claim to be able to do.
  • I don’t believe that dowsing works. Look up the “ideomotor effect”.
  • I don’t believe that the climate skeptics / deniers have any way proven their case. The evidence is weighted on the side of man-made global warming, and yes, we should be concerned.
  • Creationism? Don’t get me started. It’s delusional. It would be a complete joke except for the fact that a large section of people in the most powerful country in the world accept it on faith. That’s worrying.

There’s plenty more where that comes from.

What do I believe?

  • I accept that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.
  • I accept that modern medicine has provided us with truly incredible breakthroughs: vaccination, antibiotics, anti-rejection drugs, to name but a few.
  • I believe that human psychology explains a great deal about how we all can be fooled and mislead, and how otherwise intelligent people can be lead down rat-holes.
  • I am not cynical about people. Most people are honest and earnest in our work, our interests and our dreams for the future. I believe that people have been capable of extraordinary achievements and that such events should be celebrated, not derided.
  • I believe we all make mistakes. Mistakes give us an opportunity to learn something new.
  • There are not “two sides of the story” when it comes to established facts. Flat Earth theory is not “an alternative viewpoint”. It’s just plain wrong. Ditto most alt-med, creationism, etc.
  • I think we could all do with a course in critical thinking and a better understanding of logical fallacies.
  • I am willing to be proven wrong.
  • I think we should learn more about probability and statistics. One in a million chances, hell, one in a billion chances will occur, given a big enough population size.
  • I am passionate about education. It should never stop. We always have something to learn.
  • I accept that our knowledge of many things is woefully incomplete. We have a lot more to understand and hopefully, some day we will get there. I would like to see Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s cured in the morning. There is so much we just don’t know, and it’s tragic. I am comforted however, in knowing that there are people out there who have dedicated their careers to solving these terrible problems.

So bottom line? I am fully behind that apparently humdrum, but often surprising and beautiful thing we call reality. If people are getting concerned about that, well, I’m not sure what else I can say.

 

Photo via mitopoietico (Flickr / CC Licensed)

So, you are out one night and you see an object in the sky that you can’t quite explain. You have never seen anything quite like it in your life before. Could it be an alien spacecraft? Have you had a Close Encounter of the Third Kind?

An alien visitation would be a truly outstanding occurrence if it were validated scientifically. It would possibly rank as the greatest discovery ever since science began. For centuries however, astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been looking into the skies without ever finding good evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Given our knowledge of the Universe, this is not surprising. Although there are many billions of stars around us, the distances involved are stupendously large. The practical difficulties involved for alien spacecraft traveling to Earth beggar belief. This is not to say it is impossible; just very unlikely. When you see a strange light in the sky, you should not jump to the conclusion that you have seen a UFO. Other, more mundane explanations are possible in the majority of cases.

Here’s a quick guide to some strange lights in the night sky, and what they might be.

  • Steady moving lights, flashing each second, possibly green or red; sometimes very bright white lights.

It’s likely to be an aircraft. This is probably a trivial case as most people are aware of what planes look like at night. Near airports, planes can have very bright landing lights turned on that can drown out any flashing beacons.

  • Steady moving light with no flashing. Moving slowly. Seen after sunset or before sunrise. Can be very bright, but usually quite dim objects. May disappear almost instantaneously.

You may have seen an artificial satellite. There are hundreds of satellites in the sky, normally only visible in the night sky after sun-down, when the light is still shining on them. The sudden disappearance happens when it moves into the Earth’s shadow. If the light is very bright, it is likely that you have just seen the International Space Station, quite a common sight in our skies these days.

  • Orange flickering light, floating around 50 to 100 metres above the ground. May dim slowly after a few minutes.

You have possibly seen a Chinese Lantern, a small, inexpensive hot-air balloon made out of paper and wire. Chinese Lanterns have become very common around the country at celebrations, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.

  • Steady bright light. No apparent movement. May be close to horizon or visible in the southern sky. Much brighter than surrounding stars.

It’s possible you have seen Jupiter or Venus, two surprisingly bright planets at certain times of the year. After the Moon, these two objects are the brightest objects in the night sky.

  • A very bright point of light in the sky. It lasts momentarily, then disappears again. Object may move slowly. So bright you might even see it during the day.

You may have seen an Iridium Flare, essentially the reflection of a low-orbit Iridium satellite, originally used to provide satellite mobile communications. The reflections can be surprisingly bright.

  • Very bright green or red light in the sky, about 200 metres above ground. Appears to move slowly.

You may have seen an emergency flare. This is a very bright firework, shot up in the sky as a distress signal to nearby shipping. In Ireland, flares are often sent up during celebrations like the New Year.

  • Fast moving bright object. May travel a large distance across the sky in a split second. Possibly a greenish colour associated with the event.

You may have seen a fireball. This is a rocky object from space that has collided with the Earth’s atmosphere, heating up and exploding on impact. It may also be a satellite re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Such an event is worth noting! You should make a note of your observation with the International Meteor Organisation.

  • Strange diffuse lights, illuminating clouds. Moving rapidly, possibly rhythmically. There may be more than one light in the sky.

You may have seen the effect of searchlights shining up on clouds. Local festivals and event organisers sometimes use searchlights to attract attention to their shows at night.

Other sightings may have arisen from light reflections, optical illusions or mistaken identity. It may be that the witnesses were very tired at the time or under the influence of drugs or medication, or they may have been the subject or originator of a deliberate hoax. The key thing is to always discount the more mundane answers before ever jumping to improbable conclusions.

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